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Government innovation? It gets an A for effort

January 26, 2015 1 comment

You know you’ve been covering technology for a long time when your friends’ kids – whom you remember as toddlers – start showing up at conferences you’re wandering through, panels you’re moderating. But that’s what happened to me the other day at a conference on collaboration in Washington. It was designed to match innovative companies with potential federal customers.

For me, it was an unusual event if only because of the mix of casualness and neck-ties – which, by the way, does not correlate with age.

I did run into a few guys I’ve known since my days at Government Computer News in the early 1990s. We joked, this sure isn’t FOSE with the latest copiers on display. It was bracing to see so much earnest brainpower – on both the government and fledgling industry side – talking across traditional boundaries. And a jolting reminder at how much the economy has changed from when I used to cover industries like steel and engineered metal products.

I’m not sure what innovation means exactly. But one of the government people had a pretty good, down-to-earth definition. Dan Doney, the chief innovation officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said it’s finding ways to deal with the new problems you have when the old tools don’t work. Or trying new tools on persistent problems. You can’t put it in a bottle. And you can’t conjure it up at will by shoving people into open workspaces. But you know it when you see it.

Or when you know where to look. The government is learning where to look. That’s why you see so many agencies launching challenges and contests. They’re looking for ideas the bureaucracy can’t solve with the usual ways it does things.

At collaboration, the Energy Department had a table lined with one-page brochures listing challenges it has open. It’s preparing to spend a million dollars on prizes. There’s the Collegiate Wind Competition, for example. They’re not looking for a socialist professor to hold a faculty lounge gabfest, but rather teams of students to design and test a marketable wind turbine. Reading the material, I sense a subtext in this contest. Namely, the current wind turbine industry has problems with reliability, cost, and the fact that without the government forcing it, no sane utility would bother with them.

Another DOE contests has to do with lighting. In conjunction with Ford Motor Company, one seeks ideas for new automotive lighting systems. Another, in partnership with RecoveryPark, is looking for ideas for more efficient agricultural lighting for greenhouses.

I saw an impressive piece of unmanned aerial vehicle innovation. The problem with those whiny quadricopters is battery life. Flying a payload like a GoPro camera or something of similar weight, they just don’t go far enough. And the devices could be a lot more productive if they could operate in swarms. But operation doesn’t scale – one operator, one drone.

That’s according to Brandon Borko and Christopher Vo. They look like my kids age. They are my kids ages. But they’re the CEO and chief technologist, respectively, of a startup called Sentien Robotics. I couldn’t help but ask them how come they weren’t in school that day. But they’re both George Mason University engineering grads. They’ve developed software that can operate, they say, hundreds of drones autonomously, launching fresh machines as the batteries on flying ones fade. Their video showed a sort of drone rack concept, mounted on the back of an F-250. It launches charged drones while the expiring ones fly into a space on the rack. Imagine operating 100 drones with only your driver’s license.

Could you have thought of this? I don’t know what the Sentien system costs, but I’m willing to bet it’s less than the billion dollars the Defense Department would spend to have a systems integrator do it.

I spoke to one 20-something who says he started a company that creates branding narratives. I’m not sure what that even is. But it sounds like something a few government agencies could use.

A young woman from BraveUX described this chic company’s approach to app development, which its web site describes as “clever, clean, gutsy, art-meets-science, polished, , original, avant garde, modern, smart, bold, simplified, definitely not boring, full-bodied, fun, delightful, original, stylish, refined & Brave.” Hardly something you’ll find on the web site of the average federal contractor.

Elephants also exhibited at the conference, hoping to show they, too, can innovate. Booz Allen Hamilton talked about its use of crowd-sourcing platforms like Innocentive and IdeaScale to help agencies get into the innovation groove.

The event itself had one innovation you don’t see much in Washington. It ran on a Friday and Saturday. All those kids innovating don’t think in terms of a 9-5 M-F workweek. My entrée came from Jonathan Aberman, a northern Virginia venture capitalist who specializes in national security market startups locally. I moderated a discussion with him and Doney, but it was on a Friday afternoon. Our theme was that technology innovators have avenues to get their ideas in front of government, even with the procurement process in place.

And the neighbor’s kid? A shout-out to Ben Center, recent grad, now working as investor relations associate at Onevest.

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Lenovo Gets Tablet-PC Combo Nearly Right

August 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Ever since the luggable Osborne of the mid 1980s, an ideal, do-all portable computer has hovered just out of reach. Do-all was realized when 15-inch and larger notebook PCs came into the market. Ideal? Not so much if long battery life, low temperature and light weight figured into your calculus.

The astonishing blooming of device types and sizes in the mobility revolution reminds me of those intensely-lit electronic shop store windows on Broadway – stuffed to the ceiling with devices of every conceivable description.

As a Mac user for many years, I’ve been intrigued by the Macbook Air, the first of the full-powered notebook rendered ultra-light by great mechanical engineering, deletion of a DVD drive, and use of a solid state storage. But the price, high even by Apple standards, put me off and I still haven’t bought one.

Windows 8, with its touch screen capabilities has spawned yet another class of ultralight in which the screen, actually the computer, pops out to become a tablet with a software keyboard. I’ve been trying one out, the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix Detachable Ultrabook. It has a generous 11.5-inch (diagonal) touch screen, and it’s powered by a highly capable Intel Core i7 vPro processor. I found it attractive and solidly put-together, as I’ve come to expect from the ThinkPad series dating back forever. My model, without a mobile broadband chip, runs about $1,900 – a serious piece of change.

The computer is relatively lightweight at 3.8 pounds, compact at 11.5 inches wide and 8.5 inches deep. And thin at less than one inch. It’s small enough that it lets you eliminate the “second brief case”. It slides nicely into the rear zippered case of my L.L.Bean brief case. The charger, though, is clunky and because of the way the wall cord and computer cord are attached to it, the cords don’t wrap around it easily. Also, you must supply your own Velcro cable tie to keep it all together.

The Lenovo’s display is sharp and bright, but default fonts on web pages are simply too small to read easily, at least by these 58-year-old eyes. In fact, this Lenovo has a retro feature – namely a stylus that stores in a hole on the top of the unit. In operating routine functions in, say, Google Docs or at WordPress, the stylus is practically a necessity to invoke tiny icons. Be careful, though. The stylus is not tethered so it’s easy to lose.

But the negatives add up. The machine is less a tablet than reworking of a PC to include a software keyboard mated with a customized mechanical keyboard-dock. The keyboard is excellent, firm and responsive. But the design has unfortunate implications.

For one, most of the weight is in the tablet part, so Lenovo by necessity limits how far back it can tilt, lest it flop over on its back. A flimsy plastic limiter is mounted to the keyboard; the machine simply doesn’t open wide enough for some viewing situations. (The limiter piece is the only mechanically questionable part of this machine.) Worse, on more than one occasion when I released the machine from the dock to go to tablet mode, it crashed and I had to restart it.

Battery life is another matter. On a full charge, I found the Lenovo down to half power in about an hour. I’d give it a generous battery rating of three hours, not the claimed eight. That’s notebook territory, not tablet. When clapped shut but not powered down, the battery charge dissipated within a day. So this machine is like earlier generations of portables in that your first task on arriving in a conference room or airport terminal is to scan for an electrical outlet you can sit near.

Using the machine in charging mode made it uncomfortably hot on the back. Two tiny fans located on the dock couldn’t quite keep up.

I can’t comment on the software. From Lenovo the machine unfortunately went first to Federal News Radio’s IT department, where the guys rolled back the version of Windows from 8.1 to 8.0 in order to accommodate an ancient version of Adobe Audition we use. They also installed a virtual station desktop as one of the application tiles on the home screen, spoiling the full experience you’re supposed to get with Windows 8. Windows 8 has well-known of issues, but that’s not Lenovo’s doing.

Judging the machine, though, from what I do – writing – I found come anomalies. The big trackpad-button panel seemed to have a life of its own, sometimes barely responding, sometimes anchoring itself on a word and then highlighting whole paragraphs. Between the standard keyboard controls, the trackpad, the stylus and the touch screen, the user has a lot of ways to navigate and it takes some practice to find the right ones.

I’d judge the Lenovo UltraBook Helix Detachable Ultrabook a decent Version 1.0 for a Ultrabook-tablet combo. It’s sturdy, compact, fast and good-looking. The company needs to address battery life and the undocking-while-running issues.

Smaller and cooler

April 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Having recently completed a white paper on green power and data center issues for one of my writing clients, I had cooling issues on my mind when I ran into Rich Friedrich of Hewlett-Packard at a recent conference. Rich is director, Strategy and Open Innovation Office of HP Laboratories. He talked about some of the research priorities at HP. Many of them are aimed at finding innovative new uses of existing technologies.

In the case of cooling, HP engineers are looking for ways to apply the company’s inkjet technology to data center cooling. Huh?

People who don’t spend time in and around data centers might not realize that the cooling requirement didn’t go away with the conversion of mainframe computers into multiple small servers. Fewer computers are liquid cooledd nowadays, but the air conditioning requirements can be intense — and expensive. As individual boxes give way to rack-mounted “blade” appliances, the close proximity of many microprocessors can create intense zones of heat, enough to burn up the boards.

In air cooling, what data center designers try to do is line up the hot components, creating cool rows and hot rows, then isolate the hot rows physically so that refrigeration can be aimed precisely where the heat is. Done correctly, this can be more efficient than trying to cool the whole room. You’ve heard the expression, “boiling the ocean” as a reference to futility. Well, think of inefficient cooling as “air conditioning the desert.”

Two or three vendors go a step further, offering fish tank-like racks filled with inert coolant (similar to the liquid used to fill transformers) into which blades are immersed, mounted vertically. It requires removing optical drives and hoping that the hard drives are really watertight.

But not all CIOs are enamored of the idea of big, open tanks of liquid in their data centers.

Here’s where the inkjet technology comes in. Friedrich explained HP is experimenting with inkjets — the jets assemblies themselves, not the printers. Inkjets can apply picoliters of liquid under pressure to very small areas. If liquid coolant could be applied to just the surface of a microprocessor or other hot component itself, or to its heat sink, it would eliminate the need for immersion in gallons of fluid and perhaps for elaborate air conditioning setups. Further, he said, if the the chip was hot enough to boil the coolant (or the liquid designed to boil at the temperature it encountered on the chip) the vapor could be recovered locally, condensed, and recirculated. If you’ve ever seen cooling oil applied to a metal cutting bit on a lathe or drill press, you’ve also seen the mess if can create. Boil-and-recover would avoid the miniature version of this problem.

You can read more about this work here.