Ubiquitous computing done right

I was happily surprised when I saw this video.  I was sent it by Miles, and I think it is an outstanding example of ubiquitous computing.  Amazingly it’s also several years old now, and part of Johnny Lee’s work at Carnegie Mellon University.

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For those of you who can’t watch the video, it’s of a new type of projector calibration.  By embedding fiber optic sensors into the edges of an object, any standard commercial projector can then be automatically calibrated to perfectly project an image onto that object.  It is quite amazing to watch.

Normally I’m a philosophy-first ubicomp kind of guy, and prefer projects that focus on the human effects of ubiquitous computing.  However, I’m not an idealist and I realise that technical innovation is a fundamental requirement of the field.  However I still believe some of the best technical achievements are in reusing existing technology in novel ways.  This is a perfect example of this.  In particular, there are three things that I think are done right:

  1. Keep the functionality simple
  2. Keep the technology smart but simple
  3. Use off-the-shelf-technology

First of all, they focused on a single problem at hand.  Achieving computing potential embedded invisibly still requires a means to interact with that potential.  Finding new ways of getting information displayed on everyday objects is a huge step forward, and previously was a pretty hard task.  It required custom screens, or complex manual configuration.  Solving a single problem provides a design pattern for others to use and extend upon (and then worry about the user experience).

Secondly, the technology itself is simple.  Fibre optic sensors mean the system should be robust and cheap.  There are not a lot of different sensors which could break, nor is there a complex system with fragile dependencies.  Most of the magic is done in the software which allows for further improvement and customization, as seen by the later project:

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Finally, the technology is off-the-shelf.  This project used a single embedded chip, plus a regular projector and some custom software.  Sounds like something both easy to hack up yourself, and to commercialize for other people.  This is a very nice comparison to a system like Microsoft Surface, which is full of proprietary components.

This functional and technical simplicity in turn achieves two things.  One – it means the technology itself is cheap, and two, it is reproducible.  Ubicomp needs to drastically lower the cost of entry to continue rapid expansion and adoption.

With micro-projectors becoming more popular, I’m really looking forward to commercial implementation of such a system.   While there are some shortcomings (such as the brightness of the projected image), this is still a lot more immersive than fiducial markers.  This is the exact type of technology needed to allow ubiquitous computing to be useful to mainstream, commercial applications.

The Anti-Portfolio

Found this great link from Hacker NewsBessemer Venture Partners’ anti-portfolio.

Everyone likes to highlight their strengths and past successes, but there’s something impressive about being able to admit mistakes, on your corporate site no less.  I can only hope that the implication is that they have learned from these mistakes.

Highlights of investment opportunities passed over include:

  • Apple
  • eBay
  • Google
  • Intel
  • Intuit
  • PayPal

Also some refreshingly honest reasons for why they missed out, including this fantastic description of passing on Google:

Cowan’s college friend rented her garage to Sergey and Larry for their first year. In 1999 and 2000 she tried to introduce Cowan to “these two really smart Stanford students writing a search engine”. Students? A new search engine? In the most important moment ever for Bessemer’s anti-portfolio, Cowan asked her, “How can I get out of this house without going anywhere near your garage?”

Random Wikipedia Link of the Day – Donkey Kong Jr… MATH

Sometimes I worry about Wikipedia. I really do. After all, they’ll delete the entry on Trovix, but they’ll let something like this survive, nay, flourish.

I present for your perusal, this.

The game features one player and two player modes. In the one player mode, the objective is to enter math answers in order to receive points.

In the two player mode, each player applies a math operation (addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division) to the number they have to make it another number, trying to eventually reach a mutual goal number. However, signs and numbers are on the same field for each player, and they must race to reach the final number. The identity of player 2 is unknown.

Riveting.

Turn your iPhone into a wifi Skype phone

There has been a lot of buzz on the intertubes today about Fring.  They’re an Israeli startup who released a fairly popular mobile chat client.  That’s simplifying things – in addition to supporting every major IM client, Fring automatically logs you into wireless hotspots, does VOIP and allows file transfers.  It’s like a mobile version of Trillian on steroids.

I’d heard bits and pieces about it, but hadn’t really been that interested.  That changed when I was browsing The Unofficial Apple Weblog and read their post about trying out the new beta of Fring on the iPhone.  If you have a jailbroken iPhone then this is easily the best application you can get for it.  Certainly a lot of other bloggers seem to agree.

A bit of backstory as to why I am so excited about this.  When I first moved to the US in July of 2006, I was staying with friends for a while and moving around a lot.  I purchased a SkypeIn number.  Two in fact – one for the US and one for Australia.  This meant people back home could call me for the cost of a local call, and I could also have a local number here that wasn’t a cell phone (I’m not a fan of the paying to receive calls model prevalent here).  Making US based calls was free until the start of 2007, and after that I purchased unlimited calling.  Now I’m on Skype Pro, and for $3 a month I get unlimited US calls and a whole slew of other benefits and discounts.

When I started renting my own place, rather than reconnect the phone line, I bought a Skype phone.  I just plug a network cable into the back of my Netgear SPH200D, give my account details and it just works.  I don’t even feel like I’m making Internet calls – it’s just a home phone to me, and to anyone who’s calling me, thanks to SkypeIn.

I had trialled the Belkin Wifi Skype phone for a couple of months.  This was easily the worst product I can think of using in the last 10 years.  I cannot even begin to explain just how bad this product was.  Slow, unresponsive, ugly, cheaply made and unreliable to start with.  Poor battery life, terrible call quality and broken functionality topped it off.  Wow, the designer in me shudders just thinking about how awful that phone was.

Since the iPhone came out I’d idly wondered if a Skype client would ever be released.  I figured if it did, it was a long-time coming.  Then along came Fring.

While it was somewhat fiddly to install (adding a new source in the Installer application), setting it up was a breeze.  Within just a few minutes I was making my first test call.  And it worked.  Amazingly so.

Fring

The best bit though is that while I can make calls on my home Skype phone, it is useless for sending and receiving messages.  Fring’s IM feature is very slick, and I love that I now have dedicated Google Talk and Skype on my iPhone.  Previously I had to use Meebo for Google Talk.  I notice they also appear to have gotten around the “one app at a time” limitation of the iPhone.  Pressing home just minimises the app, and I am able to receive calls and IMs with it in the home screen or even if it is locked which is great.

So basically I now have one phone for everything (except for one thing, which I’ll get to in a minute).  I can now make my cheap international calls at home from my mobile rather than switching to the Netgear phone (I wonder how worried they are about this development?).  I’m a big fan of minimalist setups, and so this pleases me no end.

Some notes on using it so far.  Calling my iPhone number from Fring makes it do odd things.  The “incoming call” dialogue pops up, but then it tries to switch back to Fring and just hangs.  Some outgoing calls seem to fail.  There are some definite UI issues (particularly with number dialling – requiring a “+” for outgoing numbers).   I also couldn’t accept add requests.  But the main problem seems to be no SkypeIn!  I’m not sure what the limitation here is, but calling my SkypeIn number doesn’t result in a call appearing which is kind of a bummer.  It’s also weird, because I can receive calls from Skype contacts just fine.

I have a few questions though, particularly given how slick and just plain good this product is.  Firstly, how did they get Skype access?  I could probably Google an answer, but I’m just surprised that there is Skype access on a free product, given it is a proprietary setup and they would have had to license some libraries.  Ok, I actually bothered doing a search and they are using the Skype API.  More importantly though is how on Earth do they plan to make money?  There are no ads, and while the server load isn’t high, there’s obviously been a lot of development (several years worth based on what I found about the company).  I tried checking to see if they had any plans or if anyone had even any speculation and all I found were a few articles:

From 2006:

An Israeli company has just rolled out a service (beta) that might cut into the Skype subscriber base by allowing users to make free VoIP calls using any 3G handset. Fring is the word and the service is free now until the commercial offering appears around the end of this year. What the innovative service lets subscribers do is call any other fring subscriber for free anywhere in the world. Fring members can also call Skype and other VoIP service subscribers using any 3G-enabled handset. Fring uses your existing data plan to make calls over the network thus saving the caller from using any phone minutes. It’s not clear what fring’s business model will be but for the time being it’s free so what are you waiting for?

From 2007:

Shechter said fring is committed to improving the quality of its product and will be adding innovative new features to it over time.

As per the press release, fring is “100 percent free with no subscription costs; consumers simply pay for the data they use under their existing line rental agreement.” (Therefore, the plan under which a customer pays for data transactions, including any limits therein, comes into play.)

It looks like they recently got 12 million in second round funding.  Whatever their plans, I’m enjoying it for now despite its limitations.  If you have an iPhone, what are you waiting for?  Jailbreak that guy and install Fring.

37Signals disagrees with usability guru Norman, or, what is usability?

There was a thought-provoking rebuttal from 37Signals to criticisms levelled by Don Norman regarding their product.

(side note: did anyone else think 37Signals was using svn to version control their blog postings based on the URL?)

Don’s original post is titled “Why is 37Signals so arrogant?“. In it he says that he found “the developers [at 37Signals] are arrogant and completely unsympathetic to the people who use their products.” He goes on to say that this attitude “will not only lead to failure, it is one that deserves to fail”. Ouch.

While the developers at 37Signals may be “arrogant” in that they aren’t interested in listening to other views on their design, this does not mean that they aren’t creating usable or useful products. No matter what requested features or changes you add to a design, it will never truly satisfy everyone. Trying to do so can eat up precious resources, and may have unintended consequences. While Google might have the bulk to carefully consider everything a user may want and try to accommodate that (and the consequences), startups don’t always have that luxury. User-centered design isn’t putting the user on a pedestal (a flippant comment – will discuss in another blog post!).  The designer is a designer for a reason, and with scarce resources (and a good track record) it is sometimes not just easier, but more efficient to follow your gut.

Besides, no matter how you design something, people will always use it differently to how you expect. Articulation work (the process of adapting a tool to a new use) is a fascinating process and one that should be fully supported by allowing the user as much simplicity and flexibility as possible. By doing so, you provide a low barrier to entry and for people to find innovative new ways of doing things.

I think the problem here is Don Norman is reacting at a principled level, rather than considering it from a “real world” perspective. Sure, I’d love to give users everything they ever wanted, and do it in the slickest, easiest to use package ever. But it’s just not always possible. Look at something very usable and naturalistic, such as the iPhone, and you’ll find missing features. Look at something feature-rich like Photoshop, and you find a high barrier to entry. It’s all about tradeoffs.

Ultimately 37Signals clarified they *do* listen to their customers, but by stating they design for themselves and not their customers, what they really mean is they are ignoring traditional usability approaches, and designing for themselves. While this can have shortcomings, there were plenty of great designs before the invention of the usability lab…

American culture

As a US citizen, but having been brought up in Australia, I mostly identify myself as an Australian. Growing up I was always ‘into’ American culture – things like American candy, comic books, movies, etc – while still appreciating Australian culture. I was pretty surprised when I moved here to discover what a culture shock it was for me. I guess I thought given my exposure to American people and customs it would be a smooth transition. However instead I make many faux pas at social events (Americans are far more ‘hands off’ than Australians, let alone Europeans), can’t understand their version of football, and have a very divergent general sense of humour.

Even after 18 months here there are aspects of their culture that still surprise me. I found this article on Wikipedia today on the “Social Register“, through The Straight Dope. Absolutely fascinating that such a list exists – although to be horribly stereotypical, Americans seem to love being a part of a club of some kind (fraternities, etc, are unknown in Australia). I’m just amazed at the things you don’t normally hear about overseas (and yet the rest of the world calls the US insular).

Specific to the United States, the Social Register is a directory of names and addresses of prominent American families who form the social elite, though until recently not necessarily the political or corporate elite. Inclusion in the Social Register was formerly a guide to the members of “polite society” (or those with “old money”) in the “Social Register cities”: Boston, Buffalo, Cleveland, New York, Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Francisco.

The Social Register lists the educational backgrounds, maiden names, and club affiliations of listed persons. Juniors can be listed with their parents beginning at birth (a recent change from the age of 13). It is sometimes called, humorously, a “stud book.”

Wikipedia is such a time sink.