Archive for January, 2010

Spatial Computing

January 25, 2010

A few months ago I wrote an article, on behalf of Daynuv, for the Computers in Education Society of Ireland Digiteach series, about the future of computing (in the third dimension). And then last week I wrote about how the emergence of full body interfaces (Microsoft's Project Natal) along with 3D TVs will make this future a reality sooner than I'd realised. Well today I came across these wonderful videos on Spatial Computing which visualize brilliantly very similar ideas –

How to get Google Voice working in Ireland

January 23, 2010

Gavin Cooney, CEO of Learnosity in Drogheda, detailed on Twitter the steps he followed to get Google Voice working in Ireland

  1. Go to Google Voice webpage by using a server in NYC as a proxy server.
  2. Use a US Skype-In number to activate Google Voice. It calls you and you have to enter a code. Answer using Skype.
  3. Make Google Voice divert all calls to voicemail (Gavin just wants to use it as my voice mail on his Irish O2 phone). Do this in GV settings.
  4. Setup a new Skype account, with Irish Skype-In number. When unavailable divert to US Google Voice number.
  5. Divert calls on mobile when unavailable not to O2 voice-mail but to Irish Skype-In number, which diverts to Google Voice.
  6. Receive your voice-mails by email via Google Voice Android app.

Irish startup completes fundraising on social networking site

January 22, 2010

This Irish Times has a big story this morning –

GOSHIDO, A Limerick company which has developed software for
managing projects, has completed a private fundraising round using only
the social networking website LinkedIn.

According to executive
chairman Frank Hannigan, the company is selling off 10 slots to
investors at €25,000 each – each equivalent to a 2 per cent stake in
the company.

Seven hundred e-mails were sent to potential
investors through LinkedIn earlier this month, generating 200 replies
by phone, e-mail and Twitter. The company raised €162,500 in just eight
days.

Goshido founder Ger Hartnett is a regular at OpenCoffee Limerick, a founding organizer of Bizcamp Limerick and all around good guy who's always willing to share great advice to fellow entrepreneurs. And his new executive chairman Frank Hannigan who I only got to know recently is certainly cut from the same cloth. In short I couldn't be happier for these two guys and the rest of their team. Well done lads.

Experimenting with Hashcamp

January 17, 2010

Hashtags are keywords on Twitter prefixed by the symbol #. They are often used by people attending conferences as a way of broadcasting presentation bullet points and extending the discussion beyond the corridors of the venue.

Joe Drumgoole, CEO and founder of CloudSplit.com used the power of this convention last week when covering the latest IGAP. IGAP is the Internet Growth and Acceleration Programme which was developed by Enterprise Ireland and the Internet Growth Alliance and is aimed exclusively at high potential internet companies. Using the #IGAP hashtag Joe broadcast dozens of bullet points from a number of talks. The positive feedback on Twitter demonstrated the value of these nuggets to other entrepreneurs.

Barcamps are open, participatory workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants. There are a number of Barcamps held around Ireland each year and I've yet to hear of a bad one. The participatory format excels at delivering value to those attending in person and, through hashtagging, to those observing from afar. In fact I often notice as much discussion of talks among those not in attendance as those physically present.

After tuning into the #IGAP stream last week I wondered if it might be possible to use the same ideas to run a virtual Barcamp. 'Speakers' could make their presentation as a series of tweets and then participate in the discussion with other twitter 'attendees'. Let's say 10 minute 'talks' followed by 20 minutes of discussion. If you'd like to present follow @hashcamp and reply or DM with the title of your talk.

This is bedroom barcamp, or barcamp-lite and certainly not intended to replace the real thing. Perhaps to supplement it. You might ask what difference between this and a regular twitter based discussion. The key I believe lies in the power of concentrated attention. Having a large number of people focus on a single discussion at the same time
generates a momentum of debate, passion and insight that long-term conversations don't always yield. If it works it might be a way of extending the inter-discipline
cross-pollination and entrepreneurial energy of real-world events.

I joined the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland network in 2008 and continue to meet a few times a year with other members of the group. Every meet-up renews me with a boost of energy and motivation that I wish I could bottle and imbibe during the 'downtime' between. And it's a similar case with Barcamps.

So that's what this little experiment is about. I've no idea if it'll work but it's worth trying.

World builders

January 13, 2010

I've done a 'holodeck is nearly here' post before but reading Steven Rosenbaum's summary of last week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) made me realize a holodeck-lite is even closer at hand. Rosenbaum writes –

"Last year,.. I wrote a pretty snarky thing about how 3D would never happen. Well, I was wrong. And way wrong.

The one thing I saw that totally blew my mind was a 3D Menu system by Motorola. It was so cool to see all your shows, music, pictures and such in a 'cover flow format' floating in midair. I wanted to reach out and touch the navigation. And that can't be far behind."

Well yes, it's not far away at all. In fact a piece in yesterday's New York Times hints at how it can become a reality later this year when Microsoft launches Project Natal – the gesture controller for the Xbox console –

"Where the Wii requires hypersensitive hand-held controllers to translate body motions into on-screen action, Microsoft’s Natal will require nothing more than the human body. Microsoft has demonstrated games like dodge ball where people can jump, hurl balls at opponents and dart out of the way of incoming balls using natural motions."

Now, attach Natal to one of the many 3D TVs seen at CES and you've got the basic platform to reach out and touch that Motorola floating menu. Anyone who went to see Disney's 'A Christmas Carol' in 3D would recall that the plane of convergence was in the middle of the theatre, well in front of the screen (unlike 'Avatar' where the plane of convergence was behind the screen, like looking through a window). On many occasions it felt like Scrooge was floating menacingly above you. And the snow was falling on your head.

Connect Natal to similar method of 3D projection and you've got the guts of a system to turn much of World Builder (see below) into reality. This is the wonderful video Gabriela Avram played at the end of 3Dcamp
last year and 1 minute in you can watch the protagonist use a
two-handed pinch gesture to extrude a floating cuboid  –

Many of the methods for 3D object manipulation in that video have an exact analog in Second Life. In fact it's fair to say World Builder was most likely influenced by the popular virtual world.

Now imagine these tools in the hands of our kids. The facility to conjure up and shape a world of their imagination. There are 500 million children of the virtual world and each will be a world builder.

Desire to escape or desire to dream?

January 11, 2010

I am a 20-year-old male, who lives a normal life in this normal
world. But after seeing so many movies that have awed me, this one just
has done something I can’t explain. The non-realistic nature of it
makes me want to live it, to actually go to the wonderful place that I
have seen in the film. To take my normal, unsatisfying life and
transform it into that of which cannot be. It burns so much that once I
returned home from the theater it brought tears to my eyes . . .
Hopefully one day we will have technology to go into such a world of
beauty and amazement.

The above letter was sent by email to Boston Globe movie critic Ty Burr in regard to the film 'Avatar'. At time of writing James Cameron's blockbuster is the second biggest movie of all time, closing fast on the box-office record set by Cameron's last movie 'Titanic' in 1997.

"This letter both moves and frightens me", says Burr. "What I hear between its lines
is that we’ve become so adept at building fantasy worlds that waking
life has become a burden – a gray limbo to which we resentfully return,
sharing it as we do with ugly headlines, unpleasant bosses, and all
those other people who, sadly, aren’t us. Why bother returning at all,
when the entertainment omniverse is at our fingertips 24/7? Why jack
out when the movies will be offering total immersion playing to all of
us individually, when 3-D will be arriving on the family TV within a
few years?
"

Avatar and Limbo. Reminds me of a blog post I wrote 3 years ago entitled "Life in Limbo – Iron Age to Information Age", where I contemplated the phenomenon of Iron Age Bog Bodies in Ireland and the connections I saw with the theme of Avatar and rapidly developing 3D technologies. Excerpts follow –

"[Bog bodies] Twenty-something victims physically tortured before death but also,
ghoulishly, subjected to the ultimate in metaphysical torment – their
bodies were tied down in the shallow water of the bog where they would
be preserved for all time in a state of limbo, neither in the land of the living nor of the dead but imprisoned between."

Fast forward a few millennia. Steven Spielberg's sci-fi thriller Minority Report stars Tom Cruise as a futuristic policeman driven by guilt and the memory of his kidnapped son Sean to prevent similar crimes befalling other families. Cruise's character, John Anderton compulsively
plays back holographic home movies of Sean, in order to re-live happier
times. Ironically, re-living the pain of losing Sean as each movie comes
to an end. Tormenting himself.

Anderton didn't want to let go. His anger and guilt were
overlapping with sadness and loneliness. So he held onto Sean by
projecting his dreamlike hologram, or avatar, in mid-air and reliving the past. Over and over again.

3D technology will, as with digital
camcorders, large size screens and surround sound, trickle down to the
consumer market. And we'll be filming our home movies in High
Definition 3D. So how long will it be before we're producing holographic home
movies? Not long. Not long until we're recording, lifestreaming and
projecting phantom-like images of ourselves and our loved ones. Like
John Anderton reliving joyful moments with his son Sean. Like John
Anderton being tormented by a digital ghost.

'Avatar' is derived from a Hindu word referring to the incarnation, or bodily manifestation,
of a higher being onto planet Earth. As we move ever closer to the
capability of holographic home movie-making is there a danger that
vulnerable minds will freeze frame the grieving process by grasping at
the illusion of virtual reincarnation? Will we be possessed by avatars?
Will it be harder than ever to let go? Not accepting the death of a
loved one. Leaving them neither in the land of the living nor of the
dead, but imprisoned between?

In the Iron Age it was the dead who were sometimes left in limbo. In the information age it could well be the living.

That blog post concentrated on the negative side of computer-aided escapism but for me the positives far outweigh the negatives. Of course the movies have always been described as escapism. So why did the 20-year-old male's letter concern the Boston Globe columnist so much? Simply because he had put eloquently into words what escapism really is? The dictionary defines it as 'mental diversion by means of entertainment or recreation,
as an "escape" from the perceived unpleasant aspects of daily stress'.
Is there a difference between healthy and unhealthy escapism. Where's the cut-off point?

Isn't all art escapism? Music, painting, literature, cinema, dance. Activities
and objects
which express ideas of beauty and divert our attention by calling us to contemplate their deeper meaning.

Are meditation, prayer and religion not forms of escapism? Think of accounts given by those who have had near-death experiences

"I was very calm and began to move very slowly upwards and it was more and more beautiful into an infinity of light and peace, happiness, I knew I was going to heaven or somewhere very beautiful. I did not want to come back at this point as it was the most happy I had ever been in my life".

And consider how that compares with the letter to the Boston Globe –

"this one just has done something I can’t explain… makes me want to live it, to actually go to the wonderful
place that I have seen… To take my normal, unsatisfying
life and transform it into that of which cannot be. It burns so much
that once I returned home… it brought tears to my eyes"

What makes the feelings expressed in the near-death experience something to celebrate but those in the letter something to admonish?

I'm no philosopher and won't get into a deep discussion about mind, body and soul. But it seems to me that our evolution as a species will come to a grinding halt if we limit our race to what the mind can achieve from the confines of the body. Ty Burr says –

"We
get, what, 70 to 80 years on this planet at best? Why waste it on
another man’s pixels? Why not take off the glasses and have a look
around? It’s real 3-D out there and it’s amazing."

Yes it is, but it's even more amazing 'out there', beyond what we can see, beyond what we can yet envisage. And movies like Avatar stir the spirit to imagine, to explore, to dream. When we lose ourselves in alternative realities we do so not for the mind to escape, but for it to soar.

Your source of inspiration might be music or sculpture but for me it has always been science fiction. Movies like the aforementioned Minority Report galvanise human insight and vision around how technologies of the future can work. And drive innovation in convergence towards a realization of that future. Witness all the search results for "Minority Report -like" and how Microsoft's Project Natal has brought us, 8 years after the movie, to the brink of a gesture based computer interaction reality.

I'm sure the ground work for Project Natal  was laid down well before Tom Cruise became John Anderton but I've no doubt the movie spurred a great many engineers and developers to apply themselves to the disciplines from where the technology emerged. Would it be here now had those brilliant minds not 'escaped' the reality of what was possible in 2002?

When columnists like Mr. Burr get worried about young people expressing strong desires to live in fantasy worlds perhaps they should consider that yesterday's fantasy is today's reality. And that the desire to 'escape' is part of the reason it is so.

10 Lessons in Entrepreneurship – GigaOM

January 7, 2010

Here’s a short (and by no means a complete) list of 10 articles that encapsulate the art of the startup. Most were published during 2009, and I found them educational and full of practical tips that we’ve applied to our business. They’ve also helped me think differently about startups and entrepreneurship.

Read them on gigaom.com

Ebooks and opensource textbooks for Irish education

January 6, 2010

On November 6th last we asked on Twitter – Can Irish educators explain what obstacles prevent the development of an opensource curriculum distributed on back-friendly ebooks?”

Darren Geraghty, a researcher at the Digital Enterprise Research Institute in Galway was first to answer“I’m not an educator but I’m told book publishers want it to remain the current
archaic way for obvious self-serving monetary reasons

To which I reponded, “I’ve heard that too but wonder why, in the age of wikipedia, an opensource alternative can’t be developed? Lack of will?”

Simon Lewis, principal of Carlow Educate Together Primary school and author of the influential Anseo ezine then respondedlots of things preventing open source ebooks: Lack of government support, lack of teacher skills, lack of infrastructure, etc etc”

John O’Connor, Head of School of Art, Design & Printing at Dublin Institute of Technology felt likewise“A complete lack of political interest and/or concern by the relevant public servants perhaps?”

To both of which I replied, what ‘government support’ did Wikipedia have? Teacher skills? What infrastructure? The internet? ” and continued is public servant and political interest required?

And John answered not to develop the curriculum but regretably yes for implementation. That is the problem”

In response to which I naively asked,“If the curriculum was developed would it be politically feasible to hold out against implementation?”

At which stage the discombobulated discussion more or less fizzled out on Twitter. But we did take it up again under a public Google Wave entitled ‘Wave in Irish Education‘, where I wondered if Google’s new wiki-like system “could be the solution for how Educators and Technologists can best change Ireland
(Dr. Chris Horn).” In that linked blog post Chris reprints a speech he gave to the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals

“One thing I personally strongly believe that we cannot do, is wait and
expect our Government and the apparatus of the State to help us
…. One of the key points about the internet is that it is self-creating
and self-sustaining. It is bottom-up, a community phenomenon….
The ethos of the internet is sharing, “bottom-up”. … A wiki is a web site in which not only can anyone read its content, but anyone can also edit the content…. The consequence is that the community of bona-fide contributors work
together to make the wiki better and better..  A wiki thus
captures the “wisdom of the crowd” – the collective wisdom of a
community of readers and contributors…. Ladies and Gentlemen, you are a community. Your professional teaching
colleagues are another larger community, to which you also belong…. A wiki is a community self-help tool. Best of all, a wiki can be
created by anyone, by any small group of like-minded professionals, at
any time. It does not require a mandate from a Government, a Minister,
a Trade Union, or even the NAPD
!”

Back on the Google Wave one contributor suggested an opensource curriculum wouldn’t  happen here because of the payment issue. “But“, I responded, “if opensource wouldn’t work because of paid issue then why
is it working in the States? Why did it work for Linux? Why did it work
for Wikipedia? Are we unique in Ireland for requiring monetary reward
for doing social good?
” At which point I inserted a number of links demonstrating how opensource textbooks and curriculum are working elsewhere-

Dr. Horn then added an excellent point –

“Original online content
can be created by a community of willing volunteers, pro bono… Is
too much to expect willing volunteers to create excellent shared free
content and materials for teaching in our schools ? Some senior retired
people often wish to give back to society. Unemployed professionals
often volunteer their time. Research students and postgraduates often
willingly give a lot to society at large…. It just needs a structure to catalyse and co-ordinate voluntary effort…

ICT Teacher Patricia Donaghy jumped in with the suggestion –

“What about empowering our current students/learners to become
involved in this ‘brave new world’ of collaboration and sharing…. hey too should be part of the “collective wisdom of a community of readers and contributors”… The CCCOER Open Textbooks site (http://oerconsortium.org/discipline-specific/) is one example of just how open textbook are being promoted.

At which point Simon Lewis jumped back into the discussion with an interesting point regarding primary schools –

“From a primary point of view, I think we should be getting away from
books, e or otherwise. At primary level we don’t have the constraints
of a written exam at the end of time and we try and give a more
holistic education to our children. I think that we need to developing
more kinaesthetic and visual content for primary level. This is one of
the main reasons I don’t think a VLE setup would work in primary
schools yet.

Chris Horn asked –

“For visual content, do you think these wonderful 3D graphics http://bit.ly/2D7UB2
of mathematical equations would inspire students ? What if the students
could experiment themselves with developing these, using laptops to
execute the arithmetic involved ? Would it drive a deeper understanding
and appreciation for algebra ?

I then pointed to a blog post by Paul Sweeny where he writes about the Classroom of the Future with regard to ebooks in Spain –

Some very large changes happening in Spain for those interested in the
classroom of the future and ebooks for elearning. Yes, there is lots of investment going into classrooms with Interactive Whiteboards figuring large. The real news, though, is the government seems to be promoting a national version of One Laptop per Child (OLPC) and is corralling the publishers into facilitating ebooks across the curriculum in the very near future.

According to this article in El Pais Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero announced plans to digitise education in March
but negotiations with the major educational publishers and
infrastructure companies had been going on for a while. This more
recent article, again from El Pais (Google translation here), talks
about a common ebook platform which publishers were signing up to.
If it were only ebooks and and digital classrooms, I would be
applauding another worthy step in the direction of modern schooling
etc. The catalyst for potentially momentous change is the provision of netbooks to all students.

I was reminded of all this pre-Christmas conversation when student James Foley wrote an Open Letter to all Irish Universities yesterday which resonated with many people of us on Twitter –

“In my three years here, I’ve only bought two books. I think that
needs to be put into perspective a bit. Three years, 2 semesters a
year, 6 modules a semester, that’s a total of 36 modules, each of which
have had recommended texts and further reading advised by the lecturer.
Why is it then, that over the duration of my college life I’ve bought
roughly only 5% of the books my lecturers have thought it necessary for
me to read in order to pass my modules?
Cost. Bulk. Relevance….. How does one overcome these problems? It’s actually a very simple, very elegant, and most important in these times, a very cost effective solution. Embrace the digital age in a manner unprecedented in any college set
up across the globe. Be at the forefront for once, not the trailing
edge.
Upon enrollment, make it compulsory that each and every student purchases an eBook reader.”

The conversation continues…

Ireland, the sustainable food island

January 4, 2010

This promotional video from Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) starts off all cheesy but quickly changes gear to do a great job in promoting this country as the sustainable food island. [ Via the Irish National Rural Network on Twitter ]

2010: Be naieve – renew your sense of wonder.

January 3, 2010

A week before Christmas my two little nieces got to enjoy the wonder of snow for the first time in their young lives. They had sloshed around in slush before but never had an opportunity to build snowmen from the dry powdery stuff. In that moment in time the world was full of magical possiblity. I don't know who was more thrilled – them playing in a winter wonderland or me observing the joy that life offers to the truly naieve.

Naieve. Why does that word get such a bad rap? And generate a knee-jerk defensive reaction by most people thus labeled. 'Naieve' is an antonym of 'cynical' and I know which tag I'd rather have thrown at me. One definition is: "showing unaffected simplicity and lack of worldly experience". Now think of how that applied to my nieces in the wintry landscape and tell me naievty isn't a wonderful thing.

A few days after the snowmen had melted I went to the cinema to watch the movie 'Avatar', James Cameron's hugely hyped return to the silver screen. No doubt you've heard about the 10ft blue aliens and either explored their habitat of Pandora for yourself or decided it's not for you. Either way you don't need another summary from me. But here's a 6 word review anyway – Avatar renewed my sense of wonder.

Ardent critics will warn you about the pedestrian dialogue and simplistic storyline so I'm sure I'm being naieve but the sublime realization of another planet, sweeping vistas and sheer spectacle of it all simply took my breath away. I allowed myself to become entangled in Cameron's imagination and travel to a believable alien world. I came away renewed with a sense of wonder about what can now be achieved on the big screen. And the threshold now crossed whereby anything a story-teller can imagine can now be committed, believably, to celluloid.

It's ten years ago exactly since I left my last job and became self-employed. At the turn of the millennium I was full of optimism that I could carve out my own path. And excitement about what new business opportunities advances in technology would unleash. Ten years on and I'm more excited than ever about what the future holds. With touch-screen tablet computers, augmented reality, an emergent semantic web, immersive full body controllers, 3D TV, the commercialization of space travel and so much more on the way the new decade holds incredible opportunities for the truly naieve.

But 33% of all new businesses fail within the first six months. Fifty percent of new businesses fail within their first two years of operation and 75% fail within the first three years. The entrepreneur is the personification of naievty. The cynic would never try, never mind succeed.

So my wish for you in 2010 is that you learn to be naieve and renew your sense of wonder. Whether by seeing a new part of the world, taking up photography, learning a language, or whatever appeals to your own passions in life. Me, I threw snowballs at my nieces and went to watch Avatar a second time.

Naievty is a wonderful thing. And I'm happy to be naieve for thinking so.