Archive for the ‘Future of Computing’ Category

Secret Innovation

One of the staples of near-future science fiction is organizations working in absolute secrecy to produce big game-changing innovation. I’ve been trying to come up with examples of this in the real world, but haven’t found any.

A few examples from science fiction: (These are kind of spoilers, but not very good ones.)

  • In Daniel Suarez’s Daemon a character named Matthew Sobel invents a new world order in the form of a not-quite-intelligent internet bot. Even the contractors working with Sobel don’t really know what they’re working on until Sobel dies right before the book begins, causing the Daemon to be unleashed.
  • In Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One James Halliday and his company go complete dark for several years and emerge with OASIS. This was a combination of hardware and software that created a globe spanning, latency-free shared virtual world for the people of earth to inhabit.
  • In Kill Decision (also) by Daniel Suarez, a shadowy government contractor builds automatous drones and deploys them for months before anyone realizes what’s going on.
  • The society ending technology from Directive 51 by John Barnes is a prime example. The book uses nanotech, extreme mental subversion and idealist/zealot manipulation to hatch a world wide society ending event. (via Jake)
  • In Nexus by Ramez Naam somebody engineers nanobots that link people’s emotions. Then some other people develop software to run on Nexus that give them super-human abilities. All of this happens in secret.

(There are certainly more examples than these. Mention them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.)

In reality it doesn’t work like this, and there are two reasons for that.  The first is that the secrecy is far from perfect and the world gets a gradually better picture of whatever the thing is as it approaches completion. The second is that in the real world every successful innovation is an improvement on a usually-less-successful innovation that came before it.

The most likely counter-example people will bring up is the iPhone. Didn’t it spring fully-formed form the head of Steve Jobs on January 9, 2007?  Well no. Not even remotely. Apple’s own Newton, the Palm Pilot, the HP 200LX, Blackberry, and many more were clear fore-bearers of the iPhone. Apple certainly drove the design of that sort of device further than anyone else had. They definitely improved it to the point that millions of people bought them as quickly as they could be manufactured. They didn’t spring an entirely new kind of device on the world in a surprise announcement. The iPhone was basically a Palm Treo with the suck squeezed out.

Unfortunately as the iPhone demonstrates, “Big game-changing innovation” is not very easy to define. Let’s go with:

A new product or service that is so advanced that society doesn’t have a cultural niche in which to put it.

The Daemon, OASIS, and the swarms of killer drones from Kill Decision certainly fit this definition.  Are there any examples of products or services from the real world that do? If you can think of one, please leave a comment below and tell us about it.

How did I do with my 2011 predictions?

A year ago I posted a list of predictions for 2011. Let’s see how I did:

  1. Wrong. Netflix did pick up more content. They are doing some interesting things with Arrested Development, for instance. However, I don’t think people will look back on all the pricing changes, Qwikster, and the general user annoyance as a year when Netflix “kicked ass”.
  2. Correct. 50 Mbit FiOS! Woot! We moved from Seattle to Kirkland into a house where the previous owners bullied Verizon into running the fiber. It’s completely awesome.
  3. Sort-of Correct. It’s not 60%, but Android is up to 43% market share. “Dizzying array” is the only way to describe the number of Android devices out there, though that’s not entirely a positive thing.
  4. Correct. Google and some of their partners announced a plan to improve the update situation. Hopefully that will work out.
  5. Correct. What new glasses? The Vuzix Star 1200s look cool, but $5k is a bit out of the consumer price range.
  6. Correct. This one was sort of a gimme since there’s no way to tell if this is really the start of anything. I’ve seem a bunch of Nissan Leafs around my neighborhood though.
  7. Wrong. I certainly haven’t heard of any such advance. Did I miss one?

4.5 out of 7 isn’t so bad. Some of my predictions were pretty soft-ball though, so I kind of cheated. :)

I think I’m going to skip writing my own 2012 predictions post this year. I would love to hear what you think is going to happen this year. Post them in the comments! (I’ll probably pick the best of them and put up a new post collecting them.)

Edit: @JZig points out that math is hard. 7 – 2.5 = 4.5

7 Requirements for an Augmented Reality Positioning System

For me, a positioning system has a few requirements to be appropriate for widespread use in Rainbow’s End-style augmented reality:

  1. The system should scale to any number of mobile devices.
  2. The system should work indoors and outdoors. It should also work underground in places like subway stations.
  3. No one should be able to track the position of devices in the system.
  4. A mobile device should require minimal warm-up time of less than ten seconds
  5. A mobile device should be able to determine its position on an ongoing basis with a frequency of at least 30Hz.
  6. A mobile device should be able to pinpoint its position down to 1cm or less.
  7. A mobile device should be able to operate with its positioning system activate at all times and still maintain a reasonable battery life.

The closest current contender is GPS. Let’s see how it does on each of those front:

  1. So far so good. The GPS satellites don’t care how many receivers there are. GPS has weathered an explosion in the number of receivers over the past ten years and come through just fine.
  2. GPS fails this one. It works outdoors most of the time but indoors only if you are near an equator-facing window. It never works underground.
  3. Since GPS receivers only listen, this is generally true.  The 911-driven remote activation requirements allow some GPS devices to be trackable, but the tracking happens through the phone’s network connection not through the positioning system itself.
  4. GPS manufacturers claim warm-start times under ten seconds. According TTFF measurements for many models from 2003 some models can warm-start in under ten seconds. Things have significantly improved since then.
  5. GPS receivers typically send an NMEA position sentence once per second (or 1Hz). SparkFun lists a few GPS components in the 5-10Hz range. It’s not clear if this is a limitation of the system or if GPS has an inherent update frequency limitation, so we’ll assume that improved chipsets will get the frequency up to 30Hz.
  6. GPS completely fails this one. Under ideal circumstances and non-real-time post-processing GPS will get you down to about 2cm. Under normal circumstances the accuracy is more like 10-50m. GPS will tell you what street you’re on (if you assume you’re on a street) or what house you’re in, but it can’t tell you what room you’re in.
  7. Current GPS receivers still draw too much power to leave them on all the time, but Moore’s Law is changing that. They should be always-on in a few more years.

GPS fails in two very important requirements: where you can use it and how accurate it is.  Satellite-based replacements for GPS are likely to have the same failure indoors and underground. If it ever launches, Galileo is supposed to have a commercial encrypted system that provides accuracy down to 1cm, but it still won’t work indoors or underground. Relying on satellite-based positioning is a dead-end for augmented reality.

The other way that AR researchers are tracking position is with a camera-based system. No one has yet built such a system that operates out in the wild, but it would be theoretically possible. A visual tracking system would operate by comparing the stream of images from the camera against a database of images that is stored in the cloud. The exact form of that comparison is a matter of much research. Whether the comparison happens in the cloud or on the mobile device is also an open question. The general form of the system (large database in the cloud and a stream of images from the camera on the mobile device) is pretty stable though. One key assumption here is that the image database for a city-sized area is far too large to download to the mobile device. Let’s see how that does on our requirements:

  1. Because of the requirement that we either stream the camera images to the cloud or the local portion of the database from the cloud to the mobile device, each additional user puts incremental load on the system. The number of users in a local area will be limited by the mobile network bandwidth available to those users. The number of total users of the system will also be limited by the server capacity of the system’s provider, but that end of things can scale out more easily.
  2. This system would work anywhere the database covered. Indoor and underground environments would be fine. Areas where the camera could only see other people (i.e. crowds) would be a problem because the database wouldn’t have anything static to compare against.  If the camera depends on environmental light this system would perform poorly in dark areas (or at night.)
  3. If the camera’s images are streamed to the cloud the system’s provider would know exactly where each device was at all times. If the portion of the database related to a small area is streamed down to the device then the service provider will only be able to locate the device to within that small area. Either way, the provider will know where the user is to within a few hundred feet.
  4. If the camera images are streamed to the cloud, start-up times should be more or less instant. If the database is streamed down to the device it may take a few seconds to get things started, which is well within our tolerance.
  5. Current visual tracking systems have trouble reaching 30Hz, but Moore’s Law should take care of that eventually. For a system that streams the video to the cloud bandwidth can also affect update frequency. Once the link starts filling up with streams from other devices the update frequency goes down for every device.
  6. Visual tracking systems are quite accurate. Finding hard numbers is difficult, but there’s no reason to believe that a visual tracking system would be less accurate than 1cm.
  7. Visual tracking systems are power-hungry at the moment. They require fast cameras, fast network connections, fast CPUs on the mobile devices, and lots of memory. Because so much of the system is unknown, it’s hard to pin down numbers, but I would estimate that we need 100x power reduction before leaving this system on all the time is realistic. That will take Moore’s Law about ten years to accomplish.

If we can solve the low-light and power issues, a visual tracking system would certainly work for a small number of users. Solving the bandwidth constraint for a system that much of the population is using is a more daunting issue. All that bandwidth also makes the system expensive to operate, which will be passed on to end users as either usage fees or advertising. Building a workable generally available visual tracking system not an impossible problem, but it’s certainly a difficult one.

Personally, I’m not satisfied with either of these systems. I have thoughts on how to build a better one, but I’ll save those for a future post. What do you think? Am I missing any major requirements? Are any of mine unnecessary? Am I representing GPS or the imagined visual tracking system unfairly? Let me know in the comments!


In the interest of seeing just how wrong I can be twelve months from now, here is a list of things I think will happen in 2011. This is possibly the worst day of the year to write such a post, what with CES starting on Thursday, but that’s never stopped me before.

  1. Netflix will continue to kick ass. Their selection of streaming movies and TV shows will explode in 2011, though they will have to pay more for all that content.
  2. My internet connection will improve. Self-fulfilling prophecy? I hope so! I’ve had 1.5Mb/768kb DSL for ten years. It’s well past time to upgrade. In theory Qwest will be putting 20Mb service into my neighborhood soon, so maybe that’s in my future.
  3. Android will continue to kick ass and take names. 2011 will see >60% smartphone market share, a dizzying array of tablets and phones, and probably even some netbooks by fall. More and more apps will start to ship on both Android and iOS at the same time.
  4. Android 3.0 will include improvements for the annoying OS upgrade delays on that platform. Google will come up with some way to apply pressure on handset manufacturers and carriers to deliver the latest version of Android to uses in a more timely fashion.
  5. Still no consumer-level visual pass-through AR glasses. I said it last year, and I’ll keep saying it every year until I’m wrong. :)
  6. This will be the year the electric car revolution began. The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt will both sell well and set the stage for the electric cars of 2012 (including the Tesla Model S) to blow the doors off.
  7. This year will feature one “unthinkable ten years ago” level medical advance. Will it be a cure for cancer? Regrowing limbs from your own stem cells? Repair of severed spinal cords? Pain medication with no side effects? Who knows, but something big is going to happen this year.

And that’s it!  If it’s not on this list it’s not going to happen in 2011!

(Think maybe something might happen in 2011 that wasn’t on this list? Please add your own prediction in the comments and we’ll see how you do!)