Google is out of the (consumer) hardware market

There’s plenty of comment around on the implications of Google’s announcement about China. Some of these are pretty big geopolitical issues. (For a route in, you can’t do better than John Naughton’s recent posts on what it reveals about business ethics, censorship, and the Chinese Government.)

There’s also the impact on technology specifically. Much has been made of the possibility that Google taking a stronger moral stand on censorship will reflect well on it outside China.  There’s also been some commentary considering what the likely impact will be on the future of Google’s phone – the Nexus One – in the growing Chinese market, and on Google’s place as a search engine in China (summary: probably pretty bad). As the more informed commentators have noted, the way Google is behaving might be seen as reasonable hardball negotiating tactics in the West, but is far more damaging as an approach to the Chinese Government. I think it’s safe to say that Google will henceforward find it very, very hard to negotiate with them.

However, I’ve not (yet) seen any commentary pointing out what seems to me the obvious impact of that relationship breakdown: the likely end of Google’s future as a hardware manufacturer.

Continue reading “Google is out of the (consumer) hardware market”

New ways of interacting: Lessons from non-standard games controllers

I gave another IET Technology Coffee Morning talk this morning, on non-standard games controllers.


How do computers get information from you? The standard keyboard and mouse setup has been widely available since the mid-80s. Things are moving on. Other talks in this series have covered touch-sensitive surfaces, but there are other developments. Games consoles in particular are pioneering a mass market for new ways for people to interact with computers, including wireless sensors for motion, orientation, micro-myograms and encephalograms. In other words, the computer knows how you’re holding something, where you’re pointing it, how you’re standing, which muscles are twitching, and even pick up your brain waves. Examples of all of these technologies are now retailing for £100 or less. In this session, Doug will provide a critical review of current consumer-grade HCI technologies. And then we might play some games. Er, I mean, there will follow an opportunity for participants themselves to critically evaluate some of these technologies in a direct experiential mode.


Further information

Here’s the Natal demo video that I showed – the “no controller required” play system from Microsoft announced yesterday at E3:

And here’s games legend Peter Molyneux talking about how wonderful Natal is for personal interaction experiences – more here of possible educational use than in the first video:

And if you’re interested in messing around with games controllers, have a look at Johnny Chung Lee’s blog – he’s famous for Wii remote hacks but apparently has recently been working with Xbox on Natal, “making sure this can transition from the E3 stage to your living room”.

And finally

I notice that I spotted the Emotiv EPOC being announced back in February 2008, “allegedly ready for mass sale next Christmas”.  The latest on the Emotiv website I can find is that you can reserve one for $299, and “We expect to be able to deliver the product to you in 2009”. We’ll see.

Low-hanging fruit: interactive tables for collaborative learning

Jochen “Jeff” Rick, Computing Dept. Notes from Tech Coffee Morning, 8 April 2009.  Background from the shareIT project, part of Yvonne Rogers’ pervasive interaction group.

Low-hanging fruit – is the stuff that this is a big obvious win for.

We tend to think of two sorts of educational technology: 1. Personal ed tech, with one device per person – desktops, laptops, handhelds, mobiles etc. You can share/work around.  2. Whole-class educational technology – projectors, smartboards. Smartboards are almost ubiquitous in UK classrooms.

New class, including: Interactive tabletops. Three well-known examples: Microsoft Surface; SMART table (£5000) – small, aimed at kids, software a bit lagging; DiamondTouch table.  Work in different ways: Surface shines IR light upwards, then a camera looking at the IR coming down, so can see your fingertips and outline of objects. SMART table is FTIR – internal reflection – like the CNN interactive display, Jeff thingy on TED talk.  DiamondTouch is ?conductive – you stand on a pad and it senses finger location via direct conductance.

Electronic whiteboards “reinforce a transmission style of whole class teaching” – Moss et al 2007. But tabletop stuff can’t be used that way. (Unless you also connect it to a projector, as we have in this talk!)

RQs – looking at: What theories resonate with interactive tabletop? How do learners collaborate? How can the task and interface enable, encourage and enforce collaboration?

Three technologies to demo: OurSpace: Marshall et al (2009) Proc CHI 2009. Rick et al in Proc IDC ’09. Harris et al (2009). DigiTile – Rick & Rogers (2009). WordCat – no papers yet.

OurSpace – seating exercise. Aerial view of classroom, drag around tables and students.  Demo – three people doing the task, stood on each pad.  Students are flagged as friendship groups (colour), glasses (can’t see), speech bubble (talkative).  Did prototype studies where the kids laid out their own room, and talked to them about the criteria that were important to them about space allocation. Now use fake kids but real room and desk number configuration. Can also do route-drawing with your finger. Did lots of empirical tests with Year 3-4 (age 7-9), multi-touch versus single touch, kids stood at three sides of rectangle or side-by-side.  Collaborative design task, no right answer.  With single-touch, turn-taking talk goes way up compared to multi-touch, at the expense of task-focused talk – in percentage terms, but actually the extra talk on turn-taking is extra, not replacement.  Equity – physical equity – not terribly affected, except boy groups more equitable with multi-touch, but girl groups more when single-touch. Most other research shows big difference here, but this doesn’t show it. Because in this case the handover is very quick and easy, but in others (e.g. handing over smart pen) it’s harder and requires explicit release and handover time. In multi-touch mode you can do your own thing and not pay attention to the others, but single-touch you have to collaborate – you might as well pay attention to what’s going on if you’re not driving.

DigiTile – tiling program. Six colour choices, half/whole tiles. DigiQuilt was the base software this is based on (for single user). Task is to generate a given picture. Or harder challenge – generate a tiling to give a certain mix of colours. One classroom study done, another in progress. Looked with shared or split palette (half the colours to each participant). Doesn’t make much difference – perhaps because kids don’t mind reaching in to each other’s space. Generally they collaborate really well, not much over-dominance, largely equitable. Possibly because easy to undermine a strategy if you’re not included?  Pre/post test shows significant difference on fractions knowledge compared to controls for a 30min session. (Cool!)

WordCat – word categorisation. Sort words in to two-by-two grid, need to have something in common on horizontals and verticals. Each have a word, and both have to put it in the same place to get it to stay there.  Both participants have to do it the same before you get to see the next word.

Task overview: OurSpace – enables collaboration – in multitouch mode, participants could largely work independently, but in single touch mode, more coordination was required. DigitTile encourages collaboration – on more mathematical challenges, participants learned quickly that they had to work together or they would just step on each other’s toes. WordCat enforces collaboration – it cannot be completed without a partner. Small interface changes can adjust how strictly collaboration is enforced. (Or, can bully/persuade the other participant to just go through the motions.)

Interesting questions of definitions – collaboration, cooperation, and so on.

The sky is not falling in

Good, well-grounded article by language legend David Crystal in The Guardian this weekend, on texting.  Countering doom-mongers like John Humphrys, who claimed (in the Daily Mail!) to hate texters:

They are destroying [our language]: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.

David Crystal explains that the distinctive SMS orthography (‘txtspk’) found in SMS messages is not new, not restricted to the young, is a small fraction of the text found in SMS messages, and alludes to evidence that it helps rather than hinders language development.

Some people dislike texting. Some are bemused by it. But it is merely the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language in evolution.

It’s great stuff.  I couldn’t help thinking, though, that his argument would have been much stronger without this section:

Sending a message on a mobile phone is not the most natural of ways to communicate. The keypad isn’t linguistically sensible. No one took letter-frequency considerations into account when designing it. For example, key 7 on my mobile contains four symbols, pqrs. It takes four key-presses to access the letter s, and yet s is one of the most frequently occurring letters in English. It is twice as easy to input q, which is one of the least frequently occurring letters.

… which makes me worry he’s never encountered one-tap/predictive text systems (like T9 and iTap), which have been standard on mobile phones for … what, five years or more?  I’d certainly expect that the introduction of predictive text dramatically reduced the usage of the distinctive SMS orthography.

(Edit: Stephen Downes points to it too, linking to a longer discussion by Graham Attwell at Pontydysgu.)

Rovio: I for one welcome our new robot underlords

Another cool thingummy that’s now on my “persuade Will to buy an evaluation one”/Christmas present list – Rovio, a Wifi-enabled location-aware robot with streaming audio and video:


The idea (in the stuff I’ve seen) is that you log in to this little thing when you’re out of your house, and you can send it around the place, watching and listening to what’s happening there.  For me checking up on the house while I’m out doesn’t seem that interesting – although I can imagine it might be a lot more fun than a phone call.  But checking in on colleagues in – say – an open-plan office environment – seems better.  Just the job to set off a new lab!

I’m not sure the form factor is quite right for that, though.  It’s very trip-overable, although the noise it makes as it moves probably gives enough notification to eliminate immediate snooping concerns.

Only $299 … but alas, not avaialable until “Early fall 2008” – which is Ok for Christmas I suppose – or indeed moving in to our new building.  (When it’s recovered from the initial invasion of RC helicopters we’re likely to inflict on the atrium.)

Free roaming Wifi (if you’re already rich)

For those of us who work in academia, there’s very good news afoot in the shape of the JANET roaming service, part of the eduroam federation.

Eduroam logoIn a nutshell, this is a reciprocal free wifi arrangement between academic institutions, in the UK (JANET) and beyond (eduroam) – parts of Europe and Australia for now, but under development in the US and Japan.  If you’re an academic, with a bit of luck that’ll be a large proportion of the places you go anyway.

I think it’ll work really easily as a user.  There’s some fiendishly clever stuff in the background, and the official JANET docs make it seem dreadfully complex to use.  But if I’ve understood right, and if/when it’s all working, you simply use the same username/password combo to access wifi at your home institution at any other participating institution.

To set it up you just select the right network to connect to at your home institution (the ‘eduroam’ SSID – there will probably be others locally) and get the right username/password for it.  (This is locally determined, but very likely to be your standard university credentials or a simple permutation thereof.)  Once your device is set up that way, poof!  Off you go to any participating location and free wifi is yours with no more fuss. 

(There is probably a little extra fuss if you want to be able to do more than web browsing – e.g. VPN, non-web email,  remote logins.  And visited institutions may have more restrictive traffic rules than your home one.  I wouldn’t bank on Skype or your favourite BitTorrent client working, for instance.)

For those very local – the OU – the word on the authoritative grapevine is that it’s coming here “Real Soon Now”.  It’s under testing, and you can see ‘eduroam’ SSIDs around the place already.

I’m really looking forward to this.  I experience the net as pervasive at the moment, since I have wifi all over work and home, which is pretty much everywhere I might want it.  Except when I find myself somewhere like an airport, hotel or railway station … there’s Wifi, but suddenly I have to pay some extortionate rate for it.  Or – at other Universities – consider resorting to a flagrant breach of the JANET T&Cs to get at it in less than the six weeks an offical application for local login credentials might take.

It’s great to have an extension to the almost-there pervasive network!  One day, mark my words, there’ll be free-at-the-point-of-use wifi everywhere.  Well, almost everywhere.  Which is a much easier target.

Light Laptops

I’ve just noticed – after reading yet another person rave about how desperately light it is – that the legendary MacBook Air weighs more – at 1.36 kg – than my current work laptop, a Samsung Q40 at 1.14 kg.

The Q40 is nice and light but it’s not that light compared to what I’d thought from the puff the Macbook Air was!  Maybe I don’t want one after all. (!)

The Elonex – one for the reject pile

My colleague Will has been looking at the Elonex One.  He says

It’s being targetted as the one for education. I however am not so convinced but I’m hoping to get my hands on one to try out shortly.

It looks like a pile of pants to me, to be honest, but I should reserve judgement until I’ve seen the beast for real.  I’m always suspicious of technology specifically ‘for education’ – it’s usually overpriced and rubbish compared to the open market.  Elonex, RM and Viglen PCs all spring to mind here.

I can’t quite say what’s different compared to the Asus Eee, that means RM gets my vote here and Elonex doesn’t.  It does seem the wrong side of a significant line.  Perhaps it’s the line between value engineering and cost-cutting.

Anyway, on the more upbeat side Will mentions the new touch-screen Eee (which I think is very exciting) and remarks:

Anyhow I think that the Eee and one and other such devices are set to bring mobile computing to a much larger audience.

He’s right.  I’d say the iPod touch is another device along those lines.  As I mentioned last year, things like the Eee and the iPod touch offer a qualitatively different experience of the web, and can give you a daily vision of what the future will be like all over the place.

(And it’s so easy, too – the iPod touch is so astonishingly usable that my 18-month-old son sussed out how to unlock it.)

The video future is here

… just not evenly distributed, as William Gibson almost said.  But it’s just got that little bit more widely distributed.

About six months ago I said that the DRM battle in video hadn’t really got started, and complained about the BBC’s choice of DRM for its iPlayer.   That’s an awfully long time ago in Internet time.

Things have just got a lot better. The BBC has opened up iPlayer for the iPhone and the iPod touch. You just go to the site in Safari and it works!

Even better, as Cory Doctorow points out at Boing Boing, this means that iPlayer content is available in DRM-free versions – all you have to do is change your browser’s user agent string to claim to be an iPhone.   (If you’re interested in the technicalities, Anthony Rose has a great explanation.)

This is a huge step on the way to video being available when and how you want it, in the way we’re getting used to audio being available.

We’ve a long way to go, of course.  Bandwidth is still a bottleneck.  (On the iPhone, you must be on a Wifi network – the phone network won’t work.)  Storage likewise.  And the content is still patchy – most of the programmes on the iPlayer site aren’t (yet?!) available like this, and the BBC is just one source of video.  And the interface isn’t fantastic – you only find out whether a programme is available when you try to play it.

But it’s fantastic to be able to see what are still quaintly called TV broadcasts on my iPod touch, on demand, in impressively high resolution – way better than most YouTube videos.  Strange the effect that new technologies have on you – I’ve never have predicted that I’d be so excited to see Jeremy Clarkson’s ugly mug.