blasts from the computers speaker like water from a firemans
hose. Within the onslaught there are flashes of the familiara heavy
rain, air escaping from a balloon, and the rhythmic whine of old windshield
wipers. Kevin Short has constructed this sound file as an example of what
he calls raw chaos.
Next, the speaker emits the courtly sound of a 16th-century harpsichord piece, complete with counterpoint, 32nd notes, and trills. This, too, is the sound of chaostamed by Short. An associate professor in applied mathematics, he has mastered the mathematics of chaos theory for a broad range of purposes that could have a major impact on the networking and telecommunications fields.
The University has set up its first spin-off company,
Chaoticom, to develop and market the new technology.
Using mathematical equations, Short can produce drastically
compressed audio, video, or image files. Thats because the mathematical
information needed to produce the pattern of pixels in an image takes
up much less space than the bits and bytes now used to specify every pixel
on a computer screen. Imagine downloading a feature-length film from the
Web in a few minutes or storing 1,000 hours of music on one CD.
Chaos theory, with its reliance on differential equations
and nonlinear math, can be difficult to fathom. Mathematicians define
chaos as behavior that falls somewhere between the periodic and the truly
random. Chaotic systemslike the weatherare predictable
in the short term, but not in the long term, says Short.
Perhaps the most famous part of chaos theory is the Butterfly
Effect, which illustrates how a small change in the beginning will produce
great differences in the future. Heres the analogy: A butterfly
flaps its wings in China today, and, theoretically, causes a major storm
in the United States next year.
In our work, explains Short, we have
had to walk a tight line between controlling and reducing large-scale
long-term changes while still allowing the system to produce wildly varying
patterns or waveforms.
Short began this line of research when he received grants
from the National Security Agency to test encryption systems based on
chaos theory. He cracked every system he tested but realized that the
security flaws could be fixed. He and mathematics graduate student Andy
Parker devised a more secure chaos-based encryption scheme.
In the process, Short discovered how to make waveforms
suitable for music and then enlisted the help of two undergrads. According
to Kimo Johnson, a dual major in math and music, Short saw a few
of us who wanted to put in the extra work and found ways of challenging
us. Johnson and physics major Dan Hussey got a lot of strange bleeps
and blurps from their computer, but they ultimately succeeded in
producing a system for synthesizing music.
Next Short tackled reproduction of audio files, beginning
with the harpsichord in part because its timbre is more difficult to imitate
than many other instruments. Late one night he called his parents in New
York and held the telephone receiver to his computer speaker. They easily
recognized the sound of a harpsichord.
Thats when I knew that this was not just a
limited project, but something that could have profound effects,
Chaoticom investors have high hopes that Shorts
invention could be very profitable. All profits will be shared with the
University, Short, and his former students. Whatever the results are,
Short looks forward to returning to the classroom after taking a leave
of absence to start the company. No doubt he will find a few more students
who want to be challenged.
Virginia Stuart, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences