Archive for the ‘History’ Category

7 kinds of Media?

I recently watched this video from AWE 2013 by Toni Ahonen on why Augmented Reality is the 8th mass media. The part of his talk that didn’t quite sit right with me is his list of types of Mass Media. Here’s the list (including his new 8th type):

  1. Print (books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, etc.) from the late 15th century
  2. Recordings (gramophone records, magnetic tapes, cassettes, cartridges, CDs, DVDs) from the late 19th century Cinema from about 1900
  3. Radio from about 1910
  4. Television from about 1950
  5. Internet from about 1990
  6. Mobile phones from about 2000
  7. Augmented Reality from about now

I have two problems with this list. The first is that software is mostly absent. If I download an app from the app store or install a piece of software off a physical disk isn’t that a kind of media? One of those is arguably “Internet” and “Mobile”, but they’re both basically the same thing and both certainly qualify as “mass”.

My second problem is that the list seems to be an odd mix of content types and distribution mechanisms. Print gets one entry despite having a zillion forms. Audio and video both get two entries even though they’re both distributed in significant ways over the Internet. And Augmented Reality isn’t really either one, it’s sort of a kind of software that might not even be distributed.

I would use a different list:

  1. Print – The written word, including digital words like the ones you are reading right now. This includes still photography and all the flat kinds of art. – from the late 15th century
  2. Audio – Spoken words, music, and other kinds of sound regardless of distribution mechanism. – From about 1900
  3. Video – Moving pictures regardless of the distribution mechanism. – From about 1900
  4. Software – Pretty much anything where you are interacting with an automated system. This became a mass media with the personal computer revolution. – From about 1980

If you need to talk about how this media is transferred you could build a related list of distribution mechanisms:

  1. Physical – Somebody drops a hunk of dead tree on your doorstep or you buy a movie on physical media at a store and carry it home. – Since forever
  2. Radio – An analog or digital signal using radio waves. – Since about 1900
  3. Land Line – An analog or digital signal travelling down a wire or hunk of optical fiber. – Since the late 1800s
  4. Internet – This actually happens on top of land lines and radio, but it abstracts away all of that so well that it probably deserves to be its own distribution mechanism. – Since about 1995 (as a mass thing)
  5. Undistributed – Live performances or one-of-a-kind artifacts. The consumer has to physically go somewhere to experience things that are transferred this way. – Since forever

And if you care about the style of distribution there’s a third list:

  1. Broadcast – One producer, many consumers. The printing press started this, arguably. – Since the late 15th century
  2. Peer to Peer – Many producers, many consumers. For print this would include letter writing. – Since the invention of written language
  3. Many to One – Many producers, one consumer. This is used for things like the census, tax returns, and polls. – Since the invention of governments

Maybe it’s just my engineer-brain talking, but this seems like a much more clear way to express the various types of mass media. The thing is, I’m not sure it’s actually any more useful than that first list. The point of the first list seemed to be to make first Internet companies feel good about themselves. Then later that was expanded to Mobile companies and now it is being expanded to Augmented reality companies. Did anybody ever look at that list and gain any kind of insight?

What do you think? Is this sort of breakdown of media types useful?

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.

Computer Clubs

I’m old. Well I’m not really that old in the grand scheme of things, I just feel that way when I hang around game developers.

I got my first real computer time in the fall of 1982 by hanging around after school and hacking some stuff in BASIC on the Vic-20 in the library.  I was in 5th grade at the time, and was by far the most computer-obsessed person I knew. That christmas my parents bought me a TI-99/4A and a little black and white TV to hook it up to. Technically the computer was a present for “the family”, but in practice it didn’t really work out that way. I was obsessed with the TI, and wrote all sorts of little games and other programs on it.

A few years later I spent all my accumulated allowance and paper route money on a Commodore 64. The C64 was a big upgrade, and included such advanced features as a floppy drive and a 300 baud modem. It also had the advantage of having a manufacturer that was still in the PC business. (TI abandoned its home computer line shortly after we got ours.)  I spent quite a bit of time on the local BBSes, much to the delight of the other 4 people I shared a phone line with. Once I had a car began participating in one of the staples of the personal computer revolution: the computer club.

The local commodore user’s group met once a month in one of the classrooms at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. It was a group of 20-30 people, many of which came from the university or worked at the local Hewlett-Packard site. Computer enthusiasts were pretty few and far between in those days, and this was one place where we all fit in. Just about everybody in that room was a geeky, sci-fi reading, D&D playing male. Everybody could program to one degree or another, and more than a few knew their way around a soldering iron. Despite all the other things they had in common it was those last two that brought this group together: everyone wanted to do cool stuff with computers.

I don’t know if that kind of community disappeared or if I just fell out of touch with it. There are millions of programmers these days, and they are usually specialized enough that they barely speak the same language let alone program in it. Being a “hardware guy” now means that you are comfortable plugging together prebuilt components and hunting down device drivers online. The inexorable march of progress has pretty much made the computer itself disappear as something people get excited about. Nobody cares enough about specific platforms these days to even have the sort of trash-talking arguments Commodore and Apple fans used to have with each other.

Does this sort of passionate niche club still exist? The Seattle Robotics Society might fall into that category. They spend their meetings talking about various components to build robots from and what sort of code to put on microcontrollers to make their robots do interesting things. The meetings feature lots of teenagers learning things about robots that they would never have any exposure to at school. There seems to be the same mix of Boeing engineers and college students that the computer clubs had.

What about others? Are there clubs for wearable computer enthusiasts? People who design programming languages? Quantum computing fans? Or are we nearing the end of the innovative period for computing and somewhere there are developing pockets of interest around nanotech or some other technology that doesn’t really exist yet?

It’s funny that I’m so nostalgic for something that was already going extinct by the time I got involved. My experience with the computer clubs was 10-15 years after the Homebrew Computer Club spawned Apple Computer and others. The people I met in the clubs were not entrepreneurs to be, they were more like fans and maybe the occasional shareware developer. It’s been twenty years, and I’ve never seen any of those names show up as leaders of industry.

What about you? Are any of you old enough to have belonged to a computer club?  :)

Pirates Post-partum at ION

At ION I gave a talk on our development process for Pirates. Darius Kazemi has posted a transcript of the talk. It’s also up at the Vault Network. I wonder how much buzz it’s going to get.

I’m giving the same talk at AGDC this year, so if you missed me at ION you can catch it there.

Gamasutra interview from PAX

While we were at PAX Rick Saada (of Castle of the Winds fame) and I sat down with Tom Kim from Gamasutra to record an interview. It covers the history and development of both Pirates of the Burning Sea the game and Flying Lab Software the company. They’ve posted the podcast over at Gamasutra.

The Pirates interview starts about 10:30 into the podcast.