Practical example of low-tech augmented reality: My phone’s camera

I was in Louisville, KY over the weekend, staying in an upper floor of the Galt House hotel, which offers an excellent view of the Ohio River.  In the wee hours last night, I awoke for a bit. I noticed that outside my window, I could see the bright blue lighted sign of a large office building. But my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. I could see the sign, but no matter how much I squinted I couldn’t make out the name declared by the sign.

This bugged me — and when stuff nags at my mind, even weird minor stuff, I have a hard time getting back to sleep. The hotel room was dark, and my eyeglasses were out of reach. I didn’t feel like getting out of bed. But my cell phone was within reach, on the bedside table. (It’s my main alarm clock.)

So I grabbed my phone and snapped a quick photo of the building with the blue sign. Then, looking at the phone on my phone’s screen, I could easily read: Central Bank.

sign on top of their downtown Louisville, KY building.

This satisfied my nagging curiosity, kind of like scratching an itch. I was soon back to sleep.

It occurs to me that this is a potentially significant use of augmented reality enabled by mobile devices — and the only “app” I needed was the software controlling my phone’s camera!

Most AR apps I’ve seen are kinda gimmicky or not very compelling. For instance, seeing local coupon offers overlaid on a camera app (which Junaio does), or local tweets similarly overlaid, hasn’t really thrilled me.

But being able to compensate for poor vision or a lack of information about what things are? That’s useful.

Now if only someone could do a similar service for audio that would automatically filter out noise in a train or bus station to tell you what the hell those announcers are really saying…

Baiing out the US auto industry for good?

As I read the headlines this morning about the proposed US auto industry bailout — the latest version of which is this, according to the Boston Herald:

“Democrats want to use part of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout for emergency loans to help prop up the Big Three carmakers. General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC are seeking an infusion of $25 billion, a figure that several Senate Democrats embraced Sunday.

“Senate Democrats plan to introduce legislation Monday attaching an auto bailout to a House-passed bill extending unemployment benefits. A vote was expected as early as Wednesday.

“There’s a high degree of urgency” for federal action if GM is going to stave off a financial crisis, Rick Wagoner, GM chairman and chief executive, said Sunday in a joint appearance with United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger on WDIV-TV in Detroit.

“‘It’s really time to move on this,’ Wagoner said.”

That gets me thinking: The US auto industry is dying. It’s shown it can’t compete effectively with Japan and elsewhere for the manufacture of the kinds of personal cars people will be buying as the economy tightens.

Meanwhile, the lack of strong public transportation options is a growing problem in many parts of the US — particularly, lack of high-speed passenger rail networks, robust bus networks, and innovative flexible alternatives to car ownership (like car sharing programs and Zip Car hourly rentals). Exurban dwellers are notoriously hard hit by the transportation crisis.

So what if we bailed out the auto industry only if they shifted more of their production to vehicles that would suit these uses?

Yes, this would have to go hand-in-hand with a major shift in transportation policy that would support the expansion of public transit, especially outside urban cores and between non-urban-core locations. And so far local and state governments have been responsible for paying for public transit, and they haven’t had the cash.

Those are big, thorny issues — but they could shift. And if we’re even going to consider an auto-industry bailout, why shouldn’t we use it as an opportunity to fund a more sustainable transit system?

I suspect America’s “love affair with the car” might go the way of our love affair with cigarettes. It’s hard to stay in love with something that’s killing you and cutting off your children’s future.

TechStars Investor Day and other good stuff today

This morning I had the privilege of attending some of the morning presentations from this year’s crop of TechStars startup companies in an event called “Investor Day,” held at the Boulder Theater.  TechStars is a Boulder, CO-based program that provides seed capital and mentorship for tech startups. SocialThing (which just got bought by AOL) and Brightkite were both graduates of last summer’s TechStars.

The main reason I went was because my good friends Susan Mernit and Lisa Williams were presenting the flagship product, WhozAround, from their new company, People’s Software Company. I’ve been watching them endure the TechStars maelstrom this summer, and they pulled through great despite lots of pressure and stresses.

WhozAround is currently a Facebook application in alpha. It’s the first step in their plan to bypass the current communication chaos that ensues whenever two or more people try to agree on a place & time to meet. As Susan said in her presentation today, “Do all those e-mails, IMs, texts, Facebook notifications, and other messages really make getting together easier?” I can answer that with a resounding “NOT!!!”

Here’s Susan giving the presentation:

Susan Mernit presenting at TechStars Investory Day, 2008

And Susan and Lisa taking questions from investors:

Susan Mernit & Lisa Williams taking questions from investors

(Apologies for the crappy images, my iPhone camera isn’t great for that sort of lighting and distance. I was sitting in the balcony.)

I’ll be heading back to the Boulder Theater in a couple of hours for the Tech Cocktails event there:

Tech Cocktails

But some more cool stuff happened today…

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Preview: Sex, Journalism & Trust

RabbleRadio, via Flickr (CC license)
Prudishness and journalism were never a good mix.

Today I started pulling together a bunch of stray threads that have been nagging at me for some time. Anyone who reads my work knows that I have longstanding admiration for quality journalism — and growing frustration with the culture and attitudes of professional journalism.

It occurred to me that a lot of the things that frustrate me about journalistic cynicism, idolatry, and sanctimony are remarkably similar to what frustrates me about sex negativity in American culture.

So I’m writing an essay to connect the dots. There are a lot of dots to connect, it’s going to take me a while. And I’m still thinking it all through.

One think I’ve learned is that my readers can always help me think tough things through. So in that spirit, here are some excerpts from what I’ve drafted so far. Bear in mind that this is JUST a draft, I WILL be refining it. I know it sounds more preachy and strident than I’d like. Also, I need to make it more fun and flow more. All that will be worked on

With that said, here’s the draft…

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Will someone please think of the grad students?

wilde-oscar.jpgI’m in the midst of an intriguing IM chat with Lisa Williams (of Placeblogger and H2otown). I shared a stray thought with her:

Me: Do you think someday someone will post “the collected IM chat transcripts of so-and-so” like they publish the letters of Oscar Wilde?

Lisa: I’m sure of it! Won’t someone please think of the graduate students ;->

Which got me thinking: If Oscar Wilde was alive today, he’d definitely be blogging — and probably Twittering up a storm. And he’d be damn eloquent, witty, and brilliant about it, too.

Non-coding geek: Like a musical illiterate?

Net Efekt, via Flickr (CC license)
It might as well be
PHP to me…

In my bio, I refer to myself as a semi-geek: I use many online and computer-based tools quite effectively. But I’m not a programmer. I don’t know how to code beyond basic HTML. I rely on my network of real geeks for coding and server-side help when needed. I manage to get a fair amount of fairly sophisticated online work done on my own, but I know my lack of coding ability definitely holds me back in some areas.

I’m also a self-taught musician. I play guitar, mostly by ear. I can follow chord notations and charts, but I never learned how to read music. I’ve still managed to write many songs, and I enjoy playing. But I’m very limited in a jamming situation with other musicians because I don’t really understand music theory — the underlying structure of the music. I haven’t been disciplined enough to learn my scales, so my fingerpicking and lead abilities are severely limited.

Right now, my husband is teaching himself keyboards and music theory. I’m amazed at how much he is learning, and quickly. He’s also a consummate software engineer, programming in several languages.

It seems to me that my status as a semi-geek has an awful lot in common with my musical illiteracy. I don’t feel any compelling need to rectify either situation, but I just thought it was interesting.