Screen real estate

June 16, 2012 | 2 comments

I’ve found that I work much better if I have two very large monitors – but because I travel a lot, I’m often constrained to my 15″ MacBook Pro screen. I’m not alone:

So here’s a crazy idea. We’re used to carrying around headphones to act as surrogate speakers for when we’re unable to sit in a room with properly-positioned full-sized units. Why not apply the same principle to monitors? It sounds very silly, but we have the technology to make it work.

Products like Google’s Project Glass show that augmented reality glasses are very much within our grasp. As well as creating exciting new interfaces that interact with us in more intimate ways, we could also use this technology to generate the screen real estate we need in virtual space. It’s not big or sexy, but there’s no reason at all why you couldn’t use augmented reality headsets to create, for example, two 30″ monitors in places where carrying physical monitors would be impractical. Sit at your laptop, mobile device or other workstation, put on the glasses, and get to work.

For many of us, this is a more compelling use case than some of the wilder applications that have been bandied around. And it has other benefits, too:

  • Privacy: there’s no need for your actual laptop screen when you’re using augmented reality to generate artificial screens. So nobody can look over your shoulder.
  • Simplicity: the glasses could, potentially, be tethered to the laptop via a cable. There’s no need to have a wireless, augmented reality laptop without the laptop – at least in version one.
  • Practicality: you’re no longer limited by the laws of physics or affordable engineering when designing displays. Minority Report style UIs become a more interesting possibility when you don’t actually have to manufacture the glass. Update: and as Steven Livingston points out, the desktop could extend in an unlimited way, over 360 degrees.
  • Productivity: the glasses immerse the user in their working environment. Remember in The Social Network how the developers were portrayed (inaccurately) as being “plugged in”? Sometimes that’s necessary. Add sound, and you’ve got an instant distraction-free environment.

I realize this is a slightly different kind of post to my usual. All I’m trying to say, really, is: hey, I’d buy a pair.

You need to be wearing Google goggles to think this is a good idea

April 4, 2012 | 1 comment

Today, Google released this video of Google Glass, an augmented reality project:

Beautiful, right? It’s a virtual assistant that sticks with you wherever you go.

Exciting features debuted in the video include:

  • Automatic geo-tracking of both you and your friends.
  • Seamless photo-taking and live video broadcasting from anywhere you can put your head.
  • A head-up display that occupies some of the visual channel.
  • Everything you see – your visual reality – is augmented through a single company.
  • You are continuously recording information about the people around you as well as yourself.

Okay, I confess: by beautiful, I meant scary. Leaving aside the implications of having our ambient information spoon-fed to us rather than discerned through inference and discovery, this project opens an ethical can of worms, and asks important questions about Silicon Valley’s attitude towards other peoples’ privacy.

Indeed, traditionally, this isn’t a can of worms that Silicon Valley has been very good at dealing with. Android phones encourage you to link your friends’ accounts together, joining their Facebook details to their Google details, for example. There hasn’t been a strong line between information that is yours, information about you that you’re happy to share, and information that you’re gathering about other people. It seems clear to me that people should know what they’re sharing about themselves, should have to opt in to do so, and should not be able to share personal information about other people without those people opting in. That doesn’t seem to be an opinion that Silicon Valley shares with me. Most free services are a Katamari-like information-gathering free-for-all.

I’m a fan of many, many things that Google does, and kudos to the product team that’s putting Google Glass together. It’s a very significant achievement. But from a social perspective, there’s a lot of work still to be done.

Networked stories

September 7, 2009 | 6 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling on the Internet.

I’m not completely impressed with how it’s been done so far. Not that the examples I’ve seen haven’t been beautiful, but their presence on the web has been irrelevant: they’ve essentially been multimedia presentations using web technologies, rather than a different medium that uses the Internet as an intrinsic part of its fabric. A great example of this is We Tell Stories, the digital fiction project that Six to Start built for Penguin a couple of years ago.

The Internet, as I’m so fond of pointing out, is a system of interconnected people: uniquely, the audience is an intrinsic part of the medium. I don’t think that’s been exploited to its full potential, possibly because it couldn’t be until recently.

I love the idea of a plot that reacts to how the audience is interacting with it and each other – not an alternate reality game, which has set goals and tasks, nor a virtual world like Second Life, but something that uses elements from the real world as the building blocks for a story in order to raise questions and get the audience talking with each other. The journeys of storyteller and audience would be interlinked in a kind of feedback loop, which emerging augmented reality software could potentially make more immediate and visceral. The story would use the Internet as a delivery mechanism, but it would be experienced entirely outside, in the real world.

The trick wouldn’t be to get people to forget it was fictional, but to reveal talking points about the real world – a kind of epic theater approach to storytelling as opposed to naturalism. The epic theater was a style popularized by Brecht (the German playwright who most famously wrote The Threepenny Opera), which dictated that the audience should never forget it was watching a play. As well as using particular styles of acting and stage production, the lights were often left on, and the audience was encouraged to discuss the events unfolding in front of them.

In digital, networked storytelling, this effect would almost be necessary due to the limitations of the medium, but could be exploited as a powerful feature. Never before has the audience been able to discuss a story on such a scale. It’s an opportunity.