There’s often a fascinating story behind the development of a new product, typically more interesting than the product itself. It might be the result of two people with different areas of expertise working together, the passion of one individual, or the results of an expert learning about a need by chance. Here’s an example of the last circumstance that’s likely to have a big impact on the health of our military forces.

More than 30 percent of the returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from hearing problems, including perforated eardrums, permanent hearing loss and tinnitus, a persistent ringing in the ears. It’s estimated that $1.2 billion a year is being spent by the government in treating these hearing related issues of our returning military. It’s a problem that’s been with us for decades, going back to World War II. These injuries are a result of being exposed to deafening noises in the battlefield, including exploding IEDs along the roadside and in booby-trapped buildings and the sound of nearby gunfire.

While the military issues specially constructed earplugs to those in combat to protect them from these noises, about 90 percent decline to use them when on patrol or entering a building. While the earplugs protect from the danger of loud noise, they also reduce the ability to hear very soft sounds such as an enemy soldier cocking his rifle or the rustling of branches. On a really quiet night, it’s possible for the ear to hear an AK-47 magazine being loaded and the rifle being cocked more than a quarter-mile away, but wearing the earplugs reduces that distance to 400-500 feet.

Another solution tried by the armed forces, an earmuff-like device with microphones on the outside, addresses this problem, but has the side effect of preventing the soldier from accurately determining the direction that a sound is coming from, a property called localization. That’s not a good trait when the enemy could be nearby.

In 2009, Dr. Mead Killion, a noted expert in audiology and founder of Etymotic Research, a company that makes products for the hearing aid and consumer electronics industries, was attending a meeting of the National Hearing Conservation Association where the huge rate of our military’s hearing injuries were reported. The problem was not a lack of availability of good hearing protection, but that it just wasn’t being used.

Killion’s company had developed a chip 20 years ago that was designed to amplify soft sounds but have no effect on loud sounds, as long as they didn’t exceed 105 dB of loudness (a tolerable level equal to the sounds that an orchestra can sometimes produce). Another property of the chip was that it did not amplify sounds louder than this level, and in fact limited them. That was just what was needed for the solution.

He next married this circuit with an eartip design originally perfected for Etymotic’s consumer products, which fit almost everyone. While the eartip seals the ear, the electronics inside compensate by amplifying the soft sounds, thus raising the sound level to what it would be for an open ear. At the same time, sudden intense sounds — such as from firearms and IEDs — are attenuated to safe levels by the sealed earplug, independent of the electronics. Thus, this new invention, named the BlastPLG earplug, solves the problem: no loss of detecting the soft sounds, and blocking the loud sounds.

Realistic field tests were conducted by John Casali, Ph.D. of Virginia Tech, an authority in human factors design, for their effectiveness in allowing soft sounds to be heard (detection) and for their directionality (which permits accurate localization). The results of the tests proved that the devices provided the same ability to discern soft sounds as though wearing no earplugs at all. And the localization tested proved they work nearly as well as the open ear. For most listeners, it seemed as if nothing was in their ears.

The military is currently testing this new earplug. Drill sergeants are being fitted with the electronic earplugs at two U.S. military bases. While there’s no question that they work, the question being evaluated is whether the troops will be willing to use them. If not, Killion told me that it’s just another good idea without a market.

The product was awarded the 2011 Design and Engineering Innovations Award at this year’s CES.

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San Diego is fast becoming home to a number of new businesses involved in wireless health care activities. This promises to be a huge new growth area for the region, as these companies are developing a variety of devices and services that provide remote health monitoring and care, and other technology-driven solutions over cellular networks.

One example is Independa (Independa.com), a local start-up that’s tackling an issue that many of us have faced: caring for older parents who are no longer able to do everything themselves. It focuses on the time period from when the person begins to lose some of their abilities to do everything on their own, but before that person needs to move into an expensive assisted living or nursing home facility. The services are designed for by caregivers to extend the time that the elderly remain in their own home.

The company uses the Internet to create a website for the caregiver, who can enter and monitor a number of important activities. For example, she can use the online calendar to add appointments and reminders, such as doctor visits, medication times, and birthdays. The caregiver enters the events on the calendar and personalized alerts are sent out at the appropriate times to the care receiver and giver by phone. If the care receiver does not confirm that a reminder has been received and acted upon, a message is sent to the caregiver.

Independa debuted its services at the Demo conference this year, an event where promising companies are invited to make their pitch to the press and investors. Independa is now a part of the EvoNexus incubator facility that’s run by Commnexus (commnexus.org).

In the next few months the company will introduce an Android-based wireless tablet, named “Angela,” which will connect with wireless home and health sensors in the care receiver’s home. The health sensors are small modules that can detect activities such as motion and sound. The system’s touch-screen-tablet interface will communicate with these sensors while providing online reporting and monitoring.

Life Stories, another part of the service, allows caregivers to record conversations on specific topics with their loved ones, preserving memories that can be shared for years. Independa provides suggested topics and questions developed by its elder care team to help guide Life Stories conversations with an elderly loved one.

For example, a caregiver can record conversations on how their loved one met their spouse, what it was like during their childhood, what was their favorite trip, or how they felt when they purchased their first home. Independa stores these moments and topics for retrieval by family members, much in the way family photos are shared over the Internet.

The service is available on a free six-week trial. Ongoing subscriptions start at $20 per month, and includes up to 150 notifications per month and 10 minutes of Life Stories. Additional notifications and Life Stories minutes can be purchased as needed.

How well this solution will be accepted remains to be seen. From my experience with a startup that developed a remote medication dispenser for this same demographic, we found that many expected Medicare to cover the costs, and getting relatives to pay was an obstacle. Then there’s the challenge of melding technology in an environment where it hasn’t been used before. But the need is there and increasing with the aging of baby-boomers, and hopefully Independa will be successful.

A second example of wireless wellness assistance is a new App developed by Dr. Brian Alman, an expert on mind-body healing and mobile health, and publisher of the just-released book, “The Voice.” His San Diego company, TruSage International, provides a variety of solutions to those wanting to lose weight, sleep better, improve wellness, receive caregiver support and improve their attitude. His services are currently provided through a variety of channels including Kaiser Permanente, Great Call’s Jitterbug phones, books, video and audio content, and a private practice that includes a number of professional athletes.

Dr. Alman’s new free App for iPhones and iPads, called “Keep it Off,” provides audio segments that allows anyone to sample his advice. Additional content can be purchased from the iTunes store. More services are being developed that provide advice and content by phone, instant messaging and e-mail. (Disclosure: I have had a professional relationship with Dr. Alman in the past.)

These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg of a growing new category of services and products that are intended to provide us with better care at a distance and reduce our overall medical costs.

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When Groupon turned down a $6 billion offer to be acquired by Google, it quickly raised the awareness of this young startup. How could a company, just a couple of years old, be worth so much? Groupon provides its members a daily deal or coupon from local merchants. It offers this as a Images group deal, hence a group coupon, or “groupon.”

It might be a 50 percent off coupon for a meal, a discount on a massage or a half-off deal for a beauty treatment. The offer arrives each morning by e-mail and members have 24 hours to buy the coupon. Those that buy pay for it immediately, but can use the coupon until it expires, usually a few months to a year later. Groupon requires a minimum number of takers before the deal is valid; otherwise your purchase is refunded. But this seems more of a gimmick because all deals appear to reach their minimum. Another company, Living Social, works much the same way, but without the need to hit a minimum.

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Cell phones have become so prevalent that one in four households in the United States uses them as their only phone. With their importance growing, companies are offering devices and accessories to improve their usability. I've been trying out a few of these gadgets.

AT&T 3G MicroCell

Images Owners of Apple's iPhone seem to have a bigger problem than most with making phone calls. Dropped calls continue to be an issue for many, even with AT&T's investments and the improvements made to the iPhone 4. Recently, Martin Cooper, one of the country's most knowledgeable industry cellular gurus, and inventor of the cell phone, told me that wireless operators could triple their capacity if they were willing to upgrade just some of their towers to the latest technology.

AT&T has come up with a solution for improving cell reception in your home or office that I've been trying out.

Its 3G MicroCell is basically a "mini-me" cell tower that sits in your home and routes calls through your Internet instead of connecting to an outdoor tower. It costs $150 plus a $20 monthly fee. Some call plans are entitled to a $100 rebate.

To set it up you need to register it online using your AT&T account and then enter all of the AT&T phone numbers (up to 10) that will connect to it from your home. That means it's not going to work with your visitors' AT&T phones unless you register them while they're visiting. You still get charged for your use of minutes, even though the connection is made over your Internet connection.

I tried it with my iPhone 4 and, after a lengthy registration process over an entire afternoon, I finally got it to work. (AT&T told me it was having technical issues that day and registration normally is much quicker). It recognized my iPhone and changed the indicator on the phone's display to note it was connected to the MicroCell.

In use, the MicroCell behaved a little too much like AT&T's real outdoor towers. My iPhone didn't always connect and sometimes when it did would switch from the MicroCell back to the regular signal when I was two rooms away, and then not switch back when I got closer to the MicroCell.

The MicroCell was installed a few feet from my cable modem in my office, about 40 feet and two walls of separation away from my living room. AT&T encourages you to put the MicroCell in the room in which you generally use the phone or close to a window. For many like myself that wasn't practical.

In spite of that, over three weeks of use I found that my iPhone was somewhat more reliable, although I still suffered from many more dropped calls than with my Sprint or Verizon phones.

The MicroCell seems to me to be a half-baked attempt. Users need it because of the limitations of AT&T's regular service, and the company should not profit because of its own deficiencies. It should provide it at cost and eliminate the recurring monthly payments of $20 just so you can make calls from your home.

Docking stations for Droids

Motorola's terrific line of Droid phones, the Droid X and Droid 2, has made them some of the most sought-after smartphones, next to the iPhone. Because so many Android phones perform so similarly, Motorola has created two accessories that make them unique and more useful: a home dock and a car dock.

The Motorola Droid Multimedia Station dock for the home is designed to hold your phone horizontally on a desk or night table. When the phone is snapped into place it will start charging, as well as put the phone into a new mode that transforms it into a clock alarm. In addition to a large digital clock, the screen displays local weather and icons to access your choice of applications, such as e-mail or photos, using icons on the same screen.

The second product is a dock with a suction cup mount that lets you stick the phone horizontally on your car's window. When the phone is inserted it shifts into its navigation mode, opening the Google navigation application. You use it just like a personal navigation device such as a Garmin or TomTom to provide spoken and visual turn-by-turn directions.

When the phone is inserted into one of the devices, a switch in the phone is triggered by a magnet in the dock, putting the Droid into the new mode. These products are well designed, solidly built and fairly priced. Each product costs about $30.

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For better or for worse, we have a legal system
that can wreak havoc with a small technology company's effort to
conduct business and to compete in the world.

When I was president of Think Outside, the
Carlsbad company that developed the folding keyboard for PDAs, we were
sued by a Japanese company, Minibea, that wanted to become a
manufacturer for our product. The only problem was we didn't need a
second manufacturer, so it sued us for violating a patent that had no
bearing on our product. In our mind and that of our lawyers, it was
done purely for revenge.

It took two years and $1 million to finally
dismiss the complaint. That million dollars could have gone to
developing new products and hiring new employees. What I sadly learned
was this practice was quite common. A small minority of unscrupulous
companies and lawyers use the law to threaten and extort.

Most recently I came across another travesty that's affecting dozens of companies, tech and non-tech alike.

The issue relates to the patent numbers that
companies put on their products. You can find them on virtually all
original products that note "this product is protected under one or
more of the following patents," or something similar, and then lists
the patent numbers.

Companies do this in order to provide a warning to
other companies that might choose to copy their ideas, and might claim
that they were unaware that the product was patented. If the inventing
company leaves off its patent numbers, which weakens its ability to
sue, as the violating company may claim it was unaware the product was
patented.

Patents expire about 20 years from their claims
being filed (or in patents before mid-1995, 17 years from being issued,
if that provides a longer term). For a company to remove patent
markings often requires new tooling, and for that reason this had never
been considered something important to do.

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It's that time again, when students return to
college and parents provide them with the latest tools to help them be
more successful. Here are a few items that could help to fulfill these
needs.


6988-toshiba_t200_super Toshiba's Satellite T200 series
— This new
series offers a great value in an entry-level notebook computer. Prices
start at $470, not much more than a netbook. I tested its 13-inch model
(T235-S1350) that costs $598. It weighs about 3.8 pounds, is an inch
thick, and its looks reminded me of my Apple MacBook Pro 13.3 inch.

Its appearance is a standout with the lid
available in red, gray or white, but the surprise is what's under the
lid. The deck has a bright chrome finish with a fine pattern that looks
as if it's been engraved. Sounds gaudy, but it actually looks great.
The area around the keyboard is a more muted matte chrome.

The keyboard is one of the best full-size
keyboards I've tried on any notebook under a thousand dollars. The keys
are raised tiles similar to Sony's and Apple's. Overall performance is
very good, running Windows 7 Home Premium edition. Other details
include a memory card slot, 2 USB ports that remain live for charging
devices when the lid is closed, a Webcam and a 320GB hard drive.
There's no built-in DVD drive.

The 16:9 wide display is bright and clear and the
battery is rated at 8 hours. Toshiba's software helped the computer
start up and connect to my WiFi quicker than most other Windows
notebooks I've tried (toshiba.com).

Apple MacBook 13.3 — For Mac users this is
the least expensive MacBook. It has a white plastic housing that's more
durable than the previous generation. It offers great performance, has
a gorgeous display and a 250GB drive. There's currently a
back-to-school promotion from Apple that throws in an iPod for free.
($999, apple.com.)

A slim, well-made case that fits the Toshiba and
Macbook perfectly is the Incase 13-inch Nylon Sleeve. It's a slim
carrying case that provides padded protection, is constructed of
weather resistant nylon, and has concealable handles and an adjustable,
removable shoulder strap. ($59, goincase.com.)


Images The Echo Smartpen from Livescribe
is its
newly released model that's great for taking notes and recording
lectures. While writing, the Echo syncs every penstroke to what's being
recorded, making it easy

to play back the lecture by touching what you
wrote. Everything is saved onto your computer so you can share it with
others or archive it for use later. Compared to previous models, the
Echo connects directly to the computer, needing no cradle, has a
standard headphone jack, and is lighter and easier to hold. Livescribe
promises additional capabilities for the Echo this fall, including one
that will provide functionality similar to an external graphics tablet.
($180, livescribe.com.)

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Images When people see the Droid X for the first time it
often evokes a surprised look. With everyone used to a Blackberry or
iPhone's dimensions, Motorola's new phone looks huge. It's a matte
black rectangular slab with a huge 4.3-inch display filling the front
face. Yet it's just a half-inch longer and nearly the same width and
thickness as the iPhone 4. But pick it up and it's not heavy and it's
easy to hold in one hand. It has a distinguishing bulge across the top
of the back that makes it easier to grasp or to pull out of a pocket or
purse, and it's coated in rubber to keep it from slipping out of your
hand.

The larger display, with about 20 percent more
area than the iPhone's 3.5-inch display, proved to be a real benefit
when using Google maps, Web browsing, watching videos and reading
books.

The screen's 854-by-480-pixel resolution is not
quite as high as that of the iPhone (900 x 640), but it's more than
adequate. Below the screen are the four Android buttons (menu, back,
home and search), but they're mechanical rather than touch for positive
feedback, and in a different order from the older Droid model.

Most importantly, the Droid X has the advantage of
running on the Verizon network as a 3G phone. Call quality was superb
on both ends, voices were rich and clear, totally free of any hiss, and
dropped calls were rare. The speakerphone was loud and clear, and I
successfully used it in meetings. Downloading e-mail and accessing the
Web were nearly instantaneous, thanks also to the speedy 1 MHz TI
processor.

The Droid X can also be set up for use as a
wireless hotspot for up to five devices. Simply activate it and other
devices such as your computer can go online, as with any Wi-Fi hotspot.
Verizon charges $20 per month for 2 GB of data, which is not
unreasonable. But you need to monitor your data use carefully, because
the rate jumps to $50 for the next GB. (Is this the electronic version
of bait and switch?) Using this feature draws down the battery rapidly,
so it's best to have the phone plugged in for extended use. Otherwise I
was able to get through at least a full day of use before the phone
needed to be recharged.

The Droid X is similar in size and features to the
EVO 4G from Sprint, but is slimmer and seems to be better constructed.
The EVO's main advantage is that it offers 4G data service where
available.

The Droid X doesn't have a slide out keyboard as
found on the now discontinued Droid and on the new Droid 2, so you'll
need to use the soft onscreen keyboard. It worked fairly well,
similarly to most Android phones, but was more difficult than the
iPhone, and had a few annoying bugs. For example, typing a lower case
"i" by itself was not automatically capitalized, and I found I made
more typing errors than with the iPhone.

The phone also comes with Swype, a second way to
enter text on the keyboard. Instead of hitting a succession of keys,
you slide your finger from key to key without lifting it from the
display. Swype guesses at the word based on the pattern and its
built-in dictionary. It worked pretty well for typing large amounts of
text, but was more cumbersome when typing in names, passwords and Web
addresses, so I rarely used it.

One of the advantages of the Android operating
system is that it's constantly being improved, with new features being
added every few months. Droid X ships with version 2.1, as do most
other Android phones but version 2.2, known as Froyo, is expected to be
available within the next couple of months as a free over-the-air
update.

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Images

In recent years the interest in high quality audio
recording, digitized music, and the miniaturization of electronics has been the
perfect storm for creating super high quality pocket recorders. You might
expect them to be made by Olympus or Sony, the companies that invented the
pocket recorder category years ago. But while those companies chose to focus
mostly on cutting prices and compromising quality, Roland and a handful of
other companies focused on building no-compromise devices that were several
times more expensive.

With its latest product, the R-05 at $299/$250 street,
Roland has a product that's ahead of its competition. Think of it as a recoding
studio in your pocket, doing for audio what a quality digital camera does for
images, and it's no bigger than an ultra-compact camera.

The R-05 is capable of high-quality stereo recordings at
96kHz/24-bit. Those numbers refer to how many times per second it samples the
sound and the precision of what it samples. This is higher quality than the CD
standard, 44.1kHz/16-bit.

The R-05 exudes quality even before turning it on. It's
constructed of magnesium with rubber side panels that keep it firmly in your
grip. The front has a backlit monochrome digital display and a control panel
with an illuminated record button.

At the top of the unit are two microphones that record in
stereo. An external microphone can also be used. There's a threaded hole on the
rear for attaching it to a tripod or a mic stand and using it like a microphone
to record a performer.

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3Screens Can a word processing program make a difference in the
quality of the writing? Apparently it can, based on the raves from authors,
researchers and business people, as well as my own experience using a product
called Scrivener for the Mac. I first learned about it from
noted author, journalist and friend, Jim Fallows, national correspondent for
The Atlantic (theatlantic.com).

While Microsoft Word provides a feature-rich word processing
program, it offers no help in organizing the content of what you're writing;
you're on your own for that.

Whether you're writing a book, a column, research paper or
legal brief, your contents usually come from a variety of sources, including
your own notes, articles found on the Web, email, and other sources that you've
researched. These items are likely saved in separate Word files or added to the
end of the document that you're creating.

Scrivener is designed to bring all of this information
together in a simple, organized arrangement and keep it all in a single file.
When you open the file, you have your main document with all of your notes
together.

That eliminates the need for opening up numerous documents
and files, and equally important, reduces the anxiety of trying to recall where
that important piece of information is on your computer while you're in the
midst of writing.

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Images Over the past few months we've been inundated
with new smartphones, culminating with the release of the iPhone 4 and
the announcement of the Motorola Droid X this past week. If you find
all this commotion a little confusing, and you're not sure what's right
for you, you're not alone. Hopefully this column will provide some
guidance.

Smartphones from all carriers

If your phone is a year old, you'll be surprised
by how much better these new models are. They're fast, have large,
multi-touch screens, and run thousands of new apps. They sync
wirelessly to your computer's calendar and contacts, ensuring you'll
have the most up-to-date information with you all the time.

They each send and retrieve e-mail using
on-screen keyboards, provide a great browsing experience, and do
everything from making dinner reservations to finding your way to a
destination. But they do require some learning; not everything is
obvious. The user manuals are sparse and often answers are easier to
find by Googling.

Some include wireless tethering that turns the
phone into a wireless hotspot for another $20 to $30 per month. Your
computer connects just as it does to any WiFi hotspot.

Excellent smartphones are available from all of
the carriers. While the iPhone was so far ahead than anything else when
it first came out, that's no longer the case.
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