Make your own Map Table and more

Philips Research Technologies – Entertaible: combination of electronic gaming and traditional board games

This touch-sensitive LCD should have what you need to run Google Earth on a map table. The specs even support multi-touch, support for which the GE team could probably add.

The idea behind the main GE navigation mode now is that the mouse is your finger on the virtual globe. Wherever you touch and drag, the earth moves under your finger, keeping that spot locked due to virtual friction. "Throwing" the earth is meant to feel like spinning a model globe and letting it go. The throw is intentionally dampened to make the earth feel heavy.

It all works by computing a spherical interpolation between where, in 3D earth coordinates, you touched last frame and this frame. For two or more fingers, you’d do much the same thing, except you have to allow zoom and rotation to change to keep both fingers (or hands) locked to their respective spots on the globe, essentially solving the set of vectors in spherical space for the optimal zoom and rotation to keep the fingers planted.

It’s something I would have gladly put in there if the hardware had been available at the time. The experimental prototypes of two-fingered or two-handed touch I’ve seen are somewhat limited in that they’re telling GE to zoom x% or rotate y degrees without having access to the internal vectors, before the auto-piloting moves you around in those nice sweeping arcs. It would work better if GE did the math itself, or allowed a UI plug-in DLL to drive the app. [Update: here’s a video of a map table using multi-touch that shows the benefits and some of the drawbacks of adding this interface without augmenting the GE navigation code]

Beyond this obvious use, what I expect to see for better office work-flow is a combination of two monitors, one horizontal one like this (though ideally 3D) will be your literal desktop. A 2nd vertical screen (mounted ideally at eye level) would be there for any detail work, like word processing. This way, you can both use full vertical screen for your main task and have the things that compete for your attention (applets, icons, documents, etc..) on the lower screen ready to go, the way things tend to pile on our desks (see Bump Top interface for ideas). The keyboard could be virtual, drawn on the bottom screen. But I’d still prefer a physical keyboard just above my legs to prevent arm injuries.

And for home, they’re already anticipating the electronic coffee table, pre-loaded for social gaming. This screen claims to be ready for even hosting gaming using miniatures, ala AD&D. How scratch-proof and spill-proof is it, I wonder?

The Fly on the Aircraft Carrier

Flies provide aerodynamic model for tiny flying vehicles (

So UAVs are already making huge inroads in the military. They’re coming into use in US law enforcement, over cities and towns. And designers and engineers are already working on insect-sized flying machines, even microscopic sensors the size of dust that hang in smart clouds capturing the world around them.

These tiny bugs (in both senses) will create a sensor net of information around us, a full view of the scene, that will be of use to those would defend us, as well as those would exploit their new power to collect any and all information. Just imagine what a fly buzzing around your home could learn about you.

But looking to nature for design ideas has some drawbacks. Nature never truly solved the aircraft carrier problem, for one thing. There is no flying portable beehive* that moves the colony of bees from one hotspot to the next on a moment’s notice. The colony flies individually to a new spot and rebuilds their base. But their speed is limited by the aero- (actually fluid-) dynamic forces at smaller and smaller scales. The smaller you are, the slower you go, relatively speaking. You may be more powerful at your smaller scale, but it doesn’t help you get to Greenland any faster than a bird. And nanotech has this problem in a big way — despite some popular science fiction, nanotech bots can’t move very fast relative to our scale of living. They need something to carry them.

Bring in the aircraft carrier. We do this manually now for UAVs. Someone flies a palette of them to Afghanistan on a C-17, then loads a jeep, and then sends one off over the target area. The next generation, which I haven’t even seen discussed (apart from big drone aircraft that can circle the globe, like the Global Hawk) is the UAVC or MAVC, the airborne carrier, able to automatically bring UAVs or micro UAVs to any spot on the globe, collect them up again, and come home. For nanotech scale devices, you might even see a carrier of carriers, able to maximally disperse the tiny bots over a wide area like warheads off an ICBM.

But the scary thing is when we start seeing these at home. Who knows who controls that tiny insect buzzing near your ear. The cops? The Feds? Or your ex-wife, your personal psycho stalker? Is that something we can ever truly get used to? I don’t know. But I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

All of which makes me wonder how on earth the Secret Service is going to protect the President from the dangerous versions of these. With all of the UAVs flying around, which ones will be there to protect him and which will be there to shoot? How do you even shoot down a fly? Will we feel obligated to crush every insect we see? Every tiny fruit fly? Will we see new definitions for mental illness surrounding a very rational fear of bugs?

I think it’s about time we start taking the ethical challenges of UAVs much more seriously than just "good clean military technology." The absence of a discussion of "UAV aircraft carriers" only reinforces the idea that these bugs, like killer bees, once introduced into our local environments, are there to stay.

Some further reading:
* the closest thing I can think of are seeds carried by animals to new places, or maybe some parasites would qualify as hitching a ride on a bigger vehicle to get around.

3-D TV That Actually Works?

Wired News: 3-D TV That Actually Works

Interesting. This might be good enough for 3D movies and games, but not necessarily a true 3D desktop, mainly because the resolution of each of the nine image slices will be low, given the LCD panel is apparently at HDTV resolution overall. If anyone gets to see one of these in person, let us know what you think.

Aside: I’m always skeptical when the marketing glossies include impossible images. As with any 3D screen, you can only see 3D images between (or behind) the screen and your eyes. In other words, using the picture at rght, the virtual image must fall entirely within the red and pink areas. The press-ready images of milk dripping out of the screen are just silly.

Mapping Earth’s Gravity

Map: Earth’s Fourth Dimension – – science news articles online technology magazine articles Map: Earth’s Fourth Dimension

Now, someone just needs to write one of those “navigate the marble through a maze into a hole” games using GE and this gravity map to make it interesting. All marbles wind up in the Indian ocean for some reason.

A Live Motion Portable 3D Video Camera

A Live Motion Portable 3D Video Camera – Google Video

Skip ahead to about 17:45 and around 33:00 and 39:40 to see some cool results.

The implications are interesting, especially for Google Earth. It’s not clear to me that this is actual Google technology, though. People come in and do these brown bag presentations from all over. But the idea is that it wouldn’t take too long for Google to help improve this and start capturing real-world scenes to plug into GE.

There are advantages (mainly social) to Photosynth’s method, using tourist photos. But the disadvantages are that the photos won’t match. This approach could make a very high quality 3D snapshot in seconds.

All your Terrain are Belong to Us

if you read my previous blog post called "And Thy Name is Fud" down to the comments, you saw a few NASA World Wind developers showing up to comment about how bad Google is for such things as not letting World Wind pull imagery from GE’s servers (though it’s not theirs to give). Here’s a followup.

I tried to get the WW folks interested in learning more about this miserable Skyline patent, because it could very easily affect them too. At least one of them was surprised to learn it existed at all. Google doesn’t talk about it much. They probably can’t.

But I’m not Google. Right now, Skyline is suing Google for who knows how much money plus the right to stop Google Earth from existing until such and such demands are met (they failed in that last part, at least thus far).

It all started as a lawsuit against Keyhole. Keyhole, if you’re not aware, built EarthViewer circa 2000 (and before), and released it publicly in 2001, sold the company to Google in 2004, and became Google Earth. Skyline received a patent for streaming terrain in late 2002. NASA World Wind was publicly released in 2003, according to their official history. Yet despite these dates, Skyline has targeted Keyhole/Google for infringement of their patent, issued in late 2002…

A few of the World Wind developers seem savvy enough to "get it" that Skyline may be going after Google now because they’re the most prominent and wealthy, same as the Blackberry was the primary target for that particular lawsuit (and they lost big-time). However, more of the key players seem to think it’s just a grudge match against Google, for pissing rights, perhaps. The World Wind folks were kind enough to link to my blog via their chat log, which is publicly accessible as HTML for some reason. I won’t post transcripts or URLs. But I was certainly curious and entertained to read the ensuing (no pun) dialog, and I will comment on this one aspect.

It is sad to me that developers, especially open source developers, won’t stick up for other developers, even if they’re competitors, when they know something is happening in their domain that’s simply wrong. (Bull_UK gets kudos for blogging it at least). My guess is that if World Wind ever gets big enough to threaten Skyline, WW folks will find themselves in the same boat and have no choice but to settle without a fight–esp. if Google loses. But I sense either a fear of involvement, or a desire to see Google take a dive. I don’t know which. But either way, it’s a losing strategy, IMO, unless they get Skyline to officially (and freely) license-out their technology, which would make the WW developers on par with traitors in the open source world for backing the patent war-horse. Otherwise, they’re always at risk, even if Google wins on the claims of infringement, but the patent stands.

The same thing goes for Second Life and any other MMOs and virtual globes that stream terrain, which could theoretically fall under the dominion of this patent. It doesn’t limit itself to virtual globes. And the claims are so broad that any system in which some software client asks for a chunk of 3D terrain from some remote server could be considered in violation, especially if the client asks the server for higher resolution of said terrain over time, which is the obvious way to do it. Open standards like VRML and X3D/XSG could even be considered in violation if a Web3D client requests terrain from a remote server (i.e., using external references vs. in-line), even though the specs pre-date the filing of this patent.

That’s how bad this patent is–it could threaten an industry standard, even though there’s little difference between a mountain and a cube from VRML’s point of view. Terrain is as basic to 3D worlds as points and polygons, and no one has successfully patented those (some have tried). My opinion is that none of those allegations of infringement should prevail, nor should this patent even exist. But it doesn’t stop a company flush with cash from threatening to sink anyone with limited resources with extended legal proceedings. Even if they’re wrong, even if there’s prior art, they can often win by sheer attrition.

I’ve seen no public comment from Skyline denying any intention to own streaming 3D terrain as a technology. That denial, I’d love to see, for whatever it’s worth. They’re certainly not shy about issuing lawsuits. Yet despite that, there’s no industry push-back to go after the poor patent or to take a stand against this kind of abuse, whether or not you want to see Google take a fall.

These are all my opinions, but I seem to be one of the few speaking out. For whatever reasons, people just aren’t paying attention like they were with the Blackberry suit, even though we see examples of Google Earth being used to save lives . They just got an award for their coverage of the Katrina disaster, helping rescuers find trapped residents. None of that would have happened had Keyhole caved and shut their doors under threat. I’m glad Google is fighting this. But I can only hope they win.

Read the patent.
Decide for yourselves.
Speak up.

End note: I’m all for Skyline making the best product they can and competing fairly with all comers and even winning in the marketplace if that’s how it turns out. But patents and lawsuits like this are bad for everyone’s business, Skyline included. It’s their own damn fault if they’re too ignorant to see how they should focus their energies on making their product better, vs. trying to stifle competition.

More on PhotoSynth

Yechezkal writes in with some additional notes on PhotoSynth, which has already been covered elsewhere.

While Microsoft demo’d this interesting app, it turns out it was more of an acquisition than a R&D development on their part. The company SeaDragon Software was recently sold to MS. And some of the principals have much more interesting videos and papers on a Home Page at the University of Washington, where it looks like the bulk of the R&D was actually done (this video was apparently the technical one presented at SIGGRAPH this year).
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