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On the Cusp: Addictive Technologies are Lurking

Wed, 11/30/2005 - 7:00pm
Randy C. Hice

On the Cusp: Addictive Technologies are Lurking

A look at new tools that may catalyze lab informatics



New technology is a narcotic to me, and every few months I get the shakes if some glistening new toy isn’t rolling around in my sweaty palms. Lately, I’ve been lusting after GPS units that can travel with me to stem the withdrawal symptoms I experience when leaving my car at the airport and having to resort to the car rental maps that compress entire cities into six-inch squares, and generate weird nervousness from my fellow highway drivers as I hold the map up to the windshield at 90 MPH, occasionally swerving a few feet here and there.

A cursory check reveals that GPS has hit the mass market. Hikers, golfers, bikers and runners can all enlist the services of the Big Brother in the Sky to track their trek through dense forests, whether they find themselves there after sprinting crazily from a Kodiak, or they’ve lost command of their Big Bertha.

But GPS isn’t the only toy I’ve been researching. We’ll have a look at some emerging technologies that may catalyze laboratory informatics, or be relegated to the dung heap of has-beens and never-weres. Each year, we look for foretokens of emerging technology to provide a heads-up on what’s likely to shine or shatter as the next year unfolds. Here are a few of the hot topics being bandied about the informatics stratosphere.

Radio frequency identification

Okay, the bad news is that anyone aspiring to be a world-class shoplifter is facing a career setback because of these ubiquitous little gnats, but the laboratory scene may soon see these chips in the lids of samples, on sample bags and instrument racks. These little guys come in two flavors: passive and active.

Chester is committed to radio frequency identification (RFID). Chester is my 100-pound golden retriever and, out here in Colorado, goldens are incredibly popular

 
Chester doesn’t have to pack a lithium ion cell — field activation of a transmitting unit springs his passive RFID chip to life. 

dogs. Of course, there are those people who may not wish to pay the going rate for a purebred canine, and would rather carpetbag a passing pooch. Although Chester has a fierce 200-decibel bark, and uses it to convey his stance that no life form has the right to even walk on the public road 200 yards in back of our house, the truth is he is a corrupt and jaded beast, and anybody waving a Milk Bone will suddenly become Chester’s best friend… and off he goes. Thieves know this is a trait of all goldens, and that they command good money on the black market. Problem is, many thieves don’t read the RFID journals, and the little passive RFID chip in Chester’s back will give up his name, address, and my phone number the second an antennae is waved over his neck, which is becoming SOP at veterinarian clinics. So, if some swarthy dognapping miscreant hauls Chester in, and the particulars don’t match the RFID, it ain’t Chester that’s going to be neutered.

Passive RFID chips require the field activation of a transmitting unit to spring them to life… good that Chester doesn’t have to pack a lithium ion cell under his skin with the chip, and also good when you’re a manufacturer who has to use a quarter million of these babies to protect your inventory. Prices are coming down, so little things like sample vials are appearing with RFID chips embedded in their lids.

The active RFID chips do have on-board power, albeit very low output, that keeps the chip active and detectable by a different array of instruments, and at a greater range than passive (more than 100 feet as opposed to 20 feet). But active tags are a lot more expensive. Not bad for toll road transponders and such, or to keep high-value goods from walking out of a large store. Some amusement parks are even using them to track your kids… rather, allowing you to home in on your bolting offspring.

However, when it comes to thousands of samples, one needs to drop back to the inexpensive passive tags, and then you’re faced with another problem. The ethereal vision for RFID in the lab would be to automatically track movement of individual samples throughout. Think of it: if you had antennae dispersed all over the lab, one could theoretically locate a sample to within a few feet at any moment in time from any place within a LIMS or similar application. Ah, but the issue right now is that dozens or more samples in close proximity cannot be differentiated easily when activated by the induced field of the antennae, so this principle only works on one sample at a time, or maybe a few. That’s one of the technical challenges facing RFID, the other is a matter of competing formats and proprietary technologies. So, it’s not like a universal standard exists, and that means that one set of antennae cannot be expected to work with multiple formats from multiple manufacturers.

Tablet PCs

t 1Sitting on my desk is an expensive paperweight, AKA tablet PC. It was sent to me by the vendor for evaluation. I flicked it on, and it immediately detected my

 
SmartLab brings in information without a whisper of paper. 

wireless access point. As a laptop, it works fine. However, in tablet mode, the words “ solution looking for a problem” came to mind quite instantly, largely because of the limited number of applications and tools enabled for tablet use. Now, from a laboratory perspective, I have always liked the direction Ken Rapp and his company, VelQuest, have been pursuing with their SmartLab Compliance Management System. To me, this application defines milking the most out of tablet-like devices to really reduce paper in a lab. Many vendors talk about the goals of a paperless lab, but VelQuest has bet the rent on it, and their approach is unlike anything else I’ve seen. I won’t run through product specs here but, basically, it follows a scripted process for entering information regarding testing on a tablet device, and even pokes for an instrument interface download to bring all information into your tablet (or at least visible from it) without a whisper of paper.

PDA/cellular

t 1 I’m still waiting for the personal data assistant (PDA) industry to get it right. A precursor to tablet PCs, and arguably descended from the ill-fated Apple Newton, PDAs have dropped in price in the last eight years and have faster chips, but are only incrementally more useful than they were when the Palm Pilot hit the market. Palm is no longer the only dog in the kennel, and the hardware manufacturers have basically drawn their lines in the sand in regards to the software platforms of Palm OS and Windows Mobile 5.0. Of course, some weirdness has since upended the field. On at least one project, a Palm Treo smart phone, a Palm-manufactured device runs the MS Mobile OS. This is basically like the Klingons and Romulans opening up a chain of Gagh and Kali-Fal stands across the Federation.

Nonetheless, despite BlueTooth, thumb keyboards and improved Graffiti script (for Palm), PDAs have slowed in their development arc. One of the major drawbacks is where PDAs and cellular technology meet, and that is cellular network speed. Some blistering networking technology is coming down the pike in terms of raw speed that you should know about. This isn’t a big deal for voice calls, but anyone surfing the Web and downloading mail via a cellular network can actually visualize their dollar bills flitting away as the system crawls to transmit/receive/display data. That’s been changing with EV-DO (evolution data-only) protocols and technology that is not widely available, but sails data much faster than the glacial 384 Kbps available on most networks.

The coming Rev A EV-DO, which speeds up EV-DO networks to 1.8 Mbps upstream and 3.1 Mbps down, means that phones, PDAs with cellular cards, and laptops with cellular cards can blister at neo-cable modem speeds. This new revision of EV-DO is due to be tested in 2006, so look for the race to bring it to market. Yet another good reason not to sign that long-term contract with your cellular provider. The downside; EV-DO and its descendants operate on the US-centric CDMA technology, so folks like me carrying GSM phones to simplify our travel to other countries will have to sit and wait for the GSM industry to play catch-up.

To better handle data traffic, GSM networks added a standard called GPRS (general packet radio service) that could carry data at up to 56 Kbps — about the same speed as a dial-up connection. More recently, the networks that use GSM have added an enhancement called EDGE (enhanced data rates for GSM evolution) that increases the data transmission speed to 144 Kbps. CDMA networks have also upped their data speeds: the 1xRTT (radio transmission technology) enhancement takes throughput to 144 Kbps.

The latest upgrade for CDMA networks comes in the form of 1xEV-DO (evolution-data only) that can carry data at a theoretical maximum of several megabits per second — as fast as DSL or cable Internet connections.

Cingular also has rolled out UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system) service in a few cities. UMTS is an upgrade to GSM networks that speeds connections to a maximum of 384 Kbps and allows for simultaneous voice and data, a crucial feature for users who don't want to be cut off from making and receiving calls while surfing with their laptops. In a July 27, 2005 article, the JiWire Web site contends that, as demand for cell data grows, providers are pushing to introduce even faster standards and enhancements, such as Rev A EV-DO, which speeds up EV-DO networks to 1.8 Mbps.

The bottom line is this: we are at this juncture in the product evolution continuum whereby we have some exciting technology that is within our grasp, but still out of reach. The brisk pace of development efforts suggests that many of these efforts will turn a critical corner in the next year, and crack the entire nut open. Once the lead is taken and the platforms are solidified, it's a short sprint to a fusillade of applications and gadgets raining down on us like we're standing in the middle of the First Battle of Bull Run. Get ready.

Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He can be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.

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