Tech Companies Circle the Patent Wagons

According to this Reuters summary of a Wall Street Journal article,

Verizon Communications Inc, Google Inc, Cisco Systems Inc, Hewlett-Packard Co and Ericsson, are believed to have a joined a group calling itself the Allied Security Trust.

The companies will pay roughly $250,000 to join the group and will each put about $5 million into escrow with the organization to go toward future patent purchases, the paper said.

So their plan seems to be for the Alliance to buy patents, license them back to individual member companies, and then sell the patents again. It’s a form of collective self-defense, but I’m not convinced it’s the wisest possible move, or one that will be free of public (government) scrutiny.

Think about this. A patent that had been neutered for use against cash-rich companies should be worth less after the deal is done. After all, some potential buyers of those patents would want them specifically to extract payment from those same companies, and those doors would now be closed. So the Alliance might seem to lose money over time, eating up those $5M escrow accounts fairly quickly.

On the other hand, if the patent is worth more after the deal, as I suspect is the intent, esp. for the Alliance to be self-sustaining, then that’s a reasonable indicator that the patent was probably weak in the first place. The very act of licensing gives it validity and added value.

In other words, for the Alliance to be successful in its current form, it needs to perform part of the public disservice of patent trolls. It’s an escalation in the patent war, not a deterrent or détente. And that in and of itself could drive the prices up, not down, for patents it seeks to acquire. And a speculative market for patents is born.

It seems to me that in the "circling the wagons" metaphor, the settlers are stuck playing defense, and their defense, for the most part, does no one any good. Wouldn’t it better for everyone if they could actually kill the marauding patent trolls outright?

Whether this consortium, which includes Google, is ultimately seen as "good" or "evil" largely depends on that question, and how others feel about being let in or kept out of the Alliance, which is priced a bit beyond what any small company could afford.


Slight Glitch

…in which all of my personal/political blog entries wound up on this site.

All fixes and upgrades are now complete, and the universes are separate once again.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled technology.


Michael Jones at Google I/O

I didn’t go to Google I/O, mainly because I don’t actually develop anything on top of Google products and services. Still, it was great watching a video of Michael Jones, who is really the heart and soul of Google Earth and the entire Geo line. The video starts off a bit slow for those already familiar with Google’s mission, but then it kicks into high gear about half-way through with the demos (where Michael can’t resist a reference to the Prisoner…) and the introduction to the Google Earth API. 

The other major announcement, the magnitude of which probably won’t sink in for a year or so, is the agreement with ESRI to release ("from jail," as MTJ puts it), most of the world’s ESRI-based GIS information, such that Google Eartth and Virtual Earth can show it and, perhaps more fundamentally, search and index it. All it takes is the latest ESRI update and a single click of a checkbox to let the information be free. This is where the rubber meets the road (or the mashup meets the world beyond the metaverse).

I was pleased to hear about his pitch to US governors and counties to release the info — the abstract fear of terrorism is insignificant compared to all the good that can and will be done with this information. Not to get political, but I suggest you all add "Release the GIS" to your regular communication with your elected officials.

Now See Live 3D Worlds on Your Pinkie

We’re starting to see a new crop of "Mobile 3D" solutions hit the market. So let’s take a minute to see what’s up, what’s coming, and what’s still hype.

For anyone who read the "Second Life on iPhone" stories or saw some demo video, the key take away is that the 3D graphics are not being rendered on the iPhone itself. It’s being rendered on a beefy server somewhere else and delivered essentially as compressed video.

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Turning 2D Photos into First Rate 3D Experiences

Google Earth Blog: Look Around with Google Panoramio

Frank Taylor has the news about Google’s Panoramio geo/photo/sharing site adding a more "Photosynth-like" feature that lets you navigate from 2D photo to 2D photo based on their computed areas of overlap. In essence, the software seems to figure out if/where two photos overlap, then computes the viewing transformation to go from each photo to the every overlapped match, and then does ye old cross-fade warp (a simple trapezoidal stretch) when you select some source and destination combo to navigate around.

The effect is somewhat similar to Photosynth, in that you can navigate a well-covered real-world scene based purely on existing 2D photos. The downside is very similar to Photosynth — the transformations are still lacking something that’s hard to pin down. Each photo is still 2D, and the warping or flying around isn’t enough to preserve the implied 3D perspective you get when you view a photo from the exact angle it was taken. Move a little to either side and the 3D effect diminishes, while disorientation increases rapidly. Both apps try to minimize the downside by fading a picture out when it gets too far off base, leaving lots of missing information temporally and spatially.

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The Singularity is Nigh

IEEE Spectrum: Special Report: The Singularity

I’ll post more when I get a second, but it’ll take some time to digest.

For what it’s worth, my present take on the Singularity is a cross of Vinge’s and something Stross said at a WorldCon party (or elsewhere), and Kurzweil, despite some inherent contradictions:

1. The future beyond a singularity is fundamentally unknowable. That’s the whole point. If we can accurately describe what’s past a so-called singularity, then it’s just your basic run-of-the-mill evolution, revolution or “disruptive” sea-change, which happen all the time.

2. People are good at extrapolating linearly, not exponentially. We can predict a few years out, but after that, reality diverges wildly from our naturally limited mental models.

3. We’ve already gone through multiple “singularities” throughout history, though perhaps increasing in frequency. Singularities are never the end of anything, but a new platform on which to complain about our current ways of life and ponder the color of the pasture on the far side of the next singularity.

Before their introduction, could people have predicted how the world would change with Writing? Or Computers? Or Corporations? Could they have even predicted the invention itself? If not, then these may also be singularities, points in history that we can only understand by looking back, not forward, like the approaching event horizon of a black hole.

That is not to say that some visionaries don’t imagine a world past that event horizon or see the event coming. But it’s all speculation, cautionary or wishful fiction at best.

Even the inventor of the mechanical computer, beyond genius for his day, could not have predicted word processors, virtual reality, AI, or even the CAD software that would have unquestionably helped design his mechanical computer.

One could argue that the One True Singularity will occur only when we (our heirs or errs) become smart enough to see through to the future beyond, i.e., the real Singularity is the last Singularity we will ever know.


We are All Futurists

Key to All Optical Illusions Discovered | LiveScience

Researcher Mark Changizi of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York says it starts with a neural lag that most everyone experiences while awake. When light hits your retina, about one-tenth of a second goes by before the brain translates the signal into a visual perception of the world. Scientists already knew about the lag, yet they have debated over exactly how we compensate, with one school of thought proposing our motor system somehow modifies our movements to offset the delay. Changizi now says it’s our visual system that has evolved to compensate for neural delays, generating images of what will occur one-tenth of a second into the future. That foresight keeps our view of the world in the present. It gives you enough heads up to catch a fly ball (instead of getting socked in the face) and maneuver smoothly through a crowd. His research on this topic is detailed in the May/June issue of the journal Cognitive Science.

It makes perfect sense for those of us who’ve done work compensating for lag in networked 3D worlds. To counter the lag, the client usually predicts the motion of key objects a small way into the future. Those predictions can be wrong, in which case you have to correct or suffer the consequences. Even in video compression codecs, we exploit these properties to reduce file size.

In our visual system, those consequences may be the misperception of relative size of objects or of motion in perfectly static images. In a virtual world, it could be an avatar being in the wrong place or popping. In video codecs, guessing wrong can be more easily corrected during encoding, but at the cost of more bits to store the same information .

But it’s amazingly cool, assuming it’s true, that our visual systems can predict the future position of every "pixel" we see and do it well enough that we rarely if ever notice. That may indeed be an important cue for machine vision systems to adopt — predict and notice when the algorithmic prediction is wrong.

Of course, as some people will point out, we’re not actually "seeing" the future. It’s only our own image of what is likely to happen next, which can be wrong (in the case of these illusions). But it’s equally true to say that we don’t actually "see" the present either — only our internally processed and highly synthetic memory of our environment, which in some ways, can be far more incorrect than any low-level extrapolation.

Town Removes Itself From Street View

North Oaks tells Google Maps: Keep out – we mean it

Well, it had to happen sometime, but this seems to be a first. The town of North Oaks, MN, has completely excised itself from Google’s commercial panopticon, at least at the street level. I’ve argued before that Street View can and should remove people, cars, and other transient objects, not only to protect privacy, but to permit more sophisticated use of the data beyond the basic "snapshot in time."

But North Oaks didn’t stop at cars and people. They didn’t even want their streets in Street View.

Like Barbara Streisand, they apparently don’t want their digs visible to outsiders. Someone might use that information to gawk at their greatness, which would be embarrassing, if not outright dangerous, when outsiders so covet what these fine folks have worked so hard to establish and keep away from them…

But unlike Streisand, North Oaks can actually do something about it — their roads are considered "privately owned" and their posted "No Trespassing" signs prohibit people from driving through (no gate, mind you) to take photographs.

The town, of course, can’t do anything about the aerial and satellite views. They haven’t privatized the airspace above the town, at least not yet.

But my questions is this: lots of towns and cities are incorporated, and that corporation technically owns the roads. What’s to stop any "public" entity from ruling that their streets are "private" and therefore off-limits, at least to non-tax-payers?

Some towns and cities have already tried to ban public photography (for security and/or copyright reasons, the latter of which invariably translates to the profit motive). Why wouldn’t all of the most elite and effete communities wish to bolster their internal self-image by removing themselves from public view, like Brigadoon, but under their own ultimate control?

Non-existence, oddly enough, is the ultimate status symbol.

Of course, someone might do well to inform this town that, like those mysterious and blatant zones of pixelation in Google Earth and Maps we keep talking about, it’s the missing information that draws the most scrutiny.

What are they hiding, we wonder? Why are so many stories being written about the mysteries of North Oaks — the town that wasn’t there?

Much better to hide out in plain sight, I believe. Or, if you really want to keep people out, then put up a friggin gate, and a guard, and pay the actual market price for your insulation from the rest of society.