Sunday, June 28, 2009

Two new augmented reality apps

New augmented reality apps for G1, Layar, and for iPhone, ARToolWorks; story is here, and video is below; this sort of location-awareness evolution is happening right now:

Friday, June 26, 2009

Clay Shirky: How social media can make history

Quite a bit of interesting information about the innovative disruption of social media in this video lecture, from TED and tech writer Shirky:

"Metareality" begins to emerge

Check out this application, Wikitude, and BNET story about it:

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mobile storytelling presentation

Would like to have the audio as well, but the slides have some interesting notes on them to look further into:

Friday, June 19, 2009

"The Perfect Thing" by Steven Levy; more iPod worship

After reading "iPod and Philosophy," edited by D.E. Wittkower, I was curious about other books on this topic of the iPod and the impact it has had on American society.

That led me to "The Perfect Thing" by Steven Levy, part of which I had read in Wired a couple of years ago. Levy, a senior writer for that magazine after serving as the chief technology writer for Newsweek, writes an engaging introduction about the behind-the-scenes intricacies of the launch of the iPod, only a month after Sept. 11, 2001, and how even Apple didn't know quite what they had (the iPod originally was touted as a music player and, in almost the same breath, an alternative hard drive for computers).

Dylan Wittkower, editor of iPod and Philosophy, will be a guest in my Texas Tech class next week, and reading Levy's work, as well as reflecting back on Wittkower's collection, I wonder about the techniques used by writers in this rapidly-changing field to avoid commodification of their work.

Wittkower's book was published last year, but there are only two mentions of the iPhone, sort of an extension of the iPod, which actually might turn out to have an even bigger impact on society. The raves (and there are many, many statements that gush) about the iPod now seem almost quaint in the wake of the iPhone, G1 and the like.

Levy's book, written in 2006 and updated in April 2007, seems even more in a time capsule, because it talks about the iPhone in prerelease state (first ones were sold in June 2007). Unfortunately for Levy, though, without the foresight, he whiffs at its potential and implications.

Levy did get to use an iPhone, in highly controlled circumstances, before he wrote about it. He did praise its improvement of the cell-phone experience, its sensors, antenna and such. Levy also criticized the lack of storage on the phone, which already has been corrected, and the AT&T collaboration, which hasn't.

Here is one of his strongest comments about the potential of the iPhone, misunderstanding its impact just like so many people discounted the iPod before it:

The iPod "made us want to hear more songs. ... Will the iPhone encourage us to ... make more phone calls? I don't want more phone calls. I want fewer; and when I'm on the road, or staring at hummingbirds in my garden, I don't want any. In fact, if you take into consideration the universal loathing that comes from being around people who talk on cell phones, it can be argued that if the iPhone encourages more conversations, it will have done us a universal disservice. At least iPod users keep to themselves."

And "It will be tough for Apple to match the iPod as a life-changing, and world-changing, phenomenon."

Levy does use qualifying phrases, such as "it can be argued" and "it will be tough," that temper the mistakes he makes. But I wonder, and will ask Wittkower next week, how he approaches the ever-changing nature of writing about technology and cutting-edge concepts. Particularly with the publishing cycle of a book, which can take a year or more to get to shelves, how do technology writers deal with this aspect of their work, to keep ideas fresh and engaging, even when they get dated almost before the ink dries)? Besides disclaimers, any ideas?


Ran across a strange book in the library recently about an activity called "Googlewhacking." That means to find a two-term phrase on Google that has only a single hit, which apparently has the odds of one in three billion (if you don't believe the author, Dave Gorman, give it a try).

Gorman found these:

Francophile Namesakes
Dork Turnspit
Unicyclist Periscopes
Ammonite Googolplex
Pomegranate Filibusters

I suppose as soon as the Google spiders find those here, the particular GoogleWhacks will be ruined. But that's part of the fun, I guess. If you think the list sounds like gibberish, there are some rules, such as the words must be real and found in, or some other reference source like that.

Gorman then traveled around the world investigating the people behind the bizarre web sites that created the GoogleWhack. One in particular was a site, "dork" and "turnspit" in Googlewhack terms, that showed ordinary photographs of women with their dogs. That's it. Just women adjacent to dogs. Nothing creepy, unless you consider the activity of collecting such images bizarre. Gorman met the creator of the site, and he seemed relatively normal, just a person who likes to collect something odd.

Isn't this part of what makes the Internet so amazing?

Monday, June 15, 2009

The art of the interface

Thinking about interfaces reminded me of the mantra, probably started by Michelin, that emphasizes the only thing touching the ground is the tires. Well, in the world of web sites, the only thing touching the users is the interface, and if that doesn't work well, they will not be back.

But what does that phrase mean, "work well"? Is it strictly usability and utility? Can an interface actually be artistic and challenging and add a layer of meaning on its own? I think so, but that doesn't mean most of the web users are ready for such a development. In short, I suspect that we still are in an era of getting used to the possibilities of interfaces. Significant experimentation and artistic expression can't really come until everyone understands the rules. Once those common guidelines are established, the artists will come along and break them in fascinating ways. At this point, I suspect, most of the experimentation gets written off quickly as someone screwing up. In hindsight, some of the interfaces being created today will be groundbreaking work. But we seem to still be too close to the beginning of all of this to appreciate what we have.

While I enjoy complicated and provocative interfaces in theory, and I do like those on some web sites, I have to add that strange navigation and obscure references and labels frustrate me quickly, too. I have to be in the mood to explore for those types of pages to work, and most of the time, I'm simply on a mission to seek and process information quickly. I just don't have a lot of time right now to try to figure out the whims of the web designer.

If I had more time, which might never happen again, and if I really was interested in a site, I probably would have fun tinkering around with an innovative page. But, again, usually I'm in a hurry to find what I want, and I would guess that most people are operating in today's world with that kind of mindset.

When it comes to mobile applications (I have a G1 Android phone), interfaces have to be even simpler, because the screen is so much smaller and the devices, frankly, are more foreign. That doesn't leave much room for experimentation at this point, and I think it would be a death wish to try to create an expressive mainstream interface on a mobile device at this point in the medium's development. Maybe down the road.

Right now, I really like the simplest and most straightforward mobile interfaces. In particular, I like the ones that use the congealing standards, hearkening back to the early days of the Xerox PARC desktop (whence came the familiar WIMP -- Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing device) or the early Apple computers, the genesis of computer conventions highlighted in the conclusion of Steven Johnson's book "Interface Culture."

Some of the best interfaces on my G1 right now:

Shop saavy (allows bar codes to be scanned by the phone's camera, then produces lowest prices for the items listed on the web as well as in nearby stores, located by GPS) -- Press the icon, a list of five actions appear (search for a product, which involves taking a picture of its barcode, wish list, history, settings and price alerts, another cool feature that will let the user know when the item price has dropped to the point specified by the user. Even though this application is mind blowing in how it changes the shopping experience, it was so simple to use that I just started pressing clearly marked buttons and having amazing amounts of information appear.

Shazam (listens to a song, then identifies it, loading a screen that gives access to more info, chance to download, etc) -- This amazing program can listen to a song coming out of a radio and identify it. I couldn't believe it, until I tried it. But I was thrown off the first time by the two options this app gives me when I start it: "Tag Now" and "My Tags." I had no idea what either one was, so I just pressed the Tag Now button, and a circular bar started going around on my screen, with a text label of "listening." Of course, I wasn't ready to make this work with those kinds of constructions. But, after I understood the system from that first time through and the errors I made, the second time was easy. I've found it was a learnable system that I haven't forgot yet.

Flixster (shows movies playing in the area, times, theater address via GPS, ratings of critics and Flixster users, trailers, etc) -- I'd say that the interface design of this app begins with the name of the icon, using "Movies" rather than Flixster. I have so many apps that I might not remember what one called Flixster might do, but I certainly am able to look up movies with this program, which is why I spot it so easily under that label. Then again, it's simple, simple, simple and straightforward to access a lot of information. I don't want to explore an artist's mind with this thing, I just want to know when the movie starts.

Mobile phones and modern education techniques at Abilene Christian University

One of the colleges in Texas, and there are many, really embracing new technology in the classroom:

ACU Mobile Learning from ACU Videos on Vimeo.

Thinking differently about teaching and the learning environment

This video -- created by Michael Wesch in collaboration with 200 students at Kansas State University -- really challenged my conceptions of a modern classroom and made me think differently about the classes I teach and how I should be doing that, especially in a Digital Technology and Culture program:

Marx and "reification"

I recently finished "iPod and Philosophy" edited by D.E. Wittkower, and an article by Peter D. Schaefer in that book mentioned Marx's idea of "reification," or verdinglichung, which translates to "thingification."

That refers to the ways in which the all-powerful market reduces workers to quantifiable "labor" hours, stripping away all individuality, while simultaneously giving human qualities to the manufactured products, such as iPhones or iPods, whatever gadgets that people tend to love as much as living things (and this iPod book is over the top in its love for Apple gear). This anthropomorphication seems funny or cute on the surface but disturbing in its transference of humanity.

Look at this current Honda commercial, for example, which treats a car like a beloved pet:

Or this Zagg commercial for the Invisible Shield to protect an iPhone, like a loved one:

Marx, at least according to Schaefer's interpretation, demonstrates how the system makes us forget -- or not care about -- the actual work and costs of all sorts that go into a product, from its manufacturing and transportation to its environmental and human impacts. It's really not all about the bottom line, if it takes a person in India a full day of labor to create it and dozens of trees and a bucket of pollution to ship it. The principle of exchange, Schaefer writes, means that every commodity can be reduced to its monetary worth while being disconnected from the human factors involved in its creation. That, I think, leads to some bad decisions by consumers -- who are often unwitting or unaware -- while hard-core capitalists reap the rewards of this ignorance / egocentric behavior.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Two other location-based sites to try

Besides, I also am intrigued right now by GeoGraffiti and Geo Diary, both of which appear to allow information embedded in the ether via GPS coordinates. GeoDiary looks to have more features. GeoGraffiti is simply audio "voice marks." I'm working on a sound scripting project for WSU Vancouver, so the idea of working only in audio is enticing. But if Geo Diary can do that and more, I think I'll just start building there. Will be doing some field research on this and report back.

- Brett

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Upcoming mobile projects

I'm fascinated by location-awareness technology and how that is going to change the world. I have stacks of books and articles on this subject that I'm reading this summer, but I also plan to create a couple of mobile projects to experiment with the form.

First of all, I want to convert my home page,, into a mobile home page. As you can see, it's already designed for that. I just need to make the conversion of the files and try to keep the idea intact in the process.

My second goal is to create some sort of location-based story, incorporating GPS coordinates and multimedia elements that take advantage of these new opportunities. looks like an option. But I'm going to look around, too, to see if there are any more powerful applications available yet. Whrrl looks promising, but it seems somewhat limited at this time (or maybe I just don't know all that it can do). Maybe I can talk to the company about some additional features for beta testing. I'll put that on my list of calls to make.

I'd like to have packets of information (text, audio, video) kept in geographic hot spots that get released as people reach those places. I'm particularly interested right now in starting with sound, such as recorded phone calls being triggered by GPS coordinates and sent to users in that spot. Any suggestions of other software to try?

- Brett

Blobjectifying stuff is good

I support efficiency and cost effectiveness and design focused on completing tasks, but I also think the world would be incredibly boring if everything around us all of the time was strictly functional.

Thankfully, designers, particularly industrial designers, for the past decade or so have been part of a movement to bring more curves and swirls back to our equipment. The Christian Science Monitor provided context on this topic pretty thoroughly, as it related to an art exhibit filled with cuddly gear. This demonstrates an era in design where form no longer feels constrained by function.

Should ornamentation be empty? Should frills be added just to be cute? Of course not. Yet why not make a computer that looks huggable, as the iMac is described? It sure seemed to work for Apple. ... This goes back to a fundamental question of art: Why do we make anything beautiful? We can't really measure the pleasure we get from looking at something that inspires us. That seems to me more about the limits of our tools for understanding., the discovery of a storytelling app for mobile devices

Now might not be the first or the best storytelling application for mobile devices, but it's the first one that I've found, which also makes it the best to date. And since this relates directly to my dissertation topic, and what I want to work on for the next three years, at least, I'm highly intrigued by what they are doing with this site.

It's built primarily for the iPhone, but it does support some content from any other phone with a camera.

In short, it combines photos and text with GPS locations and maps to tell stories of sorts. It also allows multiple users to work on a story at the same time. It has many of the functions I was hoping to find, including privacy settings, so I'll be trying this out sometime soon.

This application is free, and it's being generated out of Seattle, a company called Pelago, which is a major bonus, if I want to try to collaborate at all with those folks. Only about a three hour drive to the north.

I'll post on this as it develops.

- Brett

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Location-based services report from Compete

A fascinating new report from Compete on location-based services.

Some of the findings:

About a third of smart phone users are accessing location-based services at least once a month, primarily for maps (for directions) and weather reports. As the interest grows in this, I see so much potential in many, many areas.

A few companies mentioned in the report already expanding the possibilities:

Buzzd, find nearby restaurants, shops and events

WeFi, apps for WiFi

What are you seeing out there, in terms of location-based services?

- Brett