Tag Archives: Input/Output

The Shape of Things to Come

This is from my weekly newspaper column, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We’re all touch typists now.

Of course, the definition of touch type has had to change a little, since most of us don’t actually learn touch typing as we’re supposed to. Watch people tapping away at a keyboard and you’ll see all sorts of cobbled-together methods that would make the office secretary of yesteryear blanch.

But for now keyboards are going to be with us for a while as the main way to get our thoughts into a computer, so some sort of touch typing is necessary.

But the mobile phone is different. After ten years most of us have gotten used to entering text using the predictive, or T9, method, where the phone figures out you’re trying to say “hello” rather than “gekko” when you tap the 4,3,5,5,6 keys.

Texting has gotten faster—Portugal’s Pedro Matias, 27, set a new world record in January by typing a 264-character text in less than 2 minutes, shaving 23 seconds off the previous record—but that’s still slower than your average touch typist, who manages 120 words-say 480 characters—in the same amount of time.

Blackberry uses have their QWERTY keyboards, each key the size of a pixie’s fingernail, and while some people seem to be quite happy with these things, I’m not.

And the iPhone has given us, or given back to us, the idea of little virtual keyboards on our screen. I’ll be honest: I’m not a big fan of these either.

The arrival of the Android phone hasn’t really helped matters: The keyboard is usually virtual (some of the earlier phones had physical keyboards, but most have dropped them in favor of onscreen ones) and I really didn’t enjoy typing on them.

To the point that my wife complained that she could tell when I was using the Android phone over my trusty old Nokia because she didn’t feel I was “so reachable.” By which she means my monosyllabic answers weren’t as reassuring as my long rambling Nokia, predictive text ones.

But that has changed with the arrival of software called ShapeWriter. ShapeWriter is software that provides the same virtual keyboard, but lets you swipe your words on it by dragging your fingers over the keys to, well, form a shape.

Typing “hello,” for example, is done by starting your finger on “h”, dragging it northwest to “e”, then to the far east of “l”, lingering there a second, then north a notch to “o.” No lifting of the finger off the keyboard. Your finger instead leaves a red slug-like trail on the keyboard, and, in theory, when you lift your finger off the keys that trail will be converted to the word “Hello.”

And, surprise, surprise, it actually works. Well, unless you’re demonstrating it to a skeptical spouse, in which case instead of “hello” it types “gremio” or “hemp.”

Now this isn’t the first time I’ve used ShapeWriter. It has been around a while—it was first developed by IBM Labs in the early 2000s. It’s gone through quite a few changes in the meantime, not least in the theory behind it.

But the main bit of thinking is the same as that with predictive text (and speech recognition): what is called the redundancy of language. Taking, for example, the whole body of emails written by Enron employees, the most frequent email sender wrote nearly 9,000 emails in two years, totalling about 400,000 words.

That’s a lot of words. But in fact the number of actual words was about 2.5% of that: That email sender only used 10,858 unique words.

Now of course, Enron employees might not be representative of the wider population, but researchers have to work with data, and the Enron case threw up lots of data. The Enron Email Dataset is a 400 megabyte file of about 500,000 emails from about 150 users, mostly senior management of Enron. Making it a goldmine for researchers of language, machine learning and the like.

Learning from the words used—though presumably not their morals—researchers are able to figure out what words we use and what we don’t. Thus, ShapeWriter, and T9, and speech recognition, are able to tune out all the white noise by only having to worry about a small subset of words a user is typing, or saying. Most words we either don’t use because our vocabularies aren’t that great, or because we haven’t invented those words yet.

ShapeWriter has 50,000 words in its lexicon, but it gives preference to those 10,000 or so words it considers most common (presumably

In ShapeWriter’s case, they produce a template of the shape of each word they decide to store in the software, so the shape you’re drawing—left-far right, up, down, along—is recognised.

In its latest incarnation it actually works surprisingly well, and I’d recommend anyone with an Android phone to check it out. (It’s free.) There’s a version for the iPhone too, as well as Windows Mobile and the Windows Tablet PC. Only downside: For now, at least, only five–European–languages are supported.

I am not convinced this kind of thing is going to replace the real keyboard, but it’s the first decent application I’ve come across that has gotten me back into actually enjoying tapping out messages on my device.

My wife, for one, is happy.

Driver Phishing

Maybe because it’s early in the morning, but I fell for this little scam pretty easily. I’m going to call it “driver phishing” because it has all the hallmarks of a phishing attack, although it’s probably legal.

I’m looking for the latest drivers for my Logitech webcam, so I type in Logitech QuickCam driver in Google.

An ad above the results looks promising: a website called LogitechDriversCenter.com:

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So I click on it.

It takes me to a site with a Logitech logo, lots of shareware and PC Magazine stars, Logitech product photos and three options for getting the right driver:

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DriverRobot, the first one, sounds promising. Maybe, I think, Logitech have consolidated all their driver downloads into one program. Good idea, given I’ve got quite a few of their products hanging around the computer. So I download and install it.

Looks OK so far. A window appears prompting you to start scanning your computer. Lots of green arrows and ticks to reassure you:

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Once the scan is done you’re told how many drivers you need, with another green arrowed button indicating what you should do to get them (“Get drivers”):

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(I should have been forewarned at this point. Plenty of warnings, but one key one: None of the drivers it suggested were Logitech ones. Certainly nothing to help me with my webcam.)

Click on that and you’re told you’ve got to “Register” which is “quick and easy”.

Notice there’s no other option, unless you can see the little Close Window X in the top right corner of the window:

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Try to click on the other radio button (“Allow 11 drivers to remain out of date (not recommended). Critical updates for your computer will not be installed. Your computer may be vulnerable to crashes, performance problems, freezes and “blue screens.””) and then click Continue and the window disappears, but nothing else. It’s like those supermarkets where you can’t get out unless you buy something.

Click on the Continue button and your browser fires up with page requesting your Name and Email to register:

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Notice all the seals, locks, starts and 100% guaranteed things going on. Reassuring, eh? Except there’s no link on the page, nothing for the casual user (or a slow-witted guy who got up too early) to click on to get more information.

So the slow-witted guy enters his name and email address, thinking that’s going to get him registered. Of course not. Instead he’s asked to shell out cash–$30—for the software:

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Once again, no links to explain who is behind this, or what other options there may be.

As far as the casual user knows, this is either a Logitech product or one approved by them.

But it’s not. The software comes from a company called Blitware. The Complaints Board website has several complaints about the company and software:

The Driver Robot software does not work and the company tricks consumers in to believing that it is freeware. Am trying to get a refund of my purchase price now.

And worse: For some of those who do buy the software and follow its driver updates, it only makes things worse:

My computer completely crashed after using driver robot when it installed a generic mouse driver every time I touched my mouse I had a blue screen crash with a driver check sum error … It has also installed an elan touch tablet driver which is now in the toolbar. I dont have this device on my machine. This software is completely useless and will be going for a refund.

Others found they had no way of getting support:

Useless garbage–no contact info given. I attempted use and could see it doing nothing. What now, am I really out $39.90?

So who is Blitware? Its website says

Blitware (or Blitware Technology Inc., to be precise) is a small Canadian software vendor from Victoria, BC, Canada. Blitware’s mission is to take great software products to market and bend over backwards for our partners who help promote them.

(Notice how the company doesn’t say it’s a developer, and stresses the marketing, rather than the consumer, in its literature. That should probably tell you all you need to know, if you hadn’t gotten up too early.)

There is an encouraging link on the home page inviting you to click for Support (“Need support for a Blitware product? Our expert technical support staff is standing by to help you”) —

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— but far from take you to that helpful support staff, the link takes you to a Frequently Asked Questions page, and only at the bottom to a link for contacting technical support.

That in turn takes you to a link demanding you register at Blitware first, and then, when that is done, to a page for you to file your question.

Do that and you’re told:

We will reply to this message soon! You will receive an email when we do.

OK, so, what’s wrong with all this, and why call it phishing?

Well, phishing is the art of using social engineering tricks to lull a victim into thinking s/he is interacting with a legitimate site/product and to get him/her into coughing up passwords or cash.

Usually with banks, or emails, or accounts etc.

To me this Driver Robot is no different.

From the Google search—where a website with the word Logitech in it—everything is designed to make you think you’re dealing, if not with Logitech, then at least with a company/product that Logitech has endorsed.

The website’s title—the bit that appears in the browser’s top-most bar indicates it’s a Logitech site:

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Even the website’s favicon—the little log before the web address—is Logitech’s:

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To me this is no different to a scammer putting “Citibank” or “Paypal” somewhere in a web address to fool the user into thinking they’re dealing with someone kosher.

Anything the tricks the user, either into thinking they’re dealing with the real thing, or thinking they have no other option, is, in my view, a scam.

That the software doesn’t seem to work—it found no Logitech drivers or updates, and seems to crash computers—only makes matters worse.

I’m going to find out what Logitech make of their logos and name being used for dodgy purposes.

(more on Driver Phishing here.)

links for 2008-09-11

  • Avego.com is where travelers cooperate to make the whole transport system more efficient, saving us all money, wasted time and reducing pollution.

    A 5-seat car traveling with only a driver is inherently inefficient, and yet 85% of the time, that’s how cars travel in much of the world. With our iPhone GPS technology, web services and your participation, we can fill up those empty seats.

  • Did I get enough exercise today? How many calories did I burn? Am I getting good quality sleep? How many steps and miles did I walk today? The Fitbit Tracker helps you answer these questions.

  • Swype was developed by founders Cliff Kushler and Randy Marsden, along with a very talented team of software programmers and linguists.

    Cliff is the co-inventor of T9, the standard predictive text-entry solution used on over 2.4 billion mobile phones worldwide. He is the named inventor on multiple patents related to alternative text entry.

    Randy is the developer of the onscreen keyboard included in Windows, with an installed base of over a half a billion units. He is a recognized leader in the field of assistive technology and alternative computer input.

    Together, their experience is unmatched in developing onscreen keyboard-based text input solutions for mobile touch-screen devices.

  • ShiftSpace (pronounced: §) is an open source browser plugin for collaboratively annotating, editing and shifting the web.

  • # Create and track invoices you issue to clients.
    # Determine what you’re owed, by whom, and when it’s due.
    # Keep track of timesheets for yourself and your employees.
    # Notify your clients of new invoices.
    # Create interesting reports and analyze payment history
    # Save time & collect your money.

Bye Bye, Laptop?

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The day seems to be getting closer when we can do something that would seem to be pretty obvious: access our pocket-sized smartphone via a bigger screen, keyboard and a mouse. Celio Corp says it’s close.

Celio Corp have two products: their Mobile Companion (pictured above), a laptop like thing that includes an 8″ display, a full function keyboard, and a touchpad mouse. At 1 x 6 x 9 inches and weighing 2 lbs, the Mobile Companion promises over 8 hours of battery life and boots instantly. After loading a driver on your smartphone you can then access it via a USB cable or Bluetooth. (You can also charge the smartphone via the same USB connection.)

Uses? Well, you can say goodbye to coach cramp, where you’re unable to use a normal laptop. You can input data more easily than you might if you just had your smartphone with you. And, of course, you don’t need to bring your laptop.

The second product might be even better. The Smartphone Interface System is, from what I can work out, a small Bluetooth device that connects your smartphone, not to the Mobile Companion, but to a desktop computer, public display or a conference room projector  — these devices connect via a cable to the Interface, like this:

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The important bit about both products is that the Redfly software renders the smartphone data so it fits on the new display (this will be quite tricky, and, because it will carried via Bluetooth, would need quite a bit of compression. The maximum size of the output display is VGA, i.e. 800 x 480, so don’t expect stunning visuals, but it’ll be better than having all your colleagues crowding around your smartphone.)

The bad news? Redfly isn’t launched yet, and will for the time being be available only for Windows Mobile Devices. Oh, and according to UberGizmo, it will cost $500. The other thing is that you shouldn’t confuse “full function keyboard” with “full size keyboard”: this vidcap from PodTech.net gives you an idea of the actual size of the thing:

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this is the keyboard size relative to Celio CEO Kirt Bailey’s digits:

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Until I try the thing out and feel sure that the keyboard doesn’t make the same compromises as the Eee PC, I’d rather use my Stowaway keyboard.

For those of you looking for software to view your mobile device on your desktop computer, you might want to check out My Mobiler. It’s free software that purports to do exactly that for Windows Mobile users.

Pocket Lockets

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videocapture from myTreo.net

Here’s something that caught my eye from CES: D.A.V.E. from Seagate. Despite its awful name (it stands for Digital Audio Video Experience) it’s a great idea. It’s basically a small 60 GB external hard drive but it’s small (65 x 90 x 16 mm) and light (106 grams) and connects to a smart phone via WiFi or Bluetooth. The devices contain a USB port for uploading data (and presumably can use a wired connection from smartphones too, should the need arise.)

As Tadd Rosenfeld of myTreo.net puts it:

We believe DAVE is a game changer. With the introduction of 1 gigahertz smartphone processors (check back for our interview with Qualcomm about their new high end processors for Windows Mobile devices), and with the introduction of DAVE, smartphones are going to have have virtually all of the processing and storage capabilities of laptop and desktop computers. Smartphones will become simply one more way of accessing everything you have on your computers at work and home.

True, but it seems to be taking a bit longer to come out of the traps than earlier expected. ZDNet wrote a year agao that the devices should be available in May 2007. There’s no sign of that, and in fact it sounds as if Seagate is not selling them directly, merely selling the technology. And if weight and size are not too much of an issue, Singapore’s EDS Lab Pte Ltd has had a similar sort of product in the market for some time — the wi-Drive, which connects via WiFi (not Bluetooth) measures 112 x 77 x 22 mm, and weighs 230 grams. (I’m trying to get hold of one of these.)

Another option is the BluOnyx from LSI Corporation. Describing itself as a Mobile Content Server, the BluOnyx connects via Bluetooth, SD card, USB and Wifi and allows several people to access content at the same time. The device comes in lots of different colors, is about the size of a credit card and slightly thicker than a Razr (that would be about 85 x 57 mm x 10 mm). Given that the device was announced more than a year ago, and that the BluOnyx was created by Agere Systems, which was bought by LSI last year, the fate of the BluOnyx isn’t clear. Doesn’t look like you can buy one yet.

Most of the buzz seems to be around accessing multimedia content — basically turning your device into a sort of iPod, but with the weight elsewhere. I guess that would be the main usage, though I love the idea of being able to take all my databases with me and then access them from whatever device I want. But I can see why these products don’t necessarily fly: who wants an extra piece of hardware to lose in the bottom of a bag? And while extra storage would be nice, anything with Bluetooth in it is bound to be a hassle. And, surely, the day can’t be far off when our smartphone has 60GB of storage built in?

Love the idea, can see why the reality isn’t in all of our pockets. Yet.

60 GB of Treo Storage – Editorials

How To Report on the Road

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I’ve always been looking for the perfect way to report on the road — do you write shorthand notes, do you record it all and transcribe it later, do you use digital writing tools like Logitech’s io Pen? Or a combination? Each one I’ve done has fallen down, usually because I get bored transcribing or deciphering my notes. The result is a lot of stuff gets lost along the way.

At a recent conference I ran into a guy who seems to have the answer: Don Sambandaraksa, technology writer for The Bangkok Post, who manages to touch type so fast on a Think Outside Bluetooth keyboard that his fingers are a blur.

image For a big guy it’s impressive display (I’ve got some video I’ll try to upload at some point). He is able to ask questions and keep eye contact with the interviewee (admittedly, with a faraway gaze in his eyes, but that may well be his normal look) the whole time, and when I snuck a peek at what he was typing, it looked good. I tested him out afterwards, and it seems he can do it on most subjects, including obscure Javanese kings.

He then dumps it all in his computer and is able to file quickly back to head office. (He also takes photos and all sorts of stuff on the spot. He’s a citizen journalist in a whirlwind.)

I was sufficiently ashamed to try it out myself. I wish I’d brought a Nokia N800 with me, which would have worked better than the measly notes application on the N95. But I didn’t do too badly — though by no means as fast as The Don. I asked him whether it meant he couldn’t focus so much on what was being said, and ask the right questions, but he said no, he’d been typing since the age of 5 (!) so it was no biggie. And, if his questions were anything to go by, he’s probably right.

Doing the Nokia Swivel

Another day, another new Nokia, but I think the N93 might be the shape of things to come. The clamshell swivel has several positions, but this one I think offers a way forward for all smartphones:

N93

More pix here. Perhaps other manufacturers have already adopted the manoeuver conveyed above; apologies if I missed it. But if the keyboard can be modified so that it faces the screen in a more traditional way, this would open up opportunities for a lot of smartphone manufacturers looking to put screen and keyboard in an alignment that favors typing.

The Digital Writing Podcast

Recently I wrote (WSJ.com; subscription only I’m afraid) and spoke (BBC World Service; podcast here) about digital writing — the still peripheral business of using a pen to write on paper, and then have that work digitally transferred to a computer, PDA or cellphone. (And then, optionally, have any writing converted to text your computer can use.)

It’s a much maligned, undercovered field. Every year or so a company comes out with a new product and there’s a smattering of articles. Then everyone forgets about it — usually including the people who bought and briefly used the product. I don’t know why this is; I suspect it’s because partly it’s still a bit tricky, in some cases, to use these products, and partly because everyone thinks digital writing is all about TabletPCs — i.e., bringing your laptop with you. It’s not; in fact, nearly all these solutions use paper and pen, which makes them truly portable. My only gripe: the pens, particularly those from Logitech (the io2) and Nokia (the SU-1B), use very basic biro-style ink which isn’t all that nice to write with. I’ve read some people have gotten around this by finding better cartridges and fitting them with tape, but I’ve not tried it.

A New Digital Pen From Logitech

Logitech announced today it has upgraded its digital pen, the io Pen, with the io2 Digital Writing System, which features “a refined, slimmer digital pen design — thanks to the shrinking of internal technology — along with more paper options and enhanced handwriting recognition that is now part of the core offering”.

The Logitech io2 Digital Writing System will be available beginning in late September through retailers in the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom. The suggested retail price in the U.S. is $200. Logitech launched the io Pen early last year and then about a year ago upgraded its software to include handwriting recognition.

Maybe this kind of thing is catching on. A computer products distributor, Synnex Corp, said last month it planned to release a wireless computer pen that would let “users write notes on paper that are also simultaneously captured in digital form and can be later uploaded to a PC”, according to the East Bay Business Times.

View: Why Are Printers So Tricky?

 I’ve written before about how printer manufacturers gouge us by selling us cheap printers but expensive cartridges. But either I’m missing something or these guys won’t stop at anything to make a bit more cash: I noticed for the first time yesterday that, with my HP DeskJet 640c, if I change the settings to print from colour to black (or vice versa) the software will automatically change my Draft output setting to Normal — meaning I’ll use more ink. Where is the justification for that? I can’t think of any, but I bet I’m not the only one who only notices the change after I’ve printed a page or two — if then. Sleazy.
 
Remedy? Bypass the HP printer software entirely using something like FinePrint — it also helps you print more onto less paper. Oh, and refill your cartridges using the wonderful Inke. Then the printer manufacturers end up being the patsies, selling you a cheap printer but not making any money off you with overpriced ink.