Saturday
Jul182009

Quick Change - Episode Seven - Mammalian Diving Reflex

Thursday
Jul162009

Canadian ISPs - Beyond Belief

This past week the country's biggest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) paraded in front of the CRTC as part of that comission's inquiry into bandwidth throttling.

To listen to the ISPs, you'd think their biggest problem was wrestling with the complexities of an increasingly congested Internet. But it's not. Their biggest problem is that more and more Canadians think they're lying sacks of shite.

Sure, as a recent Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll found, only about one in five Canadians surveyed had heard of Internet traffic management bandwidth throttling, deep packet inspection or net neutrality. And the ISPs are fueling (and counting on) that ignorance as they spread FUD (fear uncertainty and doubt) at the hearings. But, in happy counterpoint, just look at the comments on the CBC website's coverage of the hearings. One poster used all caps to sum up the overarching attitude of the commenters about the ISP testimony:

"WE DON'T BELIEVE YOU".

I have to say, that's a pretty rational response. Big ISPs here in Canada and the U.S. have lied to us before. In the U.S. Comcast denied throttling the bandwidth of users using P2P file sharing. Well denied it until they got caught red-handed and were facing a slapdown by the FCC.

At the CRTC hearings last week Rogers and Telus argued that they had no choice but to continually throttle consumer and wholesale customers' bandwidth because of unpredictable network congestion due to P2P filesharing. And, they didn't need any government oversight over that process, thanks very much.

Now, maybe to the four fifths of Canadians who aren't paying attention to this stuff that sounds reasonable. But, here's the thing. These are the same companies (along with Bell) who two years ago denied, flat out denied, they were doing any throttling at all. Turns out they were lying then and glibly spun a fresh tale of woe to a Canadian commision and public it hoped would have too short an attention span to notice.

Worse, the notion that they have to throttle to deal with network congestion is an interesting argument. Why? Because it follows then that the tubes of the Internet must be pretty clogged and are having a hard time dealing with high bandwidth content like, say, HD video.

So, it is passing strange that just before the CRTC hearings, Rogers Television exec Dave Purdy told a NextMEDIA audience in Banff that Rogers hoped to roll out online access to Rogers broadcast properties. He also expressed the hope that Bell and others could work together on the initiative. So, what about the congestion problem? How is it that music, movies, xrays and other user content clogging the Web like a hairball but ISP content is going to be a great new service that will slide into your home like grease through a goose?

ISP brass argue that Peer-to-Peer is inherently an inefficient file transfer protocol (efficient for end users, not so great for the network). They favour creating a network of distributed local nodes that would serve up the same content repeatedly if folks in the node's neighbouehood asked for it. This is the strategy AOL used to roll out its service.

However the EU has gotten behind the P2P Next project that uses peer-to-peer as the central protocol for sharing high bandwidth files between wired Europeans. So, they must know something Canadian ISPs don't. The reality here in Canada is clear. ISPs want to crack down on P2P with gay abandon and no government oversight because they don't want to invest in bringing the Web's substantial bandwidth into Canadians homes (our bandwidth up and down looks like dialup speeds compared to that in Japan, several European countries and parts of the U.S.)

And much of mainstream media is adding and abetting. Take this statement from a Canadian Press story about the hearings:

"Rogers, for example, uses complex technology to analyze what kinds of communications users are engaged in - sharing a Hollywood movie vs. sending e-mail, for example - and then "throttles" or slows down certain activities so the rest of its network moves faster."

In fact, Rogers just looks for P2P traffic and throttles that, regardless of whether the P2P is legitimate content the users own or not. If Rogers had "complex technology" that could accurately sniff out Hollywood movies from the jumble of encrypted files that flow through the Web and was employing it to dig that deep into the packets it carries, CP has a bigger story on its hands.

As it is, they're just aping ISP PR speak that equates P2P with illegal file sharing. Not helpful.

The sad truth is that Instead of bringing Canadians open modern access the ISPs want to use the bandwidth their infrastructure will bear to deliver their own content. They want to own the content, the pipes and the customers.

They can tell Canadians and the CRTC different, but I don't believe them.

Sunday
Jul052009

Augmented Reality Doesn’t Bite

 

If you have trouble coping with reality, stop reading now.

This is a column about augmented reality - software that could be the killer app for smartphones; a remarkable tool for education and activism; and the reason why you'll soon see pedestrians around you holding their phones in front of them like portable rearview mirrors.

But, what they'll be looking at isn't what's behind them. They'll be viewing a growing layer of geo-located data that will contain pictures, audio clips, annotations and links. That information will be floating and bobbing on the screen just like in the heads-up-displays that Ironman and the Terminator used to get bio-statistics and enemy locales.

A crude form of augmented reality has been with us for some time. The Murmur project http://murmurtoronto.ca/, for example,started in Toronto's Kensington Market in 2003 and has now spread around the world.

Murmur offers cellphone users in various urban locations a number they can call to get a walking tour of the vicinity centred on very personal histories of the neighbourhood. A green ear logo is your clue your near a Murmur narrative.

In Japan, Europe and more recently North America, owners of smartphones with close-focussing cameras have been snapping pictures of barcodes printed on products, in magazines or on subway posters to get additional info including song and video clips http://tinyurl.com/rbkcz6. iPhone and Adroid users who fire up the application SnapTell http://www.snaptell.com/ can take a picture of a book cover and watch as the phone pulls in prices, reviews and Wikipedia entries.

Or, they can start up a other application called Shazam http://www.shazam.com/music/web/pages/iphone.html, let the phone listen to a few bars of an unfamiliar song and have the phone identify they song, show the music video and band details.

But that's just for starters. The next wave of augmented reality applications take advantage of not just a cellphone's camera but also it's gps capability and, most importantly, its compass.

A compass? Yes. The Android-based G1 (aka the Google phone), some Nokia phones and the new iPhone 3GS have digital compasses http://tinyurl.com/p77h9t built in so the phone knows which direction its facing, instantaneously and all the time.

That's huge for augmented reality. Combined with the phones' accelerometer and GPS data, the compass's directional data allows applications to know not only where you are and which way the phone is tilting, the apps will also know which direction in the real world you're facing. in other words, the apps will have a pretty good idea what you're looking at in real time and can serve up additional information that overlays the world as it sees it through its built in camera.

The U.K. based acrossair has already released an augmented reality London Underground application http://tinyurl.com/oxvjtn. Users hold up their iPhones and small virtual signs float on the screen exactly in the direction of the nearest stations. The station labels move, change and come into view as the phone is rotated or as users move about the city.

In Austria, Mobilizy has developed the Wikitude AR Travel Guide http://www.mobilizy.com/en/wikitude-ein-reisefuhrer for the Android smartphone platform. Using Wikitude AR you can point your phone at a nearby point of interest (in the Mobilizy demo a castle 100 metres away) and get relevant historical info about the landmark that moves as the phone moves.

At last year's Techcrunch ConferenceJapan-based Tonchidot demonstrated theSekai Camera, iPhone app http://www.tonchidot.com/Sekai_Camera.html. It displays augmented reality information for shoppers who are looking for stores, deals or product geotagged reviews left by other users to hang permanently in the virtual air. It has yet to make it to the iPhone App store.

Then there's Pocket Universe, a planetarium application for the iPhone that shows you the stars, planets and moons above you. It's really a moving window on the universe as seen through and annotated by your cellphone http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aM92roJxkSc.

This is going to be a huge category for smartphones. In fact, I think augmented reality applications could be killer apps for mobile devices.More and more civic data, already geolocated, is being made public. A growing number of pbotographers are geolocating their pictures and movies. And it makes smart business sense for companies to get their messages out to on-the-go consumers who happen into their neighbourhoods. And tourism? Don't get me started.

But there's also fantastic opportunity for citizen journalism and activism. Imagine hyperlocal journalism that comes to life when users are as hyperlocal as you can get - right on the spot.

So, the first time you see somebody holding their smartphone in front of them and rotating don't think they're crazy, or looking behind them. They’ll be taking a annotated look at the future.

 

Friday
Jul032009

iPhone Video Test

I shot the video below with my new iPhone 3GS. It shoots 640x480 videos at 30 frames per second. The clip is about two minutes long. On a 3G network it took about seven minutes to upload. But, because the Photo/Video app is from Apple, it works in the background. So, while the clip was uploading, I could browse the Web, use Twitter and flip through apps with no noticable slowdown. The final video on the phone is very good quality. It degrades on YouTube due to compression. If I wanted to display it on the Web with higher quality I could upload it from, say iMovie, on my home network. Keep in mind, with the same wireless device I can capture 3 megapixel stills and broadcast quality audio. So, it really is a great citizen journalist tool.

It was fairly windy out so I shielded the mic (on the bottom of the phone) with my hand. I'm hoping a company like Beachtek will make a docking port adapter for XLR mike(s).

You can see the colour saturation is good but even on an overcast day the whites are in danger of blowing out.

Also, I was moving the camera around a lot, not the best for the sort of cruncy compression the phone does on the video prior to uploading it.

Overall though, a remarkable performance by the iPhone. Very impressed. My research continues.

Thursday
Jul022009

In Episode Five of my vidcast, Quick Change, I interview Matthew Blackett, the publisher of spacing.ca.