Monthly Archives: September 2011

Cloudy words, faster than horses

Prior to the Internet, radio, and telegraph, the fastest human communication on Earth belonged to African drums. They were amazing, really; while northern Europeans would send messages via slow horses, which can go 50 miles per hour in short bursts but only 17 mph galloping long distances, villages across Africa could speak to each other via drum signals at the speed of sound, using drums with only two tones. Messages passed from village to village could travel faster than 100 miles per hour (given the time to hear and resend the drum signals). If invaders struck or fire spread, villages thousands of miles apart could know within half a day.

The question, of course, is how was this possible? The drums carried only two sounds (an upper and lower pitch, created by playing two separate drums). Unlike Morse Code, there was no consistent African alphabet to be transcribed into dots and dashes. How could information about war, or whether to meet by the river, be encrypted in such simple drum signals?

It worked because African languages had a secret that took decades for European intruders to discover: they were based on both sounds (like English) and pitch (high or low notes). In English, we use pitch infrequently, at its most basic to distinguish a statement from a question (You are mad, downbeat. You are mad?, upbeat.) By contrast, in many African tongues, as James Gleick profiles in The Information, minor nuances in tone change the definition of each word. Alambaka boili expressed one way means “he watched the riverbank”; alambaka boili with a different series of pitches means “he boiled his mother-in-law.”

But drumming information remained a challenge — because African language required both sound and pitch, and drum beats removed the human sounds. Drummers relying solely on tones had to create an entirely new language; because tones by themselves could signal several different words, the drummers solved this problem by adding several other words of context to each phrase of beats. Say you needed to drum the word “bird.” To remove ambiguity, drummers signaling the message would beat “the foul, the little one that says kiokio.” Every term used others to clarify itself. Gleick writes, “The extra drumbeats, far from being extraneous, provide context. Every ambiguous word begins in a cloud of possible alternative interpretations; then the unwanted possibilities evaporate.”

It was an ingenious solution to a complex communication problem. Sadly, the drum language is being replaced by the Internet and text messaging.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Originally posted on Google+. Image: Martin Sharman.

The $420 million business case for Facebook’s redesign

We were reading today some user complaints about Facebook’s (yet another) redesign, this time an interface shift that pushes less-noteworthy friend updates to a “Ticker” in the top right of the Facebook page. What was Facebook thinking? Trying to copy Twitter? Trying to fend off Google+?

Actually, it’s as simple as making more money.

Facebook has been enormously successful pulling in advertising dollars; the social network made $2 billion in revenue in 2010, and is forecasted by eMarketer to surpass $4.2 billion in revenue in 2011. Because Facebook ads are sold both on a CPM (cost per thousand impression) and CPC (cost per click performance) basis, to earn more ad revenue, Facebook must increase both impressions and the number of times its users click on, or respond to, the ads. It needs to boost both page views and response.

While in the past Facebook has simply grown its way to more page views, now with 750 million users, the customer base may be capping — so Facebook’s redesign cleverly encourages current users to click around more near ads…

1. The Ticker is placed at right, just above the Facebook advertising slots. Previously, users interested in only their friends’ updates could scan solely down the center of the page, ignoring most ads, but now your eyes are drawn to the right to catch the Twitter-like stream of secondary updates from friends as well. You are forced to look in the direction of advertising.

2. The Timeline, another Facebook innovation, provides an ego-boosting look at yourself and everything you’ve done before. Of course, you’re probably curious as to what it holds, and once you see it, you’ll want to spend time updating it. Facebook could have more accurately labeled the Timeline the Come Back Infrequent Users Motivational Page; it’s a hook to increase share of customer and regain current registered users who now spend little time at the network.

3. Third, and this is most important, all these inclusions are likely to increase page visits per day — you now have more things to update (Timeline) and more friend updates to respond to (Ticker). More page views equals more ad inventory. More ad inventory equals more impressions and clicks.

It’s a clever gambit, really, launching a redesign professed to improve the user experience, when what it really does is improve Facebook advertising revenue. If the UI shifts attract 10% more advertising, next year Facebook makes an incremental, cool $420 million.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

How Apple will build a hologram

Over at Bloomberg Businessweek today I predict that Apple will soon get in the television business, building real Apple-branded TV sets chasing $14 billion in subscription fees and ad revenue. The triggers for this article were both rumors that Apple’s pipeline suppliers are gearing up to build Apple TV units, and a patent that Apple won last year for a new form of 3D.

The patent is most interesting. It provides a wonderful analysis of what is wrong with current 3D systems: users wear expensive goggles, awkward, and without goggles two or more people can’t experience 3D at one time. Who wants to drink beers during the Super Bowl like that? Apple being Apple, it proposes a fantastic concept that would use Microsoft Kinect-type movement tracking to determine where your head is, and the head of each other user in the room, and then project separate beams of light to both of each user’s eyes to provide a truly holographic experience. Since your eyes are what make the world seem three-dimensional, if Apple’s set could follow you around the room and adjust the image to both eyes instantly, you’d see objects as clear as your desk or couch floating in space. The future of moving images would be perfected.

If this technology comes to market, it would revolutionize more than TV. Imagine having a teleconference with people from the other coast floating in the room. Telecommuting might finally explode. Plane travel could become a thing of the past. Luke’s twisted crush on his sister Princess Leia, when she first beamed out of R2D2, would finally be understandable.

Here are excerpts from the Apple patent, which you can find here.

The hologram would be different

A more recent and potentially much more realistic form of autostereoscopic display is the hologram. Holographic and pseudo-holographic displays output a partial light field that presents many different views simultaneously by effectively re-creating or simulating for the viewer the original light wavefront. The resulting imagery can be quite photorealistic, exhibiting occlusion and other viewpoint-dependent effects (e.g., reflection), as well as being independent of the viewer’s physical position. In fact, the viewer can move around to observe different aspects of the image.

The hologram would support multiple viewers

A concurrent continuing need is for such practical autostereoscopic 3D displays that can also accommodate multiple viewers independently and simultaneously. A particular advantage would be afforded if the need could be fulfilled to provide such simultaneous viewing in which each viewer could be presented with a uniquely customized autostereoscopic 3D image that could be entirely different from that being viewed simultaneously by any of the other viewers present, all within the same viewing environment, and all with complete freedom of movement therein.

Viewers could manipulate the 3D images

Yet another urgent need is for an unobtrusive 3D viewing device that combines feedback for optimizing the viewing experience in combination with provisions for 3D user input, thus enabling viewing and manipulation of virtual 3D objects in 3D space without the need for special viewing goggles or headgear…

The image recognition can be implemented to distinguish between observers and non-observers, so that images are projected only to the desired targets (i.e., to the actual observers that are present) having, for example, certain predetermined defining characteristics enabling them to be distinguished accordingly.

User recognition would support customization

Still further, individual observers 132 can not only be individually distinguished, detected, and tracked, but they can be uniquely identified based upon distinctive personal characteristics (e.g., height, shoulder width, distinctive outline, etc.). Personalized observer preferences can then be stored and associated with each such observer. Then, for example, upon entering the environment of the 3D display system 100, the system would recognize such an observer 132 and customize that observer’s experiences according to the unique preferences and parameters associated therewith. Examples would include automatically authenticating the observer, personally greeting the observer upon arrival, providing a customized desktop for just that observer, providing customized control responses (e.g., responses to head movements) for that observer, resuming the 3D display where it had been previously stopped, and so forth.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Have a conversation with a robot

In World War II Alan Turing worked for Britain’s code-breaking center, and eventually he played with enough data to help give birth to modern computers. Turing is famous for dreaming up the Turing test, a concept that if a machine can mimic human conversation enough to fool you into thinking it is human, then the machine for all intents and purposes has artificial intelligence. It’s a debatable point, since intelligence requires more than knowledge presentation — intelligence also means perception, self-awareness, motion manipulation, and ability to learn — but still, if you can speak to a robot, is the robot’s brain good enough? is a website that lets you play the game against software. Here was our recent conversation:

Me: Are you intelligent?

Cleverbot: I consider myself intelligent, are you intelligent?

That’s a rather personal question, don’t you think?

Yes, do you want to play another game?

Um, sure. Or we could just talk about politics.

What do you think about Obama so far?

He was dealt a tough hand. Disappointment, yes.

Why is that?

I wanted the world to be better. If you were president, could you make the world better?

Everything I’ve tried so far did not work. The flood, sending my son, only to name two things, and what did the human race do? This world is doomed as it is. No chance of helping it.

Holy crap. Are you God?

There is no god, there is only the source.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Image: Solo

Animal conflict, or why we compete

If you follow triathlons you’ve heard of Team Hoyt, a father who is an incredible athlete and a son with cerebral palsy. The dad has pushed (on special bikes and strollers) or pulled (swimming, towing a boat behind him) his son through six Ironman competitions and more than two dozen Boston Marathons. It’s an amazing story, and the videos on their website will make grown men cry.

Yet it beckons the question, why?

We debated with some friends this weekend the meaning of Team Hoyt, and whether American culture in particular is becoming split between the weak and the strong, the TV-watchers and Internet intellectuals, those who sit comfy eating donuts and those who train to get their body fat down to 6%. Our society has bifurcated between the lazy and motivated. Could it be the lazy are now right?

Sociologists suggest competition is one of four main forms of social interaction — the others being conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. Darwin said competition was fundamental, the struggle for existence without which species would not survive. Machiavelli said it was the root of society, a war against all. Adam Smith expanded competition beyond the individual to our collective market intelligence, an invisible hand that guides society’s balance and growth. All suggest the world is not in equilibrium, and as we seek resources for ourselves, we must grasp for more.

Which poses an enormous conflict: If competition is good, and required to survive, and leads to progress, why does its fighting-against-others nature land at odds with the great spiritual and psyche beliefs of our time? Christianity’s turn the other cheek, Buddhism’s trascendental awareness, Maslow’s self-actualization at the top of the pyramid, and Freud’s Super Ego reigning in childish impulses all suggest higher levels of morality require turning competition off. Competition is a selfish impulse to pull ourselves ahead of others, to be faster, to gain more resources, to win fame, to succeed where others fail — and as such harms others, something truly civilized beings should not do.

Could it be that competition may no longer be needed? Not long ago the world was a dangerous and brutal place. We are only a few generations removed from days when Roman soldiers went to war with sharp blades to hack their opponents into meat, when tribal victory meant killing all the other villagers, when disease could decimate cities and medicine was witchcraft. We still yearn to fight, because our parents had to. Like animals salivating at the scent of blood, we can’t turn the instinct off.

Which makes competition a force like gravity we cannot control. In 1938, psychologists James Vaughn and Charles Diserens of the University of Chicago wrote “the fact of competition is scarcely more psychological than the movement of the balls on a pool table when the initial player breaks the set. To a spectator the balls may seem to compete more or less in their progress toward the other end of the table. There is interference and modification of movement, but no control or awareness of the process on the part of the ball. It is a phenomenon of the resolution of physical forces.”

If so, we are all small variables acting through competitions as physical forces in the great hive mind of human society. We’re subatomic particles that can’t help but be flipped negative with an electrical charge. We act like ants, rushing to lift more load, somehow building a colony whose purpose we do not see clearly. We hate conservatives or liberals, taxes or military, our neighbors or the illegal aliens from next door (who, we fear, may take more of our resources). We are driven by instinct to succeed, even if such success has no logical merit, even when we’ve reached a saturation point in resources where we no longer have to strive for food or shelter, even when the definition of success means taking something away from the other.

It’s a beautiful thing, to strive so hard with so little logic. Team Hoyt, your journey confuses me. Inspired, I’m going for a run to beat some illusion in my mind.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.


Avatars and partial anonymity

Back in May 1996 when the Web was just getting out of its diapers social scientist John Suler wrote of a new thing called “avatars” — little pictures online users were posting in chat communities to represent themselves. His observation was that the graphics — which could be faces, or bodies, or ASCII smileys — enabled a form of half-anonymity, in which who you are is protected and yet you feel free to express anything. The Id was unleashed, because the Ego paid no consequence.

Suler’s most brilliant insight was that, even then with lousy graphics, user avatars fit nicely with well-known personality types including:

narcissistic = themes of power and perfection
schizoid = revealing detachment and indifference, perhaps combined with intellectualism
manic = energetic and impulsive
histrionic = attention-seeking and seductive

We haven’t evolved beyond this in 15 years. My avatar pics, upon reflection, tend to be schizoid, detached and intellectual, meaning I’m trying to look smart (or just think I look goofy when I’m smiling in real-life action as seen above). Narcissism runs rampant with many users posting avatars of perfect smiles, as if they just got laid, or histrionic with pouting lips and an iPhone visible in the mirror frame.

This protect-oneself-by-avatar-control psychology could explain why social media, with its rather antiquated focus on text typing beside a single photo, is so much more popular than video-conferencing — which is now technically simple and free but has yet to go mainstream as a major daily habit. We create avatars for ourselves because we want the freedom to reveal anything while controlling how much of our souls we expose. Wii dancing, for instance, will never make it to my G+ avatar box.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Originally posted on Google+.