SciTechBlog
May 11, 2010

Foursquare tweaks make it easier to 'check in'

Posted: 03:46 PM ET

For anyone who's ever tried to check in somewhere on Foursquare, only to mutter, "No! That is NOT where I am," help is on the way.

The makers of the burgeoning mobile game/social-networking tool said Tuesday that they've tweaked the way venues appear on their "Places" page.

When a Foursquare user wants to check in at a location, they pull up the "Places" page and scroll down until they find the right spot. But sometimes the phone's GPS coordinates don't quite match reality, requiring the user to type in the name of their location to find it.

"The problem with smartphones is that they’re good - but not great - at knowing exactly where you are," the folks at Team Foursquare wrote on their blog. " Also, there might be a lot of venues nearby that you are very unlikely to check into (like someone else’s apartment — which is great for them but not so much for you) that clutter up the list a little, and sometimes push the venue you want off the list altogether."

The newly rejiggered algorithim now takes into account things like the popularity of a venue and work harder to pinpoint the ones closest to the user.

A pretty cool tweak now considers what time of day the check-in is occurring. So, as the Foursquare folks write, at 8 a.m., a coffee shop would get priority on the list while, at 8 p.m., a restaurant or bar might move to the top.

Foursquare promises more changes to come, making it quicker to check in then ... you know ... do whatever it was you went to that spot to do in the first place.

Posted by:
Filed under: Foursquare • Games • mobile phones


Share this on:
May 3, 2010

Scientists try to turn people into 'smart dust'

Posted: 11:08 AM ET

Scientists are in the process of putting tiny wireless sensors all over the globe.

HP wants to install a trillion of these "smart dust" sensors, which initially were going to be the size of dust particles but, at least for now, look more like matchbooks. The aim is to get more information about how cities and the environment work - and then use that data to be more efficient and create less environmental damage.

But the idea of deploying a trillion sensors in the environment is tricky in some ways. The sensors have to have batteries that last a long time or are able to gather energy from the sun or waves in the ocean. They also might require maintenance from time to time, which would be cumbersome on such a huge scale.

That leads some computer scientists to say, "skip the wireless sensors."

Why not just use people and their phones to collect data about the world?

There will be 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions by years' end, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Many of those are equipped with sensing technology: They have cameras, location monitors and accelerometers.

By tacking on temperature trackers, air quality monitors and the like, these phones could become a vast and potentially useful network of wireless monitors, scattered all over the Earth.

Here are a few examples of how this is starting to happen:

  • Researchers Allison Woodruff and Alan Mainwaring at Intel Research have developed a prototype for a phone that could record air quality measurements and send them back to a database.
  • The U.S. National Parks Service has an active project called What's Invasive! to use mobile phone photos to track invasive species through protected lands.
  • Elizabeth Cochran, an assistant professor of seismology at the University of California at Riverside, has developed a network of 1,400 computers called the Quake Catcher Network that records the Earth's vibrations and, in effect, can be used as real-time earthquake monitors.

Cochran hopes to move this technology from laptops to mobile phones soon. If that network is expanded, people could get up to 60 seconds of warning before a quake hits.

"That would be enough to get under a table, maybe shut off the gas if you're cooking something on the stove," she said.

Would you be willing to be part of this "smart dust" network? There are obvious privacy concerns with the idea. To send in air quality data, for example, you would also have to send in information about where the data was collected, which would tell someone where you are, potentially all the time, if the data are collected continuously.

Posted by:
Filed under: mobile phones


Share this on:
April 22, 2010

The mobile phone that breathes

Posted: 12:16 PM ET

Researchers at Intel Labs in Berkeley, California, have designed a prototype mobile phone that slurps up air and spits out pollution measurements.

The researchers eventually hope to make everyone who carries a phone into a mobile air quality monitor, to supplement the 4,000 stationary monitors used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state partners.

It's the idea of "citizen science" taken to a new extreme.

The pollution readings would be useful for several reasons, said Allison Woodruff, a research scientist at Intel.

First, they would give regulators a sense of air quality trouble spots that might be missed by government monitors, which tend to have significant distances between them that millions of walking monitors could fill.

The moving air sensors also would enable a new level of social science, she said. If you wanted to learn more about asthma, for instance, you could look at the air quality experienced by asthma sufferers and see if that had any impact.

Currently, such evaluations aren't really possible, she said.

The measurements would be tied to a person's GPS location to create a real-time map of air quality readings. That info could be available to everyone on an app or a website, the researchers said.

The prototype air-quality phone developed by Woodruff and Alan Mainwaring is a bit clunky for now. It has big holes in its case, to let air in.  The sensors that pick up carbon monoxide, ozone and nitrogen oxide aren't small enough to let the phone fit in most pockets. That might be just as well, since the researchers aren't sure what would happen to the pollution measurements if a phone went inside a purse or pocket.

Woodruff said it might be equipped with light sensors that would tell it to stop taking and uploading measurements if it was inside a pocket.

But, they said, air quality sensors are getting better and smaller. They are confident the kinks will get worked out, and that this idea will make the air healthier. They hope their pollution-tracking phone will become reality in a matter of years.

Posted by:
Filed under: environment • mobile phones


Share this on:
April 13, 2010

Opera browser approved for iPhone

Posted: 12:47 PM ET
Lost's Jorge Garcia
Lost's Jorge Garcia

Surprise, surprise - an app from Web browser company Opera that promises faster surfing in the iPhone and iPod Touch was approved for the Apple store Tuesday, the Norwegian company said.

The free app, which Opera says will cruise the Web up to six times faster than Apple's Safari browser, is expected to be available later today or Wednesday.

The announcement comes after speculation over whether Apple would sign off on the app. The company has taken a hard line on denying outside applications that compete with Apple-created software already on the iPhone.

Opera, which had challenged Apple by launching a months-long publicity blitz before even submitting the app, maintains its browser has strengths different enough from Safari to justify its addition to the Apple Store.

"We are delighted to offer iPhone and iPod Touch users a great browsing experience with the Opera Mini app," said Lars Boilesen, CEO of Opera Software. “This app is another step toward Opera's goal of bringing the Web to more people in more places."

Opera says its browser moves faster by compressing roughly 90 percent of data on a Web page before rendering it. While that doesn't work well for complicated online functions, it makes simply reading Web pages quicker, Opera says.

In the smartphone market, Opera was already available on BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm and Android platforms.

Opera Mini also runs on the Symbian platform and is huge on mobile devices, which accounts for many of its more than 50 million monthly users worldwide, according to the company.

Posted by:
Filed under: iPhone • mobile phones • Web browsers


Share this on:
March 31, 2010

The few, the proud, the "supertaskers"

Posted: 01:16 PM ET

Many studies say people cannot drive as safely while they talk on a mobile phone.

A recent report from the University of Utah doesn't dispute that, but it does suggest that a very small portion of the population - about 2.5 percent of us - fit into a category researchers call "supertaskers."

These outliers are able to do two things at once - talk on the phone and drive, for instance - without their performance declining for either task.

"Our results suggest that there are supertaskers in our midst: rare but intriguing individuals with extraordinary multi-tasking ability," psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer write in the report, titled "Supertaskers."

"These individual differences are important because they challenge current theory that postulates immutable bottlenecks in dual-task performance."

To get the results, the psychologists put 200 people in a driving simulator and tested their ability to react to traffic and braking cars while solving math problems and word games on a hands-free mobile phone.

Before you begin insisting that you, too, are a "supertasker" who can juggle multiple phone texts while eating, combing your hair and hurtling down the highway at 65 mph, heed this warning from the authors:

"Some readers may also be wondering if they too are supertaskers; however, we suggest that the odds of this are against them," they write.

While many people consider themselves adept multi-taskers, many psychological tests show that people do not function as well when their attention is split. However, in the future, as technology makes "supertasking" a more beneficial trait, people may be able to rewire their brains to be up to the challenge, they write.

The authors also reference several distracted driving reports, including one estimate from the National Safety Council that says 28 percent of all car crashes in the U.S. are caused by people who are using cell phones to talk or text.

[via NYTimes Bits blog]

Posted by:
Filed under: distracted driving • mobile phones • multi-tasking • texting


Share this on:

CNN.com's 'Walk in Our Shoes' project continues

Posted: 10:56 AM ET

As mobile phones and video cameras get cheaper and more ubiquitous, it’s becoming easier for people all over the world to tell their stories. Think about recent events in Haiti, Iran and China.

This trend was part of the inspiration for a recent CNN iReport assignment called “A Walk in Our Shoes,” in which CNN.com asked its readers to film one-minute videos of their favorite places to walk.

We received more than 470 submissions, from six continents. And that doesn't include one late submission from Antarctica, which is definitely worth a look.

CNN stitched many of those videos into a collective walk around the world.

Check out that video here:

The project follows in the footsteps of many other online collaborative art projects, like the Eternal Moonwalk, “Star Wars" Uncut and inbflat.net.

And it’s not finished just yet.

All of the videos submitted as part of “A Walk in Our Shoes” are available for download, and CNN is asking people to edit their own mashups. Never been to Africa? You could click on the “walk_africa” tag and find all of the submissions from that continent, including a stroll through central Madagascar and a bus stop in Swaziland.

Download the ones you like, edit your own walk, and then submit it to this iReport page.

Here are some of our favorite tags you could play with:

Walk with a friend (walk_4_feet)
Walk with a narrator (walk_walkie_talkie)
Walk with a purpose (walk_advocate)
Walk a bridge (walk_bridges)
Walk in Converse shoes (walk_chucks)
Walk without shoes (walk_barefoot)
Walk a mountain (walk_mountains)
Walk on a beach (walk_beaches)
Walk with a shadow (walk_shadow)
Walk past a famous landmark (walk_landmarks)
Ride a bike or ski down a hill (walk_alt_mode)
Take a religious walk (walk_churches)
Take a stroll through the burbs (walk_suburb)
Hike a trail (walk_trails)
Check out some cool plants (walk_flora)
Or beware of animals (walk_fauna)
Walk in the snow (walk_snow)
Walk through Asia (walk_asia)
Walk through Africa (walk_africa)
Walk through North America (walk_north_america)
Walk through South America (walk_south_america)
Walk through Australia (walk_australia)
Walk through Europe (walk_europe)

Also, we're sharing all of the data we collected about these walks on this public Google Doc. Some useful tidbits from the spreadsheet that could help you with editing: We asked people to use one word to describe their walks; what the temperature was; what time the video was filmed; and exactly where they were shot.

Let us know if you have questions about the project. Thanks so much for participating, and happy editing!

Posted by: ,
Filed under: iReport • mobile phones


Share this on:
March 16, 2010

SXSW: Spotify isn't coming to the U.S. just yet

Posted: 07:36 PM ET

The much-talked-about European music service called Spotify is not available in the United States just yet.

But the founder of Spotify - which lets people stream music from a vast online database for free or at a minimal price - indicated on Tuesday in a keynote address at the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, that the service will hit the U.S. in early 2010, as planned.

"The most important thing for us when it comes to the U.S. launch is the fact that we want to build the best product that we can," said Daniel Ek, the 26-year-old CEO of the company. "Here you have to strike deals with almost 5,000 different publishers and then the collecting societies and then the labels, but the big thing for us now is just working on the next generation of Spotify and getting it out there."

Some SXSW attendees had hoped Ek would debut the service at the annual technology conference here.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times following his keynote, Ek admitted falling behind a schedule to debut Spotify in in the U.S. "We've always said we wanted to launch in early 2010. We still hope that will be the case," Ek told the Times. "That said, I don't think it matters for us if it's two or three months later. The U.S. is the world's biggest market. And to use an American phrase, we really want to hit it out of the park."

During Tuesday's keynote, Ek demonstrated a version of Spotify on an Android-based Sony Ericsson phone that's expected to hit the U.S. market this year.  He pulled up a South by Southwest-themed playlist, and a mini-player appeared on the phone’s screen that let him play, fast-forward and rewind songs.  The audience seemed to be impressed with the look of the interface and quality of the audio.

He also described future implementation strategies around the increase of social features and collaborative playlists.

"Music is the most social object," Ek said. "We want to make music like water."

Spotify has more than 7 million users.  Of those, about 320,000 pay a monthly fee to subscribe to its premium service, up from 250,000 last year, Ek said.

Spotify is a downloadable client for Windows and Mac users that lets you search, browse and stream a deep collection of music.  The service has become popular in recent years in Europe for its speed and the fact that some of its services are free and the rest are relatively inexpensive.  Due to music licensing restrictions, it is currently only available in United Kingdom, Finland, France, Norway, Spain and Sweden.  It is available both as a premium monthly subscription service and as a free version supported by advertising. (For more details on the service, check out this FAQ).

The arrival of Spotify in U.S. would add to an increasingly crowded online music space.

Posted by:
Filed under: mobile phones • Music


Share this on:
February 23, 2010

Apple bans most (but not all) sexy apps

Posted: 11:58 AM ET
The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit app is still available in the app store.
The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit app is still available in the app store.

Apple has tightened its restrictions on sexy or suggestive apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and many of the most popular programs in the iTunes app store have been removed.

While speaking to the New York Times, Apple executive Phil Schiller explained, "It came to the point where we were getting customer complaints from women who found the content getting too degrading and objectionable, as well as parents who were upset with what their kids were able to see."

Several days ago the developer of the Wobble app posted the results of his discussion with Apple on his blog. The Wobble app, which adds a jelly-like wobble motion to any user supplied photo, was recently removed because advertisements suggested it could be used on photos of breasts.

I have spoken with Apple, and the following are the new rules:

1. No images of women in bikinis (Ice skating tights are not OK either)

2. No images of men in bikinis! (I didn’t ask about Ice Skating tights for men)

3. No skin (he seriously said this) (I asked if a Burqa was OK, and the Apple guy got angry)

4. No silhouettes that indicate that Wobble can be used for wobbling boobs (yes – I am serious, we have to remove the silhouette in this pic)

5. No sexual connotations or innuendo: boobs, babes, booty, sex – all banned

6. Nothing that can be sexually arousing!! (I doubt many people could get aroused with the pic above but those puritanical guys at Apple must get off on pretty mundane things to find Wobble "overtly sexual!")

7. No apps will be approved that in any way imply sexual content (not sure how Playboy is still in the store, but …)

While most apps containing bikini-clad women are threatened, Phil Schiller defended the Sports Illustrated app to the Times. "The difference is this is a well-known company with previously published material available broadly in a well-accepted format," he said.

As of this morning, a Playboy app was also still available, suggesting Apple may accept sexual content if the developer is associated with a strong brand.

Apple has struggled to keep the app store clean, but these new policies remove many of the store's most popular programs. Parents can enable the app store's parental controls and adults can simply choose not to download content they do not approve of.

In a blog post today, Fortune.com columnist Philip Elmer DeWitt linked the purge to next month's release of the iPad tablet computer, which will run iTunes apps and which Apple plans to market for home and school use.

How do you feel about Apple's decision? Should material that is so widely accepted be banned because it is objectionable to a relative few?

Posted by:
Filed under: iPad • iPhone • iPod • mobile phones • smartphones


Share this on:
January 21, 2010

Data mining can help you get a date

Posted: 04:58 PM ET

If you think online dating profiles with self-shot camera-phone pictures that scream "Check out my MySpace!" look ridiculous, well, you are probably right, but, according to a statistical study by the dating site OKCupid, these comical self-portraits work.

My impromptu attempt at a 'MySpace pic.' Note: Works better with women.

My impromptu attempt at a 'MySpace pic.' Note: Works better with women.

OKCupid analyzed over 7,000 profiles of "average-looking people" to determine which pictures most successfully attracted other users.

In looking closely at the astonishingly wide variety of ways our users have chosen to represent themselves, we discovered much of the collective wisdom about profile pictures was wrong.

According to OKCupid, the statistical data reveals four myths about successful profile pictures. Perhaps most surprising of these myths is the discovery that "the universally maligned 'MySpace Shot,' taken by holding your camera above your head and being just so darn coy" actually works.

Christian of OKCupid writes:

We were sure that everyone thought these pictures were kinda lame. In fact, the prospect of producing hard data on just how lame got us all excited. But we were so wrong.

In terms of getting new messages, the MySpace Shot is the single most effective photo type for women.

Before you break out the camera phone for your personal glamor shoot, recognize that OKCupid did not rate the type of attention these images received, only the frequency of communication between users.

For a full description of the data analysis and the four myths check out The 4 Big Myths of Profile Pictures.

Posted by:
Filed under: computers • Facebook • Internet • mobile phones • MySpace • online dating


Share this on:
January 12, 2010

Wi-Fi 'allergies' leave man homeless

Posted: 11:31 AM ET

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports a man claiming to suffer from electromagnetic sensitivity is suing his neighbor for refusing to disconnect her electronic devices.

Santa Fe, New Mexico resident Arthur Firstenberg claims that his neighbor Raphaela Monribot's use of electronic devices such as cell phones, computers, compact fluorescent lights and dimmer rheostats is aggravating his "electromagnetic sensitivity" and causing him to get sick.

"Within a day of [Monribot] moving in, I began to feel sick when I was in my house," Firstenberg writes in his affidavit. "The electric meter for my house is mounted on [Monribot's] house. Electromagnetic fields emitted in [Monribot's] house are transmitted by wire directly into my house."

A request for preliminary injunction claims Fristenberg's condition has left him homeless. Fristenberg "cannot stay in a hotel, because hotels and motels all employ wi-fi connections, which trigger a severe illness. If [Firstenberg] cannot obtain preliminary relief, he will be forced to continue to sleep in his car, enduring winter cold and discomfort, until this case can be heard."

The Santa Fe New Mexican notes "Firstenberg's motion is accompanied by dozens of notes from doctors, some dating back more than a decade, about his sensitivities."

However, scientific studies such as this 2005 trial at the Psychiatric University Hospital in Germany suggest electromagnetic sensitivity is strictly a psychosomatic disorder.

The major study endpoint was the ability of the subjects to differentiate between real magnetic stimulation and a sham condition. There were no significant differences between groups in the thresholds, neither of detecting the real magnetic stimulus nor in motor response.

We found no objective correlate of the self perception of being "electrosensitive." Overall, our experiment does not support the hypothesis that subjectively electrosensitive patients suffer from a physiological hypersensitivity to EMFs or stimuli.

Do you acknowledge Fristenberg, and others claiming electronic sensitivity, may be suffering real physiological effects and should be allowed to live free from electronic devices? Or should treatment be strictly psychological?

Posted by:
Filed under: cell phones • computers • Medicine • mobile phones • online news • science


Share this on:

subscribe RSS Icon
About this blog

Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

subscribe RSS Icon
twitter
Powered by WordPress.com VIP