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New punch presses pack more punch.

The tale of the garage workshop spawning great enterprises like Steve Jobs' Apple computer may be cliche, but that doesn't diminish the impact of the actual thing. In San Rafael, Calif., moments north of the Golden Gate Bridge, entrepreneur Stan Axelrod is still proving that cliches can be very real. Stan is the co-inventor and developer of an IR device used as a game controller for the megahit game system, Nintendo. Known commercially as U-Force, the system is advertised as putting "nothing in the way of you and the game." To do that, U-Force uses an IR array, coupled to a microprocessor that detects not only movement through the IR emitters and detectors, but processes the speed and force with which the object moves through the field. Hand motion through the array translates into screen movement in the Nintendo game by landing punches, or manipulating a fire hose, or dribbling a basketball and so-on. The U-Force game controller detects position within the IR field by using two arrays - one flat, the other vertical, sort of like the position of an open laptop computer. The microprocessor calculates position and force by reading the movement through X and Y axes.

More than kid's stuff Axelrod was working at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a sort of high-tech playground for kids, when he was approached with the initial idea for U-Force by David Capper, whose original idea was for a game controller based on proximate capacitance. Axelrod suggested the IR array might be more effective, and was told by Clapper to develop it. Once they had a working model, they brought it to Ed Bernstein, the vice president of New Ventures for software-maker Broderbund. Bernstein liked the idea, and even though U-Force was a significant departure from Broderbund's software orientation, decided to put the money into developing it. It was first introduced at this past winter's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, then shown at Toy Fair in New York. And after test marketing with television commercials in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, Broderbund shipped over 100,000 units, moving the project into the black. Dave Capper was no Silicon Valley whiz kid when he came up with the idea for U-Force. He was still enjoying success as the marketing mind behind the success of the Koosh ball, a toy that looks like the exploded innards of a golf ball and has been one of the top-selling toys of the past year. After seeing the importance of patent protection for the survival of Koosh, Capper realized that his best protection for U-Force was also broad patent protection, and now says the patents he owns for the device are his most valuable possessions. Capper says he was astounded when he went to research the patent and found that no one else had come up with it.

Making a point Now Axelrod and Capper are working on a variety of offshoots, hoping to capitalize on the technology. The latest invention, still only in breadboard form, is a computer pointing device that doesn't require the operator to touch anything. They would have called it an AirMouse if someone hadn't beat them to the name, because that's basically what it is. By moving your finger through an IR array, you move the cursor on the screen. Capper and Axelrod are working with Optek outside of Dallas to fine tune the IR device, which again will ultimately belong to Broderbund, and probably will be ready for manufacture in several months. But even though their first application has only started shipping, and their second application is only barely off the drawing board and onto the breadboard, Capper beams from ear to ear when he begins enumerating some of the potentialities. Already being looked at are contact-free control devices for handicapped people that would enable the manipulation of devices ranging from a wheelchair to a computer. Another application is position sensing for automated manufacturing processes. He says the list is endless. But, driving in his new Corvette ZR1 down US 101, Capper says there's one application he hopes the device won't be used for: to replace radar as a way of catching speeders as they move through a large-scale IR array.

Creating the missing link Richard Allen, the president of Photonics Corp. (no relation to this publication) was also looking for something else when he stumbled onto IR. Allen was involved in installing computer networks - local area networks, or LANs - when he was struck by the huge expense involved in cabling even a handful of personal computers together. He set out to find a wireless solution, first trying some radio technologies, including putting data on the power cables. But none of the technologies met his criteria: user installable, economical and reliable. The solution was of course the last technology he tried: IR. But even if IR could allow computers on a single office floor to exchange data, how could it be done without having the beams blocked by columns, partitions, people walking around and the like? While the problem might have sent some engineers bouncing off the walls, it sent Allen bouncing off the ceiling. The solution was Photolink, which bounces a fan-shaped IR beam off the ceiling, which acts as a passive reflector. Allen says other people had tried to use IR as a linking medium, but proceeded in either of two wrong directions: They either resorted to relay devices mounted on the ceiling, which made the systems no longer user installable, or they tried to flood the room with IR, which cost control. Even though the use of the ceiling cost a lot of signal strength, it was still sufficient to get the signal to the receiving unit.

Because the receiver's field of view is limited, it doesn't receive signals it's not supposed to get. To prevent blocking of the signal, the beam is aimed eight-to-ten feet high. And because it uses a fan-shaped beam, even a very, very tall person walking in the vicinity of the device will block only part of the signal, and not enough to affect performance. In addition, just to be on the safe side, the system uses an error-correcting protocol.

Keep it simple

Allen takes great pride in Photolink's ease of installation. He says nobody ever reads his manual because of the simplicity of the four-step installation process, which comes close to being point and shoot. You attach Photolink to a partition, then you cheek the indicator light on the back of the unit, which is blinking red. You point it to a spot on the ceiling, and when the device light changes to green, it means you're communicating with another unit, and you're in business. Photolink was first developed to hook up Apple computers using AppleTalk and LocalTalk networking software. Now, besides Macintosh, Photolink can hook together standard RS-232 terminals. Versions are under development that will support Ethernet networks and later, token ring networks. Allen says other versions will be coming down the line to support other network interfaces.

Cost savings Photolink's base price is $1195, and each unit can support four PCs, leading Allen to claim that his device significantly beats the cost of cabling. He says the impact of the savings becomes especially obvious when you need to move machines, or even offices. Imagine trying to move your Ethernet cable to another building. And speaking of other buildings, Allen says that because of customer requests to link PCs in adjoining buildings, Photonics is developing a point-to-point system that will work outdoors between buildings. Allen admits that using an IR system for a local area network is still something of a novelty, but with competing fiber networks still running close to $5000 per node, the novelty may soon wear off. He says Photolink will work with wired networks on the same system, and is software transparent. He points to the case of one customer who has a wired network, but whenever there's a problem, will use a Photolink to replace the wired connection, sometimes until the problem is fixed, sometimes indefinitely.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Quinlan, Joseph C.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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