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Businessweek Archives

Don't Worry The Carpet Is Keeping Watch

Developments to Watch


TAKE AN ACOUSTICAL PICKUP similar to those in electric guitars. Make it as big as a rug. Result: floors that can sound an alert when a nursing-home patient falls or when a nighttime intruder enters an art museum.

Developed by Messet Oy, a five-person company in Kuopio, Finland, with the Technical Research Center of Finland's VTT Automation Institute in Tampere, the room-size sensors are being tested in nursing homes in Helsinki and Tampere, says Messet Chairman Keijo Korhonen.

The sensor is a thin polypropylene lamination that goes under carpeting or floor tiles. Inside the 0.002-inch-thick structure are tiny pillows of foamed plastic. These function as "electrets," a type of electromagnet used in some microphones. When a weak current is flowing through the top surface, the pillows respond to the slightest changes in pressure by generating an electrical signal. Messet says the structure is so sensitive that it can detect the breathing of a person lying on the floor--through the carpet. Scheduled for a commercial launch next year, the sensor film is expected to cost about $34 a square yard.EDITED BY NEIL GROSS By Otis PortReturn to top


SINCE 1987, THE FLORIDA CORRECTIONS DEPT. has been using radio frequency (RF) anklets to monitor criminal offenders under house arrest. These bands alert police over the phone lines when offenders leave the house. But for up to 10 hours a day, when offenders are at work, their movements often are not monitored electronically.

All that may change, thanks to a new system called SMART, for Satellite Monitoring & Remote Tracking. Developed by Pro Tech Monitoring Inc. of Palm Harbor, Fla., it combines an RF bracelet and a tracking device consisting of a compact Global Positioning System box and a cell phone. Roughly the size of two stacked videotapes, the tracker fits in a hip band. It can be programmed to call the police if the offender strays outside a designated area. It will also alert them if the bracelet is removed or if the offender tries to ditch the tracker.

These features appeal to Richard Nimer, a Tallahassee (Fla.) Corrections Dept. bureau chief, who has tested the system. Thousands of offenders, he notes, are free under plea agreements and are potentially dangerous. "We would like to use this on our highest-risk offenders," he says. Pro Tech plans to lease the gear for $15 a day per offender, a lower hourly rate than the simpler RF anklets.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


MERRILL LYNCH & CO. IS MAKING A MARKET WHERE NONE has existed before--in PhD theses. The brokerage will sponsor a worldwide competition among new PhDs, seeking dissertations with potentially valuable innovations. Top prize: $50,000. Two runners-up get $20,000, and there are three third-place awards of $10,000.

"PhD theses are undervalued assets in the knowledge economy," says Michael Schrage, director of the Innovation Grants Competition and a research associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. "These people invest five to seven years in expanding the boundaries of our knowledge." But their research often gathers dust on library shelves. "What we're doing is creating a new set of incentives," says Schrage, that will encourage PhD students to consider the commercial potentials of their research.

The competition will be run by the Merrill Lynch Forum, a virtual think tank of experts in technology and economics. The panel of nine judges includes Xerox chief scientist John Seely Brown, Hong Kong Stock Exchange Chairman Edgar W.K. Cheng, venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Arati Prabhakar, chief technology officer of Raychem. Entries are due by next June, and the winners will be announced in September.EDITED BY NEIL GROSS By Otis PortReturn to top

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