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March 2004

February 2004

Japanese Embrace of Mobile Internet

A recent Washington Post article, distributed on the telecom-cities mailing list, reports on a number of interesting aspects of mobile phone use in Japan that we don't see here in the USA. Among the highlights:

  • fine-grained, voice-based navigation services via GPS-enabled mobile phones

  • high subscription rate for Internet via mobile phone (55% of population)

  • winning value proposition for mobile phone web portals (90% of NTT DoCoMo user fees shared with producers of sites visited by customers)

  • animated characters sent to others' mobile phones during communication, controlled by the senders, to indicate emotion

  • questions submitted to teachers during class via mobile phone (similar to Bill Griswold's ActiveClass application for WiFi-enabled PDAs)
  • The article reports that "Restaurants advertise immediate discounts on Web sites when they have a slow night, offering price cuts of as much as 15 percent to fill seats with keitai bargain hunters." It does not, however, say whether the recipients of such advertisements find them intrusive or welcome. I'm somewhat dubious about the claim that "Japanese have grown so skilled at writing e-mails on cell phones that many now find it simpler than using computer keyboards."

    After reading the article, a quick google of "keitai" (Japanese word for mobile phone) reveals that much of this, and more (including pictures), is extremely well-documented in a November post on Chris Heathcote's fabulous blog (I must really visit there more often).


    Physical E-Graffiti

    Chris Heathcote posts an interesting idea about using 2D barcodes -- rather than RFID -- to [geo]tag places and things, which can be scanned using camera-equipped mobile phones in order to link to their corresponding digital representations. Of course, if the idea were to really takeoff, one can imagine 2D barcodes literally littering popular sections of urban landscapes.

    I'm reminded of Marc Smith's work on Project Aura, wherein regular barcodes such as those on UPC labels can be used to search the web for content relating to those products. Marc and his team barcoded several pieces of artwork on the Microsoft campus. Placing a physical barcode on something that does not belong to the annotato puts a new spin on a number of legal and ethical issues raised by Gene Becker regarding the annotation of space, truly physicalizing e-graffiti.

    One of the appeals of this idea is that it fits into [near] common practice today, i.e., it doesn't require a great deal of new technology, at least on the part of the people who might want to read annotations of places, nor on people who might want to publish followup annotations (the initial annotators of a place will need to have a way to generate the barcodes). While I wonder how far ahead of the technology curve this is, i.e., how long will it be before other, less physical, methods of posting and reading geocoded content through mobile phones become more widespread (e.g., WaveMarket), an additional appeal of Chris' idea is that it would be based on open source standards and code.


    "Living Labs" keynote at UCSD

    I'll be giving the keynote this Friday at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering Research Review. The theme is "Living Labs" and while I will, of course, be talking primarily about our experience with proactive displays at UbiComp 2003, I'll be starting off by emphasizing the committment of Intel Research to the concept of living labs (as illustrated by this and other projects, e.g., PlanetLab and PlaceLab).

    The other talks look interesting [too], with topics including a network telescope, unmanned aerial vehicles, a smart vivarium and a project to "integrate live cell arrays with synthetic 'chip' platforms" (this last one, in particular, adds a whole new dimension to the idea of a "living lab").


    Cyberbullying

    Kids can be cruel, and now technology can be -- and is -- used to amplify that cruelty. An article written by Amanda Paulson in the Christian Science Monitor last December, and carried locally in yesterday's Seattle Times, talked about this new trend, including a reference to a web site devoted to raising awareness and calling for action against this practice:

    Cyberbullying involves the use of information and communication technologies such as e-mail, cell phone and pager text messages, instant messaging, defamatory personal Web sites, and defamatory online personal polling Web sites, to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behaviour by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others.

    The article describes some truly awful actions taken by some teens to threaten and harm others. Among other reactions and reflections, I started wondering why these smear campaigns seem so prominent among teens and politicians (or their supporters); I suppose a big part of the teen years is jockeying for position, status and popularity, and one way to look good is to make someone else look bad.

    Among the statistics quoted in the Paulson article were the following:

    One in 17 kids ages 10 to 17 had been threatened or harassed online, and about one-third of those found the incidents extremely distressing, according to a 2000 study by the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. A study in Britain last year by NCH, a British children's charity, found that 1 in 4 students had been bullied online.

    This seems to be quite a disparity (1/17 vs. 1/4), part of which may be explained by some combination of differences in time, place, definition or interpretation of terms, or survey methodologies. Some of it may, of course, be due to cultural differences, but it's hard to imagine that British students are that much crueler than their American counterparts. I wonder what kind of disparities exist between cyberbullying by politicians (and their supporters) in each of the two countries.


    Channel Surfing: One of the Great Problems?

    In another Technology Review article, this one on Gadgets in the Super-Chip Age, David Freeman starts out with the following sentence:

    In a lab at Philips Electronics in the Netherlands, researchers are stalking the solution to one of the great problems of modern life: having to hunt through hundreds of television channels for something you’d like to watch.

    If I had to list the great problems of modern life, I don't think that finding a television channel with something I'd like to watch would be very high on my list, and seriously hope that it wouldn't be high on most other people's lists. Instead, I would hope that problems such as poverty, hunger, war and disease would be uniformly higher than finding a channel with something good on.

    Of course, I'm an outlier, watching less than an hour of television a week, on average. I realize that most people in the USA watch far more than this, and suspect that most people in the Netherlands watch more television than I do as well. Perhaps many people really do care more about finding something good on television than in creating a better world. In any case, I thought that TiVo had largely solved the former problem.


    Bot Com Boom?

    Rodney Brooks, MIT professor, iRobot cofounder and Technology Review commentator, was waxing poetic about the promise of robotics in a recent TR column, comparing the state of robotics today with the state of computers in 1978, claiming that in another 15 years, robotics will be as ubiquitous as email and the web.

    I'm reminded of an article I read by Nils Nilsson in 1984 about "Artificial Intelligence, Employment, and Income" that claimed that as AI systems were able to do more and more, there would be fewer and fewer jobs for humans to do, and thus we should consider dissociating income from employment and set up some kind of trust so that people whose jobs were eliminated through AI advances could still earn income from the work these systems were performing.

    I don't believe that AI has achieved the level of dominance that Professor Nilsson expected in 1984, and I don't believe that robotics will achieve the level of dominance that Professor Brooks expects in 2004 (or 2019). In particular, he says that

    Robots with the vision capabilities of a two-year-old and the manipulation capabilities of a six-year-old will be more disruptive to our way of life than any robot portrayed by the governor of California. They will reorder the world labor markets that have developed over the last 50 years. They will change immigration patterns and the massive shift of labor from developed to developing countries. But the most important impact might well be on elder care: caregiving robots could help us weather the tsunami of aging baby-boomers about to submerge the economies of Europe, North America, and Japan. But more on that in a later column. For now, suffice it to say: the robots are here.

    I don't know about anyone else, but I wouldn't want a machine with the vision capabilities of a two-year-old and the manipulation capabilities of a six-year-old to be care for my mother in her golden years.


    Fresh but Perishable Content

    The idea of hypertransient blogs reminded me of a Seattle Weekly article about Michael Kinsley and Slate.com, wherein Nina Shapiro quotes Jacob Weisberg as describing Slate's format as a daily magazine in a section entitled "Warp-Speed Journalism." Along these lines, Weisberg claims that "the things you write in a very limited amount of time are not worse but in fact better." Shapiro goes on to quote Paul Glastris, editor of The Washington Monthly, as describing Slate's style as "fresh but perishable content". Indeed.


    Artful Displays

    The Seattle Weekly has an article this week about how displaying art on computer monitors -- large and small (well, medium-size) -- is making a comeback ... or perhaps a grand debut. I'm particularly interested in the GalleryPlayer service provided by RGB Labs:

    RGB Labs' business is to provide a subscription service of changing "galleries" to businesses—customers likely to have the interest in a high-end atmosphere and the money to pay for high-quality art. For a $3,000 setup fee (which includes a computer system) and $195 each month, a hotel, corporate office, or other location gets a set of monthly masterpieces, updated via CD-ROM or the Internet. Subscribers can display the rotating art on flat-panel TV screens they already have in their lobbies, boardrooms, or hallways. The galleries include fine art and photographs, and a new licensing agreement with Octavo adds rare and historical books, such as a Gutenberg Bible.

    Several firms have signed on. The Claremont Hotel in Seattle and many of the King County Library System branches are early customers. And RGB Labs plans to have a home version of the service available for less than $20 a month before the end of this year.

    It's not much of a stretch to imagine how one of these systems could be augmented by sensors and profiles to make these proactive displays of art...


    Hypertransient Blogs

    A perspective from Red Herring on WaveMarket that helps me better understand the potential value of blogging by phone:

    Using a cell phone with a camera, the tools lets consumers annotate their environment with information that others can access and use to find parties, events and share information in the context of the what [are you doing] and where [are you doing it] the people the user cares about. This allows people to publish information that is useful in context and that may rapidly lose its value. [emphasis mine]

    If WaveMarket really does take off, it is easy to imagine an extremely cluttered geocoded blogosphere, unless care is taken to provide easy-to-use and effective ways of filtering posts. Or perhaps a capability will be offered for specifying lifespans for posts, which of course would have to be accompanyied by a suitable incentive scheme, e.g., allocating higher priority or prominence for shorter-lived posts. [I recently read (via Anne Galloway) a post in the Urban Tapestries blog about the filtering issue, wherein Giles Lane and his colleagues are grappling with the problem of cutting through the clutter generated by a mere 100 people each spending two hours generating content (during their public trial) while still maintaining an openness to serendipitous discoveries. I think the answer lies in an integrated solution -- having a more holistic digital representation of selves (not just location-based blog posts, and not just for two hours) available for use with collaborative filtering techniques. Perhaps the longer term longitudinal study being planned for the next stage of Urban Tapestries will permit this kind of approach.]

    Back to WaveMarket:

    The company also demonstrated how an apartment searcher can share photos and location information for a spouse back home, so that "not only can she see the bedrooms, but the park the kids will play at and how far it is from each apartment [her husband] is looking at."

    This scenario of remote monitoring by loved ones reminds me of a scenario enacted (or at least envisioned) years ago by wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann wherein his wife, who was at home, was looking over his shoulder (so to speak) via his wearable computer, to help him choose a tomato that was ripe while he was shopping at a grocery store.

    This got me to wondering, I wonder if Steve, or other borgs, blog? Googling on "Steve Mann blog" brought me to a reference to an article in Salon (referenced in Smart Mobs (referenced in Loic Le Meur's blog (which has a great summary of blogging and other digital augmentations of the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference (which I'll get to in a future post (ah, I love serendipity (and parentheses)))))). Answer: of course they do, or rather they glog (short for cyborg log) -- and in fact, the borgs were glogging long before nonborgs were blogging. Although there are examples of brief periods of glogs that are posted on the web (and thereby transformed into blogs), I cannot find any current glogs; I guess a full-time, continuous glog would soon collect an overwhelming amount of content ... unless, of course, there were a mechanism to ensure that the posts were short-lived.

    And, continuing back toward the original thread, I particularly like the quote from Tasso Roumeliotis, CEO of WaveMarket:

    "What we do is turn every cell phone into a location aware media broadcasting device."

    Stream-of-(de)consciousness logging for the masses.