October 2003

Wearable Computing Conference Highlights

Just got back from the 7th IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computers. As always, the subjects spanned several fields including augmented reality, machine perception, biosensors, fashion design and ergonomics, human-computer interaction, textiles, and systems. I’ll post a link to a full trip report in a few days, but here are a few highlights:

  • Implantables (keynote): it’s always nice when a keynote can do a conference one better, and that was certainly the case this year. Dr. Michael Okun, co-director of the University of Florida Movement Disorders Center, discussed and showed videos from his work on surgical treatment of Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders using deep brain stimulator therapy (DBS). Okun and his colleague probe deep inside a fully awake patient’s brain with a micrometer lead and start “listening” to individual neuron firings to tell what part of the brain they’re probing. The target is the part of the brain that controls motion for the body part experiencing tremors — a spot about the size of a small pea. Then they insert a deep-brain lead attached to an embedded pacemaker-like device that sits in the chest. The device emits electrical pulses that change the pattern with which the neurons fire, and within seconds the patient’s tremor stops. The videos he showed were almost like magic; you can literally turn on and off a person’s tremor using a remote control.

    Even more thought-provoking is that when you move the deep-brain lead you can affect not just other motor functions but also cognition and emotions. Some of the videos he showed were of patients with slightly misplaced electrodes (placed by other labs). Depending on where the electrode has been placed, activation can induce face twitches, contralateral (one-sided) smiling, giggling and laughter, crying attacks, manic attacks, euphoria, severe depression, fear or anxiety. Some patients would cry while experiencing a sudden overwhelming feeling of sadness, while others would go into a fit of uncontrollable sobbing but have no feeling of sadness at all. To see all these effects induced with what looks like a normal TV remote is rather amazing, as is the thought that Okun thinks such techniques might one day be used to treat affective disorders, severe depression, or possibly even conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder.

  • Memory Glasses: Last year Rich DeVaul presented a poster on some preliminary work showing that he could successfully cue people’s memory by displaying subliminals on a head-up display. The idea is that such a system might be used as a “zero attention memory aid,” designed to help a person remember names, facts or conversations without the additional cognitive load usually required. This year he presented a more complete study that bears out his hypothesis: subjects did about 1.5 times better on a match-names-to-faces recall test when they had subliminal cuing with names than when they didn’t have cuing. Even more intriguing, when subjects were given an incorrect subliminal cue (a name that matches a different face), they still did slightly better at remembering the correct name, presumably because the subliminal primed the memorization process as a whole even if it didn’t prime the specific name. This secondary effect was not quite statistically significant (p = 0.06) but if real it might mean that the subliminal only needs to be related to an event to have a positive effect. For example, you might better remember a conversation with your boss just by having a subliminal flashback of an image of what he was wearing at the time.

  • Sociometer: The real structure of a business isn’t the official organization chart but the informal network of who communicates with whom. In the late 1980s Olivetti and Xerox PARC used their active badge technology to explore some aspects of these networks, but Tanzeem Choudhury is taking it several steps further with active badges that can not only map out who talks to whom (using infrared beacons) but also the style of turn-taking that is used in a conversation (using microphones). Through this she’s able to, for example, determine who has more social prestige in a group by who modifies his or her speech patterns to match the other person in a conversation.

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New iPod Accessories

Just in case anyone was still in doubt that Apple’s iPod is going to slowly grow into a universal portable media server, Apple has just announced several new iPod accessories, including a voice recorder (microphone to turn the iPod into a dictaphone) and media reader (accepts various media cards and slurps the data onto the hard drive for later retrieval). The iPod isn’t the first hard-drive based MP3 player to offer these extras (Archos has had one for a while), but Apple goes one step further with automatic synchronization of recorded audio and stored pictures with iTunes and iPhoto respectively. Now if they can just add Bluetooth the iPod will be well on its way to becoming the personal server it’s destined to become.

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It was just a matter of time…

I just got my first automated blog-comment spam, attached to my post about artificial diamonds (I’ve since deleted it). Interestingly enough, the spam wasn’t meant for me or my readers but for Google — it was just random snatches of English peppered with the word “jewelry” and links to http://jewelry.lstor.com/, which produces more random phrases. No doubt the idea is to raise the pagerank of some real page that will go there later.

Wonder if this is what they mean when all those spammers keep telling me they can raise my Google ranking?

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Thoughts on the recall…

When the California recall started I saw it as an end-run around the Democratic process and a way for Republicans to do over an election they lost. I’ve changed my mind. However the recall started, it ended as a clear message from the people of California.

Some statistics helped put this in perspective for me. First, an LA Times exit poll reports that 25% of self-described liberals and 30% of Democrats voted in favor of the recall. (Annoying but free registration required for that link — may I suggest username cypherpunks22, password cypherpunks.) A fifth of Democrats, more than 40% of independents and 69% of conservatives voted for Schwarzenegger.

As for this being a do-over of an election that was already won, the people of California (myself included) were not very happy about the choices we got in that election. Democrats were stuck with an unpopular incumbent, and Republicans were egged on by Davis himself to nominate a candidate too far from center to be electable. Our dissatisfaction in that election was demonstrated by the lowest voter turnout on record and a full 3% of voters leaving the governor slot blank. To quote Jim Hightower, if the Gods had meant us to vote they would have given us candidates.

That said, I think Davis was a scapegoat for a much broader problem with how California is being run. As Governor he gets the spotlight, but blame goes to all. To Davis for not leading through force of personality and bully pulpit in times of crisis. To our partisan legislature for gridlock, sweetheart deals and gerrymandering of districts to offer safe havens for both Democrat and Republican incumbents. To previous administrations and legislatures for screwing up our energy deregulation process, and the Federal government for failing in their energy oversight. And to us, the citizens of California, for letting them get away with it and for misguided or poorly written initiatives like Prop. 13 and term limits that keep our system from running as it should.

Now with record voter participation, we have thrown the bum out and replaced him with an unknown. Incumbents throughout the state are no doubt aware that the anger directed against Davis will focus on others unless things change. I hope our new Governor will be able to leverage this mandate for change to turn things around before that happens, for all our sakes.


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Remember to vote if you’re in CA

Don’t forget to go vote today if you live in California.

And just so I don’t leave this ludicrous affair without a single post, Schwarzenegger yesterday said he would address all charges of sexual harassment in detail after the election.

He has also promised that after the election is over he will start answering questions from non-entertainment California press, debate (former) opposing candidates without requiring questions be given in advance, and start forming a policy.

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Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War

The Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland and Knowledge Networks have just released a report that sheds a lot of light on the much-reported polls that show Americans have serious misconceptions about the facts surrounding the Iraq War. (PIPA’s press release and questionnaire are also available).

At the heart of the PIPA study are three questions:

  • Is it your impression that the US has or has not found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al Qaeda terrorist organization?
  • Since the war with Iraq ended, is it your impression that the US has or has not found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?
  • Thinking about how all the people in the world feel about the US having gone to war with Iraq, do you think the majority of people favor the US having gone to war?

The answers, by the way, are “no clear evidence has been found,” “no weapons of mass destruction have been found,” and “the majority of people in the world do not favor the US having gone to war.” If you got at least one wrong don’t feel too bad: only 30% of people surveyed in three polls (June, July, and August-September) got all three correct.

The report is well worth reading, but here’s a brief summary of their findings:

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NeoMedia coming out with portable price-checker

NeoMedia has just announced a service where you can take a picture of an ISBN code (the barcode printed on every book jacket) with a cellphone camera and be automatically brought the the Amazon.com page for that book. From their press release:

“Now, shoppers can take out their Nokia(R) 3650 camera phone at Barnes & Noble, Border’s, or just about any other book store, and just take a picture of the ISBN on the book to comparison shop at Amazon.com right on the screen of their wireless Web browser,” Jensen said. “It’s kind of a high-tech version of the Santa Claus at Macy’s(R) sending Christmas shoppers to Gimbels in the classic movie, ‘Miracle on 34th Street’,” he mused.

Gizmodo suggests this is Barnes & Noble’s worst nightmare, but I expect it won’t hurt the large chains, as their volume keeps prices fairly close to Amazon’s as it is. It’ll be harder on independent bookstores, but even then there’s a premium that people are willing to pay for a book that’s already in their hot little hands. That premium will be even larger than the usual amount people will pay for bricks-and-mortar convenience because the customer is already in the store — I expect a lot more.

The biggest question for me is whether “now is the time.” I first saw this kind of technology about 6 years ago, both in a class project at MIT and in Anderson Consulting’s (now Accenture‘s) Shopper’s Eye project, and even briefly looked at doing a startup in this area just before the crash. It never quite felt like the time was right for this to go mainstream because the technology wasn’t in the hands of enough consumers. Clearly NeoMedia thinks we’re getting close.


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CIA and ICT developing anti-terrorism training “game”

The CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) is working to develop training simulations with the help of the Institute for Creative Technologies, a center within the University of Southern California that specializes in combining artificial intelligence, virtual reality and techniques from the videogame and movie industries to create interactive training simulations. The company recently received accolades for their “Full Spectrum Warrior” project, which was designed as a training aid for the US Army but has also lead to a commercial videogame for the X-Box. The Army project uses material developed with the Army Infantry School at Fort Benning and a rich AI engine to run trainees through both military and peacekeeping scenarios. For example, in one scenario the trainee plays an officer in charge of a unit that has just been involved in a traffic accident between a tank and a non-English-speaking civilian. If approved, the CIA’s simulation would allow analyst trainees to play themselves or the part of terrorist cell leaders, cell members, money-movers and facilitators.

The Washington Times, who broke the story, is highly critical of the project, comparing it to Vice Adm. John Poindexter’s ill-received Idea Futures project and quoting unnamed military officials and other critics who call it “a ridiculous and absurd scheme that makes Poindexter’s project look good in comparison” and suggest that “the key issue here is the CTC misspending funds on silly, low-priority projects, exactly the kind of thing that forced Admiral Poindexter to resign.” A follow-up article, also in the Washington Times, quotes former Georgia congressman Bob Barr (R-GA) as saying “Perhaps this is the reason we were surprised by September 11. If it weren’t so serious, it would be comical… What we ought to be doing is focusing our money and attention in identifying terrorists and their associates so we can be on the watch for these characters, not playing video games.” The Sydney Morning Herald was slightly less critical, but also linked the project with Poindexter’s projects.

It’s entirely possible that this project is too expensive (the CIA has not revealed the price tag) or that the simulation is in some way teaching the wrong lessons. However, the main criticism seems to be of the form “the CIA is wasting time playing video games,” which is patently absurd. Simulation role-playing has been an effective training tool in both the military and business for decades, and in fact much of the technology now seen in video games was originally developed for training U.S. Army officers. To suggest that the CIA should be out catching terrorists instead of playing video games is like suggesting the U.S. Army should be out fighting wars instead of wasting their time doing training exercises consisting of “running around with toy guns playing capture the flag.”

It’s pretty clear that there’s a thicket of political wrangling going on behind the scenes, and the Times story is a salvo fired by people who want this CIA project canceled. I’ve no idea whether this is a case of fighting over scarce funding, vengeance against the CTC, or an honest attempt to scuttle a project that won’t provide good training, and I won’t even begin to speculate. Hopefully someone with a better understanding of the ins and outs of intelligence and military politics (like Phil Carter at Intel Dump) will weigh in on this before long.

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