October 2005

Follow the yellow nubbly road!

Osaka has great infrastructure for helping the blind find their way. Not only is the city covered in these yellow bumpy paths you can follow with a cane or your foot (with differently shaped bumps at intersections so you can tell where to turn), but they’ve also got braille signs in all the subway stairwells explaining where this passage leads. The best part is how they put the braille in the best possible place for it to be found just by feeling around: wrapped around the handrail itself.

Osaka path for the blind Osaka braille railing

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Getting X-Windows and VGA out of an iPaq or Stargate board

Yesterday I took a tutorial on building a wearable computer from the Intel-based Stargate board. Both the Stargate and for that matter the iPaq have a good form-factor for a Tin-Lizzy-style wearable (small, low power and have USB-Host for a one-handed keyboard) except for the big problem that they don’t have VGA-out to drive a head-up display. Kent Lyons has developed a nice hack to get around this limitation. (Technical summary follows.)

The hardware Kent’s using is IO Data’s Compact-Flash XGA card. Compact Flash doesn’t have enough pins to memory-map, so the CFXGA card uses the BLT interface to send just the pixels that change. (The card is designed for giving PowerPoint presentations from your handheld so they’re not worried about fast-changing scenes.) Kent leverages this by using his own modified X server that can use the BLT interface. It’s only 640×480 at 16 bpp, but it’s enough for text and simple interfaces on a head-up display. There’s code and a brief how-to at Kent’s website, as well as an email address where you can bug him to add more detail :).

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Wires and the wearability problem

I picked up an iPod Nano as a birthday gift to myself, and love it. It’s small and light enough to fit in my shirt pocket, and I’m finding that even 2 Gig is enough for a wide range of my randomly-sampled music library (plus podcasts, which is really what I want to use it for).

The one big problem I have with it (besides still needing to buy some sort of sleeve to protect its screen) is what to do with the headphones when I’m not using it. The ones that come with it are always a tangled mess after sitting in my pocket, and the Javo Edge retractable kind seemed fine on my normal iPod but now actually takes up more room and is twice as thick as the iPod itself!

The problem of “what do you do with it when it’s not being used” is one that watches and belt-clip pagers have solved but iPods and cellphones headpieces really haven’t yet. Even wireless earpieces for cellphones don’t have a place when they’re not in use, though at least they don’t get tangled. It’s a harder industrial engineering problem than you might think, and one that I think often gets overlooked.

ipod-nano.jpg ipod-headphone-tangle.jpg

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Jack Radio

The latest buzz buzz in FM music formats is Jack-FM, a nationally syndicated format that eliminates DJs and replaces them with essentially random shuffle-play (the rough transitions between radically different songs is part of the charm). The playlist is pulled from a library of around 1,200 songs, about 3-4 times that of a traditional station, though all songs have to have been in the top 40 in the last 40 or so years. Jack-FM’s website attributes their success to the iPod making people comfortable with shuffle-play:

Random acts of greatness “jack” radio. Several kajillion iPod™ users can’t be wrong. Thanks to the shuffle feature, hearing different styles of music one after another feels completely natural, and desperate radio programmers have taken notice. The “Jack” format—so named for its Everyman inclusiveness—is popping up in every market to save commercial radio from obsolescence.

I’m skeptical about Jack “saving commercial radio from obsolescence” — it sounds more like the blowing of taps to me. Way back when, before the days of top-40 or Clear Channel, DJs actually added value through their extensive record collections and expert knowledge of who the hot new groups were. But that was then, and by eliminating DJs altogether, Jack is declaring that the job music-radio DJs do today can be done just as well and more cheaply by a random-number generator.

That may be true, but I have to wonder if the radio stations embracing this format have thought this cynical line of thinking all the way to its conclusion. If Jack is so wonderful because it emulates my iPod on shuffle play, then why the heck do I need their advertisement-filled, frequency-hoarding broadcast at all? Sure, 1,200 songs is better than 300, but my iPod holds over ten times that many songs, lets me skip songs, lets me pick my own formats and lets me share my playlists with my friends — all ad-free. The only advantages broadcast has over the iPod are expert DJs (which they’re eliminating), installed base of radios (which iPod-like technology will eventually match), and the arcane copyright laws that give radio broadcasters a way to legally broadcast without needing to pay the RIAA or recording artists (though they still pay song writers through BMI or ASCAP.) Even in the slow and bloody copyright wars, that third advantage is also slipping away. Today I can fill my iPod from an all-you-can-eat subscription service, from Creative Commons and other legal free-download sites, or from a number of less legal sources, and other sources keep rising. Once it becomes ubiquitous, why would we as a society keep granting exclusive rights to scarce public radio frequencies for such an archaic way to transmit music?

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Accelerating Change 2005 audio files are up

The audio archives for the Accelerating Change 2005 are now available from IT Conversations (all 25 sessions for $25 via PayPal), and will be published for free on the site at a rate of about one per week.. (They also have an RSS feed).

Update 10/30/2005: Podcasts for the Accelerating Change 2005 talks by both Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge are now available as free Podcast downloads.

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Forget-Me-Not Panties

Forget-me-not panties

Wondering why your daughter, wife or girlfriend stays out so late? Wonder no more with new forget-me-not panties, the underwear that gives her comfort and you peace of mind:

These panties will monitor the location of your daughter, wife or girlfriend 24 hours a day, and can even monitor their heart rate and body temperature…

These “panties” can trace the exact location of your woman and send the information, via satellite, to your cell phone, PDA, and PC simultaneously! Use our patented mapping system, pantyMap®, to find the exact location of your loved one 24 hours a day.

Brought to you by The Contagious Media Project, the brilliant minds that also created the Black People Love Us site and the Fundrace Neighbor Search.

(Thanks to Dan on the wearables list for the link.)

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Siemens shows off electrochromic paper-thin display


Siemens is showing off a paper-thin electrochromic display that they hope will eventually lead to an all-in-one device that uses printing technology to lay down the display, circuits and even the battery. According to the New Scientist:

The display is controlled by a printed circuit and can be powered by a very thin printable battery or a photovoltaic cell. The goal is to be able to create the entire device – the display and its power source – using the same printing method, so that manufacturing costs would be as low as possible. Siemens expects to achieve this by 2007.

Also impressive is that the display cost about £30 (just over $50) per square meter of materials.

Update 5pm: added link to Siemens announcement.

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JHymn unable to strip DRM from iTunes 6.0 purchases

Looks like JHymn is not able to strip the DRM off of any music or video purchased through iTunes 6.0, and that the new videos purchasable from the iTunes Music Store can only be played using iTunes 6. (Also note that you can’t easily revert to iTunes 5 after upgrading to iTunes 6.) Music that has already had the DRM stripped by JHymn will still play in iTunes 6.

It could be a bit of a wait before they reverse-engineer the new iTunes protocol. and until then I think I’ll pass on making purchases from their music store. If I’m going to give my hard-earned money for music, it’ll be a form where I can play it where I want, loan it to a friend or sell it to a used record store when I’m tired of it. The iTunes Music Store is great for convenience, but it’s short-term convenience in exchange for long-term pain.

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Video iPod

To the surprise of few, today Steve Jobs announced a Video iPod at his “One More Thing” press conference today. The main iPod now supports H.264 and MPEG-4 video formats, with a capacity of around 150 hours worth on the 60GB. You can also download movie trailers and purchase music videos at the iTunes Music Store for $1.99 each, and it looks like ad-free episodes of shows from ABC and Disney television are coming soon.

(As is traditional after Apple announcements (regardless of how good the news), AAPL is down five and a half percent so far today.)

Update 3:09pm: TV-show purchase is now up, with episodes for $1.99 and a full season for $34.99. And they’ve got Pixar shorts up for only $1.99 too! (Not sure if JHymn will work with video like it does with audio — I’ll try it out tonight.)

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