Communications Technologies

After I’d written the previous post on Communications Industries, I worried that the two properties that I’d used as the axes to obtain the set of four industries were perhaps the wrong ones. I suspect that for any 2 x 2 matrix, there are probably an infinite set of alternative axes that produce a given set of contents. For example, instead of the public/private distinction, I might have chosen asymmetric/symmetric. But that said, the properties “feel” like good ones to me, so I’ll stick with them for now, while allowing myself to luxury to throw them away later if they turn out not to work.

Anyway, to continue my musing…

Taking the 2 x 2 matrix from last time, and populating it with examples of the products and businesses within those industries is helpful in building up a picture of the characteristics of each quadrant:

One of the first observations is that all of these examples of communications require some sort of network. The different quadrants have different types of networks, clearly. I’m interested in seeing if there are some common characteristics shared by the examples in the e.g. public or discrete categories.

Another observation is that the older examples make use of analogue or manual methods, while the newer examples are digital or electronic. Analogue technologies are probably better aligned with a continuous approach to communicating, as digital technologies are, almost by definition, discrete approaches. Bits are bundled together into packets, and sent across the network in discrete chunks. However, each chunk may carry something very small, perceptually, and so can effectively emulate a continuous channel.

It seems that in gathering up examples, I have found comparatively fewer examples of continuous communication than distinct communication. An explanation of this could be that discrete communication has historically been based around a particular physical medium (a letter, a pneumatic capsule, a book, a film reel, a CD, etc.) which was the means of expressing the communication. The large variety of physical media possible have resulted in different products and businesses based around them, and the characteristics of those products have been carried forward into the digital world. (Although without the conservative force of those physical constraints, we are seeing some of them merge.)

On the other hand, continuous communication networks developed after their discrete cousins, when technology was finally able to capture and transmit two of the senses we use to experience performances. Aside from the relationship to a particular sense, there was no physical medium to constrain the communication, and hence the communications networks were more versatile. Fewer types of continuous communications networks were needed to accommodate the range of things people wanted to communicate. Any sort of performance at a venue (theatre, concert hall, sporting ground, office, or home) could be conveyed to somewhere else.

That said, there are definitely constraints of various kinds on continuous communications networks. The other senses that might be used if you were physically present are not accommodated. In terms of vision, you are provided with only a window into the other end, rather than the whole vista. In terms of sound, you are provided with a limited frequency and dynamic range as well as a loss of some of the spacial characteristics. But, unlike some of the discrete communications options, there is also a much reduced need for literacy, as the experience aims to provide a “natural interface” through conveying key human senses.

I think I’ll leave this discussion there for now, and pick up the differences between public and private later.

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Sixth Sense

Although Pattie Maes doesn’t know of me, I have known of her for over a decade now, since I started my career looking at intelligent agents in the AI group at the Telstra Research Labs. I haven’t been paying any attention to her stuff recently, which turns out to be a bit of an oversight, as her stuff is just so incredible cool.

Her Fluid Interfaces Group has produced a prototype of something they call SixthSense. There’s a demo of it in the video below, from when she spoke at the recent TED conference.

It does pose the question though – if we could pick another sense to add to our existing five, what would it be? I think I’d like to have an electromagnetic sense, able to detect the direction of north, and avoid hammering into power cables in the walls. Or maybe I’d pick “spider sense”, if I didn’t have to wear the costume that came with it.

SixthSense is not really another sense, but more of an augmented reality tool, that supplements the world around us with information we wish was there.

People prefer the personal

Following up on my last post, the reason that the big TV on the living room wall is going to become less relevant is because it’s a shared device. The way of the future is personal devices.

It’s sad but true – we prefer to have our own personal versions of things rather than share them with others. Maybe this is a particularly Western trait, but I suspect not. For example, despite the additional cost, most people prefer to travel in their own car rather than use a taxi or use public transport. Car sales are booming in China, showing it’s not just something that happens here.

When it comes to video devices like TVs, pretty much all actors in the economy are benefiting from move to selling household video devices to individual video devices: the screen manufactures, content providers, telcos, and most of all, the viewers. It’s part of a larger trend. Initially, all households in a city got the pretty much the same video content at the same time, broadcast from TV stations. Then, with the uptake of VCRs, DVDs, PVRs, and so on, different households were able to get different video content at the same time. Now, with PCs and iPods, individuals within the households are getting different content at the same time.

We saw the same thing happen with audio devices. The Consumer Electronics Association in America published this year in their Digital America 2008 report that

U.S. factory-level dollar sales of portable audio products, consisting overwhelmingly of MP3/portable media players (PMPs), exceeded the combined sales of the home audio and aftermarket car audio industries for the first time in history in 2005, and again in 2006 and 2007, according to CEA statistics.

Another aspect to consider is that portable media players and PCs are increasingly becoming connected to the Internet, and support communication as well as media consumption. There will be growth in triggers to watch video content, received over those communication channels (such as friends sending you email, IM, or messages from Twitter or Facebook), and given a desire for immediate gratification, people will not want to wait for a shared device to become free, so will watch the video content on their personal devices, even if the quality of experience is less.

I don’t think shared video devices, like the expensive LCD or Plasma set that takes pride of place on the wall, will ever become completely redundant. They will simply evolve to niche uses when it is more convenient or appropriate to use a shared device, such as when hosting a video / games party with friends, or displaying a loop of video to display in the background.

Wireless Power

Today, The Age is running a story (from AFP) on Intel’s recent demo of wireless power. It’s a great story, but it’s actually a year old. The original story is from June 2007 and was MIT’s demo of wireless power.

The demo involves lighting a 60W light globe across 2m, with 40% efficiency. If the technology could be improved to longer ranges, the applications are phenomenal. For example, you could distribute power throughout your home, and avoid needing batteries in any of your appliances or their remote controls. Or, you could distribute power with radio communications, so you wouldn’t need batteries in mobile phones. Or, you could distribute power across car-parks, so people who leave their lights on could still start their cars. Or, you could distribute power across an office, and people could work with with laptops anywhere, even if there were no power points. Sod that, you could distribute power into parks, where there are never going to be any power points.

The power cord is the “last cord”, as Intel says. I can’t wait til we can cut it. Safely, of course.