MANHASSET, N.Y. When a cascade of mesmerizing tableaux unfolded on the floor of the "Bird's Nest" at the Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony last Friday, most TV viewers couldn't help but notice, from the audience of 92,000 spectators, the intense flickering of what seemed like 92,000 red, green, blue, yellow and white dots.
Clearly, the multi-colored lights were not the usual camera flashes seen in stadiums during any big sports event.
TV cameras eschewed close-ups on the flashing lights, nor did NBC's commentators explain them. In fact, the cheerful background was the effect created by spectators waving MEMS-equipped electronic toy torches known as "Waving Torch."
E.E.Times has learned that every one of 92,000 people in the stadium, including President Bush, received an electronic torch along with instructions to coordinate waving in the stands with professional performers on the field during the opening ceremony.
The MEMS-featured torch is definitely not your ordinary flash light, although it can be mistaken for one from a distance. Electronic torches in Beijing actually spelled out messages and images, such as the "five official Olympic mascots (known as Fuwa), images of many different sports, the Olympic logo and Beijing's Olympic logo, Welcome to Beijing, and many Chinese characters," according to Memsic CEO Yang Zhao.
The Waving Torch uses an accelerometer, supplied by Memsic, to detect the beginning and end points of a movement as the torch is waved. On the front edge of the torch, the linear array of LEDs spells out the pre-loaded message in midair by synchronizing the LEDs' illumination with its position in space.
The actual use of tens of thousands Waving Torches at the opening ceremony marked a triumph for Memsic's Zhao, a Chinese-born CEO at the Andover, Mass.-based company. Zhao came to the United States more than 20 years ago to pursue his Ph.D. at Princeton University where he studied under Professor Daniel Tsui, who won the 1998 Nobel Prize in physics.
The irony, though, is that even though Memsic had a contract with the Chinese Olympic Committee for the Waving Torch project, and the Chinese-born CEO worked tirelessly with Chinese officials, Zhao himself wasn't sure until the very last minute if the Chinese Olympic Committee would allow spectators to use the device.
Among concerns expressed by Chinese officials ranged from the logistics of building a massive number of electronic torches and delivering them in time, to the security fear that programmable torches might be hacked, thus spelling out the wrong sentiment during the opening ceremony. (see: The Wave: Banned in China?)