NIST TechBeat Blue/Yellow Banner NIST logo--go to NIST home page Search NIST web space go to NIST home page go to A-Z subject index Contact NIST skip navigation

October/November 2002

  In This Issue:
bullet NIST 'Pins' Down Imaging System for the Blind
bullet NIST Helping Prepare an 'Out of This World' Atomic Clock
bullet New Standard Helps Make Software Easier to Use
bullet NIST Solving a Mystery Among Electrons
bullet NIST Genetics Research Lends a Hand in World Trade Center IDs
bullet NIST Micro-Positioner May Help Send Messages from the Stars
bullet Tech Trivia

[NIST Tech Beat Search] [Credits] [NIST Tech Beat Archives] [Media Contacts] [Subscription Information]

blue divider

Assistive Technology

NIST researchers feel the raised image of the NIST logo on the  tactile graphic display.

Video describing NIST tactile graphic display.

Download RealOne Player

NIST 'Pins' Down Imaging System for the Blind

Seeing is believing, unless you’re blind or visually impaired. To this group, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) says, “feeling is believing.”

Computer scientists and engineers at NIST have created a tactile graphic display that brings electronic images to the blind and visually impaired in the same way that Braille makes words readable.

The new imaging device was developed at NIST by the same research team that recently created an electronic Braille reader. The reader translates text from sources such as electronic books into Braille.

According to its designers, the prototype graphic display conveys scanned illustrations, map outlines or other graphical images to the fingertips, and can translate images displayed on Internet Web pages or in electronic books. It uses refreshable tactile graphic display technology, allowing a person to feel a succession of images on a reusable surface.

The machine uses about 3,600 small pins that can be raised in any pattern, and then locked into place for reading. The pins then can be withdrawn and reset in a new pattern.

Each image is sent electronically to the device, which uses software to determine how to create a tactile display that matches the image.

The inspiration for the tactile graphic display came from a “bed of nails” toy found in a novelty store. Watching the pins in the toy depress under fingers and then return to their original state started the NIST engineers thinking about how the principle could be applied to electronic signals.

Media Contact:
Philip Bulman, (301) 975-5661



blue divider


NIST Helping Prepare an 'Out of This World' Atomic Clock

Setting the world’s clocks from a timepiece far above the Earth someday may be the norm if the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)-led program to put an atomic clock aboard the International Space Station (ISS) proves successful. This effort is part of the NASA-funded Primary Atomic Reference Clock in Space (PARCS) mission, scheduled to fly on the ISS in early 2006.

PARCS will be used to test gravitational theory, study laser-cooled atoms in microgravity and explore ways to improve the accuracy of timekeeping on Earth.

Atoms in microgravity can be slowed to speeds significantly below those used in atomic clocks on Earth, providing a predicted 10-fold improvement in clock accuracy. (The current U.S. standard, the NIST-F1 clock, is accurate to within one second in 30 million years.) The PARCS space clock will be compared continuously to the hydrogen maser, a fundmentally different clock, to provide a test of an Einstein theory that predicts that two different kinds of clocks in the same environment will keep the same time.

To measure gravitational frequency shift, comparisons will be made between the space clock and a clock on Earth. Signals conveyed to the ground from such space clocks someday might serve as an international time standard available to anyone around the world.

PARCS is a cooperative effort involving NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), NIST, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Torino in Italy. JPL is leading the actual development of the space package.

Media Contact:
Fred McGehan (Boulder),  (303) 497-7000Up


blue divider

Information Technology

New Standard Helps Make Software Easier to Use

Nothing drives people more crazy than software programs that are poorly designed, inappropriate for specific tasks and, in general, difficult to use. Employee frustration, wasted work time and decreased productivity attributable to software that isn’t usable can be costly for both businesses and individuals.

To help remedy the problem, computer scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) teamed with U.S. companies to develop a standard way to test and evaluate software usability. The product of the team’s effort, the Common Industry Format (CIF) for Usability Test Reports, recently was approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Several pilot studies by companies such as The Boeing Co., Oracle Corp. and Microsoft Corp. have verified the new standard’s usefulness. In fact, aerospace manufacturer Boeing partnered with Oracle, a large supplier of database products, to conduct joint tests of the CIF. This has resulted in software that both companies agree is more effective.

Now that the value of the CIF has been demonstrated, NIST is considering expanding its work to focus on improving usability of next-generation computer devices such as handhelds.

To learn more about the CIF, go to

Media Contact:
Philip Bulman,  (301) 975-5661Up


blue divider


NIST Solving a Mystery Among Electrons

When it comes to sleuthing in science, few are better than the intrepid investigators at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). For example, take the “Case of the Stray Electrons.”

NIST researchers have created nanoscale devices that manipulate electrons in order to count them one at a time. Such counting is critical to the development of new fundamental electrical standards. When two electrons are bound in pairs (called Cooper pairs) in a superconductor, they can be manipulated much faster, providing larger currents that can be measured more accurately. Manipulation of Cooper pairs also is important in several schemes to develop quantum computers. Past attempts at manipulation, however, have been thwarted by the existence of a small number of unpaired electrons rambling around in the superconducting state. Avoiding these unpaired electrons is the mystery that NIST is now helping solve.

NIST researchers have uncovered an important clue by showing that a previously unappreciated factor has a strong effect on the number of unpaired electrons in Cooper pair devices. Electron counting devices are made from two layers of aluminum, where the strengths of the bonds pairing electrons in each layer can be different. This slight difference originally was thought to be unimportant. However, a study of more than a dozen devices in which this difference was varied in a controlled way and indepen-dently measured in each device, shows the
difference does affect device performance directly.

Media Contact:
Fred McGehan (Boulder),  (303) 497-7000



blue divider


NIST Genetics Research Lends a Hand in World Trade Center IDs

Two scientists in DNA sample prep lab

© Robert Rathe
NIST staff members John Butler and Susan Ballou discuss the DNA project at a robotic sample preparation station.

To receive a high-resolution version of this image, contact Gail Porter.

A new tool for genetic analysis developed with National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) assistance may help scientists identify the remains of victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York—the largest effort of its kind in history.

Remains from about half of the approximately 2,800 victims have been identified, many through the analysis of DNA in tissue samples recovered from the site. Identification is difficult because of the damaged and degraded condition of the samples. Now that standard methods have revealed all they can, new techniques for analyzing very small fragments of DNA are being used to reexamine the genetic material from as many as 13,000 recovered bone samples.

One such technique is adapted from a NIST-developed method using short tandem repeats (STRs)—tiny segments of DNA containing two to five base pairs (the nitrogen compounds whose unique pairings make up the genetic code of an individual). By contrast, a complete human genome contains some 3 billion base pairs.

To perform the STR analysis, many copies are made of targeted DNA fragments using a method called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). NIST designed new PCR primers—tools for targeting the amplification (copying) to a specific DNA segment—that reduce the size of the amplified regions by 100 base pairs or more. Smaller PCR products amplify better than large ones when genomic DNA is degraded.

Media Contact:
Laura Ost,  (301) 975-4034Up


blue divider


Space Exploration

NIST Micro-Positioner May Help Send Messages from the Stars

Phoning home from 93 billion miles away—only E.T. and other science fiction characters can do that. But with the help of National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) know-how, reality soon may catch up with imagination.

Conceptual designs for a “realistic interstellar explorer,” or RISE—a highly autonomous craft that would travel far beyond this solar system to collect scien-tific data—call for a laser-based communications link to Earth that relies in part on a recent NIST invention called a Parallel Cantilever Bi-axial Micro-Positioner. The prototype NIST device acts as a mechanical filter that generates very straight lines by screening out all other motions. Primarily intended for use in the delicate assembly and alignment of optoelectronic devices and applications in micro- and nano-manufacturing, the micro-positioner in a different application offers a promising means for meeting the demanding range, mass and power requirements for the RISE.

In its interstellar role, the micro-positioner would be used to position a lens that steers a laser beam communication link toward Earth. The beam must be pointed precisely because the distances would be, well, astronomical. The RISE is envisioned as having a range up to 1,000 Astronomical Units (AU)—1,000 times the distance from the Earth to the sun, or 93 billion miles.

A recent paper by researchers at NIST and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (which is designing the RISE) concluded that an optical communications downlink spanning 1,000 AU is technically feasible in the next decade if these new technologies can be sufficiently refined. For example, the current range of the NIST micro-positioner would have to be improved by a factor of nearly 10.

Media Contact:
Laura Ost,  (301) 975-4034Up


blue divider

Tech Trivia

Nuclear physics was an important area of research at NIST in the post-World War II years. One of the first endeavors, starting in 1946, was in the field of tracer micrography, the tracking of the movement of radioactive atoms through organic and inorganic systems. As the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission made isotopes (such as phosphorous 32 and iodine 131) available to industry, research and medicine, NIST worked quickly to develop measurement standards to ensure their proper use.

In 1949, NIST scientists created the nation’s first primary neutron standard—consisting of a beryllium sphere with a radium bromide center—for the accurate measurement of the strength of neutron sources. In the absence of a standard, such measurements were accurate only about 20 percent of the time. Establishment and acceptance of the NIST standard facilitated the use of neutrons as a medical treatment and as a means of studying the structure of materials and biological organisms.

About the same time as the neutron standard, NIST physicists also invented the omegatron. Basically a miniature cyclotron about the size of a cigarette pack, the device determined the values of several important atomic constants with the highest precision to date. Additionally, the omegatron was used to develop the first physical standard for the faraday, the charge associated with a mole (the amount of a substance containing the same number of units as 12 grams of carbon) of electrons.

blue divider

Back to Top of Page

(Return to NIST News Page)

Editor: Michael E. Newman

Date created:10-31-02