Saturday 31 January 2009

Cleaning the kitchen ...

Today I spent some time on domestic chores ... including cleaning the kitchen surfaces, cooker hob etc.  It's not my favourite job!  Fortunately in the future, nanotechnology coatings for such surfaces may make it one less task we have to do regularly.  The coatings will be energised by light and oxidise organic molecules converting them into water and/or carbon dioxide, thus successfully targeting and destroying bacteria cell walls and then the cells' components.  This results in the death and decomposition of the bacteria, eliminating bad odours and reducing the spread of the bacteria itself.  Chemicals which could form part of these phot0-catalytic coatings include titanium dioxide.  This is used in various forms in the food and pharmaceutical sectors.   I can't wait until coatings that utilise the unique properties of such substances are developed and widely available!  Domestic chore bliss!

Thursday 29 January 2009

Danger UWB!

Ultra Wide Band (UWB) wireless technology offers new capabilities over other wireless standards.  It could potentially offer high speed short distance communications (for example over a metre or so between devices) while able to still achieve lower throughput over longer distances.  It is also capable of providing radar type positioning information at short distances.  But there is a danger that this technology will no longer get off the ground.  It took a long while for spectrum to be made available in parts of the world outside the USA, although this now has been partially resolved, but maybe too late.  The Bluetooth standards group had seemingly been interested in combining with UWB but this interest seems to have waned and instead there is now talk of an alliance with WiFi standards instead.  Since 2007, four chip manufacturers have halted activity on UWB chips.  It would be a pity if the drawbridge is pulled up on UWB in the current difficult economic climate.  More innovative products need this sort of wireless capability.  Let us hope that some companies take the plunge so that demand rises and UWB can live again.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

Future responsibility and decisions

A common question when I talk to audiences of all types about future technology and change is whether it will all lead to information overload and more stress for human beings.  Examples of this might be ubiquitous networking and being contactable, managing complex virtual world avatars and profiles, or thought controlled machines.  Well, I believe humans will need to get better at taking responsibility and making decisions, because more choice will be enabled and more decisions will need to be made.  One example of this is already happening with work styles.  

Devices in your pocket now can keep you in contact by voice, by text and by email 24/7.  For many people, this enables them to work much more flexibly.  Work is now an activity not a place.  In the past when people went to a place of work they were working, and when they went home most of them were "off-duty".  But now they may home-work but also receive messages about work when they are at home in leisure time.  I am one such person, and certainly my job is not 9-5!  My work email is delivered to the same device I use for personal email.  The consumerisation of IT has already begun for me.  My work and personal life are converging due to the technology I carry.  So I have to make the decision about whether I will read and act on work when I receive it ... I have to decide when I am on duty or not.  And that is an extra decision that I along with many others never had to make before that device was in my pocket. 

I am happy to make that decision.  We may have to ensure that others can make a sensible balance of such decisions in the future.  Some people will be better or worse at this than others.  A few people in society may need significant support.  Decision support systems may evolve to a quite different meaning in the decades to come. 

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Touchy-feely screens?

Cambridge-based tech firm NXP is looking at using their SoundVu technology to enhance touch screens like those which have been used in many mobile phones since Apple released the iPhone.  The technique uses a piezo actuator to introduce bending waves into the touch screen.  This effectively makes the screen into a loudspeaker.  Feeding the right signals to this actuator allows the vibrations to be felt on the screen which gives the user haptic feedback as they touch.  The company hopes to be able to simulate the feeling of writing or drawing on a textured surface.  So in the future we may be not only touching our screens to control devices but listening to them and feeling the reaction too.

Monday 26 January 2009

Internet power rebound?

One of the biggest adopters and innovators on the Internet has been the BBC.  I am a great fan of their website and was pleased to be a part of their 10th anniversary news website celebrations in 2007.  Today, a debate is raging about the BBC's decision to not to screen an appeal for the people of Gaza on the grounds of preserving impartiality, instead preferring to give the charity even greater publicity by featuring its decision in its news broadcasts.  One observer, the ex-broadcaster and politician Martin Bell suggested it was now worried about being blamed for things and demonstrated against even before doing something, partially because the power of the Internet now allows such opinion to gather momentum and publicly focus criticism very fast and very widely.  It seems slightly ironic that such a great innovator of the net is itself being buffeted by it.  We are seeing more and more organised campaigns which exploit the Internet ... this will only increase in future.  Organisations and Governments are very well aware how powerful this new Internet democracy is ... this BBC episode is just one more example!

Thumbs up for the revolution!

My parents and their generation often point out that my own generation have always been used to computers, usually after we pull off some seemingly baffling operation with them.  Indeed I have needed to type on a keyboard since my early teens, whether to play games (just simple PacMan in those days!), teach myself programming and then to communicate with people as well as machines.  So I am a finger person.  I use a finger to press a lift (elevator - for my US readers!) button.  Well doesn't everyone?  Actually no!  The younger generation have reverted to using thumbs more than fingers.  The texting generation have developed an amazing speed and dexterity with just their two thumbs.  Many young people use their thumbs to push lift buttons!  The faster way to use the iPhone onscreen touch keyboard is to use two thumbs although I still revert to fingers.  The thumb revolution is here ... :)

Saturday 24 January 2009

Keeping in touch with Home

Recently I have had the opportunity to review and test the premium kit for home security produced by which is a fresh, modern approach to adding peace of mind to homeowners when they are away from home.  I will spare the details of the large set of features offered by the system here since you can read that on their excellent website.  I will though make some comments about its performance and the impressions I have formed from trying it out.  

First from a technological point of view, it is one of the best, sensible, and innovative designs and implementations of technology I have seen for the home.  The use of the ZigBee mesh networking standard provides a simple way to build reliable systems suitable for the huge variation of domestic situations using small (and crucially) low power components.  Its use of broadband and GPRS fits with modern (and as ubiquitous as currently possible) networking trends.  And its use of a browser interface means that it is platform-agnostic as far as access via a personal computer or other devices.  And it is possible for the technically minded to add other facilities using the API (Application Programming Interface) available.

Next about the design.  Anyone who has opened an Apple product will know what I mean about the thought that can go into the simplest things like packaging, and not just the product.  The AlertMe kit was 'Apple-esque' in both respects.  It was a joy to open and explore, and the design of each component of the system is very good.  One of the marketing points made is the simplicity of installation and use of the system.  This is totally borne out, and I'm convinced that the most technologically inept person could easily be up and running in minutes.  The website, including the support forums and online store are also well designed, and in my short experience so far the people in the company are a joy to deal with. 

There are many systems available for home security.  And increasingly there more and more gadgets advertised aimed at energy efficiency.  Home automation systems are still in their infancy, and largely still only suitable for the hobbyist and enthusiast.  But in the future, ideally all of these things should be integrated.  The biggest plus for me about the AlertMe system is that it has the potential to make this convergence and integration possible.  And what is more, the company seems to have the vision to want to enable this.   They are soon to launch their energy monitoring service which will use many of the same components as the security service.  For example the existing sensors all report temperature, which provides an interesting way to monitor your home's heating patterns.  A look at the user forum website shows the range of imaginative ideas for additional types of components that could be added to the system.  With many of the security systems available, it is a case of designing it, having it installed, and then living with it.  And if you want to, for example, use the same motion sensor for security and automation (perhaps to turn a light on as you enter a room), it can be quite difficult.  With the AlertMe approach, the flexibility to add to and modify the behaviour of components and the system as a whole is very good.

People will want to be in touch with home seamlessly and easily in the future.  Innovative systems like AlertMe are an excellent step along the road to achieving this.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Fit for Success

In a previous posting here, I recently described my second impressions of the Wii games console from Nintendo.  Although impressed with the amount of effort required to play the sports games at a consistently high level, my wife and I have yet to feel the urge to invest in the Wii Balance Board in order to get even more exercise in front of the big screen!  But in the harder economic times, Nintendo is introducing  My Fitness Coach, which offers a similar fitness regime without any additional hardware necessary.  The success of Wii Fit is being cleverly followed up.  

In future, we will have many options for machines around the home that promote good healthy activity and allow us to monitor our condition.  This will be followed by nano-technology lab-on-chip devices that can live inside the body giving an even better indication of what is happening to us.  So perhaps its not such a bad idea that people are getting used to a health and fitness programme from a machine in their lounge?

Monday 19 January 2009

Birthday Time

So I become another year older today.  So I decide to have the day off work.  I fill my day doing all those things I really enjoy doing.   It would be great if instead of taking time out to write this blog entry I could simply think about what I want to post and it just happens.  Not actually so far fetched.  We already have bio-tech labs on the planet where scientists are experimenting with body implant devices which will allow a person to think about a muscle movement and convert that spinal cord signal into control signals for an artificial prosthetic limb.  Thought control of other things will follow.  Coupled with life recording systems, especially for those special occasions like birthdays, the content will automatically be made available with the process.  In the meantime, its fun to log on and write the blog by hand!  And I think I will be doing it this way for quite a few birthdays yet.

Monday 12 January 2009

Will people cope with change?

Today I had the pleasure to present a glimpse of the future at the 7th SOLACE Graduate conference in London.  There were around 100 people in the audience and some really interesting questions were raised afterwards.  

One person in the audience asked about how far should things actually go and whether people would be able to cope with the change.  The psychology is very important.  Some of the things that I presented perhaps seem very far fetched and in some cases scary.  But then so would some things today have seemed far fetched in the past despite the fact that we now take them for granted.   People do adapt to change, some better than others and some faster than others.  There will be people who will need services to help them (e.g. managing multiple avatars online)  and others who need people extra help to understand and cope with change.  

Sunday 11 January 2009

Wii !!!!!!!

Ok so as part of my gadgets job I had seen the Nintendo Wii when it first arrived on the scene and had a play with it.  And yes it was innovative and I liked many of the features they had incorporated.  And it was quite a smart move to find a niche which didn't try to copy the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 but instead found both attraction for existing gamers and new ones. However, reviewing gadgets as part of a job is rather different to experiencing them in your own home.  So this year I decided to take the plunge.  And everyone in the house loves it.  Everyone finds something different they like the best.  and it really does work in terms of combining technology and getting up off the sofa and providing an enjoyable workout.  So well done Nintendo, and any others out there who are still wondering about computer games, perhaps give it a try! 

Saturday 10 January 2009

Palm Pre-tender?

Before I had an iPhone I used a Palm T3 for many years bluetooth-tethered with whatever phone I used at the time for a GPRS connection.  After fading somewhat Palm have now made a new splash on the scene with their new Pre Smartphone.  It looks pretty good too on paper.  They have obviously been busy building a new 'web-os' operating system for it which frees it from the horrible existing alternatives to OSX.  Providing they can get the business models right with the carriers who will support it (currently only Sprint in the USA), especially with respect to data and if they can build a successful eco-system of applications for the Pre, then it could well be the first phone to really address the standards that Apple have set with the iPhone experience.  I can't wait to get my hands on one to try it for real.  

Thursday 8 January 2009

Innovation in a Material World?

While driving this afternoon I was listening to the BBC's Book Club programme on the radio.  This edition featured psychologist Oliver James, and his book "Affluenza".  He defines this as a virus sweeping through the English-speaking world, where the emotional attraction of material things possible through affluence is deeply harmful to social cohesion and people's well-being.  Indeed he points out that a general increase in affluence in such societies has led to people feeling less happy and to more sickness.  

Some of the examples he gave were interesting anecdotes from his travels interviewing people from different cultures and contrasting the English-speaking world from others.  One such was whether women look at themselves in the mirror and ask if they are happy with what they see, or whether they are more concerned if others and especially men will like what they see. 

Another example contrasted the iPod type consumer gadget adoption in a place like the UK and USA with that in somewhere like Denmark.   He pointed out that hardly anyone will pay for a new luxury device like that until it becomes mass market and cheap enough for most people to buy in the Danish culture.  Unfortunately he omitted to remind people that such innovation would never become that cheap if there were not people (perhaps from particular cultures) who will buy at the leading edge and be early adopters.  Companies that launch innovative products need to charge a premium at first until the scale of return allows for a lower price point at a later date, as the component costs reduce.  Perhaps I need to read the book to see if this and other market related truths are explained.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

MacWorld 09 Aftermath

So the final Apple keynote presentation at a MacWorld January conference has been and gone.  It left most Apple fans rather underwhelmed and complaining that only one new piece of predictable hardware was included.  One of the reasons that people love their Macs so much however is not just the hardware but also the software which Apple produces for it.  The integration and performance with simplicity which they achieve between the two components is unrivalled.   

It does at least mean that there is a high likelihood of a special Apple event in February or March which focuses on the new iMac and Mac Mini hardware which is expected.  I would imagine that the company will want to innovate significantly during the recession times and this will result in a new product type completely later in 2009.  Apple usually puts a great deal of thought into its presentations; in this respect I suggest that it was no accident that Tony Bennett was asked to perform a live performance of the song "the best is yet to come" at the end of the keynote.  Let's wait and see!

Monday 5 January 2009

MacWorld San Francisco 2009

So its MWSF time again, and for the final time as far as Apple's attendance for product announcements, which have traditionally often stolen some of the limelight from the CES event down the road in Vegas at this time of year.   And Steve Jobs has finally issued a statement about his weight issues and hormone imbalance.  Perhaps, though I suspect not, the press will leave him alone now and let the markets reflect the performance of the company rather than the health of its CEO.   

So what can we expect Apple to release tomorrow?   I usually join the other Apple pundits in guessing what may be revealed.  This time I suspect we will see some updates on how well the iPhone App store is doing before a general focus on Mac computer products.  I agree with those tipsters who suggest that the iMac and Mac Mini are due to be refreshed, although I suspect the latter will be a more major revamp than the former.  Many people are already using the Mini as a media server in their homes and the updated spec should make this an even more attractive option alongside Time Capsule and iTunes /Front Row.  I wouldn't be surprised to see software updates to these latter two applications and perhaps the iPhone/iPod Touch Remote app at a future date.

We should see the new 17 inch MacBook Pro which was delayed from the other laptop announcements late last year.  Rumours suggest that this may sport new battery technology  and if this is the case, I would see this transfer to the other sizes of laptop in due course.   Price adjustments to the portable range may be a side effect of the 17" model launch.  The other piece of the puzzle I would expect to see unveiled tomorrow is information about the next release of OSX, called Snow Leopard.  The hardware announcements are likely to ensure that all the popular models of computer Apple make are 'Snow Leopard ready' in terms of exploiting OpenCL and Grand Central.  While hardly creating mind blowing demos in themselves, I would expect Apple to come up with a characteristically simple way of showing the sheer performance advantage of this under-the-hood technology.  

Finally one of the distinctive features of Apple computers against their PC counterparts is the bundling of the iLife suite.  I would expect Apple to want to keep pushing these applications ahead of the competition and if not tomorrow then would expect announcements soon during the first half of 2009.  

Friday 2 January 2009

Happy Zune Year

If you have a 30Gb model of Microsoft's Zune media player, you probably probably found that the device froze as of midnight Pacific time as we entered 2009, due to a bug in the clock driver software onboard.  The apparent advice from Microsoft is to let the device completely run it battery down and then only reapply power after noon GMT!  Or you could just buy an iPod like most other people!  One disgruntled owner on a forum has suggested an iPod touch be offered as compensation!  I don't foresee that happening but knowing the culture of the USA, where most Zune owners are located, it wouldn't be too surprising to see some attempting legal action.