Thursday, January 21, 2016

Virtual Reality Comes of Age

But your new headset might require a new computer

VR headsets were a big deal at this year's CES show, probably because the chance for early adopters to buy is almost upon us. The rest of us, though, might want to wait a little longer while computing power catches up.

Virtual Reality (VR) headsets aim to create a fully immersive 3D virtual environment for the wearer. This is unlike the experience of looking at a TV or computer screen. With VR, whichever way the wearer looks the head-mounted display shows the virtual environment in that direction. Different but related, Augented Reality (AR) overlays graphics and other information onto the user’s view of their actual physical surroundings.

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Google Glass is an example of AR. Oculus Rift (first mentioned in this blog in February 2014) and HTC Vive are examples of VR headsets coming to market in 2016. Microsoft’s Hololens might be somewhere between VR and HR, with aspects of each.

Though these are clearly the early days for VR headsets, a number of products are coming onto the scene in 2016. Wareable has a great roundup of current and near-future products, which can be found here. While some such as the Oculus Rift will likely be in the $600 range, some are substantially lower in cost, especially those that can use your phone as the computing power and display. Google has a simple design for a fold-up cardboard headset, called Google Cardboard, that cradles your phone. Versions are available for as little as $25 (prices vary among several producers). Fold it up, put your phone inside, and try it. You might not get the full experience but it's hard to argue with the price.

Although Oculus Rift (a product of Oculus VR, now owned by Facebook) still gets the loudest buzz, HTC Vive, Playstation VR, and Microsoft Hololens look very interesting, too. Check out the video below introducing the HTC Vive.

In just about all cases, the computing power to drive VR in a fully immersive and high performance way (laggy VR, it turns out, can make you feel sick) is still a little high-end for most people. Conventional wisdom is that in this first generation, VR headsets will be purchased by serious gamers who spend serious money on serious gaming systems with serious computing power and serious graphics processing power. Seriously.  For most of us, the really high-end experience may be a few years away as newer laptops with higher performance become more commonplace and more cost effective.

Will you be among the early adopters of Oculus Rift or other higher-end VR headsets? Do you know someone who will be? Are you more interested in AR than VR?

Please leave a comment, here in reality, about your plans for virtual reality.

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Who invented Bitcoin?

Satoshi Nakamoto “outed” twice, but we still may not know.

Truly new forms of currency don’t come along every day. I’m not talking about Apple Pay or Google Wallet, which are payment technologies that serve as convenience abstractions for established currencies. I mean truly new currency systems with their own independent value, and with scale and the ability to be used internationally. Bitcoin is such a new currency. The details of Bitcoin were first published in a 2008 paper by its inventor Satoshi Nakamoto, who calls Bitcoin "digital cash." I first wrote about Bitcoin in 2011 in this blog.
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Who is Bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakamoto? We have a name but cannot yet point to a person with certainty. "Satoshi Nakamoto" has long been a mystery. The name is generally considered to be a pseudonym for one or more cryptographers who developed the Bitcoin technologies, published papers, and released associated software. In an age in which the traditional is often supplanted by the new and digital on the Internet, Bitcoin is certainly of great interest to many. The mystery behind its inventor naturally captivates us.

In a 2014 cover story, Newsweek identified a southern-California engineer named Satoshi Nakamoto (or Dorian Nakamoto) as the Satoshi Nakamoto of Bitcoin fame. That story has since been largely discreditedEarly this month, Wired published a piece claiming that an Australian named Craig Steven Wright is the real Satoshi Nakamoto, and presented some evidence to support that claim. Some have questioned that evidence.

Many believe, based on the structure of the bitcoin system and its block chains, that the inventor holds one million bitcoins. As I write this, one million bitcoins would be worth about $444 million US. Perhaps the real Satoshi Nakamoto may eventually be motivated to come forward in order to wield that fortune.

Have you used Bitcoin yourself or at least thought about it? Does the idea of a currency which is private, not tied to the economic fortunes of a particular nation, and whose transactions are fast and inexpensive appeal to you?

Whatever your interest-level in Bitcoin, do you think that it's important that we eventually identify the Bitcoin inventor, or is the real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto unimportant as Bitcoin evangelists often claim?

Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What is Innovation?

...and are you an innovator?

“Innovation” is a word I hear often. Maybe you do, too. Many of us who work in science and technology fields like to think that in our own work we contribute in innovative ways – at least sometimes. What do we really mean when we use that word? I wanted to step back to think about its meaning and use.

Is “innovation” the same as “invention?” Is innovation the act of discovering the truly unknown?

One view on innovation that I like comes from Professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich, both of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In their book Innovation Tournaments[1], they say that innovation is a  “new match between a need and a solution so that value is created.” This is an appealing definition, in part because it is easy to understand and in part because embracing it implies that innovation can take place in a broad variety of fields. When we create value through a new match of need and solution, we innovate. This can obviously be the case in science and engineering as well as in medical research and health care practice, but it can also be true in business, social services, sports and recreation, and a broad range of other professions and human activities. This definition also suggests that innovation is not (always) about inventing something brand new. It can involve taking ideas we already have and understand in one context, and then applying them in another – matching solutions to needs and creating value. When it’s a good match, innovation is likely taking place.

Guy Kawasaki, famous for his role in the original Apple Macintosh and who today describes himself as a “Silicon-Valley based author, speaker, entrepreneur, and evangelist,” [2] makes many points in talking about innovation. His first point in his TED Talk innovation video [3] agrees with Terwiesch and Ulrich. Kawasaki advises us to “make meaning” first and notes that in doing so we will “likely make money.” He also advises us to try many paths and to not be afraid to bring forward early versions of new ideas, even though we may know these early versions have flaws (humorously saying, “Don’t worry, be crappy”).

The new Chief Innovation Officer at Internet2, Florence Hudson (who previously served as an IBM VP of Strategy and Chief Technology Officer), has "innovation" right in her title. In her new innovation role with Internet2, she is working within a community of high-tech engineers and software developers who together help to enable the work of some of the nation's most prominent researchers. She talks about working closely with that community to "stimulate the creation of new technologies and services."

I'll end my musings on "innovation" by recalling some of my own experience with the idea. A few years ago I suggested to my then-employer, an IT services organization at a university, that we could likely promote more innovation and boost staff morale by encouraging our staff to surface ideas that mattered to them and then allow them to spend some small amount of their work time in their pursuit. Google famously allowed their engineers up to 20% for innovation time (they’ve since cut back and restructured this program, but it still exists), reportedly with great results. I hoped we could borrow that idea but allocate just a few days a year. We could encourage but not mandate participation and we could encourage sharing experiences and reporting out. If the outcome was some practical ideas worth pursuing, great! If "all" we got was a more energized and engaged staff, that might be a winner in and of itself.

Starting in about 2010, we set aside a few days every year to pursue this idea. To explore and innovate. Members of the organization worked individually and in small teams and learned, explored, and sometimes created value. I believe that they often were re-energized for having spent the time and effort.

As my own project a few years ago, I challenged myself to create a short movie on "innovation." My goal was to "crowd source" the content, asking colleagues to tell me about innovation. I would collect their input and also learn some basic tools to assemble the media, and I would do the entire thing in 24 hours. I ended up using Garage Band for the music, PowerPoint for the still images, and iMovie for the video editing. I managed to pull something together in 36 hours, and got some real satisfaction in the doing and in the product. That movie, available on YouTube, appears below:

So do you innovate? Do your colleagues innovate? 

Think about what you do day-to-day. Think about problems you’ve solved in the last month. What does the word "innovation" mean to you? Are you an innovator? Leave a comment and let us know how.

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