Augmentation: Not Your Father’s Nip Tuck

Ok, you’ve been patient with me and I appreciate it. I admit to straying a bit from the sub-title of my blog “Technology Observations…” for the past 2-3 months. A better sub-title for recent posts would be a “technologist’s observations about community and creativity.”

But, it’s time to return to the core. So, if you have enjoyed the community and creativity posts, then mosey on over to the blog at LifetimeValue(dot)Me. This is the venture where I’ll continue writing about tools, services, and examples for making strategic investments in your communities.

Back to the subject at hand, I want to offer updates to three different but related posts in “The BroadBrush Update” over the past year. I believe them related because they all describe some aspect of a future, augmented human capacity. I’m a big believer in this augmentation trend, because of the natural human desire we all possess to extend our healthy lives as long as reasonably possible.

The first update concerns exoskeletons, which I wrote about in a post a year ago entitled “Grandpa Ironman.”  The update is the announcement of two Honda products based on technology the company invented with work on its Asimo line of robots. The two products are the Stride Management Assist and the Bodyweight Support Assist, the latter demonstrated in the video below.

At first glance the cartoonish nature of the video and the unwieldy nature of the device itself may make it hard to be taken seriously. But the potential freedom that such a device can provide people with the need for a boost in leg strength should be taken very seriously. This comment I found on a technology hub where the Honda devices were being discussed says it all:

I am 82 years old and totally healthy except my legs are getting weak and I have difficulty getting up the stairs. I live alone and I do not want to move, and this looks like an ideal solution. Where can I get one and how much?

The second update concerns vision systems. In a post I wrote entitled “Adventures in Reality,” I speculated about GPS-enabled mobile phones, using their on-board cameras, that could provide nearly zero-latency data streams of a person’s surroundings. No more need for speculation – it’s already here.

A recent issue of Time magazine brought to attention Raimo van der Klein, one of a trio of Dutch inventors who created Layar, the augmented reality browser and company of the same name (in the photo at the beginning of this post).  The browser, as well as a growing host of “layers” for Layar are available free on the iPhone. Check them out.

The third update is related to advances in materials. I wrote a post earlier this year on “Bio-printing” in which I talked about the ability to print atomic-sized transistors and even human tissue.

Recently, I ran across a video of a venture called Fabrican, which is a sprayable fabric created by particle engineer Paul Luckham and fashion designer Manel Torres. Below is a video of the fabric being created on a female model.

While this update may stretch the imagination the most in terms of practical implications, of the three updates I’ve shared, don’t judge too fast. Just start thinking about the ability to augment the sprayable materials with various pharmaceutical and health treatments, and you can quickly begin to imagine the life-extending possibilities of such a technology.

The Tao of Cupcake – Part 3

In my prior two posts, I wrote about designing “The Tao of Cupcake” iPhone app, using Mockapp’s PowerPoint templates.

As I said previously, having long ago let my “coding saw” get a little dull – other than the occasional few lines of HTML or Excel macro – I had no interest in going beyond the design into programming, testing, and submitting the app for the iTunes store.

No…for purposes of this experiment, I was satisfied with some quick scanning of app dev and hosting options. There are plenty.

However, back to the whole focus of this series of posts – the importance of design – you have to line up the app that you want with the production options. When you do that, the number of choices may get smaller quickly, especially if you have a tight budget.

For example, while Cupcake is a fairly simple app from a display perspective, my concept of how it would work involved shaking the iPhone (comparable to shaking your Magic Eight Ball), to trigger the “answer” sequence to the question.

In order for this to work, there would need to be at least two little events/actions that would have to be in the app: one for motion detection and a second one, triggered by the motion, for a random number generator providing a result that would be interpreted as one of three responses by Cupcake:

Yes – random number divided by 3, with a 0 remainder

No – random number divided by 3, with remainder 1

Perhaps, Maybe, or Indecisive Cupcake – random number / 3, remainder 2

I may have missed it in my admittedly quick scan of interweb articles about app hosting options, but those two functions were not part of the templated services offered by most providers. Instead, what you more commonly get for the quick DIY apps are mostly standard picture and text content, with common lists and functions (for example, dialing and maps+directions), like those by Appbreeder for example. Good stuff, for sure. But, not for Cupcake.

So, while I chose a 1st-draft design as my stopping point, I’ll admit I did go with tiny step further with my faux app. Since I had the Cupcake mock-up looking like I wanted, I had to get it over to my iPhone, just so I could see what it looked like on a live device and show a my kids.

After a bit of searching for iPhone document readers, I settled on using a free app called FileApp by a group called DigiDNA. I’ll have to confess that I was a bit freaked out from a security perspective about giving an app – whose developer I knew nothing about – the ability to wirelessly connect, using a pre-set IP address to my laptop’s file directory.

Also, although the FileApp file transfer worked fairly effortlessly, the PowerPoint mock-up itself doesn’t render properly in FileApp. The main problem seems to be that certain formatting gets lost or over-ridden (like text that is centered in the original gets left-justified in the FileApp rendered file) and certain objects display incorrectly.

But, for my experimentation purposes, it wasn’t worth investing more time in searching for a better rendering, free app, like I would have if I were demo’ing the end result for a customer.

So, that’s it. I hope you enjoyed The Tao of Cupcake and picked up a few helpful tips along the way. As always, we’d love any feedback or additional sources of note.

The Tao of Cupcake – Part 2

In my previous post, I wrote about the current range of options for someone wanting to develop an iPhone app.

Curious about the process myself, I conceived a very simple app – based on the classic Magic Eight Ball toy – that my kids helped me name “The Tao of Cupcake.”

With the general concept in mind, I set about thinking through how the app would work. One of the things I was reminded of very early in the process was how important design is.

In my long ago days when I cut my teeth designing and programming in such relic languages as 360 Assembler, COBOL, PL1, and Pascal, it was pounded into my head by mentors (and reinforced through experience) that designing and testing were equally important, if not moreso, to coding.

A couple of design aids I turned up to help me with Cupcake were Mockapp and Mockup for the iPhone and iMockups for the iPad, just for starters.

I decided to work with Mockapp, since it is essentially a set of templates available to use for designing in Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote, as shown in the screenshot above. It is also tweetware, free to use, with the requirement by its creator, Dotan Saguy, that your use of it be tweeted to help promote its availability.

The Mockapp template objects were very easy to use and the in-slide documentation and examples were helpful. Because of the rapid evolution of the iPhone UI (not counting the introduction of the iPhone 4), a few of the buttons and images were a little off, but for the most part the look is relatively authentic.

So, in a couple of hours, I pulled together the artwork, shot the photos of Cupcake, assembled the animated GIFs, and mocked up the basic flow of the app.

I’ll be the first to admit that – other than the mock-up instructions that accompany Mockapp and viewing some of the other apps on my phone – I did zero studying up of best practices or Apple-required iPhone UI conventions…definitely a step that should be taken seriously by someone designing more than a toy app like Cupcake.

Fortunately, there a bunch of resources available to browse, just a Google search away, like this Slideshare preso from Bess Ho from late 2009 or this more recent quickie post of best practices from January 2010.  

One last piece of the puzzle is to show you what the “The Tao of Cupcake” mock-up looks like. To do that, I resorted to a PowerPoint-to-Youtube converter program, again after a bit of interweb searching. The program I chose does a satisfactory job, although it is from a company (person?) that I knew nothing about and, thus, had that little bit of hesitation with before downloading the package and running it on my laptop.

And, as an annoying sidenote, you can see that they splay across the middle of every slide a not-so-subtle watermark with their URL for an evaluation copy of the converter. NOTE to developers (and to self): nothing wrong with promoting one’s fee-based software in the free version, but it can be just as effectively promoted by making it a lighter-shaded watermark and/or footer at the bottom of the page versus in the middle.

I’ll wrap up my iPhone app design experiment with a few final thoughts in the next post, Part 3.

The Tao of Cupcake – Part 1

Some may have taken from my post last month about returning my iPad that I’m something of an Apple hater – the company, not the fruit. Not so.

Yes, I’m a fan of the Wintel platform and have spent the better part of my professional career building enterprise systems that relied on x86 and MS-Windows/DOS architecture.

But, I’m also a big fan of Apple. I can still vividly remember walking into a ComputerLand store in downtown Houston, Texas the first week in 1984 they had the brand new Macintosh 1.0 machines in stock and coveting one. Too expensive for my second-year Arthur Andersen (aka Accenture) salary.

Fast forward to present day and in the last 10 years, I have personally bought – for my immediate family members or myself – 1 iMac, 1 Macbook Pro, at least 6 iPods, 3 iPhones, lots & lots! of iTunes store content (software, games, apps, and a couple hundred songs and counting). Oh yeah, and 1 iPad.

Speaking of which, I wanted to spend a moment on a small, personal experiment this past week in iPad/iPhone app development. I’ve been wanting to design an app, just to see what the process is like and to force my hand in tracking down some of the alternatives.

For my application, I decided to keep it simple and light-hearted, so I chose a variation of the magic eight ball. Rather than use the eight ball, though, I chose a bobblehead dog that everyone in our family got this past Christmas. (You can get your own; they’re cheap and really fun party gifts for kids.)

For some reason, my teenagers decided to christen my particular dog “Cupcake.” And, for a very pragmatic reason, Cupcake ended up planted in the rear window area of my Toyota Corolla – pragmatic, because with the make, mode, and exterior finish of my car being very popular, the addition of Cupcake makes it much easier to pick out in a crowded parking lot.

When my kids noticed the up-down, side-to-side, and round-about movement of Cupcake’s head, it quickly became the unofficial family magic eight ball proxy. So, much like the coin toss and other single function “toy” apps that are available in droves on the iPhone, I decided to pursue my experiment using Cupcake.

It was pretty easy to track down a few resources and articles that provided some of the app-building options, including an anchor piece from late 2009 posted on ReadWriteWeb by Sarah Perez. The options range from programming in Objective C and going “by the book” using Apple-supported / endorsed tools, to using one or more third parties to handle some (or all) of it for you.

With the third party path, what you will find, not surprisingly, is that the market for mobile app development is a white-hot competitive space. The good side of that is that there are a variety of alternatives and competitive pricing to purchase design, development, and/or hosting of your app. Some require modest programming skill (e.g., basic HTML), while others require not much more than drag-and-drop, point-and-click skill, while still others are turnkey shops that take your idea and for a fee do all of the work.

The downside of the variety of alternatives is the risk of making a bad choice, winding up with a platform and/or provider that doesn’t/don’t meet your expectations in the cost, functionality, troubleshooting support, or some other aspect that is important to you. So, obviously, doing some due diligence and homework in advance of selecting an option is important.

A critical part of this homework is investing a bit of time in designing what exactly it is that you want your app to do. We’ll pick up with the subject of design next, in Part 2 of the Tao of Cupcake.

Create your personal Tag

I was at nGenera’s annual Fall All Member’s meeting this week in Memphis and ran across Microsoft’s Jerry Carlson at Day One’s closing reception. As we stood within inches of the biggest pile of Brie I’ve ever seen and a table full of crackers, Jerry showed me and my iPhone-loving colleagues a cool little app they have in the app store.

It’s called Microsoft Tag and here’s how it works. Step 1 involves going to the iPhone AppStore and searching for Microsoft Tag (a free app) and installing it on your phone. It only takes a few seconds, even in the middle of an historic downtown hotel in Memphis (The Peabody) where the walls are thick and the brie is thicker.

Step 2 involves taking a photo using the Microsoft Tag iPhone app – in this case, a photo of Jerry’s business card. As you can see in the pictures, Jerry carries a special version of his around with him that is laminated. Side 1 is the typical name, address, phone, etc., which is basically irrelevant for the purpose of this exercise. Side 2 is the photo tag, which is the important part.

What you do is aim your iPhone close enough to the photo image on the card to get a reasonable amount of light and clarity. Then you touch the photo button, just like on the iPhone native camera and, voila, the screen on your iPhone app indicates to you that the image was successfully captured by displaying a little green box around it.

If the image capture fails, a little red box appears around the image and you simply retake the shot. Since we were in a modestly dimmed reception hall, it was after hours, and the enormous container of brie was causing a shadow effect, it took the third try for to get the green box.

But, once you have the green box, Step 3 involves pressing the little button that appears at the bottom of the iPhone Tag app, which asks “Use.” The, next thing you know, up pops Jerry’s contact info in an iPhone contact record, ready to be merged into an existing contact record or be created as a new one in my database. Pretty cool.

After Jerry in rapid succession talked four of us in a row into loading the app, we all chatted for a few moments more about the practical implications of such a technology. Jerry said there is a lot of experimentation going on presently to see where this fits in the universe of other item identification options, which obviously range from barcodes to RFID to Bluetooth.

That led us to a further discussion about pervasive personal identity and the digital self, which I just posted about this week on nGenera’s Wikinomics blog. The topic with Jerry being what Microsoft is doing to help advance the ball on new models and technology for identity management. Jerry referenced us to Microsoft’s Geneva initiative, which was recently launched under the name Forefront and is, for all purposes, the next generation incarnation of Microsoft Passport, if you remember that.

We had a brie-f chat about some of the future scenarios of federated identity management models and then it was off to dinner on Beale Street, the Memphis mash of Chicago’s Rush Street and Austin’s 6th Street – neon and barbeque.