What’s Taking so Long?

I learned the rather inconvenient truth about exporting slides for the web, including the most typical formats (export to one big QuickTime movie, export to PDF, export to Flash, export to a series of linked images): None of these handle presentations with embedded movies (they typically show up as still images, if anything at all), and my presentation was about 75% embedded Quicktime movies. Ouch. What’s more, some of these movies are either very large for the Web, or require some codecs that I had a hard time getting to work consistently on two different Macs, much less every Mac and Windows machine playing them via the Internet.

So, I find myself in the unfortunate situation of essentially having to recreate the slides from scratch in Dreamweaver, and re-compress all of the movies (along with trying to figure out how to do so without them becoming unreadable thanks to multiple transformations from one codec to another). All of this is not a problem if one has the time. So, I’m going to give it a couple of more hours today and hopefully will get closer to a solution that I can post here. In the meantime, sorry for the delay.

The Future, as it Looked from 1987

An oldie but goodie has resurfaced on YouTube, at least for people who were in Boston in 1987 and attended MacWorld Expo (or were followers of Apple Computer, as it was called back then). At that event, then CEO John Sculley showed a ‘The Knowledge Navigator’, a short film produced by The Kenwood Group for Apple that communicated his (and Apple’s) vision of what it would be like to work with their products in the future. He didn’t say how far in the future it was, but it was clearly a time we would be able to relate to.

Besides the 100% correct prediction that we would be concerned with the deforestation of the Amazon area and its effects on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere (although it didn’t go the next step to foretell that this and other human activities would wreak havoc through climate change*), The Knowledge Navigator also demonstrated some aspects of computing that did in fact come to pass, others that are not quite there yet, and a few things that we probably won’t see for a long time to come. For those who weren’t lucky enough to see it in 1987 (or would like to take a brief walk down memory lane), here it is:

Here’s what they got absolutely right:

Touch Screen Interface
This year seems to be the year of the touch screen, whether it’s Apple’s own iPhone or Microsoft’s Surface computer (see previous posting). Tablet computers that use a stylus for input have been around for quite awhile, but the intimacy and immediacy of a finger as an input device seems to have truly taken hold in 2007.

Voice Synthesis
Despite the fact that the demo computer’s synthetic voice is a bit smoother than today’s synthetic voices, we are getting pretty close to this. (I myself went the extra mile to purchase a voice that sounds a bit like a Butler with a British accent that my computer uses for alerts and other notifications.) There are times when many have called for some service over the phone and mistaken the synthetic voice on the other end of the line for a human.

Here the film hits a home run and almost exactly the way it was shown. In fact, in a few hours I’m going to be using it to talk to my parents on the other end of the continent, back in the US. Next year, the example of the other professor sharing a screen with the local computer will be quite common, as Apple’s iChat AV will then include not just videoconferencing, but presentation and screen-sharing.

Telephony Integration
While not widespread, talking on the telephone through the computer is growing by leaps and bounds. There are several packages for integrating voice mail using the computer as the processor and storage medium for messages, and the widespread adoption of VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) will only hasten this trend. The iPhone’s ‘visual voicemail’ is surprising in that it does exactly the opposite of the demo (lists voice mails as messages, like an email), rather than announcing calls missed or the caller ID of an incoming call.

Intermingling of Professional and Personal Data
While this may be seen as a trivial detail, it’s worth remembering that in 1987, only true geeks kept their calendar and to-do lists in their computers, and everyone else continued to use day planners, faxes, snail mail and post-it notes for much of their personal organization. Only with better screens, faster processors, and software that got smarter and better designed about these tasks (and much of it has quite a ways to go), did the marginalia of personal lives find their way onto personal computers in offices. Still, this trend isn’t finished yet, and one can still find plenty of Daytimers and postits in most homes and offices.

Here’s what they were a little too optimistic on (although not completely missing):

Speech Recognition
The demo goes to great lengths to show that the professor is mumbling, giving partial information, and not talking to his device as a computer, but as another human. At one point during his telephone conversation, he even pauses and the computer fills in with an appointment time, as if it had been following in on the conversation! While speech recognition on computers has reached the point where it is common to be able to dictate an email, letter, article, or even a book to your computer and have it type the entire thing out as you speak it, one still has to speak clearly and the computer still does make some mistakes (although a lot fewer than it used to). I once saw a great T-Shirt slogan on someone who was on the team at Apple working on this technology: “I helped Apple Wreck a Nice Beach” (If you didn’t get it, say it out loud).

Full Colour Mapping of Geological Data
Google Maps and Google Earth, along with mashups of data from a variety of sources has started, but there are few simple, easy ways of doing a geo-plot with any data source without some massaging of the data (although this may not be as much the case in certain circles). There are hundreds of companies in the field of GIS (Geographical Information Systems), and it’s possible that some standards for interoperability will start to arise, especially with the rise of XML-based data sources. RSS feeds of Real Estate listings have already been mashed up, and traffic management and weather forecasting have both employed computer-based mapping for years. It’s only a matter of time before geophysical data is also available to the general public in an easy-to-assemble format.

Form Factors and other Hardware details
While there has been a move by most computer users to laptops from desktops, there are still a number of things in the demo (Speech recognition, perhaps) that are doable on a desktop but that most laptops still don’t quite have the horsepower for. This will change in the next 2 to 3 years (if not sooner). It’s surprising that there is no keyboard visible anywhere, but that is probably more to make a point (as is also the case with Microsoft’s Surface demos). Also, there is the conspicuous (at least for me) absence of wires for the connection to the phone, and no clear microphone. While wi-fi connections to the Internet are a reality, a wireless (voice) telephone interface built into a laptop would probably only work for Skype or some other VOIP solution. Still, perhaps there is an interesting potential product for people who want to use their computer as a cell speakerphone with omni-directional microphone.

Here’s what we are still a long way from:

Artificial Intelligence
Wow, did they ever miss on this one! AI is the flying car of computing. The idea that there would be an ‘agent’ as they referred to him, living in your computer, responding to you intelligently and with knowledge of both you and the outside world… well I suspect we are still a few decades away from this. There are many points in the demo where I said ‘Nice try’, imagining how today’s technology would make a mess of searches, taking calls, connecting you to data, etc.

Still, that’s not a bad hit rate for 20 years. John Sculley should give himself a little pat on the back for some impressively accurate vision, and the computer industry (and Apple in particular) should be pleased that a lot of this has come true. Now, it will be interesting to see when the next generation of college professors (and others) use these tools as much and as easily as the actor in the demo did.

*At the very least, one has to give Sculley credit for being one of the very first people in public life to sound the alarm about this ecological issue. It’s very appropriate that 20 years later we find Al Gore on Apple’s Board of Directors. It’s also perhaps a little ironic that Al Gore’s office setup — 3 huge screens plus a dedicated flatscreen TV, mountains of paper and bookcases filled to overflowing) is absolutely nothing like the climatology professor in the video.

Quickly Explaining Tech in Plain English

A web site called Common Craft has been doing a nice service for us techie types by producing clever little videos that explain some rather arcane subjects like RSS:

And now they have a new video that explains the concept of Wikis and why you would use one:

They are well done, and charming the way that they employ old fashioned stop-motion technique to create a sort of animated white board. My only negative comment is that I wouldn’t mind them using a different voice without the twang (just a personal thing I have with accents). On the other hand, some would probably say that using an amateur voice helps to suggest a non-professional feel for the presentation, which makes the subject less threatening.

It’s only a matter of time before some advertising exec sees one of these and rips off the technique for a ‘hip’ spot about a car or razor. In the meantime, I’m pleased to be able to point people to these videos when they need a quick (and are done at breakneck speed) tutorial on a few new concepts and technologies that are very popular these days. If you don’t quite get the concept of each the first time through, try once more through. It won’t take long.

Surface: Microsoft’s Sexy Coffee Table

I’ll bet that there are days at the Microsoft campus when some groups are working on a super-secret project that they just wish they could tell the world about it. In fact, keeping their secret must drive them crazy. Especially when some other company comes out with a similar project to the one they were working on, or shows off some feature in one of their demos that seriously steals some of their thunder. Time to market is part of the game, and when you lose the race, it hurts. That’s probably how the group who were working on the project called ‘Surface‘ felt some months ago when Steve Jobs made his spectacular iPhone demo, particularly when he showed that product’s new User Interface called Multi-touch. Multi-touch, at least the way that Apple defined it, means that a device can tell when you have one or two fingers touching a touch screen, and behaves differently depending on how those fingers interact. For the iPhone, this means that you can tap and double tap for some behaviors, tap and fling to move a screen or scroll a page, or touch with two fingers and move them toward or away from each other in order to zoom in or out on an image. It’s that last one that Microsoft’s new product has, and I’ll bet they were gnashing their teeth and grimacing with each ooh and ah from the crowd as they reacted to Jobs’ demo at MacWorld last January.*

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Surface, besides all of that multi-touch stuff, is a strangely exotic and futuristic product. Most folks would call it ‘bleeding edge’. It’s frankly not something I expect from Microsoft. When I think of Microsoft, I think of Windows™. Windows is not bleeding edge. It’s market-tested, well worn, doesn’t take chances, and is definitely not exotic and futuristic. It runs on hardware that is getting cheaper by the day, and most of the time that hardware is, well, ugly (with a few exceptions from Sony and maybe one or two others).

Surface is none of that. It’s a 30 inch acrylic display with touchscreen built into a rather austere-looking coffee table that’s 22 inches high, 21 inches deep and 42 inches wide. There’s no keyboard and no mouse, although it does have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and wired Ethernet connectivity. The main way that you interact with it is by touching the screen. Actually, Surface is designed to work not only with more than one finger touching at once, but with more than one person interacting with it at once. Oh, and yes, in case you forget, it’s a computer running Microsoft’s own Vista OS (Windows is still in there somewhere!) and will probably cost somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000. (Update: I just found out that these numbers are $5,000 to $10,000. No big surprise there.) What remains is the question of what you actually do with a $10,000 coffee table touchscreen computer with Internet and wireless connectivity.

Here are some examples of what Microsoft has in mind: (click on these thumbnails to see a larger image).

Multi-touch in Action Multi-User Computing

In the Fact Sheet on their web site, Microsoft says that they will ship Surface (and yes, this is a shipping product) “… to partners with a portfolio of basic applications, including photos, music, virtual concierge and games, that can be customized to provide their customers with unique experiences.” The web site for showing off Vista has several video demos, ranging from happy-smiling-people (a term I learned from my days at Fidelity that refers to those models you see in business ads who always seem to be having a better day than you are) arranging digital photographs, planning a trip, playing cards, and interacting with their cell phones as they place them on the glass table-top display. One of the demos that seems just a little unrealistic has a little girl using Surface to paint a cute picture. I’m sorry, but even though the top 1% of the very wealthy in the US are getting wealthier, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the Gates families and a few others that can afford a 10K electronic paint toy for their kid, much less place it in the living room. What did look the most interesting, however, were the instances where someone was interacting with one or more cell phones, allowing people to download trip information into them by dragging the information into a box that stood for the phone on the screen or moving music tracks from one cell phone/audio player (iPhone? Zune?) to another. The one that made me think ‘Hmm, I don’t think they’ve thought through the social dynamics of this one…’ was an example where a group of diners in a restaurant split the bill and dragged their portions to their cell phones. It might be nice to be able to split a bill with perfect math accounting for each dish ordered, but somehow having that appear on the screen felt a bit…awkward? I suppose it’s no worse than the waitress splitting up the bill, but can you imagine the tug-of-war that might ensue when one or more diners tries to pay for the other?

The fact is, this is a product that is probably going to be seen in casinos and some upscale restaurants and hotels first. The living room will have to wait. I have to say that I like that Microsoft is thinking outside the box (or rather, the desktop or laptop), and some of the applications do look fun. Will this catch on? I’m not sure. For a long time, people were hot on touchscreen kiosks for some of this activity, and they never really took off, and I can’t really see Surface working as a real restaurant table:

Oh, I spilled my Curry sauce all over the computer screen…
Don’t worry sir, I’ll just wipe it up, oh, whoops, sorry to order that round of champagne…
Oh, how cute, little Dylan is playing Blackjack between courses…Oh, don’t stab at the table with your fork, sweetheart…

Damn that messy physical world, full of food, klutzes and kids getting in the way of our cool software technology!

I used and designed interfaces for a touchscreen years ago, and I was struck then by the intimacy of the interactions. Rather than move a cursor via a physical proxy (the mouse, trackball or trackpad), you can touch a part of the screen, and sometimes that piece of the screen would change, just like in the physical world. The examples that Microsoft showed had this happening most of the time. You touch something, it either ripples, moves or highlights. The Surface UI is meant to be more than simply a new display, form factor and method of input, it’s a different style of interactivity that looks like the iPhone writ large (and for two or more people). I’ll bet it just kills the Surface team to hear that.

*It’s worth mentioning that Jeff Han demoed a surface interface at TED in 2006, and much of what he demonstrated is reflected in Microsoft’s new product. Han’s demo also got oohs and ahs, but it has only been seen by a relative few, where the hype for the iPhone definitely went farther into the mainstream media.

Navigating Data Quickly and Easily

Infosthetics points out another great UI demo. Moritz Stefaner, a User Interface Design researcher at the University of Potsdam has created what he calls an ‘Elastic List’, which is a way of browsing data that has multiple facets or parts to it. In this example, you can quickly located winners of any Nobel Prize by zeroing in on the Prize type, the gender of the winner, their country, the decade they won the award, and once you’ve narrowed down to the decade, the year that they won. In a few clicks I was able to find the two Male Canadian winners in the 1990s. Not only does this demo have a nice way of showing the data (note that the ‘pay dirt’ for a search is photos of the people you are trying to find), but it also has a marvelous bit of Mac OS X-style animation that shows the lists expanding or contracting as you make choices:

Elastic List - Partial View

It’s done using Flash, but I bet with a little work it could be done in AJAX.

Besides allowing you to zoom in on the data quickly, it encourages you to explore it to look for what might be unusual aspects that you might not have known. For instance, I learned that Germany has not had a Nobel prize winner in Medicine since 1908, which indeed, surprised me.