Monthly Archives: December 2010

Tomorrow’s 3D, brought to you by the year 1862

Yeah, it’s goofy, but this ABBAWorld clip, where a man joins virtual renderings of the 1970s Swedish pop stars on stage, points to a future where you may be able to blend your physical reality with computerized fiction.

First, the technology. It’s quite old — a projection with the same visual trick that teleprompters use to make text appear to scroll on glass in front of a speaker’s podium. Holograms started back in 1862, when chemist John Henry Pepper was shocked to see a ghost float on stage. The apparition was an invention by Henry Dircks in which a large pane of glass was placed at a 45-degree angle to the audience, reflecting a brightly lit object hidden off to the side behind a curtain. When the lights came on the actor wearing a sheet hidden at stage left, the ghost seemed to suddenly appear on stage, poof, out of thin air.

Dircks’ approach, called the Dircksian Phantasmagoria, was extremely costly for theaters to replicate, but Pepper came up with a cheaper option — and as Pepper’s version spread across stages in the late 1800s, the technique became known as Pepper’s ghost. Today the small angled panes of glass in teleprompters use the same mirrored trick.

Recently Musion Eyeliner began recreating Pepper’s ghost in live performances using modern projectors to put holographic images on stage, such as this performance by Gorillaz at the Lisbon MTV Awards in 2005, or the ABBA dancing above. The technique allows artificial characters to blend with reality; the Gorillaz, for instance, is a virtual band, with British vocalist Damon Albarn being the only permanent member and cartoons representing the rotating artists behind the beats, and the group Genki Rockets similarly uses 3D projections to put its fictional lead singer Lumi on stage.

Holographic tricks will spread soon. IBM recently asked its researchers to forecast major technology trends for the next five years, and their consensus was mobile phones will project 3D images by 2015. Toshiba is developing flatscreen 3D TVs that do not require glasses. The visual push makes sense, with panel displays becoming so crisp that gadget-makers must move to stereoscopic projection as the next product differentiator.

So what happens if 3D scales everywhere? If fake images can be projected into thin air, we may finally enter the age where telecommuting takes off, or where the avatar you wish to be becomes the being you send into work or evening clubs. The Gibsonian concept of cyberspace may become real, with artifice melding with physical space. You could fly like Superman, hang out with a young version of your deceased father, chat with the stars, send a more muscular version of your body to the beach. The possibilities are endless — hopefully much more than dancing with ABBA.

2010: Year of the filters

When social media went mainstream in 2008, marketers were agog at the potential to scale their messages virally at zero cost. It hasn’t quite turned out that way.

2010 may be remembered as the year of the filters, when social networks built walls to protect privacy and tier the connections of individual users. Facebook launched Groups, smaller subnetworks “where you can build a space for important groups of people in your life,” invisible to outsiders. Facebook also continued to evolve EdgeRank, its algorithm that shows only a fraction of all your friends’ posts in your “news feed” stream by judging them on affinity, comments, and recency (the closer you are to someone on Facebook, the more comments their post gets, and the timeliness of the post make it more likely to pop into your stream). Google Wave bit the dust, after the search giant screwed up by thinking it could simply port your Gmail contacts into a visible social network — but providing too much visibility, say, showing people you barely know all your email business development contacts. The new iPhone app Path invited users to build mobile networks of only 50 people, turning social media into an elite party-invite list.

It all makes sense. Analysis of social networks shows that people don’t want to connect to the world; they have biases and regional group interests creating small pools of connections. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested humans, like primates, can only manage about 150 relationships realistically. But a more apt model for understanding filtering may be Robert Sommer’s 1969 “personal space” logic, which really had three fields — distance communication, hand/tool use level content, and intimate whispers-in-your-ear messages. The psychology of how we speak to others goes back to cave days, where humans heard stories by the fire, worked with our hands, and spoke quietly to lovers. We have different needs and set up boundaries to take in messaging from each field. You see this in our tools today: movies and TVs show big images from afar; laptops and PCs give us content 3 feet way; cell phones and ear buds put intimacy near your head.

If we’ve always sorted messaging by these three dimensions, we do the same with our human networks. Danah Boyd has suggested social graphs are divided into three distances: behavioral, all those we really know; articulated, those we say we know; and personal, our true intimate friends or family. The collapse of Google Wave and rise of Facebook Groups show people need to sort human contacts just as we manage our communication needs, by far, medium and close proximity. Marketers who wish to truly influence consumers by reaching their inner minds will have to be more clever and relevant. And, unfortunately for them, there is an inverse correlation between the ability to get close and the freedom to scale across vast networks to all.

Now Google lets you search old books for, say, sex and chocolate

You’ve been reading about sex. We can tell.

First, let us explain that there are 129,864,880 unique books in the world — most printed long before the Internet, no longer published, and sitting on shelves with their acidic paper slowly deteriorating, sending words into oblivion. Google, in a wonderful-yet-controversial side project, has been trying to save this knowledge by scanning books with an Elphel 323 camera and serving them free of charge to the public. To date, Google has digitized 15 million books.

Now, Google has launched an Ngram Viewer to help you search old books for topics — kind of a “trending” analysis for any given period of time before the Internet and its ADHD cousin Twitter. Above is a peek at the number of published instances of sex vs. chocolate since 1800. Chocolate, it seems, is a relatively stable interest, while sex crept up in the 1920s and spiked after 1960. Was it the advent of world wars, modern communications, or perhaps birth control? Ponder away and try Google’s book searches here, or read the entire texts for free at Google Books.

What to think of Apple’s coming 3-D

In an age where tech geeks get excited about every minor Facebook UX update, it’s easy to lose the forest of trends for the trees. So let’s take a look at Apple’s recent patent for a glasses-free 3-D system.

First, the tech. Current 3-D systems require some form of glasses that allow images to be slightly shifted between your left and right eyes; two eyes, after all, are required to see in stereoscopic vision. Creating the illusion of depth in an image has been around since the 1860s, when photographers would shoot two frames from slightly different angles and use gadgets such as stereoscopic viewers to show one unique image per eye. Today’s most-modern 3-D televisions use a rapid blinking approach, in which the left- and then right-eye image are flashed across the entire TV screen hundreds of times per second, synchronized to glasses which use LED shutters to simultaneously shut the images off from alternate eyes. The illusion is pure holography, with the images floating in front of you, a stunning achievement.

Trouble is, those nasty glasses. They scratch. They need batteries. Frankly, you look like a fool. Apple has found a complex way to remove the need for eyeware by using Microsoft Kinect-type motion sensors to track where your eyes are in relation to the screen, and then projecting images accordingly to each eye. In simple terms, the screen will watch you, and then focus the images on your eyes, even if you adjust yourself on the couch. The obvious technicality is how to track two sets of eyes, so we predict 3-D will appear first on Apple laptops — what a differentiator, and Apple needs a new one because it can’t really make its portable computers any thinner.

When UX changes, so does users’ behavior

OK, so you get it: Better 3-D is coming, and it will be freaky cool. Imagine the scene on airplanes as businesspeople play their silly iPad games by flapping their hands in the air. But beyond Angry Birds and cartoons, what could really change? Technology has a habit of shifting consumers’ behavior: The telephone supported long-term relationships, the automobile created 45-mile commutes, the airplane allowed businesses near-global reach out of small offices … what appears initially as a new way to see the world eventually changes the world in which we live.

So imagine a laptop that projects a full-color hologram before you, with sensors that also track your hand movements, so if you reach out and “touch” the image it changes shape or location. Now imagine cheap 3-D screens everywhere: On table tops, on mall walls, on your car dashboard, on your bathroom mirror. People could design or build in three-dimensions; modeling could lead to the simulation of touching another’s face; the porn industry (admit it, the leader in most visual gimmickry) will have a field day. You could wake up in the morning and have a virtual dentist help inspect your teeth as your brush. The real implication could be a verisimilitude heretofore unseen among humans. The separation of virtual reality from realty will become so complete, the labels may fall away.

Falling costs could eventually embed 3-D screens on fabric, say, your clothes or pillow case. Did we mention porn? Yikes.

The implications for marketers could be negative. L.L. Bean would surely like to show you its winter coats in three dimensions. But imagine the difficulty The New York Times will have serving ads against content that floats in 3-D, giving real impetus for you to play with it in the air. People may turn to content that acts like the tools of yore, vs. passive entertainment to wash over them with accompanying marketing messages. In that world, ads might seem like flies, nuisances buzzing in the air to be swatted away.

Real 3-D is coming. It will add unforeseen dimensions to our behavior, and like most new elements, the end usage will be surprising.

YouTube’s pay per unclick

YouTube has announced a rather counterintuitive ad model which encourages users to skip over ads. TrueView video ads play :15- or :30-second prerolls to YouTube’s video content; after 5 seconds, an icon appears inviting the user to skip the ad. Advertisers only pay if users don’t avoid the ad and instead watch the preroll to completion — call it “pay per unclick” — with the logic being marketers will reach consumers truly interested in the product.

The flaw, of course, is since this is entirely new, users may not understand the skip option immediately, so early advertisers may pay for people who aren’t interested but don’t know enough to avoid the ad. Still, we like it. If you do, please skip ahead.

Image: Mitchell Joyce

The math behind influence and fame

Advertising exists to seed memes, ideas that spread through society like viruses in your head on a cold winter’s day. The fundamental hope is that a product or service concept becomes so desirable that, like Razor Scooters in the late 1990s or glass-tablet gadgets today, suddenly everyone will want one and share the news with their neighbors, with no incremental marketing cost. This is why the lure of social media is powerful with its promise of free, scalable connections …

Yet a new whitepaper by Cornell and HP Labs suggests building fame in social media is tougher than you think. Daniel M. Romero and colleagues processed more than 22 million tweets from 12 days in September 2009, looked at how often people clicked on web links inside the tweets, and then compared how those people were connected — and found that pure number of followers does not equal influence. Instead, as you might guess, there are some entities in social media with many followers whom no one listens to, and conversely some with few connections who tend to have their ideas shared everywhere. It’s an important dynamic to understand if you try to spread messages in Twitter, because only 1 in 318 tweets with URLs is ever retweeted, meaning the vast majority of Twitter missives trying lure people to click links hit a brick wall.

The Cornell/HP report found four types of entities on Twitter:

1. The superbly influential — users whose posted links are likely to be passed along (“A-listers” such as @mashable, @aplusk).

2. The passive — users who follow many, but rarely share things (“lurkers” or “automatons” such as @redscarebot).

3. Those not influential with many followers (“all show, no go,” alas, like @newsweek).

4. The highly influential with comparatively few followers (“beacons” such as @twitdraw).

The Economist suggests new analytics services such as Gnip will profit from helping marketers identify the human nodes inside social media that fall in buckets 1 or 4 above. Not everyone is an influencer; in new media, the money may flow to those who act most like old broadcasters.