Monday 29 September 2008

The intelligent home ...

Tonight I had a very interesting evening visiting a colleague from work who has really thought through how he wants his house to respond in an intelligent way according to the people living in it.  In fact, not only the people, but he has also had to take account of the pet cat and how it would otherwise activate movement sensors!  But it is an impressive example of home automation.  The lights, the door bell, audio and video and temperature and humidity control are all catered for.  

The system allows him to inspect the status of and control devices in his home remotely over the Internet.  The system he has chosen to use is called Idratek and it presents an extremely flexible array of options using a wide array of sensors.  It all constitutes a leading edge example of what a future ubiquitous sensor environment combined with intelligent processing can do to enhance and optimise aspects of human living.  

As per the comment ... more info about the installation can be found on his blog.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Innovation requires more than the idea...

I just caught the end of a television programme where presenter James May was remarking that if the motor car was invented today, then it would probably be banned under safety regulations alone!  The invention might have been described as a small metal box that individuals pilot themselves and travel at significant speeds with very little training, and which are powered by a tank of highly flammable liquid!  It's quite believable that the invention would be squashed before it was allowed to take off.  

Similarly, if I had rolled into a meeting to design a new messaging service, and had admitted that it would be priced as the most expensive data messaging (£/Mb) known to man, I would've been shown the door.  Instead I might have described the user interface, whereby you press a small key once to type 'a' and twice for 'b' and three times for 'c' and that each little button has at least three functions associated with it, again I can imagine being told to go and think again.  However the SMS service has been extremely popular with billions of messages being sent around the globe daily.  Indeed it was originally never designed as a service, but instead a diagnostic tool for engineers.  

Innovations like these which we take for granted today might never have come to pass had the circumstances and timing been different.  I wonder how many great ideas we stifle today for similar reasons? 

Wednesday 24 September 2008

The first android phone...

The first phone based on Google's Android mobile platform has been announced and of course immediately compared to Apple's iPhone, but then all mobile devices are nowadays - which says something about what any new device has to cope with!  It's imaginatively called the G1 and comes with a touch screen (not multi-touch), lots of wireless interfaces and most of the usual features you would expect.  But I am not convinced it is the capabilities and features of the G1 which will determine its success.

The iPhone must be the most hyped device of all time.  And sure, it has a number of limitations.  But it is the phone that is in everyone's mind when comparing others.  It is very difficult to compete against the mind of the consumer.  It is also harder to launch a new consumer product in the advent of an economic recession.  But I think two other things may make Google's entry to the phone market very difficult.  Compared to Apple, Google doesn't have the same unique hardware and software capability, rather it will always be harder to come up with the best user experience on devices when they are effectively a product of many producers, all integrated together.  We've seen that in the difference of the user experience between the Mac and the PC.

The second very dangerous risk that Google is taking with Android is the application distribution policy and infrastructure.  The tech users and the hackers, the leading edge folk will love the openness and the ability to do absolutely anything with the phone, loading any software they like, with no certification or checking of what various downloaded software does or where it comes from.  But the normal user, the man in the street, may actually worry quite a lot about the exploits that the mis-users may attempt on their phones.  Again,we know from the PC experience how if some people can do bad things then they will, resulting in a virus problem that everyone detests.  

I hope that Android manages to do well despite the concerns I have raised here.  Certainly the market can do with more initiatives like this to provide better and more innovative advances than Windows Mobile or Nokia/Symbian would make if left alone.  Perhaps Google is simply using Android to attempt to fragment the marketplace and drive the eventual mobile applications space into the cloud?  

Tuesday 23 September 2008

People-led service requirements

Today I attended an event at Essex University.  One of the presentations was by an employee of Kodak about the process of moving from a people need through research to service development.  It was really well done, and concentrated on the way they had observed and analysed what people like to do with photos, in order to understand what service to offer through software support for managing digital images.  I wish so many other service offerings would begin from this approach.  

I often evangelise about the innovation of Apple in this blog - and I think they really do have some great examples, not just with product but also process and business models.  One of the reasons some of their innovations in the products and services they offer to customers are so good is because they also start from the perspective of what people like and want to do and accomplish.  This then drives how they use technology to simplify and break down barriers so that users can get done what they want, in ways that suit them ... without engineering hundreds of features that they don't need.   It was really nice to hear a similar approach from Kodak.  

Monday 22 September 2008

Are we all working comfortably?

Flexible working can mean very many things ... job sharing, flexi-time hours, working from home rather than the traditional office, or working part-time in some way to name just a few.  But while work is better regarded nowadays as something people do rather than somewhere people go, in the future work will follow an even more different pattern.  

We are already seeing how today's definitions of flexible working allow organisations to employ the best talent even if those people happen to have non-standard circumstances or requirements which would have otherwise previously precluded them because of processes that tried to fit them to a fixed templated work pattern.    In the future, working flexibly may also encompass the idea of working timeshared for different employers in a much more widespread way than happens today.  The employment market will be far more dynamic and accommodate much more individual preference about the when, how, where and for whom work is done - particularly in academic or administrative work roles.  

From the individuals' perspective, their value will not be so much in terms of skills and knowledge but rather their ability to network and maintain links between other people.   This networking will be crucial, both with people and with machines that will perform the tasks which people do today.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Social or anti-social games?

Many people, particularly parents, are concerned about the amount of computer game playing time spent by children.  On the face of it, such games cause today's younger generation to spend yet more time in front of a computer screen.  There is an assumption that all of this takes place in isolated bedrooms up and down the land.  If children didn't get any fresh air then this would certainly be a problem.

But of course children play games, and actually, reality shows that many young people are playing games while socialising with their peers, either in person or online.  Communication is an important and natural thing for them to do while they pursue the enjoyment of gaming.  In fact many adults don't understand the concept of multitasking like this because in their generation it was different.  A change has taken place and is continuing to take place.  Secondly, many of the games which are popular actually involve thinking about moral or ethical issues, making decisions about the welfare and development of others in a community or involve some aspect of social care.  And thirdly, more and more young people will have mobile devices as time goes on which allows them to play games anywhere, outside, inside, wherever they are and whoever they are with.  In fact, in future, I think there will be more older people who are playing games of one sort or another too... I wonder if their view of the younger generation will change? 

Monday 15 September 2008

Dogs or robots?

I read recently how a biotech firm in Korea (RNL Bio) and the Seoul National University had trained a pit bull terrier to perform certain domestic tasks such as removing laundry from a washing machine, fetching things from the fridge, amongst others.  Then they cloned five other dogs from this well trained parent.  Articles were subsequently written about whether dogs trained in this way could rival and be better than domestic robots.  I suspect that some would have opinions about the ethical aspects of the canine solution to domestic automation.  

Actually, I would still prefer a robot anyway.  There are plenty of reasons why the dog could choose not to follow its training on any particular day.  The dog will also eventually tire from domestic work.  The programming "breadth" possible for a robot should out-strip the number of tasks that a dog can be trained to do.  Finally, the dog will always require more maintenance, and have a more limited lifespan.  Unless its training extends to clearing up after itself then I still prefer the robot alternative, all of the previous points not withstanding!   

What is perhaps more interesting than to debate the merits of robot versus dog, is to wonder what might be the motivation behind the scientists who chose to train and clone the pit bulls?  Which species of animal do would be considered next?  

Saturday 13 September 2008

Wearable computing research

Yesterday I received an invite to the beautiful Sophia Antipolis on the French Riviera for Smart Event 2008, which will focus on wearable computing.  There are a number of research projects running in different parts of the world at the moment in this area.    Specifically, some of these efforts are looking at wearable information technology (IT) in the workplace.  It's clear that there are a whole range of possible application areas for such technology including the personal assistant that never leaves your side, but doesn't disturb you, healthcare monitoring, emergency rescue and personal training.  Many of these wearable computing projects see the technology as a natural extension of the body and human capability.  Many of the benefits of it will only come about not only when the technological solutions are refined more, but also when potential users also share the idea of extension of human capabilities.   

Friday 12 September 2008

Innovation & open thinking ...

I have written blog entries before about how companies such as Apple innovate in the marketplace and drive others in their sector to innovate too at a faster pace than would otherwise be the case.  This is extremely important.  I have also been involved in a training event this week which was focused at improving the ways that messages are given in presentations, through specific techniques which exploit the characteristics of conversation.  

Often as BT Futurologist, I find myself being asked to give a keynote at some event which attempts to "open the minds" of those in the audience.  One of the desirable side effects of that is hopefully that the experts of their own domains in the audience begin to wonder what the impact of the future scenarios and developments that I describe might be on their worlds.  This may in turn stimulate thoughts of innovation within their organisations aimed at mitigating the impact that they have identified.  

One day, we will have direct machine to human brain interfacing which will allow the programming of an open mind!  Until then Futurologists like me will continue to try and open up minds, partly using the techniques I mentioned at the start! 

Tuesday 9 September 2008

iChat, therefore I am ...

So the last couple of nights while away at this event in the west of England, in a country hotel which provides little cell phone coverage, the broadband internet connection combined with my Apple laptop has allowed me not only to talk to my wife and friends but also show them around the place here using full screen video and pass web hyperlinks via text chat ... all using iChat, the conferencing application provided on every Mac.  The certificates issued to mobileme service members has also allowed these audio, video and text chat sessions to be seemlessly encrypted both ways - not that I believe there is anyone who would gain from 'listening' in!

The link has also allowed me to write this blog, to do my work and personal email, to confirm onward travel arrangements, share my calendar to those who need to know and keep in touch with the news ... both general and technology.  I am able to watch Apple CEO Steve Jobs perform on stage at the event that has launched the next generation of iPods in California and download the latest software updates released.  My laptop extends the ethernet broadband connection provided in the room here wirelessly to my iPhone.  I have all my required Internet apps to hand!

So do I really miss the coverage of my GSM cellphone?   Do I miss the GPRS data connection which it should provide?   No ... I would prefer the general Internet broadband connection anyday ... and in the future I believe this will be even more so for many more people.  

Cellphone freedom or loneliness

I am tonight writing my blog entry from the west country of Britain in a lovely old hotel which will host an event I am attending - they have broadband here, strangely charged until 11am each day ... but there is no cellphone coverage!  So my mobile devices are next to useless but my trusty laptop can plug in and connect me.  

In the future, the mobile access denied to me here will be ubiquitous ... but will that be a good thing or not?   Am I freed here without it to concentrate on the matters in hand, is it less stressful to feel I should check that mail or calendar appointment when I hear the "ping" of its arrival or am I suffering from not being online either all the time or at least as often as I choose to be?  

Well I think on balance I would rather be connected and exercise the choice of whether to act on the information that is pushed to me or not.   For the minority (I suspect) whose self-discipline is such that they cannot make this choice sensibly, probably it would be better to have no connectivity at all.  But my view remains that the future of constant broadband connectivity on the move will provide more benefits than disadvantages and that future services that we come to love will depend on it.  

Friday 5 September 2008

Connectivity withdrawal symptoms

In the future, connectivity will be ubiquitous and fast broadband widespread and everywhere.  Today we have a mixture of all sorts of relatively slow connections when out and about.  GPRS is the basic data service used by mobile devices and when it fails it can be very frustrating.  I have suffered this very problem today while travelling on business.   As I passed through various WiFi hotspots, my devices populated and synced my mail and other applications but in between times I was frustrated to be offline.  In fact it was really annoying.  I am used to being able to be online at some sort of speed of connection almost anytime I like, and here I was suffering withdrawal symptoms!   

At the moment its convenient to do lots of stuff online.   In the future it will be necessary to do lots of stuff online.  By then the withdrawal symptoms won't just cause frustration, they may make the difference between something really important happening or not.   

Thursday 4 September 2008

iPhone reflections

So Apple's iPhone is shipping in shed loads ... people bought the original one (with all its carrier and contract limitations in limited geographies) in their millions, and they are buying the newer 3G version in even more millions in even more countries.  The carrier options are diversifying (as many of us predicted) and now the App Store is open for business, non techie people are customising their mobile phone's capabilities like never before.  

The multi-touch experience on the iPhone is unlike any other touch screen device.  Some aspects of this user interface is being transplanted by Apple into its range of laptop computers and I believe the computer maker will develop this further as a key differentiator in the future.  Apple used the tremendous volume of iPods sold to get its component costs (and particularly flash memory) down so that it could introduce lower end models and incorporate cheap flash memory in other devices while maintaining margins against the bill of materials costs.  I believe it will play the same trick with iPhone components, including the touch screen.   When it has sold sufficient (against a business plan) volumes of iPhones, it is likely to offer a lower end model (perhaps with just voice and music) such as it did with the iPod Mini and Nano models of music player.  As ever I expect its marketing position and timing to be extremely carefully thought out so that sales do not cannibalise its higher end model.

The iPhone has made the rest of the industry sit up and follow.  Innovations are coming thick and fast.  Other manufacturers are now talking about equivalents to the App Store.  Hardly any players dare to have a range of phones without touch screens now, and yet none can come close to multi-touch.  I'm glad that Apple's foray into the mobile phone is being successful, not just because like other users, I love my iPhone but also because I think its important that innovation in the industry is stimulated in this way. 

Wednesday 3 September 2008

Machines that understand users?

We often hear stories about how users find themselves baffled by machines  ... they don't understand why the computer has done something, or can't work out how something should be configured to achieve the desired outcome.  So users understanding machines is sometimes rather a challenge!   So what about the other way around?

In the future, we will have machines that understand people.  ZDnet reports how Intel has already announced research it is carrying out into sentient machines, which use a whole raft of complex sensors to understand the world of the user and hence awareness of the user's situation.  One Intel project called "everyday sensing and perception" or ESP began during 2007.   Its aim is to achieve 90% accuracy of understanding 90% of an average individual's daily routine.  The sensors involved include very basic measurements as well as higher level interpretations of movement, emotions and words, as well as real time object recognition.  Currently the latter can manage at least 75% accuracy on automatically recognising seven objects, using video capture from a shoulder-worn camera.  The hope is to scale this to hundreds of objects.  This is example of how discretely worn devices in the future will interact with other devices to provide real time inputs - part of a wearable sensor network.

At present, the processing required for this real time event recognition is about 4 TeraFlops and about 10kW of power.  The power consumption aim eventually is less than 1 watt so that portable devices can perform the task.  

And this is only one set of research initiatives in this area.  So in a matter of a decade or two, it may be machines understanding users which is more common a practice than the other way about!

Monday 1 September 2008

Augmented reality coming true?

The power of the online world will be much more realised when we are able to truly combine it with the real world in real time.  This is often referred to as augmented reality.  We may have to wait a decade before many people are walking around wearing visual devices (active contact lenses or eye glasses with built-in projection) to enable a more immersive augmented reality experience.  
Today I saw this video on YouTube which shows a navigation unit from BlauPunkt ... probably the most reasonable commercial product step towards real time augmented reality I have seen recently.