Monday, 7 April 2014

In praise of Random

When I was at school studying for my school leaving exams we got time off to revise in the city library. In my case the Central Library on George the IV bridge in Edinburgh. A wonderful Carnegie funded edifice. In the upstairs reading room shelves and shelves of knowledge surrounded you. In reality it was a tiny slice of knowledge, not as comprehensive as what is available to us all today at any time and any place, but the experience of the library was far more impressive and humbling than typing into Google.

The librarians took pains to make sure all books were cataloged correctly and always in their right place. What I found interesting was not the subject I was meant to be studying, but the other stuff. Even when I sought out a book for my studies I was always drawn to the boundaries where one subject abutted with another. Here I could stray into new but often related worlds. Even more exciting were the miss-placed books which had escaped the librarian’s labours. Happenstance, serendipity, random, call it what you may, but these chance encounters held more interest and had the power to freshen my mind far more than the subject under study.

Teenage boredom was partly at the root of this, but in subsequent years it has been the mixing of disparate disciplines or association of separate concepts that I have found the most profitable for the generation of new ideas.   

Today I very, very rarely visit a library. Occasionally a book store and I catch glimpses of this distant excitement. Now I research and find my knowledge in the digital world. Most of our digital tools are designed to filter out what we are not interested in. We search and expect to be delivered the most relevant and informative content based on our query. We follow like minded people and they feed us articles which match our interests. Despite the internet being full of incredibly diverse information we tend to stick in one or several very small areas of interest.  Serendipity has no place in tools designed for efficiency and accuracy. Which, I think is a loss.

That is why I love a new app from Finish developers, Futureful . Its called Random and is currently available for IOS. It has been called an irrational browsing experience. The experience is unlike other news feeds or aggregated content delivery systems. Okay it is not completely random. But it is sometimes hard to see why subject X is with Y. The set of subjects and sub subjects you can choose from are all related, but in a more loosely and tangential way than most news feeds. I cannot tell but I think the strength of associations is built up through my and other users use of the system. I hope the evolving associations do not become too strong and it looses its diversity.

I also like the way the links are represented with just a single or couple of words. There is no indication of the source or additional information. Your interest is triggered by the words and you follow a path, the spine of the book not a preview of the content. If it is not what you are interested in you backtrack. But when you do so the link selection is refreshed with new content and a new journey opens up.

Using Random I have discovered content I would not have sought out but which I found interesting and thought provoking. Give it a go.

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Thursday, 27 March 2014

How Facebook should use Oculus Rift

Oculus has been purchased by Facebook. A $2 billion dollar bet on what may be the  future digital platform.  Virtual Reality is not new it has a long history.  The common impression of VR has been shaped by the film industry but real systems have been around for decades.

First described in the 1935 science fiction short story, Pygmalion's Spectacles by Stanley G Weinbaum as a pair of goggles which provide:

"a movie that gives one sight and sound [...] taste, smell, and touch. [...] You are in the story, you speak to the shadows (characters) and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it."

In the fifties Morton Eilig made the Sensorama, an immersive theatre system using a stereoscopic film display device with fans, and a moving seat. In 1968 Ivan Sutherland, the father of computer graphics, built the first computer based virtual reality head mounted display system. The 70’s bought us flight simulators, the 90’s gave us the Nintendo Virtual Boy, and as an owner of one I can tell you it is a real, not virtual, pain to use. Along the way the military, architects, and surgeons have found uses for the tech.

Today, with is the Oculus Rift, the technology can finally deliver on the promise of truly immersive, highly responsive environments. In a form factor, and a price point where it has the chance to go mainstream. The price is high but is bound to come down. Oculus are not the only game in town, technological advances, mass production and competition from Sony   and another notable competitor, the Avegant Glyph, will help lower prices. Facebook might even sell the headset at a loss. Because the immersive nature of the experience is so different, so compelling, they could set up a pay per experience market. 

The question is what will Facebook or the other players do with the technology? Mark Zuckerberg’s statement seems to me to have hit the nail on the head:

"After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home.
This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life."

The key word is “experiences”, its all about the experiences. Before working in the web, I came from a games background, one which excels at experiences. I have always though that what is lacking from accessing the web via the traditional pages model is the ability to deliver emotions. Sure you can watch an emotional video or read a poem that moves you to tears or emotionally respond to a song delivered through the web, but the experience of using the web does not inherently have the capacity to deliver emotions.

Games deliver excitement, loyalty, fear, tension, humor, you feel your whole body respond to games. Heart rates increase, you shout at your real or virtual opponents and punch the air when you win. When was the last time you got any of this from a web page?

The web we have designed is a content delivering system. We do it very well, and I am sure will get much better at it. We have interfaces which provide quick access to content structures. We try to minimize the number of interactions to access content. We have established conventions for how we organize and manoeuvre through content. We keep is simple and intuitive.

I will put on  my VR goggles to attend a conference or take a guided tour of the Sistine Chapel, learn about a new subject through rich immersive media, or meet my friends in a virtual world.  A vastly improved second life.

However, using three dimensions to navigate through a collection of news articles and video reports is laborious and inefficient. Currently we navigate in a 2d digital world. Adding that extra dimension brings big cognitive, UI and learning overheads. It is worth investing in these to receive an emotional hit, but not to read the news, or manipulate a sales tool. A 3D world is not a good way to deliver the written word. 

Firebox a VR browser by James McCrae, Toronto University

I remember conversations in 80’s where people spoke of  cathedral builders as a model for content delivery. Use the 3d architectural structure and details as a way to access content. People are still playing with this notion. In my mind failing. The cathedral model was more a story telling mechanism than content delivery. It worked in the middle ages partly because it was a way of expressing the power of God and of the ruling class but also because of high illiteracy rates. Give me a decent 2d information architecture any day.

Today content and context are the kings. In a VR world it is the experience. I do not see VR replacing the way we consume the bulk of our content, not in the next ten, twenty years at least. The current 2d world will live along side the 3d virtual ones. Increasingly augmented reality driven by context will deliver a third way, but that is another story.

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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The birth of the iPhone

What we see here is a 2006 prototype test bad for what was to become the iPhone. Taken from a WSJ article where we get another insight into how the iPhone came into being. In 2005 Jobs gave an engineer who had been toying with the idea of a touch screen phone an ultimatum to show real progress within two weeks of the project would be given to someone else. That threat made a small team work like crazy to show their worth. Well worth a read.
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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Tesco could know more about you than you think.

In November last year it was announced that Tesco would place face tracking technology at the tills in 450 petrol stations through the UK. The press spoke of Big Brother and Minority Report style intrusion. The tone was one of “how dare they” our privacy it seemed was under threat. All this in the world capital for CCTVs with an estimated one camera for every 11 people.

Tesco are putting camera’s at the tills in the petrol stations, so that they can perform some simple segmentation of the audience and display “targeted” adverts on displays beside the tills. In the land of the CCTV and in terms of snooping or invading privacy it is hardly Sherlock Holmes material.

What Tesco is doing is just scratching the surface. There is so much that can be done without the cameras at the pumps. Knowing the gender and height of the user is the cherry on the cake. Depending on your perspective, you should either enjoy or fear the cake.

Lets start from the bottom up and look at what information we need to create more and more targeted advertising.

For Tesco to construct targeted adverts they need to pull in information from a range of sources, a pyramid of data. Some are public and free others have to be paid for and some are data collections that Tesco already own.

Ambient data

Ambient data is all about our environment, our culture, time and place. It is the public data that we all swim in. Ambient data fills the stores with hamburgers and ice creams when a hot weekend is anticipated. The shelves groan under crates of lager when a cup final is played. The umbrella sellers come out on Oxford street when it rains. The perfume adverts clog our ad breaks as we run up to Christmas.

In the digital world where adverts can be selected and constructed in real time it we can go further. Tesco know the time of day you are filling up and the location of the petrol station. They can do simple things like use the time to alter the message, lunchtime snacks, late night munchies, early morning lattes. They know from the data collected from the millions of previous customers, the kind of products that sell most in different parts of the country. The purchase patterns in a forecourt close to a motorway, may be different from that in a city centre. They may even know that particular pumps in a forecourt are more frequently used by larger vehicles and HGVs.

They know the weather at each forecourt, and the impact that will have on the feelings and needs of the customers. A wet, windy February night makes one dream of being away somewhere hot so holiday adverts may be appropriate. Alternatively a warming soup or offers of wellies for the kids etc.

One more item of location data is whether the customer has driven into the forecourt before or after doing their shop. Sensors on the ground can provide insight into which route they have taken, or surveillance cameras can track route to pump. Aggregated data about customer purchases can give insights about what items are most likely to have been forgotten off a shopping list and adverts can promote these to the post shopping visitor. While pre shopping visitors could receive messages of offers and promotions to tempt them into the store or to nudge them into making purchases.

Agrigated Data

Lets step up the pyramid. Some of the more valuable elements of the data mix are not the ones about you and me personally but the aggregated data about us all. When you serve millions of customer who purchase billions of items and a large proportion of them are Clubcard customers, then you can gain very detailed insights into shopping. You can find correlations that make it easier to predict what consumers are likely to purchase. It is not about you, but people like you.

We can infer a lot of data about people like you from the car that you drive.  Firstly what category is it, a small city car, a family car, and MPV, a sports car, a van etc. Then there is the colour, the colour of the car you drive says something about your personality and about what you want to say to the world. Maybe it is not a conscious decision to broadcast this to the world but on the scale of millions of consumers it is possible to identify correlations between car colour and purchase patterns.

Then we come to the actual make and model of the car. Would you serve the same marketing message to the driver of a ten year old Fiat Panda as to a brand new Mercedes S Class? Maybe other factors in the data mix might trump this element but it is still a strong differentiator and indicator of likely income, social demographics, spending patterns etc.

Personal Data

The cake is almost read for baking, We now finally, arrive at the point where we look at you. Firstly your number plate. A DVLA look up and we can find the name and address of the owner and cross reference this with house prices and home income data. In Tesco’s case they can go further and cross reference their Clubcard membership, home/travel/pet/car insurance and telco, banking and most likely other proprietary data sets, to see if they actually know you or your household.  If they do find a match then they could pull on all applicable past purchase behaviour and feed it into the mix.

Assuming they do not strike gold, they can use image detection to identify how many people are in the car, is there a child car seat, bike rack, etc.

Finally, finally the cherry steps out of the car and image analysis discovers the gender, age range, body type of the individual.

There is a lot of data that could be used to make the adverts you see while standing in the queue to pay – or better still while filling the tank. Masses of business logic created to determine what should be seen. It begs the question is this application of big data all worth it? It depends, on how many people you see every day, what you are selling and how much of a difference it makes to actual sales. It is a leaning game where the algorithms would be tested and retested, tweaked and changed, hypothesis challenged and reformulated.

Big data is often seen in a purely digital context: the digital traces we leave from browsing, searching and purchasing. But the data analysed does not have to be digital in origin. When you marry data form many sources you can find correlations which may provide profitable insights. Tesco is an old master at this game. You can be assured that it is highly unlikely that Tesco – or another retailer  -  is doing all of the above, but I would be surprised if they will not go beyond just fuel pump cameras.

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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Fin, ring based interaction device

I have always thought the finger and rings are ideal places for control devices. This new project seems very versatile and natural to use. Would work well with Google Glass.


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

BBC to revisit the 1980's with new computing initiative

The BBC micro and its associated courses along with the Sinclair Z80 are often credited with helping to start the UK computer games industry. An industry where we can legitimately claim to lead the world. For proof look no further than Edinburgh's Rockstar Games and the recent launch of GTA5.

On hearing the news that the BBC wants to get the country coding (again) I sought out evidence of the impact of the original BBC micro. I discovered this NESTA funded report from 2012 by Tilly Blyth. It makes interesting reading. This graph really stood out to me.

It shows that getting children interested in coding at an early age can impact their future careers and of the industries that it fostered. The report stresses how important it was to take computing out of just the classroom but into the home. The role of informal learning was just as vital to the success as the more formal school and broadcast courses.
"The lesson from the 1980s is that the availability of hardware and the use of television to stimulate demand for computer literacy was not in itself enough. The project relied on the creation of a large amount of training, informal learning and curricular material; the broadcasts were part of a complete instructional package further widened by the growth of home computing magazines. Informal, rather than formal, learning seems to have been particularly influential on those who subsequently founded companies."

The Raspberry Pi has already put affordably home computing environments into the hands of many and its success indicates the interest and demand, 1 million sold and counting. Lets hope the BBC's plans will stimulate and add to this.

One issue maybe the need to train the trainers. Few of today's generation of school teachers were nurtured in the home computer era of the 1980's, in order for them to help and inspire their pupils they will need to get their hands into the code as well.

The words of John Radcliffe when he started the BBC micro project are still very apt:
“The effective exploitation of microprocessor technology in Britain will ultimately depend on the creativity and imagination that is brought to bear on the problems and possibilities of computer applications, and hence the capacity of the subject to attract the best minds and the liveliest talents. Our failures over the past years to compete in world markets for industrial  goods have probably been at least partly due to the shortage of  good scientists and engineers, through a failure to attract more young people to science based subjects.”

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Monday, 7 October 2013

Great article on birth pains of the iPhone

Live tech demos are always a nightmare, but with all the pressure and potential pitfalls riding on this one, it must have been unbearable. Read all about it in this nail biting article on the New York Times site.