Saturday, April 28, 2007

Mars Rover Mission at the Tech Challenge

Today was D-Day for the teams competing in the Tech Challenge and that included Arjun's team, The S.A.G.A of the Flaming Chicken (don't ask me why :-)). The challenge was modeled on the Mars Rover problem of getting out of a crater. The design problem consisted of a drop of the device from a 12 ft height to land on a strip of carpet (the crater) and then ascent of a steep (60 degree) incline to get to the top of the crater. There were two sets of teams, grades 9-12 in the morning and grades 5-8 in the afternoon. All told there were over 190 teams from schools all over the Bay Area. There were a wide range of devices ranging from very sophisticated climbing robots with cushioned landing support of various kinds to even manual jump rope based devices. The best thing about these challenges is the variety and creativity they generate. The kids have great fun coming up with interesting devices, names, themes and delivery mechanisms. The Tech Challenge team also sets up the judging to be as broad and inclusive, and as encouraging as possible, to appreciate the effort the kids put into the contest.

For the S.A.G.A the day did not start off too well. True to form S.A.G.A had come up with another Jules Verne like device held in air by helium balloons and propelled by four electric motors driving large propellers as directional thrusters.

One half of the team went to fill the balloons with helium for their device while I carted the rest with their device and the cheering squad to the Tech Museum. We got there well in time and checked in. The balloon squad checked in a half hour later and unloaded the balloons and then disappeare dto park their cars. Another half hour passed and two of the team was still missing. Closer enquiry revealed that one of them was running out of gas in his car (a '50s El Camino) and had gone on a refuelling mission. Finally with about an hour to go before the contest closing all the members were accounted for. Then they discovered that they had forgotten their biography forms, including the one I had painstakingly written, at home.

Well, they went for it without the forms. They attracted a lot of attention with the device. A lot of other kids and curious parents came and quizzed them about their device. It was one of the few non-robotic, non-remote controlled devices around and certainly the orange balloons, yellow t-shirts with chicken cartoon faces for the team and one of the team members dressed as a white chicken had some visual impact. The device survived the 12 foot drop aided by the helium, but the propellers were not very effective as steering devices and the device did not make the landing on the ramp within the prescribed three minutes in spite of a cheering crowd. So, I believed that after three winning years they would have to take one year without a prize. The team went on with their interviews with the judges and came back rather enthusiastic in spite of the setbacks. They decided to give away the balloons to the small kids in the audience. This of course, won them some brownie points with the crowd.

The Tech Museum hands out about 18 awards for each section, roughly 1 in 5 teams entering get some kind of award. The awards started with a good number going to Cupertino High School (the SAGA's school) and almost an equal number going to rival Monta Vista. Imagine my shock when the style awards were announced and the S.A.G.A got the first one of two! You can check out all the award winners here. You just have to click through each one patiently. The team had pulled it off for the fourth year in a row. Their team work and enthusiasm had converted almost certain defeat into victory.

The final tally on the awards was Cupertino High 6 - Monta Vista 6. Rather impressive, because I think Monta Vista is academically a superior school and certainly more competitive. But, certainly the Cupertino High teams were tough competitors too. I guess a lot of the credit goes to some teachers like Chemistry teacher DeMuth and Biology teacher Ujifusa who encourage their classes to participate and award them class points for participation. Both teachers were there in person during the weekend cheering and capturing the events on videocam. That's dedication in teaching for you. I guess they are some of the few along with the organizers of the Tech Challenge who impart the spirit of innovation and a love of engineering and creativity to our children in Silicon Valley.

To Melissa McAlexander, Brittany Sabol and others at the Tech Museum who run the Tech Challenge, I can only say thank you for helping bring the spark of creativity to the kids in Silicon Valley. I am rather proud that some of the Tech Challenge organizers are also MIT alumni, because, at least in part, I am sure, they drew some of their inspiration from the other Tech. I am proud to have been associated with the S.A.G.A. of the Flaming Chicken these last four years. They grew from a group of friends who dreaded technology to some who dream of taking at least an engineering minor in college. When I look back on these times, I am sure I will say these were the good old days, and I am sure the kids who participated in the Tech Challenge will say the same.


P.S. I started writing this on the 28th of April, but just finished it today, May 6th :-)

Friday, April 27, 2007

20th anniversary of the Tech Challenge

The Tech Challenge is an open ended design contest for kids in grades 5 through 12. The Tech Challenge is run by the Tech Museum of San Jose and is in its 20th year. The Tech chooses real life problems like floods, forest fires or space missions and develops a model problem which has some elements of the original problem. However, the model problem is constructed in such a way as to allow multiple solutions limited only by the creativity of the entering teams. This year's challenge is titled Mission to Mars.

I have been associated with the Challenge since 2004, when Melissa McAlexander, who runs the Tech Challenge, roped me into volunteering as an advisor to teams from Lowell Elementary in San Jose. The challenge that year was Pick a Pike. There were about 30 kids from Lowell in our group assisted by 5-6 advisors. Most of these kids had never entered a design contest, let alone win a prize. We spent about 10 to 12 weeks with the kids helping them understand the challenge and getting them to think about ways of solving them. The kids formed about 5 teams and played a bit, fought a bit, and fooled around a whole lot. In the end, though, they did come up with some rather clever solutions which caught the pike - plastic fish floating in a tub of water. When 3 out of the 5 teams won prizes, their joy knew no bounds. For the advisors it was an exhilirating experience.

The same year, my son Arjun and his friends, who were in Cupertino High decided that they also wanted to participate in the Tech Challenge and I ended up being nominated their advisor too. This was quite a different kettle of fish. High school kids rarely want any guidance or advice. They just wanted money for the supplies and to be driven to places where they could buy stuff. Their design was a catapult which looked like a medieval flame thrower. It caused great excitement among the audience in its operation because it was powered with bungee cords and tended to be dramatic in its launch, when it threw a net into the tub to catch the fish. Strangely enough, they went on to win a prize that year for the "Most Courageous Team".

In 2005 the challenge was Battle the Blaze. Arjun and his friends put together yet another medieval looking device and and again won an award for "Simple Elegance". The team had renamed themselves as The S.A.G.A of the Flaming Chickens. One of the team members designed some rather cool T-shirts for the team and another dressed up in a yellow chicken suit for the event. In 2006 the challenge was Fight the Flood. The team stuck with the same name and came up with a strange manually driven conveyor belt which scooped the sand. They got an award for Teamwork. All along that was what they excelled at.

They have a team again in 2007, with most of the original members. They have always considered themselves "tech challenged" and worked at coming up with solutions low on technology and high on creativity. Rather, odd for Silicon Valley kids, at least the technology part. Over the years I have seen them goof off, fight, slack off, put in last minute efforts and come up with crazy ideas. But, in the end, they have enjoyed the process and learnt a lot from it.
The team has always worked well together and enjoyed solving the challenge together, but I notice a definite change in their attitude towards engineering and technology. They seem to have developed a genuine liking for it. Even my 9 year old, who is a constant, and sometimes unwelcome, supporter and critic at their team meetings is inspired by their efforts. Truly, the Tech has done something right in inspiring creativity, teamwork and a love for engineering and design in kids. Certainly from all accounts in the press, the US is falling behind in technology education. But, in my experience from the last four years, the Tech Challenge seems to have found the magic recipe for teaching creativity and engendering a love of engineering in kids.

Tomorrow is D-Day at the Tech Museum where the kids will bring their devices for the Challenge. It is bound to be a high energy and fun day as in past years. I am looking forward to it. Regardless of whether Arjun's team wins, I am sure they will have a lot of fun and so will I. For me, it is the last year I will be part of their team as they participate in the Tech Challenge. Its my way of rejuvenation and bonding with my son and his friends before they go off to college. Fortunately, Krishnan, our younger son will be able to sign up for the Tech Challenge in a couple of years, to help keep me continually young. :-)


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Location based services, applications and products

The Wireless Communication Alliance (WCA) held a panel discussion on location based services, applications and products on Tuesday, April 17th. The WCA is a non-profit organization which hosts some very good events on wireless technology in Silicon Valley. Location based means that the device has the capability of knowing its own location. One of the more common means by which this is achieved is by using a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver on the device. The initial GPS satellites were deployed by the US Department of Defense and they are continually monitored and maintained by the DoD. In recent times the technology has seen rapid deployment in commercial devices such as cars, cell phones etc due to the availability of low cost receiver ( sub $5) devices.

The panel consisted Mike McMullen, VP, Sprint PCS, Jaap Groot from Tedyo Holding Inc., Greg Turetzky from SiRF, John Ellenby from GeoVector and the Director of Marketing from Loopt. They were pretty unanimous in their opinion that every mobile device would have location based capabilities very soon. SiRF is one of the earliest semiconductor companies to offer discrete GPS silicon. For cost, power, accuracy and availability reasons, the technology has been slow penetrate the cell phone space. The main chip suppliers for GPS are TI, Qualcomm and SiRF. In spite of the Federal mandate to associate a physical address with the telephone number of a person calling 911 in the US, GPS is still not universal on all cell phones. The mandate is met in different ways by providers. Some providers who have GPS in all cell phones meet E911 requirements indoors by cell tower triangulation and outdoors by GPS. However, cost and accuracy limit the capability. Today most GPS enabled devices cost around $200. When the chip costs drop to $1, significantly more devices will be enabled.

As one of the panelists quoted an ex-Trimble employee, " every object has an inherent right to know where it is". Accepting this thesis, one can easily see a wide range of applications for location based services such as - finding devices not in your hand, finding friends (who want to be found :-)), emergency services, increasing what you can see beyond what is possible now and so on. Today from a service provider's point of view, the cost to find the location of a friend on the network is about 20c. Loopt, a Sequoia funded startup, for example, sees a wide range of possibilities for social mapping of friends. GeoVector's technology adds direction to position information thus enabling a wider range of possibilities for location based services. They claim to "enable finding stuff where you are not and getting to it".

As with most technology, promise takes a long time to deliver. But, it certainly appears that a veritable explosion of location based devices and services are on the horizon. Soon, we will be expecting location capabilities on every reasonably valuable device we own from cell phones, to cameras and even sneakers, not to mention embedding this capability on pets and children. Surely, one is led to believe that Silicon Valley and the Bay Area will once again be a prime mover in this high potential space, if one follows the example of SiRF, Loopt and GeoVector.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

MIT Club event on Communications in Emerging Markets

The MIT Club Semiconductor Entrepreneurship Series hosted a panel on the Future of Portable Communication in Emerging Markets on Thursday, April 12th. This is the second in a four part series on the Future of Portable Communication. As with the other events in this series it was hosted at the offices of Cooley Godward Kronish LLP . This, of course, means the food and drinks are pretty good ;-) In the interest of full disclosure, I helped with the planning of this panel.

The panel consisted of John Gardner from Nokia Growth Partners, John Sherry, Director of Social Science Research at Intel's Digital Health Group, Kristin Peterson, Co-founder and Chief Development Officer for Inveneo and Michael Kanellos, Senior Editor at CNET The panel was moderated by Julie Ask, Senior Research Director at Jupiter Kagan. The diverse panel had some surprising agreement on many things. All of them agreed that cell phones beat PCs as communication devices in emerging markets by a large margin. They mostly agreed that this was due to cost rather than ease of use. John Sherry talked about Intel initiatives targeted at emerging market applications for PCs such as ruggedizing, dust proofing, using alternate power sources etc. However, sometimes these led to increased cost which made the devices less attractive in these markets. Also, it was incorrect to assume that all customers in emerging markets wanted the lowest cost devices. There was significant demand for higher end capabilities.

Mike Kanellos described the range of uses these devices can be put to in emerging markets. In countries in the Middle East with large immigrant populations from India and Phillipines, PCs with video conferencing capabilities in Internet cafes are used to visually communicate with families back home. Cell phone services are used to transfer money home at much cheaper rates than possible with banks or financial service brokers. Overall PC penetration in the Middle East is very low, less than 20%.

Inveneo's Kristin Peterson described their observations from their efforts in Africa. Inveneo is an unusual startup - a nonprofit social enterprise aimed at connecting villages around the world. In many of these countries, communication can make dramatic differences in the lives of people in villages. However, most of them cannot afford expensive solutions. So, state of the art technology is mostly available as a shared resource. Even what we take for granted and available cheaply at Fry's in Silicon Valley may cost several times more by the time it makes it to a remote part of Africa. However, the effect of small things such as being able to communicate with a market in a neighboring village to find out that the price of crop is higher there may make a considerable difference to a poor farmer trying to sell his produce. He may be willing to travel the extra miles necessary to get the price differential.

While at the event, I met Hans Robertson of Meraki, a startup with the lofty goal of bringing Internet access to the next billion people. Their idea is to have small low cost wireless devices which can be added incrementally to form a mesh network. While the idea of mesh networks itself is not new, their take is on the ease of use and low cost of deployment. So, someone with access to the Internet could quickly deploy a wireless network and provide access to those who don't. Though, I am sure the service providers would want a cut of it, there is still room for enterprising entrepreneurs in developing markets to create small businesses and be the local ISP ;-)

While we in the Valley are in a race to provide the latest in technology, the rest of the world, especially the villages, are struggling to improve their lives with what technology they can lay their hands on. To them technology is not an end in itself, but a crucial means for improving their lives. Clearly the rate of adoption of technology is much slower at the fringes than at the center of the vortex of technology. :-)


Thursday, April 12, 2007

MIT Club event on Energy Storage

The MIT Club of Northern California's Renewable Energy and Clean Technology Series hosted a panel on Energy Storage at the PG&E auditorium on 4/11. As with most MIT Club events the panel was very good and the audience very engaged. Even the Thai food served was pretty good :-) Most MIT Club events are hosted in Palo Alto, but this was in San Francisco due the PG&E sponsorship. This is a bit of a drive from Cupertino, but its always fun going to San Francisco. The speakers included Dan Rastler from the Electric Power Research Institute, Dr. David Mills, Chairman of Ausra Inc., Mike Gravely, Research Program Manager with the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research Program and Rick Winter a consultant with Distributed Utility Associates.

In the pursuit of alternative energy solutions we don't often hear about energy storage. Interestingly, for the public utilities like PG&E and for alternative energy providers it is a very important issue. In the US we rarely have load shedding or blackouts, but in countries like India where this is common homeowners are very used to backup power supplies, mostly made up of lead-acid batteries. This is indeed a common and cheap storage mechanism as the panelists pointed out. The target for storage technologies is $150/kWh and currently most of them are 2-5x the target. Dr. Mills talked about Ausra's Concentrating Solar Power, which uses solar power stored as superheated steam and recovered using steam turbines. He claims over 95% efficiencies for the storage part. However, the technology requires a lot of area and is targeted at medium to large installations, O(MWatts), and not for residential or portable storage. The interesting technologies which are suitable for residential customers are lead-acid mentioned earlier and Lithium ion batteries. Yes, the same battery technology used in laptops and MP3 players. Due to mass manufacturing planned for this technology to address consumer markets, this will be a viable energy storage mechanism for larger applications, approaching $250/kwH in cost.

Mike Gravely talked about research programs funded by the State of California on renewable energy projects. This is the State of California's effort to encourage the development of renewable energy. It is seed money available to businesses and individuals to develop their ideas in the space. The grants are awarded every 4 months based on proposals received. The process appears easier than trying to get seed money from angel investors, if you have a good idea. Its only fitting that the State of California encourage innovation as an angel investor :-)


Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Al Gore and Democratization of Technology

The Embedded Systems Conference is going on at the San Jose Convention Center from April 3rd to 5th. I happened to get an exhibits pass and made the most of it today. One of the perks was listening to a keynote by Al Gore, the man who was to be the next President as he himself put it. Its been more than 10 years since I listened to him speak live. The last time was at my graduation at MIT. I wrote about this momentous occasion back in February. However, this was a very different Al Gore than the one I heard then or on TV during the 2000 elections. He was very relaxed, self-deprecating and really did seem to be passionate about his vision. :-)

He spoke about the difference between flying on Air Force 2 and having to take off his shoes when he boarded a plane these days. He also talked a fair bit about technology, global warming, outsourcing and the short term point of view which we seem to be adopting in the US these days. He compared our generation to the "Greatest Generation" which returned from saving the world from fascism and helped reach out and rebuild the enemy with a moral authority, so that there was greater wealth and stability all around. He described a vision where we had the opportunity today to use technology and policy to solve the world's very real global warming problems and create wealth and jobs. Where we saw a crisis today, he pointed out that it presented both danger and opportunity. He pointed out that seizing this opportunity would require taking a longer term point of view and relying on a moral compass.

Just judging from this one speech, I am pretty sure he would win the election this time around if he chose to run, though I am not sure Hillary Clinton or the Republicans would be too happy about it. Of course, if he wanted a sympathetic audience, there's nothing to beat a Valley crowd. Which might explain why he keeps talking at all these Valley events :-) However, I do believe that he may have a tougher time convincing the larger US population on the moral compass and longer term points of view. The world seems to have changed much in fifty years and the idealism of the '50s and '60s, seems to have dimmed a bit. But, who knows, Al Gore may just be the man to reignite it. He certainly seems to glow with a new found passion and vision.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Springtime in Cupertino

The signs of spring are everywhere in Cupertino and the rest of Silicon Valley. The fruit trees are in bloom and the weather is sunny and pleasant. Little wonder that Apple has launched the long awaited AppleTV and is poised to deliver the iPhone in June. The orchards of Cupertino have historically delivered in the Spring :-) Even if this were not one of the foremost technology hubs of the world, its still a lovely place to be.

Here are some images of springtime in Cupertino, some from my backyard.


© 2007, 2008 Madan Venugopal    All rights reserved.