Recently in Technology Category
Like many of us in WPRB-land, I was deeply saddened today to learn that our friend and colleague George Mahlberg, better known as "Dr. Cosmo," had passed away this weekend. George was a true renaissance man with limitless interests and passions, and a consummate professional in everything he did. WPRB has lost a true friend and major presence.
We're in the process of preparing a memorial edition of "Nocturnal Transmissions" for this coming Friday, April 8, beginning at 22:00 (UTC -4). In the meantime, trip back with me by enjoying the long-time entrance theme to the program...
From the album "In-A-Gadda-Da-Oswald and Other Audio Tales" (1997, self-released).
At the bottom, there's a lovely footnote that instructs folks to "turn on your Bluetooth" for directions to the nearest Ikea store. I had seen this ad for a couple weeks before I bothered to try it out ... and Sunday afternoon was the moment of truth. It took a couple minutes of fiddling with my phone (Treo 700p) to get the Bluetooth function turned on, and then to leave it visible, and eventually a message popped up. "Would you like to accept IKEA-CollegePark.GIF into your device?" Setting aside my fear of viruses, I accepted the file and then opened it.
It's the first time I've encountered what is likely to be a growing trend, similar to the complex 2-d bar codes I previously wrote about ... but there are a few troubling elements here. For starters, I'm not sure that there are enough people (at least not in the US) who both know how to use Bluetooth and are willing to have their phones loaded down with this kind of content.
Second, the process is not anywhere near quick or impulsive. I had to wait a good 30 seconds after turning on my Bluetooth to receive the signal and then accept the file. Average phone users likely haven't turned on Bluetooth for anything other than their headsets and won't understand how to do file transfers. Unless I were actually waiting for the bus, I wouldn't have stopped for 2-3 minutes to fiddle with my phone to make this happen.
Third is the quality of the received ad itself -- and this is really a comment on IKEA's ad agency, not the technology behind it. I realize the content should be simple and relatively small for the average mobile device ... but this ad (A) looks terrible, (B) is misspelled, and (c) offers woefully inadequate directions.
So, what's next for this wave of advertising? Sadly, I see a decent amount of bad (hackers sending junk files when one is expecting a legitimate ad), a whole lot of disappointing (continued ineffectual spots like this one), and ultimately the ugly, a "Minority Report" kind of world where advertising is completely immersive, adaptive, and inescapable. The open question is whether Bluetooth is the right transmission mechanism ... just wait until GPS and 4G wireless technologies team up to start driving some kind of high-speed wireless ad delivery.
Courtesy of Sunday's New York Times, we have a report on the next frontier for mobile phones... enhanced bar code scanning functions. The Times even included a sidebar with instructions on how to activate the functionality on many phones. Honestly, I would have written this off as another April Fools prank (like Google's tradition of poking fun at itself), except that I actually recognize the new jack codes from overnight delivery packages. (Engadget weighs in with a heavy thumb on the snark scale and gets somewhat rebuffed by its own commenters.)
Here's the odd part -- absolutely no mention of the :CueCat in the entire article. Was everyone at the NYT asleep at the switch around 1999/2000? In a wired, digitally archived world, how could collective amnesia wipe out the privacy disaster foisted on an unsuspecting public courtesy of Radio Shack and trusted entities like Wired? Digital:Convergence, Inc., the original creator/designer of the :CueCat, is long gone, with its patents picked up by LV Partners, a "technology portfolio management" company.
Perhaps the new codes create fewer privacy concerns. The original :CueCat was doomed because devices each had unique IDs (that were quickly hacked, destroying the value of the system to merchandisers). Even with at least three sources for the codes, I don't see how the situation is all that different. All the codes still run through those central servers and generate the same demographic data -- and mobile phones have even more personally identifying information than a :CueCat did.
UPDATE: It seems that I needed to do a little more research... as NotAMonkey helpfully noted in the comments, NeoMedia licensed its patents to Digital:Convergence back in 2000 (when :CueCat was being launched). That information is not necessarily the end of the story, but it does eliminate some of my original speculations. To the extent that Digital:Convergence secured its own patents for "improvements" to the NeoMedia patents (and there wasn't a license-back provision drafted in 2000), there could still be a patent mess waiting in the wings -- but that turn of events is a little less likely than I'd originally expected.
Perhaps LV Partners already has licensed out the relevant technology and is reaping the financial rewards. If not, I'd expect a slew of lawsuits to start raining down on Qode / NeoMedia Technologies , QR Code / Denso Wave , and Semacode -- the technological overlap between :CueCat and these new codes is blazingly obvious to me as a somewhat casual observer.
Radio: Yes, I'll be taking over the airwaves yet again... Thursday evening (22-Feb), 8:00 p.m. here in the eastern USA at WPRB-FM, 103.3 FM in the lovely Delaware Valley and wprb.com for those on-line (streaming in RealAudio, Windows Media, and MP3). The recap will appear here shortly afterwards, perhaps with some excerpts in that popular MP3 format, but I'd love it if you could join me for some portion of the festivities.
Blogvergence: I've been fortunate enough to be selected as a judge for a fantastic contest that melds Deadly Tango and the Malt & Barley Chronicles -- naming the top 100 drinking songs of all time. Big Rock Candy Mountain is hosting the whole deal, and the current list of 350+ presented to the judges is strong (if a little countrified). Here's one that I'll be adding to the list shortly -- a song about drinking, a song I like to hear while drinking, a song perhaps recorded while the band members were (or had been) drinking.
Listen to The Cannanes -- "Take Me To The Hotel, Johanna (And Let's Trash The Joint)"
(From A Love Affair with Nature, Feel Good All Over, 1991)
The contest timetable is a little uncertain, but I'll keep everyone posted as the project moves forward. Your suggestions are also welcome... the more, the merrier.
Shop Talk: XM and Sirius announced their intention to merge. Amazingly, the surviving entity would really be Sirius (from a legal perspective -- XM shareholders will receive Sirius stock). I'm not excited about this proposal, as I noted over at Gizmodo. This deal could spell the end of satellite's free pass on content restrictions if it goes through, and the FCC certainly has the personal incentive (in the form of Howard Stern) to hold up this deal for a while. Add a loss of competition for true national coverage (mobile broadband isn't sufficiently ubiquitous to be a replacement) and a fight over spectrum (with the FCC likely to take back some of the combined company's bandwidth), and it's going to be a long, hot summer for Messrs. Karmazin and Parsons.
I've been playing around with this post idea for a while... and once again, my procrastination is rewarded with a current news item that allows for a more complete discussion. In this case, the subject is miniature FM transmitters and satellite radio.
Sirius now has joined XM in pulling certain receivers from the shelves due to complaints about interference with "left-of-the-dial" radio stations. I had first heard of this phenomenon anectdotally in late April, followed a week later by a report on MSNBC.com. Whether fair or not, the complaints seem mostly to focus on Howard Stern and rap music offending the sensibilities of listeners seeking National Public Radio or Christian radio stations.
This issue isn't the usual kind of FCC broadcasting complaint, however -- instead of content, the crux of this debate focuses on engineering and technology. Part 15 of the FCC Rules requires standard consumer equipment to not create interference with licensed transmissions and to accept interference created by licensed sources. In other words, the FCC policy for personal electronic devices is "use at your own risk" and "don't hurt anyone else."
The XM and Sirius receivers in question allow users to use an otherwise vacant radio frequency to receive the satellite audio signal. These devices have both a satellite receiver and a FM transmitter. Since users aren't required to apply for FCC licenses, the implication is that the XM or Sirius device, or third-party add-ons from Belkin and Griffin and others, is subject to Part 15 (as opposed to the FM broadcast regulations of Part 73). These receivers are supposed to be overpowered by a local broadcast signal -- if you're driving through an area with a licensed radio station at 88.1 FM, your in-car device should be drowned out by that broadcaster. The complaints are that the XM and Sirius devices are so strong that they are drowning out the licensed FM broadcaster, in violation of the FCC rules.
Personally, my experience with a third-party FM mini-transmitter was horrific -- the Belkin device created so much static that I could barely hear my XM signal even when I knew I was on an open frequency. I still have a cassette player in my car, so I use an old-fashioned adaptor that funnels the XM audio through the magnetic heads of the tape deck.
Oddly enough, the British "Office of Communications" is on the verge of authorizing the use of miniature transmitters for localized FM reproduction, such as the Griffin iTrip. The current UK regulatory framework places the iTrip (and presumably the XM and Sirius FM mini-transmitters) in the same category as pirate radio -- intentional, unlicensed transmissions on the FM dial. I'll be curious to see whether they suffer similar complaints down the road...