25 of today's coolest network and computing research projects

Latest concoctions from university labs include language learning website, a newfangled Internet for mobile devices and even IP over xylophones

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The researchers have figured out a way to gauge the upper and lower bounds of capacity in a wireless network. Such understanding could enable enterprises and service providers to design more efficient networks regardless of how much noise is on them (and wireless networks can get pretty darn noisy).

More details from MIT press office.

100 terahertz level

A University of Pittsburgh research team is claiming a communications breakthrough that they say could be used to speed up electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops in a big way. Their advance is a demonstrated access to more than 100 terahertz of bandwidth (electromagnetic spectrum between infrared and microwave light), whereas electronic devices traditionally have been limited to bandwidth in the gigahertz realm.

Researchers Hrvoje Petek of the University of Pittsburgh and visiting professor Muneaki Hase of the University of Tsukuba in Japan, have published their NSF-funded research findings in a paper in Nature Photonics. The researchers "detail their success in generating a frequency comb-dividing a single color of light into a series of evenly spaced spectral lines for a variety of uses-that spans a more than 100 terahertz bandwidth by exciting a coherent collective of atomic motions in a semiconductor silicon crystal."

Petek says the advance could result in devices that carry a thousand-fold more information.

Separately, IBM researchers have developed a prototype optical chip that can transfer data at 1Tbps, the equivalent of downloading 500 high-definition movies, using light pulses rather than by sending electrons over wires.

The Holey Optochip is described as a parallel optical transceiver consisting of a transmitter and a receiver, and designed to handle gobs of data on corporate and consumer networks.

Cooling off with graphene

Graphene is starting to sound like a potential wonder material for the electronics business. Researchers from the University of California at Riverside, the University of Texas at Dallas and Austin, and Xiamen University in China have come up with a way to engineer graphene so that it has much better thermal properties. Such an isotopically-engineered version of graphene could be used to build cooler-running laptops, wireless gear and other equipment. The need for such a material has grown as electronic devices have gotten more powerful but shrunk in size.

"The important finding is the possibility of a strong enhancement of thermal conduction properties of isotopically pure graphene without substantial alteration of electrical, optical and other physical properties," says UC Riverside Professor of Electrical Engineering Alexander Balandin, in a statement. "Isotopically pure graphene can become an excellent choice for many practical applications provided that the cost of the material is kept under control."

Such a specially engineered type of graphene would likely first find its way into some chip packaging materials as well into photovoltaic solar cells and flexible displays, according to UC Riverside. Beyond that, it could be used with silicon in computer chips, for interconnect wiring to to spread heat.

Industry researchers have been making great strides on the graphene front in recent years. IBM, for example, last year said it had created the first graphene-based integrated circuit. Separately, two Nobel Prize winning scientists out of the U.K. have come up with a new way to use graphene - the thinnest material in the world - that could make Internet pipes feel a lot fatter.

Keeping GPS honest

Cornell University researchers are going on the offense against those who would try to hack GPS systems like those used in everything from cars to military drones to cellphone systems and power grids. Over the summer, Cornell researchers tested their system for outsmarting GPS spoofers during a Department of Homeland Security-sponsored demo involving a mini helicopter in the New Mexico desert at the White Sands Missile Range.

Cornell researchers have come up with GPS receiver modifications that allow the systems to distinguish between real and bogus signals that spoofers would use to trick cars, airplanes and other devices into handing over control. They emphasized that the threat of GPS spoofing is very real, with Iran last year claiming to have downed a GPS-guided American drone using such techniques.

Getting smartphones their ZZZZs

Purdue University researchers have come up with a way to detect smartphone bugs that can drain batteries while they're not in use.

"These energy bugs are a silent battery killer," says Y. Charlie Hu, a Purdue University professor of electrical and computer engineering. "A fully charged phone battery can be drained in as little as five hours."

The problem is that app developers aren't perfect when it comes to building programs that need to perform functions when phones are asleep and that use APIs provided by smartphone makers. The researchers, whose work is funded in part by the National Science Foundation, investigated the problem on Android phones, and found that about a quarter of some 187 apps contained errors that could drain batteries. The tools they're developing to detect such bugs could be made available to developers to help them cut down on battery-draining mistakes.

Quantum leap in search

University of Southern California and University of Waterloo researchers are exploring how quantum computing technology can be used to speed up the math calculations needed to make Internet search speedy even as the gobs of data on the Web expands.

The challenge is that Google's page ranking algorithm is considered by some to be the largest numerical calculation carried out worldwide, and no quantum computer exists to handle that. However, the researchers have created models of the web to simulate how quantum computing could be used to slice and dice the Web's huge collection of data. Early findings have been encouraging, with quantum computers shown through the models to be faster at ranking the most important pages and improving as more pages needed to be ranked.

The research was funded by the NSF, NASA Ames Research Center, Lockheed Martin's University Research Initiative and a Google faculty research award.

Sharing malware in a good way

Georgia Tech Research Institute security specialists have built a system called Titan designed to help corporate and government officials anonymously share information on malware attacks they are fighting, in hopes of fighting back against industrial espionage.

The threat analysis system plows through a repository of some 100,000 pieces of malicious code per day, and will give contributors quick feedback on malware samples that can be reverse-engineered by the Titan crew. Titan will also alert members of new threats, such as targeted spear-phishing attacks, and will keep tabs on not just Windows threats, but also those to Apple MacIntosh and iOS, and Google Android systems.

"As a university, Georgia Tech is uniquely positioned to take this white hat role in between industry and government," said Andrew Howard, a GTRI research scientist who is part of the Titan project. "We want to bring communities together to break down the walls between industry and government to provide a trusted, sharing platform."

Touch-feely computing

Researchers from the University of Notre Dame, MIT and the University of Memphis are working on educational software that can respond to students' cognitive and emotional states, and deliver the appropriate content based on how knowledgeable a student is about a subject, or even how bored he or she is with it.

AutoTutor and Affective AutoTutor get a feel for students' mood and capabilities based on their responses to questions, including their facial expressions, speech patterns and hand movements.

"Most of the 20th-century systems required humans to communicate with computers through windows, icons, menus and pointing devices," says Notre Dame Assistant Professor of Psychology Sidney D'Mello, an expert in human-computer interaction and AI in education. "But humans have always communicated with each other through speech and a host of nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, eye contact, posture and gesture. In addition to enhancing the content of the message, the new technology provides information regarding the cognitive states, motivation levels and social dynamics of the students."

Mobile nets on the move

For emergency responders and others who need to take their mobile networks with them, even in fast-moving vehicles, data transmission quality can be problematic. North Carolina State University researchers say they've come up with a way to improve the quality of these Mobile ad hoc networks (MANET).

"Our goal was to get the highest data rate possible, without compromising the fidelity of the signal," says Alexandra Duel-Hallen, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State whose work is outlined in the paper "Enabling Adaptive Rate and Relay Selection for 802.11 Mobile Ad Hoc Networks." 

The challenge is that fast moving wireless nodes make it difficult for relay paths to be identified by the network, as channel power tends to fluctuate much more in fast-moving vehicles. The researchers have come up with an algorithm for nodes to choose the best data relay and transmission paths, based on their experience with recent transmissions.

Tweet the Street

Researchers from the University of California, Riverside and Yahoo Research Barcelona have devised a model that uses data about Twitter volumes to predict how financial markets will behave. Their model bested other baseline strategies by 1.4% to 11% and outperformed the Dow Jones Industrial Average during a four-month simulation.

"These findings have the potential to have a big impact on market investors," said Vagelis Hristidis, an associate professor at the Bourns College of Engineering. "With so much data available from social media, many investors are looking to sort it out and profit from it."

The research, focused on what Twitter volumes, retweets and who is doing the tweeting might say about individual stocks, differs from that of earlier work focused on making sense of the broader market based on positive and negative sentiments in tweets.

As with so many stock-picking techniques, the researchers here tossed out plenty of caveats about their system, which they said might work quite differently, for example, during a period of overall market growth rather than the down market that their research focused on.


University of Texas, Dallas scientists have developed software dubbed Frankenstein that's designed to be even more monstrous than the worst malware in the wild so that such threats can be understood better and defended against. Frankenstein can disguise itself as it swipes and messes with data, and could be used as a cover for a virus or other malware by stitching together pieces of such data to avoid antivirus detection methods.

"[Mary] Shelley's story [about Dr. Frankenstein and his monster] is an example of a horror that can result from science, and similarly, we intend our creation as a warning that we need better detections for these types of intrusions," said Kevin Hamlen, associate professor of computer science at UT Dallas who created the software, along with doctoral student Vishwath Mohan. "Criminals may already know how to create this kind of software, so we examined the science behind the danger this represents, in hopes of creating countermeasures."

Such countermeasures might include infiltrating terrorist computer networks, the researchers say. To date, they've used the NSF and Air Force Office of Scientific Research-funded technology on benign algorithms, not any production systems.

Safer e-wallets

While e-wallets haven't quite taken off yet, University of Pittsburgh researchers are doing their part to make potential e-wallet users more comfortable with the near-field communications (NRC) and/or RFID-powered technology.

Security has been a chief concern among potential users, who are afraid thieves could snatch their credit card numbers through the air. But these researchers have come up with a way for e-wallet credit cards to turn on and off, rather than being always on whenever in an electromagnetic field.

"Our new design integrates an antenna and other electrical circuitry that can be interrupted by a simple switch, like turning off the lights in the home or office," says Marlin Mickle, the Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor of Engineering and executive director of the RFID Center for Excellence in the Swanson School. "The RFID or NFC credit card is disabled if left in a pocket or lying on a surface and unreadable by thieves using portable scanners."

Mickle claims the advance is both simple and inexpensive, and once the researchers have received what they hope will be patent approval, they expect the technology to be adopted commercially.

Digging into Big Data

The University of California, Berkeley has been handed $10 million by the National Science Foundation as part of a broader $200 million federal government effort to encourage the exploration and better exploitation of massive amounts of information dubbed Big Data collected by far-flung wireless sensors, social media systems and more.

UC Berkeley has five years to use its funds for a project called the Algorithms, Machines and People (AMP) Expedition, which will focus on developing tools to extract important information from Big Data, such as trends that could predict everything from earthquakes to cyberattacks to epidemics.

"Buried within this flood of information are the keys to solving huge societal problems and answering the big questions of science," said Michael Franklin, director of the AMP Expedition team and a UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, in a statement. "Our goal is to develop a new generation of data analysis tools that provide a quantum leap in our ability to make sense of the world around us."

AMP Expedition researchers are building an open-source software stack called the Berkeley Data Analysis System (BDAS) that boasts large-scale machine-learning and data analysis methods, infrastructure that lets programmers take advantage of cloud and cluster computing, and crowdsourcing (in other words, human intelligence). It builds on the AMPLab formed early last year, with backing from Google, SAP and others.

Bob Brown tracks network research in his Alpha Doggs blog and Facebook page, as well on Twitter and Google +

IDG News Service and other IDG publications contributed to this report

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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