Kinecting Communities

On April 16 I will be speaking at the Mobile Citizen Summit in Washington DC (registration still open), which brings together “practitioners across the  government, nonprofit, advocacy, and political spaces—the kinds of  people who develop the strategy and the tools to reach, engage, educate,  and enable citizens across the country and around the world.”

But I’m going to be talking about “mobile” in a different way than others still use the term, i.e. they focus on a handheld device, while I will be focusing on the mobile citizen. As I have said before I don’t believe our future involves experiencing “augmented reality” by always holding up little 3-inch plastic screens in front of our faces. Natural user interfaces and immersive computing offer much more to how we access computational resources – and how technology will help us interact with one another. Here’s an example, in a story from the past week.

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Playing with virtual data in spatial reality

For the past few months, when I’ve had visitors to Microsoft Research on the Redmond campus one of the things I’ve enjoyed demonstrating is the technology behind the new system for Xbox 360 – the controller-free gaming and immersive entertainment system that Microsoft is releasing for the holiday market in a month or so. In particular, I’ve enjoyed having Andy Wilson of MSR talk with visitors about some of the future implications in non-gaming scenarios, including general information work, and how immersive augmented-reality (AR) could transform our capabilities for working with information, virtual objects, and how we all share and use knowledge among ourselves.

We’re further along in this area than I thought we’d be five years ago, and I suspect we’ll be similarly surprised by 2015.

In particular, there is great interest (both in and out of the government circles I travel in) in the “device-less” or environmental potential of new AR technologies. Not everyone will have a fancy smartphone on them at all times, or want to stare at a wall-monitor while also wearing glasses or holding a cellphone in front of them in order to access other planes of information. The really exciting premise of these new approaches is the fully immersive aspect of  “spatial AR,” and the promise of controlling a live 3D environment of realtime data. Continue reading

43 Gigabytes of Mobile Data per Day

Here’s a nifty infographic, created by Online Education with several striking statistics about “an average day on the Internet” and the volume of data involved in mobile talk and data, Twitter, blogs, wikis, email, news sites and the like. The numbers are staggering! Continue reading

Why a Cloudlet Beats the Cloud for Mobile Apps

Sure, you know cloud computing. You also know a bit about so-called “private clouds,” which enterprises and government agencies are exploring as an option to combine the power and scale of virtualized cloud architectures with security and control over data.

But what do you know of Cloudlets? They may just be a key to the future of mobile computing.

That’s a possible conclusion from the results so far of a Microsoft Research family of projects called MAUI, short for Mobile Assistance Using Infrastructure. The MAUI approach is to enable a new class of CPU-intensive, and data-intensive, applications for mobile devices – but enable them in a new way.  Today’s mobile devices can’t run such apps, at least not well. And if they stick to the cloud they may never do so.

I’ve just read a fundamental MAUI paper published last month in the IEEE’s Pervasive Computing journal: “The Case for VM-based Cloudlets in Mobile Computing” (November 2009, co-authored by MSR’s Paramvir Bahl along with colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University, AT&T Research, and Lancaster University).

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The scientist who gave DARPA ChemBot a holographic Twitter

If that title seems a bit LSD-fueled, the subject matter warrants it. Here comes some Chemistry gone wild!

First, have a look at this bizarre video. It stars a soft robot, or chemical robot – “ChemBot.” Even the experienced geeks at IEEE Spectrum are calling it “by far one of the coolest and weirdest robot prototypes we have ever seen.”

This particular prototype by iRobot and University of Chicago researchers was just unveiled, at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems this past week. (More on the conference here.) It was built in response to DARPA’s interest in chemical robots, a program run by Dr. Mitchell Zakin.

The DARPA “ChemBots” page describes the program as creating “a convergence between materials chemistry and robotics through the application of any one of a number of approaches, including gel-solid phase transitions, electro- and magneto-rheological materials, geometric transitions, and reversible chemical and/or particle association and dissociation.”

What’s the anticipated DoD mission use? In DARPA’s words, “With ChemBots, our warfighters can gain access to denied spaces and perform tasks safely, covertly, and efficiently.”  Or, as CNet’s “Crave” gadget blog puts it, “the weird little blob inflates and deflates parts of its body, changing size and shape–and scaring the living daylights out of us. We don’t know exactly when ChemBot will join the Armed Forces, but we can only beg: please, oh please, keep it away from us.” :)

 Does Mitch Zakin Dream of Electric Sheep?

With that kind of geeky appeal, this video has been gathering some Internet buzz over the weekend, appearing on several tech blogs. But the better story is the scientist behind the science. Several of us have been following Mitch Zakin’s work for a while, primarily because he is also the PM for the Programmable Matter Program — the “novel physics” of “a new functional form of matter, based on mesoscale particles, which can reversibly assemble into complex 3D objects upon external command.”

There is revolutionary promise for such composability in multiple fields, not just defense. Zakin described it several years ago in a speech as “a concept so simple, yet so revolutionary that it pushes even the DARPA envelope. A vision that has profound implications for how we think about chemistry and materials. A vision that could provide our warfighters with meaningful technological surprise.”

Zakin is a demonstrably brilliant scientist, of the sort you expect to find at DARPA. Indeed, in that same speech (“The Next Revolution in Materials“) which he gave at DARPA’s 25th Systems and Technology Symposium a couple of years ago, Dr. Zakin said: “I joined DARPA because it is unfettered by conventional wisdom.” 

One area where he has been exploring beyond traditional boundaries is in developing “the infochemistry project,” which combines the powers of chemistry and information technology. In an exotic illustration, Dr. Zakin is directing a research program on “Chemical Communications,” which I’m not sure I fully understand but which sounds like some sort of holographic persistent Twitter:

The Chemical Communications Program is exploring innovative methods to develop self-powered chemical systems that can encode an input string of alphanumeric characters (i.e., a message), convert the message to a modulated optical signal, and transmit it repetitively to a receiver. 

The ultimate goal of this program is to develop a small replicator device, with the form factor of a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) or cell phone that―

  • Permits the user to input an arbitrary 60-character alphanumeric message.
  • Translates the message into an appropriate set of modulated chemistries.
  • Embeds these chemistries into a disposable substrate (the transmitter).
  • Ejects the substrate for deployment.

The replicator device will enable warfighters to generate disposable optical transmitters in real time, each with a user-specified message.  It will be compact, lightweight, and powered by batteries or solar cells.                        – DARPA website, Chemical Communications Program

With projects like these under his belt, Zakin is credited with reviving the chemistry discipline at DARPA, which had fallen away over the years. But now he’s scheduled to leave the agency in 2010. He is uncertain where he’s heading, but perhaps he can be persuaded to spend some time with like-minded souls in Microsoft Research; I suspect many there would find his infochemistry approach very appealing.  

An interesting profile of Dr. Zakin in the journal Analytical Chemistry notes that “Academia is one option. Venture capitalism is another. Zakin has launched so many basic science research projects that have the potential of becoming commercial products that he says, ‘it’s almost a sin not to look at all that from the other side.’ ”

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Tellme what you want

The future of social computing is in the integration of various services and technologies – but the fun is already available now. Here’s a nifty demo of the integration of cloud computing’s services with increasingly powerful mobile computers (smartphones or netbooks). Developers can take advantage of far more computational power both locally on the device – faster, cheaper processors thanks to Moore’s Law – and computational power residing on networked data centers.  Think of a business or social activity, and thanks to platforms like the iPhone, Android, and the new Windows Phones, “There’s an app for that.” Or there soon will be.

This quick little demo feels like nothing fancy today – but ten, even five years ago it would have seemed like sci-fi. In fact it’s available now, and uses a new Windows Phone, in this case a Samsung Intrepid, making use of Tellme software from Microsoft integrated with Bing Search web services. The demo intregrates some longtime technologies in their state-of-the-art condition today using cloud-services delivery:

  • Speech-to-text
  • GPS-enabled location-based services
  • Web search
  • Voice-enabled dialing
  • Social media (crowdsourced ratings integrated in search results)
  • Hardware UI (a dedicated TellMe button on the Samsung Intrepid phone)

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Navigating Indoors Without GPS

Here’s a nifty demo of a very small piece of software, that could find daily use for large numbers of people in any large enterprise, or any shopper in a mall – anywhere someone’s wandering in a large building or complex looking for a specific office, conference room, storefront, or location – especially indoors where GPS is of no use.

It’s called GoMap, and I think it could have great applicability for government complexes, which have lots of rabbit-warren hallways, lots of constantly-reassigned workers, and lots of visitors.

I missed GoMap’s first public unveiling today because I’m on the east coast this week, mostly for the Cybersecurity “Leap Ahead” conference in Arlington Virginia which wrapped up today; I will write about the conference separately.

But that meant I had to miss the bar-camp-style WinMoDevCamp today on the Microsoft campus in Redmond. There was a lot of buzz around this DevCamp, and there’ll be others in 6 more cities soon (Austin, London, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, and Toronto) as developers gear up for the upcoming release of the Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system.  You can get registration information about the future events at the main WinMoDevCamp site (props to Todd Bishop on his TechFlash blog for highlighting the series).

The GoMap prototype makes innovative location-aware use of Microsoft Tag and TagReader (the high-capacity color barcodes developed by Microsoft Research), to solve the problem of having no GPS capability indoors  – check out the short video.

WinMoDevCamp is an indication that there’s a real explosion of app development going on in the Windows Mobile world, to match the equally exciting iPhone app and Android app activity. There’s been a feeling in Microsoft that our best advantages are the large installed base through third-party WinMo phone manufacturers, plus Microsoft’s long experience nurturing app developers on other platforms (.Net as a good example).  But I personally think that superior innovation is going to be the battleground, and we’re well positioned for that as well, with a lot of exciting things emerging from Microsoft Research and different advanced development labs in product groups. GoMap’s one example.

Not sure of the timeline for GoMap, but you can use TagReader right now, without the GoMap piece. It’s a free download on the Tag webpage, or you can get it on any mobile phone (yes, even the exploding iPhone) at http://gettag.mobi.

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