Japan May Use Patent Award to Modify Laws

DTAQUEST is a market-intelligence firm based in San Jose

The recent awarding to Texas Instruments of a Japanese patent for the basic integrated circuit could certainly help remove some of the trade friction between the United States and Japan. More significantly, it presents an opportunity for Japan to modify its patent laws in ways that could blunt South Korea's future advance in the Japanese semiconductor market.

The seeming breadth of this award is comparable to saying that Texas Instruments has a patent on all cars built in Japan that have four wheels, an internal combustion engine and a steering column.

New Japanese patent laws could require royalties from South Korean suppliers on virtually all integrated circuits that they might ship to Japan.

High-Tech Trend in Defense

This year's defense spending bill demonstrates a clear trend developing on Capitol Hill to maintain, exploit and expand America's technological competitive edge using Pentagon management and funding.

Although the fiscal 1990 defense budget represents the fifth-straight annual decline in defense spending after adjustment for inflation, Congress did preserve or increase spending on several strategic high-technology programs. This has set up a showdown with the Bush Administration, which has proposed cutting 1991 funding on many of those same programs.

Another development favoring high tech in this year's spending bill are several initiatives designed to increase the Pentagon's use of commercial products and to have the Pentagon adopt more commercial-like contracting and pricing procedures. With defense spending projected to decline in inflation-adjusted terms, these commercial initiatives are designed to help the Pentagon save money while taking advantage of quality improvements of mainstream, commercial products.

U.S. Cool to Soviet PC Sales

Despite two recent developments that should make it easier for Western computer companies to conduct business in the Soviet Union, many firms are still reluctant to seize the opportunity.

In the past year, the U.S. Commerce Department relaxed controls for exporting personal computers to the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Relations decided to allow majority ownership of joint ventures by foreign companies.

A recent survey of U.S. computer executives found three major concerns about conducting business in the Soviet Union: the difficulty in taking earnings out of the country, current and potential export controls on more sophisticated technology (such as supercomputers) and the general political risks of investment in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union lags far behind the United States in personal computers, with fewer than 200,000 PCs, compared to 38 million in the United States. The tremendous demand for PCs has caused the Soviets to relax their rules and look outside their country for possible business partners. The lack of Soviet PC technology presents a huge opportunity for sales of personal computers there.

Interactive Tech Put to Use

Computers that provide sight, sound and touch information to produce simulated versions of realistic environments are rapidly developing into mainstream business tools for use in space and seismic explorations, medicine, entertainment, manufacturing and other industries.

Pioneered by scientists at NASA's Ames Research Laboratory just five years ago, so-called virtual reality is being developed by more than a dozen companies, along with NASA, the Air Force and academic institutions.

A virtual reality system consists of a headset with two small television screens, one for each eye and stereo headphones for sound.

A glove equipped with sensors is used in place of a computer keyboard or mouse to manipulate objects in this computer-generated world. Working with the headset and gloves, which are connected to a computer, the user interacts with a three-dimensional environment. For example, with the gloved hand, the user can grasp objects and pick them up.

The application potential of this technology merits the serious attention of the business world and investors.

Wright Patterson Air Force Base sponsored the development of a flight simulator that allows pilots to see their airplanes and enemies through the eyes of a third party above the action. Objects in Mattel's Nintendo can now be manipulated with a glove similar to that used in virtual reality.

Architects will be able to walk through a building before construction begins to test the design. Finally, in education, a medical student can practice surgery on a simulated heart.

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