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Technology

Video on a Chip

Video on a Chip

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Using the same ho-hum materials found in a personal computer, Marc Loinaz and his colleagues at Lucent Technologies have created every secret agent's dream contraption: a video camera the size of a cigarette lighter. Lucent's impetus was a little more practical, however. It was looking to create imaging devices "so cheap and low power they can be integrated into everything from wristwatches to kitchen appliances," Loinaz says.

Today's video cameras generate pictures from charge-coupled devices (CCDs), which provide a great picture but require a pile of support circuitry that cannot sit on the same chip as the image sensors. "This makes CCD cameras relatively large, power hungry, and complicated to design and manufacture," says Loinaz. The one-chip camera, on the other hand, is based on the same ubiquitous silicon chip found in microprocessors and memory devices.

A big challenge for Loinaz's team was "getting the sensitive analog circuits to live happily with the digital signal processing circuits on the same piece of silicon." Ultimately they taught the two circuits simply to ignore each other. "We scheduled operations on the chip so that during all the sensitive analog operations, we shut down the digital circuits." Lucent recently licensed its video on a chip to Vanguard International Semiconductor, which plans to market products based on the technology sometime this year. Mini-video imagers might be mounted on car bumpers to eliminate blind spots and reduce collisions. The one-chip camera could also be used in home security. And then, of course, there's the potential for things like portable video wristwatch phones. Dick Tracy, eat your heart out.

FINALISTS Walkman for the New Millennium INNOVATOR: Paul Morel, Diamond Multimedia Systems

To Paul Morel, the Rio PMP300 is more than just the latest twist on carry-along players—it's a way to give more freedom of choice to music-loving technophiles. The device is designed to take advantage of the MP3 format, which squeezes a lot of music into a comparatively small amount of digital data.

Until now, the only way to hear MP3 files was to sit at your PC. Rio makes the music mobile. A flash memory chip stores data even when the power is off, and a special low-power signal processor allows the player to run for 12 hours on a single AA battery.

Not Your Father's Lego INNOVATOR: Michael Dooley, Lego Mindstorms

A classic children's toy has been reborn, and this time the plastic pieces have a brain—a powerful microcomputer called RCX, concealed within an oversize Lego brick.

Drawing on a concept originally developed by Mitchel Resnick at the MIT Media Lab, Mike Dooley and his compatriots developed an intuitive programming language that lets users write instructions by piecing together blocks of software commands. At $200 the Robotics Invention System is not cheap, but its capabilities are breathtaking. A child can build a copying machine, a motion detector, or a truck that follows a path drawn on a sheet of paper.

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