OffBeatMammal

Searching for monkeys in Cyberspace

New blog…

clock March 17, 2011 21:00 by author offbeatmammal

For the time being I’m blogging more over at my Wordpress site. It’s the same sort of mix of content but just a little easier to manage.

Some examples of what you’ll find over at http://offbeatmammal.wordpress.com:



Why doesn’t my TV talk to the remote

clock July 21, 2010 11:47 by author offbeatmammal

The golden age of TelevisionIt’s not really fair. My TV (and every other piece of home electronics) is a slave to a remote. But because the remote only barks out orders and never asks questions, or listens, it’s a cause for frustration.

We have a Logitech Harmony remote, and it’s a great thing. But because the communication is one-way it’s often as frustrating an experience using it as trying to find the right one of the half dozen remotes scattered around the living room.

Now, imagine a world where every TV, Xbox, Squeezebox, and amplifier had a Bluetooth (BT) or other wireless chip in and as well as listening for orders they can communicate their status both between devices and to their controller.

Couple that with a smartphone (or a dedicated smart remote control) and you have a real universal remote that can be task driven (I want to watch Cable or play a DVD on the Xbox or listen to music), query the relevant devices (to confirm what state it thinks they are in) and then make intelligent decisions about they need to do (on or off, change source, adjust volume levels) – including powering on or off devices in the correct sequence.

Today’s IrDA based devices don’t offer that sort of flexibility or control – the communication isn’t two way, the protocols defined in the 1970’s don’t really have the flexibility or richness and the limitation of line of sight control starts to interfere with talking to multiple devices concurrently anyway.

In this solution there would be no more line of sight problems (can even talk to equipment in a cabinet). No more getting out of sync with the source channel on the TV (because it's cyclical rather than direct access). No more pop from the speakers when the TV turns off before the amplifier (they can communicate... if the TV "knows" it's using the speakers - or the remote does - part of the shut-down process could be to mute the speakers, shut them off and then shut down the TV, or if changing over to the Squeezebox then mute them, change source, start Squeezebox, turn off TV, un-mute speakers returning them to the default volume and EQ for listening to music as opposed to for TV)

The problem today is that while BT to IrDA devices exist that's only half the solution... The back channel to the remote doesn't exist. For this to work the Bluetooth, ZigBee or WiFi SIGs would need to be more aggressive in promoting the value of something like this to the hardware manufacturers. Bluetooth and WiFi are already supported in most smartphones, but ZigBee with its lower power requirements would be an interesting solution if it has the living room range.

For it to work there needs to be one standard that can be rolled out cost effectively. Who is going to step up and lead the charge from the three incumbent wireless technologies (or will we see a new player emerge to eclipse them?)



Zynga – aiming for a stronger social graph than Facebook or Twitter?

clock July 12, 2010 17:55 by author offbeatmammal

image Zynga are the company behind some of the run-away games hits of Facebook – Farmville, Petville, Mafia Wars, Frontierville etc.

Through a combination or addictive game-play and peer-pressure they have grown to be a significant player in the gaming space.

They have spread from their beginnings in Facebook to hosting games on Yahoo and MySpace and launched native iPhone (and iPad) versions – but in call cases “your” Farm is independent of the underlying social networking platform.

Now with Google’s $100 Million investment and rumors of a forthcoming Google Social Networking platform the logical conclusion is that they are preparing to land on yet another platform.

But … is there more to it than just spreading their gaming reach?

Facebook, Twitter, MSN, MySpace, LinkedIn and others are very proud of their ability to generate, leverage and monetize a “social graph” but essentially all of them only offer vertical integration – unless you’re a member of their “club” they don’t really know that much about you.

What Zynga are well on their way to delivering is something that only really email (and email centric solutions like Plaxo) have had before now – a cross domain social network, and by extension a more accurate social graph than any walled garden can offer.

Assuming that Zynga continue to maintain user data separately from the sign-in platform – isolating and abstracting the communication and sharing mechanisms from the core experience and allowing you to provide multiple credentials to communication with your Google, Facebook, iPhone, Email and Twitter friends seamlessly then they are the position of knowing more about who you are “friends” with than any of the individual services.

What they do with this data will be interesting. The obvious monetization path is to use the information to enable better and better advertising targeting (which makes a lot of sense with the Google tie-in) but I suspect there are other routes they might investigate … and with a potential audience as large as the sum of all their host networks they’ll have a huge audience to experiment with.

FaceBook Credits, Google Checkout and Paypal are all great “virtual currencies” but you don’t always want to maintain too high a balance anywhere just in case something goes wrong and you can’t spend your credit… but with Zynga Game Cash (or whatever they call it) you could not only buy virtual trinkets for your electronic pets you could move your balances around, make gifts (virtual purchases or cash balances) and – with Zynga acting as a broker – link into other mechanisms for individual transactions…

Who knows where else they could take their silo busting multi-player game platform…



Scenes of Scheme’s San Francisco

clock March 22, 2010 10:43 by author offbeatmammal

Robin Sloan wrote a book and then Emily Cooper remixed it to produce some amazing 3D renderings

You can enjoy them in their original goodness or get a glimpse here if you have Silverlight installed.

To navigate around drag and drop using your mouse or you can select an individual image from the drop-down in the top left hand corner. Zoom in and out using the -/+ icons or your mouse wheel and you can select the full screen experience using the icon in the top right hand corner (just press [Esc] to go back to normal mode)



Silverlight Install and Logging Framework

clock March 15, 2010 22:06 by author offbeatmammal

So, you've just created a great Silverlight application and you want everyone to enjoy it. You, of course, have the Silverlight runtime already installed but what about users who don't have a current version of Silverlight or, worse, are on an unsupported platform?

You could leave them with the standard silverlight.js experience but, let's be honest, it's probably not going to reflect that well against the carefully crafted user experience of your application is it? That said, you've got deadlines and developing install experiences isn't the most exciting task on your to-do list is it?

The Silverlight Install and Logging Framework (SILF) is designed to make that job a little easier for you. Without much more work than designing some screens for a few possible install conditions it handles all the logic and guides the user through install or upgrade experiences and, if you want, even logs the results so you can see what’s working and where you need to tweak the solicitation to make it more attractive.

You can grab the files you need from the temporary home of SILF (hopefully it’ll move to Codeplex soon) and kick the tires (or even the tyres depending on where you’re from ... it’s just javascript so it’s easy to localize, or is that localise!)

Although the full blown thing looks a bit intimidating it’s actually really easy to get started with the basics and then elaborate

<head>
 
<!-- Install the Silveright install and logging controller -->
<script type="text/javascript" src="SILF.js"></script>
 
<script type="text/javascript">
// Configure logging parameters
<!--
SILF.minSlVersion = "3.0.50106.0"; // Required Silverlight version
SILF.SilverlightControlHost = "silverlightControlHost"; // div which contains Silverlight control
 
// Use this section to configure messages
SILF.PromptInstall = "Please <a href='#' onclick='SILF.InstallClicked()'>click here to install Silverlight</a>";
SILF.PromptFinishInstall = "Please wait for Silverlight installation to complete. You may need to refresh the page.";
SILF.PromptUpgrade = "Please <a href='#' onclick='SILF.UpgradeClicked()'>click here to upgrade Silverlight</a>";
SILF.PromptFinishUpgrade = "Please wait for Silverlight upgrade to complete. You will need to restart your browser.";
SILF.PromptRestart = "Please exit/quit and restart your browser to proceed";
SILF.PromptNotSupported = "Sorry, your browser or operating system are not supported";
// If you want to redirect on Silverlight not supported, rather than show a slate, enable this variable
// SILF.RedirectNotSupported = "http://bing.com";
-->
</script>
</head>
<body onload="SILF.onLauncherPageLoad();">
 
<div id="silverlightControlHost" style="height:100;">
<object data="data:application/x-silverlight-2," type="application/x-silverlight-2" width="940" height="406">
    <param name="Source" value='SmoothStreamingSamplePlayer.xap' /> 
    <param name="InitParams" value='fakemode=,background=#FF000000,autoload=False,autoplay=False,muted=False,stretchmode=0,playlist=&lt;playList><playListItems><playListItem title="Smooth Streaming : Media : Test" description="" mediaSource="http://mediadl.microsoft.com/mediadl/iisnet/smoothmedia/Experience/BigBuckBunny_720p.ism/Manifest" adaptiveStreaming="True" thumbSource=""></playListItem></playListItems></playList>' /> 
    <param name="windowless" value="false" />
    <param name="background" value="black" />
    <param name="minRuntimeVersion" value="3.0.50106.0" />
    <param name="autoUpgrade" value="false" />
    <param name="onerror" value="onSilverlightError" />
    <param name="onload" value="onSilverlightLoad" />
</object>
</div>
 
</body>
</html>

The code owes a lot to the work of Laurence Moroney and Tim Heuer as well as experiences on sites such as Sunday Night Football, FranceTV Olympics and RedBullStratos. It consolidates the current silverlight.js as well as including and extending silverlightSupportedUserAgent.js and silverlightVersion.js and, for the logging functions uses the math.uuid.js library.

In advance of a move to a proper community sources project I’d love to hear your feedback below so we can make this more versatile and useful. If you use it please let us know as well.



Wind Blown

clock January 26, 2010 21:08 by author offbeatmammal

Okay. this is quite a departure for me. I don’t normally get the urge to write these days and when I do I don’t feel it’s good enough to share publically but this… well, it just felt like it wanted to get out.

So please enjoy. Comments welcome (be gentle) – hopefully they will inspire some improvements (but I probably won’t be giving up my day job any time soon).

amykane.typepad.com_hamptondune Image credit: Amy Kane

 

As I move slowly along the beach I can feel the wind from the sea trying to blow me from my path. The gusts are sometimes forceful and I have to lean into them, often glancing out over the water as I do so. At my age I try and stay away from the water.

Despite the incessant wind I continue on my patrol looking, as I do every day, for signs that others have been this way. Today, as yesterday and for many days before, the only marks on the sand are from the crabs and the birds that prey on them, and the traces of my previous passages.

The wind whips up a flurry of sand and, momentarily blinded, I turn away from the sea towards the dunes. The spare grass that helps keep them in place is fighting a losing battle. Over the years the sand has moved further up the rise and is piling up against the low wall that separates the beach from the tended land beyond. I wonder how long until the wall, and then the pristine lawn, succumbs.

I reach the limit of my endurance and turn to seek refuge, and as I do I catch sight of a a stick embedded in the sand. No. Not a stick. The color of an old tea stain and long scoured and polished smooth by the action of wind and water, it stands both as memorial to my charges and testament to my failure.

Rotors tilting into the wind I return to my roost to recharge, pondering the irony of an airborne autonomous sentinel defeated by a virus borne over the sea on the very winds that outlasted mankind.


I have to add a note of thanks to Robin Sloan and Hugh Macleod for inspiring me with their daily creativity. I suspect growing up reading books by William Gibson, Iain M Banks, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams probably had something to do with it as well.

Updated: Just for fun I published this as a Kindle eBook … I will be very confused if anyone actually buys a copy



With great power comes great responsibility

clock January 10, 2010 17:43 by author offbeatmammal

Intel-IHEMReading this you’re probably consuming electricity. Your computer, the lights, heating or air conditioning. If you’re in your offices there are probably one or two things plugged in that you’re not using at the moment. At home it’s probably even worse… and when the only real visibility you have is your monthly bill it’s pretty tough to actually do anything about it.

Luckily there are a number of solutions starting to ramp up that will help the typical homeowner to get a better understanding of what’s happening in their house in real time – both as an all-up number but with the more sophisticated solutions on a device by device basis.

Once you have the ability to monitor then you can start to make intelligent decisions – and see the impact of those decisions by tracking changes in real data.

At the macro level solutions like Microsoft Hohm and Google Powermeter can obtain billing data directly from your utility company and give you an overview of what’s happening to a bill by bill basis.  Hohm also has a number of wizards to let you provide more information about your dwelling and it then makes recommendations.

Earth Aid goes one step further by using the same data (already connected to more utilities than either Microsoft or Google) as well as performing analysis on local areas to indicate how well you’re doing compared to your neighbors. They identify appropriate offers and tax incentives that you can take advantage of and also let you earn points that you can trade for rewards.

If you want more realtime information Wattvision and the TED 5000 connect to your power meter and provide real time data. The TED product even uploads that data to the Google Powermeter site to give you a more granular dashboard.

Tracking down performance of individual items is a little harder at the moment. Most TVs and refrigerators don’t have a way to report energy usage but you can plug them in via an individual Kill-a-watt plug or power-strip and gather that data to help you understand what your microwave or DVD player are actually costing you in “standby” mode. 

It’s interesting to see devices like the Intel Intelligent Home Energy Management platform appearing – by using sensors embedded in devices around the home it can track and monitor everything from the external temperature to the power that your phone charger is drawing and help you make decisions based on the information in real time.

Imagine being able to optimize your use of the electricity grid based on the cost – automatically start your dishwasher at 3am so the dishes are ready for breakfast; monitor the temperature in rooms and make a decision based on occupancy patterns as to when to start warming them; flag an in-efficient household appliance as maybe being in need of replacement.

For now however you can start small and simple with solutions like the Conserve to control things at the click of a switch.



Personal Health Records and the Individual

clock December 21, 2009 22:07 by author offbeatmammal

health creates a lot of paperwork There’s a lot of talk in the US and other countries about the moment about Health Reform and how Personal Health Records (PHR) aka Electronic Health Records (EHR) from the like of Microsoft (HealthVault), Google (Google Health) and others (e.g. Dossia) are going to make things more efficient.

Sadly in a lot of cases the people they seem to make more efficient for are the Hospital Administrators and Insurance companies who’ve done a good job of letting costs spiral out of control to improve their shareholder returns rather than providing good value healthcare at low cost to the consumer and the tax payer.

Maybe adopting PHR frameworks is going to help reduce costs and make Doctors lives easier but without a personal-centric view I’m not sure how it’s going to help the recipients of health-care – you and me.

What happens if I’ve chosen to put my data into HealthVault yet the hospital I get admitted to only has a Dossia based system. What happens if I change dentists from a Google Health affiliated provider to a HealthVault practitioner. Will my Chiropractor in the US who uses HealthVault be able to access the X-Rays taken at a Medical Center in Australia or the UK?

And will any of them be able to access personal data the should be taken into account as part of holistic health based approach to maybe stave off the need for medical attention – personal training, gym and other exercise?

I use an Omron pedometer which I track in HealthVault via the WalkMe service. My Polar FT80 HRM however stores data in their service. I use the equally isolated gtFtr to track random workouts and weigh-ins. Other people may use something like a Nike+, FitBit or a Philips DirectLife (with personal recommendations) to track their activity and a Withings scale that twitters your weight to your followers. Every time I go to the gym there’s no record of what I actually did there (hence the need for a Gym Buddy) so there’s no way my doctor knows I’m actually following their recommendations or my personal trainer to see the results of my latest checkup.

There are initiatives like Continua to come up with common standards for connected equipment but at the moment they seem to have some IP requirements standing in the way of getting more people to the table.

Without a way to put the focus on the individual and get people to buy into the concept adoption will be slow and painful but if there’s a way for people to connect and see the impact of their choices (or the benefit of their good behaviors – as sites like Dental Optimizer try to go) I think the impact of PHRs will be more far reaching than just helping a few administrators cut down on their paperwork



The opportunity cost of bad service

clock December 16, 2009 14:22 by author offbeatmammal

Providing customer service costs money. Providing good customer service takes commitment and money. Money to hire the right people, commitment to provide a good level of service and learn from what your customers are telling you, and more money to actually do something about it.

What does indifferent customer support cost? While it doesn’t hit your bottom line today it’s going to have an impact when the customer doesn’t come back or shares a negative opinion and you lose business.

I know how tough it can be to provide good service. I spent some time running a support team for a software company as well as making sure we had support in place for premium services on some web properties. In every case there was a cost associated with creating service levels that made the customer feel you were on their side, and a cost associated with resolving the issue (sometimes engineering costs, sometimes time, sometimes smiling and giving a refund and hoping we’d do better next time) – from this I learned a simple lesson.

I learned that you don’t treat support as a necessary evil, you treat it as a pre-sales and marketing exercise and you focus on making happy people who are more likely to engage with you and your brand again. If you focus on getting them off the phone as quickly as possible with as little fuss as possible then you’ve already lost the battle.

As technology improves providing good service shouldn’t be hard. Companies like Starbucks, Comcast, HP and Polar all have multiple ways to talk to them – Live Chat, Twitter, Forums, Email, support systems like FogBugz – all of which allow tracking and continuity of engagement and potentially very public resolutions.

How they approach the task is very different and varies from ignoring negative comments and promoting positive ones through to active outreach and open communication. Sadly though even where individuals do a good job the process and attitude of the company lets them down (I’m looking at you HP – does it really take weeks to find out you don’t know how to change the assignments of buttons on a PC you make?!)

With a current issue with another company they have been great. Lots of communication and I’m sure we’ll resolve the issue and I’ll say nice things about them in the future.

The opportunity cost to HP of providing ineffective support is that I bought a new Acer machine at the weekend for home, so for want of a simple software fix they lost at least one machine.



Can ordinary users make money on Twitter?

clock December 14, 2009 15:25 by author offbeatmammal

Ad.ly Twitter Advertising Blogging has been great for a lot of folks as residual income from Amazon or ads at least covers the hosting and beer money.

As more people move to micro-blogging with services like Twitter the question has turned to how people (including Twitter themselves) can make money on these services.

Ad.ly like to think that they have an answer with sponsored tweets – though delivering one every couple of days at a buck a tweet (and a $50 minimum payout) it’s probably going to be a while before they see their first millionaire!

I thought I’d give it a try just to see how it compares to the other click-through stuff I have hosted here…



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