Broadcast news – Sight winner: DirecTV & Thomson Consumer Electronics’ direct broadcast satellite system; innovators: William Butterworth and Al Baker

Broadcast news – Sight winner: DirecTV & Thomson Consumer Electronics’ direct broadcast satellite system; innovators: William Butterworth and Al Baker – 5th Annual Discover Awards for Technological Innovation

WHAT THE COMPACT DISC HAS DONE for audio, digital television will do for video. So goes the mantra recited by the gurus of the information superhighway. Problem is, the crisp, flawless pictures promised by digital TV won’t arrive through today’s broadcast and cable systems. They still transmit TV the old-fashioned way–in analog waves, the medium of radio and vinyl records.

All that will change this fall, however, when large-scale direct satellite broadcasting begins nationally. El Segundo, California-based DirecTV, a division of GM Hughes Electronics, and Indianapolisbased Thomson Consumer Electronics have jump-started the digital TV revolution with the DirecTV system.

When the system is fully operational, an uplink center in Castle Rock, Colorado, will send broadcasts to two Hughes satellites hovering 22,300 miles overhead. From that altitude the spacecraft will relay broadcasting to homes across the United States. Thanks to a microwave signal of unprecedented strength, the broadcasts will be picked up by unobtrusive dish antennas only 18 inches across. The system will be especially useful in rural areas that don’t have access to broadcast station or cable TV, providing the first real alternative to the current, and most unsightly, generation of huge satellite dishes.

DirecTV will ultimately offer 150 channels of entertainment and data. But beyond diversity, the system’s strength lies in the clarity of the images delivered. According to William Butterworth, senior vice president of DirecTV, the images will approach the resolution of laser discs, and the sound will boast CD quality. That’s because the programming will arrive in the form of digital data that will be transformed instantly into immaculate reception by computer circuitry in the home receiver.

DirecTV equipment will be sold under the RCA Digital Satellite System name. Developed under the supervision of Al Baker, general manager at Thomson, the RCA system, priced at $699, consists of three components sold as a package: the compact dish/antenna, a fully digital receiver/decoder that sits on top of your TV set, and a full-function remote control.

FINALISTS

SEEING-EYE WEAR

Johns Hopkins & Visionics’ Low Vision Enhancement System

Few high-tech concepts have drawn the public’s eye like virtual reality. Don goggles masked with miniature monitors, and you can plunge into a computer-generated world. Particularly for those whose eyesight is succumbing to disease, any glimpse of reality–no matter how virtual–is welcome.

As it turns out, some of the same technology that brought virtual reality into the arcade can also help return the gift of sight to patients who are beyond the aid of eye-glasses. That’s the premise behind the Low Vision Enhancement System, now being marketed by Visionics in Vadnais Heights, Minnesota.

Although the system won’t reverse total blindness, the head-mounted display will put a big, bright picture in front of failing eyes. Mounted in front of the futuristic headpiece, two tiny black-and-white TV cameras take in images from the world. Through twin cathode-ray tubes they relay stereographic pictures that are then reflected directly into each of the viewer’s eyes through a series of lenses and mirrors. Alternatively, a third camera, capable of high magnification, can take over to supply enlarged images for reading and other tasks.

In either case, the view through the enhancement system is like watching a 60-inch TV screen from four feet away. The device even has an input jack that enables users to tap into television and computer displays directly.

Developed by Robert Massof, a professor at Johns Hopkins, with help from NASA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the enhancement system promises a boost of independence for those who have seen their world grow dim around them.

BRIGHT, GREEN, AND COOL

Austin Innovations’ LimeLite

As if to reinforce the light bulb’s status as the icon of creativity, electric lighting seems to undergo reinvention every few years. Engineers have whittled away at the inefficiency of converting electric current to light. But even the stingiest bulbs still waste some energy as heat.

Now a modest night-light may serve as a beacon for future innovation. Called the LimeLite, the device casts a cool greenish glow using one-hundredth the energy of a seven-watt incandescent equivalent. No other night-light can hold a candle to that performance.

LimeLite works on the principle of electroluminescence. The term refers to the light emitted by certain chemicals when they are exposed to an electric field; there’s no more direct way for electricity to trigger light. By contrast, other lighting techniques must first convert electricity into something else, such as heat in an incandescent bulb, or ultraviolet radiation in a fluorescent tube. Inevitably, lots of energy gets lost in the translation. The $8 LimeLite, in contrast, is so efficient that it costs less than two cents’ worth of electricity a year to keep lit.

Packaged between thin, flat electrodes, electroluminescent substances have traditionally provided illumination behind aircraft instrument panels in darkened cockpits. “I used to sell the stuff for backlighting liquidcrystal displays” says Joe Marischen, inventor of the LimeLite and president of Texasbased Austin Innovations, which sells it. “I felt it was a wonderful material that would make its way into consumer markets.”

FLAT IS BEAUTIFUL

Matsushita’s Panasonic Flat Vision TV

When it comes to a bright, crisp television image, you can’t beat 50-year-old technology. Perfected back when radio ruled the airwaves, the cathode-ray tube remains the gold standard for TV displays.

But TV watchers have long been teased by the prospect of big, flat screens hanging on living-room walls like moving paintings. Cathode-ray tubes are too fat for that, yet rival devices–seen in notebook computer displays–pale next to the lively sparkle of the tube.

That’s why Matsushita’s Television Research Laboratory in Osaka, Japan, decided that nothing short of cathode-ray technology would do for Flat Vision TV. And led by the director of the laboratory, Keisuke Yamamato, the Japanese electronics giant has overcome the tube’s drawback–its bulkiness–with a neat trick.

Instead of a single voluminous box, Flat Vision consists of an array of nearly 10,000 miniature cathode-ray tubes, each no bigger than a flea. The array of tubes provides all the basic elements of cathoderay technology. An electrode boils off a stream of electrons. These electrons form a beam that sweeps back and forth across a screen, steered in Flat Vision by shifting electric fields rather than the magnetic fields of large-scale tubes. As this beam scans across the screen, it tickles one of three phosphorescent coatings to give off red, green, or blue light. Behind the array of minitubes, an electronic thicket of switches controls this activity to assemble a picture. Yet the entire apparatus is only four inches deep, a quarter the depth of a standard TV set.

Flat Vision is now produced in Japan for around $3,000, and Panasonic is considering introducing it in the United States. Flat Vision promises to paint walls with video but keep viewers in the seductive thrall of the tube they know so well.

EYE CONTROL

Canon’s EOS A2E Eye Control Focus Camera

What’s the ultimate autofocus system? The human eye. No camera can compete with the eye’s ability to dart from detail to detail, unconsciously snapping each into focus.

The Canon EOS A2E comes close, however. Ironically, the camera does so by letting the human eye call the shots rather than by guessing what part of a scene deserves the sharpest edges.

Developed by a team led by Hajime Mitarai at Canon in Tokyo, the $1,150 A2E is built around the kind of eye-tracking technology found in cutting-edge fighter-jet helmets. As you peer into the camera’s viewfinder, a pair of diodes shines harmless infrared light onto the cornea of your eye.

The two infrared spots bounce off your cornea and back into the viewfinder, where an imaging chip picks up their reflection–along with an image of your pupil. As your gaze flits around the scene in the viewfinder, your pupil moves. The chip keeps track of these shifts. By detecting the pupil image’s position relative to the infrared reflections, the chip can identify what part of the scene you are watching–and instruct the autofocus sensors accordingly.

JUDGES

HARRY BENSON–Award-winning photojournalist.

DAVID FRIEND–Director of photography, Life magazine.

JIM HARTZ–Host of PBS science series Innovation.

MARVIN KITMAN–Television critic; humorist; syndicated columnist for Newsday and the Los Angeles Times.

GENE SISKEL–Cohost of the TV show Siskel and Ebert.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group