Posts Tagged technology

Augmented Reality

The following is a not terribly organized set of ramblings that I had regarding augmented reality.

Just for the sake of defining what I’m talking about, Wikipedia refers to augmented reality as:

Augmented reality (AR) is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. It is related to a more general concept called mediated reality, in which a view of reality is modified (possibly even diminished rather than augmented) by a computer. As a result, the technology functions by enhancing one’s current perception of reality. By contrast, virtual reality replaces the real world with a simulated one. Augmentation is conventionally in real-time and in semantic context with environmental elements, such as sports scores on TV during a match. With the help of advanced AR technology (e.g. adding computer vision and object recognition) the information about the surrounding real world of the user becomes interactive and digitally manipulable. Artificial information about the environment and its objects can be overlaid on the real world.

Minority ReportThere are different types of augmented reality, for example, the interface that is used in the movie Minority Report is a sort of augmented reality interface. More recently, Google Glass was in the news quite a bit with it’s interesting wearable augmented reality device. Google’s product (and in general, all “wearable” augmented reality devices are more like what I’m thinking about in terms of this article today.

The odd thing is that although I like the idea of wearable “augmented reality” in many ways, it needs to be discrete enough that basically no one but me will know if I’m running it. Part of the issue with any of this tech is that it makes humans seem less human. People aren’t comfortable with talking to someone who has a visible camera aperture pointed at them. In reality, I think most people are aware that with the pervasive use of video surveillance cameras and other recording devices are already recording us on a regular basis (almost continuous basis depending on where we are) it’s not a whole lot different. There’s something personal about it though.

Let’s say I’m talking to a friend about how frustrated I am about another person. Maybe my boss, or my teacher, or a friend who I feel has wronged me or others. In these situations, we typically feel comfortable currently because we are in a private area and the discussion can’t be recorded without making it obvious. As we move forward into the future, this is going to be less of a sure thing. We will have to trust people to either not record when we ask or to keep their recordings private. This is new for us in the realm of private, face-to-face conversations but it’s not new elsewhere. I forward emails that complain or whine about other people and I assume that my friends will not forward it on. (Please note: I’m not justifying my whining about third-parties with other people. This is probably a bad habit that I should break. Regardless, I still do it sometimes.)

The example above that I gave is more about gossip than anything else, but the same could be said for pillow-talk (or “revenge porn” which is becoming a thing) or even things as mundane as business decisions in a company. In the near future, recording devices and other computing resources will be small enough as to be nearly undetectable. There has to be a cultural and technological etiquette established to deal with this properly. What I mean is that in some ways, this is about being polite and civil, as well as trusting and being trusted and at the same time it will likely mean the development of tech to disable, or at least detect, the presence of devices like this in situations where we don’t necessarily trust. We already have a work area that we can’t bring certain devices into. This works when it’s relatively obvious if you’re in violation. But I think we’ll see new tech that allows an area like our workplace to be ENFORCED.

Google Glass If I was more of a hardware guy, I’d be looking at a startup to do DETECTION tech for new hardware like this. Let companies like Google and Apple develop our new high-tech augmented reality devices (I can just see Apple marketing it as the iBall!). We’re going to need a way for companies and people alike to feel comfortable using it. It’s boring technology. Most people would be intrigued by an invisible augmented reality device because it adds value to their life (or they believe that it will). But a device that detects this same technology is more of a necessary purchase to protect yourself than anything else.

There are downsides to creating devices that are intending to identify or disable recording. For example, police or others who are actively abusing their power or authority do no want to have their deeds or words recorded despite the fact that the public should be keeping them accountable. But I still think that there’s some good money to be made in this market and I’m interested to see how it develops.


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Car Audio/Automation

I’ve been sort of disappointed. We don’t have our promised flying cars yet. But in addition, some of the existing tech that we do have seems sadly lacking. In an era of iPhones, video chat,  Internet video streaming, integrated digital sound systems, etc. it’s quite frustrating to observe the current market for car audio devices.

My commute just recently went from a 44-miles-per-day to 130-miles-per-day and obviously, it’s nice to have something going in the background be that music, lectures, sermons, podcasts, or NPR (yes, I listen to NPR!). So I’ve been looking at upgrading from my stock 1998 Toyota Corolla radio with tape deck to something better.

I’m struggling.

This reminds me a lot of how I viewed the pre-Treo 600 cell phone market (although to me, even phones like the Treo were disappointing). You could pick from several hundred choices all of which appeared to be designed without any standardization, attention to detail, solid feel (that horrible crunchy plastic feel that was finally cured with the iPhone), etc. As I survey the current landscape for car audio systems, I’m sort of seeing the same thing.

What I’m frustrated with:

  1. HD Radio support — this is easy, but I hate being nickel-and-dime’d for an extra $80 to take the spiffy “HD Ready” unit to be an ACTUAL HD Radio. Let’s just make this standard.
  2. Auxiliary input — this is almost standard across the board but seems to have so many problems on many units. In many cases, it’s either a very difficult interface to navigate or really bad noise on the line. With my 12 year old stock unit, I can use a cassette adapter and get sounding audio in less than 5 seconds. Why are modern units worse?
  3. Overall interface bizarreness. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and user interfaces are hard to objectively rate, but very few “best practices” are ever followed in interface design for these units. Often there are confusing knobs, multiple buttons that appear to do conflicting things, and odd resets and menu navigation which means you have to press 14 buttons to switch to your iPod input.
  4. “Flavor of the week” interfaces. Come on people. iPods are neat, iPhones are neat, but don’t sell me a unit because it now supports Pandora ON the iPhone itself. The one advantage is that instead of punching input to the iPhone, you punch on the car audio unit. I’m not seeing justification to drop an extra $50+ on this.

What I’d really like to see is:

  1. Let’s be honest, I’d like to see Apple design an interface. They do this amazingly well. Some people may not love it (hey, everyone’s different) but it would reset the industry as the development and release of the iPod and iPhone did. The combination of simple interfaces, never being “far” from common tasks, and reasonably strong and durable hardware design would be simply amazing.
  2. Upgradable firmware. Everyone has wireless these days. Many if not most people could receive wireless in their garage. Even better, why not integrate 3G/4G into these units directly? If you have connectivity, it seems quite reasonable to allow new software interfaces, new protocols, new “apps” of some sort to be used. For that matter, why reinvent the wheel — let’s use iOS or Android as the OS for these devices. If an iPad can sell for $600 with free WiFi or a $30/month 3G subscription, surely a head unit could be at the same price point. Currently, many of these units are $1,000+ and from what I’ve seen, offer few if any of these benefits.
  3. Get standard — allow USB Bluetooth dongles to be used, allow WiFi USB dongles to expand simple systems, provide a web interface so you can use your laptop or home computer to configure settings and features.
  4. Related to the above, a true separation between hardware and software. I should be able to buy a unit and then buy 8 different navigation systems or audio players that all run on the same hardware. I don’t want to be stuck with some name-brand piece of junk “solution” that I can never upgrade or change.

It’s much easier to complain than to actually do research. I may have completely missed some models out there or companies who are actually moving in this direction. If so, please leave a comment with any details.

I know very little about Microsoft’s foray into this sort of thing. Mainly because from what I understand, their Sync technology is exclusive for Ford vehicles. It sounds cool, but it’s only a first step in my opinion. Voice control is great, but they seem to just be replaying the same paradigm of older systems with a few Microsoft-ish bells and whistles.

As a final note, I’ll just say that I like the stock units the most — high-end cars come with some pretty amazing units that are hard to beat so far as making the interface blend perfectly with the car itself. In addition, integrated Bluetooth that’s tidily hidden away, steering wheel volume control, etc. are all great features. And maybe it’s the presence of reasonable built-in units that’s hurting the development of this market. Unless a big name company cuts a deal with a major car maker, it seems unlikely that after-market sales would drive enough sales to warrant some serious investment in this technology.

Any thoughts?

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O’Reilly Books

home_tarsier (Copyright O'Reilly Media)I love almost all the O’Reilly books that I’ve read. The content is great. The style is readable. The quality is excellent.

I’ve heard of Safari Books Online over the last year or two and I’ve been thinking about it more recently. Safari Books offers unlimited access for $42.99/month to all the O’Reilly books. At first blush, it seems expensive. Yes, it’s nice to be able to do a full-text search through a printed book that’s sitting in front of you — those “index” things in the back are so hard to use! 😉 but at the same time, I don’t typically enjoy reading things on the computer for extended periods if time.

…But I’m trying it anyway. My thought is that over the last 12 months I think I’ve spent at least $50/month on technical books. Most of them (all but 3 I think) have been O’Reilly.

oreilly_large (Copyright O'Reilly Media)

Anybody reading this used Safari Books? Any opinions? I’ll post my thoughts in the next week when I make the decision whether to keep the subscription or not.

Pictures used in this post are owned by O’Reilly.

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Fun With Video

Think Photoshopping people out of pictures is pretty high-tech? This video-processing technology is amazing… (from Centripetal Notion)

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Integration of Information = Value

… at least in some cases.

It’s easy to store information on your cell phone by typing some text in. It’s more advanced to be able to send text messages. But what about providing a “universal” interface (meaning a web services interface) that can receive text and makes text available?

This is what Twitter does. I wasn’t very impressed when I first heard about it a while back because it seemed so… simplistic. Anyone can write a simple database with users and allow them to post text messages. But I was missing the point.

I can now use my cell phone to send a message to Twitter (there’s a program called MobileTwitter that I just downloaded and installed. This text messages pretty much instantly wings its way to the Twitter servers. From there, people can subscribe to my “stream” of messages using desktop-based clients (I use Spaz on my MacBook and my Windows PC). However, I’m not stuck using one companies application — all I need to do is poll the web service. A simple curl call will easily retrieve my latest Twitter message

curl -u andrewflanagan:mypassword
/andrewflanagan.xml?count=1 -s -o /var/twitter/andrewflanagan.xml

and a few lines of PHP will make it displayable on my web page:

$xml = new SimpleXMLElement('/var/twitter/andrewflanagan.xml', 0, true);
$status = $xml->status->text;

Alternatively I could have the PHP script directly call Twitter but I ran into some problems since it takes longer to load the pages each time someone visits and Twitter unfortunately limits requests to 70/hr which results in ugliness when I get too many hits on my site. So instead I set up a cron job that runs every 5 minutes (using the curl call above) and updates the locally-stored XML file.

But anyway, the point of this is that you can easily define new interfaces for entering, receiving, and displaying text. It’s simplistic, yes. But it means that on my way back from work (in the car) I can update the front page of my blog with a message using my cellphone. I can also be pulled over by a state trooper. They have no appreciation for the depth and usefulness of this technology!

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Color me High-Def

Well, the high-def video format war is over. Blu-ray is the winner. With Toshiba and now Microsoft pulling out from supporting HD-DVD, we can finally feel at ease buying a video player. Interestingly, the DAY of the announcement from Toshiba (February 19) I got an email offering me a $89 HD-DVD player with 7 free titles! Someone’s triyng to clear some stock… I’m glad to see the format resolved and looking forward to my Blu-ray purchase (coming soon!).

Anyone out there reading this purchased a Blu-ray player yet? If so, any details — recommendations? I’m considering getting a Playstation 3 and using the built-in Blu-ray player on that. We’ll see though. Currently the electronic focus at our house is on my wife’s brand new, high-tech, sewing/embroidery machine. It’s pretty spiffy and can create some high-def embroidery patterns with ease!

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Multi-Function Printers that Work

I’ve been looking for a multi-function (print, scan, copy, fax) printer for the last few months. I’ve been really disappointed with what I’ve found.

What I want to be able to do is the following:

  • Print documents from any modern operating system across the network
  • Scan documents/pictures from an auto-document feeder or a flatbed and in some way have this data end up on whatever system on the network I want
  • Copy documents/pictures by standing at the printer unit itself
  • Receive faxes and send faxes from anywhere on the network

I know that there are problems with some of these — specifically Scanning and Faxing. I see multiple issues with these:

  1. Storage (where does the scanned or faxed document get stored physically?)
  2. Notification (even if a fax is stored, how does a user know when it arrives?)
  3. Configuration (the above should ideally be accomplished without configuring anything on the end-systems)

I see a solution but I’ve not found a sub $1000 printer that accomplishes it. Some of the high-end “counter-top”-sized systems (that run $10,000 and above) have something similar but are usually way overblown.

  • Storage would be provided by flash memory (something as simple as 1-16GB Compact Flash card).
    • Sharing of this storage would be accomplished by using a Samba server running on an embedded Linux kernel (similar to the sort of functionality that currently exists on home routers).
    • Samba shares would be exposed to Linux, Mac, and Windows systems by using something like Avahi (or whatever the Linux version of ZeroConf is that works best at the time). Bonjour could be used on the client end if you’re running Apple to easily see these auto-configured shares but it would have to be installed specially on Windows clients.
  • Notification could be accomplished via email. If a simple SMTP setup is configured once on the printer unit itself, it could automatically route emails to a specific user, multiple users, or different groups depending on the fax number used or other variables. There are many other alternatives using things like the XMPP or even SMS for notification.
  • Configuration — as mentioned this would work like magic on a Mac and slightly less magically (and unfortunately much less beautifully) on a Windows PC. Any system on the network could access recently scanned or faxed documents or perhaps be only restricted by a username/password (heck — even tie it into an LDAP server if you’ve get centralized directory services). Basically, this largely gets rid of the need for client software other than just the printer driver itself. In reality, I’m not clear why we even need a specialized print driver when a web interface (again, hosted on the device) could likely provide any custom features (software-based maintenance, looking at the queue, etc.)

So why isn’t it out there?

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Vertical Farming

Vertical Farming is a neat, futuristic approach to producing food within urban environments. I’m not terrified of running out land and of populations booming too much nor am I running scared of global warming or cooling or whichever it is but I still think that the idea is very neat.

Image courtesy ©atelier SoA architectes I think it could actually be made a cost saver in large cities. The idea is sort of similar to terracing unusable land to make it usable but instead of making land flat, you stack it. I really do think that the answer to a lot of “society’s woes” is that these things will at some point become cheaper than doing them the “old” way. I just see this one as becoming worthwhile sooner than some of the other wacky ideas. So I guess I view this as more of an investment in new technology than just philanthropy to support these projects.

The reality is that shipping and transportation is becoming more and more difficult and massively increases the price of products. I’ve not seen it mentioned, but why not have the first floor be the “fresh produce” grocery store?

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