Driverless Dreams

Google is back at it: driverless cars. In the age of Uber and ZipCar providing (nearly) pushbutton access to transportation for a fairly reasonable fee depending on your need, the driverless car sits atop the pyramid of transportation evolution.

One device combines the evolution of technology that began with the invention of the wheel. The driverless car is also the most impressive computer technology using sensors, maps, internet-connected computing – and that’s just to drive the car, not including creature comforts.

Like the idea of the horseless carriage that preceded the automobile, the driverless car has been much hyped and anticipated despite the early stage in the development process.

A who’s who of car companies is working on the technology as well, but the search engine giant has grabbed most of the press while boasting about the progress the technology has made over the years, the miles the cars have driven, and more.

But this is the first time we have seen a Google Car. While the press release indicates the parts are off-the-shelf and the company is working with partners, seeing a stand-alone vehicle, rather than a modified Toyota feels like an exciting step forward. Eventually Google, and the automakers, will need a car built to be driverless in order to really take the technology to the next level. Sensor placement and designs that work for a traditional vehicle, which places the main sensor package in the driver’s seat, do not need to be hard and fast rules for car design.

I’ve thought and written about driverless cars and their potential impact on society before, and as the technology gets closer the more I think about what it would be like to just summon a car – either my own or a taxi-type service – whenever I need a ride.

One issue with ZipCar, and rental services in general, is that the vehicles need to be returned to certain places to make them available once more and prevent the accumulation of cars in places they are unlikely to be checked out. Of course from time to time you can make an arrangement to pick up at the airport and drop off at another location, but normally the car is docked at a single location and you need to return it from whence it came. This problem goes away when the car can drive itself.

One crazy possibility with driverless cars could actually help bring the Amazon drones to reality: a drone carrier van. The idea that drones will be flying many miles carrying the types of products that are often ordered online, which can be large and/or heavy, has a few holes. But imagine if Amazon had a system of driverless vans roaming across cities and towns, carrying the items most of the way by truck, and then launching the drones for the “last mile” delivery. This could let larger packages be delivered by drone without needing to carry a fifty pound box thirty miles through the sky. Once the package is dropped off, the drone just returns to the van.

The number of tasks that can be managed by a driverless car, which can in turn reduce traffic, limit the need to large parking lots, can be a big step towards the sci-fi vision of the future that so many of us have in our heads.

Thinking About: Checklists

Before Morgan Freeman made a silly movie the bucket list concept was making waves. Books like 1000 Places to See Before You Die were popular back in my days working at a bookstore. People like having a connection to something larger than themselves. All of society of based on that principle. Having a checklist of places you’ve visited is handy and marking them off the list or a map from time to time gives you a feeling of accomplishment.

When Facebook first began allowing extensions on the original homepage, before the News Feed, it seemed like everyone had enabled the world and United States map to show off the countries and states they had visited.

Hardball Passport has taken this to the challenge of ballpark visits. Not just keeping track of which parks you went to but how the games turned out.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Brothers” Data, the android, meets his creator, Dr. Noonian Soong. As Dr. Soong attempts to explain his desire to have a legacy, he walks Data through the decision tree of parenthood and history.

DATA: Old things?

SOONG: Old buildings, churches, walls, ancient things, antique things, tables, clocks, knick knacks. Why? Why, why?

DATA: There are many possible explanations.

SOONG: If you brought a Noophian to Earth, he’d probably look around and say, tear that old village down, it’s hanging in rags. Build me something new, something efficient. But to a human, that old house, that ancient wall, it’s a shrine, something to be cherished. Again, I ask you, why?

DATA: Perhaps, for humans, old things represent a tie to the past.

There are moments in life mean different things to different people, but everyone has a few tucked into the back of their mind that they wait for, prepare for, and hope will cross their path in the future. Something as simple as a voice modulator or a fan: you have to do a Darth Vader impersonation.  Or maybe Christmas tree shopping lets you break out a Linus speech. Maybe you finally get a chance to correctly chime in “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!”

One of these white whales for me was the cellular peptide cake. With mint frosting. Going back to the Star Trek well, there is an episode where Data has a dream that features an appearance from Counselor Trio as…a cake.

As someone with very limited art skills recreating anything that needs creative efforts is often beyond my skills. I can muddle my way through things from time to time. I can make a normal cake. But when it comes to the artistic effort, my final results often turn out like Homer’s – nothing like the picture in my mind’s eye.

Taking up this challenge was on my bucket list. And this weekend I set myself to the task. One box of funfetti, some frosting, and several bottles of food coloring later, I completed my masterpiece:

IMG_20140525_072348

In addition to visiting the Star Trek Experience before it closed, including walking on the bridge of the NCC-1701-D, this is another large item crossed off the bucket list. And the cake tasted pretty good too.

May 22, 2004 – Red Sox vs Blue Jays

That was then

Ten years ago today the Boston Red Sox won their second straight game against the Toronto Blue Jays. They didn’t know it at the time, but the winning streak would last five games. Well before The Trade, things were going well enough.

That game was started by Pedro Martinez, won by Anastacio Martinez, and saved by Keith Foulke.

Manny Ramirez hit a home run. David Ortiz and Mark Bellhorn scored runs. Kevin Youkilis played in his fifth major league game.

Ted Lilly struck out 10 in 5.2 innings but his bullpen failed to deliver on the “Ted Lilly always beats the Red Sox” curse.

This is now

Tonight, the Red Sox will play the Toronto Blue Jays in an attempt to prevent losing their seventh straight game.

Jon Lester, who was nearly traded prior to the 2004 season for A-Rod, will be playing the role of ace that Pedro did so well a decade ago.

David Ortiz is still on the team, the sole remaining player from the 2004 club.

Opposing the Sox will be Mark Buehrle, a veteran in his own right.

Ten years ago things went well enough for the Red Sox. Maybe tonight that echo of a boxscore will penetrate Fenway Park and end the current slump.

Or their talented players will do what talented players do – win.

Monkey Gone to Heaven

When the rumor mill exploded last week with news that Apple may (or may not) have acquired Beats Electronics to add executive talent, a new streaming music service, and of course, headphones, to Apple’s already strong music business, a spotlight on the changing face of the music industry was lit up once more.

For a long time, artists stayed away from allowing their music to be used for advertising purposes. Commercials featuring an artist’s music were considered to be “selling out” for decades. Until somewhat recently when the trend reversed.

What started as a small sample in the 1990s turned into a boom for musicians in the post-Napster era when alternative revenue streams – outside the labels – were in demand.

Apple itself ran a series of successful ads for iPods and the iTunes music service – the ones featuring dancing silhouettes wearing the iconic white earbuds – that were received quite well. Advertising a music service and player with popular music seems like a no brainer, but it’s possible that Apple considered this ad campaign even more seriously. Steve Jobs himself is believed to have had individual control over the song selection. That’s a power both equal parts kingmaker and tastemaker.

Their latest effort uses Gigantic by the Pixies and highlights the iPhone as a tool for creativity as a musician, rocket launcher, and indoor astronomer. The Apple spot debuted on April 22, just before interest in the Pixies shot up on Google Trends.

Google Trends   Web Search interest  pixies  gigantic   Worldwide  Past 90 days

As I write this, one of the most well known commercial songs, Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”, which featured in this Volkswagen commercial plays in the background at the Starbucks. Referenced in the Time piece linked earlier, this seemed appropriate to include. I only know the song from the commercial, but as soon as I heard it, I thought back to the ad. It’s a poignant spot with four (teenagers?) kids driving through picturesque scenery to a party only to decide it’s just not their scene when the journey ends…and they set off again. I recalled the entire ad in a second.

Music is a powerful motivator and suggestion. It’s a companion at the gym, a friend on a long commute, and a background presence during many events of our lives. But wait, there’s more! All of these qualities make songs powerful components of advertising campaigns.

The Guitar Hero and RockBand franchises were built on this foundation.

If Apple buys Beats, it would be a high-profile acquisition of a brand that has recognition comparable to Apple itself. It’s not Lala, the fledgling music service, or PA Semi, the chip designer. Beats has customers, loyalty, product spotlight and recognition. It has music executives and musicians. It’s crazy, but for a company that has put so much into brand and commercials, right down to the artists it featured for iPods at the time when that was the biggest stage anyone could hope for, this might work out in ways no one can foresee yet.

Save the Clock Tower

People older than me have always said something to the effect of “time passes faster as you age.” Once in a while I see how this has occurred in my life. An example that continues to come up: Back to the Future. Especially Back to the Future Part II (Marty travelled to 2015, yikes!).

I associate BTTF with 1985 and 1955. Marty McFly goes so far back in time that everything is quaint and foreign. The music is strange, fashions are strange, cars have fins. It was clearly another time to my 1980s childhood self.

But if BTTF came out today, Marty would go all the way back to…1984. The joke about Ronald Reagan (“The actor?!?”) being president, well, 2014 Marty would arrive during his time in office.

The cultural significance of the three films in the series ranges from the DeLorean to “Great Scott!” to 1.21 jiggawatts to the Hoverboard. Of course, these aren’t the only words that Back to the Future has added to the lexicon. There is also a new definition of a humble greeting:

Heavy.

ESPN and Cord-cutting or Disney’s Dark Fairy Tale

The Walt Disney Company has a complicated history with copyright. Disney has long taken inspiration for its movies from the public domain. Fairy tales, fables, Shakespeare, you name it, Disney has borrowed it. Disney has continued the age old practice of building on the work of others. There is no shame in this, it’s the natural progression of art, science, engineering, law, math, everything. That’s how society evolves.

Copyright, along with patent law, dates back to the founding documents of America (and the concepts predate immigration across the Atlantic) and is designed to serve as an incentive for creative works. The idea is that by issuing a limited monopoly, the state can encourage citizens to write, invent, paint, sing, and compose, recoup their investment and make some profit, and then gift their work to society. Copyright law is designed to encourage the greater good. Not be a barrier to protect the rights of artists against the public.

The Wall Street Journal on Monday published an article outlining an interview with ESPN President John Skipper discussing the cord-cutting revolution and ESPN’s reluctance to embrace internet content distribution unpaired from a cable or satellite (pay-TV) subscription.

“Though the company has internally considered a stand-alone broadband offering, “it’s not close yet.”

Mr. Skipper told the paper that a version of ESPN untethered from a cable subscription isn’t close, but in the age of Netflix, this is a surprise. Shouldn’t ESPN be close but not offering the product, perhaps, like HBO and HBO Go, trying to warm up the cable providers to the idea?

ESPN, like parent Disney, and recently, Disney property ABC, requires uses link their online or portable device with their traditional cable account. Signing in is a relatively painless process, but it means that for those who do not have some form of pay-TV, there is no online alternative.

For ESPN, a cable channel, this is unfortunate. With the success of MLB.tv, many sports fans would gladly free themselves of the channels they currently pay for and don’t watch to gain access to an online portal of ESPN content. Already, on the WatchESPN app, a greater amount of content is available – many college games for example – that don’t show up on the TV ESPN channels are available to stream over the internet either live or from an archive. Right now, ESPN wants to protect their current deals with the cable operators, not viewers, making payments.

It’s a similar strategy to that being taken by the NFL and Major League Baseball against Aereo: the threat of putting more content behind a paywall. Rather than broadcast games on free, over-the-air television, the leagues have indicated they would prefer to alienate some viewers and become cable-only rather than let the alternative antenna service provide customers with a feed of the game acquired in a, currently, legal manner.

Sure, live sports is an anchor that keeps people subscribing to cable tv. Right now, it’s compelling even if frustrating, but the same sports leagues that are retreating to cable don’t have much further to go before just selling directly to the consumer. Disney is in a unique position having so many iconic and powerful brands (Pixar, ABC, ESPN, Marvel, Star Wars, etc.) that it can leverage to move customers anywhere along the content spectrum. Netflix in 2016 will become a very nice home for many of their properties.

For the same hundred dollars a month minimum buy-in for a cable & internet package, consumers might start spending fifty dollars on internet and ten dollars per month on the three services they choose, perhaps even alternating when a new Game of Thrones (or whichever show is popular and offered in the right format) season debuts.

The cord-cutting revolution may have started before 2014, but the first big battles could well be fought this year as the hardware, software, and services are reaching past the domain of the technically inclined and arriving in living rooms in the form of a Chromecast, AppleTV, gaming console, and mobile devices. With a tap on a touchscreen, television content is at your literal fingertips, with barely a thought to the cable company.

Reading The Road Ahead 19 Years Later – Chapter 4: Applications and Appliances

Thirty years ago the United States Supreme Court decided that personal recordings were fair use and that selling a device (the VCR) that has substantial non-infringing uses is lawful even if it could be used to infringe. In chapter four of The Road Ahead, Bill Gates pondered the digital future and the evolution of computers.

As he saw the VCR invented during his lifetime, Gates predicted a host of new time-shifting devices that would interface with the Internet, his “highway.” While Netflix is almost taken for granted these days, serving up pre-existing as well as new content “on demand” in 1995 was still a technology somewhat out of science fiction.

Even four years later when Quest aired a commercial featuring a fictional motel that offered “every movie ever made in any language anytime, day or night” the dream of unlimited on-demand selection was still futuristic.

In 1999 the top DVDs for sale on Amazon.com were The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, and Titanic. This was the start of the DVD era as people just began to adopt the home theater crazy. The Matrix itself pushed many to adopt DVD as their home movie format rather than VHS, but in a world just beginning to exit dial-up speeds, streaming a movie was still a ways off.

Although the market for a book written by Bill Gates in 1995 was obviously going to lean heavy on the technology crowd, his explanation of how this on-demand system would work is telling:

Movies, television programs, and all sorts of other digital information will be stored on “servers,” which are computers with capacious disks…The requested data will be retrieved from the server and routed by switched back to your television, personal computer, or telephone—your information appliances.

In 2014, no one needs to explain what a server is and even if the “person on the street” doesn’t understand exactly how the cloud works, s/he understands the relationship between offsite and onsite data storage.

What continues to be impressive in The Road Ahead is Bill Gates’ understanding of where technology will go over the course of twenty years. Considering the beliefs about the imminent arrival of cold fusion, flying cars, and household robots over the past fifty years, and how so many new companies have emerged to offer the new technologies he anticipated, this is an impressive amount of understanding.

There are some misses…

One new form [of display] will be the digital whiteboard: a large wall-mounted screen…[that] will display pictures, movies, and other visual materials, as well as text and other fine details.

…but overall the 1995 version of Bill Gates would fit in well in 2014, although there may be less Microsoft in people’s lives than he would have anticipated.

The wallet PC, essentially the smartphone, was described a pocket computer that would replace wallets, provide a connection to the highway, and act as a Swiss Army knife for the digital world.

What do you carry on your person now? Probably at least keys, identification, money, and a watch. Quite possibly you also carry credit cards, a checkbook, traveler’s checks, an address book, an appointment book, a notepad, reading material, a camera, a pocket tape recorder, a cellular phone, a pager, concert tickets, a map, a compass, a calculator, an electronic entry card, photographs, and perhaps a loud whistle to summon help.

Outside of identification, which has not yet reached the realm of the phone for higher levels like government ID (but has for many forms of tickets), the rest of the bag of tricks can be handled with a smartphone and nothing else, depending on where you spend your money. With Apple, Google, and the cellular carriers all trying to gain a foothold in mobile payments, it might not be possible to spend money only using a phone, but an ID, credit/debit card, and phone is a realistic set of things to leave the house with and not have to worry.

There was actually some good timing that went into this post: news about Microsoft’s Siri and Google Now competitor, Cortana, was released just a few days ago. As the third major mobile OS player, this was an area Microsoft needed to get up to speed in to remain competitive feature wise. However, as with tablet computers, which Gates and Microsoft pushed commercially for nearly a decade before the iPad made them popular, the virtual assistant is ground they covered in the past.

Gates anticipated the omnipresent intelligence of Google Now in the wallet PC for travel: “It will monitor digital traffic reports and warn you that you’d better leave for an airport early, or suggest an alternate route.” And he had it for voice command questions: “You might ask, ‘Where’s the nearest Chinese restaurant that is still open?’” but at the end of the day, he imagined something more like the Star Trek computer. Gates imagined an electronic companion you would talk with as a specific source, like an individual. In 1995, Gates termed these digital assistants “agents.”

An agent that takes on a personality provides a ‘social user interface.’

The character will disappear when you get to the parts of the product you know very well. But if you hesitate or ask for help, the agent will reappear and offer assistance.

Yes, Microsoft has been working on agents for years. Microsoft Bob was one. Clippy was another.

With Cortana, Microsoft will not be bringing Clippy to the phone. Hopefully. More likely, Microsoft will finally produce the agent that Gates imagined so many years ago. Voice recognition took longer than anticipated to roll out, but it’s here now, and it’s pretty good.

For Bill Gates, like Steve Jobs, the PC in 1995 was on the path towards becoming an appliance. As of 2014, this is truer than ever before, although the true computing appliances aren’t the desktops and laptops but the phones, tablets, and set-top boxes. Chromebooks have turned the laptop market on its head as a computer that looks traditional but acts like a new concept. As HP said in an ad campaign, “the computer is personal again.” Or with new functions, controls, and interfaces, it’s more personal than it’s ever been.