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Atomic and Wi-Fi time.

SOME PHILOSOPHERS DEFINE TIME as a measure of motion, and, in the past, the idea has inspired timepieces that move water or sand from one receptacle to another or track the course of a shadow on a circle.

Now, when we finally have the whole thing refined down to a circular set of flywheels and gears beneath a couple of hands that make their own slow, daily journey around a disk, the technologists step in and tell us to forget it. They have found a smaller pattern of motion for us to pay attention to--a much smaller pattern.

The atomic clock is now the most accurate timepiece on earth--maintained at an accuracy of [10.sup.-9] seconds per day. There is still the idea of motion being measured, but instead of hairsprings and balance wheels, what's being measured is the absorption spectroscopy of cold atoms oscillating in atomic fountains.


Atomic clocks have been around longer than most think. The first one was produced at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards in 1949. Today, you can get a wristwatch or wall clock version for much less than what you would pay for a far-less-accurate Swiss geared model or Regulator-style box for the kitchen wall. Actually, these atomic clocks are radio-controlled timepieces tuned to receive and synchronize with the National Institute of Standards and Technology atomic clock and radio station WWVD in Boulder, Colo. The La Crosse Company has several analog-looking atomic kitchen clocks that sell for about $25 ( As ordinary as they appear, each hangs on your wall, silently listening and reporting back on what's going on in those atomic fountains out West.

For those who think of time as a dimension rather than the movement of the planet taking its daily spin, there's the interesting incidental connection between atomic clocks and GPS navigation systems. The master clocks used by these systems, both on the ground and in the satellites, are atomic clocks. The oscillating atoms, then, are also integral to the system that maps the three dimensions in which we wander around looking for 1303 Elm Street.

Pervasive Wi-Fi

And while the information from the exquisitely accurate atomic clocks is passing through practically every room we enter, there are other radio waves traveling in the same places. Your Wi-Fi-enabled devices hear these signals, but most of the time we're oblivious to the waves passing through.

Normally, we think of Wi-Fi along with PCs, PDAs, or cell phones--the most common antennas for the signals. But the use for this radio bandwidth becomes more innovative every day. In April of this year, at the Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose, Calif., the winners of the Wireless Design Contest were announced. The challenge was to come up with innovative uses of the wireless 802.11 standard. Second prize was awarded to Kevin Hubbard for his Wi-Fi Alarm Clock. It's an alarm clock with Internet access. Not only will it tell you the time, but it will also provide the weather, news, and e-mail. The alarm buzzer can be set to go off when e-mail is received, and the snooze bar doubles as a toggle control to flip between displayed pages.

Hubbard's clock is interesting, but compared to two other Wi-Fi alarm clocks, his adaptation of existing technology isn't much of a stretch.

The Japan Railways Wi-Fi train clock is truly ingenious. It looks like a normal alarm clock decorated in a garish green and white motif. In the center of the dial is an image of the front end of a train from the Yamanote Line, and the clock plays chimes just like those played in the train stations. You can set it like any other alarm clock, but it has one other advantage for commuters who use the Yamanote Rail Line. Around the center of the dial are listed all the station stops along the line's route. At the outer edge are little train symbols with numbers that identify each run. These little trains move around the dial, reaching and passing each station along the route. The clock knows when train 1013G has reached the Kanda Station because the clock is connected via Wi-Fi to the railroad's communication system that keeps track of where all its trains are at any given moment. So when you awaken, you can see where your train is, and, if it's late, you might want to give the snooze bar an additional tap or two. The Wi-Fi Train Clock costs about $66, and, if you want to see how it works, check out the demo at It shows the current time, and you can watch the trains move around the clock to the 29 stations.

There's something very annoying about alarm clocks, maybe even confrontational, and the online gadget store ThinkGeek tapped into this when they concocted a very funny Wi-Fi alarm clock that punished you if you hit the snooze bar too often. The new product was a small rectangular box with a digital display that showed the time and a line or two of other information such as what the alarm was set for. Designed, according to the geniuses at ThinkGeek, for those who have a serious problem getting up in the morning, the SnuzNLuz "connects via Wi-Fi to your online bank account, and donates YOUR real money to an organization you HATE when you decide to snooze." To set it up, you "just plug it in and either connect it to your network via the RJ45 jack on the back, or via Wi-Fi (WPA supported) if available." They even had suggestions for usage: Butchers could donate to PETA, land developers to the Wilderness Society, and so on. The Wi-Fi Donation Clock purportedly retailed for $39, but you couldn't order one because the posting came on April 1. The SnuzNLuz was fiction. Maybe the strangest thing about it, though, was that it was entirely possible given the state of the technology that already exists.

Michael Castelluccio, Editor
COPYRIGHT 2007 Institute of Management Accountants
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Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Tech Forum
Author:Castelluccio, Michael
Publication:Strategic Finance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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