Immersive History

Posted in Career, Media, Tech, Uncategorized, Web at 10 am

Recently Tim Bray wrote about some new VR hardware and noted that the software was from Immersive Media, a company that seemed familiar to me. Bray noted that they were in Western Canada, but I seemed to remember working with a company in Portland that was doing 360+° video with that same name. Hurry Kids! To the WayBack Machine!


Huh, would you look at that? (Not for too long, mind you. HTML from that era was made with a combination of HTML 3.2, font tags and asbestos.) They were a client for a start up web agency that I worked with 1999 to 2001 called Exact Interactive. You can tell the site was done fast and cheap, they even took the discount for us to put our own logo on the site.

Let’s count the oddities on this single page, ignoring the “gateway” page. The GIF logos at the top are atrocious and I can’t fully apologize for the glowing white edges of the RoundAbout logo. Obvious it was originally supposed to be on white, maybe it was originally supposed to use a PNG with an alpha channel, but we had to fall back?

Hey look at that titled background, clouds and a ghost grid. What were we smoking? Maybe it was the fumes from the fixing agent used in the pre-press room we were next to.

Rotating wireframe dodecahedron Ah the dodecahedron animated GIF. Since it is a wireframe you can watch it for long enough and it will seemingly, suddenly, start rotating the opposite direction.

If I remember correctly, there was a math site that had an interactive solids demo that you could rotate via the mouse. I took screen captures of that interactive display, slowly rotating the solid pixel by pixel. I then gathered the screenshots, cropped them down and compiled them into Photoshop layers to align them. I don’t think Photoshop handled animated GIFs at that time, so I probably put them into “GIF Builder v1.0“. [Pause to look at the binary data…] Nope, it was version 0.5. Wow. Okay. Moving on.

And now the piece of resistance: The site menu, placed in the bottom right corner of the page template. This is worse than looking at my high school yearbook photos. Obviously a conscious decision to buck the trend of ‘normal’ or ‘correct’ or ‘rational’ design. IT does force the user to see the whole page in order to link to another page on the site. But ultimately it did not catch on. I cannot imagine why.

Ah the Wayback Machine, what would we do without you? Probably forget our mistakes for far longer.


Cross Contamination

Posted in Media, Tech at 9 am

We have a television from Planar Systems, an overstock display purchased through an employee discount. The TV was designed for a home theater installation, so it has a few quirks compared to most consumer televisions. One of those quirks is having two separate buttons on the remote for power. One turns it on, the other off. Most TVs, of course, have these as a single power on/off toggle button. But in Home Theater installations, this allows for external control of the display for an automation system. Because the automation system can send a specific state (on or off) there is never a concern that the systems would be out of sync. If there was only a toggle switch, then if the tv has a power failure or someone manually turns it off, the automation system would send the next toggle (perhaps to turn the TV off) and end up turning it on. The discreet pair of switches fix that.

However, I am not a rich man. I have no such automation system. What I do have is a TiVo and the very best TV remote control I’ve ever used, the TiVo “peanut-shaped” series of remotes. Like most remotes, it has a single power button, expecting to toggle the power. I looked through all the documentation for the Planar TV. There was no toggle command available. Discreet power on and power off were the only options. I called the tech support people, and since I was an employee there at the time, went to talk to The guy who handled all of the Planar Home Theater product support. There was no way to send a toggle. It wasn’t built to handle that, it was built to be part of a Home Theater Installation, for Home Theater Dealers, using Home Theater automation. A few more hours of research and I came up empty on the power toggle search.

The Pledge: In order to get the TiVo remote (which is programmable) to control the Planar display, I programmed the remote’s power button to send out the Power On signal. I then reprogrammed the Mute button to send the Power Off signal. Not a bad compromise. The green On Button works to get things going. The Mute button shuts the TV sounds off… along with the entire display. It took a few weeks to get used to it, but it worked.

The Turn: A few years later, Amy and I are buying myriad toys for our boy, with trains being the latest fashion. Wooden Brio-style trains are the rage, but the slightly larger Thomas the Tank Engine starter set in the “TrackMaster” style is also in there. At Toys-R-Us, the in-house brand of trains runs the same size as the TrackMaster Thomas, but with a twist: a remote control for the engine (with an unknown signaling method). Forward, backward, blow the whistle, stop the train buttons. But surely this remote would be RF (radio frequency) based, because an IR sensor on a train engine would be turned away from the controlled half the time on a circular layout. Right? Each turn of the track would hide the sensor… unless the sensor was mounted straight up?

Well, it so happened that the control was IR (infra-red) based, not RF. The sensor wasn’t set on top, the engine had two sensors, giving nearly 360 degree coverage. Playing with the new train was great as we set it up in the living room. Four trains on 10 feet of track is tough, but workable, except that every time we started the new remote control train, the TV turned on …and then off. On and Off.

It took a second or five to sink in, but after covering up the TV’s IR sensor (letting us play with the train for the evening) James was off to bed and Dad had a few minutes to experiment with the new toy’s unintended side effects.

The Prestige: So my personal holy grail of IR commands was found. The train’s remote control was used the program the TiVo remotes and now we have a fully functional TiVo/TV system.


Why Facebook prefers Top Stories to Most Recent

Posted in Media, Web at 6 am

When using Facebook on the web or via custom clients, users see a primary stream of news/posts/updates/whathaveyou. There are a few ways to filter and sort the stream. The original way was simply Most Recent. However for the last couple of years the default has become Top Stories.

This shows the split between two types of Facebook usage: those who have Friended/Liked/etc lots of things/people/groups because “Facebook is the Internet” and those (of us) who use it to connect with a select number of people. The former have a firehose of items that cannot be read entirely and must be curated/culled, the later are trying to keep up with every single post from a handful of friends and family.

Guess which group sees more ads, clicks more ad/sponsored stories, spend more time in the ecosystem, are more “invested” in the platform, and are more profitable for FB? That’s the group FB is supporting, if they are smart.

The rest of us aren’t catered to, yet.


The Life Aquatic & Yo Gabba Gabba

Posted in Family, Media at 7 am

I’m not sure how I missed the Wes Anderson tribute the first 30 times we watched this episode of Yo Gabba Gabba.

Still from "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"

Still from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Although the Gabba gang are not hunting the Jaguar Shark, they are squeezed in to a cockpit and wearing appropriately-colored beanies.

Still from Yo Gabba Gabba episode “Space”.

Still from Yo Gabba Gabba episode “Space”


What Apple Makes

Posted in Apple, Media, Tech at 3 pm

It seems that a lot of people are missing a fundamental aspect of what Apple sells. Simply put, Apple Profits on What Apple Physically Makes.

Anything that Apple licenses to sell through iTunes, or Apps they sell on behalf of third party developers are ancillary to what they manufacture. Apple will be profitable based on what their own physical products are worth in the market. Everything else is a break-even proposition. Look at Mac OS X or iOS and you’ll see that Apple nearly gives them away. The iLife suite is nearly free as is the iWork software. Even the Pro tools like Final Cut and Logic are deeply discounted from just a few years ago, taking down the prices of entire software categories in their wake. Someone call Kevin Kelly.

Apple makes money by selling high-end products. They sustain the rest of their digital ecosystem with just enough to get by, and little more.

Amazon and Netflix are only profiting what other companies own. If and when those companies learn to sell this material themselves, they will go away. Amazon is not just selling media that other people make. Excepting the Kindles, the company re-sells other companies’ products.

Netflix is already on the knife’s edge of failing due to their ‘partners’ pulling out of the licensing contracts. A pure digital play when they don’t own the digits. They may be able to coast along on the back of hardware that has them built-in, but even on those devices (Roku, Apple TV, PlayStation) Netflix is “just another app” that can be turned off at will.

Apple has done a smart thing by making their own destiny. If someone else figures out a better way to sell movies or music or apps, then all the better for Apple since it will allow them to focus on what’s making them money: their hardware. What they make.


On Remote Controls

Posted in Apple, Media at 7 pm

Daring Fireball linked to The Russians Used a Pencil‘s post speculating on the evolution of remotes. I wanted to note two items:

1) Battery life: I love the scroll wheel idea to replace the directional arrow buttons, but touch-based sensors have a serious disadvantage in the fact that they must have power running through them in order to detect the action of the user. That current is a constant drain and constant power drains are deadly for batteries. At best you could have a physical motion sensor (rolling beads?) that could wake up the remote when it’s moved, but touch sensors suck up the juice. No little lithium ion coin-sized battery would suffice.

The alternative is the original iPod’s physical scroll wheel which I adored in the very first iPods. That would be cool, but also an expensive proposition in manufacturing a remote control.

2) Bluetooth connectivity: Unless Apple comes out with a smart, free standard that can be used industry-wide to support multi-device control, Bluetooth in remotes is a myopic view of the real world. Sony has already caused a lot of headaches with having a Bluetooth remote for the PS3. There’s a lot to learn from that.

The reason for having an IR-based remote is all about having multiple devices be able to be controlled as a single entity. The simplest example is controlling the power and volume on the television that the AppleTV is connected to. If the Apple remote doesn’t support IR, you’re stuck with two remotes. Got an amplifier in the mix for surround sound? A DVD or Blu-Ray player? Now you’re talking input switching as well.

Apple’s going to have to come out with something truly interesting and unique and forward leading to stand out. I think they can do it, but I’m certain that these two technologies will not be in the mix unless radically re-thought.


Interconnected publishing

Posted in Media, Meta, Web at 6 pm

I’ve been working on getting my WordPress/Twitter/FaceBook spaces working together and I think I’ve hit on a pretty good system.

It comes down to two sides: how do I publish things and how do other people read and stay up with that stream (as underwhelming as it is.)

For the first side of the coin, I like to publish three different types of content: Super short stuff and pithy comments which obviously fit into Twitter’s paradigm quite well. For timely commentary on things and longer thoughts, WordPress is a good choice and is the latest in a long series of journaling and blogging software tools that I’ve either used or built myself. Finally, longer form pieces essays or research or archival stuff seems to make more sense as web pages on my personal site.

For the audience side of things, I’m seeing 4 or 5 different methods that people use to keep up with individuals. Web site reading from bookmarks would be one (Hi Mom and Dad!). People who do a lot of web reading might use an RSS feed reader (Hi Micah!). Others may rely on Twitter to keep up with me and some others may want to keep an eye on things only through FaceBook. There are other channels like MySpace, but the ones I’m listing here seem to be the right ones for my audience.

So what have I connected? 1) I’ve connected FaceBook to Twitter using Twitter’s application. Next I added TwitterTools to my WordPress install and that takes care of cross posting between Twitter and WordPress entries. So now I can post tweets and they show up in my FaceBook status and they show up in WordPress on a once daily basis. (This might be annoying to some, so I’ll have to keep an eye on this and perhaps reduce the re-post rate to once a week or so.)

As for research and essays, I’ll post them to my site and then make an annotation here (as I’ve usually done over the past few years.) So if we follow the chain, 1) a page added to my site leads to 2) an announcement on my WordPress blog, which 3) triggers a Twitter tweet, and then finally 4) updates my FaceBook status.



The Other Digital Transition

Posted in Media at 3 pm

So you know all about the Broadcast Digital TV conversion that has happened. The original 2004 deadline was delayed ultimately till June 2009 for mandatory shut off of the analog signals. I had a couple posts about the Set Top “Coupon Eligible Converter Boxes” (aka “CECBs”). These are mandated boxes that allow viewers to convert the over-the-air broadcast signal to a standard-definition analog signal so that it can be fed into analog-based TVs, like every one manufactured since 1928.

(The highest-end versions have two features: analog play thru (APT) and S-Video connections. If you’ve got those, you’ve got the most advanced DTV Converter Box that’s available under the government program.)

However, there’s another transition that is parallel and yet has a completely different set of rules. This is the Cable companies’ transition to Digital Cable. Keep this in mind: Both Broadcast TV and Cable TV are going from All Analog Signals to All Digital Signals, but for totally different reasons. We’re middle of the time where both the analog signals and the digital signals are available. I had wondered when the cable conversion was going to happen since it was basically inevitable. Most digital channels take roughly one-tenth the bandwidth of a single analog channel. That means the cable company can send 10 times more content to the customers.

In Portland, Comcast shut off most of their analog signals in June (except for the most basic channels, 2-31). That means if you want to watch Comedy Central or BET or the History Channel on most TVs you MUST have a converter box. The good news is that the bottom-of-the-line Digital Cable converter box (what Comcast calls the Digital Transport Adapter) is FREE.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the term ‘cable ready’ when applied to TVs meant that the owner no longer had to have a converter box for their analog cable signal. That is now changing again. With the digital conversion, there are no longer any ‘cable-ready’ televisions. At some point I hope this changes, though it may not with a smaller set of cable monopolies with deeper pockets to keep it from happening.

(This post was originally drafted earlier this year. Sorry for any random changes in tense!)


Retrocool Product Idea of the Day

Posted in Media, Tech at 11 am

You’ve seen adapters that allow SD cards to fit into CompactFlash slots or even into PC Card/PCMCIA slots. I remember seeing adapters that would play regular cassette tapes in track players and an mp3 player that was shaped like a cassette tape that would play music off of SD cards. Well I want:

An adapter shaped like a vinyl LP that would let you play CDs on a turntable. That would be pretty awesome, me thinks.


Cite Your Sources

Posted in Life, Media at 9 am

The simple addition of the directive “Cite your sources!” to a political discussion (whether in person, in a townhall, or in any other medium) would have a profound impact on the quality of the discussion.

That is all.