Monday, December 15, 2014

Predicting the Future, Part 3

Between 1998 and 2003, a group of IT staff members at Penn worked together to produce technology vision and strategy documents called PennNet-21. There were 3 editions, published in 1998, 2000 and 2003. Each explored relevant technologies and the steps we hoped to take to deliver better services to our user community. 
As one small part of this effort, I wrote vignettes that helped to describe how future technologies could play a role in improving common workflows. I found them fun to write and fun to look back upon now. There were five in all. For the next few days I’ll publish one every day or so here in this blog, word for word as they appeared at the time. 
I invite you on a trip back to a “future as seen from the past” in these 5 PennNet-21 stories. As you read them, try to remember the actual technology of the time – a time before smartphones, generally before wireless networks, and before many of the things described were at all possible.
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From PennNet-21 2nd Edition, 2000
“Virtually There - a story set in 2004”


Penn Mathematics Professor Gerald Halford is reviewing a colleague's journal paper on a graph theory problem so complicated it is virtually impossible to visualize. With the aid of tele-immersion virtual reality conferencing, the professor is "meeting" his Russian colleague in a virtual space where images of the problem are displayed in three dimensions. Since neither is fluent in the other's native language, the pair discuss the proof with the aid of near real-time language translation facilities, all while moving the complex images around in free space. As they near completion of this intense collaboration session, Professor Halford's calendar program notifies him that he has a class to teach in 15 minutes; he realizes that he'll never make it to the classroom across the city in time! Luckily, he has a solution in mind that has worked well for him in recent weeks.

Third year graduate student, Stuart Mathis, arrives at Professor Halford's class well over 10 minutes late, and tries to sneak into the back row. Luckily for him, it appears that his professor is remotely instructing the class using some of the new classroom technology tools, including high quality image projection and audio and shared whiteboarding. Stuart's late arrival shouldn't be noticed.

"Glad to see you could join us, Mr. Mathis," booms the Professor's voice.

Momentarily shocked, Stuart quickly realizes that the professor is probably using local cameras and video feeds to interact more effectively with the students. An Image Recognition system helps the instructor to put names to faces, matching the students to their PennCard Identification which is stored in a University database. That particular bit of technology just landed Stuart in the dog house!

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The above appeared as a "PennNet-21 Story" in the 2000 publication PennNet-21 Second Edition. Some of it seems corny, some of it describes technologies that we really did come to know or that are beginning to come of age. Please leave a comment to let us know what you think, and come back soon to read the next of the PennNet-21 stories.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Predicting the Future, Part 2


Between 1998 and 2003, a group of IT staff members at Penn worked together to produce technology vision and strategy documents called PennNet-21. There were 3 editions, published in 1998, 2000 and 2003. Each explored relevant technologies and the steps we hoped to take to deliver better services to our user community.
 
As one small part of this effort, I wrote vignettes that helped to describe how future technologies could play a role in improving common workflows. I found them fun to write and fun to look back upon now. There were five in all. For the next few days I’ll publish one every day or so here in this blog, word for word as they appeared at the time. 
I invite you on a trip back to a “future as seen from the past” in these 5 PennNet-21 stories. As you read them, try to remember the actual technology of the time – a time before smartphones, generally before wireless networks, and before many of the things described were at all possible.
______

From PennNet-21 2nd Edition, 2000
“Taking It With You - a story set in 2003”


Stuart Mathis, a second year Penn graduate student, is walking across campus. He's wearing tiny headphones plugged into his wireless handheld Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) in order to listen to a recording of a recent lecture by his faculty advisor with whom he has been writing a journal paper. Stuart is on his way to a lecture on the opposite side of campus in a building he hasn't been to before, so he's using a wireless PennNet campus map and locator service that also allows his PDA to show his current location, his destination, and the best path between them even taking campus construction into account!

Since he still has more than 20 minutes before the lecture starts, Stuart decides to take a brief detour off his path to the Silfen Center near Houston Hall, where he rests for a moment and uses his PDA to look over his course options for next semester via PennInTouch. He then checks his email from his PDA, and sees that he has a message from his advisor with a short video attachment in which a fine point of their journal paper is briefly discussed. Stuart views the full message and then saves it back to his office desktop computer. He then gets up to continue his walk, but not before using his PDA and the locator program to find a nearby coke machine where he can buy a cold coke electronically using his PennCard.

He still has almost 15 minutes before the lecture starts, so he decides to take his walk slowly, using his PDA to watch a few minutes of a movie he rented over the Internet the night before.

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The above appeared as a "PennNet-21 Story" in the 2000 publication PennNet-21 Second Edition. Some of it seems corny, some of it describes technologies that we really did come to know. Please leave a comment to let us know what you think, and come back soon to read the next of the PennNet-21 stories.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Predicting the Future, Part 1


Between 1998 and 2003, a group of IT staff members at Penn worked together to produce technology vision and strategy documents called PennNet-21. There were 3 editions, published in 1998, 2000 and 2003. Each explored relevant technologies and the steps we hoped to take to deliver better services to our user community. 
As one small part of this effort, I wrote vignettes that helped to describe how future technologies could play a role in improving common workflows. I found them fun to write and fun to look back upon now. There were five in all. For the next few days I’ll publish one a day here in this blog, word for word as they appeared at the time. 
I invite you on a trip back to a “future as seen from the past” in these 5 PennNet-21 stories. As you read them, try to remember the actual technology of the time – a time before smartphones, generally before wireless networks, and before many of the things described were at all possible.
______

From PennNet-21 1st Edition, 1998
“Business as Usual – A Story Set 4 Years Into the Future”


Robert arrives for work at his office in the Van Pelt Library about 30 minutes before his scheduled video conference call, and sets Rover, his handheld computing device, next to his desktop computer. The handheld and desktop quickly authenticate to each other and then automatically start to synchronize their data over a wireless connection.

“Any messages, Scanner?” Robert asks his desktop. “Three,” his desktop computer replies in Robert’s preferred voice, “two from callers on your critical-caller list, one that seems to be a sales call.” Robert tells Scanner to route the two critical caller messages to Rover, where he can access them wherever he might go, and to leave the sales call. He’ll pick that up later as time permits. “I reserved some video time for this morning,” Robert continues. “Bring up a screen directory, please.”

Schedule information for his reserved 4-way video conference, and three scheduled video multicasts he had indicated might be of interest, display on his screen in a window just above the rolling ticker display of university announcements. He confirms the video conference call and clicks ‘reject’ on two of the multicasts and ‘accept’ on one. Scanner completes the network reservation requests for both the video conference and the video content he requested.

One of the video multicasts Robert rejects is on a campus issue he has been actively involved with, but he can’t spare the time today. He decides to take a moment to search a likely directory for some current information on the topic and ends up listening to a short audio clip of a recent address by a university vice-president on the subject. Robert gets an idea on the subject and decides it is worth discussing with an executive member of the vice-president’s staff with whom he’s worked before. He pulls up his calendaring tool and tries to schedule a meeting with her, but her calendar is blocking requests at the moment, so he hits the voice-contact button on the screen and Scanner places an audio call. Surprisingly, the call is “picked up” quickly. Robert doesn’t know for certain whether Jean has picked up the call on a conventional telephone device or whether she is answering through her desktop computer.

“Good morning, Jean. I was hoping to get a brief meeting with you – in person rather than video conference if you can – to discuss the Locust Walk proposal. But your calendar wasn’t responding.”

“I’ve heard we’re having a server upgrade here,” Jean says, “but it should be cleared up within the next half hour. Would 2pm Wednesday at my office work for you?”

“Oh yes, thanks, that’s great. I’ll queue up a request for your calendar and it should be visible on your end when your server comes back up. See you then.”


Robert has 20 minutes before his conference call, so he picks up Rover and walks down the hall toward the coffee machine.

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The above appeared as a "PennNet-21 Story" in the 1998 publication PennNet-21 First Edition. Some of it seems corny, some of it hints at technologies that we really did come to know. Please leave a comment to let us know what you think, and come back soon to read the second of the PennNet-21 stories.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving, which is probably my favorite holiday, is coming up this week. One of the reasons that I appreciate it is because as a secular holiday, it can be a shared experience for so many Americans. I realize that the origin story of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a feast may be romanticized (and may not have happened at all), but that doesn’t matter much to me. A holiday dedicated to coming together with friends and family and remembering our reasons to be thankful is a wonderful thing in my book.

I hope you have the chance to enjoy your Thanksgiving! What follows is a “re-run” of a blog I wrote on Thanksgiving back in 2011.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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Happy Thanksgiving

In the US, this coming Thursday is Thanksgiving. It's a favorite holiday of mine for a number of reasons – family, football and feast topping the list.

For me, Thanksgivings are either drivingholidays or cooking holidays. Since I don't have local family, a Thanksgiving at the house of other family members involves a multi-hour drive (each way). Given that, I much prefer a cooking Thanksgiving. Family comes our way and we cook the feast, and we arrange the annual kids versus adults "Turkey Bowl" football game.

FamilyWe'll host as many members of my wife's family as will come our way. We'll have a great visit, with football and feasts playing a big role, but we'll go to the movies, play some music together, maybe play a few board games, and sit around and visit.

FootballWe'll watch some football on TV, but one of our best traditions is that we play a real football game. We mark out a good-sized football field and play older generation against younger generation. Many years ago, the adults would work hard to keep the game close and then engineer a tie at the end so that the kids could feel good about their efforts. About four years ago the "kids" started winning outright. They are now teens and young adults, and we are, well, "older adults." They are fast and athletic and we are slow (and athletic!). But the game is always fun, always exciting, and there are always hot chocolates, beers and glasses of wine after.

FeastOurs is an all-traditional American Thanksgiving feast. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans, root veggies, dinner rolls, red and white wine. A main table and a kids table. Many hours to cook, an hour or more to clean up, and 30 minutes at most in between prep and cleanup to actually eat the feast. Once around the table(s) for everyone to say a few words on what makes them thankful this year. Bliss.

Facebook friends can expect to see a few photos of the feast and the football game later this week.

I'm guessing that my Thanksgiving sounds a lot like yours. But I might be wrong about that. Whether it does or it doesn't, please share your plans/hopes, or if it's after the fact when you read this, please share your experience.

How will you spend your long Thanksgiving weekend? Do you have some wonderful Thanksgiving traditions? Post a comment here and share it with us all.

Most of all, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks for reading!  If you enjoy this blog, please +1 it below, share it on Facebook, Google+ or Twitter, or suggest it to your friends .  More readers will drive more discussion.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Amazon Echo: Cool, Creepy or Confusing?


(photo credit sagmart.com)
Have you used Apple Siri or Google Now? How about Microsoft Cortana? These "intelligent assistants" are software that allow for interaction with a smartphone using natural language. They rely on an Internet connection, with the majority of the complexity pushed to the cloud. Your words are transmitted and interpreted in the cloud, and actions on them are taken, whether looking up information on the web or initiating functions on your smart phone such as playing music.

Last week Amazon Echo, a new product in this category, was announced. The device is called the Echo, but users address the intelligent assistant as “Alexa.” Unlike the earlier products in this category, Echo is not a smartphone function, it’s a standalone object – a speaker with a microphone and an Internet connection that’s intended to be placed as a stationary object in a room. While Siri travels with you and is generally used only by you, Echo is placed in a room and is used by anyone in that space.


What are the new capabilities offered by a stationary intelligent assistant? Imagine a set of Echo-like devices spread around your house. Could I “ask Alexa” where my son is or when he left today? Could I ask whether the doorbell rang while I was away? These are events that the Echo could conceivably tell me about. You and your family members might start to access the Internet from anywhere using natural language, searching for information, making dinner reservations or buying concert tickets, and calling for music or movies to be played. With a few Echoes in your home working in a coordinated fashion, your entire house becomes a powerful user interface.

Of course, all devices from Amazon help you to shop. There’s every reason to expect that the Echo will do that as well. How? Ask out loud for things to be added to your Amazon cart or even to be fully purchased (1-click? Think zero clicks). Given that the device is always listening in order to respond when you call for "Alexa," it could be listening for clues to better target advertising. “Mom! My pants are ripped!” could cause boys clothing ads to start showing up in your browser. That suggests a fun game to play at your friends house: What will happen if we repeatedly sprinkle an unlikely product name into conversation when visiting a friend? “You know what you need Bob? Cod liver oil! I swear by cod liver oil. Cod liver oil promotes good health. Cod liver oil was good enough for our grandparents, and by golly cod liver oil should be good enough for us. Where do you think we can buy you some cod liver oil?” Let’s see what magically shows up in Bob’s web browser ads!

A more serious question might be whether you would want an always-listening device in your home - perhaps (eventually) in almost every room. Does this kind of device imply voluntary, full-time surveillance everywhere? Is there a risk of compromise and eavesdropping by hackers, or abuse by law enforcement? Are those risks acceptable given the many positives?

Which brings us back to today's question: is Amazon Echo Cool, Creepy or just Confusing?

Please leave a comment and share what you think.

Links:

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

TV a la carte


[Back in 2011, I wrote a blog post called “Cord Cutting” which can be found at http://rapidgroove.blogspot.com/2011/09/cord-cutting.html  This post is on a related topic.]

Complaining about the cost of cable television seems to have become a middle-class American pastime. If you could spend a little less for television content by buying “a la carte,” would you do it? The idea seems appealing – pay for the channels you like to watch, forget the rest. No need for the hundreds of channels that come in a cable television bundle if you really only watch a few. Added bonus if you can watch your selected content both on your big screen television and also on your smartphone, your laptop, and any other handy screen.

Many of you are already familiar with HBO Go, the web site and smart phone apps that provide access to HBO content for traditional HBO subscribers. The arrangement is that if you are already paying for HBO as part of your cable television package, HBO Go provides you with convenience of access over the web or on your smartphone. Increasingly, though, people are interested in having a different business relationship with HBO. They would agree to pay a reasonable monthly subscription price to HBO directly for full HBO Go access, skipping the cable television part completely.

HBO has reasons to be wary of that arrangement given that today the cable companies handle the messy retail aspect of the business and deliver a predictable and very substantial revenue stream. For their part, the cable companies are also invested in and attached to the current business model since HBO drives revenue their way. Cable television companies are intermediaries whose business model is in large part based on bundling lots of content into higher priced cable television bundles or packages. But now consumers say that they want a new deal–a direct one–and HBO is the network to watch because their premium content (think Game of Thrones) is content that consumers will probably pay for. HBO has been cautiously implying that they may be willing to move in this direction, and many expect them to make a move soon. They cannot afford to completely disrupt the current business arrangement with cable companies but if they have a strong enough sense that they could earn as much or more in a direct billing relationship with customers, or that they will get plenty of new customers in an a la carte offering, HBO might be less concerned about that.

If this new business model takes hold, other television networks are likely to follow the trail blazed by HBO. At first, this might be other premium channels like Showtime and Cinemax, both of which already provide web and app access to their content. Over time, though, a broader range of cable channels could move in that same direction. Those that do not might remain available primarily through traditional cable television companies.

I believe that this sort of unbundling and "disintermediation" is inevitable – but not necessarily coming soon. Cable companies will not want to be in the business of handling only the more basic, non-premium content. There's little money in that business, so they will fight this trend through pricing and regulations. Still, the Internet has a long track record of disrupting and disintermediating businesses, and even if the impediments are pretty large in this case, the change is coming.

Of course, if the monthly a la carte package I put together for myself costs me $16 for Netflix and Hulu Plus, $10 each (on average) for 10 different networks I want to watch, plus another $40 a month in sports programming, I'd be spending over $150 per month so maybe a la carte wouldn't save me much money at all.

Time for you to weigh in...

  • What do you want to see happen in the evolving television over the Internet space?  
  • What do you think we’ll see in the short term and the longer term? 
  • Do you have some insights or news to share in the area of "over the top" television?

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Links:


Thanks for reading! A blog works best with active participation. If you enjoy this blog, please give it a +1 and leave a comment. Share it on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. More readers will drive more discussion.