Archive for the 'Technology' Category Page 2 of 4

Why Your Avatar Matters: Being 3D in Web 2.0

3D avatars are everywhere these days, from Nintendo’s Miis to World of Warcraft to Second Life to the newly announced PS3 Home. But, while 3D avatars have been generally accepted in the game world, questions remain for applications beyond gaming. That’s what makes Second Life a bit of a special case since it’s not a game out of the box but more of a 3D MOO, a social space where you can build stuff. Perhaps, then, it makes more sense to think about Second Life in the context of social software than in the context of games. After all, social software is the place where end user content creation is king.

And when you think about Second Life alongside Web 2.0 poster children like Flickr,, Gmail, and 37signals, one thing becomes clear: where web 2.0 is typically characterized by strongly targeted apps designed to get things done efficiently, Second Life is anything but. For one thing, there is no quick-turnaround trip into Second Life. When you enter the world, you can expect to be there for a good while. Not that that’s necessarily bad, but it is different: lightweight vs. heavyweight.

So the question becomes: If those prototypical social web applications are so tightly written and deeply social then what exactly is the use of the more heavyweight, time intensive experience Second Life provides? Of course, that’s the $100k question that everyone is racing to answer. And, since building stuff in Second Life has become my day job, I’ve been thinking a good deal about it. So far, the most interesting feature of Second Life to me comes down to this: I can stand next to you.

It sounds trivial at first but, as near as I can figure, that’s where all the really special stuff in Second Life comes from — the stuff you don’t see in the more traditional web2 gadgets. If you’re standing next to me, I know it. And the fact that you’re there brings social rules into play (strange as it is) — I feel obligated to say something, I feel obliged to wave, I feel weird if I do nothing. That kind of exchange can also happen on the web, but there isn’t the same sense of presence forcing lurkers to delurk or risk becoming social pariahs. The social acceleration 3D avatars provide can’t be ignored, from the ease at which folks walk up and talk to well-known figures (somehow you don’t have the same permission on im) to those folks that stop by your creations and ask about them, opening up opportunities for collaboration. Imagine, for instance, being able to see the folks currently looking at your photos on flickr and have them know that you know that they’re there — through a mechanism we naturally understand: personal proximity. I can see you standing next to me.

Community-focused 3D avatar worlds have been tried before, but Second Life (and compatriots like, too) are happening at a particularly opportune time. A time when Web 2.0 ideas are everywhere and give us new ways to think about the future of the 3D MOO.

image grabbed from flickr

The Online Identity Inversion

Not too long ago, online community meant one place — you’d go to a BBS (remember The WELL?) or your favorite MUD or Usenet if you were fancy. Back then, it seemed like you left one place for another when when you wanted to leave that identity behind: the straight-laced professor playing whip-wielding dominatrix by night and all that kind of thing. It took work, but it was hip to have secret screen names. It was hip to fracture your identity.

And it still is. What’s different now is that our identities get fractured even when we don’t want them to. With the daily arrival of new web 2.0 gadgets, we’ve got pieces of our identity everywhere — photos, blog entries, bookmarks, music, comments, calendar events, movie reviews, each on a different service or three, each with its own community. Online community has gone mainstream but, with your artifacts spread across a myriad different services, online identity seems to have done just the opposite. That’s fine if you want to maintain multiple identities, but what if you want to bring all those pieces of yourself back together again?

Where we once worked so hard to maintain multiple identities, now pieces of ourselves are so far flung that we have to work equally hard to compose just one. Online identity has been inverted. Once whole, we wanted to be fractured. Now fractured, we want to be whole.

And boy do we want to be whole. Take blogs, where folks have cobbled together their far-flung online artifacts in sidebars for some time. And Gravatars let us maintain one identity from blog to forum to chat. More recently, Jeremy Keith’s Lifestream initiative has managed to pull all your bits into a single textual stream. What’s next?

It’s early days, but this has the potential to lead someplace very interesting. Imagine being able to present your recent pictures alongside your discussion posts alongside music you listened to alongside news stories you dugg, each collected from a different service. Then, imagine allowing visitors to dive into that history, seeing all facets of your identity as one coherent whole. There’s a richness here that the right glue could really bring out.

But the higher level point is that online identity isn’t just a profile on myspace or a catalog of photos on flickr or a blog on typepad. Online identity is all these things. And giving people control over the artifacts of their experience is as important as the experience itself. It’s the history of you. Grab hold of it.

image grabbed from hands

Game Changing Technology

What happens when you lose your glasses in a country where you don’t speak the language? I got to find out first hand when I dropped my glasses in a lake during a recent trip to China, and the experience drove home a few points. First is: cabbies are the key to the city in Hangzhou. But the second and more important point is that glasses are a luxury.

It might sound stupid but, because I’ve had glasses since I was 4, I’ve never really considered what life might be like without them. Yet the WHO reports that there are roughly 1 billion people worldwide with poor eyesight that could be corrected if only they had access to basic corrective lenses. The few hours I spent without my glasses trying to communicate, hunting for help made it quite clear how debilitating untreated vision impairment can be.

That’s why I was stunned to discover the U-Specs project (thanks houtlust), which aims to radically reduce the cost of improved eyesight in the developing world. U-Specs are glasses designed to be adjusted by non-experts (the wearer) until improved vision is achieved. The design can correct eye disorders from -6 to 3 diopters, which corrects for 90% of refractive vision errors; not as good as real glasses, but far better than nothing. So, U-Specs increase access to improved vision by removing the need for a professional optician to fit the glasses. They also improve access through price, with an estimated cost of 4 euros.

As a computer scientist at a time when there’s so much focus on innovations in computing technology (from next-gen game consoles to endless web 2.0 gadgets to the mit laptop), it’s good to be brought back to earth and reminded that, to a great many, innovations in non-computing technology matter more.

For more on U-Specs, see And find more on vision programs worldwide at Vision 2020.

image grabbed from eyebuydirect

Karma 2.0

Being at the 5th Ave. Apple store during the Product Red launch was an experience. From the newly red Apple logo on the cube to the newly red employee shirts sporting the words “Pocket Karma” to the newly Red iPod Nano, everything was going according to plan. So much to plan, in fact, that they’d sold out all the Red iPods (folks were buying them 10 at a time).

Product Red, of course, is Bono and Bobby Shiver’s AIDS charity that focuses particularly on Africa. And their plan to get the tech-savvy to contribute a bit to their fund via Apple’s super sexy products couldn’t have come off better. But it also got me thinking.

My question is: If technology gets folks excited about a cause, how far can we take that? What other ways can we use these technology to make aiding the underprivileged cool? How can we use it to engage those who wouldn’t think of giving $10 to a charity but would buy a $200 iPod Red ($10 of which goes to charity)? What’s the magic switch to make taking a more active role in helping the underprivileged as likely as buying something branded Red?

One answer may be Web 2.0. After all, Web 2.0 has an allure that rivals the iPod these days. What would it mean to make Product Red Web 2.0 compliant? How do we encourage the development of super cool gotta-play-with-it web properties that just happen to be aiding the underprivileged?

Continue reading ‘Karma 2.0’

Legacy Bits


It’s been a week of technolust fulfillment, with both Apple and Nintendo pulling the curtains back on some next generation sexy. But perhaps what’s most interesting about these announcements is what it says about the race for the online living room.

Apple’s iTV, for instance, requires you have a separate computer that stores all your content. The nice thing about it is that, unlike Microsoft’s unsightly Windows Media Center, you don’t have yet another full-fledged Windows box in your living room. The annoying thing about it is that your content is being beamed from a completely different part of your house. I can imagine Apple will do this as well as it can be done, but will inevitably break down at some point. The Mac-to-iTV-to-TV loop is overcomplicated and it exists only because Apple wants to keep Mac in the loop, just as it’s done with countless iPod+Mac tie-ups.

This is Apple adopting Microsoft’s time tested strategy of leveraging a market leading product (the iTunes/iPod juggernaut) to improve the success of those that lag. This clearly worked in the past, but the result is usually nasty and the living room isn’t the office. That’s where Nintendo’s strategy is different. Gamecube’s failure was painful but it also means they have no legacy product to shoehorn into the new venture. N has the opportunity to start clean and, if today’s presentation is any indication, they aren’t wasting it.

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We Demand Multimedia

New York design firm Karlssonwilker has got a brand spankin’ site that provokes giggles. It’s “multimedia” mockery all over but the shiner of the bunch is a front menu that pokes fun at the hopelessly overwrought flash and too cool for comprehension visualization that run the web these days. Randomly animated flashing lines, stunningly similar legend colors, and totally lost navigation. Hysterical.

It’d probably be less funny if the firm weren’t hella good to top it. They even have a book. More parody of the prevailing multimedia-for-no-particular-reason design ethic at Churn ’em out!

New York Folklore

Steve Jobs flicks off IBM in Midtown

I saw Andy Hertzfeld give an inspiring and uproariously funny talk at Google New York back in March, providing something of a director’s commentary for his fantastic book of Macintosh folklore. It went a good deal over time, but still felt way short.

The talk was a candid cutting-room-floor walkthrough — covering stories that were left out of the book, some because they were a bit too racy. A favorite of these was about Apple’s internal “contests” for breaking (yes, breaking) copy protection on newly released software so it could be freely distributed inside the company (about 45 minutes in). The climax involves Woz, floppy disks, a clothes iron, and Pierre Curie.

And, of course, my favorite image from the talk has to be Steve Jobs giving the finger (above and flickr) to the IBM building in Midtown Manhattan. The publisher begged Andy to include the photo, but he just couldn’t do it.

I had the great fortune of having dinner with Andy afterwards and found him just as humble and thoughtful in person as his stories might lead you to believe. The video of Andy’s talk is finally online. Highly recommended. As for what Andy’s up to now that he’s employed by Google, it appears to be anybody’s guess.

Pimp My Killing Machine

Okay, it doesn’t read minds via neuralink like Clint’s Firefox, but the Mozilla Firefox extension mechanism makes browser mods so easy, it almost feels that way. Folks have asked for recommendations recently and goods have been gathered.

Before we get to that, though, a couple of tweaks for musophobes. First, Quicksearch is a little known feature that makes queries to favorite sites stupid fast. Secondly, do Tools > Options > Advanced > General > Begin finding when you begin typing. And recall that if your find highlights a link, pressing Enter will click it. Sexy.

Now, let’s extend like Reed Richards…
Continue reading ‘Pimp My Killing Machine’


Microsoft’s PR machine has been working the press into a frenzy over the new Office user interface. It seems that after running out of narcolepsy-inducing features to shovel into the product, they’ve arrived at the realization that usability actually might matter to a couple folks. (And just when Mom and Dad were getting used to navigating 5-deep hierarchical menus, too!)

This is good news. Well, at least until you see it. When you see it, it’s likely to make you cry with the worst kind of screen overload (shades of FFXI), meaninglessly non-uniform button sizes, and totally random placement of key items. But, don’t let that stop you from basking in what it could have been for a few more moments. Heck, have a look at the UI-lead’s presentation of the interface — she makes it seem almost thoughtful. And they certainly have done their usability work. So what the hell happened?

Perhaps what happened can be encapsulated in a classic Steve Jobs quote: “The trouble with Microsoft is they have no taste. They have no taste and I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way.” (totn) Dysgeusia, taste deficit disorder. All the usability in the world can’t save you if you can’t come up with creative new ideas, and Microsoft’s dyed-in engineer culture fights that tooth-and-nail. Tight code and cool hacks, yes. Innovation? Not so much.

If you like torture, have a flip through more shots of the Office 12 UI and check out proof that MS can still do nauseating feature comparisons with the best of ’em.

Dance Dance Password Entry

A recent Apple patent yields some details on their much rumored tablet computer and good news: it came to get down. That’s right, the key revelation of the patent (other than confirming existence of the tablet project) is that the tablet is motion sensitive. Many of the proposed uses for this technology are what you’d expect: turning pages of a document, moving around in a game, scrolling, determining that the device is in motion, etc. Buried at the bottom of the list, though, is an idea that’s more curious: password authentication. Seriously.

Just how might this final bit work? How does one make a motion that is both complex enough to constitute a password yet simple enough to be reasonably repeatable? Could the answer be dance? Yep, it’s starting to sound like the days of mapping Salsa’s sultry hip swiveling or the latest boyband moves into the world of hard credentials may almost be here. Imagine passwords that mine the intricacies of line dancing from the boot scoot to the tush push. “But boss, I can’t stop, I have to get the high score — it’s my password!” Now that’s killing two birds.

original image grabbed from yahoo games

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