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Small is big: a cellphone chip that allows monthly battery charge

When small is big: Tinier chips demand less energy and could produce a cellphone that needs a battery charge only once a month.

A Massachusetts Institute of Tehcnology student tweezes a silicon wafer that, under high heat, will grow carbon nanotubes.

Ann Hermes/Staff

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Gaming fans rushed last November to purchase a new gadget that would let them communicate with computers through body language. The device, called Kinect, "reads" players' gestures through video and infrared sensors. Players can control street-fighting or soccer-playing video game avatars just by moving their arms and shifting their stance.

This kind of communication blows away the joysticks used to play PacMan 30 years ago. You might say that Kinect has achieved a kind of fragmentary approximation of what brains do.

"I see that kind of technology becoming more pervasive and requiring huge amounts of computing power," says Stephen Furber, a computer chip engineer at the University of Manchester, in England.

If less energy-hungry chips are developed, cellphones could fully replace laptop computers. It could allow users to charge those cellphones once a month on a saucer-sized solar panel.

But if Professor Furber is right, the most profound result of more-efficient computers will be increasingly intelligent devices that the average person can afford.

Imagine a computer with a tiny camera mounted on your eyeglasses so that it sees what you see: As you look down the street it reads the name of every restaurant and store; it pulls up information on menus, sales, and specials, and displays it on a tiny liquid-crystal display in your eyeglasses. The computer-vision technology that Kinect uses could, in theory, be used in this kind of augmented reality – or it could allow a bipedal robot to navigate a cluttered house and do chores. But that comes at a price.


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