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The failure of the pan-tilt camera in video calls

This year, we stayed with Kathryn’s family for the holidays, so I attended dinner in my own mother’s home via Skype. Once again, the technology was frustrating. And it need not be.

There were many things that can be better. For those of us who Skype regularly, we don’t understand that there is still hassle for those not used to it. Setting up a good videoconferencing setup is still work. As I have found is always the case in a group-to-solos videoconference, the group folks do not care nearly as much about the conference as the remote solos, so a fundamental rule of design here is that if the remotes can do something, they should be the ones doing it, since they care the most. If there is to be UI, leave the UI to the remotes (who are sitting at computers and care) and not to the meeting room locals. Many systems get this exactly backwards — they imagine the meeting room is the “master” and thus has the complex UI.

In this family setting, however, the clearest problem for me is that no camera can show the whole room. It’s like sitting at the table unable to move your head, with blinders on. You can’t really be part of the group. You also have to be away from the table so everybody there can see you, since screens are only visible over a limited viewing angle.

One clear answer to this is the pan/tilt camera, which is to say a webcam with servo motors that allow it to look around. This technology is very cheap — you’ll find pan/tilt IP security cameras online for $30 or less, and there are even some low priced Chinese made pan/tilt webcams out there — I just picked another up for $20. I also have the Logitech Orbit AF. This was once a top of the line HD webcam, and still is very good, but Logitech no longer makes it. Logitech also makes the BCC950 — a $200 conference room pan/tilt webcam which has extremely good HD quality and a built-in hardware compressor for 1080p video that is superb with Skype. We have one of these, and it advertises “remote control” but in fact all that means is there is an infrared remote the people in the room can use to steer the camera. In our meetings, nobody ever uses this remote for the reason I specify above — the people in the room aren’t the motivated ones.

This is compounded by the fact that the old method — audio conference speakerphones — have a reasonably well understood UI. Dial the conference bridge, enter a code, and let the remotes handle their own calling in. Anything more complex than that gets pushback — no matter how much better it is.  read more »

Gift guide update -- virtual goods and the world of billionaires

I’ve made some updates to my Better to Give than Receive Gift Guide for Christmas Eve.

In particular, to help understand the philosophy of the guide (which forbids cash and gift cards, among other things) I propose you imagine the world where you, and all those who you would give gifts to are billionaires. The reality is the money amount of gifts between adults is normally a blip in the annual budget, so reality is not too far from this hypothetical.

In this world of billionaires it’s immediately clear why you would not give cash, or gift cards, or easily ordered generic gifts, as the gift guide advises. They contain nothing of you, just your money. In a world where the money is unimportant, nothing is left.

The second new topic to discuss is virtual gifts, which can’t be given in the physical world. This includes coupons for services, and the growing market of codes for electronic goods like music, apps, e-books, software and the like.

The temptation to give these is strong. Frankly, if you felt moved to give me a book, I would not want you to give me the physical book. My shelves are overflowing. Nor a physical CD, in spite of the ability to personally give it.

This pulls us in two directions. One would be to say that these goods have now become not much more than gift cards, and as such they should be highly discouraged as gifts. Find something else.

Alternately, among the “manufactured” goods, books, music and their ilk can be a good way to express yourself in a gift, so long as you are giving them a book you recommend rather than a book you think they’ll like. As such, it’s important that what you give be a specific code only for that particular item. Not anything like an iTunes gift card. You’re not giving them money, you’re giving your care and consideration in picking something that signifies your relationship.

The makers of virtual goods perhaps should work hard at making them easier to give in a meaningful way. Some do provide a nice page with graphics and a custom message to be printed and given. For remote recipients, it’s much less practical to be physical like this. It would be nice if there were easy mechanisms to give virtual items directly to the accounts and devices of people without entering a long code. For security reasons you want them to confirm acceptance, and you want to have some actual token of exchange, but otherwise the ideal experience would be to give them a card that says, “I put this book on your e-reader” and a quick photo of the card (perhaps with QR code) imports it. A code which works with all readers, ideally — though they don’t all have cameras.

Canada to stop urban mail home delivery, but fails to abolish snail-mail

Here in Canada, a hot political issue (other than disgust with Rob Ford) is the recent plan by Canada Post to stop home delivery in cities. My initial reaction was, “Wow, I wish we could get that in the USA!” but it turns out all they are doing is making people go to neighbourhood mailboxes to get their mail. For many years, people in new developments have had to do this — they install a big giant mailbox out on the street, and you get a key to get your mail. You normally don’t walk further than the end of your block. However, this will save a lot of work — and eliminate a lot of jobs, which also has people upset.

But let me go back to my original reaction — I want to see home letter delivery abolished.

Why? All I, and most other people get by mail are:

  • Junk mail (the vast bulk of the mail.)
  • One or two magazines
  • Bills and communications from companies that refuse to switch to all-electronic communication
  • Official notices (from governments who refuse to switch to all-electronic communication)
  • Cheques from companies who refuse to do direct deposit (see note below.)
  • Parcels (lots of these, though many more from UPS/Fedex/etc.)
  • A tiny and dwindling number of personal cards and letters. Perhaps 2-3 personal xmas cards.

The abolition of general mail delivery would force all those parties who refuse to do electronic communication to switch to it. The concept of an official e-mail address would arise. We would also need to see a better e-cheque service, something priced like a cheque (ie. not paypal which takes 2% or more) and as easy to use (ACH is not there yet.) This would force it into existing if you could not mail a cheque.

A replacement for registered mail would need to arise — that is what is needed for legal service. Putting that into e-mail is doable though challenging, as it requires adding money to e-mail, because you want people to have to pay to use it so that you don’t get it all the time.

And of course, parcel service would continue. And people who really want to send a letter could send it via parcel service, but not for sub-dollar first class mail prices.

Magazines would have to go all-electronic. Some may not see the world ready for that, but I think the time is very near. Today, one can make cheap large tablets in the 14 to 17 inch size that would be great for magazines. They would be too heavy to handhold (though possibly if they had no batteries and used a small cord they could be light enough for that) but they could easily be held on laps and tables and replace the magazine.

Few would mourn the death of junk mail, though it might lead to more spam in e-mail boxes until that’s under control. Senders of junk mail (notably politicians) might mourn it.

So the only sad thing would be the loss of the dwindling supply of personal letters. People getting married could use the parcel companies or go electronic. Thank-you notes would go electronic, making Miss Manners spin in her grave, but spin she eventually will. Truth is, the parcel companies would probably start up a basic letter service priced higher than 1st class mail but less than their most basic parcel. The more addresses you can share the cost of a truck on, the better — until the deliverbots arrive, at least. This is not easy, though. The postal service got to use the economies of delivering several letters a day to your house, and this could pay for a person to walk the street with a bag full, while the parcel companies use trucks.

We all know this day is coming. The question is, can we do better if we force it, and shut down letter delivery sooner rather than later?

Death to the Wifi login page (part 1)

It’s the bane of the wanderer. A large fraction of open Wifi access points don’t connect you to the internet, but instead want you to login somehow. They do this by redirecting (hijacking) any attempt to fetch a web page to a login or terms page, where you either have to enter credentials, or just click to say you agree to the terms of service. A few make you watch an ad. It’s sometimes called a captive portal.

I’m going to contend that these hijack screens are breaking a lot of things, and probably not doing anybody — including portal owners — any good.

The terms of service generally get you to declare you will be a good actor. You won’t spam or do anything illegal. You won’t download pirated content or join torrents of such content. You waive rights to sue the portal. Sometimes you have to pay money or show you are a hotel guest or have an access card.

These screens are a huge inconvenience, and often worse than that. All sorts of things go wrong when they are in place:

  • Until you do the login with the browser, your other apps, like e-Mail, don’t work though it looks like internet is there.
  • With devices that don’t have keyboards, like Google Glass, you can’t use the network at all!
  • Some redirect you from the link you wanted, and don’t pass you on to that link when you are logged in, you have to type it in again.
  • If you go to a secure URL (https) some of them attempt an insecure redirect and cause browser security warnings. They look like a hijack because they are a hijack! This trains people to be more tolerant of browser security warnings, and breaks tools that try to improve your security and stop more malicious hijacks properly.
  • Some for “security” block the remembering of credentials, making it hard to login every time.
  • Really bad ones time-out quickly, and make you repeat the login process every time you suspend your laptop, and worse, every time you turn off and turn on your phone — making the network almost unusable. Almost all require re-login one or two times a day — still very annoying.
  • Every so often the login systems are broken on mobile browsers, locking out those devices.

A lot of headaches. And one can perhaps understand the need for this when you must pay for the network or only authorized users are allowed in, though WPA passwords are much better for that because they need only one-time setup and also offer security on the wireless connection.

With all this pain, the question the world needs to answer is, “is it worth it?” What is the value of this hijack and “I agree” terms page? Nobody reads the terms, and people who connect, and would ignore the terms to spam or do other bad things, will happily agree to them and ignore them, and they will do so anonymously leaving no way to punish them for violating the terms. This is not to say that certain entities have not desired to actually find users of open Wifi networks and try to enforce terms on them, but this is extremely rare and almost certainly not desirable to most access point operators.

There are thus just a few remaining purposes for the hijack screen.

Charging money

If you want to charge money, you might need a login screen. I don’t deny the right of a provider to ask for money, but there are different ways to do it. There are a variety of aggregator networks (Such as Boingo and FON) which will handle billing. They have already installed an app on the user’s device which allows it to authenticate and handle billing (mostly) seamlessly for the user. The very common skype application is one of these, and people pay from their skype credit accounts. Of course, you may not like Skype’s rates or the cut it takes, so this may not be enough.

You might also want to consider why you are charging the money. If bandwidth is very expensive, I can see it, but it’s not been uncommon to find some sites like cafes saying they charge — I kid you not — because the whole system including the charging gateway — is expensive to run. A cheap free gateway would have been much more affordable. Many operators decide that it’s worth it to offer it free, since it draws people in to restaurants, cafes and hotels. Cheap hotels usually give free Wifi — only expensive hotels put on fat charges.

It could be that your real goal is just to get attention…

Letting them know who provided the Wifi

I’ve seen a number of gateways that primarily seem to exist just to let you know who provided the gateway. Very rarely (I’ve mostly seen this at airports) they will make you watch a short ad to get your free access. They break a lot of stuff to do this. The SSID name is another way to tell them, though of course it’s not nearly as satisfactory.

Reducing the amount of usage

There is a risk that fully open networks will get overused by guests, and often thanklessly, too. You may be afraid your neighbours will realize they don’t need to buy internet at all, and can just use your open network. Here, making it hard to use and broken is a feature, not a bug. If you have to go through the hijack every so often it’s a minor burden to cafe patrons but a bigger annoyance to overusing neighbours. Those neighbours can play tricks, like using programs that do automatic processing of hijack gateways, but not too many do. They can also change their MAC addresses to get past restrictions based on that. You can do MAC limiting without a hijack screen, and it’s a great way to do it, possibly saving the hijack for after they reach the limit, not using it at the start. Clever abusers can change their MACs, though again most people don’t.

Covering your ass

The large number of complex terms of service suggest that people believe, or have been told, that it is essential they keep themselves covered in case a user of open Wifi does something bad, such as spamming or violating copyrights or even nastier stuff. They figure that if they made them agree to a terms-of-service that forbade this, this absolves them of any responsibility for the bad actions, and even, just maybe, offers a way to go after the unwanted guest.

Turns out that there is much less need to cover your ass in this situation, at least in the USA. You aren’t liable for coypright infringement by your guests if you did not encourage it. Thanks to the DMCA and CDA rules, you are probably not liable for a lot of other stuff these unwanted guests might do.

I am interested to hear reports from anybody of how they used the fact that Wifi guests had to agree to terms of service to protect themselves in an actual legal action. I have not heard of any, and I suspect there are few. It would be a great shame to confirm that everybody is breaking their networks in hope of a protection that’s actually meaningless.

It is true that you can get in real world trouble for what your unwanted guests do. If they violate copyrights, you might be the one getting the nasty letter from the copyright holder. The fact that you are not actually liable may not be much comfort when you are faced with taking the time and cost to point that out. Often these lawsuits come with offers to settle for less than the cost of consulting a lawyer on the matter. Naturally, those interested in violating copyrights are unlikely to be all that worried that they clicked on a contract that promised they wouldn’t. This is just a risk of an open network.

Likewise, if they send spam over your network, you may find yourself on spam-blocking blacklists who don’t care that it wasn’t you who did the spamming. Those vigilante groups run by their own rules. Again, the contract isn’t much protection. You may instead want to look to technical measures, including throttling the use of certain ports or bandwidth limits on guests. (It is better if you can throttle rather than cut off, since your guests probably do need to send e-Mail, just not thousands of them.)

Towards a protocol of open guest WIFI

How could we do this better? In part two I talk about how to have a secure open WIFI and the problems in doing that. Part three will talk about how to make it easy to connect to any of these networks automatically.

Wind or solar to filter the pool

One of the biggest issues with wind and solar is that they are intermittent, and so either need storage or grid-tie to work. There really is no good storage, and generally storage-based systems are highly wasteful, throwing away most of the power you generate because you want to keep the storage near full. Grid-tie is the only green choice, but it’s expensive and requires expensive inverters and permits and more.

One solution to this to find work for your renewable energy source to do that fits well with its intermittent nature. Something that will take all the power you generate, but not mind if it comes and goes. Such loads are hard to find. One potential example is pumping water to filter a swimming pool. Its recommended to flow twice the volume of your pool every day in summer, which means around 10kwh of electricity with typical systems. Most people filter their pool using the same pump they use for vacuuming and pool maintenance, which is actually way more powerful than you need for filtering. They offer variable speed pumps, which use a low-power efficient speed for filtering and a high-power speed for vacuum and manual operations, and claim they save a lot.

For those who have a pool, the pump is using as much electricity as all their other appliances in some cases, and so it’s a win to make that greener. Unlike those appliances, the pool water can be filtered any time, as electricity is available, though you can’t let the pool go unfiltered for days, so it’s not perfect. For people who have time-of-use metering, they are wise if they only filter at night, and many do that.

The trick to perfect use of solar for pool pumping would be a smart, multi-speed pump able to run on both the DC from solar panels and the grid power. It would need to do the following:

  • When there is power from the solar panel, run as fast as you can on that power, filtering.
  • When you need high flow, switch to (or combine with) grid power for full power.
  • Track the amount of water filtered, as well as temperature, and when the sun did not provide enough power, run the pump at night off grid power to make up the difference.
  • For extra credit, have a sensor that detects how clear the water is, and adjust grid usage based on that, rather than just weather.

This system would make use of all the power from the panels. As a plus, you need more filtering in summer than you do in winter, which matches what panels do. However, you must not oversize your panels. They can’t be bigger than you need to do all your winter filtering on a series of sunny winter’s days, or you will be wasting their power then.

Key to this plan is that it’s easy to install. Put in the new pump and wire it up to panels. No inverters or electricians and perhaps not even any permits. It doesn’t feed power back to the grid or the house. This is key because panels are now getting very cheap (less than a dollar per watt) and as such installs and permits and other gear are more expensive than the panels.

There are some pool pumps with brushless DC motors sold for solar use. They are expensive and don’t do the smart tricks above, in particular using the grid to take up the slack. They depend instead on overprovisioned solar, or solar systems powering more than a pump.

For $700 you can also buy a floating solar pool filter. This is a nice trick because it’s self-contained, though it’s a rather large thing to float in your pool. It can’t handle the whole filtering load —in fact it only handles about 25% of the load of a typical pool and uses cartridge filters. As such, you still run the regular pump and filter on some schedule, you just run it a bit less.

I noted above that you can get variable speed pumps, and that these, it is claimed, us as little as 1/5th the energy of the full speed pumps for filtering. They cost 2-3x as much as basic one speed pumps, and as a result are not very common. This bodes poorly for the solar proposal here, because if customers aren’t willing to do the up-front investment to save energy for these pumps, few would do the added task of putting up a solar panel and plugging it into such a pump. Comparatively few, that is — solar nerds would love to do it.

As always, the best place to deploy panels to do this would be the sunny, coal-oriented regions like Arizona and New Mexico, where it turns out pools are pretty popular. Once again, the math says that if your goal is to use your money and time to make the world greener, it would be far better to get people in those places to install a system like this on their pools than for you to put panels on your house in California for anything. Putting panels up in California is something you do to feel good.

Wind

Another interesting alternative is wind. Pumping water with wind is perhaps the oldest wind technology out there. In this case, you might even be able to be like an old windmill, and be mechanical, by having the turbine drive a flexible shaft down to the ground to run the pump. Presumably some clever transmission would be needed to maintain filter pressure properly at all windspeeds. You could also do traditional electrical generation from the wind and power a pump like the one above.

Wind has its positives and negatives. Unlike solar, it does not have the natural higher capacity in the summer. It can be much more intermittent. Solar panels still do around 30% to 50% of their rated power on ordinary cloudy days (though this is quite variable based on the panels and local weather patterns) so there is pumping every day. Wind in most places comes and goes. At my house, the winds are high today but it would not generally be suitable as we go weeks without much wind. Wind also prefers a tower near the pool, which has many issues.

UK, Michigan & Sweden push robocars, Toyota doesn't -- and Amazon delivery drones

The past few weeks have been rife with governments deciding to throw support behind robocars.

I wrote earlier about the plan for pods in Milton Keynes, NW of London. The UK has also endowed a a £10m prize fund to build vehicles and for a town to adapt to them. This will be managed in part by the Oxford team which has built a self-driving Wildcat and Nissan LEAF.

In Michigan, they have been working on a new robocar law that may be the next one, and the University of Michigan has a plan to put a fleet of cars out by 2021. Ann Arbor is the site of the ITS V2V testbed, which will probably slow this effort down, but Michigan is keen on not having the auto industry taken away from it.

Volvo, while now a Chinese company, has had many efforts, including their Sartre convoy experiments. Now they have declared that they will have 100 cars on the road in Gothenberg in 2017. They will also build parking systems.

In spite of all this, Toyota recently declared it is only building vehicles for research purposes, and has no desire to market such cars. Toyota had been a leader among the Japanese companies (until Nissan took over that role by building a research lab in silicon valley) but it’s surprising to see them drop out. Of course I predict they will regret that.

Amazon drone delivery

The big news this weekend was the announcement that Amazon.com wants to do drone delivery, accompanied with a concept video. This got everybody buzzing. I was interviewed for stories by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (paywall) as well as the New York Times because of my prior writings on deliverbots.

Some of you may remember I post I did early last year on drone defibrillator delivery and the efforts of our students at Singularity University to build Matternet for drone delivery in the developing world.

Drone delivery is interesting, though its big value will be in lightweight, urgent items like medicines. Ground vehicles will still win for cost and efficiency for most items. However, the drones can be much faster, and have options like delivering to places ground vehicles can’t reach — like your roof or your backyard. Deliverbots must get safe and legal on busy streets, drones have to figure out how to not hit one another (or people on the ground) in crowded airspace. The LIDARS that make ground vehicles practical have enough range for ground travel but poor range as flying sensors. Radar is good in the air but can have interference problems.

Getting a drone to land at any given address is a hard problem. There are trees, overhead wires, wind gusts and strange geometries. I suspect drone delivery will work best if the drop location has already been scanned and mapped. However, if there is a decent clearing, I could see it working by having the recipient put down a special marker (like a QR code) on the ground. GPS is not accurate enough to fly with but camera could pull out special markers.

One great marker would be your cell phone. Either with its “flash” LED pointed up and pulsing, or its screen, if the screen is bright enough. Go outside, put your phone down, have it guide the drone partway in with radio and GPS, and then have the drone’s camera follow the flashing light. If phones had better raw GPS access (they don’t — not yet) they could also provide differential GPS information to a drone to guide it in.

This works because with robot delivery, you never need to deliver to an address — you deliver to a person. Wherever that person is, or at least never when the person isn’t there, unless you want to. A robot delivery service will wait for a signal that you are home or one the way before delivering to your home, but might also deliver to you in whatever parking lot you are in, or your office. The robot won’t release the cargo unless it gets the ACK from your phone as you “sign” for it.

Multi-copter drones today don’t have a lot of capacity and range, but it’s improving. Liquid fuels for larger drones might help boost that. Fixed wing drones have much more capacity, but they need runways (or a skilled launcher) to take off. Some fixed-wing drones can land vertically if they have motors powerful enough to lower them down tail first though they tend to need something suitable to land on in such cases.

Robot delivery should make existing retailers, even big box ones like WalMart, scared of online retailers like Amazon. While a drone won’t replace WalMart on a trip where you plan to fill your shopping cart, it might well be very suitable for the things you buy from Walgreens.