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Accessing the Internet via Overhead Lights

Light has long been used to convey information—often in long and short bursts, as in semaphores—and today's world is no exception. Researchers recently found a way for users to access the Internet via visible light.

LVX System developed a lighting fixture that offers an access point with a clear data channel to whatever backbone system the LVX customer has installed. CEO John Pederson says that unlike RF-based technologies, which can be easily overwhelmed, visible light communication can offer a secure, clear connection. LVX's light-based system currently works with LED lighting and isn't specifically designed for networking.


Figure    LVX offers Internet connections via visible light communication through hosting devices found in overhead LED lighting panels.

The system is based on the commonly used 2 × 2 foot lighting panels typically found in commercial buildings with drop ceilings. Pederson says these fixtures contain the hosting device for the LVX system, but the company plans to offer the system in other popular fixture models as well. The customer can install a standard networking cable that plugs into a board on the back of the 2 × 2 fixture to decode and encode signals. Pederson says orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing through standard power lines or fiber optics could also be used.

The current data rate and transmission is 0.5 to 3 megabits per second at distances of 10 feet, which Pederson says is adequate in office and airport settings, the company's target markets. With simple optics adjustments, the range could be longer, but speeds would decrease. Prototypes have achieved speeds of up to 3 Mbps at distances of 7 to 10 feet. LVX System has installed its first few light fixtures in six municipal buildings in St. Cloud, Minnesota. City administrators didn't respond to requests for comment by press time.

Pederson says he doesn't think the LVX service is comparable to radio-based Internet access, for which the advertised speeds are typically faster than what users actually receive. He says it's more important to have a good Internet experience than a frustrating one, as is common with wireless-network-card-based services. Pederson doesn't specify how much the LVX service would cost users each month, but he says the lighting package prices are customized and his company currently offers Internet service at no charge to demonstrate the system's capabilities to potential users.

Craig Mathias, principal with wireless communication and mobile computing advisory firm Farpoint Group, says the technology shows promise, especially because visible-light communication has been used for decades. However, he'd like to see more details regarding LVX's price-performance ratio, which has yet to be fully disclosed. Mathias says this new technology will most likely be used for short-range, niche applications rather than broadband, data-intensive transmissions.

Pederson says a second-generation system will roll out in about a year with speeds comparable to those of commercial Wi-Fi networks. The lighting fixtures will also be programmable and capable of changing intensity and color, enabling users to manage their lighting systems, as well as offer features used in rescue situations, such as evacuation directions in the event of a fire or tornado. The system eventually might also be used to augment cellular telephone signals in areas where a typical signal might be degraded, such as in a tunnel.

US Government Offers Prizes for Solving Technology and Science Problems

The US Congress renewed the America COMPETES Act on 4 January 2011 to continue providing incentives to researchers to solve pressing technology and science problems. The law authorizes federal agencies in the executive branch to conduct prize competitions, says Robynn Sturm, advisor for open innovation to the deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The bill's full name is the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act. Sturm says it gives federal agencies—in many cases, for the first time—the ability to "appropriate appropriated funds" for creating prizes. When originally created in 2007, the law's stated purpose was "to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States." Agencies can conduct any prize competition that "stimulate[s] innovation that has the potential to advance the mission of the agency."

Sturm says the types of prizes and challenges that the America COMPETES Act supports have an excellent track record of accelerating problem solving by tapping the expertise of America's top talent, citing the recent McKinsey report ( Prize winnings vary depending on the competition's goal. For example, computational prizes in the private sector have ranged from the $1 million Netflix Prize to $50 prizes for Bug Race Competitions on TopCoder. Under the law, agencies are prohibited from offering a prize of more than $50 million without notifying Congress. However, says Sturm, that maximum limit shouldn't be interpreted as the expected size of most prizes.

In its first three months,, which lists public-sector prize competitions, featured 57 challenges from 27 agencies across the executive branch. Sturm says these competitions ultimately generated novel solutions for many national priorities such as childhood obesity, Type 1 diabetes, advanced vehicle technologies, and small business financing. To be eligible for these awards, an individual must be a US citizen or permanent resident, and private organizations must be incorporated in and have their primary place of business in the US.

The America COMPETES Act reportedly continues the budgets of three key US research offices: the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the laboratories of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation. It also authorizes ongoing support for ARPA-E, the energy-research program modeled after DARPA.

News Briefs written by Linda Dailey Paulson, a freelance technology writer based in Portland, Oregon. Contact her at

Experts Analyze Unexpected Drop in Spam Volume

Spam volume worldwide dropped considerably in the last quarter of 2010, according to statistics from several malware analysis firms, and experts are trying to figure out why.

Henry Stern, a security researcher at Cisco Systems, says his company's estimate of global spam traffic dropped from more than 300 million messages per day in August 2010 to between 30 and 60 billion per day in January 2011. He says that pharmaceutical spam levels in particular declined dramatically, while other types of spam remained relatively constant. Stern says spam typically follows both diurnal and weekly cycles, but the true challenge in estimating spam volumes is that the problem is decentralized.

According to Asaf Greiner, vice president of products for Internet security technology provider Comm-touch, his company detected the start of a drop at the end of September, as did other organizations industrywide. Greiner says Commtouch's very large global detection network is able to view several billion e-mail messages per day, which he says provides a reliable view of global trends. The company noticed two "quiet weeks" at the end of December 2010, with increased outbreaks resuming by 9 January 2011.

Likewise, Eric Park, abuse desk analyst for antimalware vendor Symantec, says his company didn't see spam activity in December 2010 on par with that observed during the 2009 holiday season. He says these low volumes haven't been seen since the rogue ISP McColo was shut down in 2008 and attributes them to the relative silence of botnets including Rustock, Lethic, and Xarvester. Park notes that Rustock did make a comeback 10 January 2011, but its temporary shutdown contributed significantly to the holiday spam decrease.

According to Stern, two other significant events precipitated the decline in spam: the September 2010 closure of and the October 2010 arrest of the person allegedly responsible for running the Bredolab botnet by Armenian police. He describes SpamIt as the principal financial enabler of spam. The organization had an affiliate program, which included various services and financial incentives, for criminals who wanted to sell pharmaceuticals. Stern says once SpamIt shuttered its operations, the larger spammers no longer had a revenue stream and thus had less incentive to send spam.

In addition, Greiner says several botnets were disrupted late last year, reducing spammers' abilities to operate. Phil Hay, senior threat analyst at M86 Security, says these include the botnets Mega-D and Pushdo (Cutwail), which were also inactive during that period. He says it's possible the spammers were simply taking a holiday break like everyone else.

With these support organizations out of business, it has become much more difficult for spammers. Some smaller pharmaceutical affiliate programs still operate, but Stern says it will be a long time—if ever—before these organizations can reach their previous spam volumes. So far, social networking hasn't affected overall spam volumes because it's more difficult to send spam via networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Most experts predict that e-mail will remain the primary, preferred medium for sending spam.

As the year progresses, researchers expect spam volumes to match or exceed previous levels. Hay says his company already sees indicators that Rustock is resurfacing and existing botnets are regrouping, and that upgraded botnets and new spam campaigns are emerging. Greiner argues this is just a blip in the spam continuum, signifying nothing. After drops in the past, he points out, spam volumes have rebounded to if not surpassed previous levels.

Remote-Controlled Robotic Ball Designed for Use in Games

Gaming might start rolling in a new direction thanks to a small robotic ball that users can control with a wide variety of devices, including smartphones.

Sphero isn't just a toy; it's a sophisticated electronic device controlled via Bluetooth, says Jim Booth, vice president of business development and operations for the ball's developer, Orbotix. It officially debuted at the January 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

Any iOS or Android device, whether it's a smartphone or tablet, can control the ball, which is 74 mm in diameter and has an outer core constructed of an elastomer rubber-like material that Booth says is similar to that on a toothbrush grip. The material provides protection and assists with traction. The translucent outer shell is able to display various colors generated by an internal LED.

The robotic ball's direction and speed is determined by a gyroscope and accelerometer, but the device also contains other electronic elements such as a microprocessor, Bluetooth chips, encoders, and power-management technology. Sphero can currently reach a top speed of 1.5 meters per second, but this could increase before it goes into production, says Booth.

The ball includes both joystick and tilt controls, but movement can be preprogrammed so that Sphero takes a specific path, such as repetitive figure eights or a predetermined route, without requiring user interaction. Users can also initiate a boost for the ball as it navigates ramps or encounters other obstacles.

The ball has an operating control range of 15 to 24 meters using Bluetooth v2.1 + EDR (enhanced data rate). Booth says that Orbotix chose Bluetooth because of its autoconnect capability. Additionally, Bluetooth has low power consumption, and users won't encounter network setup and authentication challenges like they might encounter with a specification such as Wi-Fi.

Sphero can be used in educational settings as well as in single- and multiplayer games and even augmented reality games. Booth says Orbotix has received various suggestions for science and computer programming applications, including a simple tug-of-war game in which players able to solve a math problem first get control of Sphero so that they can tug the ball to a specific point.


Figure    Control of the Sphero robotic ball is possible with a wide variety of devices for use in educational and gaming settings. Users can also preprogram its course.

Booth says that at CES demonstrations, the ball's orientation changed slightly when it hit something very hard, like a wall. He adds that when it's "retail ready," Sphero will be able to self-correct its orientation, making games such as bowling possible. The API for Sphero will be open for game developers and available from the company website along with tutorials and example code.

Sphero will be available in late 2011 in the US and in 2012 in other locations around the world for less than $100. Booth says the company isn't providing specifics on pricing or release timing, but it does want consumers and retail buyers to be aware that the balls will be available for the 2011 holiday season.

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