Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Augmented Reality

I attended an interesting CommNexus event regarding Augmented Reality last evening. Two companies (WowWee and Qualcomm) presented their current/future products and shared insights about this new area that is taking shape at an amazingly fast pase, primarily due to the processing power in smartphones.

Here are some insights from the event:

WowWee talked about and demonstrated AR games where fixed, pre-defined physical objects (model airplanes or toy figurines) that when paired with the game running on the smartphone (Android and iOS) would present a new 3D world on the phone screen. For example, an airplane model in the view of the smartphone camera would show up as a virtual airplane on the smartphone screen allowing you to play a dogfight with other virtual airplanes but the background, instead of being a virtual world, would be the view from the camera. So, you could visualize flying the airplane around the walls and ceilings of your room. Quite an interesting demo.

Qualcomm, through their internal startup ventures is pushing the technology behind AR and working with companies trying to use this functionality to develop apps on smartphones (again Android and iOS) that enhance user engagement by including AR into the app. They are providing an SDK for AR called Vuforia that can possibly exploit the AR engine in their SnapDragon chipsets that are being used by a large number of smartphones these days. They mentioned three areas where this is picking up interest - gaming, advertising and instructional apps. The first one was similar to that from WowWee. The second one was quite interesting. Brands (for example, Heinz ketchup) can build an app that, when you bring the ketchup bottle in the view of the smartphone camera, you can see recipes overlaid on top of the bottle. Or another example they gave was apparel manufacturers. Scanning a watch ad and then placing the hand in front of the camera caused the watch to be overlaid on top of the hand on the smartphone display. This was pretty cool and I think has interesting applications where you can "try" out how things might look on you without really stepping outside your home. The third application, instructional apps was also quite novel. If, for example, you point the camera at a TV set, its interactive user manual would be overlaid on top of the camera view on the smartphone display, allowing you to view specific aspects of control/setup of the TV without actually opening a printed or online user manual.

I think this field is in its infancy but has huge potential going forward. One of the key questions that was discussed was if holding the smartphone in one hand was cumbersome and clunky and the possibility of moving to heads up displays like those in the Terminator. The panel seemed to indicate that the expectation from users was always a heads up display but the form factor, weight, connectivity etc. will finally decide if users will adopt it. If the form factor is somewhat similar to that of Google glasses, and performs similar to some of the demos and videos then it might get better adoption. There was also mention of some companies working on contact lenses with this technology built straight into the lens. Spooky? Remember the scene from Minority Report with Tom Cruise walking through the mall and the various stores targeting ads directly to his retina?

I like the idea of using AR to code in front of a huge virtual screen, somewhat similar to that scene in Minority Report with Colin Farrel/Tom Cruise. I use dual monitors at work but I still feel that I need more screen space! Ideally, I would like to have a wall of virtual screen space with windows that I could pan, tilt and zoom, using hand gestures to move windows around and a keyboard to type on the active window and my finder as a 3D mouse. The various windows could be the different browser, debugger, emulator etc. sessions allowing me to switch contexts easily without using precious screen real estate. It would be interesting to see if a proof-of-concept like this could be hacked using a Kinect and a projector?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

100 photos in 30 days

After seeing Matt Cutts TED talk on trying something new for 30 days, I was motivated to take on a 30 day challenge. The fact that I took more than a couple of months to actually decide and execute on one is another story for another blog post! My initial goal was to click two photos every day, for 30 days. In order to make sure that I complete it without making it feel like a chore or an extra task in my already full daily schedule, I decided to take the pictures from my smartphone (Motorola DroidX) camera and use Google+ to share them instantly. Additionally, I chose to not go out of the way looking for scenic spots but rather take pictures from places that were part of my daily routine. This would serve twofold - reduce the possibility of goal abandonment and help build a photo-collage of places/things that I pass by every day but sometimes too busy to notice.

This turned out into a really fun and interesting exercise, much more than I had expected on the onset. On most days, I would think for a few minutes in the morning about what I would like to click that day. On other days, I would notice something interesting, take a quick detour and shoot impromptu. There were also those days when I was so busy that I would take pictures of some objects at home, to make sure that I did not miss the deadline for the day. Some of these pictures tuned out to be abstract enough to be interesting and introspect-able. Of course, there were some occasions when I took photos just to make sure I met the "quota" for the day, but I liked that aspect of the challenge too. It kept me from giving up before I reached the 30 days. What was inspiring was that midway into this journey, I decided to up the ante and turn this into a "100 photos in 30 day challenge."

Apart from just collecting 100 photos in my Google+ album, I learnt a lot of things and this is a blog post that talks about some observations and inferences. 

  • 30 days is actually not too long or not too short. It is just about the right amount of time to make a change in any small way. It is not too long that the ADD kicks in to attract you to another shiny toy and not too short to feel underwhelmed at the end of the exercise. 

  • I (finally) "get" Instagram. Coincidentally, it was in the midst of this 30 day challenge when the Instagram acquisition actually happened. My family and friends who were following me on Google+ were actually having a "connection" and "conversation" with me, even if we were in opposite sides of the globe. Even though I was not really uploading photos for this reason, they were hooked on to looking at the photos daily and +1ing the ones they liked, thereby showing interest and expressing anxiety waiting for the batch of photos for the next day. In fact my wife was disappointed on day 31 to not see any photo posts! A friend of mine "caught" me visiting San Francisco by spotting my photo of the Golden Gate bridge. I even played around with some filters from the "creative kit" to make some photos look richer or abstract.

  • Stop and wait to smell flowers. Well, literally and figuratively. Some days I was so much stressed at work that it was so relaxing to just go outdoors and look at flowers and walk around the landscape and take photos. The nice thing about flowers is that they are the easiest to find and it is very refreshing and calming to look at pictures of landscapes. If you look close enough, you might find insects and some of them are photogenic enough to add to your collection.

  • It is fun to look at everyday objects from a different angle - bookshelves, toy cars, crayons and even a bag of frozen vegetables can all be made to look interesting!

  • Are point and shoot cameras on the verge of extinction? I think I was able to capture fairly good photographs. I got very good results in bright sunlight and reasonably good ones in less light conditions. Automatic panoramic stitch up of photos on smartphones is also quite good as you can see from one of the photos I clicked to get a 180 degree panoramic view from the sidewalk in front of Hard Rock Cafe on Pier 39 in San Francisco. The iPhone seems to have already become the most popular camera on Flickr. In fact, a short film shot entirely on the iPhone won the Berlin Film Award and now there are websites that track this category of short films.

  • Looking at some of the photos and judging by some of the feedback that I got, makes me really wonder - if I can get good pictures like these using a smartphone in its "Auto" settings and capturing moments while not going really out of the way, wouldn't it be more fun and rewarding if I got out my DSLR and bought a better zoom lens/filters and got out on photo-breaks during lunch hour or mini photo-vacations?

  • A blog post. A conversation starter. I've had a couple of interesting conversations about the photos that I was clicking, while I was taking the photos and even after uploading them. I know 10 years later, one day, I am going to look at this album and remember the fun time I had and have another conversation with somebody!

  • Lastly, like Matt said in the TED talk, the next time somebody asks me what I do for a living, I don't have to sound geeky or stereotypical and say "Programmer", I can sound artistic by saying I am a "Photographer."

If you haven't done a 30 day challenge, what are you waiting for? Find something small and simple and add it into your daily routine. Keep at it for 30 days, then introspect. It is a rewarding and a fun experience.