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 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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February 1, 2013
It’s the time of year when the National Football League gets a little bit smaller.
Sure, the Super Bowl on Sunday is its championship game and more than 100 million people will be watching, but if the outcome isn’t decided in the last two minutes, more people on Monday will be talking about the funniest TV commercials or how Beyonce sang–or didn’t–at halftime or the post-game homage to the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis as he dances off into the sunset.
It’s been this way for a while now. As the spectacle of everything around it has become bigger, what actually happens on the field during the Super Bowl has gotten smaller. And that’s been okay with the league as long as it’s only happened once a year.
But now, with the rise of giant home video screens and the ability to see every scoring play of every game on the NFL’s RedZone network or watch games from different angles on a computer tablet, people running the league and its teams have realized that they need to pump up the stadium experience. What happens on the field, they fear, soon may no longer be enough to keep the customers satisfied.
Hitting the big, big screen
No question that the Dallas Cowboys ratcheted things up in 2009 when they opened, with much hoopla, the new Cowboys Stadium. Not only did it cost more than $1 billion, but hanging 90 feet above the field is an HDTV screen so large–it stretches from 20-yard-line to 20-yard line–that players who are quite massive in real life look like little Lego men moving around below.
Next fall, the Houston Texans will one-up the Cowboys when they unveil their own field-dwarfing video screen, almost 25 percent larger than the one in Dallas. And now even colleges are starting to join the monster screen club. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, hardly a football powerhouse, just released plans for a new stadium that will include a video screen 100 yards long.
That’s right, it will be as long as the playing field.
Stand up and cheer
Okay, so we can expect the screens to get bigger and bigger. But some think the stadiums may actually get smaller, or at least there will be fewer seats. Instead, more attention will be paid to where people can stand and what they can do while they’re there.
Here’s how Eric Grubman, the NFL’s executive vice president of business operations, described a football stadium of the future in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times:
“What if a new stadium we built wasn’t 70,000, but it was 40,000 seats with 20,000 standing room? But the standing room was in a bar-type environment with three sides of screens, and one side where you see the field. Completely connected. And in those three sides of screens, you not only got every piece of NFL content, including replays, RedZone and analysis, but you got every other piece of news and sports content that you would like to have if you were at home.
Now you have the game, the bar and social setting, and you have the content. What’s that ticket worth? What’s that environment feel like to a young person? Where do you want to be? Do you want to be in that seat, or do you want to be in that pavilion?”
Phoning it in
Other stadium innovations are heading in a different direction. Instead of having the game be only part of a multi-screen, sports bar party experience, they would entertain fans by allowing them to immerse themselves more deeply into the game itself. And they would do it all on smart phones and tablets.
Take the case of the New England Patriots. At the beginning of this past season, they became the first NFL team to deploy a free Wi-Fi network for streaming video in their home field, Gillette Stadium. Fans were able to use mobile apps to watch instant replays on their phones and get real time stats.
And next season, they’ll have more options, ones that take them into the games within the game. There will be apps that allow them to tune into cameras following star players around, apps that let them watch what goes on in their team’s locker room at halftime, apps that listen in on players wearing microphones and eavesdrop on conversations between the coaches and the quarterback (with a 15-second delay, of course).
And there will an app that, by the fourth quarter, could be the most valuable of all. It will tell them where to find the shortest bathroom lines.
Here are other recent advances in football tech:
- A red zone you don’t want to enter: Reebok has developed something it calls a Head Impact Indicator. It’s a thin skullcap lined with sensors that can detect dangerous hits to the head. If a yellow or red light goes on, it’s time for a player to head to the sidelines.
- Now if they could only do something about helmet hair: Meanwhile, engineers at Purdue University say they’ve developed the model for a football helmet that disperses the energy of a smack to the head instead of just protecting a player’s skull. They report that tests with a polymer-lined Army helmet they designed showed it could reduce the G-force a player’s brain absorbed by as much as 50 percent.
- Like we need another reason to boo the refs: You know that imaginary yellow line you see on TV games to show where the first down marker is? After this season, the NFL is going to take a look at technology that would project a laser line across the field so people in the stadium could see what everyone at home has been seeing for years.
- Hardbodies the easy way: When they run out on the field Sunday, four San Francisco 49ers players, including both of the team’s quarterbacks, will be wearing a form of customized body armor under their uniforms. It’s called EvoShield and it’s a gel that hardens to fit a player’s body when exposed to air.
Video bonus: Okay, here’s a sneak peek of two Super Bowl ads already being declared winners, a spot about how getting the keys to the family Audi jacks up the testosterone of a boy headed to his high school prom, and a Volkswagen ad using a Minnesotan-turned-Rastafarian to celebrate the power of German engineering.
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January 17, 2013
Utensil history was made last week and I, for one, took pleasure in seeing that we had finally evolved beyond the spork or, as some of you may know it, the foon.
But sadly, the unveiling of the HapiFork at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was not universally greeted with great jubilation, but rather with a fair amount of ridicule.
Produced by a Hong Kong company called HapiLabs, the HapiFork is curious little thing. It looks like a fork and works like a fork, but it vibrates like a cellphone. And why it buzzes is the reason the media largely responded with one big group eyeroll.
See, the HapiFork is a fork with a simple and noble mission–to get you to stop eating like a pig. It buzzes to remind you to slow down.
It tracks not only the number of bites you’ve taken, but also how much time has passed between them and how long it takes you to finish the meal. The slower you eat, the fewer calories you consume. And because all the data can be stored on your smart phone, you can measure how less a chowhound you’ve become.
But some critics were not enamored of the concept, portraying the HapiFork as the essence of nanny technology, another “smart” gadget enforcer of data-driven moderation. How, the thinking goes, did it come to this, where forks are telling us to shut our pieholes?
The measure of a man
But maybe, given the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and Europe, it’s time to start listening to buzzing silverware. In fact, there are those who believe the current boom in mobile apps and devices that track our health and bad habits could play a big role in helping the U.S. get its outrageous health care costs under control.
A major health trend this year, according to a new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, will be a shift by employers and insurance companies to encourage employees to be a lot more proactive when it comes to taking care of themselves. That’s in part due to incentives in the Affordable Care Act, but also because today’s technology–whether it’s sensors, WiFi or smart phones–has made it so much easier to track every move we make, every breath we take.
We’ll likely see more companies turn to employee wellness programs focusing on prevention and tapping into all that data that our smart phones and other health gadgets are able to gather about us. Already, start-ups such as the Boston-based Healthrageous are being hired by companies to work closely with their employees with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension or even sleep disorders. Healthrageous provides both a tracking device–say a blood glucose monitor for diabetics–and a customized plan to help employees reach their personal goals, which could be anything from fitting into pants you last wore 10 years ago to being able to play with your grandkids.
PUSH Wellness, in Chicago, also contracts out an employee wellness program, but with a different spin. It actually pays cash incentives to workers who meet goals that raise their “PUSH” score–a number based on a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol and fitness level. With PUSH, it’s not enough for an employee to exercise; they have to show real measurable results or there’s no pay out.
The big health insurance companies are getting in on the act, too. Last month, Aetna unveiled Passage, a fitness app it developed with Microsoft, that allows people to feel like they’re running or biking in some of the world’s great cities–Rome, New York, or Barcelona, for instance.
Also last month, Cigna announced that it has made available, for free, to the first 20,000 people who download them, four apps bundled together as the “Healthy Living App Pack. One is designed to track your workouts, another to get you to relax, another the help you sleep. The fourth, Fooducate, is a food nutrition app designed to make you health savvy when you’re food shopping.
When sensors speak
Here are five other health devices that made a splash at CES last week:
- Would your wrist lie to you?: Another health wristband is coming on the market soon. Called Fitbit Flex, it will be able to track your daily activity–steps taken, calories burned–and also how you’ve slept, plus wake you up with a little buzz in the morning. For motivation, a display of four LED lights shows how far along you are in meeting that day’s goal. And at $100, it will be less expensive than the competitors already out there, Nike Fuel and Jawbone’s Up.
- Keep running or we’ll play “Gangham Style:” Or you can let little earbuds do the monitoring work. Coming out this spring are iRiver On headphones equipped with PerformTek Precision Biometrics technology that measures a range of body metrics, including heart rate, distance traveled, steps taken, respiration rate, speed, metabolic rate, energy expenditure, calories burned and recovery time.
- It was so much easier when pills looked like the Flintstones: For those dealing with a daily dose of multiple meds, there’s the uBox. The little box reminds people when it’s time to take their pills with a combination of beeps, blinking lights and smart phone reminders. And if you’ve already taken your meds, the box remains locked until it’s time for another set–the better to keep forgetful seniors from double dosing. It even lets other family members know if grandpa’s missed a med.
- Giving new meaning to “Let me hear your body talk”: Then there’s Metria, a small patch a person wears on their chest that measures heartbeat, skin hydration, breathing, steps taken and sleep patterns. (It records the duration and quality of sleep based on how much you’ve tossed and turned.) Each patch gathers information for seven days and can send it to a phone or tablet anywhere in the world. Metria’s designed primarily for elderly people who live alone, but the U.S. Air Force reportedly may use it to monitor pilots.
- Will walk for prizes: And bringing us back full circle to obesity is the ibitz PowerKey, a pedometer for kids. It doesn’t just track their activity, but rewards them with games, apps, shows and prizes for staying on the move. And yes, parents can check in on their kids’ progress on their own smart phones.
Video bonus: See why Stephen Colbert thinks the HapiFork is “unAmerican.”
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December 27, 2012
In the spirit of the post-holiday season, allow me to present my final list of 2012: six innovators who are pushing technology in fresh directions, some to solve stubborn problems, others to make our lives a little fuller.
Watch for more from all of them in the new year.
1. Keep your hands off my robot: We’ve all seem videos of adorably cute robots,, but when you actually have to work with one, they apparently can be less than lovable. That’s where Leila Takayama comes in. She’s a social scientist with Willow Garage, a San Francisco area company that develops robots, and her job is to figure out how to get humans to connect with mechanical co-workers.
She’s seen cases where robots have gotten on people’s nerves so much that they park them in a closet. One of the keys, she’s found, is to make robots seem more fallible. Like having them shake their heads when they fail at something. Oddly enough, Takayama says, a reaction like that can make a robot “seem more competent.”
She’s worked on robots designed to help elderly people, recommending that the number of cameras on the robots’ heads be reduced because too many could make people uneasy. More recently, she’s been analyzing a robot called Project Texai, which is operated directly by humans, rather than running on its own. And she’s discovered some interesting things, such as how people who operate the robot don’t like it when other people stand too close to it or touch its buttons. “There comes a point for a lot of people when they feel as if the robot is their body.”
Another key question she’s wrestling with: Is it better to have a robot at eye level with a person when he or she is sitting or standing?
2. One day even lamp posts won’t be dumb: As Chris Harrison sees it, the world is full of surfaces, so why are we spending so much time touching little screens or tapping on cramped keyboards. Harrison, a researcher at Carnegie-Mellon University, has been a leader in finding ways to turn everyday objects–a couch, a doorknob, a glass of water–into interactive devices.
His approach is to use the natural conductivity of objects–or attach electrodes to those that aren’t–and connect them to a controller that responds to different types of signals. A couch, for instance, could be wired to turn on the TV if someone sits on it in a certain spot. Or you could turn off all the lights in your place by twisting the doorknob or tapping on a table. Almost anything with a surface could be connected to a computer and allow you to make things happen with simple gestures or touches.
3. Finally, a tatt for Grandma: There’s no questions that health tech is booming–although that’s not always a good thing considering that health apps don’t always live up to their hype. But Nanshu Lu, an engineering professor at the University of Texas, has created a product that could have a huge impact on how we monitor what’s going on inside our bodies.
She has refined what are known as “epidermal electronics,” but basically they’re electronic tattoos that can track your vital signs, including your temperature, heart beat and brain and muscle activity. Lu has managed to develop ultra-thin, water-soluble silicon patches that contain tiny sensors and can actually bond with skin. No adhesives necessary. They last through showers and exercise, never losing their ability to gather your most personal data. The hope is that one day her tattoos will be able to treat diseases.
4. In phones we trust: When you’re out on the road or on vacation in a new place, it can get frustrating to have to search for info on your smart phone. Really, if your phone is so smart, shouldn’t it be able to anticipate your needs and feed you info as you need it, based on where you are and what time of day it is?
That’s the premise behind the mobile apps software developed by Flybits, brainchild of Hossein Rahnama, director of the Digital Media Zone at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Flybits is already being used at several Canadian airports and Toronto’s transit system to coordinate with a traveler’s itinerary and provide information that’s both personalized and contextually relevant, such as directions to the car rental counters or the gate to your connecting flight after you get off a plane.
The company has also developed software it calls Flybits Lite, which lets you know friends and other contacts who are taking in the same concert or watching the same movie you are.
5. Do you really want to know how many times you’ve ordered donuts?: It would be easy to dismiss the Memoto Camera as the epitome of 21st century self-indulgence. It’s a postage-stamp sized wearable camera that documents your life by taking two photos every minute, or roughly 2,000 pictures a day.
For most of us that’s one big load of digital tedium. Martin Kallstrom, the man behind the concept and CEO of the Swedish startup Memoto, would acknowledge as much. But he also knows how many memorable moments are missed–”the day your daughter took her first step, or that night you laughed the night away with friends.”
Clearly, he’s not alone in believing that a “lifelogging” camera is an idea whose time has come. He and his partners had hoped to raise $75,000 on Kickstarter. By the time the fundraising campaign ended earlier this month, online backers had pledged more than $550,000.
6. And no, it won’t fetch you a beer: For several years now, Steve Castellotti has been all about brain-powered machines. But his latest innovation, Puzzlebox Orbit, is taking the concept to the public. It’s a little helicopter you control with your mind.
Given that this is not something we do every day, it comes enclosed in a protective sphere so the rotor blades don’t chop up the furniture. It also comes with a device called the Puzzlebox Pyramid, which serves as a combination base/remote control unit for the chopper. But since your mind is doing the controlling, the Pyramid’s role is to wirelessly transmit your brain activity from a headset you wear. It also lets you know how you’re doing–a circle of LED lights on the Pyramid’s face is designed to reflect your level of concentration or relaxation.
Thanks to a funding boost from Kickstarter, Castellotti and his chief engineer and partner Hao Zhang plan to start selling the Puzzlebox Orbit for about $90 next year. But Castellotti believes it won’t become just another pricey tool that ends up in the basement. He sees it as teaching tool that can be used in schools to introduce kids to neuroscience and also as a way for people for people to start to become familiar with the potential of biofeedback.
To spur that process, the company will make its source code and hardware schematics available and encourage developers to hack away. For example, says Castellotti, a “motivated experimenter” might hack the Puzzlebox system so his TV would automatically change channels when his concentration level stays too low for too long. Say so long to vegging out.
Video bonus: Take at look at Chris Harrison’s most recent project, called Skinput, It involves the use of an armband with bio-acoustic sensors that can turn a body into a touch screen.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s a Puzzlebox Orbit tutorial that was part of the Kickstarter pitch for its nifty brain-controlled toy.
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