The irony of it all…

A day will come when every person in the world will have a PC.
IBM: OK, let’s exit the PC business.

A day will come when every person in the world will have a camera.
Kodak: That didn’t stop us from getting bankrupt.

A day will come when every person in the world will have a mobile.
Nokia: Will we be around by then?

A day will come when every person in the world will check email on their mobile.
Blackberry: We saw that, but no-one’s seeing us anymore!

© Sunil Rajguru

The Year of the Steve Jobs…

The United Nations has officially declared 2011-12 as the Year of the Steve Jobs.

The following things will be done in his honour…

∙ The nickname of New York City will be downgraded to “The Little Apple”.
“The Big Apple” will always refer to Steve Jobs.

∙ The Smiley will now officially be written as i)

∙ Whenever Jobs is being quoted, the possessive pronoun “I” will go in lower case as “i”.

∙ Apple Inc, will take the I in Inc, turn it into the lower case and prefix it to the new name.
For those who didn’t get that, the new name will be iApple.

∙ Every year on October 5, we all will have to miss at least one meal in a day and do at least one downright stupid act to honour his “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” message.

∙ Evangelists will set up the Church of iApple, which will follow the Book of Jobs as laid down by Prophet Steve.
Followers will be called the iPeople.
They will be the Chosen Ones, or the lucky dudes possessing at least one iApple product.

∙ In all future lessons it will be taught that a banana falling on Newton’s head led to the discovery of gravity.
The Apple has been exclusively reserved for Jobs.

© Sunil Rajguru

Random mobile telephony thoughts…

∙ Your lifetime prepaid mobile message should actually read…
Your balance is XXX INR. Your validity expires on December 31, 2037, even though you may not live that long and even though we may not last that long and even though we all haven’t the foggiest idea what the state of mobile telephony and billing will be in the Year 2017, let alone 2037!
.
∙ Competition among mobile operators is extremely fierce.
It’s quite difficult to tell who has the greatest number of call drops or who’s Help Desk keeps you on hold the longest or who has the lousiest billing problems.
.
∙ The 3G ads are so good and promising that they make you feel like an absolute idiot for having 2G in the first place.
.
∙ In India, at least everyone is heading towards Roti, Kapada aur Mobile.
.
© Sunil Rajguru

Experience it Before You Buy it

A gadget is not a vegetable you pick up from the local grocer. You have to feel, use, experience, and get attached to it. And a new breed of stores lets you do just that

Scene 1: You walk into a satellite radio store and sit comfortably on a sofa watching a live band strumming away on a guitar. Then you greet your favorite RJ and lounge about, listening to all the channels on offer. In the end, you decide you want a satellite radio too and check all the models to buy one.

Scene 2: The Xbox 360 hasn’t been released in India yet and you don’t know whether you should blow 20-odd grand on it on the pre-Diwali release. Well, no problem. Just head to a lounge, check out all the HD games you want on an Xbox 360 (and that too on an LCD screen). Now you know whether it’ll be worth it or not.

Scene 3: Your mother is checking out her dream kitchen, your father is sitting in a hi-fi listening room checking out the latest home theatres, and you’re sprawled on the couch checking out the latest mobiles, digicams and MP3 players-all on one floor.

Welcome to the new breed of digital experience stores. They call you, make you comfortable, give you an experience, and in the end almost seduce you to buy the product you want. And it’s not just a one off store. Dozens of experience stores are mushrooming all across the country as more and more retailers realize that the key to getting people to buy gadgets and stuff is to just give it to them to experiment with. And get them hooked.

By the way, Scene 1 is WorldSpace, Scene 2 is The Xbox Lounge in Mumbai, and Scene 3 is Pantaloon’s eZone.

All on one floor

Pantaloon, after succeeding with their Big Bazaars and Central Malls, are now eyeing outlets for gadgets and electronic appliances. Called eZones, they have a ‘Liberation Zone’ for mobiles, PCs, laptops, MP3 players and handycams. All this along with TVs, home theatre systems, and even fridges and kitchen items.

Says V Rajesh, Chief Marketing Officer, Home Solutions Retail (Pantaloon), “Right now there are four eZones in India, though we are looking at more. The fundamental difference is the way the store has been presented. You don’t have a single one-stop shop where you buy the latest gizmos and check out fridges in one go. This is it. Our aim is to give a complete experience rather than an exhibition.”

In fact, the Koramangala eZone in Bangalore has an area of 15,000 sqft on one floor!

Lounge around and listen

WorldSpace satellite radio, with its 40 plus channels, just has to be heard to be believed. So stores were opened where you could listen to all the channels. Then the concept was expanded to include lounges where one can sit and listen at ease.

Says Murali S, Vice President (Customer Service), WorldSpace, “There are currently five lounges and we are planning 10 more. There has been a very good response and sales are a reflection of that. At any given time you can find 15-20 people in the special lounge. On weekends in the evening we have live shows featuring upcoming bands or even locally known artists. Sometimes even RJs come to meet customers.”

The WorldSpace centers are located in Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad (Inox Theater), Gurgaon, Kochi and Noida.

Preview the action

If you can’t afford the Xbox and still want to play on it, then this one’s for you. The Xbox 360 Lounge situated in Ad labs theatre at Wadala (Mumbai) has been set up by the Microsoft Entertainment and Devices Division. The 800-sqft lounge has Xbox 360 consoles where you can play the latest games on Samsung LCDs. And the best part is that the Xbox 360 hasn’t even been released in India yet.

For gaming enthusiasts in Chennai, Spencers Plaza has India’s only NVIDIA nZone Gamers Den. You can play the meanest games in a room with all the special visual and audio effects on the go.

A mall for IT products!

It was inevitable that with so many ‘specialized’ malls in India, one of them would be exclusively for IT products. That’s the IT Mall on Rest House Road in Bangalore. When full, it will have 64 shops devoted to laptops, PCs, accessories and the like, spread across 19,000 sqft. Following suit is Mumbai, where a Techmall is coming up in Goregaon. It will have upto 90 shops. It will also have gaming zones, a multiplex and other shops. Mumbai also has Xplore, the digital experience lounge chain, which goes by the catchline: ‘Don’t buy, just enjoy’.

One of the biggest problems faced while buying a mobile is that you can’t check out a working mobile. You have to go by the dummy model’s looks only, or try out one of your friends’ (if they own the model you want). Nokia tried to rectify this problem by launching two concept stores, in Bangalore and New Delhi. You can also check out Apple products at the Apple Store (Forum Mall, Bangalore). Toshiba and Acer have also set up similar concept stores.

Sogo, too, has set up ICE Wear stores across Bangalore. ‘ICE’ stands for Information, Communication and Entertainment. It is also opening in various cities across south India.

Sitting in the sweet spot

One of the first to have realised the importance of experience zones were home theatre makers. You can’t really appreciate a home theatre unless you sit in the sweet spot of the listening room.

Bose has set up listening rooms in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. Not to be left behind are other home theatre makers like Sonodyne, ProFX and Onkyo.So if you want to buy a digital product today, all you have to do is get into a store and experience it first.

(This article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Living Digital magazine)

Gadgets in Bollywood?

Bollywood has badly lagged behind when it comes to using gadgets, gizmos and technology. But things are slowly catching up now

While Hollywood was experimenting with science fiction and gadgets right from the beginning of the twentieth century, Bollywood was still stuck up in romantic musicals. Post independence, a few spy flicks tried to start a trend, but they never really took off. Suraksha (1979) with Gunmaster G9 Mithun Chakravarthy and Bond 303 (1986) with Jeetendra tried to do a James Bond in India replete with spy gadgets, but were relegated to the B category status.

In fact, one of the first superhit movies that centred on a gadget was Mr India in 1987. In that, the hero Anil Kapoor finds an invisibility bracelet (made by none other than his late scientist father) that helps him defeat the evil Mogambo’s plan to attack India. An invisible man also appeared in 1957′s Mr X and 1964′s Mr X in Bombay, but these had a potion and not a gadget that did the trick.

Just one point

The 21st century probably marked the entry of gadgets into mainstream Bollywood cinema. The mobile and computer have naturally received top billing.

Kaho Na Pyaar Hai (2000): The mobile nabbed the villain in this one. When one baddie dies, the hero dials a missed call from his mobile. And voila! That leads directly to the arch villain, who happens to be the heroine’s father standing right next to them.

Mitr, My Friend (2002): Here the focus of the movie is Internet chat. A neglected NRI wife turns to the chatroom to get some solace. And Mitr, the anonymous chatter, in the end turns out to be (surprise surprise!) her husband.

Koi Mil Gaya (2003): The hero’s father makes a computer and software that can communicate with aliens. And an alien does come visiting the hero to bestow on him superpowers.

Aitraaz (2004): Voicemail on the hero’s mobile ends up as crucial evidence in the courtroom and he gets acquitted. All thanks to a fault in his mobile that dials two numbers at once.

Home Delivery (2004): The hero Vivek Oberoi is hooked to his laptop for writing. One day, a pizza man (Boman Irani) comes calling, armed with a Point of Sale (POS) device that changes the hero’s life.

Kal Ho Na Ho (2003): “Che din, ladki in” (Get the girl in six days). This crucial scene in KHNH wouldn’t have been possible without the Bluetooth handsfree receiver for Saif’s mobile. Shahrukh Khan guides Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta (the heroine) doesn’t suspect a thing thanks to the cool earpiece.

Salaam Namaste (2005): The hero and heroine have their first chat on a mobile handsfree that’s there in the hero’s car.

Bluffmaster (2005): A guy takes an anonymous call from a mobile lying on the road. That leads to a large sum of money in a trashcan and the beginning of this con movie.

Krrish (2006): The villain creates a computer that can look into the future. Maybe not much technical wizardry by Hollywood standards, but a leap for Bollywood. Krrish has also proved to be the biggest Bollywood hit of all time, based on raw box office collections.

Corporate (2006): If you saw its trailer on TV, then you could be left wondering whether it was for the movie Corporate or for Lenovo’s ThinkPad, or both.

Heavy duty stuff

And there were other movies that used laptops, handhelds, earpieces, cameras, motion sensors, remote-controlled devices throughout the movies, much like Hollywood. These include Badshaah (1999), 16th December (2002), Qayamat: City Under Threat (2003), The Hero: Love story of a Spy (2003), and Dus (2005). Badshaah had novelties like X-ray glasses and exploding chewing gum, along with a much-sought after remote control that everyone tried to get their hands on-the key to defusing a bomb.

16th December was full of gadgetry and began with a government official filing a report, and not in a sarkari file, but on a computer. It also featured a spy pen and a climax with a nuclear missile. In the end, the nuke is diffused thanks to a kid, a laptop and some speech software.

Of course, these movies are still laggards (in terms of technology and effects) if we compare them with some of the more popular Hollywood counterparts. But Bollywood is surely albeit slowly getting there!

…and in Hollywood

Batman rules! While Superman relies on his superhuman strength and Spiderman on his spidey skills, nobody relies more on his brainpower and gadgets than Batman. He creates all his gear himself, including the batmobile and the boomerang ‘batarang’. Invariably everything ends up with a bat prefix like batcomputer and batcamera.

The master of them all Of course, when it comes to gadgets, no one can quite follow James Bond. About 20 films and counting, Bond films have always stayed one step ahead of technology. Bond’s cigarette case has served as a microfilm reader and the cigarette itself could fire a stream of lethal liquid or gas, as shown in certain movies.

Bond used a magnetic watch with a circular saw, used his watch as a pager, telex, remote detonator, two-way transmitter, laser cutter, and even a remote detonator. His pen has been used to receive signals and even kill people. His ring has been a miniature camera and a ‘sonic agitator unit’ to shatter glass! In Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond finally got an all-in-one mobile phone. It not only served as a remote control for his latest BMW, but also as a transmitter, fingerprint analyser, and stun gun.

Inspector Gadget: What if your whole body itself was a huge gadget? That’s Inspector Gadget, the inspector cum gadget. His neck, arms and legs can stretch to obscene lengths and he also has springs attached onto his legs. There’s a propeller in his hat and his thumb can serve as a lighter. The best part is the mobile – his hand! And he hears through his thumb. His fingers can also serve as scissors. The inspector goes around in the Gadgetmobile, in-built with a radar system, and can even talk!

(This article appeared in the August 2006 issue of Living Digital magazine)

www on the Move

The mobile web is in its infancy right now, but all the rules are being made to ensure that the experience is just as rich in any handheld device

The mobile now has an Internet Top Level Domain (TLD) of its own. Launched in May, the ‘.mobi’ extension has been specifically released for websites related to handheld devices. While those supporting and opposing the .mobi are sharply divided, it’s now more than ever that the content you want is following you around wherever you go. Opponents of the .mobi say that the Internet should be fully free and device independent. Having different URLs for PCs and handhelds will lead to confusion, they feel.

Conceived by Nokia in 2000, the .mobi domain has already been snapped by most software, telecom and entertainment companies. The mobile web is expected to be the next big thing and the .mobi domain is readying things for that.

But why the mobile?

Says Motorola CTO Padmasree Warrior, “Two-thirds of the world still doesn’t have access to a computer. It’ more likely that the first communication device of these people will be a mobile and not a computer.”

There are many figures to back that. In 2006, it is projected that 1 billion mobiles will be sold. And what about Internet usage on the mobile? The GSM Association says that 1.3 billion people will be connected to the Internet through their mobile by 2008.

Even going on today, a recent Nokia report found that as much as 63% of smartphone users were using their handheld for Internet browsing. According to a BBC survey, 28% of their WAP users “did not visit the BBC website via a desktop computer, only via a mobile”.

The biggest thing in a mobile is that when compared to a PC or even a laptop, it has a much wider audience. One can be connected at all times and at all places. The future doesn’t even rule out an Internet-enabled mobile in your wristwatch.

Another big factor is m-commerce or mobile commerce. While right now downloading ringtones and games is a multi-billion dollar business, it is expected to go much beyond that. Services like mobile banking are already underway, but the biggest potential for the mobile is location-based services, where thanks to a little help from GPS, you’ll know exactly when and how to shop if you’re in a new place.

But why .mobi?

Well, there are two problems right now. The first is that there is not that much mobile content available. There is a need to create more of such content. The introduction of the .mobi extension may fuel the growth for web pages specifically for the handheld.

Secondly, while millions of people are already viewing web pages on the mobile, not all the pages are optimised. Some don’t open properly and others don’t show the whole page, keeping out key information.

Researchers are working on making web pages more and more palatable for handhelds. There’s DIAL (Device Independent Authoring Language) that will take into account different screen sizes and resolution of mobile devices. There’s also a move towards more interoperability between pages for both PCs and mobiles. USB drives with an inbuilt OS and programmes could also power small devices.

Developers have realized that though technology and computing power will change a lot, the screen size will be more or less the same. Whatever has to be done has to be done keeping that constraint in mind.

What’s already happening

Giants Google, MSN and Yahoo have already jumped on to the bandwagon. They all have mobile versions of their web portals. In fact Google Mobile not only searches through the Web for documents and images, but also searches through specifically the Mobile Web. Directory searches are currently among the easiest things that can be done.

Another example is Orange’s PocketThis service in the UK. The mobile service shows Times and Directions, the nearest subway stop, the nearest Wi-Fi location and services like “What’s nearby”.

Opera released the Opera Mini and claims that there are more than 3 million users. Recently even eBay went mobile using the Opera Mini.

Do you want a you.mobi?

In May, a Limited Industry Sunrise was launched and in June the Trademark Sunrise was launched. However the domain will be open to the general public much later.

DotMobi will launch the Landrush Registration Period from August 28 to September 10. For details of Indian registrars, you can check out:

http://pc.mtld.mobi/switched/findaregistrar.html

It remains to be seen whether the .mobi domain enjoys the success that has been enjoyed by .com, .net, .edu, .org, .gov, .in etc.

The .mobi extension is also the first extension that is not meant for the computer, a point that has led to protests from people who believe that the Internet should be free and device independent.

Other dot extensions that are in the pipeline include:
.tel: This will serve as a text alternative to phone numbers for telephone services.
.kid: For child friendly sites
.asia: For Asian sites
.post: For the postal services
.mail: To identify non-spam mail
.xxx: A separate domain for pornographic sites. This should have been up by now, but may not see the light of day due to violent protests from certain quarters.

(This article appeared in the July 2006 edition of Living Digital magazine)

Life After The BlackBerry

The BlackBerry came pretty close to becoming history recently. What if it fails again?

Is it possible for any handheld device to replace the BlackBerry when it comes to emails? Today mobiles are cameras. They’re pocket computers. They’re Internet devices. They’re music players. They’re fashion statements. They’re practically everything. But when you think of email, you still think of the BlackBerry. And not without reason; five million of these devices have been sold so far and an army of corporate executives swear by them.

So what makes it so special?

You can access your email on almost any smartphone. Then what’s so special about a BlackBerry which doesn’t sport a camera and not even a music player? Well, for one, it’s liked by corporates because it doesn’t have all of the above and is just a serious email device. Secondly, as handheld devices go, it’s great for thumbing in emails. Finally, it’s a ‘Push Email’ device. That means whenever you want to access your mail, you don’t have to connect to the Internet and then log in to your mailbox. The mails will come to your screen as and when they come to your mailbox, something like the way text messages come. That’s the biggest advantage. Setup is pretty easy too and can be done by a novice.

You can set alerts for important emails and set the others on silent mode. It can interface with your Outlook. Companies can make an Intranet with the BlackBerry network and there’s an option for the BlackBerry Instant Messenger, although it supports Yahoo and Google Talk.

Other berries in the field

The key to replace the BlackBerry would be to offer a push email with a small handy keyboard that’s easy for typing. Push email is being provided by a host of companies and it also depends on which device it is used it to know whether it will be a BlackBerry killer or not.

Good Technology: One of the biggest victories for GoodLink is getting its client onto the Palm Treo, which earlier had flirted with the BlackBerry service. GoodLink is becoming widespread and other handhelds to use it are the Sprint 6700, HP iPAQ, Cingular 8100 series and Motorola MPX220.

Visto: Visto tied up with TELUS to give a business inbox. This service is available on the UTStarcom Pocket PC 6700, Palm Treo 650 and the Audiovox PPC 6600. For the record, Visto has also filed a case against BlackBerry for copyright infringement.

Emoze: This will give your handheld device push email service for free. Sold by the makers as a service for someone who can’t afford a BlackBerry, all you have to do is download the software for free from the website http://www.emoze.com/  and install it on your mobile.

SEVEN: SEVEN has tied up with around 80 mobile service providers to give BlackBerry-type solutions. In India , it has tied up with Hutch and Idea. Incidentally, SEVEN filed a case against Visto, but lost. (http://www.alwaysonmail.com/)

ChatterEmail: This works on the Palm Treo (appears to be the most popular choice for BlackBerry challengers). You have to give a one-time payment of $39.95, then the service is free. They’ve come out with a color-coded mailbox, among other innovative things.

Funambol: They’ve released an open-source email mobile platform based on the Open Mobile Alliance. The best part is that it works over existing software, so you can have two push email solutions on the same handheld.

Other players include Notify (http://www.notifycorp.com/), Space2go and Consilient (http://www.consilient.com/).

The BlackBerry killer?

While there are many devices that support a number of push email clients, the Palm Treo appears to be the number one choice for most. The Treo had once supported the BlackBerry service, but now has a wide range of options including GoodLink, Visto, ChatterEmail and Notify.

Challenge from the giants

Nokia Intellisync Wireless Email has a good chance simply because Nokia has the largest share of mobile phones in the world. What’s more, it also works on Windows Mobile, Pocket PC, Palm and other Symbian devices.

As Microsoft is trying to get into everything in the market, it’s not far behind on the push email front too. The giant is planning such an initiative for its Windows Mobile platform, which is slowly catching up. Microsoft and HP have also got together to take on the BlackBerry.

BlackBerry service

RIM (Research in Motion) devices aren’t the only ones to have the BlackBerry service. Four models from Nokia (6810, 6820, 9300, 9500), the Sony Ericsson P910 and the Siemens SK65 have all featured the BlackBerry email client.

(This article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Living Digital magazine)

What is Web 2.0?

While Web 2.0 isn’t exactly a direct upgrade of Web 1.0, it’s a whole new world consisting of interactivity with a capital ‘I’

When the Internet came, it connected everyone in the world. With emails you could keep in touch and finally search engines helped you wade through the billions of web pages. However, most of its initial applications were ‘static’ with very little scope for genuine interactivity.

In fact, when Tim-Berners Lee laid the foundation of the World Wide Web, he had seen something much more democratic and personal. And we have come closer to that vision in the last couple of years.

Web 2.0 is a concept popularized in 2004 and it describes in one stroke concepts like podcasts, blogs, wikis, tags, etc as against ‘static’ web pages, retroactively named Web 1.0.

An important ingredient of Web 2.0 is Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML). Ajax helps in making a web page more user friendly, increases the speed with which you can bring about changes and more importantly, increases the interactivity.

DHTML or Dynamic HTML is also a great way of making dynamic websites. And thanks to API (Application Programming Interface), there is a great deal of data exchange between sites and users. Some of the sites that use API are Wikipedia, eBay, Flickr and Skype.

What’s the new Web all about?

Some of the other terms that have described Web 2.0 have included ‘collaborative Internet’ and ‘architecture of participation.’ While the exact definition of Web 2.0 is elusive, there are some websites and trends that give you a pretty good idea.

Wikipedia: In the past encyclopedias got updated once a year and there was none that could cater to every country and every genre of knowledge. That was before Wikipedia, the world’s first very own encyclopedia ‘of the people, for the people and by the people.’ With 1 million articles and still counting, who knows what shape this will take in a few years from now. While there has been a lot of talk about factual errors, this still remains a great place to get a general idea of almost everything under the sun. (http://en.wikipedia.org)

Blogs: Every person in the world can be a reporter. Everyone can be a columnist. And everyone can be an analyst. While such a concept would have been laughable just a few years back, it’s a reality today. Just about anyone can become a blogger and become famous for his or her views. The Sony DRM fiasco began with a blogger. The Apple Nano scratch muddle began with a blogger. Who knows how much more powerful a blogger might become tomorrow. (www.blogger.com, http:// googleblog.blogspot.com)

Podcasts: While the iPod and iTunes became legends in their own right, podcasts became big time too. Now you can make your own video and audio shows and distribute them in cyberspace. If 2004 was the Year of the Blog, then in 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary declared ‘Podcasting’ the word of the year. Key in Podcast in Google and you’ll know why. A word that didn’t exist a few years ago now gets you more than 100 million searches. (www.i podder.org, www. podcast.net)

RSS feeds: Rich Site Summary. Really Simple Syndication. Call it what you will. RSS really has changed the way we get news. While a lot of people had predicted the demise of newspapers after news sites came out, that didn’t exactly happen. The much touted newsletters also didn’t take off. However, here’s something that promises to go a long way. Customize newsfeeds the way you want them delivered at your desktop.

Google AdSense: In the early days of the Net, popups were the biggest irritants and when they went intrusive, banner ads weren’t liked that much either. Then came about Google AdSense that gave ‘unintrusive’ and ‘relevant’ ads to a website. Google uses its advance search methodology, checks the user’s location and other factors and checks the site’s content before zeroing down on relevant ads. Call them interactive ads if you will.

Flickr: This is a cool site which uses tags to form a worldwide photo sharing platform. Thanks to these tags, it’s easy to save, share and search for the photos from a huge database. Flickr has more than 2 million users and so far more than 100 million photos have been posted. Bloggers can also simultaneously post pictures on Flickr and their own blogs. Yahoo saw what a big thing Flickr was and bought it out. (www.flickr.com)

del.icio.us: Who would have thought a bookmarking site would have such a future. But that’s exactly the story of del.icio.us, which lets you store links of your favorite sites, articles and blogs on the web which you can then access from any computer and share with your friends. There’s even a mobilicio.us for the mobile. Recently, Washingtonpost.com also entered into a tie-up with del.icio.us. (http://del.icio.us, http://mobilicio.us)

BitTorrent: If Napster started the biggest lending library in the world, BitTorrent took it much further. It was perhaps the first really democratic P2P network. BitTorrent breaks down a file into fragments across a network and when you download a file, you get the fragments from various peers. (www.bittorrent .com)

Orb: This is a great way of accessing selected files from your computer via streaming anywhere in the world. You can also share these files, videos and songs with all your friends.  All you have to do is email them a link and they gain access to the Orb-shared part of your computer. The best part is that you can also use your PDA apart from your PC and laptop. (www.orb.com)

Rollyo: If you want to roll your own search engine, then head straight to Rollyo. That’s a search engine you customize by choosing the sites you want to be shown in a search. (www.rollyo.com)

In a science fiction novel written many years ago, the author predicted that every person will have an interconnected computer, which, among many other things, would also be a personal voting machine. Global issues would be debated and a decision would take place within hours thanks to the whole world being able to vote easily and effortlessly. That’s the kind of practical applications that Web 2.0 promises in the long run.

(This article appeared in the April 2006 edition of Living Digital magazine)

The human race, Version 2.0

With technology and product development moving at a rapid pace, it’s just a matter of time before we all become cyborgs in part or full

In the Star Wars films, Obi Wan-Kenobi destroys General Grievous, a cyborg, and later defeats Anakin Skywalker seriously maiming him, forcing him to become one of the most feared and popular cyborgs of all time: Darth Vader. While both these characters along with The Six Million Dollar Man were made cyborgs out of sheer necessity, what’s to stop a normal healthy man to become a cyborg if the technology and money permits? If we go along that path, then it could soon lead to thousands of cyborgs, who either want to be stronger or more powerful, or even to use technology itself in a more useful way.

But what’s a cyborg?

The word cyborg is a compressed form of ‘cybernetic organism.’ That means part man and part machine. This could also become part man part computer in future. The concept has been around in the science fiction writing of the early twentieth century and it entered mainstream TV and cinema much later on. While this has included artificial mechanical limbs embedded chips and devices, another interesting concept is the exocortex, which is a brain-computer interface. In theory, the exocortex would be a computer-like processing system that would co-exist with and enhance the power of the human brain. Neuromancer is a book that has talked about such a scenario. And it won’t be called hardware or software but ‘cyberware’ to mean the interface between man’s nervous system and a computer.

A cyborg in real life

Though there were many experiments before him, Steve Mann could probably be described as the first real-life cyborg. He is also the father of wearable computing, which is a staple for many futuristic science fiction stories. In 1981, Steve devised a backpack computer with seven microswitches for control. He attached a CRT camera viewfinder to a helmet. He later devised the EyeTap which is a camera cum display that can be embedded into the eye. EyeTap has lead to the term ‘computer mediated reality.’ You can view codes or read little notes even as you talk to people. A big plus here is that you could save all the images you see during your life and convert them to a CyborgLog, also called a glog.

Steve always walks around with his office lab, TV station (live images are transmitted to his website) all rolled into one. Steve was caught up in post-9/11 security and Canadian airport authorities forcibly removed his wearable devices leading to loss of tens of thousands of dollars and mental trauma. Doctors have also felt it’s better he does away with his implants to avoid brain damage. In 2001, a documentary movie called Cyberman was made. Steve has also tried putting electrodes on his skin to control his computer set-up or control its cursor with his brain waves.

There are others too…

Georgia Tech’s Thad Starner has also been wearing his own customized wearable computer from 1993. Carnegie Mellon University also came out with a wearable computer called VuMan 1. The US military’s Future Force warrior consists of a high-tech integrated system that will be part of the uniform of the soldier of tomorrow.

Then how about having a chip implanted inside your body? In 1997, Eduardo Kac, an artist in Brazil , implanted a microchip in his ankle. The nine-digit identification tag was registered in an Internet database.

But someone, who took the concept of the chip implant even further, is cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick, nicknamed Captain Cyborg. A year after Kac, he implanted an RFID transmitter (not a mere tag) under his skin. He used this to control lights, doors and other computerized devices. Then he implanted 100 electrodes into his nervous system and used them to make a robotic arm mimic his own hand movements. He then put an implant into his wife’s nervous system and tried to connect the two systems through the Internet to create a form of telepathy.

Going beyond mere experimentation

Cyberkinetics is a company which could well be at the forefront of the cyborg revolution if and when it takes place. They’ve developed a BrainGate chip that can use thought to power a computer. Sounds spooky or too futuristic? It’s neither. BrainGate will benefit a handful of disabled patients, the first being Matt Nagle. The chip was implanted into his brain and its electrodes can do a one-way communication with neurons. Nagle is paralyzed neck down and can now change TV channels and move a mouse cursor with just his thoughts.

He can also move a robotic arm thanks to that.

But the world’s first fully working bionic arm went to Campbell Aird, who had his arm amputated due to cancer. He got fitted with a 1.7 kg battery-powered artificial hand made of silicone and carbon fiber. Incidentally research work is on to have an artificial component of practically every part of the human body you can think of.

Some contend that we are all cyborgs to some extent. What happens when you put a pacemaker in your heart or plug in an MP3 player for hours on end? How many people clutch their mobiles 24 hours a day? And what of the hundreds of people who have already put RFID tags on their skin? Our lives are already integrated with the technology we use; it’s just a matter of time before the technology becomes embedded within our bodies.

Cyborgs in reel-life

Darth Vader in Star Wars: Maimed and burnt beyond treatment in a light saber fight with Obi Wan-Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker is turned into a mean looking all black cyborg by the evil Emperor.

Alex Murphy, aka Robocop: A maimed shot and brain-dead police officer is converted into a robotic cop or Robocop.

Steve Austin, aka The Six Million Dollar Man: The US government spends $6 million (a lot in 1974 when the TV show came out) on critically injured Astronaut Austin to make him stronger and faster with tremendous eyesight. Austin works as a secret agent thereafter.

Jaime Sommers, aka The Bionic Woman: A spin off of The Six Million Dollar man, the heroine meets with a sky diving accident and becomes a faster and stronger cyborg with super hearing.

Inspector Gadget: Is an inspector with various gadgets built into his body.

Cyborgs in Gaming

Cyberdemons (Doom), Master Chief (Halo-The jury’s out on whether this dude is actually a cyborg or not), Trans-Human arm of the Combine (Half-Life), The Strogg (Quake) and Cyborg Molotov (Empire Earth).

(This article appeared in the March 2006 edition of Living Digital magazine)

Smaller, Cooler and Smarter

While in the past it was all about getting the chips smaller and smaller, a new set of innovationsis all set to take chips to each and every digital product you can think of

Moore ‘s Law is no longer that important when it comes to chips. Multicore is in. Cooler chips are in. While PCs in the home and workplace along with laptops have already entered our everyday lives, in future PCs at the center of the digital home and powerful computers for handhelds could well be the next big thing

Cool and Quiet

Now most of the computers of the world still make a lot of noise and need internal fans to prevent overheating. Soon we’ll have chips that’ll result in quieter computers that need less power and are cooler.

One of the ways this will be done is using dual-core and multi-core technology. Says Donald MacDonald, head of Intel’s Digital Home division, “People want to have beautiful designs in their house. They want to be cool. You don’t want to have a big fan in the middle of your romantic movie. That won’t be there as multi-cores bring down the thermal envelope. Eventually you’ll see 2,4,16… and many many more cores going forward.”

Smaller will still count

Chips have been following the ‘smaller and smaller’ path ever since the beginning of microprocessing. Though of late chipmakers have taken a diversion on the multi-core route, the chip architecture will definitely get smaller. That’s mainly due to mobile devices, which are getting more powerful. Small chips on mobiles will spell lighter and better-looking mobiles. Recently Microsoft chief Bill Gates talked of a mobile connecting to a keyboard and TV to become a personal computer. While we are years away from that, you will still require massive computing power on a small chip for all of that.

More and more bits

We have come a long way from the Intel 4004, which was a 4-bit processor. From 4 to 8 to 16 to 32. But what’s the difference? Well a 64-bit processor will be faster and more powerful than a 32-bit one. (Of course, all your computer programs should have been written accordingly to take full advantage of that.) And it’s not just about speed. While servers are reaping the benefits of 64-bit computing, on the PC, it will give a big fillip to games and video.

Other innovations

And there are other things too. IBM has made a breakthrough in ‘deep ultraviolet optical lithography’ that will work below 30 nanometers. This at a time when Intel has just started making chips in the 65-nm architecture.

Then there was an idea to build a computer on the basis of quantum mechanics in the seventies. Such computers could be, theoretically, millions of times faster than the current day computers.  Also, on the anvil are clockless CPUs. The CPUs of today have a central clock and no component in the computer can run faster than this clock rate. If you go clockless, then this limitation is removed.

All these breakthroughs will help all manners of chips get into PCs, laptops, mobiles, MP3 players and other digital devices.

Chip power to the car

Freescale Country Manager Ganesh Guruswamy explains how smart a car can get. The number of components can be brought down so drastically that if someone opens the bonnet, he might ask, “Where’s the engine!”
One application is control of your car from a remote location. A remote station can monitor your car, read the status of the car and even diagnose the car. If the cars get locked accidentally and can’t be opened, then it’s possible to send a software dump and unlock the car. A breakdown can automatically call for workmen. Right now Onstar of America has this facility.

Reverse car sensors, Smart headlights for cars, Internet surfing on the go, sideway airbags are some of the other things that can be made easier. It is also possible to re-circulate wasted oil through the exhaust.

(This article appeared in the March 2006 edition of Living Digital magazine)

War: The great technology accelerator

Quite a lot of gadgets we use today are all thanks to the R&D that took place in wars, both hot and cold

The armed forces have optimized a whole array of technologies that have led to more and more products coming into our daily lives at a fast pace. And even if there isn’t a war going on, war research is an ongoing process and continues to give technology an edge.

Beating the Nazis–CDMA

During WW2, when the British forces sent communication over a certain frequency, the Germans monitored and jammed that frequency. So the Allies turned to CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) which can transmit simultaneously over a wide range of frequencies, making it virtually impossible for the Germans to do anything. Qualcomm made the chips and hence had the patent for the technology for decades before CDMA handsets came out in 1995.

Powering cruise missiles–GPS

The US military uses GPS to guide smart bombs and cruise missiles, enhance ‘locational awareness’ and improve their command of forces. And for that they spend around $400 million a year. An interesting offshoot is that the military allows others to use it for free and hence we have a host of GPS devices, location based tracking and the like. 1978 saw the launch of the first GPS satellite and today, we have dozens with ageing ones being replaced all the time. This was also as a result of extensive research and steps taken during the cold war with erstwhile Russia.

Helping you become a couch potato–Remote control

While the patent for a remote control was lying in the US patent office from 1893 and invented in 1932, it was only during World War 2 that a remote control was extensively used to set off the Wasserfall missile. Then in the fifties, the first wired TV remote control was made called (what else!) Lazy Bones. The wireless remote came soon after that and brought about a big cultural change, breeding a whole generation of couch potatoes with it.

Attack of the Luftwaffe–Jet planes

Before World War 2, planes were powered by a petrol tank and a propeller. Now there’s only so much you can do with such a plane. The speed and capacity reaches a dead-end after a point of time. The Germans changed the rules of the game by replacing those old engines altogether with jet engines. The West was already looking into the science of jet planes. So, after World War 2, jet technology went ahead full steam and that laid the foundation for the modern passenger plane.

A great leap forward in computing–ENIAC

Short for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator, ENIAC was the first device that could solve wide-ranging computing problems and could be reprogrammed. It was used during WW2 and cost about half-a-million dollars. This monster weighed 27 tonnes and comprised 5 million hand-soldered joints, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and 17,468 vacuum tubes, all in a huge room. Today the complete power of ENIAC can be put in single chip that you can place on your little finger!

The Germans got this right–Satellite TV

During World War 2, the Germans were working on V-2 rocket (V stands for Vergeltungswaffe or Vengeance). It is thanks to this research that rockets were developed that could launch satellites and put man on the moon. After the war, science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke stated that ‘higher a TV tower, more the transmission range and clarity’, hence a satellite should be used to relay TV signals. This dream was realized in 1962, when the first TV signal was relayed through satellite.

Protection for fighter pilots–Ray Ban sunglasses

When the United States Air Force approached Bausch & Lomb in the thirties for sunglasses for their pilots for UV protection at high altitudes, the legendary Aviator sunglasses were born in 1936. It made the American pilots so cool that the Ray Ban brand was formed and the Aviator was sold to the public in 1937. It was reported that after Tom Cruise used the Aviator in Top Gun, sales increased by 40 percent that year. But for the record, the Wayfarer, released in 1953, is Ray Ban’s bestseller till date.

(This article appeared in the February 2006 edition of Living Digital magazine)