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Archive for April, 2015

With all of the attention being paid to driverless cars it’s now a matter of when, not if, we’ll get them.  As exciting as this proposition is what excites me the most is not what this means, but rather, what comes next, what the next iteration of autonomous vehicles will look like.  You see, driverless cars will be great for commuting to work.  We all know that.  We can eat breakfast, do our makeup, read the newspaper, or prepare for an important meeting while the car does all the work.  That’s a significant game changer that can alter the way we lead our lives.

However, I don’t want to focus on what driverless cars will mean for our daily lives, for doing errands and commuting to work.  I want to think bigger than that.  I want to focus on what this technology can mean for how we live our lives not just how we lead them.  So what is it that comes next after driverless cars?  Why, driverless RVs of course.  Or even mobile hotel rooms for that matter.  Anything that can make the hassle of long distance driving a thing of the past.  And once distance is no longer a factor a whole new world of possibilities opens up.  You could live in one city and work in another.  You could date someone who lives in another state .  You could go on epic road trips every weekend and avoid the need to ever get a hotel room.  You could avoid flying if you’re so inclined to do so and instead just get transported while you sleep.  You can pretty much do anything you want.

That’s why it’s not hyperbole to suggest that this technology has the ability to significantly affect the way we live.  It could change our propensity to cluster in cities and instead open up the countryside for settlement.  Remote, scenic locations suddenly become prime real estate.  What was once untenable (a hours long commute) now becomes easily doable.  Throw in the fact that the roads will be safer and less congested as the cars and roads communicate with one another and it’s easy to see just how significant driverless cars and more so, driverless RVs, are going to be.

Of course this isn’t the only way to make these dreams come true.  If the Hyperloop ever comes to fruition it could have the same effect, helping us bridge the gap across vast distances in a fraction of the time.  But that could very easily just be a pipe dream.  Driverless cars have a much better chance of succeeding considering the progress that’s already been made on them.  All that we’d have left to do is take the next logical step and adjust for comfort.  Add in a sleeping component.  The 21st Century equivalent of trains getting sleeper cars.  Once that happens everything else will fall into place.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go waste half an hour driving myself to work.

A driverless RV is a great idea just so long as this doesn’t happen.

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The other day Google made headlines when they announced that going forward they would be optimizing their search engines to favor mobile friendly results.  It’s a move that angered a lot of people, particularly small businesses, but it was also a move that gave a glimpse into the company’s thinking:  mobile is the future and the future is now.

The search giant believes so strongly in that sentiment, in fact, that it permeates across their entire organization, throughout several different lines of business.  So much so that they have even hired a former director of DARPA, Regina Dugan, to head up their own  mobile research group known as ATAP (Advanced Technology and Products), a group born out of their acquisition of Motorola that operates just like DARPA with similarly over-sized ambitions to create game changing technologies.

Some of these ambitions have already started to bear fruit.  There are prototypes for Project Tango, which gives a smart phone to ability to render a room in 3-D, and Project Ara, which aims to make a modular phone with components that can be swapped out as easily as if they were apps.  But the most ambitious of all of their projects (there are at least 11 projects in the works right now) and the one that I’m most excited about is the one with the lamest name:  Spotlight Series.  Thankfully, what it is far outweighs what Google is calling it, for what it is could revolutionize the entertainment industry and change the very nature of our relationship with our phones.  In fact, it could even create a whole new art form as it becomes the premier destination for the top creative talent in the world.

So what exactly is Spotlight Series? Well, the easiest way to describe it is to refer to it as an “immersive short”.  Content designed specifically to be viewed on a mobile phone that essentially turns you into the director as you decide what to view as the action unfolds in a 360 degree panorama.  Turn your phone one way and see someone getting chased.  Turn your phone the other way and follow the person giving pursuit.  Turn your phone up and see a police helicopter following the chase.  No matter which way you turn your phone you’ll see something.  You could toggle back and forth between different perspectives or watch the scene from one person’s point of view and then watch the same scene from someone else’s point of view gaining new insights each time you watch.   You could even look away from the action to explore the environment and when you look back the events will pick up where they left off as if they were waiting for you to return.  It’s like a cross between a choose your own adventure story and a first person point of view video game and it’s likely to change the way you consume  content while deepening your relationship with your device.  Instead of just delivering content to you your phone will soon put you in control of that content.  A quasi virtual reality experience that will feel more like playing a video game than watching a movie.  A quantum leap in the way that we use our phones.

Considering how powerful our mobile devices are getting and how underutilized some of the computational power is, it makes perfect sense that Google would aim to find a way to tie it all together.  To find a way to optimize our phones for our mobile first future.  To find a way to change the very nature of our relationship with our devices.  To change what is capable of and what we’ll use it for.  Even if no obvious business model exists.

As Wired writes, “[Dugan] felt there was a strange dissonance between the power of our smartphones and the relatively narrow relationships we have with them. Though we are increasingly dependent on our phones, they do not provide the emotional kick of, say, a game console. Yet the technology inside our phones now rivals high-end devices like Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.  Most of the time, however, the powerful graphics capability on the phone is absolutely idle.  Was there a way to do something amazing with all that wasted computational power?”

Spotlight Series is Google’s attempt to answer that question and if the early returns are to be believed they are well on their way to doing just that.  The question then becomes what else are they on their way to doing?  What other mobile tricks do Dugan and co. have up their sleeves?  After all, there are still at least eight other projects that we don’t know about.  Projects that could even further change the way we interact with our phones.  Further push the technological boundaries of what a phone can do.

For now though, we’ll just have to make due with the projects that we do know about.  But that’s fine by me.  Having a whole new medium to play with is going to take some time.

Is Spotlight Series the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#679 – EM Drive

There are riots in Baltimore, a war in the Middle East, devastation and destruction in Nepal, and countless other issues worthy of our attention right here on Earth.  And yet most of the time I can’t help but think about life on other planets.  Does it exist?  Is it intelligent?  Will we ever get to meet it?  Just the other day in fact, I was thinking of a new idea for a book where two civilizations meet for the first time and exchange ideas and information, a happy and joyous union that promises to usher in a whole new era of enlightenment until it all goes horribly wrong.

So you can imagine how excited I must have been earlier today to learn that we might actually be on the verge of making long distance interstellar space travel possible.  On the verge of bringing the plot of my book to life.  On the verge of travelling “faster than the speed of light” for the first time.  When and if this happens it’ll be thanks to a new invention from NASA that aims to warp the fabric of space-time itself in order to achieve what was once only theoretically possible.

As I Fucking Love Science writes, “The piece of kit responsible for the sudden warp-drive frenzy is called the Electromagnetic Drive or EM Drive for short. It’s an innovative thruster that was built to steer rockets without the use of a propellant. The idea was originally met with skepticism: In order to move in one direction in the vacuum of space, you need to push an object in the opposite direction to give your rocket momentum. The object pushed in the opposite direction to the motion of the vessel is called the propellant, but the EM Drive does away with that.” 

What it would do instead is create a ‘bubble’ that would, “contract space-time in front of the ship, flow over the ship, then expand back to normality behind it. [Therefore] it’s inaccurate to describe the spaceship as moving faster than the speed of light, but rather space-time is moving around the ship faster than the speed of light.”

Now you may be thinking to yourself that this sounds great but isn’t it impossible to travel faster than the speed of light?  And you’d be right.  As far as we know the speed of light is a constant.  Nothing can travel faster than it within the vacuum of space.  But what about space itself?  Could it travel faster than the speed of light?  Well, if you believe in the Big Bang then you believe in the idea of the Universe expanding rapidly when it first started.  Much faster than the speed of light ever could.  And so if space could travel that fast right after the Big Bang what’s to say that it can’t do it again?

NASA is banking on that possibility but it’s not an all or nothing proposition.  Even if the EM Drive doesn’t take us to the far reaches of the galaxy it could still have a major impact on our ability to travel within on our own solar system making space flight cheaper and reducing the number of trips needed to refuel ships.

Hopefully though that’s not all that it’s good for.  Hopefully, it really can enable us to one day meet the inhabitants of another planet so that we can learn from each other and fill in the missing gaps in our knowledge.  So that we can trade inventions and pick each other’s brains.  So that we can solve all of the mysteries of the Universe together.  At least, that is, until it all goes horribly wrong.

Is EM Drive the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#678 – Blush

Wearables are mostly passive.  They travel with us, monitor our movements and our health, try to do their best to create a positive feedback loop that could help us make better choices.  But what happens when they evolve?  When they start to become passive aggressive.  Start to interact with us on a more personal level?

That’s a question that the New York Times recently set out to answer but they did more than just answer it.  They actually engineered a wearable, known as Blush, that brings this thought experiment to life.  As the New York Times Lab Blog explains, “What does it look like when our devices stop merely listening to us, and start becoming part of our conversations? How can the technology that lives closest to our bodies actively enhance our relationships with others?  We’ve been thinking about this recently, and to investigate it further we made Blush, a wearable that highlights the moments when your online interests and offline behaviors overlap.”

Basically, this means that the wearable will always be “on”, constantly listening to conversations to gauge when it should light up, when it should offer up subtle clues to those around you based on your interests, clues that tell others that you may be interested in the topic at hand even if you’re too shy to interject on your own.  As the blog points out this could be interpreted in one of two ways.  Either it alerts other people that you’re interested in the topic or conversely tells them that you already know about it and therefore won’t be interested in hearing about it again.  Taken that way it could be both a conversation killer and a jumping off point at the same time.  Kind of like my pickup lines.

The New York Times refers to this new breed of social wearable as “punctuation”, as the digital equivalent of body language, and that’s an apt description.  This is the kind of thing that can complement our existing communication skills, help us to tie it all together the same way an exclamation point or question mark ties together a sentence.

I’m not sure if a passive aggressive wearable will ever catch on but it is encouraging at least to know that the stodgy, old New York Times is embracing technology.  If it’s not Blush it could be something else.  Perhaps even the conference table that they recently invented that listens to your conversation and helps you remember what was said.  As Fast Company explains, “Every time someone taps the table’s subtle capacitive strips, the Listening Table makes a note that what was just said is important, and at the end of the meeting, it sends out a machine transcript of the 30 seconds on either side of each tap, tagged with a list of about three keywords or phrases that the Listening Table thinks might have been most relevant to the conversation.”

Speaking of becoming relevant to a conversation it’s become apparent that the New York Times’ innovations are now relevant to the conversation about how we’re going to communicate in the future.  And if early indications are to be believed it’s going to be vastly different than how we do it now and also vastly more interesting.

Is Blush the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#677 – Clone Zone

Having a blog is great.  But you know what would be better?  Having a website.  Unfortunately, I’ve been blessed with dashing good looks and irresistible charm instead of coding and programming skills.  I could probably work off a template like I do with this blog but I’d still have to pay for hosting fees or hire a site administrator to upload content, monitor comments, bring the site back online after one of my many viral posts knocks it off, etc.  It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

It would definitely be a lot easier then if I could copy an already existing website.  Perhaps a website like Wired’s that writes about the kind of things that I’m interested in.  Or a site like the New York Times, the proverbial gold standard of journalism.   That sure would be nice.

If you’re thinking that copying a website sounds a little fishy, you’re probably right.  It also just so happens to be the future of the internet.  A future where any webpage can be cloned.  Turned into a blank canvas for writers, artists, comics, pranksters, entrepreneurs and anyone else with an opinion to hijack existing content and make it their own.  A place where creative license reigns supreme.  And when that happens we’ll have Clone Zone and its ilk to thank.

As Fast Company writes,”[this] isn’t the first tool that has been built for the purpose of creating realistic-looking copies of websites, but it’s probably the most user-friendly, and you can use any site you want. Balasanov and Teachworth designed the editor in a “What You See Is What You Get” style that enables editing of almost any element on any website’s page, and generates the edited content in a style that matches the page.”

After you’re done making your tweaks you then get a unique url that you can share via social media or embed in another webpage and you’re off to the races.  Off to spread your fake news story or share your digital masterpiece with the rest of the world.

Cloning may sound like a new phenomenon but the technology has actually already been in play for a while.  It’s the reason why the internet is filled with clickbait.  Filled with various hoaxes and parody websites that entice you to click on and share news articles that aren’t real.  The reason why we live in a real life version of Groundhog’s Day where everyday is April Fool’s Day.

This new reality of ours can certainly be very annoying, even upsetting at times.  From celebrity death hoaxes to announcements that get your hopes up only to crush them, it’s certainly not easy having to navigate this digital minefield of parodies.  But at the same time I think this technology has real potential.  Enough potential even, to be responsible for democratizing the internet.  For taking the power out of the hands of huge conglomerates and giving it back to the people.  Giving it back to the little guy.  To the person with something to say and very limited resources to say it with.  It could wind up creating a new medium through which we communicate with one another.  A new art form even.  A new way for small businesses and startups to get up and running.

Misdirection leading us on a new path.  Kind of has a nice ring to it doesn’t it?  Which is why, one day we may even look back at this attack of the clones and say that this was the moment that it all changed.  That this was the moment that the internet entered its rebellious teenage years.  Its formative period before it became whatever it is that it’s going to become.  We might have to suffer through some growing pains first before that happens.  But who knows, it might just be worth it.

Is Clone Zone the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#676 – Qubes

We hide behind fire walls, run anti-virus software, constantly update our machines to keep up with the latest exploits, all so that we can feel safe and secure when we browse the web or check our email.  But despite our best efforts we’re not safe.  Identity theft, computer viruses, malware, spam, hacktivism, cyber-crime, etc.  There are a lot of bad things that can happen on a computer.   And for the most part we’re powerless to prevent them from happening.  At least until we do the impossible and build an unhackable quantum computer.  For now though, all we can do is react after the fact.  Begrudgingly accept our fate as collateral damage in the ongoing war between hackers and security experts and hope for the best as we press control alt delete at the same time.

All that may soon change though, thanks to a new open source operating system from Polish hacker Joanna Rutkowska, known asQubes, that is capable of creating multiple walled off silos that would enable users to easily stave off the next attack that targets them.  Think of it like the compartmentalized sections of a cruise ship that can be sealed up in the event that the ship starts to take on water. Similarly, in the event that an issue arises on your browser you can prevent the entire ship i.e. computer from suffering and just localize the damage.

As Wired explains, “The free open source OS lets users set up a collection of virtual machines on their PC, with a simple central interface to manage each quarantined system. Careful users can keep their personal online activities isolated in one virtual machine, for instance, while they do their work in another, and their banking in a third. (Rutkowska typically runs about 15.) Open a malicious email attachment or click on an infected website and the malware can’t break out of that one contaminated container.”

In the event that a malware attack does occur within one of your compartments all you’d do is get rid of it and create a new one.  A much better course of action than having to spend upwards of $500 buying a whole new computer.  And a much better solution to our ongoing computer-centric woes than spending billions of dollars building quantum computers.  Of course, the hackers aren’t going to go away quietly.  There’s too much money at stake.  Eventually, they’ll probably figure out a way to beat this system and swing the pendulum back in their favor.  But for the time being I think there’s a really good chance that Qubes could hold them off for a while.  And nowadays, that’s all you can really ask for.

Is Qubes the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#675 – Booodl

Whenever I tell my mom that I need to buy something she reminds me that I don’t really need the item in question.  I just want it.  At which point I always respond that, no, I really, really, really, do need the item in question.  That I can’t live without it.  Items like a shower clock radio in the shape of a giant humanized M&M, Twilight Zone themed pool towels, and salt and pepper shakers engaged in an epic sword fight battle to win the honor of an olive.  To help me keep track of all of the things that I need/want I utilize an Amazon wish list, a good old fashioned yellow post-it note, a string tied around my finger, and my own shoddy memory. 

Since most of the items that I’m looking for are niche/novelty items I don’t necessarily go out of my way to buy them.  It’s not like I’m going to schlep all the way to the mall just to buy a Derek Jeter bobblehead doll or an Albert Einstein pez dispenser.  The things I’m looking for are more of the know it when you see it variety.  It would be nice though if I didn’t have to stumble upon my purchases.  If there was a way that I could find out whether or not I was even near the items that I was looking for.  So that I can stop over and pick them up if it was convenient for me to do so.  Sort of like a reverse treasure hunt where instead of using a map to find what you are looking for the treasure just tells you where it’s hiding when you get close to it.

Well, as it turns out that may soon be possible thanks to a new app, known as Booodl.  As Springwise reports, “Booodl is a smartphone app that notifies consumers when they come in close proximity to products from their digital wish list. To begin, users create their list adding ‘wants’ online. Then, when they are out and about, the app notifies the customer when one of their ‘wants’ is stocked nearby: the user can then get directions to the shop, message the store or even order an Uber to the location, all within the app. They can then either pop in for a closer look or make the purchase and simply visit the shop to collect it.”

Unfortunately, the app is only available for the moment in Sydney, Australia but nonetheless it’s still a cool concept, one that takes perfect advantage of location based software, and one that seems like it would be the perfect complement to a smart watch.  As they say on their website: “We love our city, we love shopping local and we love beautiful, simple tech.  So, naturally, we made an app that combines the best of them.”

I for one am glad that they did for the random junk on my wish list that I really, really, really NEED isn’t going to buy itself!

Is Booodl the Greatest Idea Ever?

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