SciTechBlog
April 21, 2010

Hey, is that avatar lying to me?

Posted: 11:34 AM ET

Consider this scenario, which a researcher at Stanford's Virtual-Human Interaction Lab proposed to me this week:

You're a college student. You have a class in a big lecture hall. And, 90 percent of the time, your professor looks right at you - gazes straight into your eyes.

How would you feel? Engaged? Creeped out? Like you had to pay attention because you weren't just part of the masses anymore?

Then, what if you also knew that the professor wasn't just looking at you -  that, because you're in virtual reality, your avatar professor can look at every student at the same time?

Would you care that this spider-eye capability means your professor's attention towards you isn't truly genuine?

Maybe not, says Kathryn Segovia, lab manager at this futuristic research office.

"If you're in a one-on-one context, it's harder to fade into the crowd," she said.

This scenario underscores what Segovia says is a big debate in virtual-reality research: Is it OK for avatars (digital representations of people) to be deceptive?

Consider some more examples.

On a tour of her cramped lab at Stanford on Monday, Segovia showed me a face-recognition program that turns you into someone else in the digital world.

I'm a white guy, but with a few clicks, a 3-D version of my face became a white woman, and then a black man.

And it's easy to take virtual-reality deception further than gender and race.

Segovia also demoed a feature that put the virtual version of me on auto-pilot, based on my past movements. So, say I was in a virtual meeting and wanted a cup of coffee. The digital me could act as a moving, note-taking placeholder while I went away.

But tying avatars to our real-world movement may make them less deceptive.

Will Steptoe at University College London conducted a study that showed avatars with human-like eye movements - which were tied to a real person's eye movements with eye-tracking technology - were easier to catch in a lie.

Those with stationary, mannequin eyes could lie to people more easily.

(Check out this New Scientist video on the subject).

But there's still plenty of room for deception.

"It's very hard to tell when someone is portraying a genuine version of themselves [in a virtual world]," Segovia said.

The question is: Does that matter? Is it OK, or even powerful, to become another person online? Or is all this mask-wearing bad for us in the long run?

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Filed under: avatars • Stanford University • virtual reality


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In defense of supercomputing

Posted: 11:00 AM ET

I visited the seventh-fastest computer in the world today, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, about an hour east of San Francisco, California.

At first, I thought the idea of "supercomputing" seemed pretty 1990s. Supercomputers fill enormous rooms, suck down gobs of power and don't seem quite as sexy these days as tech that can fit in your hand.

And seventh-fastest? I mean, it's not first.

But, on a tour of the federally funded lab, Brian Carnes, one of the managers of this supercomputer, taught me a thing or two.

First of all, the stats were impressive:

_ One computer network here can do more than 700 trillion math problems in a second
_ The computer sits on an area that's nearly the size of a football field

More important, perhaps, are the applications the supercomputer supports.

[Side note: I can't vouch for all that's going on on these whirring machines because much of it is classified and signs all around the computer area remind employees not to tell visitors too much: "Unclassified discussions only," one sign read].

Some scientists at this lab use huge equations and mounds of data to try to predict what our warming climate will look like in the future. The computer crunches those. Others are trying to predict what will happen to the country's nuclear weapons stockpiles as they age - which is a safety issue, Carnes says, regardless of your stance on nukes.

The lab here is in an arms race of its own these days.

By 2012, it plans to add a new computer to the system, called "Sequoia."

Then, Carnes and others hope, the lab will have the world's fastest computer.

That means more math problems per second. More scientific research.

And another point for bragging rights.

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Filed under: climate change • computers • data centers


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What will Facebook announce today?

Posted: 10:48 AM ET
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World Record holder

CNN.com will be reporting today from Facebook's annual f8 conference in San Francisco, California, where the social network is expected to announce changes to its site.

The changes may integrate Facebook further into the Web at large, and make mobile phone applications for Facebook more useful.

Here's what bloggers and tech writers are looking for:

Universal "like" button: Facebook's "like" feature lets users show their interest in Facebook photos and status updates. The site may push that feature all over the Web, helping it aggregate data about its users' preferences outside Facebook.

"Place" feature: Right now, you can tell Facebook friends what you're doing, but there's no easy way to tell them where you are, based on our phone's GPS location. That may change if Facebook adds a "place" feature. It might look like Foursquare, the app that lets users "check in" to bars, restaurants and the like, alerting friends to their whereabouts.

Competition with Google, others: On Monday, Facebook announced a new feature called "Community Pages," which, as CNET writes, is part Google and part Wikipedia. These pages let Facebookers congregate around certain interests, like cooking, for example, instead of only around brands and products, as is currently possible. The Community Pages are editable, kind of like Wikipedia, and they could become hubs for topic-specific info, kind of like Google.

I'll be at the Facebook event today, which begins at 10 a.m. PT. Check our Twitter feed, @cnntech, for the latest, and watch CNN.com/tech for all of the details.

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Filed under: Facebook


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April 20, 2010

Real fear in a virtual world

Posted: 09:41 AM ET

So, I walked up to a virtual pit.

It was maybe 30 feet deep. With a wood plank crossing it.

Somewhere deep down in my rational brain, I knew the hole wasn't real - that it was a virtual reality scenario in a cramped office at Stanford University, where the floor seemed completely pit-free until I put on a clunky piece of hardware called a "headmount."

But that headmount changed everything.

Using a system of cameras, ultraviolet lights and an "inertia cube," the headmount - which looks sort of like a cross between sunglasses and a hard hat - knew right where I was and where I was looking. It fed that info to a computer, which put a realistic virtual display in front of my eyes.

The result looked like a video game version of the room I had just been standing in.

Only with a big - and really believable - hole in the center.

Kathryn Segovia, a PhD student and manager of the Virtual-Human Interaction Lab here, asked me to walk towards the pit and then cross it on the plank.

My pulse quickened. I felt the kind of nerves you do before a big drop on a roller coaster, or that tingle in your stomach you get when walking on the roof of a building.

Segovia says people have real, emotional reactions to virtual reality. Some become ill. Others fall. And, increasingly, it's becoming apparent that virtual experiences can impact who we are out here in real life. Researchers in her lab, for instance, have shown that people who watch themselves exercise in virtual reality are more likely to do so in real life, she said. And those who watch lifelike avatars eat healthy virtual foods are more likely to make healthy eating choices later.

This leads to all kinds of possible scenarios, where virtual environments could be used to help with a person's fear of heights, or help someone with an eating disorder. The real world informs how we design virtual reality, and how we act in virtual realms, she says, but the virtual can also change the real.

And it seems the two are becoming less distinct.

Back in front of the gaping hole, I walked across the plank without much problem. But I was surprised by how real it felt, how I used my arms to steady my balance and actually worried a bit about falling.

Then things got even weirder.

In round two of this virtual gut-check, Segovia put other "virtual humans" in the scenario with me - a bunch of concerned-looking men in blue shirts.

As they entered through a virtual door, I felt their eyes on me. I started to wave "hello" to them (yeah, I'm that lame), but, much to my real dismay, they started running. Then, one by one, just like lemmings, they jumped into the pit - to their virtual deaths.

I actually wanted to try to stop them. But it happened so fast.

Segovia, who was controlling this scenario from the outside, and seemed much less concerned about these pixel people than me, asked me to walk out on the plank and look down at the digital wreckage.

I steadied myself and walked to the center of the plank, over the virtual hole. I saw a tangle of those "agents," as researchers call computer-controlled virtual people, at the bottom of the pit - splayed out like virtual stew.

There was no gore to it, but it was actually disturbing. I wanted to get away, so I scurried off the plank.

So fast, in fact, that Segovia had to put out a hand to stop me.

I was about to run into a real wall.

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Filed under: CNN Labs • emerging tech • Stanford University • virtual reality


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April 19, 2010

Facebook 'likes' the whole Web

Posted: 12:29 PM ET
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Facebook's "like" button is about to get more prevalent on the Web, according to news reports.

The Financial Times and The New York Times report that the social networking giant - with 400 million users worldwide - will push its "like" feature onto other Web sites, enabling users to share preferences for news stories, Web sites and products more easily.

Currently, Facebook users click the "like" button on Facebook.com to alert their online friends that they find a certain status update, photo or other Facebook item interesting. The reported change would put that functionality on many other Web sites, too, linking a person's preferences for all kinds of things into the Facebook social network.

That's similar to another branch-out feature called Facebook Connect, which lets people sign into other Web sites by using their Facebook name and password.

The announcement is expected to come at Facebook's annual developer conference, called f8, which will be held in San Francisco on Wednesday.

The Financial Times wrote that the "like" functionality would let Facebook "use data from these interactions to target them with related adverts once they return to Facebook.com." In a response sent to the newspaper, Facebook says it will make no changes to its ad policies at f8.

“All the products we are launching at f8 are focused on giving developers and entrepreneurs ways to make the Web more social,” the Facebook spokesperson told The Financial Times. “We have no announcements or changes planned to our ad offering and policies.”

Nytimes.com says Facebook's "like" feature will compete with a social media toolbar promoted by a group of Web companies, including Google and Meebo.

The move is part of an effort by Facebook to dominate the social Web by being everywhere - kind of like Starbucks - instead of just in one place, writes the tech blog Mashable, in a post titled "Facebook 'likes' world domination."

The discussion comes amid controversy about Facebook's proposed changes to its privacy settings. Sophos, a security company, says 95 percent of Facebook users are dissatisfied with the proposed changes, according to a 680-person survey of the company's online readers.

Sophos describes the proposed privacy-setting changes in this way:

… if you're logged into Facebook and then visit a third party website, that site will be able to access the following:
• your name
• your profile picture
• your gender
• your friends and connections
• your user ID
• any content shared using the "Everyone" privacy setting

Other observers expect Facebook to release details on a new feature called "place," which could let Facebook users tell their online friends where they are in addition to what they're doing. Such "location-based" features have been popularized by other sites, like Gowalla and Foursquare.

You can find all the details about Facebook's proposed changes here. Take a read and let us know what you think. Also, check back on this site and on our Twitter feed for updates from the f8 conference on Wednesday.

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Filed under: Facebook


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April 15, 2010

'Emotichair' helps people feel the music

Posted: 11:19 AM ET

Say you're watching a scary movie. The tension builds. The villain is about to grab someone. There's no dialogue, just ominous music.

If you can't hear, all you get is a caption that may say something like "scary music playing."

"Of course, that's not very scary at all, and, in fact, it probably takes away from the experience," said Carmen Branje, a researcher at the Center for Learning Technology in Toronto, Canada.

That makes it hard to really get an emotional sense of what's going on.

Cue a possible solution: Find a way to make people, especially those who can't hear, actually feel the music.

That's the idea behind a prototype called the Emotichair, which Branje and colleague Maria Karam demonstrated this week at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference here in Atlanta, Georgia.

Emotichair is basically just a camping chair fitted with speakers that play at different frequencies, vibrating a person's upper back with high pitches and the bottom of a person's thighs with lower ranges.

All of the emotional content of a song may not come across in these vibrations, Branje concedes, but he says much of it does.

"You experience the play between the different elements of the music," he said. "And what we've found is people were able to tell the emotion of the piece" just by feeling it vibrate their back and legs.

Karam, who said the Emotichair has been 4 years and $500,000 in development, said the chair essentially makes a person hear with their body.

"We're just turning your skin into a cochlea," she said. "Your skin is going to be like an ear."

The Emotichair concept will be available for purchase starting in September. One chair costs between $500 and $1,000, and the chairs likely will be tested in two Canadian movie theaters in coming months, she said.

One big problem with the chair: It's super noisy. Low-quality speakers create the vibrations on the back of the chair, and they buzz and bark while the chair is in use. That could be a problem in movie theater or concert settings, although Karam said the chair has been used at acoustic concerts with no problem.

What do you think? Does the chair sound useful, particularly for deaf people or those who are hard of hearing? Or is it just an expensive gimmick?

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Filed under: Music • technology


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Samsung issues warnings about 3-D TV

Posted: 11:12 AM ET

Pregnant women, drunk people and "those who are sleep deprived" should not watch 3-D television because of potential health issues, electronics manufacturer Samsung says on its Web site.

The company also says people at risk for stroke or epileptic seizures should consult a medical professional before watching TV in three dimensions.

Samsung and Panasonic began selling the first 3-D TVs in the U.S. last month.

The warnings come as other TV manufacturers are set to debut 3-D home entertainment systems this year. When watching 3-D TV, users wear special glasses with lenses that open and close rapidly to produce an image that appears to leap off of the screen.

Some of Samsung's warnings apply to everyone:

"Viewing 3D television may also cause motion sickness, perceptual after effects, disorientation, eye strain and decreased postural stability," the Web site message says. "It is recommended that users take frequent breaks to lessen the potential of these effects. If your eyes show signs of fatigue or dryness or if you have any of the above symptoms, immediately discontinue use of this device and do not resume using it for at least thirty minutes after the symptoms have subsided."

The TV maker also says wearing its 3-D glasses in normal situations, when you're not watching 3-D TV, "may be physically harmful to you and may weaken your eyesight."

The warning suggests that some 3-D TV viewers could become so disoriented that they could fall and hurt themselves:

"Viewing in 3-D may cause disorientation for some viewers," the warning says. "Accordingly, DO NOT place your TV television near open stairwells, cables, balconies, or other objects that can be tripped over, run into, knocked down, broken or fallen over."

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Filed under: 3-D TV • health • Samsung


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April 13, 2010

Learn to play the piano without trying

Posted: 11:13 AM ET

Atlanta, Georgia - Thad Starner, a pony-tailed Georgia Tech professor, started a talk at an emerging technology conference here with a question for the audience:

"How many of you want to play a musical instrument but don't because it takes too much time to practice?"

Several people raised their hands.

"Yep, I'm the same way."

His solution? A yellow and black glove, stylish enough for Michael Jackson, and fitted with buzzers just above the knuckles.

The glove is designed to teach people to play uber-simple piano licks while they're doing other tasks - or, in other words, while they're not trying to learn.

To this point, Starner wore the glove during his lecture. The buzzers in the glove vibrated his fingers one at a time, teaching him the piano fingering for Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." He wore an earbud that played the simple melody in one of his ears, in synch with the finger stimulations.

In trials, Starner said this kind of background learning works rather well. In the most recent test, subjects completed reading comprehension tests while wearing the glove. Nine of 16 of them were able to play the melody perfectly.

Starner said he'd never done this sort of while-giving-a-presentation test of the piano glove before. At the end of his talk, he played Beethoven's simple song without trouble.

After the presentation, Starner said the true value of his project may not be in learning the piano but in rehabbing patients with brain and spinal cord injuries. He said he worked with a quadriplegic man, in his 70s, whose hands were so clawed up that he couldn't button his shirt.

The finger-stimulating glove helped him get that ability back, he said.

And he learned a little piano in the process.

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Filed under: computers • multi-tasking • Music


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April 12, 2010

Adobe to unveil updated software line

Posted: 10:22 AM ET

Adobe will unveil a new line of software today aimed at making high-end Web production and photo editing easier for average computer users as well as professionals.

The company's Creative Suite 5 programs include new versions of Photoshop, the photo editing software, and Flash, Adope's animation and video format that is somewhat in jeopardy because Apple products don't support it.

The company will host a live webcast about the new products at 11 a.m. ET. Check this link for the details on that.

A new Photoshop feature will let even casual photo editors add and remove elements from photos.

Say you want to delete a power line from a nature pic, for instance. You'll be able to highlight the power line, delete it, and then Photoshop will automatically fill in the vacant space with a matching background.

Here's a video where you can see it in action.

Check out the webcast and let us know what you think. You'll find more details on all the features at Adobe's Web site. PC World and MacWorld both have preliminary reviews.

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Filed under: Internet • photography


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April 8, 2010

Using satellites to find skeletons

Posted: 12:14 PM ET

Sometimes when you're looking for something, and you really want to find it, the best thing you can do is step back from the situation a bit.

That's kind of what happened recently for scientists in South Africa, who announced Thursday that they found a new and important link in the human family tree. The University of the Witwatersrand archeologists didn't find the skeletal remains of a new hominid species, Australopithecus sediba, just by trudging around on foot.

They used satellite images from Google Earth.

[Read CNN's story about the find]

In 2008, when they started their search in Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa, there were 130 known caves, which tend to yield archeological finds.

After the team surveyed the area with high-res satellite images, they discovered 500 caves, "even though the area is one of the most explored in Africa," writes Google's Michael Jones in a blog post. So, in effect, the satellites helped up the odds for a discovery - or at least gave researchers more places to look.

Google put together a cool list of other times satellite imagery has been used to make discoveries. I'll paste some highlights below, and let me know if you've heard of other instances. I'm sure NASA or others have used GPS to advance research, too.

Reef in Australia

A villa in Rome

Lizard in Mozambique

The fact that cows are magnetic (kind of)

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Filed under: Google • Google Earth • science • Scientists


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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.

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