Archive for October, 2007

A summer romance? Geeks and unlocking the iPhone

October 31, 2007

Apparently, Britain is about to be hit by a two-week media barnstorm in anticipation of the long awaited launch of Apple’s iPhone on 9th November. Given the long dark evenings and the autumnal wet weather we probably won’t be witnessing the camping-out-in-sleeping-bags and sharing-of-thermoses outside retail stores that happened in America this summer when the product was launched. But there may be other reasons why the UK won’t be quite as head-over-heels in love with the iPhone.


Philips’ window on the future

October 26, 2007

I have seen the future and it will be well lit. That’s according to European electronics giant Philips, whose Applied Technologies division invited me to an open day for journalists on Tuesday.

The day featured a tour of mocked-up, every-day scenarios under a general theme of ‘care’, which were designed to demonstrate various technologies and how they integrate with each other. This included a hospital room of the future, a hotel room and a pre-natal clinic, and was followed by a tour of their ‘high street of the future’, in which technologies were shown in various retail and domestic settings. The clever use of light and light-related technologies featured in almost all of these.

The hotel room scenario struck me as being the most impressive in terms of both flashy technology and end-user usefulness. In the scenario, a businesswoman is shown arriving at a hotel for the night. Her room has been fitted with a Daylight Window with Personal Mood display, which the guest controls by standing at the window and moving her arms: there is no computer keyboard or mouse. Philips Daylight WindowBy interacting with the ‘window’ the guest can create an image across its length and breadth and alter that image to let in different amounts and colours of light. In the example I saw it was the branches of a tree, which ‘grew’ across the window and could be made more or less dense, just by the sweeping action of an arm (see the first photo).

If this seems a bit superfluous to you, there is a more practical use of the light technology. Our aforementioned businesswoman, tired, and suffering from stress and jet-lag, is able to sit in a corner Woman using blue light therapyof the window and indulge in a kind of ‘light bath’ (see second photo). Based on research from Chicago’s Northwestern University, which has suggested that such ‘blue light therapy’ can shorten jetlag recovery times, the Philips concept incorporates this idea of the therapeutic effects of light into its vision of the future.

In this scenario, light is being used as a way to make people feel better and enhance their mood. This is quite interesting in as much as it represents a slight fork in the standard route for ambient computing, where the emphasis is often on getting computers to complete or assist with a task such as opening a door. In this scenario, the functionality is new and aspirational.

This strategy may reflect some of the changes that Philips has undergone in recent years. Through reorganisation and shedding of parts of the business, like its silicon chip development wing, the company has refocused on what might be called the ‘softer’ side of technology. It believes that its future growth will come from merging its traditional strengths in areas like medical technologies and lighting into new, ambient solutions that work with users unobtrusively. We are going to see a lot more about the use of light in the next few years.

Amazon’s Kindle

October 24, 2007

There have been persistent rumours that Amazon is about to launch an electronic book device called Kindle. Engadget claims to have a photo and a copy of its specification, and an article in the New York Times gives a price tag of between $400 and $500, and predicts a launch later this month.

Such rumours are given further credence when Mary Meeker, one of the leading financial analysts of the first wave of Internet companies in the 1990s, noted the product in a talk last week about Web 2.0. She makes the point that: “We know what Apple did with iTunes, could Amazon do the same for books?”

Personally, I’m not convinced, especially as it will be supporting Amazon’s own, proprietary e-book standard rather than the open e-book standard, something which education is becoming increasingly wary of. But what do I know? I still have vinyl records at home…

Oxford 2.0

October 22, 2007

The Economist is running a series of online debates it is dubbing ‘Oxford 2.0’. The debates are based on the formal, Oxford University Union-style forum in which one side makes a proposition and the other side opposes. This week’s inaugural debate takes the proposition: “This house believes that the continuing introduction of new technologies and new media adds little to the quality of most education”.

A fascinating debate is in progress between those who argue that technology is transforming education and those that think technology has completely failed to deliver on its many promises. The proposer is Sir John Daniel, a man who has spent much of his working life at UNESCO trying to introduce technology into education across many countries. Although he says it saddens him to propose the motion he admits that there are very few examples of effective educational technology deployment.

Take part in the debates until 26th October at:

Computer Science Writer of the Year

October 19, 2007

A few months ago I mentioned that I’d won the Computer Science Writer of the Year award for a piece on how computers are helping people with dementia. Just thought I’d mention that, for anyone who’s interested, the EPSRC have published the winning entries.

Mood Blast

October 17, 2007

I’ve been looking into one of the newer technology crazes – microblogging – a term used to describe the practice of posting simple, bite-size updates on your current personal status to a range of Web 2.0 services. These little postings can form a kind of running commentary on where you are and what you are doing. Leading names in this field include Twitter, Tumblr and Jaiku.

I’ve yet to really work out what practical use these services could have, although I can see the attraction for teenagers who feel the need to be aware of their gang’s activities at all times. There is clearly something in it as Google have just bought Jaiku.

There are quite a few of these services and the minute one becomes wildly successful another seems to pop up which has better features. Add to this the existing chat and VoIP services like Skype, which also allow the display of your current status, and one is quickly led to the problem of keeping all these services up to date: a kind of update-anxiety.

However, no sooner had I thought there might be a problem than someone has created a solution in the form of MoodBlast – a single application which is displayed in the menubar of your Mac desktop and allows you to type one line of updated status information and then send it to all your micro-blogging and chat services at once. I tried it with Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook and it seems to work, although it strikes me that a client that allows you to mass update from a mobile phone when you are out and about might be more helpful.

Buzzword Review

October 5, 2007

My new account has come through from Buzzword. They apologised for the delay and explained that they have had a lot of requests and are still polishing off the service.

Anyway, I’ve given it a spin using my Mac’s Safari browser. The service has a nice, fresh interface with minimal amounts of menu and toolbar clutter at the top of the screen. There are simple menus for the usual document things plus a small number of toolbars that cover fonts, paragraphs, lists, tables, comments and images. File formats supported are Buzzword’s own file format, Word, Microsoft XML 2003 and RTF.

To create a new document was a bit on the slow side, as I had to wait for Buzzword to load the editor and fonts. I also tried to upload, from my hard-disc, a Microsoft Word version of my Web 2.0 report, which as anyone who has tried to read it will know, weighs in at a hefty 50-odd pages. Although, again, this took several seconds, Buzzword seemed to upload everything accurately and laid it out as expected. Something I particularly liked was that the page numbers are displayed as a long, thin, vertical strip on the far right of the window, and you can move straight to a chosen page by clicking on its number.

Its most interesting feature though, (more…)

Zoho expands the service cloud

October 4, 2007

Just a quick update to yesterday’s item. Zoho, a company who provide a number of online service cloud packages like wordprocessing and spreadsheets, have announced that they have launched an online service that allows people to create databases. Once the database has been set up, the user can add/edit entries and query the database in standard SQL (an extremely important standard in the world of databases). This can (allegedly) all be done through the browser window with no desktop application or downloads. This is a major extension to the range of office desktop-type activities available through a Web service since, as far as I can tell, Zoho are the first to do this.

Service cloud covers Microsoft

October 3, 2007

In August I wrote about a report on the future of office document software (e.g. Microsoft Office, Open Office), that I was involved in editing. One of the things that the report’s author, Walter Ditch, highlighted when looking to the future direction of these systems was the possibility that they would be superseded by online services that will allow us to create, edit and store our word processing and spreadsheet files online, without any need to install software on our computer. Such services are sometimes referred to as provision through ‘service clouds’.

An example of this is GoogleDocs, which allows you to create and edit files online, and there has been some speculation that Microsoft would follow suit. On Monday, Microsoft duly announced a limited, beta trial of its Office Live Workspace, which provides some of its Office document functionality through a service cloud.

However, Office Live Workspace is limited in scope: it lets you upload and share your existing Office documents through an online workspace but does not allow you to create new documents or edit existing ones. It is pitched as a collaboration tool that allows you access to your documents, through the browser, from any computer.