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May 29 2012

Four short links: 29 May 2012

  1. South Korean Kinect+RFID Augmented Reality Theme Park -- Sixty-five attractions over seven thematic stages contribute to the experience, which uses 3D video, holograms and augmented reality to immerse guests. As visitors and their avatars move through the park, they interact with the attractions using RFID wristbands, while Kinect sensors recognize their gestures, voices and faces. (via Seb Chan)
  2. Digital Citizenship -- computers in schools should be about more than teaching more than just typing to kids, they should know how to intelligently surf, to assess the quality of their sources, to stay safe from scammers and bullies, to have all the training they need to be citizens in an age when life is increasingly lived online. (via Pia Waugh)
  3. Simulating Anatomically Accurate Facial Expressions (University of Auckland) -- video of a talk demonstrating biomechanical models which permit anatomically accurate facial models.
  4. Depixelizing Pixel Art (Microsoft Research) -- this is totally awesome: turning pixel images into vector drawings, which of course can be smoothly scaled. (via Bruce Sterling)

May 18 2012

Four short links: 18 May 2012

  1. Overlapping S-Curves of Various Products (PNG) -- product adoption speed over time. (via Beta Knowledge)
  2. High School Makerspaces Q&A with Dale Dougherty (Radioshack) -- Experimentation is one of the things we’re trying to promote. If you do experiments, a number of them fail and you learn from that failure and say, “Gee, I could have done that differently.” It’s metacognitive skills that we’re trying to develop—a way of thinking, a way of doing that increases your confidence in your own abilities and in your capacity to learn. I’d like students to believe that anybody can do these things, not that only a few people are good at math or only a few people are good at programming. The goal is to reduce the barrier to those subjects and show that anybody can be good at them. (via Tim O'Reilly)
  3. Google Glass Patent: Infrared Rings and Fingernails (The Verge) -- The patent describes a wearable computing device whose interface can be controlled by infrared markers in the form of bracelets, rings, artificial fingernails, or effectively invisible temporary decals. A camera in the glasses would pick up radiation reflected from the marker, giving it a point of reference for user control. (via Chris Arkenberg)
  4. OAuth is Your Future (Flickr) -- design fictions to provoke thought. DHS accessing your Foursquare history? Aie. (via Dan Hon)

July 06 2011

June 17 2011

Augmented reality and books, together at last?

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

Most people — certainly readers of this blog — know about "augmented reality," whereby camera-powered computers gussy up the real world with extra layers of info. A popular example: point a smartphone's camera at a crowded city street and watch a bunch of labels appear onscreen indicating bars and restaurants. (The restaurant-finding Yelp app does that trick; just tap Nearby and then Monocle.)

It didn't take long, of course, for publishing types to scratch their heads and wonder: You know what? We could use the same trick in our products. And, man, have people come up with some pretty neat examples. Already we're starting to see models from human anatomy books "jump" off the page and become animations on nearby screens. Or dusty architecture tomes whose fragile and one dimensional drawings get charmed into 3D versions on a computer.

AR-powered architecture book

Here, then, are a few examples I've run across during my research, each of which illustrates how books and other publications are starting to use AR to power their pages.

Dorling Kindersley's 3-D books

Publisher DK is known for its visually lush books. Whether it's intricately designed page interiors, pull-out maps, or even a die-cut cover that lets readers peer inside at body organs — this crew likes to make books that are fun to look at and play with.

So it's no surprise they're experimenting with new ways of bridging print and digital. The initial titles in its just launched "3-D" series ("Human Body," "Dinosaur") feature AR extras that spin animations off the print page onto a nearby computer screen. Getting it to work does take a bit of work, but the results are novel enough to justify the setup effort, which goes like this:

  1. Buy the print book
  2. Download and install the free software on any computer with a webcam
  3. Open the book's pages and point any of its six "AR spreads" at the webcam. The webcam/software duo spots the special AR logo and the visuals begin. Onscreen you see a live shot of you holding the book, which now bears a superimposed animation of a walking human skeleton, a flexing dinosaur, and so on.

AR-powered architecture book

The result is a visual extra that depicts motion in a way that's obviously not possible in print. Now an equally obvious question: Why force readers to go through all this book/software/webcam hassle? Couldn't DK simply print a web address in the book and have the reader visit that web page to see an animation? Sure. But by staging the action quite literally on the print pages, there's at least a fighting chance the reader's journey is going to continue within the book rather than wandering off onto the web. It's certainly a valid question as to why DK chose to create PC-based software versus, say, a smartphone app. But these kinds of print/digital joint ventures are a fun glimpse of how print can do what it's good at (rich interior layout, large spreads) and digital can bring its special sauce to the party.


Let's face it: plenty of mainstream consumers are never gonna jump through all the steps the DK books require. U.K.-based Aurasma recently released a tool that makes the whole process a bit easier. First, the software is part of a smartphone app (iOS and Android), which eliminates the need to crack open, say, your laptop while on the bus. And they've figured out a way to eliminate those special on-page codes that only a geek could love.

Using image recognition technology, the app automatically recognizes on-page and on-screen visuals like logos and photos. Launch the app, point your smartphone or tablet camera at the target, and watch the extras spring to life on your display. For example, the company has put together some demos that use logos from USA Today, the New York Times, and other papers.

Aurasma has even rigged up the app so you can create your own AR extras. Want to thrill your kids with a video of them running on the front of a Cheerios box? It's pretty freakin' cool.

Star Walk

And yet, let's be realistic: even something like Aurasma requires a chain of participants lengthy enough that — no matter how innovative the results — it may never go mainstream. That's why the genius of the Star Walk app is less about the way it uses AR than how its users never even need to know about that geekish term, much less how to assemble its component parts. All that's required is to launch, point, and marvel.

Say for example you're trekking in Nepal and want help deciphering the night sky's star fleet. Fire up Star Walk, point your iPhone or iPad wherever you're curious and watch the screen alight with labels. Without having to do a lick of work you immediately see constellation names and the outline of those sometimes obscure objects (do you know what a Cetus is?) that boggle the imagination of many amateur sky watchers. As you rotate the device around, the labels change, reflecting whatever you're now pointing toward. Even better: the app lets you "watch" the sky from any location worldwide. So you can be in your windowless basement in Boston and see what the astronomical outlook is in, say, Sydney. All you need to do is use the built-in Google Earth-style map to pick the viewing location and up pops the relevant view.

Total Immersion's AR Magic Mirror

Woman with illustrated headgear composited on her face by Magic MirrorIt's worth noting that AR is not all about science and newspaper experiments. Sometimes it's just about being plain silly. Magic Mirror is an app that lets you futz with faces. Use your iPad's front-facing camera to frame your mug, and then add a wacky pair of sunglasses, a crazy hat, and so on. It all gets added to the live version of you.

For now the fun lasts about five minutes or so. In other words, it's a nice party trick. But the ways that a tool like this could be incorporated into publications like fashion catalogs, electronic greeting cards, and instruction manuals (think: hair stylists and beauticians) doesn't take much imagining.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup — Pete Meyers looks at the growing number of digital book tools: what's best, what's easiest to use, and what's worth putting in your book-building toolkit.

Join us on Thursday, June 30, 2011, at 10 am PT
Register for this free webcast


May 16 2011

Four short links: 16 May 2011

  1. Entering the Minority Report Era -- a survey of technology inspired by or reminiscent of Minority Report, which came out ten years ago. (via Hacker News)
  2. Sally -- a tool for embedding strings in matrices, as used in machine learning. (via Matt Biddulph)
  3. GNU SIP Witch Released -- can be used to deploy private secure calling networks, whether stand-alone or in conjunction with existing VoIP infrastructure, for private institutions and national governments. (via Hacker News)
  4. Chilling Story of Genius in a Land of Chronic Unemployment (TechCrunch) -- fascinating story of Nigerian criminal tech entrepreneurs. He helps build them up; he listens to their problems. He makes them feel loved. He calls each an innocuous pet name, lest he accidentally type the wrong message into the wrong chat window. He asks for a little bit of money here and there, until men are sending him steady amounts from each paycheck. He says it takes exactly one month for a man to fall in love with him, and once he has a man’s heart, no woman can take it. I wonder what designers of social software can learn from these master emotional manipulators?

May 05 2011

Softly buzzing phones could yield better augmented reality

Current augmented reality technology primarily relies on the cameras in smartphones to connect users to surrounding environments. But is this interaction actually disconnecting users from reality rather than plugging them in? In a recent interview, Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley said the camera sometimes gets in the way.

The screen shouldn't be between you and me, or me and the place. If the phone buzzes and I look at it silently and know what's going on, I think that's the experience Foursquare is going after. It's less to do with the screens in front of people's faces ...

Crowley said a more subtle interaction could actually result in a deeper connection to the surrounding environment without interfering with what's happening in real life.

Augmented reality, like holding up your phone and looking around? I'm not very bullish on that. But, you basically get the same results if you put the phone in your pocket, and it buzzes when you're near things — that's like a poor man's augmented reality, which I'm very bullish on.

For more of Crowley's thoughts on mobile and location, check out the full interview in the following video:

Disclosure: O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is a Foursquare investor.


May 03 2011

Four short links: 3 May 2011

  1. SentiWordNet -- WordNet with hints as to sentiment of particular terms, for use in sentiment analysis. (via Matt Biddulph)
  2. Word Frequency Lists and Dictionaries -- also for text analysis. This site contains what we believe is the most accurate frequency data of English. It contains word frequency lists of the top 60,000 words (lemmas) in English, collocates lists (looking at nearby words to see word meaning and use), and n-grams (the frequency of all two and three-word sequences in the corpora).
  3. Crash Course in Web Design for Startups -- When I was a wee pixel pusher I would overuse whatever graphic effect I had just learned. Text-shadow? Awesome, let's put 5px 5px 5px #444. Border-radius? Knock that up to 15px. Gradients? How about from red to black? You can imagine how horrible everything looked. Now my rule of thumb in most cases is applying just enough to make it perceivable, no more. This usually means no blur on text-shadow and just a 1px offset, or only dealing with gradients moving between a very narrow color range. Almost everything in life is improved with this rule.
  4. Leafsnap -- Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution have pooled their expertise to create the world’s first plant identification mobile app using visual search—Leafsnap. This electronic field guide allows users to identify tree species simply by taking a photograph of the tree’s leaves. In addition to the species name, Leafsnap provides high-resolution photographs and information about the tree’s flowers, fruit, seeds and bark—giving the user a comprehensive understanding of the species. iPhone for now, Android and iPad to come. (via Fiona Romeo)

March 04 2011

Four short links: 4 March 2011

  1. JSARToolKit -- Javascript port of the Flash AR Toolkit. I'm intrigued because the iPad2 has rear-facing camera and gyroscopes up the wazoo, and (of course) no Flash. (via Mike Shaver on Twitter)
  2. Android Patterns -- set of design patterns for Android apps. (via Josh Clark on Twitter)
  3. Preview of Up and Running with Node.js (O'Reilly) -- Tom Hughes-Croucher's new book in preview form. Just sorting out commenting now. (via Tom on Twitter)
  4. #Blue Opens for Business -- a web app that gets your text messages. You can reply, and there's an API to give other apps read/write access. Signs the text message is finally becoming a consumer platform.

December 23 2010

Four short links: 23 December 2010

  1. There Is No Such Thing as the Government -- absolutely spot on there is no spoon moment for government. And that matters. It matters because once you recognise that fact, you can start to do things differently. People do, of course, recognise it at the level of caricature I have described here and nobody will admit to believing that they can get things done simply by pulling the levers of power. But inactions speak louder than words and the myth of the lever is harder to eradicate than any of us like to admit.
  2. The Blast Shack (Webstock) -- Bruce Sterling on Wikileaks. No hacker story is more common than this. The ingenuity poured into the machinery is meaningless. The personal connections are treacherous. Welcome to the real world. No army can permit this kind of behavior and remain a functional army; so Manning is in solitary confinement and he is going to be court-martialled. With more political awareness, he might have made himself a public martyr to his conscience; but he lacks political awareness. He only has only his black-hat hacker awareness, which is all about committing awesome voyeuristic acts of computer intrusion and imagining you can get away with that when it really matters to people.
  3. Word Lens -- finally, useful AR: it replaces foreign language text with translations.
  4. Staging Servers, Source Control, Deploy Workflows, and Other Stuff Nobody Teaches You -- this guy has a point: when you emerge from programming school, you're unlikely to have touched this kind of real-world programming.

December 21 2010

Strata Gems: DIY personal sensing and automation

We're publishing a new Strata Gem each day all the way through to December 24. Yesterday's Gem: Turn MySQL into blazing fast NoSQL.

Strata 2011 Tomorrow's augmented reality is being built today on mobile devices. The Tasker application for Android is a fun platform for prototyping personal automation and sensing applications. Described modestly as an application which "performs tasks based on contexts," it gives non-programmers access to the sensing and system features of the phone.

Following a simple rule metaphor of taking action upon matched conditions, Tasker can respond to states such as:

  • Presence of a certain wifi network or Bluetooth device
  • GPS location, time or date
  • Phone event, such as incoming text messages or calls

The array of resulting actions that can be taken include altering the phone's attributes by adjusting volume, brightness, playing music and, more interestingly, taking photos or performing network actions such as performing HTTP GET or POST and sending email.


Screenshot, taken from the Tasker home page

All of these conditional rules can be set up from the application's interface on the phone itself.

While Tasker's initial appeal is in having your phone respond to its environment, with its network capabilities Tasker provides the ability to create sensing applications that can connect simple web applications with your personal attributes, responding to your location or proximity to others.

An example application might be tracking and recording your mileage expenses for work by having the phone log your GPS trails whenever it senses it's connected to the car's Bluetooth system.

A plugin interface offers developers the ability to add modules that detect more sophisticated conditions or take custom actions.

December 17 2010

Video pick: A real-time translating app

The Babel fish may have met its match in Word Lens, an iPhone app that automatically translates printed words from one language to another (it only handles Spanish-to-English and vice versa for now).

Here's the demo:

O'Reilly author Alasdair Allan (@aallan), a guy who knows a thing or two about augmented reality, ran the app through its paces. His verdict? The grammar engine doesn't work as well as the video suggests, but Allan says the app is "entirely usable."

For kicks, Allan tested the app against the BBC's Spanish test. Despite not speaking a word of Spanish, Allan (and the app) got a perfect score. See photo below.

Word Lens
Word Lens takes the BBC's Spanish test. Results aren't perfect, but they're certainly usable. Click to enlarge.

This post is part of a semi-regular series highlighting tech-centric videos that are excellent, intriguing, or thought provoking. Suggestions are always welcome.


December 15 2010

Strata Gems: Kinect democratizes augmented reality

We're publishing a new Strata Gem each day all the way through to December 24. Yesterday's Gem: Manage clusters with Mesos.

Strata 2011 The combination of augmented reality with data and analytics will bring radical change to our lives over the next few years. You're probably carrying a location-sensitive personal AR device right now, kitted out with motion sensors, audio-visual capabilities and network connectivity.

Microsoft's Kinect technology has now made the Xbox 360 gaming console a perfect experimentation platform for augmented reality. Marketed right now as a camera-based controller for video games, the Kinect's longer term impact might well be in the creation of augmented reality experiences. And of course, the world of advertising will be first in line to exploit this.

Dustin O'Connor has been busy hacking with the Kinect and producing a href="">number of very cool demos. In the video below, he
demonstrates the ability to manipulate a 3D object using multiple touches.

frameborder="0"><p><a href="">kinect augmented reality multi<br /> touching</a> from <a href="">dustin o&#039;connor</a> on <a<br /> href="">Vimeo.</p></p> <p>Between technologies such as Kinect and the widespread availability of smartphones, the means to create augmented reality experiences is now highly democratized, awaiting exploitation and experimentation from hackers and innovators.</p> <div class="feedflare"> <a href=""><img src="" border="0" /></a> <a href=""><img src="" border="0" /></a> <a href=""><img src="" border="0" /></a> <a href=""><img src="" border="0" /></a> </div><img src="" height="1" width="1" />

December 09 2010

"Then and now" with an augmented reality twist

The National Archives is running one of the geekiest competitions to ever originate in the nation's capital: an augmented reality photo contest. "Use an archival image and mash it with the everyday world for a unique perspective on history today." The results are likely to be amazing.


The contest is hosted at, the online platform for crowdsourcing national challenges, competitions and open innovation prizes for the United States government.

Here's the contest description:

The National Archives has introduced an exciting new way to use our historic photograph collections: History Happens Here! augments reality and combines the old with the new in the same frame, giving the viewer a unique perspective on how our country has evolved over time. Combining elements of a past time within the everyday world, History Happens Here! allows you to see history in your reality.

Anyone (including NARA staff) can choose a photo from the National Archives' Archival Research Catalog ( and capture the photo within the frame of the current landscape. Participants will post the photo to the History Happens Here! NARA Photo Contest group on Flickr. One winner and nineteen finalists will be featured in a History Happens Here! postcard book which will be available through the National Archives gift shop and online.

To get involved, read the rules and then join the 2010 NARA Photo Contest Flickr group. There are already a dozen mashups there that each provide a window into our collective American history.

November 17 2010

Four short links: 17 November 2010

  1. Understanding Your Customers -- I enjoyed Keith's take on meaningful metrics. We talk a lot about being data-driven, but we interpret data with a model. The different take on meaningful metrics reflect the different underlying models that are lit up by data. It's an important idea for the Strata conference, that gathering and processing data happens in the context of a world view, a data cosmology. (via Eric Ries)
  2. Bushwick AR Intervention 2010 -- an augmented reality take over of Bushwick, Brooklyn NY. Artists will rework physical space with computer generated 3d graphics. A wide variety of works ranging from a virtual drug which has broken free of its internet constraints and is now effecting people in the real world, to a unicorn park, to serious commentary on the state of United States veterans will be free for the public to view [with correct mobile device]. (via Laurel Ruma)
  3. How to Mass Export all of your Facebook Friends' Private Email Addresses (TechCrunch) -- Arrington gives a big finger to Facebook's "no, you can't export your friends' email addresses" policy by using the tools they provide to do just that. Not only is this useful, it also points out the hypocrisy of the company.
  4. TaintDroid -- an Android ROM that tracks what apps do with your sensitive information. (via Brady Forrest on Twitter)

October 15 2010

October 13 2010

How augmented reality apps can catch on

Stella Artois, the Belgian beer with the fancy name, made a splash about a year ago with its Le Bar Guide app. The app's hook is an augmented reality (AR) view that shows local bars and restaurants that serve the beer. Here's a video of the app in action.

Screenshot from Stella Artois app videoWhen it launched, I thought the Stella app was a clever marketing tool that was a bit ahead of the AR curve. Yet, that positive first impression was fleeting. I didn't think of the app again until it came up during a recent interview with Lynne d Johnson (@lynneluvah), senior vice president at the Advertising Research Foundation, at last month's Web 2.0 Expo NY.

That's the problem with app-based AR: even when the app is interesting and the implementation is notable, it's hard to get people (like me) to use it consistently. AR ambivalence is also tied to the bigger issue of app inertia. A company that pours resources into a custom app doesn't get much return if that app is rarely launched; the user doesn't develop an affinity for the brand, and that same user certainly doesn't buy associated products. The app and its AR just sit there, waiting to be uninstalled.

During my interview with Johnson, she said AR will realize its potential when use cases are clear and obvious: "People understand an augmented search application, like Google Goggles, or something where you scan a QR code or barcode. Those kind of things have a proven utility."

Her point about practical application got me thinking. What would it take for consumers to use AR regularly? Speaking as one of those consumers, I see very little chance for AR to move beyond a novelty unless two scenarios play out. Either will work, but one of these has to happen:

1. A dominant mobile application -- something like Facebook, Foursquare or a Google-driven web app -- seamlessly incorporates AR into its mobile experience. In essence, AR becomes part of an established and popular platform. I may not remember to fire up that Stella Artois app when I'm out and about, but there's a good chance I'll use Facebook. And if Stella Artois happens to have an ad that pops up in Facebook's AR tool, I might even see it.

Or ...

2. An "AR engine" is built into mobile systems. Similar to embedded functions like GPS, cameras, and sensors, developers could use this engine to add AR hooks to their apps. This would allow AR to achieve some level of ubiquity. Users might even come to expect it within location apps.

An AR engine would also open the door to a mobile AR "ad" standard (at least within a specific device OS) that would make cross-application AR campaigns possible. Marketers could buy space on the big platforms -- Facebook, Foursquare, etc. -- while also placing AR ads on targeted apps that serve specific communities (e.g. an app that's popular with beer drinkers). It would be iAd, but for AR -- or maybe even iAd with AR.

O'Reilly author Alasdair Allan (@aallan), who knows far more about app-based AR than I do, had a similar thought when I ran this idea past him:

When you open up the camera view in your app you could choose to display Apple's AR "advert layer" superimposed over the camera view in exactly the same way you choose to display an Apple iAd embedded in your UI. You could then get shared revenue for click-throughs from the advertisement layer, or perhaps just a flat payment for displaying it at all.

AR platforms and engines aren't novel ideas. Layar is an AR platform of sorts, and Qualcomm appears headed in the right direction with its augmented reality SDK for Android. Still, neither of these projects feels like it'll unlock AR in a mass-appeal sense. There's more to be done here.

I also realize this whole line of thought is fraught with problems. For starters, the developers that own and run the most popular apps could set up proprietary roadblocks. This would force companies to create custom AR campaigns for specific apps: an AR campaign for Facebook, another for Foursquare, another for Google, etc. -- all with different specs and implementations.

There's also the mind-bending issue of "virtual air rights," which Johnson brought up during our chat at Web 2.0:

... think about the possibilities if you're in Google Maps and you get the Street View and then you see advertising. It's digital advertising all over the place. But who pays for that? Who do they pay? All of that stuff has to be figured out ...

And then there's that pesky problem of getting mobile OS manufacturers to buy into the idea of an AR engine, and then implement it.

That said, difficult issues tend to get worked out when technologies show profit potential. If AR gets elevated to a prime position in a popular app, or it seeps into the underlying structure of mobile devices, I think we'll get a sense of that potential.

On a related note, Johnson had a number of additional insights on AR and marketing. The full interview is embedded below:

Photo credit (at top): Screen from Stella Artois video.


September 24 2010

Bookish Techy Week in Review

As usual, the wonderful mixed-up world of things both bookish and techy offered plenty of notable news this week. Please enjoy...

While a Harris Interactive poll finds gadgets are good for the future of reading and readers...

E-Reader Users Buy, Read More Books

...The "Chronicle of Higher Education" offers a differing POV

Will the Book Survive Generation Text?

Many college-age sorts study their phones, put them away to try to focus on something else — the passing scenery outside the Amtrak train, a magazine, the old-fashioned book they've brought along — then yank the phones back out three or four minutes later and start tapping away again. Reading a book, however, requires concentration, endurance, the ability to disconnect from other connections. You have to be there rather than not there. Hyperwired young people may be making it to age 17 without acquiring that ability, let alone losing it. joins growing chorus of folks asking where is Google Editions?

Hey, what happened to Google Editions?

The article itself is a basic recap of the delays, along with recap of the spin from Google regarding the delays. But, there is a nice bit of logic-based speculation from the comments:

“No rush, because there are no tablets out there running Android 3.0 or ChromeOS, I would think. The two go hand in hand, yes?”

Privacy is a bit lacking in the cloud

Data in the Cloud Still Governed by Obsolete Privacy Laws

Technology companies and privacy advocates have been calling for Congress to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) for years (see "Coalition of Tech Companies Wants to Give You Digital Due Process"). The law leaves consumers unprotected, they argue, and dampens the cloud computing sector's economic prospects.

We have related coverage on ECPA reform over in the Gov 2.0 section.

What works best when crowdsourcing funding from Kickstarter

Crowdfunding? Kickstarter Has Some Advice

Kickstarter success story and indie publisher (Art Space Tokyo), Craig Mod was the impetus for this analysis of what works best when asking strangers for money.

Libraries are lending things that they borrowed

Which is so meta. But, possibly not all that legal.

Libraries and Netflix — Questionable Borrowing Practices From People Who Know From Borrowing

The practice boils down to university libraries purchasing fairly robust (in some cases, 16 discs at a time) subscriptions from Netflix, allowing them to have a strong virtual collection while also providing streaming capabilities so they can immediately fulfill requests.

Lonely Planet makes travel books for people like me

If you are directionally- and planning-challenged, you will like Lonely Planet's new augmented reality guides. Apparently they're also good for organized people who just like to learn while traveling.

Case Study: Lonely Planet's augmented reality guides

The application pinpoints your exact location so that when you find yourself in a new city and want to know what there is to see and do around you, just look through the camera and a wealth of Lonely Planet information on the best destinations, accommodation, sites, bars and restaurants appear stuck like post-it notes to points of interest around you.

"Gourmet" returns as a socially interactive iPad app

A Look at the ‘Gourmet Live’ iPad App

Chock full of stories from the magazine (which Condé closed down last fall), recipes, videos and slideshows, "Gourmet Live" is free and content is available without registration.

However, Condé says users need to sign in to Facebook or Twitter in order to access the app’s interactive features. It’s this social aspect that Condé says sets "Gourmet Live" apart from other apps on the market right now.

And for rebellious Kindle readers out there: a jailbreak full of fabulous fonts.

Amazon’s Kindle Gets Jailbroken, Additional Font Options Now Available

Last minute reminder: TOC Frankfurt October 5!

A last-chance reminder: TOC Frankfurt is just around the corner. Hope you'll be joining us October 5th for an incredible and international program of fabulous bookish tech featuring Jeff Jarvis, Doug Rushkoff, Andrew Savikas, Richard Nash, James Bridle, Kate Pullinger, Richard Padley, oh -- just too many cool folks to mention here. Use discount code "TOC10BL" and receive a 20% discount (€399 + 19% VAT).

September 23 2010

Reality has a gaming layer

Kevin Slavin has been thinking about the intersection of games and daily life for nearly a decade. As the managing director of Area/Code, he's worked with Frank Lantz to integrate gameplay into the fabric of reality using a technique they call "big games." In the following interview, Slavin discusses the thinning boundary between the game world and the real world.

What are "big games"?

Kevin SlavinKevin Slavin: They're games that take place using some elements from the game system and some elements of the real world. Something Frank Lantz had worked on with Katie Salen and Nick Fortugno was called the Big Urban Game. It involved transforming the city of Minneapolis into a game board. They did that by using huge inflatable game pieces, about 25-feet high. The players, among other things, were moving these huge pieces around the city.

At Area/Code we built another big game in 2004 called ConQwest. It used huge inflatable totem animals that would take over the city. I think it was also the first use of optic code with phone cams in the United States. Players used Qwest phones that were programmed to recognize codes embedded throughout the city. Some codes were on huge billboards. Some were on the sides of coffee cups. Some were on napkins. The codes had infiltrated the city and players could unlock treasure with the magic technology of these phones.

That was a very exciting thing to play around with. It you chose to participate, you were experiencing the same physical space as always, but it involved totally different criteria and totally different objectives.

Using an urban landscape as a game board sounds a lot like Foursquare.

KS: It's not a total coincidence. Dennis Crowley was the third partner at Area/Code for a little while, in between being at Google and starting Foursquare. Part of the underlying ethos of Foursquare is also what is underneath Area/Code. There's a few of us who have been thinking about how "play" and the "city" were going to combine. We've been drinking the same Kool-Aid from the same cooler for quite a while.

How do virtual games like Second Life compare to the games you develop?

Kevin Slavin: We always thought we would use Second Life as the enemy, that it was the exact opposite of what we were trying to do. If Second Life was about trying to simulate reality optically, what we were interested in was running light interference with the real world to make it more interesting.

One thing that Second Life and the movement toward augmented reality have in common is that they both believe the pleasure of a game and the meaning of a game and the experience of a game rest primarily in the optics. The closer we can get to making something look like it's really there, the more excited we'll be about using it.

But I think that there's a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes games fun. Chess wouldn't be more fun if you had perfectly rendered kings and actual castles. Monopoly wouldn't be better if it was true to the actual layout of Atlantic City. What makes games great are the systems with which you're engaging. When you play a game, you're not so much looking at something; you're doing something.

I think one of the best examples of this is Tamagotchi, the plastic keychain that had a digital creature on it. You actually felt an obligation to this little creature. The creature itself was maybe eight pixels by eight pixels and black and white. What made it feel real wasn't that it looked real; it was that it acted real. It could articulate demands upon you that your eye itself couldn't do. In Tamagotchi versus Second Life, I'll go with Tamagotchi.

Aren't things like Tamagotchi the precursor to the repetitive games we see today, like FarmVille?

KS: That's a big question, and there's a lot of ways to answer it. I think as every form of culture has become ascendant, the idea emerges that we were once tidy and productive citizens who have suddenly shifted into a different mode of behavior and no longer value our time. Right now, social games are in focus. There's a lot of things to look at here that are very important and interesting.

For example, years ago we made a Facebook game called Parking Wars. It had incredible numbers, like a billion pages a year. The game was successful in part because it was so simple to engage with. Basically, you're trying to park illegally on somebody else's street and you're also trying to catch people who are parked illegally on your street.

Parking Wars had a bunch of side effects that were fascinating to watch. It became a kind of conversation that people were having with each other. There would be vendettas where people would check every five minutes to see if somebody in particular had parked on their street.

But I think what these games do is best characterized in a story that's ultimately very sad. At one point we added an ice cream truck into the Parking Wars mix. If it was parked on a street, it amplified the value of all of the other cars. There was an alpha player, a woman named Ellie, who would park the ice cream truck on a street and then let everybody know so they could come get double points.

It turned out that Ellie was very sick and ultimately, she passed away. What was so powerful was to see how everybody responded to her passion. What they wrote to her post-mortem were these really beautiful notes that talked about her generosity and her humility. The thing that's really interesting is how much of her personality she was able to express through 47 pixels of an ice cream truck.

That speaks to what games are really doing, which is allowing people to express themselves in a living system with other people who are doing the same. You're actually making decisions that are going to move one way or the other and that will have effects concretely on other people. I think that for many people, sometimes including me, real life doesn't always feel like something that you can have concrete effects on in a systemic way. It's not always easy to figure out how to be generous in a way that can touch a lot of strangers. Games allow us to do these kinds of things. It's true that what's happening in them is fictional and useless, but it's as fictional and useless as literature or cinema. Games allow us to see each other, for a moment, in a way that living in a city prevents.

If we make the real world part of a fictional world, will we ignore the real world that isn't part of that fictional world?

KS: When we were thinking about ConQwest -- the game with the optic codes -- the specific inspiration for that piece of it was the old James Carpenter film, "They Live." The conceit of that film is that if you have these glasses on, you can see the real world. This is a common trope in science fiction, but the idea that the glasses allowed our hero to see things differently and thus act on that shift in vision made us think: "God, what power that is. How beautiful that would feel."

I'd argue that we're already living in deeply fractured realities. I'm sitting in an office with a high-end laptop, and there are no fewer than three homeless people that I can see from my window. We are fractured, and this is particularly true in cities.

To turn it around a little bit, the thing that's powerful about these new forms of play is not so much that they fracture us into our individual realities, but that they're connect us to common ones. Something like Foursquare doesn't fracture the world. It pulls people together. Ultimately, if we can understand these game layers as a place where we're convening rather than the place where we're all departing from, I think there's a lot of beautiful things still left to do.

Kevin Slavin will discuss the influence of invisible systems at Web 2.0 Expo New York.


August 16 2010

Four short links: 16 August 2010

  1. Gearbox (YouTube) -- smart toy company, first product is a ball that rolls in the direction you tilt your iPhone. Their home page says they're a Boulder-based startup. (via BERG)
  2. Five Things I'm Thinking About (Matt Jones) -- the things he's talking about were either on our radar or are now. Read and enjoy.
  3. 1945-1988 -- art visualizing nuclear explosions over the world. Data that tells a story. (via Flowing Data)
  4. Tweets of Old -- clips from old newspapers and magazines, giving a slice of life from the past. (via BoingBoing)

July 30 2010

Augmented reality as etiquette coach

Identifying local landmarks and uncovering hidden coupons are fun augmented reality applications, but "Programming iPhone Sensors" author Alasdair Allan has a loftier AR goal.

"I'm terrible with faces and names," he said during a recent interview at OSCON. "So, I want those little glasses where you see someone and it's like: 'This is Gary. You met him in 2005. His wife is called Mary. He's got three kids. His birthday is ...'. That sort of thing. That's my ultimate goal."

Allan's ideal is based on facial recognition, which is a step above facial detection. But you can't have identification without detection, and detection is something we're close to seeing in real-time. Allan himself successfully built a real-time face detection demo on the iPhone 3GS. The iPhone 4's improved hardware makes the same functionality easier to implement. (Not trivial ... just easier.)

Allan touched on a number of additional topics during our OSCON chat, including:

  • How (theoretically) a geolocation database -- like SimpleGeo -- could be matched up with a cloud-based facial recognition database.
  • How iPhoto's Faces tool could influence FaceTime and other real-time video applications.
  • He closed with a brief rundown on the types of sensors commonly found in many smartphones ... and why the introduction of gyroscopes in Android phones is now a near inevitability.

The full interview is available in the following video:


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