The path to a wearable future lies in academia | Reuters

The path to a wearable future lies in academia | Reuters:

My oblique take on wearables

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For a glimpse of what is, what might have been and what may lie ahead in wearable devices, look beyond branded tech and Silicon Valley start-ups to the messy labs, dry papers and solemn conferences of academia.

There you’d find that you might control your smartphone with your tongue, skin or brain; you won’t just ‘touch’ others through a smart Watch but through the air; and you’ll change how food tastes by tinkering with sound, weight and color.

Much of today’s wearable technology has its roots in these academic papers, labs and clunky prototypes, and the boffins responsible rarely get the credit some feel they deserve.

Any academic interested in wearable technology would look at today’s commercial products and say ‘we did that 20 years ago,’ said Aaron Quigley, Chair of Human Interaction at University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Take multi-touch – where you use more than one finger to interact with a screen: Apple (AAPL.O) popularized it with the iPhone in 2007, but Japanese academic Jun Rekimoto used something similar years before.

And the Apple Watch? Its Digital Touch feature allows you to send doodles, ‘touches’ or your heartbeat to other users. Over a decade ago, researcher Eric Paulos developed something very similar, called Connexus, that allowed users to send messages via a wrist device using strokes, taps and touch.

‘I guess when we say none of this is new, it’s not so much trashing the product,’ says Paul Strohmeier, a researcher at Ontario’s Human Media Lab, ‘but more pointing out that this product has its origins in the research of scientists who most people will never hear of, and it’s a way of acknowledging their contributions.’

VAMBRACES, KIDS’ PYJAMAS

Those contributions aren’t all pie-in-the-sky.

Strohmeier and others are toying with how to make devices easier to interact with. His solution: DisplaySkin, a screen that wraps around the wrist like a vambrace, or armguard, adapting its display relative to the user’s eyeballs.

Other academics are more radical: finger gestures in the air, for example, or a ring that knows which device you’ve picked up and automatically activates it. Others use the surrounding skin – projecting buttons onto it or pinching and squeezing it. Another glues a tiny touchpad to a fingernail so you can scroll by running one finger over another.

Then there’s connecting to people, rather than devices.

Mutual understanding might grow, researchers believe, by conveying otherwise hidden information: a collar that glows if the wearer has, say, motion sickness, or a two-person seat that lights up when one occupant has warm feelings for the other.

And if you could convey non-verbal signals, why not transmit them over the ‘multi-sensory Internet’? Away on business? Send a remote hug to your child’s pyjamas; or deliver an aroma from one phone to another via a small attachment; or even, according to researchers from Britain at a conference in South Korea last month, transmit tactile sensations to another person through the air.

And if you can transmit senses, why not alter them?

Academics at a recent Singapore conference focused on altering the flavor of food. Taste, it seems, is not just a matter of the tongue, it’s also influenced by auditory, visual and tactile cues. A Japanese team made food seem heavier, and its flavor change, by secretly adding weights to a fork, while a pair of British academics used music, a virtual reality headset and color to make similar food seem sourer or sweeter to the eater.

MAKING THE GRADE

It’s hard to know just which of these research projects might one day appear in your smartphone, wearable, spoon or item of clothing. Or whether any of them will.

‘I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that 99 percent of research work does not end up as ‘product’,’ says Titus Tang, who recently completed a PhD at Australia’s Monash University, and is now commercializing his research in ubiquitous sensing for creating 3D advertising displays. ‘It’s very hard to predict what would turn out, otherwise it wouldn’t be called research.’

But the gap is narrowing between the academic and the commercial.

Academics at the South Korean conference noted that with tech companies innovating more rapidly, ‘while some (academic) innovations may truly be decades ahead of their time, many (conference) contributions have a much shorter lifespan.’

‘Most ‘breakthroughs’ today are merely implementations of ideas that were unimplementable in that particular time. It took a while for industry to catch up, but now they are almost in par with academic research,’ says Ashwin Ashok of Carnegie Mellon.

Pranav Mistry, 33, has risen from a small town in India’s Gujarat state to be director of research at Samsung America (005930.KS). His Singapore conference keynote highlighted a Samsung project where a camera ‘teleports’ viewers to an event or place, offering a real-time, 3D view.

But despite a glitzy video, Samsung logo and sleek black finish, Mistry stressed it wasn’t the finished product.

He was at the conference, he told Reuters, to seek feedback and ‘work with people to make it better.’

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)”

Why We Work in Starbucks

(this is a copy of my Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers; hence no links.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Why do we work in Starbucks? It’s a question I ask myself every day, because I usually find myself in one at least once. This despite having an excellent home office replete with cappuccino machine, music, ergonomic chair and, most importantly, sofa. But lo, every day I wend my way to a Starbucks, or one of those other chains, and park myself in an uncomfortable chair and too-low table, dodging the students with their bags strewn across space they’ll never use, the dregs of a smoothie enough to make it look as if they’re paying their way, babies screaming blue murder by the sugar dispenser.

Why? Why do I do it?

Well, I think it has to do with noise. And a cycle that goes back 300 years and, importantly, has to do with organ grinders.

So first, the organ grinders.

Next time you look out of your window and you don’t see an organ grinder making his way down the street, you can blame Charles Dickens. And Tennyson, Wilkie Collins and 28 authors, painters, engravers, illustrators, historians, actors, sculptors, musicians, architects and scientists. All of them, in 1863, co-signed a letter that “in their devotion to their pursuits—tending to the piece and comfort of mankind—they are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.” Most gave their home and work address as the same. The letter was the centerpiece of a 120-page bill submitted before the British parliament by one Michael Thomas Bass. The letter, and dozens of others, reflect a single themes: a rearguard action to defend the home as workplace against the slings and arrows of street noise.

This was no idle irritant. The streets of central London had become a sea of itinerant workers, musicians and hustlers. Those who didn’t like to have their ears assailed by the noise could either pay them off or complain. But the latter was not without risk. One of Dickens’ friends confronted two street musicians and was insulted, in the words of a friend, “in the choicest Billingsgate.” Another, Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, waged a guerrilla war against street musicians from Manchester Square and was not popular for it: mobs, some numbering more than 100, would pursue him, leave dead cats on his doorstep, break his windows and threaten his life.

The Street Music Act was passed the following year, and decimated the itinerant musician community—among them violin-players and street bands, Irish and Scotch pipers, a German brass-bandsman, a French hurdy-gurdy-player, Italian street entertainers, and percussionists and minstrel singers from India and the United States. Many were gone by the latter years of the century—but so were most of the knowledge workers, who upped sticks to the suburbs or took refuge in offices.

The truth is that knowledge workers, or whatever we choose to call ourselves, have long struggled to control the level of noise in our world.

I’ve waged my own noise battles over the years—dogs in Hong Kong flats, car alarms in Singapore, firecrackers in Indonesia. But at issue is not the pursuit of silence, per se, but to find a place where the noise is conducive to work. And that’s trickier—because we’re not sure what it is.

Which is where the coffee house comes in.

Starbucks likes to portray itself as a “third place”—a term purloined from Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, who mourned the demise of informal public gathering places. The idea is that your local Starbucks fulfills a role beyond just providing  you with coffee, but connects you to others in your community, along with sparkling conversation and wit.

The truth is this doesn’t happen—at least not in any Starbucks I know, a point made by historian Bryant  Simon, who hung around in more than 400 Starbucks trying to strike up conversations with strangers. Despite what Starbucks would like us to believe, with its Annual Report covers of friendly people chatting in their outlets, faux artwork and lame noticeboards, and a short-lived community magazine called Joe, we don’t come to Starbucks to chat. Well, not with strangers.

That dream pretty much died long before Dickens got hot under the collar about the racket-making riff raff . Back in the 1700s there were things called coffee houses, all over the place. They were the place where men met—women were usually banned—to drink coffee, read the paper, discuss politics and basically to get away from things (meaning the house.)  These were vibrant, noisy places and there were lots of them. Samuel Johnson called them ‘penny universities.’

But they began to die out, ironically, when newspapers became cheaper and more plentiful, and were delivered to your home. Then the reason for someone to go to a coffee house declined, and our knowledge workers began two centuries of toiling, either in a cubicle or alone at home.

Starbucks—and other things—have brought us full circle. Starbucks was never what Starbucks would like us to think it is: It is, primarily, a solo-friendly environment. You can go there on your own, order something and sit there on your own and no-one is going to bat an eyelid. Social phobics feel uncomfortable there, but less uncomfortable than pretty much any other eatery. Indeed, the size of tables, the size of the chairs, the layout of the place, is designed to cater to someone alone.

Which is why it has become the perfect workplace. It’s not just the free Wi-Fi, the power outlets, the no-nag policy, although that helps. It’s a complex social and psychological thing. For students, libraries are too quiet, too noisy, too old, too full of friends. You are less likely to fall asleep in a Starbucks. For those who work at home, they feel they might be missing something. Or they like to watch other people. It’s a place for introspection, a refuge from the city, from the kids, from everything: There are people around you, but with no obligation to talk to them. The barista can be as friendly or as taciturn as you want her to be. It’s not a sexy environment, and it’s relatively safe: Leave your belongings while you visit the washroom and they may well still be there when you get back.

For people who work in an office it’s refuge from the boss, the people hanging around your cubicle, the greyness of it all, the phones ringing. In libraries it’s people whispering—loud enough to hear them whispering, but not loud enough to hear what they’re whispering about.

So it’s actually often about noise. It turns out we actually need noise. We just need a certain kind of noise.

JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a cafe. Stephen King writes to AC/DC or Guns n Roses. Xerox chief researcher John Seely Brown did his doctoral thesis in a bar.

Researchers in Sweden found that actually a certain level of white noise actually helped kids with Attention Deficit Disorder concentrate better. Apparently it’s something to do with increasing the levels of dopamine activity in the brain.  Canadian researchers found that masking noise—adding white noise to their work environment to reduce the intrusion of things like ringing phones—also helped office workers. Kodak issued a manual a few years ago advising offices to do just this—48-52 decibels is the best level, they reckon. Perhaps Dickens and co could have saved themselves the wrath of the mob if they’d installed a white noise machine or invented the iPod.

It’s also related to the way we work, and communicate, today. It’s tempting to imagine Dickens hunched up in the corner scribbling Nicholas Nickleby. But while we knowledge workers have something in common, our tools are quite different, and what we’re asked to do with them: we’re all touch typists, of a sort, which means we write dozens of words a minute. We answer emails as if we were flicking dust off our coat. We write proposals, reports, requests for proposals  that not long ago would have taken teams a month to write. Laptops are lighter, with better battery life, and connected to a communications network. We are our office. Companies realize they don’t need to shackle people to their desks all day—less than 40% of our time, according to one property consultancy, is actually spent at our office desk.

We operate in a supercharged environment, which makes the coffee shop of today a perfect setting. Visual and audible stimulation, but with none of the distraction of having to be sociable. Oh and the coffee. It’s no coincidence, I suspect that caffeine also increases the production of dopamine in the brain. A double whammy of noise and caffeine.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to head off. You know where you can find me.

links for 2008-09-24

links for 2008-09-14

The Predictable Human (and a Privacy Issue)

A study of mobile phone data shows that we are extraordinarily consistent about our movements. Mobile phone data, unsurprisingly, provides rich pickings for researchers since we carry one around with us all the time, and, unlike dollar bills, it’s more likely to stick with one person. But some have questioned the ethics of such a study.

The BBC reports that the study, by Albert-László Barabási and two others, shows we are much more predictable in our movements than we might think:

The whereabouts of more than 100,000 mobile phone users have been tracked in an attempt to build a comprehensive picture of human movements.

The study concludes that humans are creatures of habit, mostly visiting the same few spots time and time again.

Most people also move less than 10km on a regular basis, according to the study published in the journal Nature.

This is fascinating stuff, and perhaps not unexpected. But appended to the Nature news article on the study are two signed comments by readers alleging that the authors of the study didn’t follow correct ethical procedure. Someone calling themselves John McHaffie says

What is particularly disturbing about this study is something that the Nature news article failed to reveal: that Barabasi himself said he did not check with any ethics panel. And this for an action that is, in fact illegal in the United States. Disgusting lack of ethics, I’d say. And the statement from his co-author Hidalgo isn’t much better: “We’re not trying to do evil things. We’re trying to make the world a little better”. The old “trust me, I know better” argument. Maybe this two should take a basic graduate-level ethics course.

I’ve not yet confirmed it, but it’s likely to be John G. McHaffie of the University of Wake Forest. Another commenter, Dan Williams, calls for a federal investigation of the school involved in the study.

I don’t have access to the original Nature article, so I can’t explore this further right now. But the Nature news item itself says that “Barabási and his colleagues teamed up with a mobile-phone company (unidentified to protect customers’ privacy), who provided them with anonymized data on which transmitter towers had handled the calls and texts for 100,000 individuals over the course of 6 months.”

This is clearly gold. The article suggests that others have long sought to get their hands on mobile phone data. It quotes Dirk Brockmann of Northwestern University in Illinois, as saying that he had not been able to expand a study he did using dollar bills because of privacy issues:

Strict data-protection laws prevented Brockmann from carrying out his own version of the mobile-phone study in Germany, where he was based until recently. Mobile-phone data have the potential to reveal information about where individuals live and work. “I’ve been trying to get my hands on mobile-phone data but it isn’t possible,” he says.

Privacy issues aside, the study is fascinating, and could be useful in monitoring disease outbreaks or traffic forecasting. (I wrote about one using Bluetooth a couple of days ago.) And how about riots? Unrest? Shoppers?

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Mobile phones expose human habits

NewsIsFree’s NewsMap

Another cool NewsMap, this one in the form of a treemap from NewsIsFree:

NewsKnowledge and The Hive Group have joined forces to bring you News Maps, visual maps of the NewsIsFree headline database. News Maps allow you to quickly scan dozens of news articles and instantly understand what’s being reported all over the world.

Each square in the News Map is an article. You can obtain additional detail on each article by moving your mouse over it. You can read an article by clicking on it.

The Hive Group’s Honeycomb algorithm organizes news headlines by source. Size and Color information indicate article age and popularity (described below). You can easily filter and rearrange you results to view articles that meet certain criteria, or that contain certain text.

We hope you enjoy our News Maps and encourage you to explore these new tools. We hope that News Maps will allow you to access news more quickly and comprehensively than you ever thought possible.

Not the most beautiful example of the genre (my own favourite is still newsmap) but still good to see people experimenting with different representations of news. 

The Blurring of Blogging: A Reply

 Further to my posting about AkibaLive, and my comments that it was a marketing tool masquerading as a blog, here’s the owner’s reply (I won’t post his earlier message, since as he says, it was “fired it off in a state of unexpected agitation”):
Your blog about AkibaLive has an evident tone that we are somehow trying to mislead, or conceal, our identity.  That is far from true, and really does reflect a lack of diligence.  “AkibaLive is a Dynamism.com blog” is right there on the home page.  At every point that we talk about a Dynamism product, for instance, the headphone review, we further state that AkibaLive is a Dynamism blog.  If you poked around a bit, these things would be evident. (Douglas Krone)
 
Now, one very well may dislike the idea of blogs being used for marketing and customer relations.  That a strong position with a strong argument to be made.  There are plenty of good and reasonable ideas that support that view, but implying we are misleading people is not one of them.  Do we really, “conceal their identities to adopt the persona of blogs to peddle their wares?”  Is that a responsible statement?  Personally, I think a clarification is in order.  Of course, it’s your blog.
And here’s something from one of the editors, Matt:
I recently read your thoughts on the creation of Akibalive.com.  As one of the editors of Akibalive I have to say that, while you are of course entitled to your own opinion, I believe you have overlooked what we are trying to accomplish/portray ourselves as.  The Akibalive.com site explicitly states that it is a Dynamism.com blog.  Also, the products currently being blogged, for the most part, are not products being sold by Dynamism, rather they are products we feel the Dynamism customer base would be interested in.  If we post information about an upcoming computer release, someone reading that information gets the facts (release date, specs, etc.). Whether or not there is a person or a company behind the site, the way factual/informative news is presented to an interested reader should not matter.  When and if we decide that we want to use Akibalive.com as more of a direct marketing tool for Dynamism?s products, we will make sure there is no confusion that Akibalive and Dynamism are one in the same.  For example if you take a look at the Noise Reduction Headset Review (http://www.akibalive.com/archives/000198.html), you will see: Sony MDR-NC20 ($149) and MDR-NC11 ($149) are available from Dynamism (www.dynamism.com). (Dynamism is the parent company of AkibaLive.com.)

Clearly there is no ?marketing gimmick? or concealed identity and by no means do we want there to be.

 

News: Six Degrees Reborn

 I think Friendster is probably a more dynamic version of this experiment, but it’s interesting anyway. Duncan J. Watts, author and Associate Professor of Sociology at Columbia, has launched an experiment to update the 1967 findings of social psychologist Stanley Milgram who coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ by testing the hypothesis that members of any large social network would be connected to each other through short chains of intermediate acquaintances.
 
 
The test is basically to give folk a package and ask them to pass it onto someone who could deliver it by hand to the addressee. They then hand it onto someone they know who may be more likely to know that person, or someone who knows that person, etc etc. As Watts points out, Milgram’s experiment was flawed, and didn’t really prove the hypothesis. So it could be interesting. Sign up if you want to participate.
 
My tupennies worth: As Malcom Gladwell’s excellent “The Tipping Point” points out not all people are equal. Some folk know no-one (me) and some know everybody (my friends Grainne and Ditta) so in my case I’d just give the package to them.