BlackBerry’s Heins, Fairfax’s Watsa and the $55 million handshake

(Reuters) – Months before Fairfax Financial Holdings Inc bid $4.7 billion for BlackBerry Ltd, Fairfax boss Prem Watsa played a role in securing a golden parachute worth as much as $55 million for the smartphone maker’s chief executive, according to company filings.

Watsa, Fairfax’s chief executive, joined BlackBerry’s board in January 2012 and was one of three directors charged in March with reviewing the compensation of the Canadian company’s chief executive, Thorsten Heins.

The three directors – Watsa, BlackBerry Chairwoman Barbara Stymiest and long-time board member John Wetmore – decided to boost Heins’ basic salary and incentive bonus, as well as sharply increase the size of the equity awards that he would receive if he loses his job in the event of a takeover.

The new contract that Heins signed in May tripled his compensation to an estimated $55.6 million if there is a change of control at BlackBerry, up from $18.9 million previously, according to a securities filing on May 21.

To be sure, the $55.6 million figure is based in part on BlackBerry’s share price in early March, and the stock has fallen by more than a third since then, which may mean that Heins’ parachute would be worth less.

Still, Watsa’s role in deciding Heins’ compensation is drawing scrutiny from some pay experts after BlackBerry on Monday accepted a conditional buyout bid from a consortium led by Fairfax, a property and casualty insurer that owns almost 10 percent of the smartphone maker.

“(Watsa) was part of the committee that was negotiating this agreement. Did he anticipate that he would make some sort of offer to buy the company? I feel like that’s unlikely, but it’s impossible to know,” said Joe Sorrentino, managing director at executive pay advisors Steven Hall & Partners in New York.

Sorrentino added, “The only concern I would have is since they structured his compensation equity award so that it all is granted at the beginning … it is all getting captured in a change of control golden parachute, as opposed to if they did a more typical process” of granting equity awards annually.

When asked for comment on Thursday, a Fairfax spokesman said Heins’ compensation was reviewed and approved by the entire BlackBerry board.

Watsa stepped down from the board in August, citing a potential conflict of interest after BlackBerry announced a strategic review and sought a buyer. The Fairfax-led consortium aims to take BlackBerry private and give it time to rebuild away from Wall Street’s gaze.

A spokeswoman for BlackBerry said the company had no comment on Watsa’s role or Heins’ compensation, and Heins himself did not respond to a direct request for comment.

Towers Watson, the human resources consultancy firm that worked with BlackBerry’s board on the compensation package, also declined to comment on Thursday.

BlackBerry is not the first company in the spotlight for large payments for outgoing executives. Nokia’s departing chief executive, Stephen Elop, stands to pocket 18.8 million euros ($25 million) if shareholders agree to sell Nokia’s handset business to Microsoft Corp. Elop is set to rejoin Microsoft, his former employer.


Heins was appointed BlackBerry CEO in early 2012, taking over from former co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. In the months before they stepped down, Lazaridis and Balsillie had cut their base salary to $1, a symbolic gesture that they would not draw fat checks while the company was obviously suffering.

Heins’ compensation has increased from $1.9 million in fiscal 2011, when he was chief operating officer, to $10.3 million in fiscal 2012 when he was appointed CEO, before slipping back slightly to $9.1 million in fiscal 2013, which ended on March 2 this year.

Since Heins took over, BlackBerry shares have fallen more than 50 percent as the company delayed the release of its first BlackBerry 10 devices and they then failed to excite sales.

In May, Heins signed a new contract that raised his base salary to $1.5 million from $1 million; bumped his maximum incentive bonus to 150 percent of salary from 125 percent and granted him more than $34 million in front-loaded equity awards that vest over three years.

It is those equity awards that provide the bulk of the enlarged payout if BlackBerry is taken over – the shares would vest immediately instead of over a three-year period.

According to company filings, if Heins is terminated due to a change of ownership of BlackBerry, he’ll receive $3 million to reflect his base salary, annual incentives worth about $4.5 million, and equity awards of $48 million.

The board said the higher payouts were justified to retain Heins and ensure his interests are aligned with those of shareholders, and to reward the executive for leading BlackBerry through a period of massive upheaval.

“The necessary speed and scope of this transformation, as well as its critical importance to the future success of the company, demand leadership of exceptional skill, agility and vision,” BlackBerry said ahead of its July annual general meeting, when shareholders approved the changes.

The filings show that BlackBerry’s board also gave Heins a “special achievement bonus” of $3 million for launching the BlackBerry 10 platform used for its latest smartphones, and for maintaining cash and liquidity above $1.5 billion.

Last week, the company said it would book almost $1 billion in writedowns, mostly on unsold BlackBerry 10 devices, when it reports second-quarter results on Friday.

($1 = 0.7418 euros)

(Reporting by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Janet Guttsman, Tiffany Wu and Lisa Shumaker)

Google introduces new ‘Hummingbird’ search algorithm

(Reuters) – Google Inc has overhauled its search algorithm, the foundation of the Internet’s dominant search engine, to better cope with the longer, more complex queries it has been getting from Web users.

Amit Singhal, senior vice president of search, told reporters on Thursday that the company launched its latest “Hummingbird” algorithm about a month ago and that it currently affects 90 percent of worldwide searches via Google.

Google is trying to keep pace with the evolution of Internet usage. As search queries get more complicated, traditional “Boolean” or keyword-based systems begin deteriorating because of the need to match concepts and meanings in addition to words.

“Hummingbird” is the company’s effort to match the meaning of queries with that of documents on the Internet, said Singhal from the Menlo Park garage where Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin conceived their now-ubiquitous search engine.

“Remember what it was like to search in 1998? You’d sit down and boot up your bulky computer, dial up on your squawky modem, type in some keywords, and get 10 blue links to websites that had those words,” Singhal wrote in a separate blogpost.

“The world has changed so much since then: billions of people have come online, the Web has grown exponentially, and now you can ask any question on the powerful little device in your pocket.”

Page and Brin set up shop in the garage of Susan Wojcicki — now a senior Google executive — in September 1998, around the time they incorporated their company. This week marks the 15th anniversary of their collaboration.

(Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Bob Burgdorfer)

Crowd Investing Is the New Way to Finance Technology Development

Now private companies can try to raise funds from the public at large.

By Antonio Regalado

During a “demo day” in Silicon Valley last August, entrepreneur Mattan Griffel took the stage with a well-practiced, carefully timed pitch.

“We teach people how to code, online, in one month,” said Griffel, adding meaningful pauses between the words. The startup he cofounded, One Month Rails, will “change the face of online education,” Griffel promised.

Such technology salesmanship used to be reserved for a select audience of angel investors, like those who attended the invitation-only Y Combinator event where Griffel’s video was filmed.

But starting Monday, Griffel’s pitch appeared on the Internet, next to a clickable blue button that says “Invest.” Buying into his startup is now almost as easy as purchasing a toaster on eBay.

“Crowd investing” is the idea that anyone should be able to invest easily in startup companies. That idea took a big step forward thanks to new federal regulations that allow startups, for the first time, to invite large swaths of the public to invest in them.

The new rules are part of the 2012 JOBS Act, a basket of regulatory changes that Silicon Valley lobbied for and that are meant to make it easier for small companies to raise money. The rule that took effect Monday reverses a longstanding ban on “general solicitation” or advertising risky securities to the public.

Under the new regulations, startups can advertise their shares anywhere—on billboards, on Facebook, via direct mail, e-mail lists, or via a dozen online crowd investing portals that have been set up to solicit and manage investments from the public at large.

Griffel’s company appears on The site, which was founded last year but became fully operational today, allows anyone to navigate through pitches from two dozen companies developing everything from small farms in shipping containers to new ways to transmit money overseas.

Crowd investing could ultimately have broad effects on what types of technology are able to win financial backing. In particular, it could lead to more gadgets that appeal to narrow markets or those that are developed by the maker movement (see “What Technologies Will Crowdfunding Create”). It might also create competition for traditional venture capitalists (see “Silicon Valley Dynasty Adapts to Fast-and-Cheap Startups”).

Mike Norman, president of Wefunder, says popular technologies that are highly “sharable” will generate the most interest. On Wefunder, for instance, a company called Terrafugia is developing a “flying car”—a plane that has retractable wings and can drive on highways. Most startups can’t yet rely on crowd investing to raise as much money as they need, however. Terrafugia, for instance, has already raised more than $10 million from conventional investors. For many companies, crowdfunding will instead be a way to reach out to hard-core fans and potential customers.

Carl Dietrich, Terrafugia’s CEO, called crowd investing “an interesting experiment to see what happens.” His company already has 83 different investors, many of whom chose to back flying cars because they believe such vehicles should exist and might increase people’s freedom. “What Wefunder is doing is providing the crowd an avenue for direct input into what the world should look like, and what kind of companies there should be.”

Wefunder’s website, with a menu of companies and short promotional videos, looks a lot like Kickstarter, the popular site where filmmakers, authors, and technology companies can raise donations for individual projects. That site has already spawned several technology companies, like Pebble, maker of a smart watch (see “A Smart Watch, Created by the Crowd, Debuts in Vegas” and “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2013”).

With crowd investing, however, people will actually be buying shares in new companies. For now, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates financial markets, is limiting crowd investing to accredited investors, or people with $1 million in the bank or who earn more than $200,000 a year. However, the SEC is developing other regulations, due out next year, that would let any member of the public invest small sums in startups.

Some investors may hope to get in early on the next billion-dollar technology company, but the odds say most small investors will be losers. Since 1999, even professional venture capitalists have had dismal returns, barely above zero (see “The Narrowing Ambitions of Venture Capital”). And because individuals invest in fewer companies than professionals, the chance they will see their money again is even lower. “People should not be betting their retirements or kids’ education on startups,” Norman says.

Registering to invest on Wefunder’s site takes only a minute or two. Users agree they meet the financial cutoffs, such as having an income of $200,000. Then a box appears, asking them to click on statements including “I understand most startups fail” and “I can bear a 100% loss on my investments.”

Kickstarter screengrabDue diligence: A sign-up screen at crowd investing site Wefunder cautions users that putting money behind startups is risky.

Crowd investors will have to judge startups and their technology based on very limited information. For each company, Wefunder offers a short “elevator pitch” and financial highlights summarized in three or four bullet points. There are stylized photos of company founders, whom investors can then “meet” by watching short personal statements, or visiting their LinkedIn pages.

While that seems like little to go on, it’s not unusual for early-stage investors to make quick decisions, Norman says. “Angel investors sit down for an hour, and then write a check,” he says. “At this stage of the company so many things are going to change that it’s really about the founders.”

According to CFIRA, a trade group, there are more than a dozen crowd investing sites in operation or being planned, including SecondMarket, Equitynet, SeedInvest, and OfferBoard. Details of how to buy shares vary between funding platforms. On Wefunder, up to 100 small investors will join a limited liability company, which will then make the actual investment in the startup. Wefunder, acting much as a venture capital firm would, manages the investment and collects 20 percent of any profits.

It’s still uncertain how big an impact crowd investing will have. The SEC is considering further rules, including requiring startups to track all their advertising, including every mention in the news media. That has some investors worried that crowd investing could flop. Investor Brad Feld, a partner at the Foundry Group, recently called the SEC’s additional rules “one scary mess that could undermine the whole thing.”

Google Tweaks Search to Challenge Apple’s Siri

Upgrades to Google’s search engine will make it better at understanding conversational queries – helping its mobile search apps tread on Siri’s toes.

By Tom Simonite on September 26, 2013

Google announced a series of upgrades to its search engine and mobile search apps today that strengthen its ability to understand queries in the form of natural sentences like those used in conversation. The changes are particularly focused on enabling more complex spoken interactions with Google’s mobile apps, boosting the company’s challenge to Apple’s Siri personal assistant.

“We are making your conversation with Google more natural,” said Amit Singhal, who leads search technology at Google. He spoke at a press conference held in the Menlo Park garage that Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin made their first office space in 2000.


The new features apply to all Google searches, but were all demonstrated with queries spoken out loud to Google’s mobile apps. One change sees Google better able to understand broad questions about categories of concepts. For example, saying “tell me about Impressionist artists” to the Google search app on a mobile or tablet calls up a page that presents many ways to explore the topic. A carousel of images at the top of the page allows a person to swipe through different artists, and tapping one leads to another summary page with a carousel of works from that artist. Asking Google about a band brings up a list of their songs to hear. Movies and many other topics can be explored in the same way.

Another upgrade gives Google the ability to compare different things or concepts. For example, asking the search app to “compare coconut oil versus olive oil” produces a table contrasting their nutritional qualities. Google selects the most relevant criteria to compare things. Asking for a comparison of two celestial bodies would see it use properties such as brightness, age, weight, and orbital period, for example.

Google’s new features rest on a system called Knowledge Graph, which the company unveiled last year. It gives the company’s software the ability to understand the meaning, concepts, and relationships behind text mentioning concepts and things (see “Google’s New Brain Could Have a Big Impact”).

Tamar Yehoshua, vice president for search at Google, also demonstrated an upgraded version of Google’s search app for Apple devices. “We have made voice a much bigger feature,” she said. The changes puts it into even more direct competition with Siri, which is promoted as a personal assistant people can talk to like a real person.

One new feature of the upgraded iOS app makes it possible to ask the app to remind you of something when you get to a specific location. If you tell it to “Remind me to get crackers when I go to Safeway,” the app will confirm which store you mean, and then notify you the next time you visit that location.

Singhal also announced that roughly one month ago, his team had made a complete overhaul of Google’s core search ranking system to improve its ability to handle longer, more conversational queries. The upgraded system is known as Hummingbird, and replaces one known as Caffeine used since 2010. About 90 percent of Google searches have been affected by the change.

“People have started asking many more complex questions of Google, and our algorithm had to go through some fundamental rethinking,” said Singhal. The changes were focused on improving Google’s ability to understand the concepts a person refers to in a query and how they are related, he said. “You have to balance all that meaning of what the query is looking for with what the Web document is saying.”

The First Carbon Nanotube Computer

A carbon nanotube computer processor is comparable to a chip from the early 1970s, and may be the first step beyond silicon electronics

By Katherine Bourzac on September 25, 2013

For the first time, researchers have built a computer whose central processor is based entirely on carbon nanotubes, a form of carbon with remarkable material and electronic properties. The computer is slow and simple, but its creators, a group of Stanford University engineers, say it shows that carbon nanotube electronics are a viable potential replacement for silicon when it reaches its limits in ever-smaller electronic circuits.

The carbon nanotube processor is comparable in capabilities to the Intel 4004, that company’s first microprocessor, which was released in 1971, says Subhasish Mitra, an electrical engineer at Stanford and one of the project’s co-leaders. The computer, described today in the journal Nature, runs a simple software instruction set called MIPS. It can switch between multiple tasks (counting and sorting numbers) and keep track of them, and it can fetch data from and send it back to an external memory.

The nanotube processor is made up of 142 transistors, each of which contains carbon nanotubes that are about 10 to 200 nanometer long. The Stanford group says it has made six versions of carbon nanotube computers, including one that can be connected to external hardware—a numerical keypad that can be used to input numbers for addition.

Aaron Franklin, a researcher at the IBM Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, says the comparison with the 4004 and other early silicon processors is apt. “This is a terrific demonstration for people in the electronics community who have doubted carbon nanotubes,” he says.

Franklin’s group has demonstrated that individual carbon nanotube transistors—smaller than 10 nanometers—are faster and more energy efficient than those made of any other material, including silicon. Theoretical work has also suggested that a carbon nanotube computer would be an order of magnitude more energy efficient than the best silicon computers. And the nanomaterial’s ability to dissipate heat suggests that carbon nanotube computers might run blisteringly fast without heating up—a problem that sets speed limits on the silicon processors in today’s computers.

Still, some people doubt that carbon nanotubes will replace silicon. Working with carbon nanotubes is a big challenge. They are typically grown in a way that leaves them in a tangled mess, and about a third of the tubes are metallic, rather than semiconducting, which causes short-circuits.

Over the past several years, Mitra has collaborated with Stanford electrical engineer Phillip Wong, who has developed ways to sidestep some of the materials challenges that have prevented the creation of complex circuits from carbon nanotubes. Wong developed a method for growing mostly very straight nanotubes on quartz, then transferring them over to a silicon substrate to make the transistors. The Stanford group also covers up the active areas of the transistors with a protective coating, then etches away any exposed nanotubes that have gone astray.

Wong and Mitra also apply a voltage to turn all of the semiconducting nanotubes on a chip to “off.” Then they pulse a large current through the chip; the metallic ones heat up, oxidize, and disintegrate. All of these nanotube-specific fixes—and the rest of the manufacturing process—can be done on the standard equipment that’s used to make today’s silicon chips. In that sense, the process is scalable.

Late last month at Hot Chips, an engineering design conference hosted, coincidentally, at Stanford, the director of the Microsystems Technology Office at DARPA made a stir by discussing the end of silicon electronics. In a keynote, Robert Colwell, former chief architect at Intel, predicted that by as early as 2020, the computing industry will no longer be able to keep making performance and cost improvements by doubling the density of silicon transistors on chips every 18 to 24 months—a feat dubbed Moore’s Law after the Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, who first observed the trend.


Mitra and Wong hope their computer shows that carbon nanotubes may be a serious answer to the question of what comes next. So far no emerging technologies come close to touching silicon. Of all the emerging materials and new ideas held up as possible saviors—nanowires, spintronics, graphene, biological computers—no one has made a central processing unit based on any of them, says Mitra. In that context, catching up to silicon’s performance circa 1970, though it leaves a lot of work to be done, is exciting.

Victor Zhirnov, a specialist in nanoelectronics at the Semiconductor Research Corporation in Durham, North Carolina, is much more cautiously optimistic. The nanotube processor has 10 million times fewer transistors on it than today’s typical microprocessors, runs much more slowly, and operates at five times the voltage, meaning it uses about 25 times as much power, he notes.

Some of the nanotube computer’s sluggishness is due to the conditions under which it was built—in an academic lab using what the Stanford group had access to, not an industry-standard factory. The processor is connected to an external hard drive, which serves as the memory, through a large bundle of electrical wires, each of which connects to a large metal pin on top of the nanotube processor. Each of the pins in turn connects to a device on the chip. This messy packaging means the data has to travel longer distances, which cuts into the efficiency of the computer.

With the tools at hand, the Stanford group also can’t make transistors smaller than about one micrometer—compare that with Intel’s announcement earlier this month that its next line of products will be built on 14-nanometer technology. If, however, the group were to go into a state-of-the-art fab, its manufacturing yields would improve enough to be able to make computers with thousands of smaller transistors, and the computer could run faster.

To reach the superb level of performance theoretically offered by nanotubes, researchers will have to learn how to build complex integrated circuits made up of pristine single nanotube transitors. Franklin says device and materials experts like his group at IBM need to start working in closer collaboration with circuit designers like those at Stanford to make real progress.

“We are well aware that silicon is running out of steam, and within 10 years it’s coming to its end,” says Zhirnov. “If carbon nanotubes are going to become practical, it has to happen quickly.”

Report: Twitter to List $1.5B IPO on New York Stock Exchange

By Matt Egan

Hoping to avoid the fiasco of Facebook’s (FB) initial public offering, micro-blogging site Twitter has reportedly decided to raise about $1.5 billion in an IPO listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Despite the report from, sources told FOX Business a final decision about where to list the highly-anticipated IPO hasn’t been made and neither exchange has been contacted by Twitter.

Losing out on the highly-anticipated Twitter debut would be a blow to Nasdaq OMX Group (NDAQ), which was scarred by a recent glitch that caused a three-hour trading freeze for all Nasdaq-listed stocks.

The $1.5 billion figure represents just a fraction of the record-breaking $16 billion raised by Facebook’s IPO, which was marred by technical glitches on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

According to, Twitter may sell between 50 million to 55 million shares at between $28 and $30 a share.

That range would allow the San Francisco social media company to raise between $1.4 billion and $1.65 billion and give the company a valuation of about $15 billion to $16 billion.

Representatives from Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment on the report.

At this point neither Nasdaq nor NYSE have been informed about a listing decision by Twitter, and it’s possible discussions are ongoing.

“We don’t comment on filings at this early juncture,” said a Nasdaq spokesperson.

NYSE Euronext (NYX) said, “We do not comment on speculation.”

Twitter confidentially filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an IPO earlier this month, paving the way for the most anticipated debut since Facebook’s offering in May 2012.

Companies with less than $1 billion in revenue can file for an IPO without making their records public right away under the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act.

Research firm e-Marketer estimates Twitter will generate about $582.8 million in 2013 ad revenue and nearly $1 billion next year.

Ahead of its IPO, Twitter is reportedly seeking a revolving credit line worth $500 million to $1 billion from JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Morgan Stanley (MS).

Microsoft purchases Nokia for $7.2 billion

By Mike Flacy

Announced on the Microsoft News Center as well as a joint letter from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Nokia CEO Stephen Elop on the Official Microsoft Blog, the software company is acquiring Nokia’s Devices & Services business and the right to license Nokia’s patents to other entities. Assuming the deal is approved by Nokia’s shareholders and regulatory agencies, Microsoft will spend approximately $7.2 billion on the acquisition. Specifically, Microsoft will spend 3.79 billion Euros on the mobile devices unit and 1.65 billion Euros on Nokia’s patent portfolio. However, Nokia will continue to create cellular networking equipment, build maps and location-based services, and create other technology outside of the mobile devices unit.

Ballmer and Elop together state: “With the commitment and resources of Microsoft to take Nokia’s devices and services forward, we can now realize the full potential of the Windows ecosystem, providing the most compelling experiences for people at home, at work, and everywhere in between …We will continue to build the mobile phones you’ve come to love, while investing in the future – new phones and services that combine the best of Microsoft and the best of Nokia.”

In a separate email to Microsoft employees, Ballmer says that ”This is a smart acquisition for Microsoft, and a good deal for both companies. We are receiving incredible talent, technology and IP. We’ve all seen the amazing work that Nokia and Microsoft have done together.”

Ballmer went on to mention that Stephen Elop, the current CEO of Nokia, will be returning to Microsoft to manage the entire devices team. Many analysts believe that Elop is on the short list to become the next CEO of Microsoft after Ballmer steps down from the position in the next twelve months.

Microsoft hopes to use Nokia’s resources and technology to carve itself a much larger share of the smartphone market, which is currently led by Google’s Android operating system, and Apple’s iPhone. As detailed by Forbes, Microsoft has seen significant Windows Phone growth in European markets, but continues to lag far behind Android and iOS in the United States. Specifically, Microsoft’s market share in the United States is just 3.5 percent.

Regarding exclusivity of the Windows Phone platform on Nokia branded devices, Microsoft will continue to license usage rights of the the Window Phone platform to other companies, according to a blog post created by Microsoft VP Terry Myerson.

Voice-Analyzing App Scans Football Players for Concussion

Notre Dame researchers will test a concussion-detection app on nearly a thousand high school and youth football players.

By Susan Young

A voice-analysis program run on a tablet could help high school and youth coaches recognize concussions on the sidelines of football and other high-impact sport games.

After identifying concussions in collegiate boxers in a preliminary study, University of Notre Dame researchers will soon test the app on approximately 1,000 youth and high school football players. The program pulls out the vowel segment from a set of predetermined words and then analyzes that sound for changes that may indicate a brain injury.


Despite all the attention given to the issue in recent years, concussions are still a “highly underrecognized injury,” says Gerry Gioia, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur in the U.S. each year; but because concussion can go undiagnosed, the true number of such injures could be much higher. Most concussions are not accompanied by loss of consciousness, and the variety of symptoms can be subtle and difficult to spot. But catching concussion can be critically important for athletes, since it can put them at greater risk for another injury. Problems with memory and mental agility associated with concussion get worse with repeated concussions.

“The issue is omnipresent, but when it actually happens, it’s not uncommon for parents or coaches to get confused about what they should really be looking for,” Gioia says. Working with the CDC, Gioia has developed a question-and-answer style app to guide parents or coaches through potential symptoms of concussion and what they should do next. While professional and collegiate football teams have physicians and athletic trainers waiting on the sidelines to run psychological and cognitive tests on players who have taken a heavy hit, youth and high school teams usually do not. Gioia’s app provides a checklist of signs and symptoms to determine whether a player needs to stop playing and go see a doctor.

Researchers at Notre Dame wanted a test for concussion that could not be swayed by answers from a player who wants to stay in the game. Graduate student Nikhil Yadav designed a diagnostic tool that requires someone to simply speak into a mobile device such as a tablet.

Previous studies have found that head injuries change speech characteristics, with negative effects on vowel production in particular. The researchers initially tested the app with 125 boxers participating in a collegiate competition. Before any bouts started, the researchers recorded each boxer saying the numbers one through nine as a baseline. After boxing, the researchers recorded the athletes saying the same words again. By analyzing several acoustic features of the vowel sounds, including their pitch, the app was able to identify all nine players who were later diagnosed with concussion.

“The preliminary results were very promising,” Yadav says. The test wasn’t perfect, however; it also falsely identified concussions in three boxers. “That’s low in this early stage, but we don’t want to see false positives,” says Yadav. He hopes to fine-tune the test to minimize them.

Now, Yadav and colleagues are kicking off a large test of the system with youth and high school football players. They will work with around 1,000 kids between the ages of 10 and 18 in 20 different schools and clubs in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Any predicted concussions will be compared to medical diagnoses.

If the app proves its worth in this larger test, the researchers plan to turn it into a commercial product through a startup called Contect.

An App for Coasting, Rather than Surfing, the Web

Browser builder Opera smartly simplifies the Web on the iPad with touchable tiles.

By Rachel Metz

While computers have changed drastically over the past 20 years, morphing from big boxes to svelte laptops, touch-screen tablets, and smartphones, the Web browsers we use on them have looked largely the same.

Sure, you can take a desktop Web browser, optimize it for a smaller screen, and add some touch features—as the most commonly used mobile browsers do. But the results are often inelegant, because the things you do online on a laptop or desktop computer tend to be different from the things you do on a tablet or a smartphone. And chances are you’re not using a traditional keyboard and mouse, the tools that desktop browser makers could count on you to have.

Opera, the largest of the small-share browser makers, recognizes this with the recent release of its free Coast browser app for the iPad. Coast represents a major change in the look and feel of a tablet Web browser. It’s the latest in a long line of browsers that have tried new approaches (see “The Browser Wars Go Mobile”), but it may be the first that really makes it work.

As the name implies, Coast is more for sitting back and watching where the Web takes you—truly browsing—than for going to predetermined destinations. The app banishes the standard URL address bar, treating your favorite websites as on-screen tiles and hiding most options. While it could use a bit more polishing, it’s a clever reimagining of how we can experience the Web on a small touch screen.

Coast first surfaced this year in a leaked video showing an early internal presentation of the browser, which Huib Kleinhout, an engineer at Oslo, Norway–based Opera, started as a side project a year and a half ago. In an interview, Kleinhout told me he wanted to simply build a browser “for the Internet of now,” in which websites are more complicated than ever and there are orders of magnitude more pages than there are apps in any app store.

Coast takes cues from apps and mobile operating software to do this: favorite websites appear as a bank of brightly colored square tiles against a dark background, up to nine of them on each virtual screen. That’s plenty if, like me, you visit only a handful of websites regularly.

Tapping a tile for, say, Reddit opens a screen-filling page with no borders or URL bar at the top. Swiping down on the page refreshes the content. Tapping a tiny cluster of nine white squares at the bottom center of the display takes you back to the home screen, while hitting a line of three little white squares on the bottom right allows you to scroll sideways through all tabs you have open.

Viewing the Web this way—without tabs and options constantly in your face—forces you to relax. I found I was more inclined to click around within websites, reading more content on different pages, rather than flitting from one site to the next.

If you want to search for a specific term or site, start typing it into the search bar on Coast’s home screen. The app will offer autocomplete suggestions via Google or let you search for your term on Google itself, and it will present a handful of clickable tiles for websites it thinks you may want to visit (tap the word “new,” for example, and you might get tiles for the online electronics retailer Newegg and a couple of news websites).


One sweet feature is the absence of back or forward buttons. Instead, you swipe to the right or left. Smart, right? I also liked how page-sharing features are hidden under an icon on the bottom right of the screen.

It’s a first public version, though, so understandably Coast could use some work. Its city-at-night background and script-like logo feel dated. Pages sometimes froze, and several times the videos I watched through the app were glitchy. Coast failed to detect my intention to open links on several pages.

Still, Coast represents a fresh, enjoyable way to think about browsing on a tablet, with minimal distractions so you can sit back and relax.

Smart Robots Can Now Work Right Next to Auto Workers

It used to be too dangerous to have a person work alongside a robot. But at a South Carolina BMW plant, next-generation robots are changing that.

By Will Knight

BMW has taken a huge step toward revolutionizing the role of robots in automotive manufacturing by having a handful of robots work side-by-side with human workers at its plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

As a new generation of safer, more user-friendly robots emerges, BMW’s man-machine collaboration could be the first of many examples of robots taking on new human tasks, and working more closely alongside humans. While many fear that this trend could put people out of work (see “How Technology Is Destroying Jobs”), proponents argue it will instead make employees more productive, relieving them of the most unpleasant and burdensome jobs.

Robots have been a part of automotive manufacturing for decades. The first industrial robot—a hulking 4,000-pound arm called the Unimate—attached die castings to car doors at a GM production line in 1961. Such manufacturing robots have been powerful and extremely precise, but it’s never been safe for humans to work alongside them. As a result, a significant number of final assembly tasks, in auto plants and elsewhere, are still performed almost entirely by hand.

At BMW’s South Carolina plant, robots made by the Danish company Universal Robots have broken through this barrier and are helping workers perform final door assembly. The robots are working with a door sealant that keeps sound and water out of the car, and is applied before the door casing is attached. “It’s pretty heavy work because you have to roll this glue line to the door,” says Stefan Bartscher, head of innovation at BMW. “If you do that several times a day, it’s like playing a Wimbledon match.”

According to Bartscher, final assembly robots will not replace human workers; they will extend their careers. “Our workers are getting older,” Bartscher says. “The retirement age in Germany just rose from 65 to 67, and I’m pretty sure when I retire it’ll be 72 or something. We actually need something to compensate and keep our workforce healthy, and keep them in labor for a long time. We want to get the robots to support the humans.”

In recent years, robot manufacturers have realized that with the right software and safety controls, their products could be made to work in close proximity to humans. As a result, a new breed of more capable workplace robot is rapidly appearing.

One of the most prominent examples is Baxter, made by Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based company founded by the robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks. Baxter has a torso, a head, and two arms; it is safe to work alongside, and it can be taught to perform new tasks simply by moving its arms through an operation (see “This Robot Could Transform Manufacturing”). So far, Baxter has largely been deployed in small U.S. factories, where it helps package items moving along a conveyor. BMW’s effort represents a more significant push into heavy-duty manufacturing.


BMW is testing even more sophisticated final assembly robots that are mobile and capable of collaborating directly with human colleagues. These robots, which should be introduced in the next few years, could conceivably hand their human colleague a wrench when he or she needs it. The company is developing the newer robots in collaboration with Julie Shah, a professor in MIT’s department of aeronautics and astronautics. “Oftentimes, the robot will need to maneuver closely around people,” says Shah. “It’ll need to possibly straddle the moving floor—the actual assembly line; it’ll need to track a person that is potentially standing on that assembly line and moving with it.”

Shah’s team has built robots capable of these tasks on a simulated production line at MIT. After the control software has been tested sufficiently at BMW’s lab, the robot will be deployed on one of its real assembly lines. “It’s a fantastic navigation and controls challenge, and it hasn’t been solved before,” Shah says.