Tag Archives: technology

Caught on Camera with the Wrong Woman? New Tool Retouches Her Out of the Picture

Ryan Tate of Gawker posted a sneak preview of an incredible photo retouching tool heading your way from Photoshop CS5. “The tool makes it easy to delete objects from a complex photo, without any trace they ever existed,” writes Tate.

If you’re a serious photographer who needs to touch up an errant shadow or inadvertent red-eye, it’s an absolute boon. But when you contemplate some of the less artistic applications created by the Content-Aware fill tool, your blood can turn to ice.

“The ramifications for Internet publishing are frightening,” Tate says. “It’s been possible to post Photoshopped images since the birth of the Web, of course, but until now you needed some modicum of experience to convincingly retouch pictures.” Now anyone can seamlessly drop into a photo – of a neo-Nazi rally for instance – the image of a person who was a continent away from the event. Conversely, you can remove an attendee at that rally from the picture and place him in the box seats of a baseball game.

If you think “seamless” is hyperbole, check out the video.

Be prepared for a mountain of mischief when bad guys discover the Content-Aware fill tool.

Richard Curtis

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Why Didn’t I Think of that? Pogies Awarded to Those That Did

David Pogue, who writes the “State of the Art” column in the New York Times, is the wise and witty voice of technology, and you can always count on him to articulate what are the best, worst and dumbest features of everyday products. For several years he has been handing out his personal honors – “Pogies” – to the best gadgets, features or refinements of the year. This year he’s done something just a little different, celebrating the best ideas of the year, “great, clever features that somehow made it past the obstacles of cost, engineering and lawyers.”

Here’s a summary of some of the outstanding ones:

  • “Docks” for your Droid, Motorola’s popular answer to the iPhone. Pogue cites a docking station for use in your home. “When you insert the Droid, the screen becomes a handsome, horizontal-layout alarm-clock/weather display, complete with buttons that let you access your music or even dim the screen for sleepy time. You have to charge your phone overnight anyway, so why shouldn’t it be doing something useful in the meantime?”
  • iType2Go, a phone app that allows those of you who absolutely have to text while you are walking to see where you are going even as you text. Sheesh – don’t you people ever give it up for a few minutes?
  • MiFi, Novatel’s portable power source, giving you “a Wi-Fi hot spot in your pocket, purse or laptop bag.”
  • Nikon Projector Cam. A pocket camera with a built-in projector. “Now, with a single button press on the top of the camera, you can turn on the projector. The image is beamed straight from the front of the camera onto a wall, a ceiling or a friend’s T-shirt.”
  • Bing Pop-Up Previews. Using Microsoft’s Bing search service – the answer to Google’s – you can “point to any search result in the list without clicking. A popup balloon shows you the first few paragraphs of text on it.”

Pogue’s favorite? “The single best tech idea of 2009,” Pogue gushes, “the real life-changer, has got to be Readability…When you click it, Readability eliminates everything from the Web page you’re reading except the text and photos. No ads, blinking, links, banners, promos or anything else.” Makes us want to gush too. It sounds like the Web’s answer to Tivo. Bring it on! (You can access Readability here.)

You can read Pogue’s article in full here.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.

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Jeff Bezos and Stephen King announce the new Kindle 2

The Morgan Library is the most museum-like library in New York City, and so it was fitting that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (pictured above) took the stage there this morning to announce the latest version of his book antiquifier known as the Kindle. His grand vision, often repeated throughout the hour long presentation, is that Amazon wants to see nothing less than every book ever published available to all Kindle owners in less than 60 seconds. Is the Kindle 2 going to be the device with enough popularity to create such a seismic shift in readers’ habits that the world of publishing bends its back to make this happen? Well, maybe. Just maybe. Apparently e-book sales have jumped to 10% of all Amazon book sales in just one year thanks to the first device, after years of staying well below the radar, and now Amazon wants us all to see the writing on the, err, Kindle. I expect word of mouth and adoption to be stronger this time around because the product deserves it.

The new Kindle 2 ($357 and shipping Feb. 24th) offers enough improvement from the original that I can now recommend it strongly to friends and family:

  • It has 3G wireless for faster download speed (especially for browsing the Kindle store).
  • It uses Amazon’s latest ‘Whispersync’ service to keep your Kindle’s books and notes backed up on the internet cloud and synchronized to other Kindle devices you may own.
  • Its shape is now thinner than an iPhone (less than half an inch thick) and perfectly symmetrical, with rounded corners and softer buttons.
  • The latest e-ink screen redraws slightly faster (20% over the original) and now does 16 shades of gray instead of just 4.
  • 2GB of built-in storage.
  • Charging via USB mini-port (everyone has these cables by now).
  • It has longer battery life (now up to two weeks between recharges).
  • It has implemented a pleasant text-to-speech computer voice reader for any text (it’s better than Stephen Hawking).
  • It has a new 5-way button navigation instead of the old up-and-down wheel.

Now, none of these things represent bleeding edge technology and are probably a little more anemic than what most of us dream about in a best possible e-book device. For example, any page-turning lag is still annoying (especially in the age when Google has taught us that people can’t bother to wait even 0.5 seconds more than they have to for a page to load). 3G service isn’t going to make a huge difference in speed for most people downloading new books that are typically 900K. And grayscale screens? Don’t even get me started. But what Amazon is offering that makes the Kindle 2 so appealing is their dedication to the book delivery service. Jeff Bezos wants the device to disappear in your hands while you read it, because no one pays attention to the paper or binding of a book when they get wrapped up in the story. They don’t want distractions. So, the device itself is really just something meant to be unpretentious, transient, and replaceable. What they are selling is access to published books in the most convenient manner yet possible. Amazon is dedicated to helping readers find and download books quickly, and the Kindle 2 serves that purpose better than anything else. And for that I think they have a winner.

What makes the Kindle 2 experience more likely to win people over is that Amazon still seems to be letting the Kindle ride its tide of popularity instead of hard selling customers. More and more e-book content is being converted and added to the Kindle online store every month. The incremental technical improvements in the Kindle 2 are the type that give consumers confidence that the company has a long term investment in their satisfaction, and that more improvements will surely come downstream. Original Kindle owners are even being given a two day opportunity to jump to the head of the queue for pre-ordering the Kindle 2, and what better way to spread the word than allow the converted the first opportunity to evangelize. Instead of a discount or trade-ins, this means hand-me-down first-generation Kindles are going to be circulating amongst friends and families.

Stephen King, at Jeff’s invitation and previewing his new Kindle exclusive short story “Ur,” read a passage where students confront a teacher who has never seen a Kindle before. The teacher likes to think of himself as “old school” and defends the tactile properties of the trusty paper book, such as the musty smell acquired with age. The Kindle-familiar students counter that the words are still the same, no matter what old school or new school device is being used to read them. And that’s the epiphany that many readers are similarly experiencing thanks to e-books. We want ideas and stories foremost, and the digital experience is helping us get the access to texts that generations before us never had unless they lived with a very deep library. Jeff and Stephen have understood this for years. They’ve both been trying to get more people interested in the digital distribution of books for as long as the e-book industry has been around and they can feel rightfully proud that the Kindle phenomenon is really taking off.

– Michael Gaudet

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Who Says You Can’t Do Two Things At Once?

Good reporters distinguish themselves by looking away from the things most of us think are newsworthy, and focusing on small but revealing details. Farhad Manjoo, a New York Times reporter, exemplified this truth when he recently visited the spectacular Google headquarters. There’s enough there to make just about any civilian visitor slaphappy. But,”What caught my attention on a recent visit was something pretty pedestrian: the programmers’ desks. Specifically, their computer monitors,” he writes.

“I recently met several software engineers who work on Gmail, and each sported a spectacular configuration of screens. Some paired wide monitors with tall ones, others had huge screens married to small ones, and still others used several displays in series, giving the impression that in addition to building a Web-based e-mail system, they were helping Norad keep tabs on the nation’s airspace.”

Most of us multitaskers are content to open multiple windows on one normal-sized monitor and navigate between them. Manjoo cites some studies that indicate that two displays, or even one humongous one, are far more effective because you’re able to see more of what you have to do, like spreading all your papers out on the surface of your desk instead of piling them up. Manjoo mentions one in particular:

“In a study commissioned by the electronics company NEC, researchers at the University of Utah recently asked office workers to perform several common tasks using various monitor configurations. They found that people who used two 20-inch monitors were 44 percent more productive at certain text-editing operations than people using a single 18-inch monitor.”

Whatever effect all these screens may have on your productivity, it’s hard to believe they do much for your eyes. Pictured above is a Google software engineer after fifteen hours of programming on two monitors.

Read more.

RC

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This Year’s Hottest Handbag Takes its Place in the Sun

Joe Hynek was the only male in an experimental garment design class, and not surprisingly he passed up the opportunity to design dresses. Instead he created a purse for women “interested in projecting power,” according to Rachel Aviv in the New York Times.

Hynek’s purse projects power all right, enough to recharge a variety of electronic devices. It’s covered with solar panelettes which absorb the sun’s energy and charge a battery which in turn recharges a cell phone, music player or camera. (Battery included).

How does the purse function on a cloudy day? Hynek thought of that. You put your keys, wallet and tissues in it.

He’s developing other solar-powered articles of clothing like ties. The article doesn’t mention hats or parasols but let’s see if the Power Purse carries the $350 price he contemplates charging for it.

RC

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More Juice for Handhelds

The world’s first official e-book conference, held in Washington DC in 1998, was a thrilling, supercharged pep rally for true believers who had dreamed for decades of the day when they could read a book on an electronic device nestled in the palm of their hands. At the same time, like any convocation of like-minded people whether it be shoe manufacturers or atomic physicists, the shoptalk was stultifying and the presentations soporific – until the Battery Lady got up to speak. She was beautiful, tastefully dressed and spoke in a lilting Continental accent. Someone called her Greta Garbo in a business suit. The topic was battery life and she was mesmerizing, delivering her topic like Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby” to a lovestruck male in a nightclub. During the coffee break she was all the geeks could talk about. No one quite remembered what she said but we all agreed she should be invited back the following year even if it was to tell us, in her enchanting, artless way that battery life had been extended by five minutes since the previous year’s conference.

The Battery Lady should be brought back today to expound on exciting initiatives to conserve the battery life of smartphones and other handheld devices. Thanks to an article by Anne Eisenberg in the New York Times, we’re informed that outfits like Pixtronix and Qualcomm have developed the means to make power last and last.

The Pixtronix color display technology, called PerfectLight, “uses energy-efficient LED bulbs, creating the image with thousands of tiny shutters that slide open and closed like digital pocket doors,” explains Eisenberg. The drain for backlighting is less than 50 milliwatts. A conventional LCD uses about 200. A Pixtronix executive says, “We have a single shutter for each pixel,” he said. A display in a cellphone might have 76,000 to 300,000 shutters for as many pixels.”

Qualcomm’s approach could not be more different. Explains Eisenberg:

New technology by Qualcomm takes advantage of natural light, reflecting the short, blue waves of daylight, for instance, and combining them in the same process that lets bluebirds glow with iridescent color in the sun.

A Qualcomm exec boasts, “You can end up with about a fifth of the optical energy that is put out by the backlight — or even less.” Very significantly, the screen color remains true in direct sunlight.

RC

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Obama Health Plan Prescribes Tablets at $50 Billion a Pop

I’ve been carrying the torch for Tablet PCs from my very first glimpse a decade or so ago, but like the object of a crush who’s just not that into you, my passion has been unrequited. Despite a huge array of potential applications – education alone is as rich in possibilities as Alaska’s fabulous El Dorado Gold Mine – developers and manufacturers have stubbornly resisted commitment to tablets. It’s a big relief to find out I’m not alone, to learn in fact that I’m in such august company as Bill Gates. I urge you to read Conrad Blickstorfer’s expert analysis of just why, for all its superb qualities, the “slate” (another term for tablets) has not yielded to our protestations of abiding love.

One sector of the computer-using community that has kept the embers burning, however, is the medical profession. As soon as Microsoft released the first version of Tablet PC, doctors seized on it as the answer to their prayers. At last they were liberated from the bondage of paperwork that cost them one hour of clerical duties for every hour spent attending to patients. With its portability, handwriting recognition and easy interfaceability with centralized databases, doctors could make their rounds with Tablet in hand and enter information in real time. Tablets even recognized the traditionally execrable handwriting of doctors, but e-ink and virtual keyboards have replaced the pen and all but eliminated the possibility that the computer could read “atropine” for “aspirin.”

And now, with President Elect determined to create a $50 billion national computerized medical archive at the heart of his health care initiative, the tablet will at last find its place in the sun.

A microcosm of this world to come can be seen in Steve Lohr’s New York Times examination of a small Wisconsin clinic that in 2003 introduced wireless tablet computers to its medical staff and required it use them. Lohr describes the many virtues of the program:

A paper record is a passive, historical document. An electronic health record can be a vibrant tool that reminds and advises doctors. It can hold information on a patient’s visits, treatments and conditions, going back years, even decades. It can be summoned with a mouse click, not hidden in a file drawer in a remote location and thus useless in medical emergencies.

Modern computerized systems have links to online information on best practices, treatment recommendations and harmful drug interactions. The potential benefits include fewer unnecessary tests, reduced medical errors and better care so patients are less likely to require costly treatment in hospitals.

The widespread adoption of electronic health records might also greatly increase evidence-based medicine. Each patient’s records add to a real-time, ever-growing database of evidence showing what works and what does not. The goal is to harness health information from individuals and populations, share it across networks, sift it and analyze it to make the practice of medicine more of a science and less an art.

You can see a typical computerized e-health patient record here.

Okay, that’s one industry about to be conquered by the tablet. But I won’t rest until I see one under the arm of every college student.

RC

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This is Not – Repeat Not – A Sci-Fi Cover Painting

Last summer plans were revealed for a Dubai building so spectacular that if someone told you it was a rendering for a fantasy set in the 24th century painted by an artist stoned on ganja, you would nod and say, Of course. In fact, construction of the 80 story Dynamic Tower office/hotel/residence is scheduled to commence in 2009 and completion is slated for 2010.

Who would live there? The very rich, and obviously a few of that breed have survived the current economic horror show. One reporter writes that “Over 140 reservation requests have arrived from the United States, followed by the UK (94) and Australia (57), as well as Italy, China, New Zealand, and other countries throughout the world. More than 50 reservations were submitted specifically for the Dynamic Tower’s luxury villas, with prices starting at 20 million Euros (US $30 million).” There’s another tower like this one in the works for Moscow.

And what is it about this building that inspires superlatives? How about, each floor revolves at its own speed? How about, each of the luxury “villas” on the top ten floors has its own parking space and swimming pool? How about, the building is energy efficient thanks to horizontal wind turbines separating each storey from the ones above and below? How about, the building is being prefabricated in Italy? How about, the architect says he never designed a skyscraper before this? One blogger describes it as “the single biggest mindf**k of our time…80 stories of rotating madness.”

Check out Eye on Dubai: Spinning Skyscraper Lines Up 140 U.S. Buyers?!. A video is accompanied by Richard Strauss’s Also Spracht Zarathustra, the same megapompous theme used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, but one has to admit that the first glimpse of the tower inspires awe akin to that first breathtaking view of Kubrick’s space station.

The structure does raise a few questions: plumbing, for instance. So let me get this straight: my master bedroom toilet starts out over your master bedroom toilet, but in ten minutes it will pass over your kitchen; ten minutes after that over your swimming pool, and ten after that over the Bentley in your garage. All this while the blades of a gigantic wind turbine whirl between my floor and your ceiling. So, when exactly do I flush?

Just asking.

RC

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Japanese Cellfic Site – 3.5 Billion Monthly Visits

Dana Goodyear’s “Letter from Japan” in The New Yorker’s end-of-year issue analyzes the Japanese craze for cellphone fiction. The stats make our own e-book business look positively anemic; one publisher alone carries one million “keitai shoshetsu” titles and receives 3.5 billion visits in a single month. Sales of one or two million hardcover reprints of cellphone novels are far from uncommon. “A government survey conducted last year concluded that eighty-two per cent of those between the ages of ten and twenty-nine use cell phones, and it is hard to overstate the utter absorption of the populace in the intimate portable worlds that these phones represent,” writes Goodyear, who points out just how far the nation has come from “Tales of the Genji,” the earliest known novel written one thousand years ago.

We commented on this phenomenon a while ago (Cell Phone Fiction – Can 20 Million Japanese Be Wrong?) But this seems more than a mere craze. Reading Goodyear’s account, one feels as if one is watching the birth of a new form of communication or the violent formation of a volcanic island. One psychologist interprets it as an outburst of empowerment among long suppressed Japanese women, but concludes that “it just reinforces norms that are popular in male-dominated culture.” Whether it will carry to America’s shores will be interesting to find out.

(Tut-tut of the month to Goodyear for this solecism: “The Japanese publishing industry, which shrunk by more than twenty per cent over the past eleven years, has embraced cell-phone books.” Shrunk? I seldom nitpick grammar, for he who lives by the nitpick perishes by the nitpick. But this is The New Yorker, folks! Someone should have looked the usage up in – er – Shrunk and White.)

In any event, Goodyear’s article is a must-read for all seeking to know the shape of things to come.

RC

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Screw Rubber Ducky, I Want My Rhinobook

The time has come for book lovers to drop the argument that traditional books are superior to electronic book readers because you can’t take take the latter into a bathtub for fear of dropping them in the drink. For one thing, unless you are exponentially more careful than the average bather (such as yours truly), the odds are that sooner or later you will drop your book into the bathwater, or at least splash it, inadvertently grip it with wet fingers, or warp and curl it in your steamy bathroom. The printed book remains one of civilization’s most precious artifacts, but certainly not because it is designed to protect your coif in a cloudburst.

The other reason that the reading-books-in-the-bathtub argument no longer – um, holds water is that you now can in fact drop a laptop or e-book reader into water without damaging it. A new species of rugged laptops challenges customers to drench, drop, shake, club, scorch, freeze, bend, roll, fold and spindle them with impunity. Among these are the Panasonic Toughbook, General Technics Rhinobook, and the Dell Latitude. Those who might find these brutes useful are the military, police and fire departments, and emergency medical service personnel. And of course college students, who tend to use their laptops as coasters for beer glasses and to hammer picture hooks into dormitory walls. The price for toughbooks is very steep, making them a luxury. But if you’re willing to shell out as much as $5500, then by all means be our guest and submerge your Latitude in the tub and play solitaire to your heart’s content.

What about cell phones and PDAs? The good news is that there is now a way to waterproof them and laptops, too, thanks to a product called Golden Shellback. The coating seems to work, as you will see in the demo. What doesn’t yet seem to work, however, are humans, whose capacity to conduct extended conversations on cellphones while submerged remains severely limited. Neverthless, you will enjoy this demonstration of a water resistant coating for your computer. The price is steep too — over $1000 to coat a computer preparatory to dropping it into a toilet.

Who would do such a thing? That brings us back to college students…

RC

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