A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about augmented reality on a personal digital assistant with a link to a video from a Finnish company that created an AR visualization of a new building. This morning at a Vienna University of Technology conference in Austria, a team of developers will demonstrate The Invisible Train, “a mobile, collaborative multi-user Augmented Reality (AR) game, in which players control virtual trains on a real wooden miniature railroad track. These virtual trains are only visible to players through their PDA’s video see-through display as they don’t exist in the physical world. This type of user interface is commonly called the magic lens metaphor.
The computers in our pockets are getting very interesting applications: from calendar, contacts, and to-do lists to mobile telephony, digital imaging, email, Web access, WiFi links, MP3 playback, GPS, multimedia, pocket video and now the “magic lens.” A few more doodads and we’ll finally have reinvented Spock’s tricorder.
Jonathan Coulton is a software designer from Brooklyn who composes and performs very smart songs about math, shopping, gambling and other golden moments. His song about Benoit Mandelbrot, fractal pioneer, has a particularly poignant refrain:
Take a point called Z in the complex plane
Let Z1 be Z squared plus C
And Z2 is Z1 squared plus C
And Z3 is Z2 squared plus C and so on
If the series of Z’s should always stay
Close to Z and never trend away
That point is in the Mandelbrot Set
Jonathan performs at the mind-expanding Poptech conference in Maine where I saw him last year. Listen to his tunes, check out his literate lyrics, and buy his new album, Smoking Monkey. How often do you listen to music that makes you feel smart?
Back before desktop publishing and graphical user interfaces, the hot high tech in publishing was the minicomputer. I sold dozens of these Data General Nova series minis (pictured above) into typesetting and publishing houses in the late 1970s. The main system console was a Teletype keyboard/printer, but when the going got tough you had to enter system patches and diagnostics on the front panel switches. Each number or command was represented by a particular series of up and down switches, with a switch at the end to “deposit” or record the data into a register. I spend several lifetimes entering DG assembler code that way, sometimes doing it over and over again in case I made a mistake.
The interface was perfectly user-abusive — the opposite of user-friendly — but in about ten years the mouse, the menu and some smart thinking about the user interface came along to make computing a lot friendlier and more forgiving. Nowadays everbody who uses a computer expects a Windows-style interface. Everybody who uses a VCR expects the little boxes and triangles for play, rewind, pause and record. Everybody who uses a phone expects to select options from a menu with an up-and-down cursor. Our best technology works hard to be obvious and simple to use with a relatvely standard interface.
Except for electronic water timers for garden sprinklers. I’ve used several different models (two pictured at right), and they all suck in the same way: their user interfaces are awful, abusive, opaque. You would think something simple like: “Turn the water on every day at 6 a.m. for one hour.” would be easy to set, but these gardeners’ marvels have simple-minded computers that are no help to the user, blind interfaces that are impossible to check, and esoteric functions that are too complicated to apply.
The main problem with these technology bricks is that electromechanical engineers built them with as little grace and wit as engineers are capable of. They’re clocks, but on the GreenThumb EasySet there’s no display to tell you what time the machine thinks it is. They’re meant to sit at faucet-level in an unlit garden, but the Gilmour 9400 has a low contrast LCD display with tiny unreadable characters. There are complex formulas for skipping a day or boosting the flow on weekends, but they’re way too hard to program. At $40.00 or so they’re more expensive than most pocket calculators, but they have a minimum number of buttons so every button has to do two or three jobs. You never really know if you’ve got it working. When I’m not at home, I put a bucket near the sprinkler to collect some water so I know that the timers actually turned the water on like they were supposed to. They make me feel so stupid.
Here’s what I want: A wireless browser interface for my electronic water timer. If I’m lucky enough to have WiFi access in the garden, I should be able to call up the unit from anywhere on the web, set the time and check the action. Maybe I have to bring a WiFi laptop near the faucet to set the timer. Or maybe the logic unit detaches from the plumbing part so I can bring it within WiFi range to configure. I wouldn’t need any buttons or displays on the unit itself, just a simple CPU and WiFi link, and I’d be able to have the most customized watering schedule — Sundays off while I’m pruning, extra flow during August, no water during eclipses, whatever else you can think of — with feedback that tells me when the water actually flowed. I want an information technology approach in the garden that matches the automation and ease of use I’ve come to expect in the rest of my consumer electronics products.
There are a lot of digital printing services on the Internet. You can get anything from 4″x6″ snapshots to 6′ wide grand format sign segments from your downloaded picture files. One of the coolest is Confoti.com which prints your photos onto 1″ diameter confetti disks. Send up to 10 different images and get a bag of custom confetti — 800 two-side custom image pieces plus 2,400 smaller generic pieces — for $16.95. That’s roughly nine 8-1/2″x11″ pages of two-sided color printer output die-cut and mixed with generic confetti. Confoti also prints stickers and durign the conventions this summer showcased both Bush and Kerry campaign confetti.
My talks on the future of video often closes with a discussion of Augmented Reality (AR), using tech to supplement our view of the world. It’s increasingly common on TV: The yellow first down stripe that appears magically on NFL football fields, the little text bubbles that follow NASCAR racers around the track, the products placed post production into television shows by advertisers who pay for position — we’re used to the idea that what we see on a video screen may not be real, and we’re expecting more information per screenful al the time.
Schemes to take AR on the road have generally relied on geeky virtual reality-type eyeglass constructions with tiny video projectors that superimpose AR information onto your field of view, sort of like an on-head heads-up display. Steven Feiner’s excellent Scientific American article a couple of years back gave some terrific perspectives on developments in the field. (Check out the goofy AR rig on web page five of the link. Obviously you couldn’t use it to find a date.) Scientists at VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland put AR on an HP PDA equipped with a camera and a WiFi connection. In this demonstration video a viewer visits a building site which is now a car park. By peering through the PDA screen, he sees the planned building and landscaping superimposed on the cars in the lot. According to a whitepaper on the hardware and software, the system can also work over a regular GSM phone connection.
Imagine getting an AR view of your immediate area zapped to your PDA. It doesn’t even have to be real time video, just an up-to-date overlay map showing movie titles and times, shopping mall sales, clients’ offices and strong cell phone zones. Maybe it could even identify your Friendster contacts with little icons that indicate who to approach and who to avoid.
I couldn’t decide whether this fits the Digital Photography, Pervasive Video, Web/Tech, Nanotech or Science categories. Digital color proofing systems used to cost $300,000 and needed 500 square feet of controlled environment. I guess we’ll make a new category: “What a Great Time to Be Alive!”
Two picoliters. That’s how small the ink droplets get on Canon’s new PIXMA IP6000D desktop color ink jet printer. That’s small: there are almost 5 billion picoliters in a teaspoon. 1,536 tiny nozzles spit 4,800 x 1,200 dots per inch to kick out a 4″ x 6″ borderless print in just over a minute. You can feed the printer by wire, zap images from your cell phone via infrared, or plug in your camera’s microdrive or Compact Flash card. There’s a 2.5 inch video screen so you can preview your pictures, and image processing software so you can fix size, crop, brightness and color balance. Oh, yeah, and it prints with six color inks.
Canon, Epson, HP, Sony and others keep ratcheting up the features and functions thresholds for color printers. The punchline is the price: Canon expects a street price of about $180.00 for the IP6000D.
I’m off this weekend to a reunion of the Typographers Association of New York. For over 80 years, TANY was the center of typographic life in the big city. Legendary type shop owners like Phil Haber, Mac Baumwell, Kurt Volk and Ralph Seplow prospered in the post-war advertising boom, then got clobbered by information technologies that made their processes and eventually their products obsolete.
Hot metal Linotype and Ludlow machines were replaced in the 1970s by Compugraphic minicomputers, phototypesetting and paste-up, and a new generation of typographical moguls hacked largely experimental imaging systems to build a brand new industry .. a digital industry that lasted less than 20 years. By the late 1980s, desktop publishing came along to wipe out the profits of the professional typesetters and give everybody control over their pages … for better or worse.
In 1970, a union typographer spent years as an apprentice learning about composition, layout, fonts and visual aesthetics. By 1990, the lowliest new-hire in the most clueless corporation was sitting in front of a Macintosh, picking fonts and sizes and displacing thousands of skilled craftsmen, most of whom never adjusted to bits and bytes.
For a decade we lived with mountains of ugly pages as publishers and designers adjusted to computers in print. It took quite a while for the new systems to simply match the output of the old systems. Every newspaper in the country had a curmudgeonly editor who refused to use his Atex terminal and blue-penciled every bad hyphenation and spell-check mistake that made it into the paper. Art directors and designers growsed about learning to use a mouse and the coding for digital prepress. Cost accountants and finance weasels decided which kind of computers to buy, who would use them, and how much money they would save through automation.
Then the old guard faded away and every kid out of design school showed up expecting a Mac, expecting total digital control over the page, expecting to be able to use images and color quicker and cheaper and more freely than the last generation. USA Today and Wired magazine happened. Multimedia was committed. And even the Wall Street Journal started printing in four color.
The IT revolution in the graphic arts gave us a better, more colorful, more affordable and more beautiful visual environment. It made and destoyed companies, careers, and fortunes. This weekend, some of the revolutionaries will be lakeside in the Poconos swapping war stories and remembering all the fun parts.