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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

My Body is a Temple

I’m quite squeamish. Have been ever since a nurse removed a drip from my arm and…urgh. I’m squirming at even the memory.

Whether it’s squeamishness or just a desire to protect the perfection of my Adonis-like form (maintained through a strict ‘Francophile’ diet, i.e. lots of butter in everything), I have never been partial to any form of body alteration. Piercings and tattoos have never appealed, much to the disappointment of my mother. She is unique amongst the parents I have come across, having suggested that as a teenager I might want to grow my hair and get my ears pierced, while I was quite content to remain looking clean-cut.

But in the none too distant future, I fear I may have to overcome my squeamishness, and consider some form of body alteration. Not cosmetic, but medical, or even recreational.

Don’t get any funny ideas. I’m not talking about any form of sexual enhancement. Perhaps something like an in-built blood monitor that constantly tests for anomalies and updates you or even your doctor. No more screening programmes for any known disease. We would all have our own personal screening programmes built in.

Now deciding how the data from that device was collected, and who it went to, would be key in overcoming any ‘big brother’ objections. Take the ‘pay as you drive’ road tax being considered. There is every chance the devices to track your journeys could be fitted, and monitored, by private organisations. And they don’t have a great track record on protecting personal data. Imagine if you’re in-body sensor was fitted, and monitored by GlaxoSmithKline or one of the other ‘big pharma’ companies. Would you be happy to trade that level of personal information for your health?

But that’s a side issue. What I and others will need to overcome is the thought of having something implanted in my body that’s not supposed to be there. That isn’t made from the same DNA as the rest of me.

For most people there will probably be a sliding scale of the value of the implant against whether or not they will allow it. The magic medical screening box? I’d probably go for that. A Head-Up Display implanted in my eyeball? Maybe. Especially if it gave me X-ray vision or something cool like that. A mobile phone in my skull? Maybe not.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

iPhone vs Innovation

Four years ago I was involved in the launch of a new mobile device, now being recognised as the truly revolutionary machine that it was. Sadly it didn’t have Apple’s brand or marketing muscle (money) behind it, but we still did a pretty good job on the launch. The story and accompanying photos reached a variety of national papers, most of the tech journals and even GQ’s annual ‘most wanted’ list.

I came across some references to this device again recently when researching a newsletter for a client. I was a bit disappointed to hear the fanfare we created around the launch described as ‘little’ by this blogger, but then I guess the correspondent was in the US, and there was barely a budget for the UK launch, let alone crossing the pond.

Anyway, the blogger in question points out the renewed relevance of the MyDevice in the context of Apple’s iPhone. And he’s right. Here was an entirely touchscreen device that used haptic feedback to make it feel like you were actually pressing a key when touching the (completely fixed) screen. Even more innovative was the gyroscopic control system, that allowed you to browse a webpage by ‘mirroring’ — tilting the device around to view different parts of the page. You could even use ‘gravity’ to slide the page down as you tilted it. The fact that the iPhone appeared four whole years later makes it look positively archaic in comparison, and has driven great demand for the technologies behind the MyDevice from other manufacturers.

In spite of all this innovation, and all the press clamour around the device (the PR team still gets enquiries from journalists about the product today), the MyDevice never made it to the shelves. The reason why provides a very interesting comparison of where the fixed line and mobile worlds are today, and the difference between creating a disruptive software product, and disruptive hardware device.

Manufacturing a mobile device at a price point that consumers can accept — whether it is with an operator subsidy in Europe or full price elsewhere — means volume. A small manufacturer cannot get volume manufacturing started without demand. Demand means a deal with an operator to distribute the device. Getting this requires all sorts of testing to ensure the device plays nicely with the network. This takes a lot of time, often more time than the start-up manufacturer can afford.

If the product was software, the developer could just stick it on the Web and watch it fly (Skype). Wireline hardware like VoIP phones require no lengthy testing before they can appear on the shelves, hence the variety available and the falling cost.

The point? Big businesses no longer do the innovating, in either hardware or software. But they need to get their antennae up for the opportunities out there. Nokia could have launched its iPhone killer three years ago, instead of scrabbling around for an advantage now that the hype machine has finally arrived.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

My Demands: Part 1

I had a great conversation with a client last week. It turns out we both have the same idea for what we want a particular gadget to do. It got me thinking that there must be loads of people out there who are having the same frustrations that I do with consumer electronics manufacturers just not moving fast enough to satisfy our geeky needs. So I’m going to start posting them here. You never know, Sony and the rest might be listening…

Demand number 1: WiFi-enabled MP3 car stereo.
Why is it that when I pull my car in to the driveway, it doesn’t automatically lock on to my home WiFi network and pull down all the latest MP3s from my media server. In fact, why doesn’t my (almost new) car come with a HDD-based MP3 player at all? It wasn’t even on the options list.

Now I realise I could build an in-car PC to do this, and I fully intend to when I have both the time and the money, and all the other projects I have 30% completed are finally done. But surely this is an obvious one people?

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Joy of Geekery

Lying in bed this week, knocked out by one of these bugs going round, I wondered what my seven-year-old self would have made of the entertainment and tools at my disposal.

Once I woke up I quickly devoured the remaining articles from the weekend’s papers, and then started looking for something else to keep me entertained. Being a geek, I hooked my laptop up to the network, downloaded some video files off my media PC and settled down to watch a bit of sci-fi that my seven-year-old self would definitely have appreciated. That seems so normal now, yet my seven-year-old eyes would have boggled at the concept.

It reminded me just how incredibly different the world is now to how it was just twenty-odd years ago. Today the sense of wonder that the Book of the Future inspired in me remains, but now the wonder is at real-life devices. It’s easy to take it all for granted, but sometimes we just have to take a step back and appreciate the wonder of some of the advances around us.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Gaming is the Mother of Invention

I’ve just played one of the most original games I have seen in years. What makes it stand out is the interface. And it wasn’t on a Nintendo Wii.

Currently the gaming world’s attention is roughly divided between the wacky Wii and the monstrously powerful (and power-hungry) PlayStation 3. The Wii has garnered huge attention not for groundbreaking graphics but for its innovative interface — basically a much more physical approach to gaming, with a wand to use as a sword, bike pump, steering wheel etc.

This isn’t the first innovation in gaming interfaces in recent times: the EyeToyfor the PlayStation also created a much more physical way for gamers to control the action. BuzzSingstar and Guitar Hero are other good examples.

Games have long been one of the driving forces behind the development of computer technology. You really don’t need a GeForce 8800 GTX for web browsing or word processing — or at least you didn’t until Vista came along. Nor do you really need huge quantities of RAM or a multi-gigahertz processor, But the more powerful the machine, the more realistic the gaming experience can be made.

But we are getting to a stage where the biggest restrictions on the gaming experience are no longer down to raw processing power. Instead it is the interface that is the limiting factor. Joypads are very primitive, and the keyboard and mouse combo used by PC gamers may be more flexible and precise, but it is hardly intuitive.

In the mobile computing world, the problem is even more acute, not just for gaming but for everyday use. While humans (or at least the younger ones) may have adapted to the numeric keypad for texting, for most it is far from efficient as a means of control and input. That’s where the game I just played comes in.

Arcade Reality uses the camera on the PalmOne Treo to capture the environment in which you play the game, and then superimposes sprites. You can then interact with the sprites by moving the camera around. Admittedly the interaction is fairly standard stuff — shooting and picking up goodies. But the game is no less addictive for that fact.

Now that the 3D graphics capabilities of the gaming world have migrated to mainstream PC use with Vista, it seems likely that the interfaces will be next. How about managing your emails by throwing spam towards a virtual bin with your control glove? Accepting or rejecting incoming phone calls with a thumbs up or thumbs down? Filing documents within a virtual cabinet?

Some options may be no quicker than a keyboard and mouse, or numeric keypad. But they will certainly be more fun.

(P.S. Thanks to MyTreo.Net for the tip about the game.)

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Big Bridge

I’d like to stake a claim for the A75 in France as the greatest road in Europe. Admittedly the first time I drove down it I had been on the road for nearly 24 hours and was possibly slightly delirious. But I did then travel back up it at a more leisurely pace and was similarly impressed. The southbound journey will forever be burned in my memory though.

The conditions were perfect — bright, clear sky and high sun in the early afternoon. And there was almost no traffic. I went nearly 100k without seeing another car at one point. The road winds its way through the foothills of the Pyrenees, up and down valleys. Until it gets to one valley in particular, where the road builders decided just to go point to point, rather than up and down. Here is the Viaduc de Millau, the single most amazing bridge ever built. I am a big fan of Brunel and all his work, but this is something else.

Fans of Top Gear will be familiar with the Viaduc de Millau. It was used by the team as the location for a side-by-side comparison of supercars in the last season. But however fantastic the camera work of the Top Gear team, to drive over it is something else.

About 20k before I reached the bridge I began to realise that I might be heading in its direction. My total absence of any sense of direction, and my resulting total reliance on SatNav meant I really had no idea that it was on my itinerary. Coming over the crest of a hill and seeing confirmation that I was to cross it was a very pleasant surprise.

The relevance to the future of all this? Ambition. There was no need for the builders of the Viaduc to recruit Richard Rogers to create a piece of artwork, rather than throwing up a functional concrete span. But they did, and in doing so created something that enhances an already beautiful valley and has become a tourist attraction in its own right. This is the future of responsible construction.

Tom Cheesewright