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Next big thing: TV converter boxes
Although neither as sexy nor exciting as Apple's iPhones, some new electronic gadgetry is expected to sell millions of units when it hits the market next year.
These would be the digital converter boxes that will enable analog TV sets to receive and display digital TV signals. By federal law, conventional analog television will cease transmission on Feb. 17, 2009, making digital signals the only broadcast TV available.
Most people get their TV from cable or satellite operators, and they won't notice a thing related to the conversion because that will be handled by their service providers.
But for nearly 20 million American households that still get their television over the air, this will be a significant event. It also will have some impact on an estimated 15 million households that have some TV sets that get over-the-air signals as well as other sets connected to cable or satellite systems.
Unlike the buzz that built for months before the iPhone was launched, there is little anticipation of the approaching digital TV switcheroo. This worries the National Association of Broadcasters.
The NAB estimates 60 percent of TV viewers with analog sets do not have the foggiest notion that, unless they have a converter box, their TVs won't work after the 2009 switch, and among the 40 percent who have heard of the impending change, most are misinformed to some extent.
"We don't want anyone to wake up one morning and be without television," said Shermaze Ingram, one of the people the NAB has hired to sound the alarm.
Here are a few things the NAB wants you to know: Converter boxes that will enable your old TV set to keep working will be available in consumer electronics stores early next year and probably cost about $60. You can apply for a coupon from the government that is worth $40 off the price of each converter box.
Each household may get two coupons. Details on how to get those coupons are being worked out.
You also can scrap your old TV and buy a new one that gets digital signals, although there is no subsidy for that.
Something to keep in mind if you're shopping for a TV, Ingram said, is that some sets in stores are able to receive digital signals as well as analog, but others cannot.
Stores are supposed to provide warning labels about this but many do not.
Visits by NAB shoppers suggest that clerks in consumer electronics stores often are no more informed about the digital TV switch than their customers, she said.
Buying and connecting a converter box is a minor inconvenience that should result in a better picture, better sound and more channels, Ingram said. More than 90 percent of TV stations already are broadcasting digital signals as well as conventional analog, and many are broadcasting four digital channels, each with different content, that the converter box will enable viewers to receive.
Another bonus: Once analog broadcasting ends, the prime radio spectrum it now uses will be auctioned off. That is expected to add new wireless services, such as more high-speed Internet connections. Public safety communications also should improve.
READING DNA: Researchers are seeking ways to automate the reading of DNA in order to make it cheap enough that everyone can get a readout of his own genetic makeup to aid in health-care decisions.
One possibility is to run strands of the genetic material through a tiny pore only a few nanometers across. Theoretically, a scanner could record the strands as they passed by, like swiping a bar code in a supermarket.
In reality, when researchers try this, it goes way too fast for a scanner to grab information. A mechanical engineer at Northwestern University is looking to slow things down. The researcher, Sandip Ghosal, has determined that the DNA is pulled through the pore by an electric force, but there is also a brake at work in the form of fluid friction.
"Understanding the mechanics of DNA translocation will allow scientists to make alterations, to figure out how to apply more friction," he said. Ghosal proposes using a coating on the channel walls to slow the DNA's progress.