Monday, October 25, 2010

Decisions, decisions: which gadget should I buy?

You probably won't be forced to choose between a tablet or ereader or make other similar difficult decisions very much longer. One reason, of course, is that their capabilities are being merged in ways that may make a single device suitable for many uses - but that is not the main reason you'll avoid these agonizing choices. With all the uses for this versatile crop of new devices, it's very likely you'll have more than one. We certainly have numerous magazines and books on hand not to mention newspapers. If tablets, ereaders and smartphones become universal tools, a family will most likely have several.

After all, it's not uncommon to have multiple PCs in the house; it often makes sense to keep an older machine when upgrading since they have little resale value and work quite well at common tasks. Of course students regularly use computers for homework and the competition for "the computer" can get fierce in the evening.

It's important to note that we are in the early stages of the Mobile Revolution and dozens of different shapes and sizes of devices will come out soon. Distinguishing between tablets and smartphones will become increasingly difficult and naming conventions will evolve rapidly.

In any case, it is quite likely that a variety of tablets and other mobile devices will be used to replace collections of books, magazines and other publications. No matter how much we enjoy the feel of a "real book", we will rely increasingly on electronic means for much of our information and that means more electronic devices will be needed for access.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bumping - the new way to connect

Business cards have been around for three hundred years but their fate may be sealed soon. We've tried numerous ways to track our contacts including business card holders and scanners to enter the information into our computers. There was certainly promise to automatic character recognition to convert card images to text but the artistic flourishes on many cards have rendered that strategy problematic. An email address embedded in a sea of flowers is just as hard to read by software as by the human eye.

Bumping has come to the rescue. There is a free app for iPhones and Android phones that automatically transfers contact information between two phones when they touch each other (bump). To learn more go to the companies web site www.BU.MP.

The process seems quite mysterious but it turns out the direct physical contact is not what matters. Because phones have built in GPS, it is easy to determine when two phones are near each other. Second, they have motion sensors that can sense when they move or are jolted. Tapping two nearby phones on the table would yield the same result. But since their may be other phones nearby, and another phone might be jolted at the same time, it is possible to connect with the wrong person. That's the reason, that each participant in a "bump" must confirm the identity of the other party before a connection is made.

In addition to exchanging contact information, the Bump software allows you to exchange photos, social network connections and calendar events.

Ebook formats and other issues

While the Amazon Kindle may be the best known ebook reader (ereader) around, it is certainly not the only one available today. This brings up the question of compatibility and formats. An entry in Wikipedia lists 21 different ereaders using 13 different formats. That's not a misprint - 13 different formats. Fortunately some ereaders can read ebooks in multiple formats and seven formats are the most commonly encountered (Plain Text, PDF, ePub, HTML, MobiPocket, FictionBook and DjVu.)

Probably the most vexing but least discussed question concerning ebooks relates to your ownership rights. When you buy a real book, there is no questions what you can do with it - keep it, sell it, give it away or throw it away. What happens after you pay for an ebook? Can you transfer it to another similar device, another different type of device, a device owned by a friend, etc? Can you in fact create an ebook "library" like you would with real books? For years people have erroneously thought when they "bought" software they actually owned it - wrong! Virtually every software product includes a license agreement which strictly limits what you can do with it. You do not own software; you are a licensed user.

I firmly believe ebooks are the way of the future. It is just not clear how that future will develop and there are certain to be some unexpected bumps in the road along the way. Not surprisingly many of the issues (formats, licenses, etc.) are what we've dealt with for years with software.

Touch screens are not all created equal

Since touch screens are all the rage today, I thought I would expand on what I wrote last month when discussing stylus input. In that piece I explained the difference between resistive and capacitive touch screens - generally resistive screens are less expensive, require more pressure and are increasingly being replaced by capacitive models that are super sensitive to your touch.

If you compare touch devices, you will begin to notice more differences. Again there is a low cost approach that works like an ATM - touch an icon and an action is triggered. More sophisticated screens incorporate three additional capabilities - multitouch, physics and gestures.

As the name implies multitouch devices let you use more than one finger at a time - tapping with two fingers means something different than tapping with one - much like a right click on a mouse  produces a different result than a left click.

A physics capability means the response of the screen mimics physical actions. For example, swiping your finger across an ebook page causes the page to appear to "turn" like a real book. I first noticed the realism this adds one time while reading on my iPad and had the urge to actually pick up the page to turn it. it became that "real" because of the way the device responded to my movement.

Finally, gesture means the screen responds to movements - such as the swipe across the screen mentioned above. A common example is that opening or closing two fingers changes the magnification of the displayed image - combining multitouch (two fingers) with gestures (finger movement).

Both e-readers and tablets will drop in price sooner rather than later. We've already seen a significant drop in e-reader prices as a result of the iPad introduction. One way to reduce prices when the pressure becomes intense will be to use cheaper, less sophisticated touch screens. There's nothing inherently wrong with this but you need to make sure you know what you are getting before you buy.

Without gestures, tapping an icon would turn a page. Without physics pages would turn in some programmed fashion. 
These may seem like minor issues until you experiment with different products. In general the lower priced gadgets will have the least number of these capabilities. How "natural" it feels to use a touch screen will depend significantly on if and how multitouch, physics and gestures are incorporated.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Artist Alert - touch screens offer exciting opportunities

We hear about smartphones and tablets being used for communication, games and productivity but what's available for your artistic side? Since a picture (or in this case six videos) is worth a thousand words, I won't even try to describe the possibilities for painting with finger or pen on a touch screen. I will say I was amazed. Click here to see the exciting possibilities in this article by Jonny Evans.

Photography breakthrough: HDR for the masses

Thankfully we are now past the stage of "megapixel bragging"; every camera today has more than enough megapixels to do the job. Image stabilization (IS) is the most significant improvement in photography in recent years. If you've never experienced it, hold a camera zoomed to 300+ mm and see how different the image is with and without IS turned on. But one thing that still plagues amateur and professional alike is the uneven distribution of light in many images.
The Problem
On a sunny day, for example, the bright sky causes the camera to close down the aperture and underexpose the subject. Most people learn they can set the camera to allow in more light - back light compensation - but then the nice bright blue sky turns almost white. The highlights are said to be blown out. It turns out our eyes can see a wider range of light intensity than a camera.
Professional digital photographers have a solution. They spend money on expensive cameras, spend more money on Photoshop and then spend time combining three separate images - one standard exposure, one over exposed and one underexposed. High end cameras can easily produce this set of images. This is not an approach most people would want to try but the results are amazing; details are present in the bright, dark and intermediate areas of the picture.
The Breakthrough
On September 1, 2010 Apple announced an upgrade to their iOS software - used in iPhones, iPods and iPads. This change allows the camera to take the necessary three images and automatically combine them into an HDR photo. The results looked impressive in the demonstration but I'll have to see real results before I believe it. This approach does not require anything special in camera electronics or optics since the process is just rapid image capture followed by sophisticated image processing. Since all smartphones and the upcoming hoard of tablets generally include cameras, it is likely other vendors will implement similar capabilities that will produce better images and require little if any change in user behavior.