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  • Posts Tagged ‘technology’

    Take a ride on a solid rocket booster

    2011 - 03.06

    You may want to skip around to watch all the cool parts, like separation and splashdown, but damn, this video knocks me out.  These are some impressive views of the space shuttle Discovery in action, on its last mission.

    nerd rage: tablets are stupid!

    2011 - 02.24

    I’ve been reading a few interesting articles lately using this awesome RSS reader called Pulse, for the android.  Two of them struck me as interesting: tech bloggers who are naysaying about the latest, greatest gadget fad: tablets.  Essentially, a lot of the talk revolves around the idea ‘ what can a tablet actually do better than anything else?’

    Over at Ars Technica, there is a rant I found pretty amusing called Why I Don’t Care About Tablets Anymore.  Jon Stokes opines:

    “the tablet isn’t really the best gadget that I have for any of the [things I commonly do on it]—at least in terms of the overall experience (cost and convenience aside). For watching video, my TV wins. I prefer to read books and papers on either the Kindle or as dead-tree color printouts and books. Surfing the Web is easier on a computer, especially if you leave a lot of tabs open. I’ve yet to have a tablet gaming experience that really surpasses a good console or PC game. And so on.”

    He makes a cuttingly perceptive observation toward the end as well: “Some of the really savvy new media efforts like Flipboard are exciting, but after the initial “wow” factor wears off, these apps mainly serve to remind me that there’s already too much good stuff to read out there, and that my life is slipping away from me in an infinite stream of interesting bits about smart animals, dumb criminals, outrageous celebs, shiny objects, funny memes, scientific discoveries, economic developments, etc.. I invariably end up closing the app in a fit of guilt, and picking up one of the truly fantastic dead tree or Kindle books that I’m working my way through at the moment, so that I can actually exercise my brain (as opposed to simply wearing it out).”

    Hmph!  Indeed.   That last sentence is going to stick with me for a long time.

    Article two is “I Hate My iPad” over at Slate, with a few quotable gems on the iPad:

    “There’s no question that it makes browsing the Web while sitting on the couch easier. Though I have a relatively svelte laptop, it’s kind of a pain to tote around the apartment. But am I the kind of person who pays $600 to save the effort of detaching some USB cables from time to time? I don’t want to be that kind of person.”

    “I think it’s amazing that Apple has convinced so many people to pay $600 for what seem like such marginal improvements in their lifestyles—$600 to be able to check my e-mail in bed in a slightly more comfortable fashion than I can on my laptop seems sort of crazy when I stop and think about it.” His friend replies, “That’s your problem–stopping to think about it.”

    Incidentally, it also spawned this discussion, with this humorously sarcastic quote:

    “I like to sit on my couch and watch Netflix on it even though there’s a 46″ LCD right in front of me. I like to use the word processing software even though it takes ten times longer than using a real keyboard because my desktop computer is all the way in the next room. I like to use the shiny back as mirror to check myself out. I like to look at the pretty colors on the screen. It also makes a really futuristic looking paperweight. It’s so cute and shiny.”

    Nerrrd RAAAAAAAGEE!!!

    Talk to me, Watson.

    2011 - 02.19

    IBM’s new supercomputer hotness, named Watson after one of IBM’s co-founders, has destroyed humanity’s greatest champions in the game of Jeopardy! This is a feat accomplished with speedy perusal of an encyclopedic database and high level language parsing. One of the main challenges here was to simply understand the questions being asked, what with the goofy formatting and puns built into many Jeopardy! questions. Watson’s designers at IBM said that their goal was to create a computer that you could converse with, using normal language syntaxes a la the computer in Star Trek. This is a pretty significant step toward that goal. Next up Watson will probably be functioning as a medical computer, with vast databases of factoids and data to help doctors work better. Neat!

    While this development in the field of artificial intelligence is a noteworthy mile-marker in the evolution of human technology, I wonder how soon we will see it benefit the average person. I’ve been thinking about what form it might take–probably similar to a website like wolfram alpha initially. While it would be very cool to have a computer you could play endless Q and A with, I think it’s even more fascinating to think about a potential computer that you could not just ‘converse’ with, but actually have ‘conversation’ with.

    What I mean is maybe you start off talking to Watson about how you used to live on the banks of the Wisconsin river when you were a kid, but that you could never go swimming in it because of the strong undertow. Watson replies, “That’s true, I have read many news articles about people drowing in the river, usually camped out on sandbars and caught off-guard by rising water. It is a sad thing.” Then he asks a related query: “Have you ever been to Devil’s Lake State Park, nearby the Wisconsin River?” If you say yes, maybe he inquires about your favorite trails there or relates some statistics about the park. Maybe if you’ve been talking to Watson for a while, his speech syntax will ‘relax’ a bit and he’ll lead off a sentence, “Hey, man, did you ever hear…?”

    If many people are all having conversations with this supercomputer, it could recall fascinating stories and jokes that people have told it. Computers are inherently a reflection of the people who have programmed them. How cool would it be if there was supercomputer that stored a massive library of experiences, emotions, and inspirations that people have shared with it? Such a machine would be a fascinating source of conversation. And the more people who talked to it, the more interesting it would become. It could learn slang, accents, and speak to individual users in ways tailored to their interests and preferences.

    Imagine if this were integrated into a website where you could speak into a microphone, and it would stream a response back to you. It could be accessed from anywhere. You could get it through your cellphone. What a world that would be.

    Unfortunately I think we’re a long ways away from that. If it takes a supercomputer the size of a room to play Jeopardy! imagine the computing power needed to have simultaneous conversations with thousands of people. Imagine how much conversational data it would amass. I suppose it would initially be available only to a select few, and in limited time allocations. But still, this is where AI is headed eventually, right? It’s fun to think about!

    Expanding power, in your pocket! (wait)

    2011 - 02.03

    There are two new devices coming out in the (relatively) near future that have caught my eye. Both of these represent a shift toward delivering an experience, on-the-go, that rivals the ease and fullness of what you have at home. These products, to me, signal an exciting new era in which the functionality of your portable devices is held to the same standard as you expect in the comfort of home.

    Device #1: The Next Generation Portable from Sony

    This thing is a monster. As in “aaaaah monstaaar!!” Let’s go down the list: Dual analog sticks (real, honest to goodness sticks), quad core processor (ARM, so low power draw), front and read cameras, OLED touchscreen, REAR touchscreen (seriously), GPS, Wi-Fi, 3G (if you like), compass, motion sensors (not a big fan of games that use these personally)… DUDE. The games you’ll play on it will be Metal Gear Solid, Uncharted, Call of Duty, Wipeout… the big guns. And not some gimped version where you touch the screen for everything, or tilt to steer, or play your shooters “on rails”; you have 2 sticks now, just like your PS3 controller at home. Meaning you’ll control the camera and you’ll have the same familiar button scheme as you do on your couch. Real gaming, for people who know games and have been scoffing this whole time at the idea of portable “gaming” on the iOS devices. It was half-baked. It just wasn’t “there” yet. Well here it is. It’s a PS3 you can stick in your backpack. Wow.

    Me personally, I don’t know if I’ll be in a huge rush to get one when it comes out. Rarely, if ever, do I game on the go. Once and a while I dabble in some Angry Birds or Doodle Jump, you know, the crème de la crème of the bite-size gaming world. This is mostly due to the fact that I commute to work by myself, by car. But for anyone who rides a train, a bus, a subway, or maybe even carpoolers, here is the way to spend your commute. Sweet Jeebus. If I were any of those people, I would be all-the-hell over this Sony NGP thingie.  Sticks man, two sticks.  See:

    Who knows, maybe they’ll even find some way to rope in the only-at-home gamers like me, maybe via minigames on the NGP that are tied to your progress in a so-called “AAA” title on the PS3. For example, maybe I’m playing Mass Effect 2 on the PS3, and instead of doing all my planetary mining activities on the big screen, maybe I pick up the NGP and go out to the backyard, for some relaxing mining while I sip a cool beverage and enjoy the sun. Or maybe, taking that a step further, a friend who’s over at my house hanging out picks up the NGP and starts doing some mining on the NGP WHILE I’m playing Mass Effect on the PS3. Maybe what’s happeneing on the NGP affects the game action on the PS3 in real time, and vice versa. And wildest of all, just maybe, for games that are less demanding, I could play matches against my friends who have NGPs across town who I riding the bus, while I sit at home on the PS3. Live cross-platform gaming is theoretically possible with the horsepower that the NGP is packing. I hope Sony pushes this direction, because it’d be, well, awesome.

    Device #2: The Motorola Atrix 4G

    Yo, dawg, I heard that you like keyboards and LCDs, so I put a LAPTOP inside your SMARTPHONE. Yeah, that pretty much says it. The Atrix is a dual core smartphone, with a dock that has a laptop-sized keyboard and a laptop-sized LCD. You plug it in, and your smartphone is now a laptop. This is pure genius for anyone who hates trying to type on a smartphone (read:everyone). Writers on the go, business professionals, students, whatever. Even just using the big screen to watch hulu, or surf your favorite sites.

    The Atrix is like seeing a glimpse of the future. Things are going to get to the point where the computing power inside our pockets overtakes notebooks, and having both will just be redundant. Convergence. All we really need then is a portable keyboard and larger screen. Which is what we’ve got here. I think the form factor will continue to evolve, with foldable displays when that becomes practical, pico-projectors for presentations or gaming on the go, and whatever input paradigm can eventually overtake the keyboard. Maybe speech recognition? I’m pretty sure Google is hard at work making computers understand our voices better…

    Honorable mention: the Playstation Phone

    It’s formally called the “Xperia Play” (dumb name!) but let’s just call it what it really is; the first-gen Playstation phone. When we put it next to the monstrosity that is the Sony NGP, it looks like a bit of a weakling in comparison, but it’s cool that this puppy is here. Ever since the original first-gen iPhone came out in 2007, I’ve been wishing that someone would make a case for it that had a d-pad and buttons for game playing. There has been one company which teased such prototypes for forever, but they are finally just making it to market now (ugh) and I bet the support for the accessory is probably low from game-makers, which cripples it at birth. So a phone with a native d-pad and buttons! It’s finally here. An idea 4 years too late, but better late than never I suppose. You won’t be playing the latest Gears of War on this hardware like you WILL on the NGP, but you could get your SNES Mario emulator rocking with this sucker like Engadget in the pic above, and I bet it’ll be a pretty sweet little game machine, albeit outclassed by it’s own Sony brethren. However, you could legitimately argue this is the best gaming experience that a PHONE has to offer, since the NGP is technically not a telephone (helloooo Skype!).

    The awesome tablet no one is getting this holiday

    2010 - 12.21

    The book. It’s the oldest form factor for information. How much have you learned in your lifetime from reading pages in a textbook? How many hours have you spent leisurely flipping pages in your free time? Laughter, history, enlightenment, escape, understanding, introspection–we look to books for all these things. They will be revered in history as likely the most important invention we ever made.

    Modern computer technology is a very recent invention when compared to the book. Its own form factors are still being debated, switched, refined. For a long time the desktop model of computing has ruled. There are voices who say that it is dying, due for replacement. I’d disagree. Especially in the business world, nothing else can touch the desktop in terms of speed, flexibility, and widespread acceptance. And as long as it remains entrenched in business, it will retain at least a modest foothold in the consumer world. But there are other form factors which will definitely grow in popularity to offer some desktop functionality in a more couch-friendly format.

    Tablets are all the rage these days. I’m not particularly won over. When the iPad came out, I was very disappointed in it. There are a lot of reasons to dislike it, but maybe the worst aspect of it is that Apple tends to set the trend. So if they release a product whose form factor is a slab with exposed screen on one side and brushed metal on the other, you’re going to get 500 other companies making essentially the same device. And that’s what we’ve seen. The Blackberry Playbook, the uncountable Android tablets, the color Nook, the upcoming Motorola tablet; these are all the same form factor. One that leaves the screen wide open to scratches. Some people say it is tedious to hold for an extended period. I have only used one for a few minutes at a time, so I can’t say.

    It seems ironic to me that a laptop computer is often referred to as a “notebook”. How often does anyone use an actual notebook with the pages oriented vertically?

    There are a few different products out there now which blend a tablet, a book, and a smartphone. To me, this is the form factor that I want to see. Give me a leather-bound computer that looks like an old-fashioned ledger, just like the one above.  This type of design is referred to as a “booklet PC”. Toshiba’s Libretto W105 was probably the first commercial product to go down this avenue. However this product was more of an experiment or publicity stunt rather than a serious attempt at a booklet PC. The operating system was windows 7 and it ran on laptop hardware. That in itself tells a lot. Cramming desktop OS and laptop hardware into a tablet is a recipie for lousy battery life and poor UI. The software must be lightweight, and designed explicitly for touch/stylus. The hardware must be completely low-power-centric.

    Just this week, another device became available that intrigues me a lot. It’s called the Kno, and it’s intended for students, as a replacement for notebooks and textbooks both. It comes in dual and single screen versions (of course the former is what interests me) and it accepts input from a stylus, running on custom Linux software with webkit browsing. Now this is an eyebrow raising product. You can doodle on it, take notes, or surf the web, read books, play music, and watch video. Nice!

    It would appear that demand is high. On their website, you’ll be greeted by a notification saying that you need a special invite to be eligible to recieve one. The ultimate success of the Kno will probably hinge upon how widely it is accepted by textbook publishers and students. It is also surprisingly large. Those displays are 14″ each! I’m not sure if that’s huge to the point of unweildy or not. I’d love to get my hands on one and try it out!!

    As sweet as it is, the Kno is, in my mind, a shadow of the most incredible booklet PC that never was. The Microsoft Courier. When videos of the software interface first surfaced, it was shocking that a company as lumbering and overweight as Microsoft could have been the origin of something so fresh and ahead of the curve. Alas, Microsoft didn’t find the project worthy of pursuit, and it was cancelled. The very talented man who was Microsoft’s “Chief Experience Officer”, J Allard, resigned shortly after these events. Coincidence?

    J Allard sheparded the design of the Zune player, which, despite the impossibility of ever catching Apple in the PMP space, was an excellently-designed product. The interface of the Zune HD went on to form the basis of Microsoft’s nascent phone OS, Windows Phone 7. Allard also worked extensively on the XBOX 360, and presumably the earlier stages of their recently released Kinect system. Allard had been spearheading Courier.

    So what was so cool about Courier? Watch this:

    and this:

    In essence, it was a sketchbook. True, it also did the stuff that Kno does (doodling, handwriting, web surfing, music, video, books), but the Courier was centered around what they called the Infinite Journal. This was a space to paste clippings from webpages, jot ideas, scribble in the margins, and draw, using pencil, marker, or paint. There was no soft keyboard. Stylus only. The key concept of what made Courier exciting was that it was all about writing down ideas and making drawings. The interface pictured, conceptual as it may have been, was a brilliant structure revolving around your journaled ideas. There were lots of neat little touches too, like the 2 buttons on the stylus: one for undo, another to switch between marker and pen. Flipping the stylus 180 degrees turned it into an eraser. A device like this is an artist’s pipe dream.

    Wake me up when it’s real, tablet makers.

    kindle versus kindle

    2010 - 12.21

    Well the fish outnumber the birds, but those birds are sharp!

    Shown here is an original Kindle DX alongside a current-gen Kindle.  The screen on the little guy is supposed to have 50% better contrast.  The difference between the two is maybe a bit more apparent in person, but they’re both pretty awesome, really.  Amazon’s reading machine is an excellent travel companion and the battery life is outstanding.  About a week’s worth of use before it needs a charge.  I really dig the idea of E Ink.  It certainly is easy on the eyes for long durations, and it uses no power to maintain an image.  If this technology can be adapted to display color, I’ll bet it has a bright future to come.

    shifting sands

    2010 - 12.04

    Two events have happened within the last couple months that I want to ruminate upon; two events which I think say something subtle but strong about how our world is changing.

    The first event is the news that Technics is ceasing production of the widely, widely celebrated 1200 turntable.

    Now, if you’ve ever listened to the radio, or heard live music, I guarantee that you’ve heard music played back on a Technics 1200. Matter of fact, I’d be willing to make a bet that everyone who reads this, at one point or another in their life, has gotten their ass *rocked* by music coming from a 1200. For a very long period of time–and we’re talking decades here–the Technics 1200 has had not just a significant role in the turntable market; it has utterly dominated it. If you’re gonna be playing a lot of records, and you’re serious about buying a deck that was bulletproof, reliable, and sounded top notch, this turntable was THE choice. I can’t really think of an analoguous product that’s held such reverence. When you’re done playing with all those kids toys, step up to the real deal and get yourself a set of 1200s, junior.

    The fact that demand has fallen so much–to the point where it’s no longer financially sensible to continue with the manufacture of this ledgendary means of music playback–it says something about how technology is changing. Even in the face of of what I’d call a vinyl revival, this is happening. There are still legions of people out there who believe in the superior fidelity of analogue records, and plenty of people, like myself, who have built CD collections but have started to feel like, hmm, maybe digital music formats are kind of lacking in something… call it “warmth.” Or maybe that tactile interaction of dropping a needle into the groove. Or just the simplicity that the sound waves you hear are literally etched into the record–no binary ones and zeros, no D/A converters, no sampling rates, no lasers or fancy tricks whatsoever. Just analog waveforms, straight from microphones far away to your platter, right here.

    That the 1200 is soon to be an out-of-production commodity, is a bit shocking. How long before the last film camera rolls off a closing assembly line? Or how long before you cannot buy a panavision movie camera that isn’t digital? How long before books cease to be ink on paper, and exist only as ones and zeros? Maybe these events will never transpire. Even so, it’s a watershed moment, to watch this veritable giant come tumbling to its knees.

    And speaking of transportation, the second event which recently happened that, to me, says a lot about the changing nature of our world is the completion of a project in which a series of driverless vans, equipped with cameras and various sensors, but no GPS, have autonomously navigated from Italy to China. That’s a real milemarker (ugh)  for human technology.

    Roadways are very complex. They have uneven surfaces, various colors, lines, painted symbols, signs and markers bearing all manner of information. All intended to be interpreted and reacted to in conjunction with the processing power of a human mind. Add in the fact that these vans navigated through several different nations, each with their own convention of roadway signage and languages. And then add in the fact that all these roads were populated with other cars driven by human drivers, with all of their random, inattentive, unpredicatble, and sometimes downright dangerous or malicious posturing to get their ahead of the next guy, and this is kind of a mind-boggling achievement. All with no GPS–something human drivers regularly use to find their way.

    I’d say one big difference between these two events is that while the future that will result from the first one makes me sad on several levels, this second one has exciting ramnifications. Yes, it’s gonna be a long, long time before anyone sells a car that’s intended to automatically drive you home from work while you read the New York Times or take a nap, but the fact that this technology now exists is a fleeting glimpse of what’s to come. Flying cars, for example, are going to need this technology. If we ever have large scale local air travel, it’s going to have to be automated. Human beings can barely handle the coordination it takes to drive their cars in 2 dimensions without getting into crashes. Almost every day on my commute home I see someone pulled over from a fender-bender. Driving in 3D? Never, ever going to happen for the proletariat.

    To tie it all together though, what these two things share in common is that they were made possible by the power of the microprocessor. They call this era that we live in the Information Age. But it’s not the acquisition of more information that has allowed the rapid advance of technology in the last several decades. Some people will call it the Digital Age. But it’s not the digitization of analog data that has changed our world. It’s processing power. Flops. Teraflops. Petaflops. Cycles per second. Megahertz. Gigahertz. Terahertz.

    CD players weren’t possible until digital processing ability reached a certain threshold. And they weren’t economical enough for mass dissemination until economies of scale and drastic advances in processing power made the modest requirements necessary to decode CDs dirt cheap. These forces, grinding away for a while now, have finally resulted in the demise of the analog champion. For most people, the indistinguishable difference between a sufficently high, finite bitrate and true analog reproduction has led them to invest in the lower-cost system. Compact Disc.

    The processing power required to visually decode roadmarkings, conduct defensive driving, and navigate to a destination without access to global positing satellites is a newly attained high water mark. When you compare it to other recent events, like the sucessful containment of antimatter at CERN, or the discovery of graphene, it may seem inconsequential in comparison. But I see these two matters, seeming disparate events, as poingant indicators of the same trend–our ever-expanding ability to decode our world and to master the complexity of analog systems by letting the processing horsepower we’ve invented do the heavy lifting for us.

    In the end, perhaps this will free up our minds to focus on other, more complex tasks. Imagine what more you would accomplish if all the time you spent driving was replaced by free time. You could write a novel, you could paint a masterpiece, or learn a new language. Or maybe just space out in front of some mindless TV. Afterall, a little relaxation is good for the soul too.