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A Call for Diminished Reality

(a copy of my weekly syndicated column. Podcast from the BBC here.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was walking the infant the other day, when I saw a vision of my future.  A mother and father, out with their son and dog.  The mother sat on a park bench, dog sitting obediently at her feet as she flicked absent-mindedly at her iPhone.

In the playground, the boy wove his way through a tunnel, across some ropes, down a slide–the father nearby, lost in his own iPhone. Occasionally he would waken from his 3G trance and, without looking up, point the phone at his son as if scanning him for radiation.  The resulting photo probably went straight to his Facebook page.  Ah, happy families, connected by place but detached by devices.

It’s a familiar lament.  Our devices distract so much we can’t ignore them.  We ignore our kith and kin but obey their beeps, walk into traffic or drive into pedestrians to heed their call.  And the solutions are usually less than imaginative, or practical: holidays where you check them in at the gate, where you put them in a glove compartment, or (shock), leave them at home entirely.

I have tried all these and they don’t work.  Which is why I fear I will be that family. Perhaps I already am; desperate to catch my infant’s first steps, words, or symphony, I think it more important that my cellphone camera is there, somehow, than I am. This is silly.  But I think I have found the answer in something called augmented reality.

Augmented reality is where our devices use their camera and positioning capability to add layers of information to what is in front of us: little pointers appear on the screen detailing where the nearest ATM is, or Chinese restaurant, or how far away and in what direction the nearest Twitter user is. The reality is the scene in front of us viewed through our camera, the augmented bit are these layers of extra information.

This is not new, but it’s becoming more popular.  And it’s kind of fun.  It is related to another technology that adds a layer onto what we see—so-called heads-up displays, that project information onto the windscreen of our airplane, or car, or goggles, that help us identify a target, a runway, an obstacle in the road.

Interesting, but I think they’ve got it all backwards.  Our problem is not that we need more information overlain on the world, we need to have the world overlain on the screens that command us.  We spend so little time interacting with the world now that we need technology to help us reintroduce the real world back into our lives.

I don’t think handing over our devices to well-intentioned guards at hotel gates is going to do it.  I think we need to find a way to fit the real world into our device.

Which is why, two years ago, I got very excited about an application for the iPhone called Email n Walk.  This was a simple application that overlays a simple email interface on top of whatever is in front of you.  The iPhone’s camera sees that for you, but instead of putting lots of pins about ATMs, Chinese restaurants and twitter users on the image, it puts the bare bones of whatever email you’re typing.  You can type away as you’re walking, while also seeing where you’re going.

Brilliant.  And of course, as with all brilliant things, it got lots of media attention and promptly disappeared.  The app is still there on Apple’s software shop, but the company’s home page makes no mention of it.  I tried to reach the developers but have yet to hear back.

They’re careful not to claim too much for the software. We can’t take any responsibility for your stupidity, so please don’t go walking into traffic, off of cliffs, or into the middle of gunfights while emailing, they say.  But it’s an excellent solution to our problem of not being able to drag our eyes from our screens, even to watch our son clambering over a climbing frame.

It’s not augmented reality, which purports to enrich our lives by adding information to it.  It’s a recognition that our reality is already pretty hemmed in, squeezed into a 7 by 5 cm frame, and so tries to bring a touch of the real world to that zone.  I believe that this kind of innovation should be built into every device, allowing us to at least get a glimmer of the real world.

Indeed, there are signs that we’re closer to this than we might expect. Samsung last month unveiled what may be the world’s first transparent laptop display, meaning you can see through it when it’s turned on, and when it’s turned off. I don’t pretend that it’s a good solution to the growing impoverishment of our lives, which is why I have no hesitation to call this inversion of augmented reality ‘diminished reality.’

And now, if you’ll excuse me, my daughter is making funny faces at me through the screen so I better grab a photo of it for my Facebook page.

A Call for Diminished Reality

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was walking the infant the other day, when I saw a vision of my future.  A mother and father, out with their son and dog.  The mother sat on a park bench, dog sitting obediently at her feet as she flicked absent-mindedly at her iPhone.

In the playground, the boy wove his way through a tunnel, across some ropes, down a slide–the father nearby, lost in his own iPhone. Occasionally he would waken from his 3G trance and, without looking up, point the phone at his son as if scanning him for radiation.  The resulting photo probably went straight to his Facebook page.  Ah, happy families, connected by place but detached by devices.

It’s a familiar lament.  Our devices distract so much we can’t ignore them.  We ignore our kith and kin but obey their beeps, walk into traffic or drive into pedestrians to heed their call.  And the solutions are usually less than imaginative, or practical: holidays where you check them in at the gate, where you put them in a glove compartment, or (shock), leave them at home entirely.

I have tried all these and they don’t work.  Which is why I fear I will be that family. Perhaps I already am; desperate to catch my infant’s first steps, words, or symphony, I think it more important that my cellphone camera is there, somehow, than I am. This is silly.  But I think I have found the answer in something called augmented reality.

Augmented reality is where our devices use their camera and positioning capability to add layers of information to what is in front of us: little pointers appear on the screen detailing where the nearest ATM is, or Chinese restaurant, or how far away and in what direction the nearest Twitter user is. The reality is the scene in front of us viewed through our camera, the augmented bit are these layers of extra information.

This is not new, but it’s becoming more popular.  And it’s kind of fun.  It is related to another technology that adds a layer onto what we see—so-called heads-up displays, that project information onto the windscreen of our airplane, or car, or goggles, that help us identify a target, a runway, an obstacle in the road.

Interesting, but I think they’ve got it all backwards.  Our problem is not that we need more information overlain on the world, we need to have the world overlain on the screens that command us.  We spend so little time interacting with the world now that we need technology to help us reintroduce the real world back into our lives.

I don’t think handing over our devices to well-intentioned guards at hotel gates is going to do it.  I think we need to find a way to fit the real world into our device.

Which is why, two years ago, I got very excited about an application for the iPhone called Email n Walk.  This was a simple application that overlays a simple email interface on top of whatever is in front of you.  The iPhone’s camera sees that for you, but instead of putting lots of pins about ATMs, Chinese restaurants and twitter users on the image, it puts the bare bones of whatever email you’re typing.  You can type away as you’re walking, while also seeing where you’re going.

Brilliant.  And of course, as with all brilliant things, it got lots of media attention and promptly disappeared.  The app is still there on Apple’s software shop, but the company’s home page makes no mention of it.  I tried to reach the developers but have yet to hear back.

They’re careful not to claim too much for the software. We can’t take any responsibility for your stupidity, so please don’t go walking into traffic, off of cliffs, or into the middle of gunfights while emailing, they say.  But it’s an excellent solution to our problem of not being able to drag our eyes from our screens, even to watch our son clambering over a climbing frame.

It’s not augmented reality, which purports to enrich our lives by adding information to it.  It’s a recognition that our reality is already pretty hemmed in, squeezed into a 7 by 5 cm frame, and so tries to bring a touch of the real world to that zone.  I believe that this kind of innovation should be built into every device, allowing us to at least get a glimmer of the real world.

Indeed, there are signs that we’re closer to this than we might expect. Samsung last month unveiled what may be the world’s first transparent laptop display, meaning you can see through it when it’s turned on, and when it’s turned off. I don’t pretend that it’s a good solution to the growing impoverishment of our lives, which is why I have no hesitation to call this inversion of augmented reality ‘diminished reality.’

And now, if you’ll excuse me, my daughter is making funny faces at me through the screen so I better grab a photo of it for my Facebook page.

How to Not Sweat the Mobile Office

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I do a lot of work on the road, including setting up offices from scratch. What I’ve learnt—and the mistakes I’ve made—could fill a book, so maybe I’ll write one.

But here, for now, are some tips I’ve found useful about working on the road—especially if you’re on the road for any length of time, or setting up your stall in a new place, temporarily or permanently.

The first thing to do is to get a local SIM card asap. Roaming fees remain ruinous. More of that in a later column.

The other is to get a dongle. Nowadays, it’s really easy to get your laptop connected to something approaching a broadband Internet connection.

HSDPA is the prevailing technology for this—you don’t need to know what it stands for, because it’s already on the way out—via a SIM card inserted in a little thumb drive that slots into your USB port. More commonly known as a dongle.

Nowadays you can get these for very little, along with a prepaid account. You often have to buy the dongle, which might or might not be usable in a new country.

Either way, you’ve got connected.

If you’re setting up a whole new office then get your staff onto Google Apps.

This is a suit of online programs that is basically Microsoft Office–for free, and open to real time collaboration. (Recently Google souped it up a bit and added a tool for drawing.)

All you need is an Internet connection. (Google Apps can be used offline, but this is in the process of being changed, so it might not be working for a while.)

If you want to do it with a bit of style, install Google Apps on your own domain (cooldudes.com) so all your new staff have email addresses that end in that domain; they can also then share all their contacts etc.

The non-domain version is called Google Docs and works fine. If you’ve all got Gmail accounts then it makes sense to stick with that.

Google have done a good job with this suite, but it’s not perfect. Don’t expect all the bells and whistles you’d usually get for spreadsheets and documents. But it’s fine for most needs.

Make sure staff get into the habit of saving documents with useful, consistent names and putting them in shared folders that others can find. Maintain a policy of limited documents and constant weeding so things don’t get lost or forgotten.

Hardware-wise, get people netbooks. They should be more than enough and this allows them to take them home to work/play on there. (Ensure they’ve all got antivirus on them, and tell them you’ll punish them severely if they install rubbish on them.)

And then wow them by buying an external monitor—Samsung, Philips and others do relatively small screens for about $100.

That doubles the amount of screen they’ve got to play with and wins you grateful looks from staff who’ve either never had two screens before or have them but never expected such an enlightened boss.

A tip: check the weight of the screen, as they vary widely. Some are light enough to carry with you between assignments. If not, you can always get a small 7” Mimo Monitor which gives you that extra bit of desktop. Mimo tell me they’re coming out with a larger one this month or next.

Printers are not an easy problem to resolve, but you should be able to get a scanner, printer, fax and copy machine, all in one, for about $120. You can either thread USB cables around your office or splash out on a wireless router that has a USB slot in the back.

(Wireless routers let you connect all your computers together via WiFi.)

This should, in theory, allow you to connect said scanner/printer/fax/copier into your network meaning anyone can use it. Expect a bit of pain here.

Other things I would buy to make your new mini-office more productive: decent mouse pads—nothing worse, or less productive, than staff sliding their mice across overly reflective desktops or books.

If they’re taking their netbooks home, then buy them the mains cable that sits between the netbook’s power adapter and the wall. This means they don’t have to dive under the desk to remove the power cable, and instead can just unplug the adapter as it sits behind their netbook.

Cost of cable: about $1.

I also buy headsets for landlines. These are cheap and save your staff’s necks.

And a non-stapler clipper, which uses reusable clips, saves you pulling staples out of paper and makes every document look snazzy. Cost: $1.50.

Lastly, buy a label printer. They may be a bit pricey—well, the labels are—but they make everything look so much better, and give your office a professional shine that will make your staff work harder and not want to go home in the evening.

Good for them. Now I’m off to the hotel pool.

The Power Thieves

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Why must those of us trying to find a power outlet feel like thieves?

I’m sitting here at KL International Airport at what seems like the only power outlet (found after asking an information officer who clearly had been asked before) in the place, between a vast Samsung TV blaring bad images of Turkey to zero people and the cleaners’ entrance.

At least there’s a power outlet: given my plane’s been delayed an hour, that’s the least I could hope for. But why should we have to put up with this kind of thing? Why should we be so inconvenienced? I want to see

  • a Wiki style database of power outlets at airports so we can pool our knowledge and
  • airports (and everyone else) to wake up to the fact that we’re taking up far less power than the Samsung TV.

Anyone care to join me? (Of course you may know a better place at KLIA, in which case I’d really love to hear from you…)

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Headsets Get the Bling Treatment

A few weeks back on my WSJ.com column (subscription only; I’ll update you when it’s out on the BBC World Service) I explored the world of bling cellphones, including the Vertu range, the Kathrine Baumann “Wireless Wardrobe” Collection (inexplicably that collection is now password-protected since I last visited), the fancy wooden Mobiado range, and the diamond-encrusted, gold-set Samsung. I guess it was inevitable that headsets would start getting the bling treatment, and here’s the first: the Dimante Pink Bluetooth Headset (via Red Ferret:

Hedset

The Pama P7008 Bluetooth headset comes with the usual Bluetooth Version 1.2 compliancy, with Headset & Handsfree Profiles, One Button action, up to 5 hours talk time and 200 hours standby, weighs “just 12.7g”, and is the Ideal Bluetooth Hands Free Kit Gift for the Woman in your Life! (it says here).

Frankly I feel insulted. Why can’t us fellas have one? The only problem I can see is that with all that bling on your ear, aren’t you becoming a walking mugging invitation?

Of course you might be asking yourself why a diamond-encrusted handsfree weighs the same as an ordinary headset and costs about the same (£47.95, or $84) as an ordinary headset. That’s because of the $17 Crystal Bling Design Kit which lets you jazz up your accessories — from cellphones to iPods — with little bits of shiny crap, sorry, Crystal Diamante. I think I’m going to bling up my Treo 650.

How To Plug PR Black Holes, Or Steal A Rival’s Customers

Why have I become a Nokia Care Center? Because I wrote a nasty blog post about them a year ago, that’s why. In October 2004 I was not happy with the response of my local Nokia centre, which seemed very cavalier and, well, careless about the data saved on a customer’s phone. Basically, there was no straightforward way for the customer to save their data before it was wiped off during a Care Centre repair. Several angry customers were belatedly waking up to the implications of losing all their phone numbers and other personal data. This struck me as dumb and I wrote about it.

Big mistake. Not because I heard back from Nokia (I never did, as I recall) but because I heard from other customers, all seeming to have some problem with their Nokia phone, and, increasingly, assuming I could do something about it. Nearly 40 so far, which is not a huge amount, but more attention than most of my posts receive. This once happened before, when I wrote about Coca Cola doing some online music venture. It ended up being colonised by semi-literate gamers confusing the post with some online game. I appreciated the traffic but after the posts crossed the lines of vulgarity and legality, I figured it was better to pull the post.

Of course, this kind of thing happens because the comments start figuring in the search engine results, not just the original post, and then the page starts climbing the rankings. A search for “Nokia Care Centres” on Google puts me 4th, way above many Nokia corporate sites, while the U.S. spelling puts me 8th: only one non Nokia site is above me there, a complaint from an expat site in Singapore. That, coupled with all the other hopeful requests added as comments (usually along the lines of “Can u send me Nokia Care Centers in Bangalore?”, the most recent comment of less than an hour ago) push it higher up the rankings and make readers assume such previous pleas for help have been answered. They haven’t, at least not by me, but I’m almost thinking of setting myself up as a Nokia Care Centre.

The bigger question here is: Why is Nokia not monitoring this kind of thing and helping out these customers by either approaching me to post something helpful on their behalf (folks looking for answers should go to this link, or call this number, or send an email here, or whatever) or post a comment themselves to reach these lost souls? Surely someone in Nokia has noticed that their own Nokia Care Centres are getting bypassed on Google, as dozens of unhappy customers cry for help or vent their frustration elsewhere online?

Nokia, please pay one intern to trawl the web for this kind of black hole and the problem could be solved, and a PR blindspot fixed, in before it gets out of hand. (Then there are the rivals: Why has Motorola or Samsung not called me up and asked to advertise on this page, realising they could win over dozens of new customers frustrated by their Nokia experiences? No really, folks. I probably need to mull over the ethical aspects of dissing a company so I can woo advertising from rivals, but after that brief Mulling Period is over, I’m open to all offers.)  

Tracking People With A Cellphone

Can services which allow you to track another person’s whereabouts be abused to monitor the movements of loved ones, employees etc without their knowledge?

David Brake of Blog.org cites an article on Korea’s OhmyNews.com site that says yes. As he points out, there are plenty of services that offer this service with built-in safeguards to ensure the person being tracked has given his/her permission. In the UK there’s Verilocation and Where RU, for example.

But the OhmyNews article would seem to confirm that such safeguards are easily bypassed. The article, written by Jennifer Park, an OhmyNews intern about to begin her freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University, points to two cases in Korea she says illustrate the relative ease with which folk can monitor people without their knowledge.

One involves a woman subscribing to a location-based service without his knowledge, finding and entering the correct PIN code to register for the ‘search friend’ service. She was then able to “trace her boyfriend block by block” to an accuracy of 10 metres. That, Jennifer says, was enough to be to tell the woman’s boyfriend was at a specific bar.

Jennifer Park also points to a recent case at Samsung, the Korean conglomerate, where civic groups allege that nine employees of Samsung SDI who were trying to set up a labor union were placed under surveillance by their managers by hacking into their cell phones. According to their attorney, Jennifer writes, the hacking was done by finding the cell phone’s identification number and using it to duplicate it. Then the hacker was able to subscribe to the service.

According to the Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, prosecutors began investigations in July into the case. Korea also prosecuted a group earlier this year which had “illegally copied the phones of the female employees of an entertainment establishment and put them under surveillance after secretly installing location-tracking systems”, the newspaper said.

Inke The Inkjet Refiller Goes After The Big Boys

My favourite inkjet refill machine, the Singaporean-made Inke, is going for the big time.

A release from the company says that Inke islaunching versions compatible with 305 different kinds of printers and 12 brands including HP, Lexmark, Samsung, Kodak, Compaq, Sharp, Sony, NewGen Sys, Apple, Pitney Bowes and Apollo. They are as follows:

  • INKE LX-70 to refill the Lexmark 70 (12A1970) and Lexmark 75 (12A1975)
  • INKE LX-50 to refill Lexmark 17G0050 and Sharp AJ0C50B
  • INKE HS-29 to refill HP 29 (51629A), HP 20 (C6614DN) and HP 19 (C6628AN) cartridges.

The devices are beautifully designed, pretty unmessy, and inexpensive: Each unit costs Euro 70 before VAT and include 3 ink tanks. Each additional ink tank costs Euro 10. Inke reckons “a user can save up to Euro 350 in ink costs over a 3 year period”. I don’t think they’re exaggerating.

The old INKE HS-45 is now available in Europe, or at least in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Greece, Spain, Italy, Hungary and Poland. Inke says it plans nine models altogether this year. I’ve been using mine for nearly a year and it’s been great.

Apple Excites, Disappoints With iPod Mini

As expected, sort of, Steve Jobs has unveiled a new Apple iPod — smaller, more colourful and cheaper (but not as cheap as people thought). About 3.5 inches long and just half an inch thick, the iPod mini looks a bit like the old iPod, with the same jog dial, but comes in five colours, stores only 4 GB (against up to 40 for the old iPod) and costs $250.

That’s pricier than people thought. A lot pricier: I wrote last month on talk that it would sell for about $100. And given you can now get a bigger iPod carrying 15 GB for $300, Apple may find themselves cannibalizing their own market, rather than opening up a new one. As Techdirt points out, for a lot of folk 4 GB pretty much covers their music collection, and even Apple describe the iPod mini as “enough music for a three-day weekend getaway in a package so small you’ll forget you’re carrying it”. Expect a backlash against Apple from folk who thought they would be getting a cheap iPod as their new year’s present.

What’s interesting is what is under the hood. Whereas rumour had it the iPod mini would be using flash memory, CNET says it is in a fact a mini hard drive made by Hitachi. Hitachi’s success with what was IBM’s technology seems to indicate a resurgence of interest in small devices that can store a lot of data. While CNET talks of video cameras — Samsung apparently uses a 1 inch hard drive in one of their models — I wonder when you’re going to see PDAs and phones using them. Wouldn’t it be useful to store 4 or more GB of stuff on your PDA? Or has it already happened and I’ve missed it?

News: Camera phone manufacturers ban camera phones

The limits to camera phones
 
 CNET Asia reports that some Korean manufacturers like Samsung and LG Electronics “may be fiercely promoting camera-equipped phones to consumers, but are wary about allowing their use on their own company grounds.” Both companies have barred employees from using the gadgets in some of their factories to prevent “industrial espionage and intellectual property theft”, the report says, quoting Korean daily Chosun Ilbo (here’s the original report).
 
This is another chapter in the fast moving saga of camera phones. They’ve been banned in some public areas — changing rooms and the like — and CNET says bookstore owners in Japan “are also mulling measures to stop female shoppers from snapping pictures of magazines with their camera-phones”. Korea, CNET says, is considering a law which makes it mandatory for phone makers to install a “noise emitter” in their camera-equipped handsets.
 
Hmm. It’s not all bad, though: I’ve read other stories about folk snapping shoplifters, hold-ups and other criminal activities. The debate is bound to go on, probably until it’s overtaken by miniature cameras that no one can see, built into ties, sun-glasses, or whatever. And of course, with wristwatches and PDAs sporting cameras, where exactly do you draw the line?