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Chips That Personalize Your Pc

Developments to Watch


SINCE THE 1970s, SCIENTISTS have explored the idea of "reconfigurable computers." These machines would have exotic chips that could adapt to any problem at hand by rewiring their silicon circuitry. The idea is appealing because special-purpose chips can solve problems faster than software running on ordinary chips.

In the 1980s, engineers took their first crack at changeling chips with so-called field-programmable gate arrays. FPGAs can be rewired over and over electronically, and are used in telecommunications and other industrial electronics. Now, the technology is poised to enter the consumer market.

Next month, Metalithic Systems Inc. in Sausalito, Calif. will launch a sound board called Digital Wings that uses FPGAs from Xilinx Inc. in San Jose, Calif. Software in the chips will let the user create and edit 128 audio tracks. It will give Windows 95 PC users the audio synthesis and editing tools of a professional sound studio--all for about $1,500. Eventually, says Metalithic President Daryl Eigen, users will be able to upgrade the chips simply by downloading software from Metalithic's Web site.

Smart sound boards are still a far cry from early ideas of reconfigurable computers. The military is still chasing that dream. In early September, the Defense Dept.'s Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded $2.35 million to chipmaker Zycad Corp. in Fremont, Calif., to develop a computer platform based on its programmable chips.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


AFTER YEARS OF NEUTRON bombardment, the steel pressure vessels in nuclear power plants gradually become brittle. This problem forced Yankee Atomic Electric Co. to decommission its Rowe power plant outside Boston in 1992--eight years before its license was due to expire. Many of America's 72 other pressurized water reactors are also starting to show their years.

Engineers at Cooperheat Inc. in Piscataway, N.J., think they can rejuvenate these aging vessels, which contain the reactors' assemblies of fuel and control rods. The plan is to anneal the steel vessel walls by blowing in superheated air from gas-fired burners.

Last month, the company and its collaborator, Westinghouse Electric Corp., tested the approach. Assisted by Sandia National Laboratories, the team annealed the vessel of the never-completed Marble Hill plant near Paynesville, Ind. The test won a thumbs-up from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Other electrical annealing methods have been used in the past. But Cooperheat's gas approach may be the simplest, says Sandia senior technical staff member James T. Nakos.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


EACH YEAR, MORE THAN 1,000 AMERICANS are accidentally killed by firearms. Often, the victims are children who play with guns. High-tech solutions are in the works, such as "smart" guns that fire only when the owner wears a ring that communicates by radio with circuitry inside the gun. But these solutions will take time and could cost big bucks.

A cheaper, lower-tech solution will hit stores this fall, courtesy of SAF T LOK Inc. in Tequesta, Fla. It's a patented combination lock that fits into the grip of a handgun and blocks either the safety, the trigger bar, or the hammer. The only part that shows is a row of three pushbuttons. For a combination of 8-4-2, you'd push the left button eight times, the center one four times, and the right one twice. With practice, it takes six seconds or less to unlock, even in the dark, says the inventor, SAF T LOK Chairman Frank W. Brooks.

To install the lock, which costs $130, owners will have to use the company's rubber-coated grips, but no other alterations to the gun are necessary.EDITED BY NEIL GROSS By Peter CoyReturn to top

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