Bike Fencing

Some interesting stuff going on in Singapore’s world of bike sharing.

They’re approaching the problem of errant bike-parking by regulating the companies via a licensing regime, which will begin later this year, according to Today.

From what I can make of it, operators must
– be licensed, or face a S$10,000 fine and/or six months in jail
– be responsible for the parking of bikes within designated parking locations, or lose their licence or find their fleet size reduced

Users will also be watched, under a geo fencing scheme that will require them to scan a QR code at the designated parking locations before ending their trip. Failure to do so will mean they’ll be charged continuously — I guess meaning the meter will keep running (not sure how this would work with the flat monthly rates all three operators are currently offering).

Readers have already pointed out potential flaws:
– what happens if there’s no space at the designated area?
– what happens if someone moves the bike after the user has scanned their code?

And Today pointed out in a piece that there need to be more designated areas to make this work. It’s fine picking up and parking a bike at a subway station or a bus stop, but what about when you’ve pedaled back to your home?

Singapore, as ever, is taking a positive but cautious approach to the sharing economy. I quite agree that companies are so far not incentivised to distribute their bikes with consideration, or to monitor them after they’ve been deployed. So something has to change. But also the usefulness of these bikes is going to decline rapidly if users aren’t able to leave the bikes within a few meters of their home for fear of draining their digital wallets.

More importantly, Singapore needs to consider what more it can do to encourage bike usage — by rapidly expanding its bike paths, by offering guidance to users about how and where they can use the bikes, and generally rewarding their use. As China has found, the more these bikes are used, the more other people feel comfortable using them and the quicker a social code of conduct emerges about their usage.

 

Investigators – New Kids on the Blockchain

Here’s a Reuters piece I wrote on a hitherto uncovered area of blockchain potential — helping law enforcement and others collaborate and collect evidence better, among other things. 

For security agencies, blockchain goes from suspect to potential solution

By Jeremy Wagstaff, Byron Kaye

(Reuters) – Police and security agencies have so far only taken an interest in blockchain – the distributed ledger technology behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin – for tracking criminals hiding illegal money from banks.

But that’s changing as some civilian, police and military agencies see blockchain as a potential solution to problems they have wrestled with for years: how to secure data, but also be able to share it in a way that lets the owner keep control.

Australia, for example, has recently hired HoustonKemp, a Singapore-based consultancy, to build a blockchain-based system to record intelligence created by investigators and others, and improve the way important information is shared.

“They’ve been trying for years to come up with a centralized platform, but people are reluctant to share information,” said Adrian Kemp, who runs the consultancy, which was awarded a A$1 million ($757,500) grant by AUSTRAC, Australia’s financial intelligence agency, and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.

Blockchain’s appeal for data sharing is threefold.

Its ledger, or database, is not controlled by any single party and is spread across multiple computers, making it hard to break. Once entered, any information cannot be altered or tampered with. And, by using so-called smart contracts, the owner of information can easily tweak who has access to what.

It’s a sign of how far blockchain technology has come within a decade since the publication of a pseudonymous paper describing bitcoin and the blockchain ledger that would record transactions in it.

Bitcoin has since become the preferred currency not only of libertarians and speculators, but also of criminal hackers. The bitcoin price is volatile, and hit record peaks late last month.

Governments are already exploring ways to store some data, such as land records, contracts and assets, in blockchains, and the financial industry, too, has experimented with blockchain technologies to streamline transactions and back-office systems, though with limited success.

SECURING SHARED DATA

The closest most law enforcement agencies have come to the blockchain has been working with start-up firms to analyze it for evidence of criminal deals.

But in the past year or so that attitude has begun to change.

The United States Air Force (USAF) has funded research into how blockchain could ensure its data isn’t changed. In May, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded a grant to ITAMCO, the company behind an encrypted chat program to make a secure messaging service based on the blockchain.

Amendments to a recent U.S. Senate defense bill require the government to report back on “the potential offensive and defensive cyber applications of blockchain technology and other distributed database technologies” and how foreign governments, extremists and criminals might be using them.

Britain, too, is exploring several uses of the blockchain, say consultants and companies working for several departments.

Cambridge Consultants, a UK-based consultancy, said it had worked with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, a UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) agency, on using a blockchain to improve the trustworthiness of a network of sensors on, for example, security cameras.

The UK’s justice ministry is looking at proving that evidence – video, emails, documents – hasn’t been tampered with by registering it all on a blockchain, according to a blog post on its website.

Marcus Ralphs, a former soldier and now CEO of ByzGen Ltd, which makes blockchains for the security sector, said he was working on projects with the MoD using blockchain to track the status and level of individuals’ security clearance. Other work included helping the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) improve the way work permits are issued and records stored.

“PASSING THE BUCK”

These are early days.

Kemp says there’s no guarantee his project will be deployed more widely. And some who have worked with AUSTRAC are skeptical, saying such projects have more to do with agencies turning to the private sector because they’re running low on resources and ideas.

“The government is just looking to pass the buck on to private industry,” said Simon Smith, a cyber private investigator who has worked on cases involving AUSTRAC.

Many police forces and armies aren’t ready for the technological and mental leap necessary.

The Police Foundation, a UK think-tank focusing on policing and crime, is pushing British police to explore the blockchain, but its director, Rick Muir, said “we are still at the stage of ‘what is blockchain?’.”

Neil Barnas, a USAF major who last year wrote a thesis on the potential of blockchain in defense, said U.S. military and security agencies were slowly waking up.

The problem, he says, is that military minds are more inclined towards centralized systems than the decentralized ones that blockchain’s distributed ledger embraces.

That said, blockchain’s association with the criminal underworld has not dented its appeal to those who see its potential, said ByzGen’s Ralphs.

“The negative narrative around it has not at all watered down or diluted interest of the people we’ve been engaging with,” he said.

($1 = 1.3201 Australian dollars)

The Ugliness of Short Term Hacks on the Road to Wireless

Here’s a Kickstarter project to solve the problem of no audio jack which illustrates just how thorny it is: iLDOCK – charge and listen to iPhone 7 at the same time by ildockgear — Kickstarter

ILDOCK lets you use your wired headphone while charging your iPhone 7. You can also add storage via SD, TF and USB ports with Plus. 

NewImage

The problem, as some have highlighted in the comments, is that Apple rarely grants MFi status to accessories where the lightning cable doesn’t plug directly into an Apple device. In this case, one does but the external one doesn’t. Most manufacturers get around this by making the external one a microusb. I don’t mind that, in fact it helps me, but some folk aren’t crazy about it. 

There are other issues too, of course: if you have lightning headphones and want to charge, this isn’t going to help you. 

I know I’ve written before that the future is wireless, but this project, worthy though it is, merely illustrates how ugly the interim is going to look like. 

(Via Kickstarter)

Singapore’s M1 aims narrowband deployment at the sea

Singapore telco M1 is getting Nokia to install an NB-IoT network atop its 4G one, interestingly with an eye not just to land but to sea. 

NB-IoT stands for Narrowband Internet of Things, and is the GSM world’s answer to narrowband technologies such as LoRa and Sigifox that threaten to take away a chunk of their business when the Internet of things does eventually take off. Why use expensive modems and services when you’re just trying to connect devices which want to tell you whether they’re on or off, full or empty, fixed or broken?  

Techgoondu reports: “While that network caters to heavy users who stream videos or songs on the go, a separate network that M1 is setting up at the same time is aimed at the smart cars, sensors and even wearables.

They said pricing will likely vary with each solution or package, with some companies saving costs from deploying large amounts of connected sensors. However, others that require the bandwidth, say, to deliver surveillance videos over the air, would likely stick with existing 4G networks.

And while many NB-IoT devices are still on the drawing board – standards for the network were only finalised in June – M1 executives were upbeat about jumping on the bandwagon early.

Alex Tan, the telco’s chief innovation officer, said the technology would open up new business opportunities in the years ahead.”

A press release from M1 says it’s working with the ports authority — Singapore is one of the biggest ports in the world — to  “explore the deployment of a network of offshore sensors to augment the situational awareness of our port waters,” according to Andrew Tan, Chief Executive of the Maritime and Port Authority, MPA.

This follows Sigfox’s deployment in the city state last month. It also pips to the post rival Singtel who have been talking since February about running a trial of NB-IoT with Ericsson.  (Update: “Our preparation to trial NB-IoT is well underway. We are working with our vendors and industry partners to conduct lab trials in December, with a view to launch an NB-IoT network by mid-2017.”)

Here’s my earlier piece on LoRa

Pocket-sized Smartphone Breathalyzer

Further to my piece on smell sensing tech, it seems that breathalyzers, which use gas sensors like this one: Alcohol Gas Sensor, are getting smaller. This one attaches to a smartphone, fits in a pocket and costs $35. (Via Interesting Engineering)

That’s not the cheapest one out there — this BACtrack Ultra-Portable Personal Keychain Breathalyzer probably is — but I think it’s probably the cheapest that connects to a phone. 

Some more links on the matter: 

Drinkmate | Specifications

 Blood alcohol content – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

Apple Takes on Evernote?

Apple’s update to OSX allows users to import Evernote notes into Notes (if you see what I mean) painlessly and effectively: Import your notes and files to the Notes app.

As far as I know, this is the first time an app with some heft has included this capability — there are third party tools for OneNote, but no native functions. 

To me, this is the first serious challenge to Evernote, since why would you bother with Evernote if you’re an iOS and OSX user? 

There are limitations, I suspect. I can’t find any way to add tags and it seems the tags preserved in an enex/xml file are lost on import. That’s a showstopper for me. And of course some of the deeper features of Evernote aren’t there — saved searches and what have you. And if you use Android and/or Windows this is not going to help you.

But I suspect the bigger thing for most heavy users will be a sigh of relief that a player like Apple sees it worthwhile to add this feature. For many users there’s been growing disquiet as to just how  long ‘Ever’ means for the company, and the ramifications for their vast Evernote collections. 

Uber, $70 bln company, doesn’t seem to test some of its code

Screenshot 2015 12 21 07 40 15

Growing pains, I guess, but this should not be what big disruptive companies look like. I noticed that Uber’s web app offers filters to create lists of historical data — your rides — via criteria like which credit card you used, the city you took the ride in, the month etc. Great for expenses. Except it doesn’t work. The filters simply don’t work.

Uber have confirmed it and said they’re working on it. (It’s still not working.) But for a feature like this, wouldn’t you have done even basic testing, like, well, to see that it worked? 

 

Making 3-D objects disappear

I’m a big fan of invisibility cloaks, partly cos they’re cool, and partly because I think the principles behind them could end up in a lot of things. Here’s another step forward: Making 3-D objects disappear:

“Making 3-D objects disappear: Ultrathin invisibility cloak created Date: September 17, 2015 Source: DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Summary: Researchers have devised an ultra-thin invisibility ‘skin’ cloak that can conform to the shape of an object and conceal it from detection with visible light. Although this cloak is only microscopic in size, the principles behind the technology should enable it to be scaled-up to conceal macroscopic items as well.”

(Via ScienceDaily.)

Deja Vu or New Dawn? Microsoft’s Acquisition Binge

I’m not quite sure what to make of these acquisitions. It reminds me of Yahoo’s binge 10 years ago: After del.icio.us, a Directory of Other Things Yahoo! Should Buy. They snagged up a lot of my favourite stuff back then, and Microsoft is doing the same thing with Sunrise etc: 

Welcome 6Wunderkinder! Microsoft acquires Wunderlist – The Official Microsoft Blog: “What’s better than completing that last important task on your to-do list? Doing so with a beautiful and useful productivity app. Today, I am thrilled to announce that Microsoft has acquired 6Wunderkinder, the creator of the highly acclaimed to-do list app, Wunderlist.

The addition of Wunderlist to the Microsoft product portfolio fits squarely with our ambition to reinvent productivity for a mobile-first, cloud-first world. Building on momentum for Microsoft Office, OneNote and Skype for Business, as well as the recent Sunrise and Acompli acquisitions, it further demonstrates Microsoft’s commitment to delivering market leading mobile apps across the platforms and devices our customers use – for mail, calendaring, messaging, notes and now tasks.”

One Microsoft person told me when I complained about little work had been done on Skype that “we’re listening to users who said ‘don’t fiddle’ with it.” All well and good, but they could have fixed the more ridiculous things, like not being able to disable birthday notifications in some versions of the app, and losing the plot on groups. 

Still, this might be a new Microsoft, not the old Microsoft or Yahoo! doing these new acquisitions. They’ve done a lovely job integrating Acompli. So maybe there’s hope. I don’t mind these things getting that kind of treatment so long as they do it to reach out to users, rather than to fence them in. That’s going to take quite a change of attitude up in Redmond. 

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

IMG 0563

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)”