Searching for monkeys in Cyberspace

The future of advertising technology

clock March 14, 2007 21:53 by author OffBeatMammal

Now, I'm not a huge fan of advertising when it's intrusive or detracts from the experience. I do however have a lot of respect for intelligent targeting and inventive engaging campaigns.

In this day and age we're faced with product and brand placement everywhere - billboards, TV, radio, online and even coming to cellphones and all that happens is people tune out.

I've got Google ads running on the side of this page - how many folks actually look at them, and of those how many click (actually, despite my cynicism it's not bad - this site is revenue neutral... advertising just about pays my hosting costs each year).

Anyway, I'm always on the look out for cool new technology that's going to make advertising more effective without it becoming more offensive at the same time. Luckily there's a group here at Microsoft tasked with pretty much fulfilling that niche and they're showcasing some of their cooler ideas on the adLab site so you can check out some of their thinking.

I can't wait for some of these things to start filtering down to as they help improve not only the suggested results and delivered advertising but might even improve the quality of the organic search results based on observed behaviors.

When is a short story a ficlet..

clock March 14, 2007 21:25 by author OffBeatMammal

When it's more than 64 characters, less than 1024, is an original work, is published under a Creative Commons "Share Alike" licence and is hosted on a really interesting new AOL property called Ficlets.

What makes ficlets interesting, and more than just another exercise in creative writing is that although most of them can stand alone any other user can contribute a prequel or sequel - allowing the fragment of fiction to become a part of a much larger narrative.

Any registered member (you'll need either an AOL screenname or, better yet, an OpenID) can comment on the ficlet, rate it or integrate it into a stream. Any ficlet can have multiple prequals or sequels which expands the possibilities in a multitude of ways beyond what the original author could ever have imagined.

To help fire up the creative juices they link to a number of "inspiration" sources - flickr photostreams and sample story opening/endings and "this day in history" type facts.

The registration isn't onerous and IMO will help to ensure that the site doesn't become spammed. Like HubPages it's easy for users to report inappropriate content and the system to tidy up. Ficlets can be flagged as "mature" and only those who opt in to view the more salacious material will be troubled by racy material (AOL have made their reputation on "family friendly" and "ease of use" and it's good to see it put to good effect here)

Video killed the Radio Star. Now the RIAA want to shoot internet radio in the head.

clock March 13, 2007 22:11 by author OffBeatMammal

As an avid consumer of music I love having access to a huge selection of new music at my fingertips. I buy CDs, support artists and spread the word about stuff I like.

I hardly ever listen to terrestrial radio any more (if I wanted to listen to inane egos talking I'd spent time at political meetings), and satellite radio while ad free sadly isn't host free (and has a pretty limited play list).

Which means I had to search out a better solution to find new music. For me that solution for the last few months has been Pandora - 24/7 streaming with playlists customized based on my preferences. All killers, no fillers, and while I'm a happy user of the free ad supported service (visuals in browser, not audio) I'm going to become a subscriber as soon as my home network is setup following our move - Pandora works with the SlimDevices Squeezebox and Transporter players ;)

While I'm a fan of the music, I'm not necessarily a big fan of the record companies. They (through the RIAA) seem to have been using some very dubious means to try and shore up a business model who's time was past back in Edisons day but continued through the on-going instances of payola through to the whittling away of fair use in place of lawsuits. It doesn't help the artists, it doesn't help culture and it sure doesn't help the consumers. Restricting choice and artificially shaping a market is not a sustainable model, but sadly some very powerful companies can pay a lot for some very effective lobbying and the government of the day plays along.

Recently however the RIAA has managed to get something passed that shows how little they care about long term sustainability and how focused they are on short term revenue. In a move that restricts the ability of internet broadcasters to deliver music to users in a fair and equitable manner they have pushed for a huge increase in royalties. Specifically targeting online delivery services (such as Pandora, Live365, Yahoo! music etc) the fees will rise 149% from the 2005 level by 2010, as well as imposing minimum contract amounts for all broadcasters. The fee increases for terrestrial and satellite radio are nowhere near these levels - and, unlike internet broadcasters, well their reach and business model.

I fail to see how punishing a fledgling industry which actively promotes your product - exposure leads to sales after all - is a good business decision.

The amount of money the average consumer spends on music hasn't changed much in the last 10 years. Despite bogus protests piracy hasn't brought the house down, iTunes, Urge, Connect etc (you use the service your media player recommends as long as it's good enough) and CDs (provided they don't infect you with DRM malware) in the stores are still the de facto choice for all but a few technically savvy user - so finding new effective ways to expose people to more choice at a reasonable cost seems like a really smart move.

This increase has the potential to hurt everyone. At the simplest level I'll lose a great music service that's introduced me to the bands and record labels behind the last 3 CDs I bought. At a higher level it hints at a much less rich musical soundscape for the future.

Normally I don't encourage people to go write to their politicians but I suggest you read Tims posts and take action before it's too late... While it won't save the planet or stop people starving it's about standing up for a better world!

Oh, and whle you're at it, check out how Gizmondo are going with their RIAA boycott, and progress at SaveOurInternetRadio. There's a lot of alternate music out there...

Cool poster. I wonder who that band is...

clock March 9, 2007 23:08 by author OffBeatMammal

So, imagine the scenario. You're walking down a busy street and you see a poster for a band, movie or an event that catches your eye. You don't have time to stop and write down details. Even if you do you've got to remember to look it up on the web when you get home.

Now imagine being able to take a picture of the poster with your camera-phone, click a button and get information there and then.

Well, it's not imagination any more thanks to a new Microsoft Research project called Lincoln.

Thanks to some very powerful image libraries and clever server side technology doing the heavy lifting they now have the ability to do pretty fast image recognition with some pretty average comparison images - my phone has a 1.3mp camera with a pretty dirty lens. No zoom, no flash etc, but I was able to take a snap of a poster on the wall at work and seconds later have details of the even available to me. It even worked when I downloaded the image to my machine and took the picture of what was displayed on my screen!

The lookup works on images uploaded and made public by anyone, so it's not limited by what Microsoft choose to upload but anyone can put up an image of their event poster, CD release, DVD cover along with relevant information and when a user searches for it in the real world they can find out about your event or see Amazon reviews of your DVD.

I know there have been efforts like this before to connect the real world to the interweb, but most have relied on QR Codes or invisible (to the naked eye) printing - but they require on specific printing techniques or compromises on the artwork, whereas this can be used retrospectively to webify existing material.

I'd love to see magazine advertisers do this as well - so rather than having to look for and remember their URL when I read the magazine in a reception area I can simply snap a quick photo and look up all the details when I have a moment.



Kittens and Puppies making the web safer

clock March 8, 2007 05:51 by author OffBeatMammal

If you've ever posted a comment on a blog, signed up to a forum or submitted a URL to a search engine then you've probably encountered a CAPTCHA. One of those hard to read tests to try and prove that you're a human not an evil bot.

Sadly most of those are equally difficult for real people. The number of times I get it wrong because I can't work out if it's a "5" or an "S" or and "l" or a "1" or even read the darn thing because there's so much noise in the background picture.

Some alternatives have cropped up using types of image that a human can differentiate (men and women, cats and dogs, cheese and crackers) but most of those have a limited supply of images so it's a simple job to spend a couple of hours, map the images and break the protection.

Asirra solves the problem by accessing a large database of images that's constantly changing. Sadly the image source is puppies and kittens that are up for adoption. But as well as displaying the images to use as a security mechanism every image has an "adopt me" link underneath which links through to PetFinder to help you connect with the animal that catches your eye.

At the moment this services only features pets from the US, but it can be used to secure a page anywhere on the interweb. Hopefully in the future the service will be localized based on where the visitor is from so the pets come from a relevant source, but it's a great start.

Getting lost... the GPS way!

clock March 5, 2007 17:51 by author OffBeatMammal

Ironically, just after saying how happy I was with my GPS I had a really bad weekend with it! Luckily it wasn't a show stopper by any means, but it proves to illustrate how far from perfect the solution is.

Fry's isn't a Point of Interest?

My first problem was trying to find Fry's. If you don't know they're a very large electronics retailer. Now possibly it was because I bought my GPS at Circuit City but when I tried looking for Fry's (with an without the apostrophe) it was strangely absent from the database. Circuit City and Radio Shack both are.

Luckily thanks to Windows Live Search for Mobile it was no effort to look up the address, tap it into the GPS and get driving directions to the door.

I don't have a flying car.

My second problem was with a junction. I knew I needed to get off the freeway onto NE8th Street. The GPS however wanted me to get off the junction onto 28th Avenue which would then lead onto NE8th. Problem is the junction connects to NE8th and 28th is actually an unconnected flyover at this junction. Short of driving up a wall I wasn't going to make it. So the GPS recalculated and I decided to let it do what it wanted. That didn't include staying on the road we wanted but instead I was redirected back to the freeway, down a junction and took a couple of cross-streets to reconnect with NE8th. I've since changed the preferences on the GPS from 'fastest' to 'shortest' route as I think the freeway obsession is possibly a little much.

I was only going one way!

The final moment of amusement this weekend was a one way street. Which the GPS wanted me to do the wrong way down. Now luckily I think before blindly following directions so didn't turn into the single lane road with big "No Entry" signs. It's not a newly one-way street either, it's been like it for at least a year. But sadly the November 2006 version of the map that I have is wrong - and thanks to annual upgrades will be wrong for quite some time.

I'm sure that as I drove past the road to take the next right and go round the block the "recalculating" announcement had some frustration in its tone ;)

Is the world waking up?

clock March 5, 2007 17:20 by author OffBeatMammal

I've been a concerned consumer for a while. Not concerned enough to go off-grid, turn off my polluting lifestyle or get a Prius, but concerned and trying to do my minimally disruptive bit.

But thanks to a link from William Gibson this morning, it looks like people are finally starting to wake up to the threat a future outlined by the likes of Gibson and Bruce Sterling. And Bruce is happy that they've noticed...

We're moving into a new house next week and while we don't have a big enough yard for a wind farm, or enough roof-space to make solar power practical in WA we'll be doing what we can to ensure we make the house as energy efficient and recycling friendly as we can over time. Little things like LED lighting or better door seals don't require much effort or lifestyle change but have an incremental effect...

What can you do today?

What is this obsession with flashing blue lights?

clock March 5, 2007 16:43 by author OffBeatMammal

I like my electronic equipment to be unobtrusive. I'm not a fan of needy toys that constantly seek to attract attention to them... even when they're not doing anything.

A few days ago I got another external drive (I'm amassing quite a collection, but that's another story). My Maxtor ones are slightly annoying as they have a green flashing light when they're doing something but at least it becomes a (relatively) restful pale orange when the drive is inactive. This new one (first thing I've bought from Iomega since the ZIP drive fiasco) has a blue light. An intense blue light. It flashes when it's doing stuff, but more annoyingly it blinks slowly when the drive is idle. The rest of the time it just burns quietly to itself.

My Media Center has blue lights too. One to tell me the power is on - as if the status display on the front wasn't a clue, or the flickering blue HDD light, or, perhaps a real give-away... the TV being on!

I used to have a set of speakers attached to the Media Center (they're back in Australia as they wouldn't be any good new - no dual voltage) which has an LED and a small screen that displayed the mode when they were active. When they were in standby the LED flashed at a really annoying rate.

Now there's been a bunch of research done (I read it somewhere on the interweb, must find a reference to cite one day) that shows the blue LEDs are the most visible. So why do manufacturers put them (and make them flash) on bits of entertainment equipment and entertainment/home use focused hardware. A lot of the time it's going to distract users from watching what they want to watch, and, let's face it, a lot of this stuff will end up in bedrooms or small apartments where the flashing will mess with sleep patterns!

If I wanted to be constantly reminded of the needs of an electronic device I'd get a tamagochi. I hope manufacturers realize soon that there is a market for people like me!

IM - Make a difference with every conversation

clock March 1, 2007 17:59 by author OffBeatMammal

i’m is a new initiative from Windows Live™ Messenger. Every time you start a conversation using i’m, Microsoft shares a portion of the program's advertising revenue with some of the world's most effective organizations dedicated to social causes. We've set no cap on the amount we'll donate to each organization. The sky's the limit. There's no charge, so join now and put our money where your mouth is.

i’m is about making a difference. Not in a huge expensive way, not in a time-consuming way. But in a simple, effective way.

You won't have to change your conversation to change the conversation. With every instant message you help address the issues you feel most passionate about, including poverty, child protection, disease, and environmental degradation. It's simple. All you have to do is join and start an instant messaging conversation. We'll handle the donation.

Once you've signed up, every ad you see in your message window contributes to the grand total we send to the causes.

Please visit for more information and to sign up...

Note: At the moment this is a US only offering, but hopefully we'll see it spread around the world soon.

I wonder if this was inspired by the old hoax emails saying that if you forward the email, Bill Gates or Microsoft will donate a sum of money to charity. It’s almost comical, because that is now true to a certain degree.

I made a Gadget!

clock March 1, 2007 08:18 by author OffBeatMammal

As part of the learning curve in my new gig I decided this week to build a gadget.

So in between everything else I've got on my plate at the moment I picked a collection of buzzwords and technologies and decided to wrap them all up into one gadget.


  • it's a Vista Sidebar gadget
  • It consumes an RSS feed (defaults to the Technorati WPF/E feed but you can over-ride that)
  • It uses Ajax functionality (okay, the xmlhttp object) to periodically refresh the feed
  • It's primary display technology is WPF/E (so you'll need the WPF/E runtime installed)
  • It's got a flyout (that closes automatically after 6 seconds)
  • It works docked and un-docked

It's not very pretty (I'm not a designer after all!) but it was an interesting first experiment. There's still a bunch of rough edges and further tweaks that it needs when I have the time:

  • Some mouse-over effects on the title list
  • Use WPF/E to display the flyout content
  • Allow the refresh time to be customized
  • Allow the number of items returned to be customized (at the moment displays everything it gets)
  • Make it look prettier!

As a learning exercise it was great. Combining WPF/E and Gadget technology is pretty much a no-brainer (WPF/E at the moment can only access items in the Gadget file, no external assets) - there's nothing mysterious in gadget building... it's just HTML, JavaScript (with a few extra properties to control the gadget settings and layout) and one XML file to define the assets.

Oh, and you can download it from here if you want to have a play...



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