New Tools

Friday New Tools Feature: The Melding of Man, Machine, and Media

I've been writing a fair bit recently about augmented reality, which I believe has the potential to revolutionize the way we consume media and information, particularly on mobile devices. However, as has been pointed out, one of the main limitations of augmented reality technology is that you have to be looking "through" your phone for it to work.

So, while reading an article in Wired about flexible OLED screens (like the one pictured at left), this particular passage sparked my interest: 

Ultimately, OLED has potential applications far beyond HDTV. OLED displays can be printed on a flexible plastic substrate, and foldable screens with the thickness of a credit card have already been demonstrated at CES 2009. Clear OLED screens will also eventually be possible, so that a window in your house could double as a TV screen.

We've seen these screens before, but with AR on my mind, I wondered if this tech could be used to create augmented reality glasses or contact lenses, which could work as a secondary display for a mobile device. As it turns out, the folks at Wired seemed to be thinking the same thing - they had articles today about BOTH of these technologies. While the prospect of AR glasses is tantalizing (and likely not all that far off), the contact lens piece in particular caught my attention, because it represents a real blurring of the line between the biological and the technological with respect to perception and cognition. As the article explains, it also has interesting implications for mHealth, something we're excited to be working on here at NDN.  From the piece:

Scientists, eye surgeons, professors and students at the University of Washington have been developing a contact lens containing one built-in LED, powered wirelessly with radio frequency waves.

Eventually, more advanced versions of the lens could be used to provide a wealth of information, such as virtual captions scrolling beneath every person or object you see. Significantly, it could also be used to monitor your own vital signs, such as body temperature and blood glucose level.

Why a contact lens? The surface of the eye contains enough data about the body to perform personal health monitoring, according to Babak Parvis, a University of Washington professor of bionanotechnology, who is working on the project.

The augmented reality people are on board, too, and thinking even bigger. The CEO of Layar, the pre-eminent emerging augmented reality platform for mobile devices, believes that "a consumer-oriented, multipurpose lens is just one example of where augmented-reality technology will take form in the near future. [We should] expect these applications to move beyond augmenting vision and expand to other parts of the body."

The potential applications for mHealth are exciting - as one of the researchers developing these lenses explains,

A contact lens with augmented-reality powers would take personal health monitoring several steps further, Parvis said, because the surface of the eye can be used to measure much of the data you would read from your blood tests, including cholesterol, sodium, potassium and glucose levels.

However, the most radical part of this technology may not be its health applications - we've seen artificial organs employed to help sick people - but the way that it is being employed to expand the capacaties of healthy people in exciting ways, adding new capabilities that no human ordinarily possesses.

Friday New Tools Feature: Mobile Internet Narrows the Digital Divide Domestically

My colleague Sam duPont has been doing excellent work writing about how mobile technology is helping to provide information services and access in deveoping countries. As a recent Pew Internet and American Life survey helps to illustrate, the same is true within our own country, where socio-economic conditions have traditionally prevented many from accessing the internet, and thus put the less fortunate at an even more profound disadvantage in today's data-centric world.

Here are some of the most important findings of the study:

  • 48% of Africans Americans have at one time used their mobile device to access the internet for information, emailing, or instant-messaging, half again the national average of 32%.
  • 29% of African Americans use the internet on their handheld on an average day, also about half again the national average of 19%.
  • Compared with 2007, when 12% of African Americans used the internet on their mobile on the average day, use of the mobile internet is up by 141%.

The high level of activity among African Americans on mobile devices helps offset lower levels of access tools that have been traditional onramps to the internet, namely desktop computers, laptops, and home broadband connections.

The study found that, "by a 59% to 45% margin, white Americans are more likely to go online using a computer on a typical day than African Americans." However, "when mobile devices are included in the mix, the gap is cut in half; 61% of whites go online on the average day when mobile access is included while 54% of African Americans do."

Of course, even with high-end mobile devices like the iPhone, there are still very significant differences in functionality between your typical internet-enabled mobile device and a notebook or desktop. And, especially if data is being accessed over carrier networks instead of WiFi, there is a pretty big difference speed. There were several columns this week, including two in the New York Times (1 | 2), about how iPhone users (particularly those in dense cities, where bandwidth issues are the most glaring) are angry about how slow their download speeds are. Indeed, in explaining why they're so far behind schedule in allowing iPhone users to use MMS, AT&T admitted that their network was struggling to keep up with the demand for data:

We're riding the leading edge of smartphone growth that's resulted in an explosion of traffic over the AT&T network. Wireless use on our network has grown an average of 350 percent year-over-year for the past two years, and is projected to continue at a rapid pace in 2009 and beyond. The volume of smartphone data traffic the AT&T network is handling is unmatched in the wireless industry.

It is true that at this point mobile internet alone cannot totally bridge the digital divide (it's still pretty hard to apply for many jobs, or do word processing or website work, without a real computer). However, with the implementation of 4G networks over the next few years, and the exponential increase in smartphone sophistication we're likely to see - in particular, the app ecosystem is still in its infancy, and is likely to explode in utility much as the internet did - this report should still be read as an essentially positive sign.

Friday New Tools Feature: Watching the Tube, Through the Tubes

Some of you may remember that, way back in April, Simon and I checked out the annual Cable Show here in DC, where the cable industry shows off its latest and greatest. Back then, I wrote,

Perhaps the biggest theme of the whole show was convergence, and the many ways that entertainment, information, and communication are merging. Streaming and downloadable movies and shows, IPTV, advanced DVR and Network PVR technology, 3-D home theater (available this year), networked video sharing, online video syndication, a huge variety of set-top boxes, mobile VoIP, fully integrated household systems, and many other technologies were being combined in myriad ways. 

Without getting bogged down in the details, the key takeaway of the show was that cable is no longer a broadcast technology; it has become flexible, customizable, and interactive to a striking degree in just a few years time, and with ever-increasing bandwidth (one provider boasted "wideband" download speeds reaching 50 mbps), this trend is sure to accelerate. 

A few months later, and that vision is quickly becoming a reality. This week, Verizon announced a trial of it's FiOS TV Online service, and TimeWarner and Comcast also announced trials of their TV Everywhere services. Here's an excerpt from the TimeWarner press release:

Through TV Everywhere, Time Warner Cable video subscribers will be able to access content online on the networks' websites and on Time Warner Cable's web properties. The programming offered through the TV Everywhere trials will include many shows currently unavailable online and others that will be made available on the Internet more quickly following their original airdates than they are currently. The trials are a big step toward fulfilling Time Warner Cable's vision for making content available on any screen, any time and any place its customers want to view it.

The evolution will be a gradual one, but I feel that the separation between TV shows, movie rentals, and the internet will quickly erode over the next few years until there is no longer any solid distinction. We're not quite there yet, but the latest generation of HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) connectors include a built-in ethernet connection. What that means for next-generation devices:

The HDMI 1.4 specification will add a data channel to the HDMI cable and will enable high-speed bi-directional communication. Connected devices that include this feature will be able to send and receive data via 100 Mb/sec Ethernet, making them instantly ready for any IP-based application.


The HDMI Ethernet Channel will allow an Internet-enabled HDMI device to share its Internet connection with other HDMI devices without the need for a separate Ethernet cable. The new feature will also provide the connection platform to allow HDMI-enabled devices to share content between devices. 

With the lastest generation of TVs already supporting built-in movie rentals over ethernet cables, the next-gen HDMI will simply accelerate the trend towards high-definition IPTV. And if you're a consumer, that's a good thing - you'll have more choice and more control over what you watch and when you watch it. Politicians, though, should be prepared; this is going to be a very different media environment than in the past, requiring different strategies to message effectively. It's not necessarily bad - the level of customization will also allow for much better targeting (think search ads for TV), but those unprepared for this shift will be at a big disadvantage within the next few years. 

New Tools Update: Yelp for iPhone Has Hidden Augmented Reality Feature

I just saw that Yelp, one of my favorite apps for the iPhone, is now testing an augmented reality feature. Yelp, for those of you that haven't used it before, uses your location to find user-reviewed restaurants, bars, etc. close by. It's really good, and AR makes it that much better. As a foodie, this alone makes it almost worth the upgrade to a 3GS. Anyone want a nice used 3G? 

On another note, FastCompany's top story today is about three unexpected dangers of augmented reality. Spoiler - you might get your fancy phone stolen if you're holding it up in front of your face all the time. Oh noes! 

Data Mining Mobiles in the Developing World

The MIT Technology Review annually honors young innovators in their TR35 list of technologists changing our world. One of this year's notables is Nathan Eagle, who has been mining mobile phone data to improve public policy and provide income in the developing world:

For instance, he is working with city planners in Kenya and Rwanda to understand how slums grow and change in response to events such as natural disasters and declines in crop prices. And earlier this year, Eagle began using phone-derived data to build a more accurate model of the spread of malaria in Africa.

In February, he launched Txteagle, a service that lets any company send cell-phone users simple tasks such as text translation. Participants are paid with credits that can be used for phone service or redeemed for cash at special kiosks.

Txteagle was so successful that it quickly had many more people willing to take on the small tasks than there were tasks available.  Eagle is planning to realaunch the program later this year in Kenya, Rwanda, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, with changes he hopes will make it sustainable.

When you think about how new all this technology is, its potential to improve our world seems endless. Think how far we've come since, say, 1990:

New Tools Update: Augmented Reality Going Mainstream?

I've written about how I think augmented reality could be the Next Big Thing in the development of the web, and it looks like augmented reality tech is finally starting to really catch people's attention. The front page stories in Wired and ReadWriteWeb over the last few days took in-depth looks at where this technology is going. Both articles are well worth the read. Here's an excerpt from the ReadWriteWeb piece, which looks at some of the hurdles to widespread adoption of AR:

"The internet smeared all over everything." An "enchanted window" that turns contextual information hidden all around us inside out. A platform that will be bigger than the Web. Those are the kinds of phrases being used to describe the future of what's called Augmented Reality (AR), by specialists developing the technology to enable it. Big questions remain unanswered, though, about the viability of what could be a radical next step in humanity's use of computers.

The article raises some good points, but I think that the explosive potential of this research far outweighs some of the challenges, many of which are technology-based. The iPhone will begin supporting early AR apps next month, and given Moore's law and the imminent arrival of 4G data networks, I think the widespread use of augmented reality on a range of mobile devices is, at the most, two or three years off.

Finally, just for kicks, check out this novel use of AR by the District 9 team (and if you haven't seen the movie, do yourself a favor and go check it out - the actual film is almost as good as the marketing for it).  

If you have a webcam and a printer, you can try this out for yourself here.

Thursday @ Noon: Watch or Attend "The Dawn of A New Politics"

Plans for lunch on Thursday? Stop by NDN, either in person or online, this Thursday, August 27th and catch Simon's monthly presentation of "The Dawn of a New Politics." We'll start serving lunch around noon here in our offices located just a few blocks from the White House and go live with the presentation at 12:15 pm. But if you aren't in DC or can't pull yourself away from your desk, you can always watch the presentation live online. You can even submit questions and Simon will answer them in real time.

As always, these events are free and open to the public. But be sure to RSVP if you plan to come to NDN for the presentation. (No need to RSVP if you're going to watch online.)

See you on Thursday!

Check out these recent essays from Simon to preview some of his arguments in the Dawn of a New Politics:

Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century. July 24, 2009, Demos. An essay which ran as part of a leading British think tank's series of essays on the future of center-left politics.

Obama: No Realist He. June 16, 2009, Huffington Post. Simon offers some thoughts about Obama's global brand in the early days of the Iranian uprising.  The essay drew many comments in its more than 24 hours on the front page of Huffington Post.

Making the Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Why We Need it This Year. April 30, 2009, Huffington Post. Simon lays out 7 reasons why Congress should tackle immigration reform this year, or early next.

The Long Road Back. November 18, 2008, NDN Blog. Following the Democratic Party's electoral victories in 2008, Simon wrote this piece to offer some thoughts about the disconnect between the modern GOP leadership and modern Americans.

On Obama, Race and the End of the Southern Strategy. January 4, 2008, NDN Blog. At the height of the 2008 primary season, Simon wrote this essay reflecting on the composition of the field of contendors for the Democratic Party's nomination and how meaningful nominating (then Senator) Obama would be for liberating America from the pernicious era of the Southern Strategy.

The 50 Year Strategy. November/December 2007, Mother Jones. Simon and Peter Leyden offer a landmark vision for how progressives can win and prosper for many years to come.

Changing Targets Media's Amy Gershkoff Featured in WaPo Today

The Washington Post has a great write-up today about Amy Gershkoff, her company Changing Targets Media, and their great television targeting service, Precision Buy. Here's how Thomas Heath, author of the Post piece, describes the service:

Let's say you are running for Congress and you are looking for "persuadable voters" who might be open to your pitch. Instead of paying a lot of money to buy advertising time on "Face the Nation" or "Meet the Press" in hopes of reaching those voters, Gershkoff finds the less expensive shows those viewers are watching and reaches them there.

Her secret sauce is a patent-pending software she invented called Precision Buy, which finds broadcast and cable programs that reach the highest number of persuadable voters at a cost much lower than traditional television spending.

We here at NDN have been long-time advocates of microtargeting, buying cable, and generally helping progressives use their hard-earned advertising dollars more intelligently and effectively, which is why we had Amy come speak about her company back in February. Check out the video here:

Friday New Tools Feature: When Your News Feed Becomes Your News

There have been a few big developments in social media space recently, particularly with regards to Facebook, the net's largest social media player. Though Twitter continues to receive a ton of hype and attention, and has been changing the techie world in intriguing ways (being able to read real-time reactions to the speakers at PDF and Netroots Nation has really changed the dynamic of these conferences), Facebook actually grew twice as fast as Twitter last month, and maintains a very substantial lead in total users.

However, not content to rest on its laurels, Facebook acquired FriendFeed last week. FriendFeed is a popular service among the tech-savvy that combines all of your social media presences into one - Facebook, Twitter, Google, Tumblr, etc. (it supports at total of 58 different services). Of particular interest is FriendFeed's ability to integrate with Google Reader's "share" feature, which would be very useful for sharing news stories on Facebook. There are also several other advantages FriendFeed has over Facebook right now. TechCrunch writes of the acquisition,’s clearly a good match. Over the last year or so, Facebook has “borrowed” quite a few features that FriendFeed popularized, including the ‘Like’ feature and an emphasis on real-time news updates.

Obviously Facebook has already built out some of FriendFeed’s functionality so there is some overlap, but there are still numerous ways FriendFeed beats out Facebook’s News Feed setup. One of these is the way stories are ‘floated’ to the top as new users comment on them. And FriendFeed’s system is truly real-time, unlike Facebook’s feed which users have to manually refresh.

I think this was a very smart move on Facebook's part, and could go a long way to improving their service. The second big move they made was to partner with the Huffington Post, the internet's most popular news source, to create a new service called "Huffington Post Social." As Ms. Huffington herself explains, HuffPo Social is

...a collaboration with Facebook that connects HuffPost users to their Facebook friends, the news they are reading, and the stories they are commenting on.

When you sign up for it, HuffPost Social News finds your Facebook friends who are also reading HuffPost and links you together on our site so you can dive deeper into the stories you like best. (But don't worry, you'll still have complete control over what stories and comments are shared with your friends, as well as what goes on your Facebook wall, and into your friends' news feeds.)

I like the idea of integrating comments on the actual story with the social networking experience - reader comments have become an important component of the new news media, so it makes sense to try and highlight this interactivity.

Finally, Facebook just announced today yesterday that Pages will now have the ability to automatically publish to Twitter. As the New York Times said of the move,

Bands, companies, non profit organization and celebrities are likely to benefit from this new feature as their updates will be more widely distributed and Twitter followers are likely to retweet and redirect new audiences to Facebook Pages.

This is a very convenient feature, and it's heartening to see that Facebook may be starting to see their relationship to Twitter as complimentary instead of adversarial. The change is also well-implemented; it's easy to use, and administrators can control what aspects of their Page get pushed to their Twitter feed, and which Twitter account is linked to each Page.

The new media ecosystem has quickly become very complex, so it's good to see confluences and collaborations that will actually make the social networking experience more intuitive and powerful. In the past, I've often felt that Facebook tends to make things worse when it makes changes, but I'm behind these decisions. Can check out HuffPo Social and the Facebook Pages Twitter feed yourself and let me know what you think, and keep an eye out for what they decide to do with FriendFeed. 

And of course, if all of this social networking stuff has you completely bewildered, make sure to check out our NPI Paper, Leverage Social Networks, to get up to speed.

An Interesting Example of How Mobile is Changing Everything

Wired today reports that "despite its minimal camera features, the iPhone has just surpassed Canon’s Digital Rebel XTi as the most popular camera used by members of image-sharing website Flickr." This trend is largely due to the iPhone 3GS's much-improved 3MP camera, the ease of uploading pictures directly from the phone, and just the fact that people have their phones with them a greater percentage of the time than their DSLRs. 

The same article also reports that the iPhone has had a similar effect on YouTube:

A day after the launch of the iPhone 3GS, YouTube video uploads increased 400 percent, according to YouTube officials Dwipal Desai and Mia Quagliarello. They said the growth was likely tied to newer video-enabled phones on the market (including the iPhone), improvement of the upload flow and a new, streamlined process to share videos on social networks.

A 400% increase in video uploads from mobile devices is huge. However, don't expect this trend to stay confined to the iPhone; more and more phones are combining good cameras and video capability with easy uploading, meaning that citizen journalism and web video will continue to become increasingly intertwined with mobile.

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