Show spotlights toughest tech gear

The term spyware has a whole new meaning when it's invoked at the TechNet 2004 annual conference, which is bubbling over with gear for the military and intelligence communities.

More than 200 exhibitors are showing off gadgets and gizmos at the three-day US trade show this week. Highlights include sophisticated and stealth imaging equipment and impressively rugged digital gear.

Durable notebooks

At one booth, a stream of water constantly pours on a notebook computer to demonstrate the ruggedness of the machines developed by Getac. Used by the military in Iraq, the durable computers cost between US$2,500 and $4,500. The military is its main customer.

Equipped with a rubber keyboard that repels both water and sand, the machines are equipped with Intel Centrino CPUs and built-in wireless Internet access and ethernet LAN capability.

Getac guarantees its machines for three years and claims they can be dropped from a height of three feet without suffering any damage. The machines meet all military standards, which cover both durability and stealth capabilities. The inside cables are covered with special material preventing the computer from making any noise.

"If (enemies) can hear the machine running, they could locate them, and maybe kill (the users)," says Michael Simek, a senior sales manager with Getac.

Shots from space

Another stealth technology on display at the convention presents a larger picture of technology's impact on the world of intelligence.

Staring at an image of an African island taken from space, you can see the patterns made by the sprinklers in the grass. The detail is precise, within 422 miles from Earth.

The government is the largest client of the product's vendor, Space Imagining. It uses the service primarily for mapping areas, according to Howard Klayman, Space Imaging director of customer support operations.

"We were directly involved in that spatial imaging," Klayman says of the photos taken of Iraq before the war. The images were intended to prove Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

"But we can't tell you what's inside the trucks. We can only say they were here and now they are there," he adds.

Anyone can purchase an image from space. Snapping shots of Earth for five years, Space Imagining has an archive of 200 million square kilometers of the planet's surface. It offers the public archived images at $7 per square kilometer; the average photo costs about $350. New pictures cost $20 per square kilometer.

Detailed vision

Another exhibitor is demonstrating a different kind of imaging: thermal imagining. Tightly packed into some 12,000 firefighters' helmets across the United States are optical lenses for one eye.

The helmets cost between $8000 and $10,000 and were shown off by EMagin. EMagin makes the OLED microdisplays and interface equipment; the helmets are from Total Fire Group. The lenses allow users to see a tenth of a degree in temperature change, enabling them to locate a trapped person or identify intense fire areas.

"The Marine Corps is using it in firefighting and air-to-land rescues," says Jason Matousek, a technical support coordinator with EMagin. "With the rescues they use the thermal imagining to discern if an individual is hiding behind something or on the ground under something."

Matousek says the technology is so sensitive that a person can see if someone has walked through a room five minutes before, because of the heat caused by friction.

EMagin is also presenting a Near Eye device that allows soldiers in the field to store maps or other intelligence information on a chip and process the data through a lens.

The chip, an optical light emission dial, stores the multi-image information that the viewer can scan through using a remote control. The chip doesn't require attachments the way other chips do. It has its own light source and no strict temperature requirements. Most impressive is the chip's dense imaging, which presents 3 million to 5 million pixels in an area no larger than a dilated pupil.

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