TEDxBelfast 2012

TEDxBelfastAt TEDxBelfast last night I was inspired by the stories of individuals who passionately believed in an idea and then made that idea a reality. From working with autistic children to building a new arts centre, these people all made a difference. Presented in Titanic Belfast in front of the replica of the famous staircase, it was an unforgettable evening.

Titanic Staircase

As with all TED conferences, the presentations will be posted on-line but that will take a week or two before they are ready. In  the meantime, these are the speakers, their stories and how they made a difference.

David Maxwell of Tyrone Timberframes presented his work with Habitat for Humanity in building highly energy-efficient homes that have no central heating. The significant cost of fossil fuel-based energy can be a big factor in poverty and these homes can save the inhabitants over £1000 per year.

Maureen Murphy, Director of Aurion Learning, grabbed attention with the headline that 70% of training was wasted and proposed an innovative way of providing effective training using the acronym ASSAULT. One of the best bits was that of story-based approach that hooked the learner and got them more emotionally involved.

Fransuer Makula grew up in the slums of Kenya but is now a teacher in a prestigious school in Northern Ireland. Describing the harsh reality of existence as a street child, where death is commonplace, he related how the children dared to dream big. In the midst of utter poverty, these children wanted to grow up as doctors, nurses and lawyers. Fransuer established “Jengana” to help orphans, street children and schools in West Kenya.

Colleen Hardwick, billed as an urban geographer and serial entrepreneur from Vancouver, laid out the loss of personal engagement in democracy. The statistics she presented on the fall of voter turnout over the past few decades were shocking. To counteract the anonymous global nature of the web, she’s developed PlaceSpeak, a community-based website that lets local people be authenticated as stakeholders in local issues without necessarily giving up that anonymity.

Next was an absolute gem…acoustic guitar duo Declan McKerr and Andy Toman, aka Gypsy’s Wish, serenaded TEDxBelfast, equipped with a brand-new George Lowden guitar. His guitars are world-famous with owners such as Eric Clapton and Mike Oldfield. Sublime.

Following a musical theme, Chris Blake, Principal Horn with the Ulster Orchestra, talked about the work he’d done with autistic children and the therapeutic value of music. The results were truly ground-breaking, increasing the evidence between autism and musicality.

Dr Nigel Hart took us all on a trip to the peaks and Mt Everest in particular in his talk on Mountains, Medicine and Mantras. Clearly a keen mountaineer, he combined his medical training with his passion to investigate the effects of hypoxia on humans at altitude. During his climb to the top of the world, he had to rescue another climber who had collapsed. Apt for many shared endeavours, his response to the famous climbing question was not, “Because it’s there” but rather, “It’s not the height or the distance, it’s the people you travel with.”

Anne McReynolds, CEO of the Belfast Metropolitan Arts Centre, had TEDxBelfast captivated by her struggle to get a world-class arts centre built in Belfast. Starting in 1996 and finally opening in 2012, it’s an amazing story of architects and artists (“good clients get good buildings”), buildings and space. If you want to build an arts centre, Anne should be the first person you talk to.

Colin Williams of Sixteen South tackled the “Can’t Do” attitude that has often afflicted Northern Ireland with a great story of “Can Do” success. It’s likely that you’ll never have heard of Sixteen South, a children’s TV production company but if you have kids under five you’ll have heard of Sesame Tree, Big City Park, Pajanimals, and Big & Small. Working with the BBC and The Jim Henson Company, Sixteen South produces these great TV programmes here in Northern Ireland. Fantastic.
Colin’s business plan was pretty clever too. “Do some good, make some money, have some fun.” Good advice for anyone.

Chris Horn completed the speaker line-up with his inspiration for Dublin’s Science Gallery, an exhibition space that takes a creative and artistic approach to the presentation of science and related issues. By taking the traditional remit of a science museum and combining it with the changing presentation of an art gallery, the Science Gallery is an innovation in itself that has proved tremendously successful. So much so that Google recently awarded the Science Gallery $1m to setup other Galleries around the world.

Overall, it was a great evening, with inspirational speakers in a fantastic setting. Thanks also to Davy Sims and Gary Burnett and Mark Finlay for organising #TEDxBelfast.

Proof That All HDMI Cables Are Created Equal

Turns out that higher price doesn’t really equal higher quality with HDMI cables. They are all equally awesome.

An experiment with HDMI cables is being touted as showing definitive proof that expensive HDMI cables perform no better than cheaper competitors.

Posted to Expert Reviews, the study compared HDMI cables – from relatively cheap (just a few dollars) to painfully expensive (a couple hundred dollars). What sets this experiment apart is the thoroughness employed to make sure as many variables as possible were controlled – essentially creating a conclusion that it would be nearly impossible to refute.

Focusing on the output from the HDMI cables led author Tom Morgan used a PC to output a Blu-ray version of an open-source film called Sintel and recorded the output on capture card. That allowed him to look at raw, un-corrected frames of this film.

Utilizing identical screenshots (those on the PC and those on the capture card), he compared the before and after using programs that identify individual pixel variations, as well as documenting the “digital fingerprint” of the frame on each end of the HDMI cable.

The result?  “What’s clear from our tests is that we got no errors on any of the cables, and more expensive cables did not improve image quality at all. Given our results, we’d definitely buy cheaper HDMI-certified cables.”

In other words – the higher price on some HDMI cables appears to be hype. Unless you subscribe to the “I just got new sneakers and I can run faster and jump higher” school of thought, don’t waste your money on pricey HDMI cables when the cheap ones work just as well.

Photo Credit: HDMI Cable from Big Stock Photo

Touchscreens Get Physical

Dynamic touch screen technology. Deformable tactile surface. Haptic user interface.

Whatever you want to call it, Tactus Technology is poised to change the way you think about what has become near-ubiquitous touch-screen technology. Imagine a touch screen that rises to meet your fingers – keyboard configurations that physically pop up from the screen. That’s what Tactus says it will bring to market in 2013.

TG Daily reported yesterday that Tactus Technology “uses microfluidic technology to create physical buttons that rise from the touchscreen to give users the experience or feeling of operating a physical keyboard. When no longer needed, the buttons recede back into the touchscreen, leaving no trace of their presence.”

Tactus expects its new tactile touch technology could be implemented across all modern touch screen devices – from smart phones and handheld gaming to readers and in-dash auto screens.

The Future of Touch Technology…From Disney?

As ubiquitous as touch screens have become over the past decade or so, the future of touch technology is right around the bend. Actually, it seems to be in Pittsburgh, PA, of all places. Even less expectedly, it can be found at the Disney Research facility there.

The new technology is a complex touch and gesture sensing technology called “Touché” that uses a Swept Frequency Capacitive Sensing technique. This technique essentially allows for sensors to read a range of actions, touches or gestures, rather than the conventional, binary approach we see now with touch screens (basically, touch or no-touch).

In addition to reading complex touch actions over a range of objects far beyond our current touch screens (think doorknobs, furniture, appliances), Touché can also be implemented to read gestures.

As usual, seeing this new technology in action does far more justice than simple explanation.  Some of the examples are pretty impressive – controlling the music player on your phone or device through customized hand gestures. Some are just plain weird – teaching children how to eat cereal by sounding a buzzer when they use the wrong utensil (seriously, who came up with that one? That’s some old-school psychological conditioning right there).

The practical implications of this technology are fascinating. With the sensors used to capture gesticulations and touch interactions with virtually any object, this type of technology widely implemented could fundamentally change entire environments. Your door handle “learns” your touch. Your couch learns your entertainment habits and adjusts ambiance based on your posture. Heck, this stuff even works underwater.

Pretty impressive stuff from the folks that typically bring us cartoons and kid’s programming.

Tech Bubble? There’s An App For That.

Courtesy Facebook

Whether he knows it or not, Mark Zuckerberg fired the starter’s pistol when he reportedly single-handedly spent more than $1 billion on photo-sharing app Instagram earlier this month. The Facebook CEO apparently cut his board of directors out of the picture and decided unilaterally to purchase the relatively small Instagram for a universally huge sum of $1 billion-plus.

Nearly two weeks later, we find out that Facebook dropped another half-billion dollars on a patent buy from Microsoft – who had purchased that chunk of patents and more from AOL for a billion bucks around the same time Facebook bought Instagram.

Courtesy LinkedIn

That might qualify as a spending spree. And when one social media giant whips out its checkbook like that, you can bet a handful of other players start to wriggle a bit in their office chairs. On the other side of things, when one of those checks gets delivered to the owners of an app, you can bet the sea of app developers starts to roil and swell with the “next big thing” hoping to emerge from the churn and become overnight gazillionaires. [Read more...]

Google’s Project Glass Parodies Better Than Actual Glasses

Criticism and mockery of Google’s newly announced Project Glass – the Internet giant’s recent foray into tech in the form of augmented reality eye glasses – flourished almost as soon as the announcement was made.

At this point, taking shots at Google and anything they do is sport, so the eruption of criticism over Project Glass has made getting a quality analysis of this new future-product a bit daunting. However, PCWorld has put together a fairly level-headed piece on the pros and cons of Google’s  “hybrid glasses that act as a miniaturized smartphone wired with hands-free access to a micro display, cameras, microphone, Web browser, and speech recognition” – minus the hysteria and outrage I’ve been seeing across the Web over the past couple of days.

Fodder on these new augmented reality glasses has mainly been aimed at the video Google released to show the new glasses in action:

It’s hard to admit that doesn’t look pretty neat. However, the industry as a whole has pegged Google as a tech-company-turned-advertising-company because of their knack for gathering data and putting ads in front of every user at every possible opportunity. With that in mind, here is probably a more realistic look at what Project Glass will end up looking like:

I mean – c’mon. It’s Google. It would be weird to NOT see ads.

 

VESA and DisplayPort

VESA LogoVESA, the Video Electronics Standards Association has been responsible for defining many video-related standards, starting with SVGA in the late 80s. More recently VESA has been defining and promoting DisplayPort, the latest video interconnect. Andy and Dave chat to Craig Wiley, VESA Chairman, to understand the technology.

Display Port LogoIn developing DisplayPort, VESA has worked to ensure that the standard meets the needs of the modern user. The standard allows for multiple screens at high resolutions and the aim is to replace VGA, DVI and HDMI with a single connector. Cleverly, DisplayPort has backwards compatibility with the legacy devices as the DisplayPort itself is powered, so cable adaptors can be used to convert the signals to an older connection types.

Moving forwards, the basic DisplayPort can drive a 4096 x 2048 display with 30 bit colour depth at 60 Hz. Other resolutions and bit depths are possible but there’s a trade off between resolution and bit depth as it’s the overall bandwidth that’s the constraining factor. DisplayPort v1.2 also supports the daisy chaining of video displays, which is pretty cool.

Interview by Andy McCaskey of SDR News and RV News Net, and Dave Lee from Waves of Tech.

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Diversity in Silicon Valley

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c2/San_Jose%2C_California%2C_USA.jpg/275px-San_Jose%2C_California%2C_USA.jpgDoes Silicon Valley have a diversity problem. That question is raging today on Twitter and Google Plus after the screening of the show Black in America 4 produced for CNN by Soledad O’Brien which will air in a couple of weeks. One of the participants  in the show was Michel Arrington, who said “I don’t know a single black entrepreneur”. He then went on to say he thought that Silicon Valley was a meritocracy and that the best rise to the top no matter their race, sex or creed. This is when the fireworks started. Many called him out on the idea that Silicon valley is colored blind and a pure meritocracy. It is true that the customer doesn’t care who is behind a piece of technology as long as it works, however the business side of Silicon Valley is a different story.

Silicon Valley is no different then the rest of society. The problem is not out-and-out racism, the problem is one of familiarity. As Hank Williams an African-American entrepreneur pointed out people tend to gravitate toward those who are like them. Investors and most mentors in Silicon Valley are white and male and they tend to naturally gravitate toward young, white male entrepreneurs. In other words the investors finds those who fit a pattern that they are looking for. It often happens without any thought or intention behind it. Often groups like NewMe Accelerator which focus on helping black tech entrepreneurs, have trouble even getting mentors or investors to take a look at them. Hank Williams said Techcrunch barely looked at NewMe Accelerator at the last tech meet up. That when they finally did  the Techcrunch report was mostly about the group itself and not about the individual tech companies that were working within it.

If this discussion highlights one thing it is that if you are white and male you need to tread lightly when the conversation about diversity comes up. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk about it, but expect a reaction especially if you make sweeping statements like Michael Arrington did.

ASUS Combines Smartphones and Tablets With The Padfone

Considering the relative success ASUS has already seen in the tablet space it’s no surprise they want to keep them coming. The EeePad Transformer, according to them, is selling pretty well and they recently revealed another impressive Android tablet… err phone… no, tablet phone… Oh yea, it’s the Padfone.

What if we could take our tiny smartphone screen and blow it up to 10.1-inches whenever we wanted? We’d never have to squint again and when our phone rings we could just squish it back down to handheld size and answer the call. See where ASUS is going with this?

Rather than going out and spending money on a smartphone and a tablet, ASUS is going to combine the two… sorta. The smartphone will be just like any other Android handset we’ve seen before. What separates the Padfone from the competition isn’t the handheld itself, but the dock. In essence, the “Pad” aspect of the Padfone is just a 10.1-inch touch screen USB monitor with a battery shoved in it.

The phone provides all the computing power and a 3G connection for access to the web. Toss it in the back of the Padfone tablet-dock and your ready to go. The phone connects to a mini-HDMI and mini-USB at the same time, then you close the lid, completely hiding the handset it from view.

Details were absent regarding which version of Android will be running on the Padfone, but speculation is already swirling the web with “Ice Cream Sandwich” in the eye of the storm. It is definitely a possibility — ASUS says the Padfone’s interface will automatically adjust to better suit the larger screen size when it is docked and Google has already told us Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) would not be coming to smartphones. If you check out the promo video on the Padfone site you’ll see the same navigation bar we were introduced to in Honeycomb. But, if Honeycomb isn’t coming to smartphones (where the “brains” of this device will be located) than we can only move forward, right?

No pricing or availability was announced so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens over the coming months. As far as Ice Cream Sandwich goes, Google’s Eric Schmidt will be talking at the D9 Conference later today — fingers crossed we’ll learn something there.

History Is About To Repeat

I remember it well. Back around October of 2004, I first heard the word “podcast” used on The David Lawrence Show via my XM Satellite Radio. It sounded interesting, and I wrote it down on my driver logbook cover with the idea of looking it up later. I heard David mention it again once or twice over the next few weeks. Finally, in early December of 2004 I finally got around to looking it up. I found Adam Curry’s podcast, realized what it was, and knew that I felt compelled to not only listen to podcasts but get involved as a podcaster myself. This was exactly what I’d been looking for for many years – a wide variety of content that I could choose, download, and control the playback/consumption of on MY terms.

Podcasting took previously-existing elements and applied them with a new twist. MP3 files had already existed for a number of years. Virtually every computer already came with a sound card and had the basic ability to both play back and record audio. Portable MP3 players had been around for a while. Apart from Adam Curry’s and Dave Winer’s contribution of the podcasting concept and making it work, the one key element that suddenly made podcasting viable and actually inevitable was the fact that Internet bandwidth got good enough to make it practical.

Practical is an important key.

We have now passed another important milestone in terms of mobile bandwidth. Mobile bandwidth, while not yet perfect, has improved dramatically in both terms of data delivery and coverage. About three or more years ago I had experimented with streaming audio via my smartphone while driving my truck, and quickly determined that it wasn’t viable. I couldn’t listen long at all before I would lose the stream. No problem, I had plenty of podcasts to listen to.

I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about Pandora.Com lately, so last week I finally tried the Pandora Android app out on my new Sprint HTC Evo. To my surprise, it worked amazingly well – even in Arizona and the western third of New Mexico along Interstate 40 where Sprint still has 1XRT service. The streaming music sounded great, and the few times it did briefly drop out in a couple of mountainous areas, it automatically reconnected and reestablished the playback stream.

(By the way, a side note – I was surprised to learn that Verizon has NO data card coverage around the Kingman, Arizona area – my Verizon aircard would NOT connect in the Kingman area.)

Streaming radio via the Internet in a moving vehicle is now practical. Smartphones have also reached critical mass to the point where they are really beginning to move into the mainstream. Even though streaming Internet audio has been around for quite a few years at this point, I believe the automotive market for streaming audio is about to open up in a massive way.

Up until this point most people have felt that streaming Internet radio had plateaued or was only going to grow slowly. I believe that improved cell networks along with smartphone proliferation will create a new market for streaming audio services. The automobile has been the traditional stronghold of terrestrial and now satellite radio services. An old kid that’s been around a while suddenly has a big and growing shot at a new lease-on life.

I believe opportunities exist for streaming Internet radio stations that deliver highly specialized content. For us geeks, imagine a 24/7 tech-centric streaming station. The sky really is the limit. The cost of running a streaming station can be very low, so therefore it becomes possible and practical to narrowcast to relatively small audiences.