Wednesday 21 July 2010

Kinetic Power Harvesting

I have written about power harvesting before but I noticed this article in the BBC Technology section which shows how a shakable power generating mechanism has been built into a normal AA type battery cell body. The prototype currently generates enough power for about 30 presses of the buttons on a typical TV remote control unit. While not earth-shattering, this could pave the way for not needing to replace batteries in those sorts of devices which we have laying around and rely on but don't require a huge amount of power. This also means many fewer dead traditional batteries going into waste/recycling without the inconvenience of always remembering to have more of the right size battery ready charged.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Future devices means paperless?

The paperless society was mooted decades ago when computers first became widespread but of course they often printed more stuff out resulting in more paper being used. No I don't think paper is about to be wiped out but a new trend with mobile devices is beginning. Devices such as smartphones are no longer simply being used for communication purposes. The additional apps that are being developed include some which allow the device to represent the user as a kind of identification proxy. One example is the supermarket chain Tesco with their clubcard app which simply displays the barcode associated with their loyalty card for people. Thus the iPhone can take the place of the card at the checkout and identify you as a known customer.

The airlines are also taking this on-board, almost literally by developing an app which takes the place of the boarding pass that they or increasingly you the passenger would print out. The relevant barcode can then be scanned at the gate or check-in desk/self-service terminal. This application will save a little paper but will also develop further with the introduction of near field comms (NFC) / RF-ID functionality built into phones and other devices. This will open up a whole lot of more uses for the device. Perhaps media discussions of iPhone 5 will be more about these things than antenna attenuation and performance!

Wednesday 7 July 2010

2010 - A face Odyssey

Well, I can't take credit for the witty title of this post ... it echoes the title of the article written in today's Independent Newspaper by Rhodri Marsden, which included an interview with me. The feature discusses why finally video calls may take off for the consumer after so many years of promise.

Of course the sub-editor of the newspaper got their turn at changing what I said to Rhodri during the interview, but hey .. I knew what I meant at the time ... and that is the perogative of editors! Essentially I was talking about the E word .. Experience ... it is all about the experience the user gets, something I would expect Apple to excel at compared to the various phone companies that have tried this before.

First the network bandwidth on a mobile combined with compression techniques now makes a good video call experience possible. But by experience I mean much more than this. Point and press to initiate calls, just as easily as a normal phone call, with no extra account to set up (as with many pc based messenger type video calls including Yahoo, MSN & Skype), is also important. A video call requires two ends ... and two end devices equally capable of live video without the processor ruining your device's battery life. For success it will require tens/hundreds of millions of devices which have the capability. Apple will have this with iPhone 4's and its successor, iPads (the next incarnation) and iPod Touches of the future. A great video call experience also requires a great blend of hardware (camera, processor etc) and software (codecs, user interface) and Apple have both.

Finally its about the business model. How do you charge for video calls? For consumers, it is by no means essential for a call, and so it has to be very very cheap or probably free. What carrier or communications company is going to offer the service for free? In the past, they have tried in the fixed video call space and not only required you to pay over the odds for the devices but also for the calls ... they just don't get it. Conversely, Apple, a company that makes desirable mobile devices, would. This will be another essential tick in the box for the consumer experience ... no extra cost over WiFi. By the time it is popular with consumers, mobile carriers who want to participate to get some of the traffic on their faster LTE and other 4G cellular networks won't be able to charge much for it either.

It may take a little beyond the end of 2010 for all these things I have mentioned to happen, but 2011 may finally be a facetime odyssey!

Friday 2 July 2010

Mobile business models

We all know that the world of devices is going mobile. Desktop PC sales have slowed while those of notebook versions have increased over recent years. The smart phone has also dominated the device in people's pockets and tablet devices are now taking off as a more intimate way to use a computer that is carried with you.

As these trends continue, business models need to adapt to so that users' experiences are good, especially in the context of wireless network connections to the increasingly important 'cloud'. The computing industry has tended to embrace these types of changes more readily than the telecommunications industry. Apple's original iPhone, didn't just reinvent the phone (device) but also the business model that the cellular operators had assumed before then. This included data tariffs, customer support ownership, and connection transparency.

There has been one sorry state of affairs, bolstered by an ugly cartel, that has blighted the mobile cellular network business model for mobile devices however; that is the international roaming charges. These are incurred when you take a mobile (cellular networked) device outside of your home country and continue to want to use it in the same way as usual. In practice consumers have chosen to be very wary of this (on vacations and visiting family abroad) and businesses have endured ridiculous costs when their employees have travelled (for meetings abroad etc.). The European Union has spent a considerable time investigating such charges by mobile cellular operators and have finally come up with a ruling. Unfortunately it reduces the prices that can be charged for calls by only tiny amounts (a few pence for UK users) and states that operators should cap and then cut off data connectivity altogether for users who incur a few tens of pounds (euros or dollars) of data usage when an arbitrary level of use is reached. This is not exactly the radical change that is needed.

Mobile devices with continuous connectivity will continue to be most important in the future. The current system of charging and business models has to be broken across international boundaries. It needs the same radical change that the original iPhone stimulated in other areas of business models. Perhaps it needs to be achieved the same way ... through developments in the marketplace, as it seems like leaving it to the regulators is pointless.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Compensation for machines...

When designing robots, or machines in general that try to emulate the tasks of humans, it is most often the tasks we find easiest that are most challenging to implement in the machine. Much of this is down to us not understanding the way that the human body works. But just as in the past when it was instead the problem of insufficient computing power, we are catching up fast. Often in the past, it was looking at how some aspect of the human body didn't work correctly that enabled deduction of how it normally does work. Now, in addition, scientists are increasingly able to look directly at how the body (and in particular the brain) is working and are able to analyse its normal working state.

Going a stage further, it is now not uncommon for studies to be done which look at how the body adapts to circumstances when the normal body gets damaged and has to compensate. Robots have been built for some time now which can walk, run and climb stairs. The latter was often a joke levelled at the Daleks who have been ever-popular in the Sci-Fi series Doctor Who. Robots that are agile in movement are most useful, firstly in robot warfare but later more commonly in other applications as the technology passes from military to civil applications in the usual way. Scientists are now already studying, with the help of amputee animals, how the body can compensate for the loss of a limb which is central to movement and thus how the animal can remain an effective mover. One such example is described in an article on BBC News.

In the future, machines will not only be more capable than the human brain in terms of computational ability, but also harness an understanding of strategies which can be employed when their control of a robot device is affected by damage or malfunction. This will put them in an excellent position to cope with situations which are not originally envisaged in their design. Robotic machines are still very much in their infancy, but are likely to grow up quickly.