All Set for a Year of Internet Appliances?

Towards the end of last year, my better half rediscovered the joys of radio… Around the same time, James Cridland wrote a post extolling the virtues of the Pure Evoke Flow wifi radio (Pure Evoke Flow – what it means for radio, or see this video walkthrough), so that was that Christmas present sorted…

As JC pointed out in his post, gadgets like the Evoke Flow could indeed be a game changer. On Christmas Day, we were wifi-less, which meant that the first experience of the radio was as a DAB radio. A quick self-tune on start-up, and a good selection of DAB channels were available. Getting back home meant we could get the wifi channels too – configuring the radio with a wifi key went smoothly enough, and getting an account with the online Lounge service provided a key to register the radio with lots of online goodness.

Wifi radio channels can be favourited online, along with podcast subscriptions, and stored in separate folders; the favourites are then also available on the radio itself. Radio stations can also be browsed and favourited on the radio itself – favouriting them also adds them to a particular folder in your online account.

So here are a few of my immediate impressions:

  • being able to just switch the radio on and tune into a wifi radio or podcast station is really attractive; no need for the radio to receive content via an intermediary PC – it gets its network connection directly from your wifi router;
  • within a few minutes of being connected for the first time, the appliance found a software update and offered to install it – a process which was achieved quickly and efficiently; in an age where automatic software updates are increasingly possible, what does this mean for built-in/planned obsolence?
  • the integration between the appliance itself and the online account means that the radio has a full web browser interface and management tools, if required. (I’d quite like an iPhone interface too;-) I’ve written about “dual view” working before (Dual View Media Channels) – here’s an example of it in action with an interface for one device being provided through another.
  • the appliance makes good use of soft/programmable buttons – a bit like a mobile phone, the functionality of the “buttons” is context dependent; the “undo” (or “go back” a step) button is incredibly useful, too.

I haven’t tried streaming music to the appliance from another computer, but that facility is also available.

From even just a couple of days playing with the Pure Evoke Flow, I’m sold on it – and the idea of streaming, dedicated internet appliances in general. So the idea of the BBC/ITV set-top box – Project Canvas – really appeals… (e.g. Canvas and the connected home and Partners to bring broadband to the TV; looking forward, this is also relevant: IMDA – Internet Media Device Alliance, a trade alliance for agreeing on protocols and formats for streaming digital media).

While on the topic of internet TV (sort of!), I noticed an advert last night on ITV for the ITV player… which is something I’d missed… Assuming that this revamp would be of yet another Windows only player, I was pleasantly surprised:

So if, as with me, the announcement passed you by, here’s a catch-up: in early December, 2008, ITV rebranded its online catchup TV service as ITV Player.

(Sky also launched a (subscription based) online TV play, called – can you guess? – Sky Player (e.g. as reported here: Sky and ITV launch new Silverlight online video players). Channel 4’s watch again service is still tethered to Windows, although some Channel 4 content – such as Shameless – is available via the Flash powered Joost.)

Unlike the Adobe Flash’n’Air approach taken for the BBC iPlayer, ITV and Sky have both opted for Microsoft’s Silverlight (as described in ITV’s case here: Silverlight on the ITV Player).

PS I’m not sure what this means, if anything, but both Apple and Intel have been buying into Imagination technologies, the parent company of Pure (Intel ups stake in Imagination following Apple’s buy-in). Imagination own the IP to the semiconductor cores used in a wide range of digital appliances, so tracking their news releases and OEM relationships over the next year or two could prove interesting…

PPS the consequences of this imagined phrase kept me awake a couple nights ago: “Pure Camvine Flow“. If Project Canvas resulted in an Imagination core capable of streaming BBC and ITV content, what would it mean if those cores were integrated within Camvine “digital signage” screens, so you could just plug your screen in, connect it to your home network, and start streaming watch again and catch-up content? (Ideally, of course, there’d be an iPlayer desktop like facility too…:-)

PPPS Here’s an interesting interview with Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix (via GigaOM: Here Come Broadband TVs). The topic of internet TVs is discussed from about 1m15s in…

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Wake Up and Smell the Cordite – Why Broadband Access is Not Just for PCs

A few days ago, I posted a few observations about internet appliances, leaving the post dangling with a comment about how nice it would be to have an internet TV applicance that was as easy to use as the Pure Evoke Flow wifi radio.

Well, it seems that CES will flush a few first generation candidates out of the woodwork – like the LG/Netflix streaming broadband TV, for example.

Sony also do wifi TVs, such as the Bravia ZX1 for example, but I’m not sure if this can stream video content from the web directly? Using the BRAVIA Internet Video Link Module, however, it is possible to stream content from the web to Bravia TVs, as this landing page for the Amazon Video On Demand on BRAVIA Beta suggests.

(Apple also do an internet TV box, of course – the Apple TV. And in the UK, services like BT Vision and Fetch TV offer hybrid set-top PVR boxes that blend Freeview terrestrial digital broadcast reception with video-on-demand services via a broadband connection (see also IP Vision delivers over the top set-top box to Fetch TV).)

Netflix already have a streaming delivery deal with Microsoft’s XBox 360, too – though rights issues being as they are, neither the 360 play, nor presumably the LG TVs, are available outside the US. (C’mon, BBC, c’mon…;-)

In fact, although not appreciated by many people, all the latest generation consoles – Wii, XBox 360 and PS3 – come with support for internet connectivity; and many of the latest release games include options for network play. (The BBC iPlayer also works on at least PS3 and the Wii too – but you knew that already, right?)

So here’s where my one “prediction” for the year ahead comes in to play: we’ll start seeing adverts for broadband connections that both raise and play upon people’s awareness that broadband is not just for computers (because not everyone feels the need to have a networked computer), but it’s also a desirable for an increasing range of home/consumer electronics appliances.

Like these ads, for example:

Hmm – does that mean my prediction has already come true? Or does it mean that the rest of the world (but not me) knows this is how the world already works just anyway?

PS if I was writing this post as a “serious” piece, I’d probably include some commentary about broadband and wifi router penetration in the UK, numbers of online gamers in the UK, the Ofcom communications Report 2008, the Caio Review of Barriers to investment in Next Generation Broadband etc etc. I’d also idly wonder what on earth our esteemed Prime Minister thinks he means about using a programme of public works to roll out ubiquitous high speed broadband access in the UK? But I’m not going to, ‘cos I’m a blogger not a journo;-)

Getting Bits to Boxes

Okay – here’s a throwaway post for the weekend – a quick sketch of a thought experiment that I’m not going to follow through in this post, though I may do in a later one…

  • The setting: “the box” that sits under the TV.
  • The context: the box stores bits that encode video images that get played on the TV.
  • The thought experiment: what’s the best way of getting the bits you want to watch into the box?

That is, if we were starting now, how would we architect a bit delivery network using any or all of the following:

1) “traditional” domestic copper last mile phone lines (e.g. ASDL/broadband);
2) fibre to the home;
3) digital terrestrial broadcast;
4) 3G mobile broadband;
4.5) femtocells, hyperlocal, domestic mobile phone base stations that provide mobile coverage within the home or office environment, and use the local broadband connection to actually get the bits into the network; femtocells might be thought of as the bastard lovechild of mobile and fixed line telephony!
5) digital satellite broadcasts (sort of related: Please Wait… – why a “please wait” screen sometimes appear for BBC red button services on the Sky box…).

Bear in mind that “the box” is likely to have a reasonable sized hard drive that can be used to cache, say, 100 hrs of content alongside user defined recordings.

All sorts of scenarios are allowed – operators like BT or Sky “owning” a digital terrestrial channel; the BBC acting as a “public service ISP”, with a premium rate BBC license covering the cost of a broadband landline or 3G connection; Amazon having access to satellite bursts for a couple of hours a day; and so on…

Hybrid return paths are possible too – the broadband network, SMS text messages, a laptop on your knee or – more likely – an iPhone or web capable smartphone in your hand, and so on. Bear in mind that the box is likely to be registered with an online/web based profile, so you can change settings on the web that will be respected by the box.

If you want to play the game properly, you might want to read the Caio Review of Barriers to investment in Next Generation Broadband first.

PS If this thought experiment provokes any thoughts in you, please share them as a comment to this post:-)

What Makes a Good API? A Call to Arms…

One of the sessions I attended at last year’s CETIS get together was the UKOLN organised Technological Innovation in a World of Web APIs session (see also My CETIS 2008 Presentations and What Makes A Good API? Doing The Research Using Twitter).

This session formed part of a project being co-ordinated by UKOLN’s homeworking Marieke GuyJISC “Good APIs” project (project blog) – which is well worth getting involved with because it might just help shape the future of JISC’s requirements when they go about funding projects…

(So if you like SOAP and think REST is for wimps, keep quiet and let projects that do go for APIs continue to get away with proposing overblown, unfriendly, overengineered ones…;-)

So how can you get involved? By taking this survey, for one thing:

The ‘Good APIs’ project aims to provide JISC and the sector with information and advice on best practice which should be adopted when developing and consuming APIs.

In order to collate information the project team have written a very brief research survey asking you about your use of APIs (both providing and consuming).

TAKE THE What makes a good API? SURVEY.

I don’t know if the project will have a presence at the JISC “Developer Happiness” Days (the schedule is still being put together) but it’d be good if Marieke or Brian were there on one of the days (at least) to pitch in some of the requirements of a good API that they’ve identified to date;-)

PS here’s another fun looking event – Newcastle Maker Faire.

Social Telly? The Near Future Evolution of TV User Interfaces

In When One Screen Controls Another I pulled together a few links that showed how devices like the iPhone/iPodTouch might be used to provide rich UI, touchscreen interfaces to media centres, removing the need for on-screen control panels such as electronic programming guides and recorder programming menus by moving those controls to a remote handset. But there’s another direction in which things may evolve, and that’s towards ever more “screen furniture”.

For example, a prototype demoed last year by the BBC and Microsoft shows how it might be possible to “share” content you are viewing with someone in your contact list, identify news stories according to location (as identified on a regional or world map), or compile your own custom way through a news story by selecting from a set of recommended packages related to a particular news piece. (The latter demo puts me in mind of a course topic that is constructed by a student out of pre-prepared “learning objects’).

You can read more about the demo here – Will viewers choose their own running order? – (which I recommend you do…) but if that’s too much like hard work, at least make time to watch the promo video:

For another take on the software underpinning the Microsoft Media Room software that underpins the BBC demo, check out this MediaRoom promo video:

For alternative media centre interfaces, it’s worth checking out things like Boxee (reviewed here: Boxee makes your TV social), XBMC and MythTV.

It’s also worth bearing in mind what current, widely deployed set-top box interfaces look like, such as the Sky Plus interface:

In contrast to the media centre approach, Yahoo is making a pitch for Connected TV: Widget Channel (e.g. as described here: Samsung, Yahoo, Intel Put TV Widget Pieces in Place, showing how the widget channel can be buot directly into digital TVs, as well as set-top boxes).

(Remember Konfabulator, anyone? It later became Yahoo widgets which have now morphed, in turn, into content for the widget channel. In contrast, Yahoo’s media centre/PVR download – Yahoo! Go™ for TV – appears to have stalled, big time…)

The widget channel has emerged from a collaboration between Yahoo and Intel and takes the idea of desktop widgets (like Konfabulator/Yahoo widgets, Microsoft Vista Sidebar gadgets, Google Desktop gadgets , or Mac Dashboard) on to the TV screen, as an optional overlay that pops up on top of your normal TV content.

Here’s a demo video:

So – which approach will play out and hit the living room first? Who knows, and maybe even “who cares…?!”

PS maybe, maybe, the should OU care? As an institution, our reputation and brand recognition was arguably forged by our TV broadcasts, back in a time when telly didn’t start till lunchtime, and even when it did start, you were likely to find OU “lecture-like” programmes dominating the early afternoon schedule):

Where’s the brand recognition going to come from now? 1970s OU programming on the BBC showed how the OU could play a role as a public service broadcast educator, but I’m not sure we fulfill that mission any more, even via our new web vehicles (Youtube, iTunesU, OU podcasts etc.)? I’d quite like to see an OU iPlayer, partly because it allows us to go where iPlayer goes, but I also wonder: do we need to keep an eye on the interfaces that might come to dominate the living room, and maybe get an early presence in there?

For example, if the BBC get into the living room with the Canvas set-top box, would we want a stake somewhere in the interface?

PS just so you know, this post was written days ago, (and scheduled for delivery), way before the flurry of other posts out there on this topic that came out this week… ;-)

When One Screen Controls Another

In earlier posts, I’ve pondered on the rise of “dual screen” activity (e.g. Dual View Media Channels), but what about when one screen provides the control surface for another?

Earlier this week, the new release of the Apple Mac iWork office productivity suite included an announcement about an iPhone remote control app for Keynote (Keynote is the Mac equivalent of Microsoft’s Powerpoint presentation software). Here’s a demo video showing how it works:

I’d been looking for something like this for some time (and have been tempted to try out the free Telekinesis universal remote, though I’ve not had chance to get round to installing it yet) so it was good to see what Apple’s “official solution” looks like.

Whilst taking the dog out for a walk, it occurred to me that using an iPhone/iPod touch like remote could be really handy for many other home entertainment appliances – like the telly, for example. Want to know what’s on the other side without changing channel (or using a picture-in-picture pop up? Why not preview it on your remote? Or how about checking out the programme guide? It’s a real pain having to steal the screen to view the guide, so why not check it out on your remote instead? Programming the DVD/HDD recorder is another activity that prompts the “can I just set the video” routine, as you change to the ever popular “schedule recording” channel. Duh – why not just do it on the remote…? And so on…

Of course, it seems that several “screen remote” clients are already out there… like the Apple official “Remote” app for iTunes/Apple TV (review here), or the rather more elaborate Remote Buddy, as shown in this video:

And if “Remote Buddy” isn’t to your taste, how about iSofa (video):

(For an up-to-the-minute review of iSofa, check out Get Yer Feet Off iSofa; as well as “remote-ing” your Mac, iSofa lets you open “not a web browser, but a file one. It allows you to navigate your user directory on the computer, and open files that can be opened in Safari on the iThing- images, Word files, PDFs, etc” – thanks for that, Alan:-)

As ever, it seems as if the future really is out there… So for example, take that “EPG remote on an iPhone” idea? MythTV viewers can already try it out with MyMote:

Do you ever get the feeling you’re living in a William Gibson novel?

PS thanks to Owen for the pointer to Air Mouse (use your iPodTouch as a mouse’n’keyboard combo for your Mac), and @oxfordben for a “fwiw” pointer to the MythWeb web interface to MythTV.

PPS See also Steps Towards Making Augmented Reality A Reality, which shows how to use an iPhone/iPodTouch as part of an augmented reality setup:-)

Towards Vendor Certification on the Open Web? Google Training Resources

Earlier this year, Google opened up a Google Apps Authorised Reseller programme (announcement) that encourages third parties to support, and sell, Google’s online applications.

For some time, I’ve been suggesting that there may be an opportunity for HE to start innovating in the area of open web and cloud app vendor certified training schemes (e.g. Google/Yahoo/Amazon Certified Professionals…) in the guise of IT professional development courses. (We already do something similar in the OU in the form of our “Cisco course”: T216 Cisco networking (CCNA), which wraps CIsco’s training materials with an additional layer of academic support and assessment; and the course TT381 Open Source Development Tools, which focusses on how to use CVS and LAMP stack. T320 Ebusiness technologies: foundations and practice looks at web services and APIs, I think, though I’m not sure of the extent to which it actually does (or should) provide ‘training’ in how to use actual third party APIs? )

So for example, I don’t find it too hard to imagine that we might rejig our web certificate courses to include an element of formal appraisal of how to use javascript frameworks such as JQuery, or YUI, or webservices from Amazon or PayPal, finessing the creation of vendor or foundation recognised ‘vendor qualifications’ along the way…

With Google just announcing that they are going to launch a “dedicated Google cloud for government customers in the US” (Google Apps and Government) I thought it might be timely to do a quick survey of the training materials that Google already provides, to see whether there was enough already in place for us to produce a quick wrapper and get a course launched.

Here’s what I found:

There are also various API libraries that don’t (yet) have training associated with them; e.g. Google visualisation API, (see a list of all the available Google Developer “products” here: Google Code: Site Directory), as well as things like the Google Code University.

For web-based, hands-on activities, these playgrounds could be really useful:

  • Google Code Playground – an interactive playspace for tinkering with Google APIs
  • KML Interactive Sampler – mess around with KML code and see how Google Earth treats it. (I notice that the Google Earth API is also available in the Google Code Playground… so maybe this sampler is deprecated?)

Google code playground http://code.google.com/apis/ajax/playground/

For more general user interface and javascript training, I’ve always found Yahoo to be pretty good… For example, there are plenty of resources on the Yahoo User Interface libraries site, and I’ve always thought that the Yahoo Design Patterns site would be a great resource for teaching web design. (There’s also the YUI Theater, which I’ve dipped in to from time to time…)

Just by the by, on the UI design front, the flickr Design Patterns collection is worth a look, as is UI Patterns; and Product Planner is a handy resource if you want to get into the right state of mind for thinking about user flows through a website.

PS as this post has largely turned into a round-up of Google stuff, it’s probably also worth adding these in: Google Research publications and Google Talks.

PPS if you like the interactive Google code editor, you might also like:

Global Sunrise

This post is as much a thought out loud as much as anything, but who knows – maybe it’ll go somewhere…;-)

Last week, we did our first “special” with the BBC World Service Digital Planet programme (Exploring the GeoWeb with Digital Planet). Over the next week or two, we’ll be chatting over how it went and identifying – now we now a little more clearly about how we can support the programme on open2.net – what sorts of support we might be able to offer to wrap around future programmes.

So I started riffing around around the idea of travel bugs, geo-coded photos, the intereactive photo exhibits that grew up around Obama’s Presidential inauguration and such like, and wondered about a global participatory event… a global distributed photo shoot…

So here’s what I was wondering – at the next equinox (‘cos we know when that is) or the summer solstice (cos we all know when that is, too) we try to get people from all over the world to photograph the moment of sunrise (or sunset) and upload their geocoded, time stamped photos, taken on that day, just thjat day, and that day only, to flickr (or wherever). And then we make a movie of it: “Global Sunrise”.

So whaddya think?:-)

(Or has it been done already…?)

QR Payments

Over dinner one evening at Dev8D, we fell to chatting about payment mechanisms in restaurants, and how the credit card payment model requires you to hand over your card so that it can read in a third party carder reader – that is, a device that is not under your control.

How much easier it would be if you could be handed your bill with a QR-code attached, which, when scanned, created a Paypal style payment that you could pay via a client on your phone. That is, your phone could become the payment appliance; the transaction is exectued on your mobile phone, using your PayPal account. A web-enabled till could then be used to confirm that the payment had been made.

Easy – and probably hack togetherable via the PayPal or Amazon Flexible Payments API?

For example, you could on the fly create a short-lived web page detailing the bill with a PayPal or Amazon “Pay now” button on it (or ideally, a mobile payments site, such as PayPal’s Mobile Checkout); generate a URL to the page in the form of a QR code; let the user grab the URL with their phone and go to the appropriate payment page on Paypal or Amazon Payments. Job done?

PS it seems there’s probably a patent or two out there already trying to lay claim to this sort of idea, such as this one for a Distributed Payment System and Method.

Which raises a question for me. Patents allow invents a period of grace to recoup expenses incurred during a process of invention. So if you can easily hack a solution together using bits of string and RESTful APIs you can find scattered around the web, what is it that actually merits the right to protection?

PS and lo, it came to pass… Now There’s Even an App That Lets You Pay for Coffee at Starbucks. See also Starbucks Launches First Dedicated iPhone App for Stored-Value Cards for screenshots.

Anti-tags and Quick and Easy Block (Un)commenting

Looking back over the comments to @benosteen‘s post on Tracking conferences (at Dev8D) with python, twitter and tags just now, I noticed this comment from him replying to a comment from @miaridge about “app noise” appearing in the hashtag feed:

@mia one thing I was considering was an anti-tag – e.g. #!dev8d – so that searches for ‘dev8d’ would hit it, but ‘#dev8d’ shouldn’t.

The other tweak to mention is that booleans work on the twitter search:

‘#dev8d -from:randomdev8d’ would get all the #dev8d posts, but exclude those from randomdev8d.

Likewise, to get all the replies to a person, you can search for ‘to:username’, handy to track people responding to a person.

Brilliant:-)

Note also that one thing worth bearing in mind when searching on Twitter is that a search for @psychemedia is NOT the same as a search for to:psychemedia. That is, those two searches may well turn up different results.

The “to:” only searches for tweets that START with “@pscyhemedia”; so id @psychemedia appears elsewhere in the tweet (e.g. “waht the ??? is @psychemedia talking about?”), the “to:” search will not find it, whereas the “@” search will.

Why’s this important? Well, a lot of people new to using Twitter use the Twitter website interface to manage their interactions, the the “Replies” screen is powered like the “to:” search. Which means if someone “replies” to you in a “multiple addressee” tweet – e.g. “@mweller @psychemedia are you gonna make some more edupunk movies?”, then if you’re not the first named person, the @Replies listing won’t show the tweet… the only way you can discover them is to search twitter for “@psychemedia”, for example.

The Twitter advanced search option to search for posts “Referencing a person” is simply a search of the @person form.

(Note that Twitter search lets you subscribe to search results – so you can always subscribe to an ego search feed and receive updates that way; or you can use a client such as Tweetdeck which runs the search automatically.)

(I’m not sure what happens if someone actually replies to one of your tweets and then prepends some text before your name? Will twitter still spot this as a reply? If anyone knows, can you please comment back?)

Just by the by, the “anti-tag” trick reminds me of this code commenting pattern/trick (I don’t remember where I came across it offhand?) that makes it easy to comment and uncomment blocks of code (e.g. in PHP or Javascript):

Before the comment…]
/*
This will be commented out…
//*/
After the comment…

To uncomment out the block of code, just add a leading “/” to the first comment marker to turn it into a single line comment:

Before the comment…]
//*
This will NO LONGER be commented out…
//*/
After the comment…

The block comment closing tag is now itself single line commented out.

(I seem to remember it was described far more eloquently than that when I came across it!;-)

PS Ah ha, here we are – where I first saw the commenting trick: Every keystroke is a prisoner – a neat commenting trick.