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Will the Waving Torch make its way to the Olympics?

Posted: 07 Aug 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:MEMS? accelerometer? Waving Torch? Beijing Olympics?

When viewers around the world turn on their TVs on Aug. 8 to watch the opening ceremony of Beijing Summer Olympics, only few will be aware of a behind-the-scenes controversy quietly brewing in China over the use of MEMS-equipped electronic toy torches in the stadium.

This tempest in a teapot represents both China's desire to put the nation's best foot forward and its government's intention to quash even the slightest hint of potential political dissidence.

Suspense is building around a single question: Will the Chinese Olympic Committee allow spectators during the opening ceremony to use the Waving Torcha replica of the Olympic Torch designed to spell out messages in midair when spectators wave them rapidly back and forth? Officials are thought to be concerned that the programmable torches might be hacked.

Embedded with an accelerometer developed by Memsic Inc., the electronic torch can spell out messages by synching the illumination of a foot-long line of LEDs.

The high-tech torch was supposed to create a stark contrast to decidedly low-tech foam No. 1 fingers, thundersticks, cheeseheads and other paraphernalia that enliven stadiums at U.S. sporting events.

The Chinese government originally green-lighted the Waving Torch project, but industry sources are now saying that the chances that will happen are even.

Those involved in the Olympic Torch Project, including Memsic, however, are keeping mum on any controversy that may be brewing in China.

Two weeks ago, Memsic preemptively disclosed during the company's Q2 financial announcement that "the Olympic torch project was cancelled" due to the recent earthquake near where its Chinese partner was assembling the toy torches using PCBs supplied by Memsic.

Political issue
Others, who spoke to EE Times on the condition of anonymity, said the MEMS-based torches may have been assembled after all, and they could still show up during the opening ceremony. The real issue, they said, is not so much the earthquake that interfered with the manufacturing process, but a political eruption.

Sources say the key political problem is that the programmable electronic torch, like any electronics product, is vulnerable to being hacked. In the unlikely event that this happens, oneor everyWaving Torch might end up waving out freedom, justice and love between brothers and sisters all over the land, or something similarly inappropriate.

"The Chinese government would not tolerate a single mistake during the opening ceremony," one source said.

While the current version of Waving Torch comes with pre-loaded messages such as "Hello" in English or "China" in Chinese, it's not out of the question that hackers could breach the system to change messages.

Another version of the Waving Torch exists, but is not yet on the market. The new version has a USB computer connection that allows users to customize their messages.

Memsic last month reported that expected Q2 revenue will be reduced by $2 million due to the cancellation of the Olympic torch project. In a statement, the company said, "Problems experienced by Memsic's customer, due in part to the recent earthquake in China, prevented the timely commercial introduction of the Olympic torch, and during the Q2 the customer invoked a clause in its contract with Memsic that permitted the customer to suspend the project in the event of a natural disaster such as an earthquake. As a result, Memsic will reverse the previously recognized revenue and the related account receivable in Q2."

It's still not clear what happened to $2 million worth of boards Memsic had already shipped to China in Q1. Citing legal restrictions, Memsic CEO Yang Zhao declined to comment for this story.

Memsic nevertheless had high hopes for its Olympic Torch in Beijing. Last December, in a document filed by the company with the Securities & Exchange Commission, Memsic described the torch project as a key element for "the company's diversification strategy."

"The 'Waving 2008' electronic message torches provided by us will be sold at venues for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, as well as in over 5,000 Olympic stores throughout China. We will partner with a third-party manufacturer to produce the torches. This project is a new departure for us, as it is the first time we have been contracted to produce a complete solution for a consumer product."

The optimistic forecast appears at odds with Chinese government officials anxious about negative stories related to the Beijing Olympics. Whether or not the Waving Torch eventually turns up during the opening ceremony might be one small measure of how big a risk the government is willing to take with openness over the next two weeks.

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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