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Can computers help us remember?

"Memory is full" (cc) by Rutger Middendorp

What if you could Google your own memories and recall details with perfect clarity? What if your iPhone could ensure you never forget to buy birthday gifts for the people you love? Can we trust our own recollections of past events? Will we all have digital assistants in the future?

These are just some of the questions discussed in this 30-minute audio interview with Sunil Vemuri. Sunil spent 2 years digitally recording his own life while he was a researcher at MIT, and went on to found reQall, a company whose product specializes in helping you remember what’s important as you go about your daily life, with a minimum of effort.

Click here to listen to the full MP3 interview. (Length 32:19, Size 31Mb).

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded back in March 2010, as the first episode in a regular Human 2.0 podcast series. Unfortunately, as Human 2.0 is made in our free time, we’ve had to put the podcast plans on hold for the time being. We’re publishing this as a one-off audio post, but watch this space as we may feature more audio content in the future!

Image (cc) by Rutger Middendorp on Flickr.

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Swedish design company TAT just launched this video imagining the future of screen technology. There’s some great ideas in there like stretchable screens, see through monitors and being able to physical drag media between devices:

The ideas were the result of the OpenInnovation competition – read more at the site.

At first it seems quite useful, putting information onto surfaces like desks and mirrors. But if you take that to to the extreme you end up with something like the world shown in this second concept video, which uses augmented reality to put information everywhere. To me, it looks like something of a nightmare. What do you think?

(This video was created for an architecture project by Keiichi Matsuda. Read more here.)

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Understanding human behaviour is vital for good product design. But you can’t just ask people what they need, you have to observe them first-hand. iPods, eBay and TiVo exist because designers watched people, noticed a problem with current products, and designed a solution for a problem people didn’t even know they had.

At OXO Foods in the UK, researchers studied how people measure liquids while cooking, and noticed that most people need to bend down repeatedly to read the markings on the side of the container. None of them reported this as a problem when interviewed. So OXO designed a measuring jug(cup) which could be viewed from above (shown right). This is an example of the growing science of design ethnography – product design based on direct human observation.

How to measure human behaviour “in the wild”?

Observational studies are expensive to conduct, and sometimes distorted because you can’t always observe someone in their natural environment. Fortunately, computers now make it much easier to collect data from “real world” activities. Such data is invaluable – for product designers to better understand their users, and also for us to help us cultivate a deeper understanding of ourselves. Read more »

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Girl with Medical Tracker (c) Gizmodo

Dutch researchers have demonstrated a new type of network – not LAN or WAN, but BAN, the Body Area Network. What this means is that sensors in your body (for example electrocardiogram sensors monitoring your heart, or EEGs monitoring your brain) can now communicate via radiowaves to a wearable computer hung round the neck. This computer can send you a text message if readings stray from the norm. Your body will text you when it needs medical attention!

Read more at New Scientist. Image courtesy of Gizmodo

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The PlaneFinder Augmented Reality app identifies planes in the sky

If an aircraft enthusiast monitors position broadcasts from passing flights and records the identifiers and positions of those planes, is it a threat to security? Most would say no, the information is already being broadcast. What about if he publishes that information on a website? Well, now it’s easier for anyone to use that information – but it’s the same information.

Now, an app, PlaneFinder, has been released for the Android and iPhone which  makes that same information even more usable – you can now point your phone at the sky and get a live readout of the flight number, speed, destination and route of that otherwise unknown dot in the sky – a pretty powerful tool for plane-spotters and the public.

US authorities including the Federal Aviation Authority and the Department of Homeland Security are concerned that this could be used by terrorists and are investigating the matter. The Daily Mail and other tabloids are concocting horror stories of how the app could be used to target surface-to-air missiles. There are reports that “security experts” have deemed the app “an aid to terrorists”.

Clearly, there is some fear-mongering here, as with any story that can be linked to terrorists – but the pattern is one that is repeating more and more. Using new technology, people are harvesting publicly accessible data, making it usable in new ways, in new situations – and shifting the balance of power from the establishment to the individual. And the establishment doesn’t like that. Should tools that offer such access be banned, as the tabloids suggest? Or would that just deny the public access to a useful tool – and make little difference to the determined wrong-doer?

Read more at ndtv or on Slashdot.

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Researchers at the University of Plymouth in the UK, have made some significant steps forward in the quest to create an artificial intelligence that can learn about the world around it. Using the iCub robotic toddler, designed by a consortium of European universities, they have trained software to recognize and identify moving objects in its field of vision, based on their position relative to the robot’s body. This is the same way a human child learns.

To learn more, watch the video or read the New Scientist article.

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Bitnorth 2010: The Human 2.0 Weekend

In late August, CAMMAC (a music camp north of Montreal) hosted the third annual Bitnorth conference. This year the theme was Human 2.0. Attendees presented a 5 minute “short bit” on a topic of their choice, which inspired many lively debates. Slides and recordings will be online soon but in the meantime, here are some of the interesting Human 2.0 ideas and questions that emerged over the course of the weekend: Read more »

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Using an iPad as a paintbrush of light

Design firm BERG have found an innovative new use for an iPad – as a paintbrush. They swipe the iPad through the air, while it displays the different components of a 3D object or text, and repeat this multiple times to produce a stop frame animation. Check out the video:

Read more at Fast Co Design.

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The Mobile Radicals Research Group, from Lancaster, UK, today presented their paper “Harnessing creativity to broaden the appeal of location-based games” at the HCI2010 conference.

Kate Lund from the group highlighted the limitations of the few location-based games that have reached the public attention. For example Foursquare and Gowalla have very simple actions and very limited gameplay. The group had took inspiration from geo-caching, noting that is is inclusive and easy to do, but has limited appeal.

They re-invented geo-caching as a game for families and children, creating a new mobile game called “Free All Monsters”. Children can use their creativity to draw monsters, these monsters then get transplanted into the real world, where they and their friends can then use a “Magical Monstervision Machine” (a Nokia N95 running special software) to detect and find monsters in the real world. The display overlays the sensor information and monster pictures onto the real world, much like Layar and other augmented reality applications:

The game reinvents geocaching in a creative, understandable way. For example, the strength of the GPS fix is represented as a “Captoplasm” gauge – you can’t capture monsters if you haven’t got enough. The game reinforces creativity throughout. Children’s monster creations are added to a “Liber Monstorum” (book of monsters), which is used to populate the game world – personalizing the game to the players.

Players also have a “Monster Spotter’s Guide” (which helps encourage teamwork) and have a set of thought-provoking questions for players to answer for each discovery, like “What does this monster dream?” or “Where would he go on holiday?”

The game is also designed to keep players focussed on the real world (which is why the camera augmentation approach is chosen) and favours teamwork and fun over speed and competitiveness.

The game has been used successfully on a small scale at a number of outdoor open days, and will soon be released for use anywhere in the world as an iPhone application (early video here).

There’s more about the group and their research at mobileradicals.com

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Ben Schneiderman opens HCI2010 in DundeeToday at the opening keynote of the British Computer Society’s HCI 2010 conference, UX pioneer Ben Shneiderman gave an uplifting address about the need to expand the use of technology and social media for civic good.

He gave many examples of existing systems that harness the Internet to help with human problems – such as 911.gov, a conceptual site which would allow US residents to report crimes, but more importantly to request and give assistance to each other. For example, allowing a disabled resident being able to find a volunteer to help them get out of the building in an evacuation. Real-world examples included amberalert.gov and nationofneighbors.net as well as the use of Twitter to track the spread of Californian wildfires. Another example was patientslikeme.com which takes a more open view to the sharing of personal medical data than most current medical institutions, but has shown measurable benefits for the participants.

Ben highlighted the nascent nature of such thinking in the public consciousness, and speculated that greater steps need to be taken to help the public see both what is possible but also to give them the tools to make better use of data for good. To achieve this, he said, we will need deep science research to take place which can then be applied to everyday systems and functions.

As an example, Ben introduced SocialAction, a network analysis tool for researchers which can uncover hidden information in human networks. In the following video you can see the tool being used to uncover the strength of relationships between US Senators who voted the same up to 2007. Read more »

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