December 02, 2005

All good things

Anyone who has followed my blog this semester will probably conclude that I am a much better storyteller than logician. Perhaps I am simply too good at presenting the cold, hard facts. They come out perfectly cold and hard—and boring. So, I will go with the grain and tell you one of those look-how-cool-my-technology-is stories. You know what I mean; like where that guy diagnoses a horse while driving his car, or those researchers redesign the hospital, or all kinds of tangents we rode while lounging on the quiet second floor of Wolstein (…talking shoes, good grief). Let me present quickly my final prediction for how mobile ubiquitous computing will ultimately look—the tale of a single device.

-The Story-
Thanks to the wonders of genetic engineering, I have 20/20 vision, but that doesn’t stop me from utilizing my most important tool—my glasses. Though I can see perfectly fine, I feel totally blind without them. I wake up in the morning, and putting them on is my only instinct. Veiled in those thin wire frames is the most sophisticated computer I own. Oh, there’s my daily schedule hovering on the left, with the clock above it, a menu next to that. As soon as the glasses detect that I stand, the lights turn to a dim glow. They do many things like that without my command. As soon as I enter the bathroom, a fancy little message pops up reminding me to take the antibiotic. I’m glad I put that in there. I tend to be really absent-minded, but these glasses don’t make me show it.

While I brush my teeth, I listen to my voice messages, downloaded through the national wireless internet and transmitted into the skull just above the ear, which is a very good conductor of sound. I quickly respond to some through the microphone embedded at the bottom of the frames. This is also one way that I can give commands to the glasses and even the outside world in most cases. If I say “Computer, make me a cup of coffee, decaf,” the glasses recognize that I am in my own house and redirect the signal to the coffeepot in the kitchen.

It is a chilly day, so I start the heater in the car, which is down in the parking garage, while I eat my breakfast. I carry no keys. A simple glance opens everything I am allowed to enter. I am in a rush to get down from the ninth floor. I call the elevator on my way there. It opens just as I walk up to it. The car which I ride to the train station has been degraded to little more than a moving box. All the gizmos of the past have faded into the glasses.

As I board the train, I glance into the “eye” of its computer. My glasses give the computer a scan of my eyes, which it checks for a math, so that a stolen pair of glasses won’t work for anyone. The $1.50 charge pops-up. Normally, I would have to say “Charges accepted” in order for the transaction to complete, but I put the train system on a trusted list. Most people do, but I can tell the ones who don’t, mumbling as they board (darn tourists). There is this shady-looking fella behind me. I tap the ID button and look back. His name pops-up along with a court-imposed warning that he is a convicted felon. It isn’t polite to stare, but I’ll keep an eye on him. I tap the button on my temple to activate my rearview cameras, and a screen appears near the bottom of my vision, showing everything behind my head. In the meantime, I listen to some music, make some calls, and watch the news on the web, all in perfect 3D. The glasses easily generate their own power through the movement of the head, which moves quite a lot.

Of course, work is whole world of its own. My glasses let me in the door. There are no computer monitors anywhere in the building; we all wear our own. It is quite useful for one to see and hear anything, anytime, anywhere. Virtual meetings and instant collaboration are just two of these advantages.

Internet databases hold all information. Industrial computers move the structures and devices around us. But they are just the dumb computers told to do things by the glasses on everyone’s face, which are, in turn, under the constant control of every user. From the beginning of time, all technology has been the slave of humanity. For a time it got away from us; now we put the whip back in our grip.

-The End-
Which device ultimately becomes the supreme interface of all computing will likely depend on history and chance, but I wouldn’t rule out the glasses. The final mobile computer will be small. To do that, the computer must be near the mouth, so that it is voice activated and does not need a keyboard. It must be near the eye so that the screen will be small, but look huge. It must be attached to the body to free the hands and not get easily lost. It could be embedded in the body, but that would require unpleasant surgery. And most people like to remove themselves from technology from time to time. Finally, it must fade into the background of standard social fashions.

What medium could possibly fill this full tab other than a high-tech pair of spectacles? The future may be right at the tip of your nose.

November 27, 2005

$400 and the Wi-fi still ain't free

My flight back to C-town got delayed. I can hardy say that it was unexpected; I was having too good of luck with travel this trip. So here I sit with my laptop at the D1 gate of LaGuardia Airport for the next two freaking hours. I am sitting next to this French Canadian lady. (I’ll bet she got frisked. (Aren’t I terrible?)) As any Case student worth his video games would do, I decided to make the most of my time and get a head start on next week’s blog. (Yeah, dork.)

Maybe I could check my email and read my friends away messages. I haven’t done that in like 45 minutes. … … … Oh, Man! There’s no wireless connection! Why can’t every place be like the Case campus, where you flip open your laptop, and boom, you’re online. I guess I’ll just have to type this in Word first. I actually do that every week. I gotta keep a back-up in case the blog system explodes. And I gotta check for spelling and such. (For crying out loud, “gotta” is spelled right! Add to dictionary. (Not really.))

So they installed this Wi-fi system in the concourse; it’s even called “concourse”. (How creative.) And now they want $7.95. (Screw that!) Why can’t they just give us the darn internet? We are all laying down no less than four hundred smacks to be here. The least they could do to us delayed passengers is let us redeem the time through web procrastination. (Oop, the lady’s flight is boarding. Have a nice flight. You too. … Oh, hello Mr. Middle-Eastern-Man. Are you going to Cleveland, too? … Oh, you don’t even have an accent; just keep yacking on that cell phone. (I really am terrible.))

So I am still wondering if they really make that much money off of the wireless network feel. Wouldn’t the ticket fees dwarf the wireless revenues? It seems to me that it would better for everyone if they just provided it as a convenient distraction to their travelers.

Or am I wrong? (Let’s get one of those cheesy pretzels.) ($2.59 for a pretzel!)

November 25, 2005

The ghost of technology past

I was between 40th and 41st Street along the route of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I was joined by friend Ben from high school and his friends at King’s College. (What was that? Two degrees of separation?) The Beach Boys were there, riding a float. As they passed, Ben shouted, “I have your vinyl!” I thought he was joking, at first. But he confirmed the fact that he had a record player in his apartment along with a collection of vinyl records.

From the technological perspective, it is quite interesting that someone would maintain such an archaic device. The compact disc is far superior—smaller, no speed knob, skip tracks with the push of a button, etc. What is more interesting is our reaction to it: “Whoa! Cool! Can we listen to it when we get back?”

Why are we so fascinated with old technology? It is not just turntables, but old cars, candles, and cash. We love our techy toys, but we are also nostalgic about the devices of our past. What makes us like this old junk? Is it that we can understand how these devices work, as opposed to using some well designed user interface? Do these devices remind us of something good that we no longer have?

In forty years, will we pull out our iPods from a box in the closet? Will we show them off to our grandchildren, who think it is the coolest thing ever? “Grandpa, you mean all the music you listened to was inside that white box?” Who knows what they will be listening to then? But if history is any lesson, then the technology we expect to be in use by everyone in the future may be used by no one—replaced by better toys. But will still bring out these laptops, PDAs, iPods, game stations galore! And we will wonder both how we got along with it and how we got along without it.

November 15, 2005

Microsoft vs Sony

Microsoft removing Sony BMG malware from PCs

This was not a legal battle, nor much of a battle at all. It was the battle over whether or not Microsoft would disable the anti-piracy malware that Sony included on all of its CDs and DVDs. Just like the decision to invade Iraq, It was not a matter of if Microsoft could defeat the malware, it was a matter of whether it not it was in the world’s best interest. In the end, Microsoft went the way of the US and attacked the hidden Sony program. The ability to remove the malware will be included in the next Microsoft Update through their Malicious Software Removal Toolkit.

Frankly, I listen to so little music, that I really don’t care. Whether the music industry thrives or fails, it will not impact me at all. However, the concept of whether or not a company has the right to alter your computer without your consent is an important issue that I wish to discuss. Ultimately, it is wrong to sell a product that behaves differently than it is marketed. It is a cultural expectation that a music CD is self contained, that is, leaves no mark on the device that it is played in. Without clearly informing customers that this expectation will not be met, it is wrong to install software through the autorun feature, especially software that will communicate with external computers on the internet.

On the other hand, if Sony announced that it was changing the nature of the music CD in America, that would be acceptable, since this would give the public an opportunity to respond with boycott or other means. They can sell whatever they want; this is a free market economy, as long as they label what they sell.

Note: It was found that this malware was susceptible to attack by viruses because it communicated externally. This probably sped up the decision for Windows to remove the software. I'll bet that Ad-aware and Spybot preempted the Microsoft move. What do you think?

November 09, 2005

VoIP's Emergency

The FCC made headlines recently when they clarified a recent decesion regarding Voice over IP (VoIP) phones and the use of 911 emergency dialing. They had previously said (or had been interpreted as saying) that any provider of VoIP would have to disconnect service to any customer that they were not sure could reach an emergency service center by dialing 911. (That is, if your customers cannot call 911, then they had better not be able to call anyone else for help either.) They have since changed their position to allow current customers to keep their service, but must prevent new people from signing up.

According to their website, the FCC has determined that internet-only VoIP is not subject to their jurisdiction. Logically, there was no other option. VoIP is an internet communication program, fundamentally no different than a web browser, unless it is a service that also connects to landlines. The national phone system requires planning and oversight because of the way it is constructed—each house has a line, which goes in a bundle to the city hub, which connects to regional hubs, and so on. The internet is more amorphous; that is, it does not have any designated paths from one place to another. The internet sends information by way of packets, which can bounce around until they find a suitable path. In this way, the internet requires oversight only in the communication language, not in the construction of the pathways.

When it comes to communication, the purpose of the government is to create infrastructure and standards. Since the infrastructure that VoIP utilizes already exists, it is quite unnecessary to regulate on those grounds. Creating the standard was what 911 was all about in the first place. It is reasonable to have the number for the local emergency service be the same everywhere. However, 911 was not ubiquitous until recent times. Everyone had the local number for the hospital, etc, until cities gradually adopted the standard number. Having 911 connectivity was not required. (I don’t believe that it still is, either.) Ultimately, this will be the case for VoIP as well. There is no need to force providers and consumers to behave a certain way. Eventually, the market will demand that VoIP phones connect to the local emergency center when 911 is dialed, like we all learned when we were young.

Requiring providers to supply this good will only hamper the development of this new luxury item. Hopefully, it will cease to be a luxury item and become the ubiquitous provider of all voice services in the world. Until then, let it grow and experiment with new ideas. Freed from the bondage of 12 tones, VoIP phones have unlimited potential for new options. Maybe there is something better than 911. However, we will never find it as long government regualtions dictate that the old way is the only way.

October 31, 2005

325 Petabits per second

Most of the limitations to ubiquitous computing are not limitations on the computing at all. We can make anything talk to anything else through wireless and ethernet. There are few electronic devices that operate in our world that could not readily be designed to be controlled through the internet. However, in the Internet Galaxy, Castells points out one of the very few technical limitation to ubiquitous computing, internet bandwidth. Broadband internet can currently stream live audio with no problem. However, if you tried to stream a movie on your DSL, you would probably get frustrated. Is there a maximum amount of bandwidth that we will ever need? If so, what is it?

This kind of a question bares an unfortuante resemblance to the “how much money would make you happy.” A recent study showed that people will answer that question with number about 60% higher than their current income—regardless of how much they make! Hopefully, my answer on internet bandwidth will not be as myopic as the people in this study.

For those of us on broadband, webpages come up with very little lag. (The little that is there seems to be more of a problem with Internet Explorer.) There is no reason to get audio faster than streaming because we cannot consume (listen) to it faster than that. So everything audio, text, and still picture cannot be improved by a faster internet connection than what is readily available today.

So what are the limitations? I can think of two things that we don’t get perfectly fast yet. The first is video. (The second is program downloads, which I will not touch on this week.) We cannot yet watch a perfect resolution, high-definition, digital, non-laggy movie over the internet. However, we see a maximum that this would require. There is a maximum to the resolution of the human eye. There s a maximum to the noticeable refresh rate. Therefore, there is a maximum bandwidth that video can ever require.

Here is an approximation of the maximum bandwidth ever needed for streaming any video:
bits = res * fps * depth * eyes
bits = maximum number of bits per second ever possibly needed for streaming video
res = 325 million. Pixels in the eye; cannot detect anything smaller.
fps = 25. Frames per second; cannot see faster.
depth = 20 million. Color depth; cannot tell two colors apart.
eyes = 2. This all you need to make perfect 3D.

bits = 325 quadrillion per second. (325 Petabits per second!)

There is no reason that we should download it faster than this. If you had a display device that could display this, you would be unable to distinguish it from reality. (Kind of creepy, if you think about it.) It is unlikely that video will ever be dense, since this calculation ignored compression possibilities. The human eye doesn’t even take in information that fast; the brain cannot handle it. Nevertheless, this puts an upper limit on the maximum bandwidth a single person on the planet could ever use. How much money would make me happy? Umm, a 60% reduction in tuition? How much bandwidth could I use? How about 325 Pb/s!!!

October 21, 2005

UN vs ICANN (cont.)

CNN had an aritcle expanding on the who-will-control-the-internet debate: Lawmakers urge U.S. to keep control of Web

Most of the article echoed the op-ed from the Wall Street Journal, which I cited on my previous entry. However, to my delight, I found a specific reason that the the US should give control of the internet to the UN: the President's administration has requested that ICANN not create the .xxx domain, which would be reserved for only irreputable sites.

I know, horendous offence.

I searched whitehouse.gov for the reasoning behind the decision, but couldn't find anything, not a single article with ICANN or .xxx in it. However, a Google search seemed to indicate that it was pressure from anti-porn constituants. For people who flat-out oppose pornography in part of society, this is hardly a logical step. Pornographic sites can already own a .com, .net, .org, or .justaboutanything. Creating a domain that makes it really, really easy to block on your personal, business, or elementary school computers is, at worst, a neutral issue.

So it appears that the it's-for-the-children crowd is shooting itself in the foot. Creating the .xxx domain will not make it easier to create porn websites; it will, however, make it easier to block, if desired. Is some computer illiteracy behind this?

As a side note, I figure that there might be some first amendment issues. There is not intrinsic problem with creating .xxx, any movement would be strictly voluntary. However, the very existence of a special designation may encourage "forcing" xxx-rated sites into that domain. While this would not be a gross violation of free-speech, it would be questionable.

Either way, the administration shouldn't involve itself in such petty discussions, which may give the UN crowd some fodder.