May 8, 2013
Cell phones are so many things now–computer, map, clock, calculator, camera, shopping device, concierge, and occasionally, a phone. But more than anything, that little device that never leaves your person is one amazingly prolific data engine.
Which is why last October, Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S, carrier with almost 100 million customers, launched a new division called Precision Market Insights. And why, at about the same time, Madrid-based Telefonica, one of the world’s largest mobile network providers, opened its own new business unit, Telefonica Dynamic Insights.
The point of these ventures is to mine, reconstitute and sell the enormous amount of data that phone companies gather about our behavior. Every time we make a mobile call or send a text message–which pings a cell tower–that info is recorded. So, with enough computer power, a company can draw pretty accurate conclusions about how and when people move through a city or a region. Or they can tell where people have come from to attend an event. As part of a recent case study, for example, Verizon was able to say that people with Baltimore area codes outnumbered those with San Francisco area codes by three to one inside the New Orleans Superdome for the Super Bowl in February.
In a world enamored of geolocation, this is digital gold. It’s one thing to know the demographic blend of a community, but to be able to find out how many people pass by a business and where they’re coming from, that adds a whole nother level of precision to target marketing.
Follow the crowd
But this data have value beyond companies zeroing in on potential customers. It’s being used for social science, even medical research. Recently IBM crunched numbers from 5 million phone users in the Ivory Coast in Africa and, by tracking movements of people through which cell towers they connected to, it was able to recommend 65 improvements to bus service in the city of Abidjan.
And computer scientists at the University of Birmingham in England have used cell phone data to fine tune analysis of how epidemics spread. Again, it’s about analyzing how people move around. Heretofore, much of what scientists knew about the spread of contagious diseases was based largely on guesswork. But now, thanks to so many pings from so many phones, there’s no need to guess.
It’s important to point out that no actual identities are connected to cell phone data. It all gets anonymized, meaning there shouldn’t be a way to track the data back to real people.
There shouldn’t be.
Leaving a trail
But a study published in Scientific Reports in March found that even anonymized data may not be so anonymous after all. A team of researchers from Louvain University in Belgium, Harvard and M.I.T. found that by using data from 15 months of phone use by 1.5 million people, together with a similar dataset from Foursquare, they could identify about 95 percent of the cell phones users with just four data points and 50 percent of them with just two data points. A data point is an individual’s approximate whereabouts at the approximate time they’re using their cell phone.
The reason that only four locations were necessary to identify most people is that we tend to move in consistent patterns. Just as everyone has unique fingerprints, everyone has unique daily travels. While someone wouldn’t necessarily be able to match the path of a mobile phone–known as a mobility trace–to a specific person, we make it much easier through geolocated tweets or location “check-ins,” such as when we use Foursquare.
“In the 1930s, it was shown that you need 12 points to uniquely identify and characterize a fingerprint,” the study’s lead author, Yves-Alexandre de Montijoye, told the BBC in a recent interview. “What we did here is the exact same thing, but with mobility traces. The way we move and the behavior is so unique that four points are enough to identify 95 percent of the people.”
“We think this data is more available than people think. When you share information, you look around and you feel like there are lots of people around–in a shopping center or a tourist place–so you feel this isn’t sensitive information.”
In other words, you feel anonymous. But are you really? De Montijoye said the point of his team’s research wasn’t to conjure up visions of Big Brother. He thinks there’s much good that can come from mining cell phone data, for businesses, for city planners, for scientists, for doctors. But he thinks it’s important to recognize that today’s technology makes true privacy very hard to keep.
The title of the study? “Unique in the Crowd.”
Here are other recent developments related to mobile phones and their data:
- Every picture tells your story: Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interaction Center say their research of 100 smartphone apps found that about half of them raised privacy concerns. For instance, a photo-sharing app like Instagram provided information that allowed them to easily discover the location of the person who took the photo.
- Cabbies with cameras: In the Mexican city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, taxi drivers have been provided with GPS-enabled cell phones and encouraged to send messages and photographs about accidents or potholes or broken streetlights.
- Follow that cell: Congress has started looking into the matter of how police use cell phone data to track down suspects. The key issue is whether they should be required to get a warrant first.
- Follow that cell II: Police in Italy have started using a data analysis tool called LogAnalysis that makes it especially easy to visualize the relationships among conspiring suspects based on their phone calls. In one particular case involving a series of robberies, the tool showed a flurry of phone activity among the suspects before and after the heists, but dead silence when the crimes were being committed.
Video bonus: If you’re at all paranoid about how much data can be gleaned from how you use your mobile phone, you may not want to watch this TED talk by Malte Spitz.
March 25, 2013
I committed my first texting heresy a few years ago when my son was away at college. I had asked him about a class he was taking and had needed three, maybe four sentences to express myself.
He responded with bemusement. Or maybe it was disgust. Who could tell?
But his message was clear: If I continued to be so lame as to send texts longer than two sentences–using complete words, no less–he would have little choice but to stop answering.
I was reminded of this less-than-tender father-son moment recently by a post by Nick Bilton for The New York Times’ Bits blog in which he railed against those who send “Thank you” emails, among other digital transgressions.
His contention is that such concise expressions of gratitude, while well-intended, end up being an imposition for recipients who have to open up an email to read a two-word message. Better to leave the sentiment unexpressed–although he does concede that it probably makes sense to indulge old folks, who are much more likely to appreciate the appreciation.
Bilton’s larger point is that as technology changes how we communicate and gather information, we need to adapt what we consider proper etiquette. Why should we continue to leave voice mails, he argues, when a text is much more likely to be answered? And why, he asks, would anyone these days be so rude as to ask for directions?
Not that this is the first time that tech is forcing an etiquette rethink. Bilton harkens back to the early days of the telephone when people truly didn’t know what to say when they picked up a ringing phone. Alexander Graham Bell himself lobbied for “Ahoy,” while Thomas Edison pushed for “Hello.” Edison ruled, of course, although now that our phones tell who’s calling before we have to say a word, the typical greeting has devolved to “Hey” or the catatonically casual “‘S up.”
Sure, some of this is a generational thing–The Independent nailed that in a recent piece on how members of three generations of one family communicate–or not–with each other.
But it’s also about volume. Email never sleeps. For a lot of people, each day can bring a fire hose of digital messages. Imagine if you received 50 to 100 phone calls a day. You can bet you’d be telling people to stop calling.
If the purpose of etiquette is to be considerate of other people, Bilton would contend that that’s the whole idea behind cutting back on emails and voice mails. And he’d have a point.
Me, my phone and I
But then there’s the matter of device isolation. I’m sure you know it well by now–the person who starts texting away during a conversation, or a meal, or even a meeting, which is one of those things bosses tend not to like (not to mention that it probably also means the death of doodling.)
It’s hard to put a positive spin on this since it does send a pretty clear message: I’d rather focus my energy on connecting to someone through a device than in person. Maybe it’s just me, but that, I’d say, reeks of rude.
If anything, it’s going to get worse, especially with wearable tech about to go mainstream. Some think this is the year the smart watch could start to become the accessory of choice, which means people will be looking at their wrists a lot more in the future–not so much to check the time, which is rude enough, but more to see who’s sent them emails and texts.
And what about when Google Glass goes on the market later this year? They’re glasses that will enable you to check emails, go on the Web, watch videos, even take pictures, all while feigning eye contact with the people you’re with. And the Google Glass camera raises all kinds of issues. Will wearers have to make pre-date agreements not to take stealth photos, particularly any involving eating or drinking? Is anyone fair game in a Google Glass video?
But beyond questions of privacy and social boorishness, the impact of our obsession with digital devices, especially when it comes to the loss of personal connections, could go much deeper. In a piece in Sunday’s New York Times, Barbara Frederickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, cites research suggesting that if you don’t practice connecting face-to-face with others, you can start to lose your biological capacity to do so.
“When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.”
Here are other recent developments in how technology is affecting behavior:
- Yeah, but can I text while I meditate?: A course at the University of Washington is focusing on helping students improve their concentration skills by requiring them both to watch videos of themselves multitasking and to do meditation.
- And it really cuts down on shuffleboard injuries: A study at North Carolina State University found that seniors–people 63 years or older– who played video games had higher levels of well-being and “emotional functioning” and lower levels of depression than old folks who didn’t.
- Does loyalty go deeper than latte?: This May Starbucks will break new ground when it allows its loyalty cardholders to earn points by buying Starbucks products in grocery stores.
Video bonus: All kinds of embarrassing things can happen while you’re texting.
Video bonus bonus: More evidence of the obsession that is texting: Here’s a clip of a bride firing off one last message before she says her vows.
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March 14, 2013
Last week, for the first time in 75 years, the Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland, made the Golden Gate seem like just another bridge.
Kudos to Leo Villareal. He’s an artist who works with lights, but also with algorithms. And his latest project, The Bay Lights, is probably the most spectacular example of that mix of art and tech that most of us have ever seen.
Under Villareal’s direction, teams of electricians spent the past five months stringing 25,000 LED lights a foot apart–from the top of the bridge’s towers down to the deck–for the full length (almost two miles) of the bridge’s western span.
Drivers crossing the bridge aren’t distracted by the spectacle of all the white dots. They can’t see them. But from the shore, it’s a very different view. Sometimes the light seems to drip down like a steady San Francisco rain. Other times it looks like shadows of clouds moving over the bay. That’s the point. Villareal wants the lights to mirror the natural elements around them. And like nature, the bridge’s lights will never look exactly the same for the next two years. That’s the algorithms at work.
There are no cheap tricks–no splashes of color, no words spelled out, no images–in fact, nothing clearly identifiable. Just constantly shifting abstractions so people can see what they want to see.
Says Villareal: “My goal is to make it feel alive as possible, as alive as a sequence of numbers can be.”
Public art has come a long way from statues of white guys on horses. And it’s not just about the scale of something like The Bay Lights. It’s what technology has made possible–art that’s dynamic, that shifts mood and shape and sometimes augments reality. Some, of course, are not impressed, seeing art by algorithm as not much more than a 21st century version of parlor tricks. So be it.
But there can be little question that digital technology is now the driver in not just how we interact with our environment, but also in how we view it. And whether its method is to enhance the world around us or to change entirely how it appears, this is where public art is headed.
Like Leo Villareal, B.C. Biermann is a digital artist who wants to provide fresh visions to city life. But he does it by offering slices of an alternative reality. His art projects involve adding a new interactive layer to public spaces.
A few years ago, he co-founded an organization called RePublic and one of its first augmented reality projects, in July 2011, allowed people to point their smartphones at specific Times Square billboards and instead of viewing massive, flashing ads, they were able to see original pieces of urban art. Next came a project in which people aiming a digital device at a fading mural in Norway could see what it looked like when its paint was fresh. And then came the augmentation of buildings in Los Angeles and New York, which were were transformed into fanciful virtual murals on the small screen.
Biermann is now looking at refining his augmented reality concepts so that people could have choices of what “surface” of a building they want to see. Maybe they get an image of what it looks like inside the walls, maybe how it might look 20 years from now. He’s also working with an architecture professor at Washington University in St. Louis to develop a version of his app that would digitally revitalize several of the city’s buildings, with the goal of showing how better urban planning can profoundly change a streetscape’s looks.
As Biermann sees it, one day we may be taking virtual tours of cities, but what we see on our smartphones could be a very different-looking place than the one before our eyes.
That is, if we’re still paying attention to the one before our eyes.
Here are a few other public art projects built around digital technology:
- But the lights will not spell out, “Hi, Mom: Now that Bay Lights is in play, a little of the glitter is gone from Luminous, the light spectacle covering the front of a four-story building in Sydney, Australia. When it was unveiled last year, it was described as the world’s largest permanent interactive light display. And one big difference between it and the light show on the Bay Bridge is that it comes with touchscreens that give people in the restaurant down below the chance to become LED programmers.
- However, they refuse to dance to “Gangnam Style”: And in Winnipeg, Canada, they now have their own interactive art piece that makes up in whimsy what it lacks in grandeur. It’s a collection of 68 LED lights that react to sound, specifically whistling. Called Listening Lights, its inspiration is a Canadian legend that when a person whistles, the Northern Lights become more intense and dance towards the person doing the whistling.
- Finding their inner building: While it lasts for only a few days in January, the Ghent Light Festival in Belgium is worth a mention if you’re talking about doing digital magic on buildings. Here’s a video from the dazzling 2012 version of the event.
- And they should know at least a few insults: And here’s one that’s a work in progress. Believe it or not, New York City still has 11,000 payphones, which actually came in pretty handy during Superstorm Sandy. But clearly they need a 21st century facelift and now the city has just announced six finalists in a competition to reinvent the payphone. The entries will be judged on what their reinventions can do. Are they wifi hotspots? A gatherer of data, such as street level pollution levels? Or a true urban kiosk, one that can wirelessly call a cab and be able to tell you what food trucks are where that day? And they have to look good. This is New York, after all.
Video bonus: See for yourself the spectacle of the new Bay Bridge and get an explanation of how it works from the artist himself in this New York Times video report.
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March 5, 2013
It’s amazing how putting a lower case “i” in front of the name of a gadget can make it righteous.
What that means, of course, is that Apple has deemed that particular piece of technology worthy of its attention. And with that comes both market credibility and geeky cool.
So when rumors started swirling a few weeks ago that Apple could unveil an “iWatch” later this year, tech writers around the Web were quick to ponder if 2013 will become “The Year of the Smartwatch.” Maybe. Maybe not. The iGod has not yet spoken on the subject. At least not officially.
The article that stirred the iWatch clamor was a recent piece by Nick Bilton in the New York Times’ Bits blog. It was high on speculation–Apple isn’t talking–and spiced with juicy questions: Will it come with Siri, the voice of the iPhone? What about Apple’s map software? Will an iWatch enable its wearers to track their steps taken? How about their heartbeats?
But the biggest tease was an allusion to glass. Specifically bendable glass. Imagine a watch face that could curve around your wrist. That sounds light, sleek and yes, geekily cool. That sounds so Apple.
The Wall Street Journal followed up, citing a source saying that Apple has been discussing the design of a smartwatch with its Chinese manufacturing partner. And then Bloomberg chimed in, reporting that Apple has a team of at least 100 people cranking away on a “wristwatch-like device.”
It also quoted Bruce Tognazzini, a tech consultant and former Apple employee: “The iWatch will fill a gaping hole in the Apple ecosystem.”
So game over, right? Whenever Apple rolls out its device, it will define what a smartwatch should be, right?
Not so fast. Believe it or not, it’s already a crowded field, with more than half a dozen smartwatches out in the market. Maybe the best known, at least among gadget geeks, is the Pebble, which made a big splash a year ago, even before it existed. Its inventors made a pitch for investors on Kickstarter, hoping to drum up $100,000. Instead they raised $10 million, and a crowd-funding legend was born. The first Pebbles shipped earlier this year, to generally positive reviews.
Sony came out with its own model last year, sometimes to less than enthusiastic reviews. Others in the game include the MetaWatch Strata, the strangely-named I’m Watch, the oddly-named Martian Passport, one called Buddy and another called Cookoo. Later this year, a model called The Pine is expected to hit the market.
But, aside from having names that you’d never imagined calling a wristwatch, what do all these products bring to modern life? Obviously, they tell time, but most also connect wirelessly to your smartphone so you can see who’s calling or texting or emailing or posting on your Facebook page without digging into your pocket for your phone. They can show you weather forecasts, sports scores or news headlines. Some have apps that let you control the music on your phone or track how far you’ve run or cycled.
And keep in mind, this is only the first wave. They probably can’t do enough yet to entice most people to shell out a few hundred bucks–they range from $130 for a Cookoo to more than $400 for an I’m Watch. But as more apps are added, they could be used to make mobile payments, navigate with GPS, take photos and shoot videos. A few already can handle phone calls, albeit clunkily. So, the day is fast coming when you’ll be able to talk into your wristwatch without making people nervous.
Some say we’re on the cusp of a wearable tech boom, and that the smartphone, as something we need to actually carry around, will become passe. Others are more dubious, positing that the smartwatch is just another gadget phase we’re going through.
But there’s that bendable glass…
It’s long been said that if you want to succeed, it helps to be smart. Now that applies to products, too.
- At last, a cure for expiration date anxiety: Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands say they’ve developed packaging with sensors that will be able to tell if the food inside is still edible.
- When bottles share: A Florida entrepreneur thinks the time has come for medicine bottles to get smart. His idea is to put QR codes on bottles that once scanned, will play a video on your smartphone telling you all you really need to know about the meds inside.
- Let sleeping babies lie: And for anxious young parents who check every 30 seconds to see if their baby is still breathing, students at Brigham Young University are developing something they call the Owlet Baby Monitor. Using a built-in pulse oximeter, the wireless smart sock can track both a sleeping child’s heart and breathing rates.
- Say goodbye to the “You’ll just feel a little pinch” lie: Scientists at Purdue University have created bandages that could make the needle stick obsolete. Powered by a person’s body heat, the adhesive patches would be able to deliver medication without the need for a shot.
- Which is so much cooler than wearing a smart sock: In Japan, Fujitsu has unveiled its “Next Generation Cane.” Yep, it’s a smart cane and it can monitor a person’s vitals. It also comes with GPS so you can always know where Grandma’s taking a stroll.
Video bonus: Want the lowdown on how the Pebble smartwatch works? The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg lays it out a video review.
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January 11, 2013
Since the beginning of mankind, we’ve wanted our kids to get smarter. Since the beginning of the 21st century, we’ve wanted our phones to get smarter.
So when are we going start wanting our TVs to get smarter? Or will we always be content with them being dumb, as long as they’re big and dumb? Okay, maybe not dumb, but most of us don’t yet feel a compelling need to have our TVs think like computers, as long as the picture looks pretty up there on the wall.
Which always makes things interesting at the Great Gadgetpalooza also known as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). For the past several years, the big electronics companies that focus on hardware, such as Samsung and Panasonic, and the big tech companies that focus on software, such as Google, have been rolling out nifty products at the annual Las Vegas spectacle with the promise that this is the year that Smart TV goes mainstream.
Boob tube no more
And so it’s been at this year’s version of CES, which ends today. Samsung has done its part to convince us that the time has come for us to love TVs for their brains by unveiling what it calls its S-Recommendation engine.
It’s software that, as Samsung puts it, not only understands what you like, but recommends things it thinks you’ll like. (Sure, Amazon’s been doing this for years, but this is your big, dumb TV we’re talking about.) And it doesn’t just suggest TV shows, but could throw in streaming programs options from the Web, or even video you’ve shot on your smartphone.
The goal ultimately is to get you to do all those things you’re now doing on your smartphone or your tablet–say, watch Hulu or Skype with a family member or check out your Facebook page–on your TV instead. To encourage that behavior, Samsung has revamped its Smart Hub so you can flip through all of your entertainment options in five different index screens–one that tells you what’s on regular old TV now or soon, another that lists movies and on-demand TV, a third that pulls in photos or music or video stored on any other devices around the house, a fourth where you can Skype or pull up Facebook and a fifth that provides access to any apps you’ve downloaded.
And neither of the above requires pushing a lot of buttons on a remote. The S-Recommendation engine responds to voice commands and the Smart Hub is designed to be controlled with hand gestures.
For its part, Panasonic has rolled out a feature it calls My Home Screen, which allows each member of your family to create his or her own homepage on the TV, where easy access is provided to their favorite digital content, streaming video and apps. Some of the company’s Viera models actually come with their own cameras that tell the TV who turned it on. And as a smart TV should, it dutifully brings up that person’s home screen.
Plus, Panasonic unveiled “Swipe and Share 2.0″, which lets users move photos from a tablet or phone to a big TV screen, where they can then be edited with a touch pen.
But can you love a TV?
So that seals it, right? This must be the year when TVs take back center stage, especially now that they’re finally learning to care about our needs, right?
Maybe not. We’ve built some pretty strong personal connections to our cell phones and tablets. And a lot of people think it’s going to take a while for us to develop that kind of bond with a TV, no matter how smart it is.
As Greg Stuart, CEO of the Mobile Marketing Association told Ad Age earlier this week: “”People don’t have that kind of interactive relationship with their TV. The TV on the wall is a family device. It’s a multi-user device. If I want to share something, its going to be with a personal device, and that’s going to be my tablet or my mobile.”
TV or Not TV?
Here are other recent TV innovations:
- Robert, 6th Earl of Grantham, meet Tony Soprano: One day, thanks to Samsung, two people will be able to watch full-screen versions of Downton Abbey and Sopranos reruns at the same time. By adapting 3D technology, the company has created a TV that can display a different and full resolution image to each viewer depending on whether they’re sitting to the left or the right of the screen. Of course, both people would have to wear special glasses that come with headphones so you can hear only the sound for your show, but is that such a big price to pay for domestic peace?
- Read my lips. No more Gangham style: LG, the other South Korean TV giant, has upgraded its “Magic Remote” so that it now responds to natural language. You say the name of a show or even something like “videos with Gangham-style dancing,” and your choice pops up on the screen.
- I got my MoVo workin’: Also at CES, the Chinese TV manufacturer TCL showed off an HD TV called MoVo that uses facial recognition software to identify who’s watching and then make programming suggestions customized for that person.
- Okay, who blinked?: Meanwhile, Haier, another Chinese company, has developed a technology it calls Eye Control TV where, yes, you can change channels by moving your eyes.
- Ah, to be 65 and only see ads for meds: It was only a matter of time. A company called Gracenote will soon begin trials on a technology that, based on your viewing habits and personal data, will personalize the TV ads you see. Isn’t that special?
Video bonus: You didn’t make it to the big electronics show this year? Not to worry. Here’s the Samsung demo of its S-Recommendation engine. Remember, people tend to gush a lot at CES.
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