Goodbye Touch! Hello Post-Touch!

Windows 7 Kinect Gestures

Windows 7 Kinect Gestures

You’ve probably heard me rant about the error of putting a touchscreen on every new product. Touch is slick and easy but it’s not for everything. And it’s already going out of style. The new kid in town is a natural user interface – Post-Touch as a number of industry leaders are calling it. Post-Touch is basically an interface that goes past the requirement of touch and can detect gestures usually through some kind of near-field depth camera.

Post-Touch Tech Available Today

Idling - by Pragmagraphr

Idling – by Pragmagraphr

The Kinect is one such technology for Post-Touch interfaces that I’ve written about before. In my current project at the DCOG-HCI Lab at UCSD, we are implementing an augmented workspace that uses the Kinect to detect interactions with the workspace. By tracking users and their hand movements, the workspace can respond in an intelligent manner.

For e.g. have you ever pulled something up on the screen while taking notes only to have the computer assume you are idle and turn off the screen? An augmented workspace could detect that your note-taking posture and gaze and keep the screen on. No hand-waving necessary. Of course, if you are actually idling like this fellow at right, it should indeed turn off the screen.

A few months ago, a new company called Leap Motion caused a stir when they demoed their high resolution gesture-tracking module. Similar to the Kinect in features although allegedly not in technology, it offers much greater levels of sensitivity and control. Check out their video below to see the possibilities of the Leap Motion. The company appears to be building steam and I’m excited to see their first product release!

How will Post-Touch change things?

And here, I defer to the experts. You should read this great article on what the future holds for Post-Touch, but I’ll provide some highlights here.

Post Touch is smaller gestures – Michael Buckwald, CEO of Leap Motion

As screens get larger, the gestures get more tiring. Try pretending to move your mouse around your desktop screen. Now try your flat-screen TV. Unless you want to develop one gorilla arm muscle, that’s going to get real tiring real fast. Post-Touch will scale down those gestures so they’re not dependent on screen size.

Post-Touch Cameras Will Come With Every Laptop – Doug Carmean, Researcher-at-Large for Intel Labs

Wow! This was news to me – Carmean says that as early as next year, Logitech near-field depth cameras are going to show up in laptops. This will be a huge boost to the technology. Everyone who buys a laptop is going to be seeking the software solutions that enable it.

And there’s more, so really, read the article! And tell me what you think below.

Anonymity is Relative

Photo by Flickr user shinealight

Photo by Flickr user shinealight

It’s true! You are a unique flower. How many times have you allowed a company to collect anonymous location data about you in exchange for some service? Perhaps it’s a social alert system that lets your friends know when you are nearby. Or maybe you have your prolific photography tagged with GPS coordinates on Flickr.

Researchers Golle and Partridge at Stanford have found that similarly “anonymised” location traces are really not that anonymous. In their seminal 2009 paper, they show that with as little information as the location of your work and home, and as low resolution as your city block, you can be identified as one particular person. This doesn’t mean necessarily that you can be identified by name, but with a little effort, that connection is not far behind.

Your Home and Work Points to You

So who would have your work and home information? Location-based services often get intermittent data but if you examine information from any particular person, it’s not that hard to figure out which location they call home and which work. For e.g. you might check-in to restaurants every day around lunch-time, and these would most likely be near your workplace. Similarly, you may post photos that were clearly taken at home and leave the GPS data available, providing your home location.

Revealing where one lives and works at the granularity of census blocks is uniquely identifying for a majority of the U.S. working population. – Golle and Partridge

Golle and Partridge used the LEHD Origin-Destination Dataset, which is a massive dataset compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau on where people live and work. LEHD includes almost all jobs except those that are considered agriculture, federal or military. Of course, the database itself does not reveal personal information, but it provides a valuable source of data to analyze how anonymous we really are. Turns out, “revealing where one lives and works at the granularity of census blocks is uniquely identifying for a majority of the U.S. working population”. Uniquely Identifying.

That’s pretty, well, NOT anonymous, and companies and services should stop pretending that it is. But what’s even more interesting is using their method to critically evaluate other “anonymous” data. Here’s a simple explanation of their method. Take the information you are providing as anonymous and estimate the number of people with the exact same data – this group of people is your anonymity set. The bigger the anonymity set, the more anonymous you actually are. The smaller the set, the easier it would be to actually identify you.


This may not be easy in all cases but in some, it underlines how trivial identification really is. For e.g. with a name like Shimona, I’m amused by how many companies think they are giving me a vestige of privacy by using my first name and last initial. Since Shimona isn’t a terribly common name, my anonymity set is actually quite small. Put “shimona c” in Google and the first hit is various reviews by me on yelp, from which you can find my current neighbourhood. Yes, there’s one or two other hits that are my anonymity set buddies, but I’d be stupid to think that I get any anonymity from providing my first name and last initial. On the other hand, first initial, last name works pretty well for me.

What anonymous data have you provided that was probably uniquely identifying after all?
Do you mind the loss of anonymity or use it to your advantage?

Photo on main page by Flickr user karlos92

Tap To Play with NFC

San Diego's Compass Card

San Diego’s Compass Card

NFC, or Near Field Communications is yet another wireless option available today. Why on earth would we need another one you say? Well, NFC has actually been around for a while – whenever you use a badge that you tap against a reader, that’s NFC at work. The unique thing about this technology is that one end of the communication does not need power – for e.g. the company badge that gets you into the building.

Until recently, that’s about as exciting as NFC got – badges, transit cards, that sort of thing. Information flowed in one direction – you told the Transit Authority/Big Company that you were entering or leaving. Not super thrilling…

NFC Flipped

But new cellphones are showing up with NFC readers embedded in them, which not only flips the technology around, it allows two-way communication. Now, you can request and use the information instead of the other way around. You could tap an NFC tag outside a restaurant to go straight to the Yelp page for it, or check-in at Facebook, or perhaps tap a movie poster for the Rotten Tomatoes review.

A 2010 UbiComp paper from Hardy, Rukzio et al. details allowing users to create, program and use their own tags. This would allow them to, say, tap their phone against their office door on entering and update their Facebook status with “I’m at the office”. Personally, I would immediately block this person from my facebook feed, but you can see how it might be used with a bit more finesse. Perhaps your IM status could be updated instead. Or it could send a quick text to someone specific, notify your significant other that you are heading home, please get the beers chilled.

Long Time No See, 2D Barcodes?

Better than 2D barcodes?

Better than 2D barcodes?

Basically, small, repetitive tasks that involve cellphone technology can be automated into a simple tap. Every time I leave for home, I pull up google maps on my phone to choose the best route. This annoying series of steps could be replaced with just a tappity-tap straight to the map. (Yes, I really did want to say mappity-map).

Okay, you’re probably asking, how is this any different than those 2D barcodes? If you’ve ever used 2D barcodes, you’ll remember that you need to navigate to your barcode app, and then really hold the camera steady and parallel. It’s certainly not as simple a gesture as a tap. This is extremely important to the end-user experience because really, who wants to replace one tedious task with another? As long as phone manufacturers make it simple enough to communicate with NFC, this could really be as easy as a tap. Think about the difficult and dangerous phone manipulations you could avoid while driving.

NFC and beyond

JBL PowerUp wireless charging speaker for Nokia

JBL PowerUp

These small innovations can be fun and limit tedious tasks, but NFC will enable some interesting new applications as well. For one, mobile payment will become a reality as users can tap their phones much as they have been doing with RFID credit cards for a while now.

Harman, the parent company of JBL, has partnered with beleaguered Nokia to design these speakers that allow the user to start streaming music from their phone just by tapping their phone against the device. In addition, the speakers use the Qi wireless charging platform to then charge the phone. Such a symbiotic relationship!

A similar product, the Nokia Play 360, is available for NFC enabled Galaxy Nexus today.

Do you have any great ideas for NFC? Let us know in the comments!

The Internet Of Things – Are You Ready?

The Internet Of People

The Internet Of People

No doubt you’ve heard the term Internet of Things being bandied about lately. If you’re wondering what exactly it means, here’s a quick explanation.

The Internet to date has been a network of computers, each of which generally represents a human content provider. People write blogs and articles, they post updates and images, and they browse and download stuff. In other words, they provide and request content, and they communicate with other people. But as more and more devices get connected, these “things” become content providers and consumers – creating, requesting and providing data to each other, making up an “Internet of Things.”

Privacy and the Internet Of Things

Privacy and the Internet Of Things

Your New Worst Friend?

The question is, how will this change the way the world works? For one, this introduces a whole new level of privacy and security issues. It’s one thing when your friend posts check-ins advertising your bar-crawl habits to the whole world. What happens when your GPS connected martini glass does it automatically?

Similarly, we all saw the kind of digital disaster increasing levels of connectivity wrought on Wired journalist Mat Honan. What happens when it’s not just your MacBook, but your home that gets hacked into? (If you haven’t heard about Mat Honan’s experience, you can read about it here.)

Next Steps

Of course, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Internet Of Things is not quite in all our homes yet, which is an excellent time to start thinking about such things. Is the security and stability of these networks up to snuff given the kind of safety-critical systems we are connecting to them? When your music, media and entertainment related apps crash or lock up, it can be rather frustrating. On the other hand, it’s a little more serious when your heating system crashes and overheats, or your alarm system refuses to let you out of the house, or both!

In an upcoming post, I’ll cover some issues found in the automotive industry as they moved from straightforward electrical and mechanical systems to wireless networked systems. I think there’s a lot to learn, since cars are probably are our most successful networked, sensor-driven environments yet.

In the meanwhile, what security concerns do you see in your increasingly networked world?

Icons in images designed by Double-J Designs.

How Close are We to the 3D Printed Phone?

In an earlier post about 3D printing, I joked about buying a phone online and then printing it right away. The difficulty, of course, is printing the electronics that go in the phone – the current hurdle is designing an ink that not only conducts electricity, but does so in a controlled manner. This week’s Economist has a nice run-down on the current state of the technology for doing exactly that.

Xerox’s Silver Ink

Xerox's Printed Electronics

Xerox’s Printed Electronics

Xerox has been developing a silver ink that can be used to print the actual circuits of the electronic device. Silver is a better conductor than copper but it’s expensive, so the ink uses a new process in which the silver is used in miniscule particles just 5 nanometers in size. This allows it to be relatively cheap and efficient.

At Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, they have been experimenting with using this process to print flexible displays, sensors and antennae. Printing electronics with this kind of technology will allow much slimmer products than were previously possible. Watch out, MacBook Air!

Optomec’s Aerosol Jet

Optomec/Stratasys' 3D-printed Smart Wing

Optomec/Stratasys’ 3D-printed Smart Wing

Optomec, in Albuquerque, New Mexico has an alternate process they call Aerosol jet. Recently, in collaboration with Stratasys, a 3D printing powerhouse, they printed sensors, antennae and power circuitry directly onto the wing of a drone. In fact, the wing itself was 3D printed, allowing everything to be incorporated for an extremely lightweight, aerodynamic result.

You can read more about this at the Economist.

A new hurdle for this technology is printing the actual chips, since the density of transistors on a silicon chip is extremely high. Until we figure this one out, silicon chips will still have to be soldered onto the device. Nonetheless, the ability to print most of the other electronic components is a huge step towards a fully-printed electronic device.

Sense The Excitement

Google Sky Map

Google Sky Map

For a long time, I was a bit of a Luddite when it came to smartphone technology. I spend so much time around computers, I didn’t really see the need for another one in my pocket. But when I finally got one, I realized that smartphones are, in fact, so much more than the average computer. It’s not the portability of the device – yes, you can take it everywhere all the time – but what’s truly amazing is that it knows. It knows where you took it, it can see, hear, sense its location, position and acceleration.

I can get directions to anywhere from here. I can have it listen to a song and tell me who sings it. I can point it at a star in the sky and learn the name. On the other hand, my significantly more powerful traditional computer can’t remember my home address for directions, even though it never goes anywhere!

It Knows!

The magic, of course, is all in the sensors. My LG Optimus V, a fairly low-end Android smartphone, has a GPS sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, camera and microphone. It’s this varied collection of sensors that makes a smartphone such a technological leap forward. And it is just the beginning. With new devices that sense your activity levels, health, climate, the possibilities are endless.

My [..] fairly low-end Android smartphone has a GPS sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, camera and microphone. It’s this varied collection of sensors that makes a smartphone such a technological leap forward.

The FitBit

The FitBit

The Fitbit device uses sensors to report your daily levels of activity so you can limit sedentary behaviour and increase activity during the day. It can even monitor your sleep patterns at night. LumoBack is a newly funded Kickstarter project that senses your posture and delivers a gentle vibration when you slouch – a virtual “Sit up straight!” from Mom.

Previously, I mentioned Twine, a sensor module you can use for a variety of applications in the home. Similarly, Node is a powerhouse version of the same idea with modules for sensing magnetism, altitude, barometric pressure, humidity etc.

Txting Sheep!

Txting Sheep!

I could go on, but I’ll leave you with the most entertaining one I’ve seen of late. Swiss scientists have been developing a collar that will allow sheep to cry wolf all by themselves. A heart rate monitor on the collar detects a sudden rise in the heart rate of the sheep, signalling likely danger, such as a wolf. The collar can then send a text message directly to the shepherd.

“OMG, Wolf!”

Which sensor-based devices do you find exciting?
Do you have any you’d recommend?

The front page image for this article is by Flickr user amcunningham72