Tuesday 26 January 2010

Wearable batteries

One of the ways we will integrate with our computing technology in the future is to wear it, as I have blogged about before. One important component of this is how to power the devices we wear. Scientists have now presented how a coating of carbon nanotube 'ink' on ordinary polyester or cotton fabrics can store electrical energy. The interwoven fibres of such materials are ideal absorbers for for the billionth of a metre across carbon tubes. Once coated, stretching or washing the fabric leaves the electrical characteristics of the material intact. Previously this type of approach has been identified as working on paper, but fabrics open up a whole new world of wearable computing possibilities. Combined with other wearable components such as solar cells means that the wearable batteries could be charged while being worn.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Human-Computer Interaction

I think it is time that Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) leaves the realms of the computer science educational syllabus and the job titles of psychology-trained IT-literate professionals, and hits the streets in high tech devices that people want to use. This means expanding the current expectation of how people interact with machines.

As I mentioned in my previous tablet related post, gesture-based interaction is about much more than touch screens on phones. Gestures may mean those made by fingers and hands, but also those made by moving the head or the face. I have met robots that can assess and act on human facial expressions. I have used gestures in free space, rather than on a capacitive glass surface, to direct what a machine should do. That was years ago, and so products could soon launch which use such techniques. Some gaming consoles such as Wii have already shown how human movement can be interpreted. Eye tracking is already used by systems such as flight simulators and also in laboratory test situations when studying human cognition and behaviours. The movement of the eye can convey a great deal of intent.

Voice recognition and synthesis have both advanced to a very usable stage and are also ready to augment humans' interactions with computer devices. I already have a pretty natural dialogue with my car and with my phone/music player. Finally, some wireless systems being developed can not only convey information but also detect movement and presence in a similar fashion to radar.

Some lab demonstrations have also shown how people can control devices simply by thinking about what they want to achieve.
Interacting with devices of the future may never be the same again!

Monday 18 January 2010

Lessons from Cupertino...

Apple has now confirmed their product launch event for January 27th. Their well-disciplined official leak engine would not have allowed city analysts to get so excited about the effect of a tablet-type product on their bottom line, without some truth in it. So the pundits are now focussed on the detailed specification rather than the business model (something I discussed in a xmas-eve post). But lessons of the past from the Cupertino company should give the best guide to what is likely to happen in terms of functions and specification.

First, Apple are very good at scheduling new systems software and hardware innovations. One such lesson here was the quiet inclusion video hardware in their computers which could support Open-CL well in advance of Snow Leopard's arrival which enabled the associated performance increase. Another lesson is how Apple demonstrate their investments in innovations that can be exploited more than once and how good they are at sweating their assets to the maximum.

So what could this mean for the tablet? Apple have not dabbled in web applications such as the suite of mail, calendar and address book at me.com or the experimental iWork.com for no reason. I think we will see more of these desktop class apps available through future hardware products. Second, Apple began a touchscreen revolution with iPhone; but more than this they have begun a gesture based revolution which many competitors have ignored. Copying the touchscreen is one thing but replacing hardware buttons with a touch sensitive button is missing the point. Gestures are the real innovation and these may graduate from the screen to free space. Thirdly, Apple already have facial recognition in iPhoto; what about using that to recognise who picks up the tablet, to avoid that clunky logon process? There has been a rumour running around that the device will have a steep learning curve... I think this refers to the device and not the users! Another rarely mentioned technology in both OSX and iPhone OS is a high quality speech engine. This is ripe for enriching the customer interaction experience. Apple will also want to exploit the millions of existing iTunes credit card accounts they hold by making it as simple to stream purchased content on to the new tablet as it is to add applications or buy music and videos.

Finally, I don't think talk of the release of iPhone OS 4.0 at the same time as the tablet is an accident. There will be some linkage or support in the new iPhone software for the new tablet. I don't see the tablet as an alternative to the iPhone and so some network sharing, syncing of apps and auto tethering for those who have both devices wouldn't be such a surprise. Steve Jobs launched iPhone as a phone, an iPod, and an internet communicator. I would see the tablet as companion to this communicator which brings the connected media experience to a whole new level.

Saturday 9 January 2010

More studio work in 2010

Recently I was in the BBC Radio studios in Chelmsford to talk about gadgets for this festive season and next Christmas too. Here's a picture from that session with Steve Scruton...

I'm looking forward to going back again early in the new year when there will be a feature on gadgets and devices.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

CES & SuperPhones

Well with all this snow about, and airports at a standstill over here the last few days, I am pretty glad I wasn't heading over to CES in Vegas this year, as so many of us Gadget Guys are prone to do. Anyway there are plenty of reports on the web to read from the comfort of my own chair.

So Google have coined the Super Phone term as they launch their Nexus One, hot on the heels of Motorola's Droid phone and indeed all the pretenders to the iPhone throne have had to become a bit more super than the 'Smart Phones' that preceded them. Remember how after the iPhone launch, we were led to believe that any phone with a touchscreen interface (recall the LG Prada for example!) would actually compete. It has taken the two years (that Steve Jobs predicted it was ahead on stage when the iPhone was launched) for the competitors to really become super enough... finally they have understood that it is not just the device and how it's designed but also the software and the apps store ease of deployment that is so important too.

But even with the current crop of super phones, no-one else has really innovated and re-defined the market. Yes they have implemented app stores and touch screen interfaces, and yes they have introduced cheaper alternatives to iPhone, but I'm still waiting to see what really new approach or innovation someone will come up with. We may need to wait until January 27th for Apple to come up with another game-changing device!

Tuesday 5 January 2010

The Research & Innovation difference

In my previous life, as part of the research and innovation business of a global telecommunications company, I experienced first-hand the challenges of running and reaping the benefits of such a business. The biggest challenge is often getting ideas from research actually exploited and used for benefit either as product or service or internally. Part of the problem with this is how research is seen from other parts of the organisation, and how they interact together. When times are difficult, it is often research which is scrutinised and 'productivity' examined. The productivity of research is clearly driven in large part by the calibre of the people, but the research culture within the organisation is also very important.

The culture of research varies enormously across different organisations and is set from the top management. I have seen good and bad examples in the same organisation depending on the executives and seniors leading research at different times. The key thing I learned is that for success, research needs to be recognised as being different. It isn't the same difference as with other departments like Sales, Marketing, Development, Customer Support etc. For these, one size can fit all in terms of policy and execution. Research on the other hand benefits most when viewed differently. I would highlight a number of examples.

In Human Resources policy for recruitment, you ideally want a very different policy and process for finding new talent. The general HR processes which weed out candidates leaving only well rounded individuals of a traditional profile is wrong for research, where you want to attract and retain people who think different, challenge the status quo and may be rather unorthodox. In finance, it makes very little sense to set budgets on some artificial year boundary and require the same justifications (not none but different) as other operational departments. Research projects don't fit such nicely defined accounting periods, and you will rarely justify them in the same timescales as other departments. And in IT support and purchasing, researchers shouldn't be fenced in by rules that enforce the same vanilla boxes and technology as in the rest of the organisation; instead some need the latest kit or unusual new technology which cannot be corporately approved yet. The final example of many I could quote is accommodation policy. The surroundings for teams of researchers should facilitate the flow of innovative juices, which doesn't mean the use of traditional desks and offices but rather a mix of quiet reading areas and open comfortably furnished areas with unlimited refreshments on tap.

It is the seniors and leaders of research who understand the need for these differences in culture that stand a chance of growing and running a successful business. The people who work in such research organisations will thus feel motivated and valued and ultimately more productive. Their management that will justify these differences for their people to the rest of the business will be those who stand more chance of successfully building a reputation and interaction with the rest of the company.