SciBlogs

Archive June 2007

REVIEWS: THE OFFICIAL FREEVIEW RECEIVERS Peter Griffin Jun 28

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by Peter Griffin | from the New Zealand Herald

Digital satellite TV operator Freeview admits a “stuff-up” with its flagship brand of set-top boxes marred the service’s launch, but says the technical glitches are now behind it.

Freeview general manager Steve Browning said it was too early to give accurate Freeview sales figures and that a clear picture of usage patterns would not emerge until ratings company ACNielsen began collecting viewer-trend information for the platform.

Technical problems with one of the two Freeview-approved set-top boxes led to many having to be returned by customers, while other glitches were able to be fixed with an over-the-air software update from the Optus D1 satellite.

Browning said new channels, such as the family and 24-hour news channels in the works at TVNZ, would make the Freeview proposition more attractive. He had also been talking with radio-station operators who were struggling to find sufficient FM radio frequencies to expand their services and were considering Freeview as an alternative platform.

Despite issues with the Zinwell set-top box, Browning said it was the more popular of the two currently selling in stores. He put that down to the presence of an RF (radio frequency) connector on the back of the Zinwell box, which gives users the option of plugging it directly into the aerial socket on their TV sets.

However, most users are connecting their set-top boxes via AV (audio-visual) cables as they offer a better signal. AV connections are standard on all but the oldest of TV sets.

The Business Herald took a look at the two official digital set-top boxes on the market.

Hills Satellite Receiver

Price: $299

Herald rating: 7/10 What strikes you about the Hills set-top box is how small it is compared to its Zinwell rival.

The Hills receiver has a profile similar to that of the slim-line PlayStation 2 console and like the PS2 can be positioned vertically to save space. Hills uses a European Scart connection to link the receiver to the TV’s AV (audio-visual) inputs.

There are two Scart connections, one for the TV and one to feed the signal to a VCR or digital recorder. I’m not a big fan of Scart cables, but they seem to work fine here. Set-up was a breeze – I simply plugged the satellite lead coming from the wall into the Hills box, connected the Scart cable to my TV, plugged in the power cable and was away.

The Hills logo pops up on your TV screen when you first boot up the receiver and set the TV to an AV channel. An online menu then appears and asks you to set your geographical region.

Tuning of the channels is automatic. A screen showed me the signal strength of the satellite feed – virtually 100 per cent on the Hills bar graph. I exited the menu and was greeted by a crystal-clear TV One. The channels were listed in order, one through five, the latter being Maori TV and channel 20 reserved for V8 Supercar coverage.

A basic four-digit display on the front of the Hills box tells you what channel you are on. Button functionality on the receiver itself is minimal, with the remote control and electronic menu system favoured for adjusting settings.

The menu and eight-day electronic programming guide are simply laid out and straightforward to use.

While the Hills box does everything advertised well, it’s slightly lacking in the aesthetics department. The box is made of standard silver and white plastic, and the remote control has a gaudy, plastic feel to it.

Again, the comparison with the PS2 comes in handy. That is a device that with a DVD drive and computer processor, is much more sophisticated than the Hills receiver. Yet it looks much better and sells for $220.

At least you can tuck the Hills receiver away out of sight.

Zinwell Satellite Receiver

Price: $299

Herald rating: 5/10

The Zinwell receiver has a larger form factor than its Hills rival, although it performs almost the exact same set of functions.

The most obvious differences between the two are discovered when you look at the rear of the Zinwell box – it has more options when it comes to connectivity, notably the RF connector mentioned above. The presence of standard composite video and component connectors give you better options when it comes to cabling.

Again, set-up was simple. The menu screen asked me to set my region and then automatically found the channels for me.

That is where things started to go wrong: the Zinwell box failed to pick up channels 3 and 4. After repeating the process several times I gave up and rang Zinwell service agent Next Electronics. I was sent an email with instructions on how to manually tune the channels. However, following those instructions failed to produce anything.

“If you still cannot receive the missing channels, after manual tuning, then your antenna dish and LNB most likely needs professional alignment by an accredited installer,” an email from Next stated.

That was despite the Hills receiver and my Sky receiver, which connect to the same Optus D1 satellite, picking up all channels. It seems my Zinwell receiver hadn’t picked up the over-the-air software upgrade that was issued to fix the initial glitches with the box.

The Zinwell receiver does have the additional options of programmable timers and favourite channel lists.

But again, the box seems pricey for its basic functionality and the average quality of the hardware and remote. Hardware this common around the world should be cheaper and glitch-free right from the start.

REVIEWS: THE OFFICIAL FREEVIEW RECEIVERS Peter Griffin Jun 28

No Comments

by Peter Griffin | from the New Zealand Herald

Digital satellite TV operator Freeview admits a “stuff-up” with its flagship brand of set-top boxes marred the service’s launch, but says the technical glitches are now behind it.

Freeview general manager Steve Browning said it was too early to give accurate Freeview sales figures and that a clear picture of usage patterns would not emerge until ratings company ACNielsen began collecting viewer-trend information for the platform.

Technical problems with one of the two Freeview-approved set-top boxes led to many having to be returned by customers, while other glitches were able to be fixed with an over-the-air software update from the Optus D1 satellite.

Browning said new channels, such as the family and 24-hour news channels in the works at TVNZ, would make the Freeview proposition more attractive. He had also been talking with radio-station operators who were struggling to find sufficient FM radio frequencies to expand their services and were considering Freeview as an alternative platform.

Despite issues with the Zinwell set-top box, Browning said it was the more popular of the two currently selling in stores. He put that down to the presence of an RF (radio frequency) connector on the back of the Zinwell box, which gives users the option of plugging it directly into the aerial socket on their TV sets.

However, most users are connecting their set-top boxes via AV (audio-visual) cables as they offer a better signal. AV connections are standard on all but the oldest of TV sets.

The Business Herald took a look at the two official digital set-top boxes on the market.

Hills Satellite Receiver

Price: $299

Herald rating: 7/10 What strikes you about the Hills set-top box is how small it is compared to its Zinwell rival.

The Hills receiver has a profile similar to that of the slim-line PlayStation 2 console and like the PS2 can be positioned vertically to save space. Hills uses a European Scart connection to link the receiver to the TV’s AV (audio-visual) inputs.

There are two Scart connections, one for the TV and one to feed the signal to a VCR or digital recorder. I’m not a big fan of Scart cables, but they seem to work fine here. Set-up was a breeze – I simply plugged the satellite lead coming from the wall into the Hills box, connected the Scart cable to my TV, plugged in the power cable and was away.

The Hills logo pops up on your TV screen when you first boot up the receiver and set the TV to an AV channel. An online menu then appears and asks you to set your geographical region.

Tuning of the channels is automatic. A screen showed me the signal strength of the satellite feed – virtually 100 per cent on the Hills bar graph. I exited the menu and was greeted by a crystal-clear TV One. The channels were listed in order, one through five, the latter being Maori TV and channel 20 reserved for V8 Supercar coverage.

A basic four-digit display on the front of the Hills box tells you what channel you are on. Button functionality on the receiver itself is minimal, with the remote control and electronic menu system favoured for adjusting settings.

The menu and eight-day electronic programming guide are simply laid out and straightforward to use.

While the Hills box does everything advertised well, it’s slightly lacking in the aesthetics department. The box is made of standard silver and white plastic, and the remote control has a gaudy, plastic feel to it.

Again, the comparison with the PS2 comes in handy. That is a device that with a DVD drive and computer processor, is much more sophisticated than the Hills receiver. Yet it looks much better and sells for $220.

At least you can tuck the Hills receiver away out of sight.

Zinwell Satellite Receiver

Price: $299

Herald rating: 5/10

The Zinwell receiver has a larger form factor than its Hills rival, although it performs almost the exact same set of functions.

The most obvious differences between the two are discovered when you look at the rear of the Zinwell box – it has more options when it comes to connectivity, notably the RF connector mentioned above. The presence of standard composite video and component connectors give you better options when it comes to cabling.

Again, set-up was simple. The menu screen asked me to set my region and then automatically found the channels for me.

That is where things started to go wrong: the Zinwell box failed to pick up channels 3 and 4. After repeating the process several times I gave up and rang Zinwell service agent Next Electronics. I was sent an email with instructions on how to manually tune the channels. However, following those instructions failed to produce anything.

“If you still cannot receive the missing channels, after manual tuning, then your antenna dish and LNB most likely needs professional alignment by an accredited installer,” an email from Next stated.

That was despite the Hills receiver and my Sky receiver, which connect to the same Optus D1 satellite, picking up all channels. It seems my Zinwell receiver hadn’t picked up the over-the-air software upgrade that was issued to fix the initial glitches with the box.

The Zinwell receiver does have the additional options of programmable timers and favourite channel lists.

But again, the box seems pricey for its basic functionality and the average quality of the hardware and remote. Hardware this common around the world should be cheaper and glitch-free right from the start.

THE WEBSTOCK SPECIAL Peter Griffin Jun 25

No Comments


I didn’t get a chance to post these last week as I was tied up posting on another blog. Webstock Mini was a great event and credit to Natasha Hall and the others on the team who continue to put on some worthwhile internet events in Wellington.

The new Internet: All fizz and no substance?

by Peter Griffin | from New Zealand Herald

It was with great anticipation that I settled into a seat at the Paramount Theatre in Wellington this week to listen to a bunch of internet experts debate a very live topic – whether the new wave of websites gathered under the Web 2.0 banner is “all fizz and no substance”.

The debate could have gone anywhere and indeed it ranged widely.

“People just aren’t that technology savvy,” argued Radio New Zealand producer and head of the “fizz” team, Mark Cubey.

“Second Life? It’s that versus House on a Tuesday night. Yeah, Second Life just doesn’t have the dialogue. We’re talking about stuff that is real and you can’t tell me Web 2.0 is real,” he concluded.

Cubey’s opponent, Philip Fierlinger, a former dotcom entrepreneur and now developer at accounting software maker Xero, said the money paid for Web 2.0 ventures such as MySpace and YouTube, spoke for itself – essentially, there was substance where there was money.

“Is US$500 million [$658 million] substantial? Is US$1.5 billion substantial?” he asked.

Austrian database architect Sandy Mamoli cleverly worked away at Web 2.0′s biggest weakness – its ability to create online worlds for its users that are detached from reality.

“We don’t share our tacky tastes or our boring personalities,” she said.

“Web 2.0 creates a huge gap between the online persona and who we really are. Web 2.0 makes it much easier to be fake.”

Brenda Leeuwenberg, online producer at NZ On Air, saw it differently.

“Sometimes there are moments of pure joy in what people put out there on the web,” she said. They are both, of course, quite right.

Web developer Mike Brown sees the rise of Web 2.0 as a giant conspiracy to advance the cause of the letter “R”, which indeed defines a fair number of Web 2.0 website names – Twitter and Flickr being just two on Brown’s list. “You might think it’s just a case of letter jealousy, but R wants to be an A-lister,” said Brown.

And so the arguments bounced backwards and forwards for an hour or so mirroring the global debate about the value of Web 2.0 services and intensifying as web sceptics hone their argument.

The anti-Web 2.0 arguments have perhaps been best articulated by the British web entrepreneur and author Andrew Keen who in his new book The Cult of the Amateur suggests that the proliferation of user-generated content that’s central to the Web 2.0 way of doing things is killing culture.

Others are saying similar things. Take US technology commentator John C. Dvorak’s dismissive take on the newest of the Web 2.0 players Twitter, a “micro-blogging” service that allows you to post short updates during a day to keep everyone abreast of your activities – no matter how mundane. Dvorak sees no substance in that, other than to provide a record for the sociologists of the future.

“All of these sorts of networks should provide a trove of insights into society – if the entire system is archived and turned over to the sociology departments of some major universities,” he wrote recently in a PC Magazine column about Twitter.

“I’m afraid that the people who implement stuff like this never think in these terms.”

Dvorak admits he was also dismissive of podcasting and blogging when they were introduced yet he himself has since become a podcaster and a blogger.

Which just goes to show how hard it is to pick where the Web 2.0 movement will lead us.

For the record, the team pushing the argument that there really is substance in Web 2.0 won the Webstock debate by a slim majority. That wasn’t surprising given Webstock’s audience, which text messaged in votes for the teams and was filled with web developers.

There are 140 web development companies in Wellington alone. The industry has rapidly geared up for the local impact of this new phase of internet development. There’s plenty of fizz on the local scene in everything from online retailing to insurance, but there’s also a fair bit of money floating around.

I think the debate came out how it should have, despite the “fizzers” presenting a more compelling and humorous argument than those with substance.

Above all the inane chatter on Twitter, the annoying music blaring at you from MySpace pages and the flying penises in Second Life, there’s something powerful going on in these new web communities.

Whether they will all live on remains a moot point, but one thing is for sure, the new makeup of the internet is seriously changing our approach to information use and social interaction. Whatever price you put on that, such transformation in a few short years has been nothing but substantial.

On The Web
www.myspace.com
www.secondlife.com
www.twitter.com
www.webstock.org.nz

Virtual beers with Darth Vader

by Peter Griffin | from New Zealand Herald

It’s the place where virtual friendships are made and digital real estate is bought and sold, but educators say the fast-growing Second Life community is also a powerful tool for collaborative learning.

On first appearances it doesn’t seem very productive: a group of digital avatars – the online creations of real people – sit around a campfire in a pleasant park, chatting away.

“This experience can be a lot of fun,” says Leigh Blackall, an education development manager for Otago Polytechnic.

“We drink around the campfire and the beers are programmed to make us tipsy.”

Blackall conducted a Second Life meeting of education professionals from around the world during his speech to the Webstock internet conference in Wellington on Tuesday, and says that such virtual meetings could be the future of long-distance learning.

“It wasn’t until I had my first encounter with a purpose in Second Life, like a meeting, that I realised what it’s all about. There are a lot of people in education trying to get into this.”

build their own world is seen by networked learning experts like Blackall as an ideal forum for students to collaborate and share ideas.

Its potential has already been recognised by Second Life’s creators, Linden Lab, who have set up Campus: Second Life, which allows a free grant of land in the virtual Second Life world to an educational organisation for the duration of a semester.

Discounted land plots are also on offer for schools and universities – something of tangible value in a world where an island will set you back US$1600 and US$100 a month in upkeep.

Whole islands can be bought by educational institutions where entry is restricted to their real-life students.

Educational professionals collaborate on a Second Life wiki – a type of online database – to standardise virtual education tools.

Blackall says the potential for development of educational resources in Second Life is huge, but that the tightly funded education sector is hesitant to invest in the online community, which has 7.2 million members and can turn over the equivalent of US$1 million a day in virtual currency.

“So far, no takers,” he says ofprojects he has suggested. “It’s quite difficult to get things going in education.”

Blackall says the real-time aspect of Second Life makes it “bandwidth hungry” and suitable only for high-speed internet connections. But Second Life is becoming increasingly sophisticated – he is particularly looking forward to Second Life users being able to display websites within the online environment.

Students could, for example, sit in a virtual meeting collectively editing a wiki document.

COMMENTS:

Hi Peter,
Wanted to thank you for your article on Leigh Blackall’s Second Life presentation and also to let you know that there is already a small but thriving NZ education community in Second Life.
Here at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT) in Nelson, we are investing in an island in Second Life to explore its potential for enhancing our students learning.
In fact NMIT already has a presence in Second Life – we have been renting space on EduIsland alongside places such as the University of Cincinatti and Universtiy of Hawaii! Our space is called the NMIT Garden of Learning, and apart from being a space for some of my students to explore Second Life, it is also the venue for the informal meeting of the Kiwi Educators group at 2pm (NZ time) every Sunday afternoon.
If you are interested there is more information on our Second Life Interest Group website (www.nmit.ac.nz/research/2ndlife) and also at https://eduforge.org/blog/blog.php?/categories/140-NZ-Education-in-a-Virtual-World which is run by Aaron Griffiths.
We are now planning several projects which will be undertaken once the island is operational and have received some funding from the government’s e-Capability Fund to help us get going! The exploration of NZ education in a virtual world is very definitely underway.
Many thanks

Dr Clare Atkins
School of Business and Computer Technology
NMIT

The Kiwi Firefox connection

by Peter Griffin | from Griffin’s Tech Blog Herald Online

Aucklander Robert O’Callahan, who as a contractor to the Mozilla Corporation has been working on some of the new features that will be built into the upcoming Firefox 3.0 web browser, gave an interesting Webstock presentation on where browser development is going.

O’Callahan demoed some new Firefox features, such as the updated Gecko rendering engine and offline web browsing functionality that will be available in Firefox 3.0, but he used the bulk of his presentation to explain the philosophy around open source web development.

O’Callahan seems wary of the growing focus in web content development on Adobe’s Flash player. That’s because Flash and its new rival, Microsoft-developed Silverlight, operate on a different model to the web tools the open source community comes up with. They’re essentially privately owned and controlled.

“We want to avoid people getting a monopoly on web clients. If you can control who can render web content, you control the platform,” says O’Callahan, who has contributed to Mozilla since 1999.

He believes there’s plenty of life left in HTML, the standard language of the web and that focus should be put on fixing the bugs in existing web pages and doing smarter things with HTML than trying to “supercede the web with shiny new design”.

“You can add things to HTML that are harder to do if you don’t control the platform,” he added.

O’Callahan believes the dominant browser vendor, Microsoft “isn’t so interested in the web at the moment “.

“We have to unseat their dominance and gain market share with browsers interested in pursuing our mission,” says O’Callahan.

The mission of course is to keep development of the web open so that no one company or technology can control its evolution. O’Callahan seems pretty ambivalent about Apple’s move to release its Safari web browser for Windows computers.

“We’d like Safari to take all of Internet Explorer’s market share and none of ours,” he says.

“I wouldn’t trust Apple any more than Microsoft necessarily if they got the monopoly.”

O’Callahan said developing open source alternatives to more sophisticated web tools was essential to keep browsers like Firefox competitive. One set of functionality that’s viewed as being particularly important is offline browser capability.

The idea is that when you type a URL into the web address bar when you’re not connected to the internet, the browser will search local storage for a cached copy of the page and allow a certain amount of functionality and data back-up. When you go back online, the local version of the application syncs with the version stored on the web and updates it.

“It’s similar to cookies, but with more grunt and more storage,” says O’Callahan. Google has developed similar technology to allow its applications to be used offline with the open source development tools, Google Gears.

New Zealand’s association with the Firefox browser, which has rapidly gained market share at the expense of Microsoft’s dominant internet Explore browser, is very strong. Ben Goodger, a lead Firefox developer who also works for Google is a kiwi and O’Callahan said there are three paid Firefox developers based in Auckland, with scope for the team to be expanded if people with the right skills can be found.

O’Callahan’s blog can be found here.

COMMENTS

Barnacle
You might want to check out Robert’s presentation at the Auckland Web Meetup. He covers the offline stuff, new video formats and font rendering in FF 3. It can be found here – http://www.meetup.co.nz/2007/06/21/video-june-meetup-robert-ocallahan-

(MANNED) MISSION TO MARS Peter Griffin Jun 25

No Comments

by Peter Griffin | from the Herald on Sunday

Photos courtesy of my friend Ellie who visited Nasa in 2003 and got up close and personal with the Mars Rover!

It has to be one of the more unusual job descriptions ever advertised: spend 18 months locked in a metal tank with five other people, eating vacuum-packed food, with only radio contact with the outside world.

But that’s exactly what the European Space Agency is looking for people to do, and it’s all in the name of space exploration.

The agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems want to simulate a manned mission to Mars, including the 520-day trip to and from the Red Planet, the landing of a space craft and the scientific testing such a trip would involve.

Why undertake such a time-consuming experiment? Because space agencies have their hearts set on landing people on Mars. As the ESA explains: “To go to Mars is still a dream and one of the last gigantic challenges. But one day, some of us will be on precisely that journey to the Red Planet.”

To give any such mission a chance of succeeding, it needs to be simulated first, in part to determine whether astronauts would be able to psychologically cope with being cooped up together for such an extended time.

The agency admits the whole thing has the feel of a reality TV show. I could imagine it turning into one massive episode of Big Brother, with bed-hopping astronauts, territorial arguments and emotional meltdowns.

But the agency says the volunteers on the simulated mission will be kept busy carrying out the activities Mars-bound astronauts would be given. So it wants candidates with scientific, engineering and medical backgrounds.

The six participants will live in a series of metal compartments about 200sq m in size – roughly the space of four studio apartments stuck together. There will be living quarters, a kitchen, a research area and medical room. They’ll be able to talk to the equivalent of ground control and presumably their families, but once the hatch is closed and the astronauts start their journey, they will be on their own, having to fend for themselves if anything goes wrong.

The experiment could produce a treasure trove of information for psychologists and the agency is working out what scientific tests it will carry out on the participants.

Key will be exploring the group dynamic that develops, the effects of the confinement on things like sleep, mood and the ability to perform complicated tasks. The agency also plans to look at medical procedures that could be performed.

As the months pass, scientists will no doubt be peering into the tanks via closed-circuit TV cameras, to scrutinise everything that goes on.

Mars is about 1 1/2 times as far from the Sun as the Earth is, though the distance between the two planets fluctuates wildly from around 56 million kilometres in 2003, when they were at their closest in tens of thousands of years to 380 million kilometres at their farthest apart.

As epic as any manned trip to Mars will be, many countries – the US, China, and the members of the European Space Agency included – are investigating the potential.

There have been several unmanned trips and another will begin in early August when the US$414 million ($542 million) Phoenix Mars Lander will be launched. Phoenix will land on the northern Martian plains, on top of ancient fields of ice which lie below the planet’s surface. The plan is for Phoenix to scoop up some ice and analyse it, beaming the results back to Earth.

As much as the Mars Rover’s exploits on the Red Planet caught the world’s attention, that will be nothing compared with the buzz a manned mission would generate. So who wants to be the first Kiwi to pretend to go to Mars? The hyperactive and claustrophobic need not apply.

A few robotic Mars discovery vehicles from the Nasa colection. Remember when Rover’s wheel got stuck on a rock? Easy to dislodge on the floor at Nasa, not so easy when you’re using a joystick to control a robot that’s tens of millions of kilometres away…

THE WEBSTOCK SPECIAL Peter Griffin Jun 25

No Comments


I didn’t get a chance to post these last week as I was tied up posting on another blog. Webstock Mini was a great event and credit to Natasha Hall and the others on the team who continue to put on some worthwhile internet events in Wellington.

The new Internet: All fizz and no substance?

by Peter Griffin | from New Zealand Herald

It was with great anticipation that I settled into a seat at the Paramount Theatre in Wellington this week to listen to a bunch of internet experts debate a very live topic – whether the new wave of websites gathered under the Web 2.0 banner is “all fizz and no substance”.

The debate could have gone anywhere and indeed it ranged widely.

“People just aren’t that technology savvy,” argued Radio New Zealand producer and head of the “fizz” team, Mark Cubey.

“Second Life? It’s that versus House on a Tuesday night. Yeah, Second Life just doesn’t have the dialogue. We’re talking about stuff that is real and you can’t tell me Web 2.0 is real,” he concluded.

Cubey’s opponent, Philip Fierlinger, a former dotcom entrepreneur and now developer at accounting software maker Xero, said the money paid for Web 2.0 ventures such as MySpace and YouTube, spoke for itself – essentially, there was substance where there was money.

“Is US$500 million [$658 million] substantial? Is US$1.5 billion substantial?” he asked.

Austrian database architect Sandy Mamoli cleverly worked away at Web 2.0′s biggest weakness – its ability to create online worlds for its users that are detached from reality.

“We don’t share our tacky tastes or our boring personalities,” she said.

“Web 2.0 creates a huge gap between the online persona and who we really are. Web 2.0 makes it much easier to be fake.”

Brenda Leeuwenberg, online producer at NZ On Air, saw it differently.

“Sometimes there are moments of pure joy in what people put out there on the web,” she said. They are both, of course, quite right.

Web developer Mike Brown sees the rise of Web 2.0 as a giant conspiracy to advance the cause of the letter “R”, which indeed defines a fair number of Web 2.0 website names – Twitter and Flickr being just two on Brown’s list. “You might think it’s just a case of letter jealousy, but R wants to be an A-lister,” said Brown.

And so the arguments bounced backwards and forwards for an hour or so mirroring the global debate about the value of Web 2.0 services and intensifying as web sceptics hone their argument.

The anti-Web 2.0 arguments have perhaps been best articulated by the British web entrepreneur and author Andrew Keen who in his new book The Cult of the Amateur suggests that the proliferation of user-generated content that’s central to the Web 2.0 way of doing things is killing culture.

Others are saying similar things. Take US technology commentator John C. Dvorak’s dismissive take on the newest of the Web 2.0 players Twitter, a “micro-blogging” service that allows you to post short updates during a day to keep everyone abreast of your activities – no matter how mundane. Dvorak sees no substance in that, other than to provide a record for the sociologists of the future.

“All of these sorts of networks should provide a trove of insights into society – if the entire system is archived and turned over to the sociology departments of some major universities,” he wrote recently in a PC Magazine column about Twitter.

“I’m afraid that the people who implement stuff like this never think in these terms.”

Dvorak admits he was also dismissive of podcasting and blogging when they were introduced yet he himself has since become a podcaster and a blogger.

Which just goes to show how hard it is to pick where the Web 2.0 movement will lead us.

For the record, the team pushing the argument that there really is substance in Web 2.0 won the Webstock debate by a slim majority. That wasn’t surprising given Webstock’s audience, which text messaged in votes for the teams and was filled with web developers.

There are 140 web development companies in Wellington alone. The industry has rapidly geared up for the local impact of this new phase of internet development. There’s plenty of fizz on the local scene in everything from online retailing to insurance, but there’s also a fair bit of money floating around.

I think the debate came out how it should have, despite the “fizzers” presenting a more compelling and humorous argument than those with substance.

Above all the inane chatter on Twitter, the annoying music blaring at you from MySpace pages and the flying penises in Second Life, there’s something powerful going on in these new web communities.

Whether they will all live on remains a moot point, but one thing is for sure, the new makeup of the internet is seriously changing our approach to information use and social interaction. Whatever price you put on that, such transformation in a few short years has been nothing but substantial.

On The Web
www.myspace.com
www.secondlife.com
www.twitter.com
www.webstock.org.nz

Virtual beers with Darth Vader

by Peter Griffin | from New Zealand Herald

It’s the place where virtual friendships are made and digital real estate is bought and sold, but educators say the fast-growing Second Life community is also a powerful tool for collaborative learning.

On first appearances it doesn’t seem very productive: a group of digital avatars – the online creations of real people – sit around a campfire in a pleasant park, chatting away.

“This experience can be a lot of fun,” says Leigh Blackall, an education development manager for Otago Polytechnic.

“We drink around the campfire and the beers are programmed to make us tipsy.”

Blackall conducted a Second Life meeting of education professionals from around the world during his speech to the Webstock internet conference in Wellington on Tuesday, and says that such virtual meetings could be the future of long-distance learning.

“It wasn’t until I had my first encounter with a purpose in Second Life, like a meeting, that I realised what it’s all about. There are a lot of people in education trying to get into this.”

build their own world is seen by networked learning experts like Blackall as an ideal forum for students to collaborate and share ideas.

Its potential has already been recognised by Second Life’s creators, Linden Lab, who have set up Campus: Second Life, which allows a free grant of land in the virtual Second Life world to an educational organisation for the duration of a semester.

Discounted land plots are also on offer for schools and universities – something of tangible value in a world where an island will set you back US$1600 and US$100 a month in upkeep.

Whole islands can be bought by educational institutions where entry is restricted to their real-life students.

Educational professionals collaborate on a Second Life wiki – a type of online database – to standardise virtual education tools.

Blackall says the potential for development of educational resources in Second Life is huge, but that the tightly funded education sector is hesitant to invest in the online community, which has 7.2 million members and can turn over the equivalent of US$1 million a day in virtual currency.

“So far, no takers,” he says ofprojects he has suggested. “It’s quite difficult to get things going in education.”

Blackall says the real-time aspect of Second Life makes it “bandwidth hungry” and suitable only for high-speed internet connections. But Second Life is becoming increasingly sophisticated – he is particularly looking forward to Second Life users being able to display websites within the online environment.

Students could, for example, sit in a virtual meeting collectively editing a wiki document.

COMMENTS:

Hi Peter,
Wanted to thank you for your article on Leigh Blackall’s Second Life presentation and also to let you know that there is already a small but thriving NZ education community in Second Life.
Here at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT) in Nelson, we are investing in an island in Second Life to explore its potential for enhancing our students learning.
In fact NMIT already has a presence in Second Life – we have been renting space on EduIsland alongside places such as the University of Cincinatti and Universtiy of Hawaii! Our space is called the NMIT Garden of Learning, and apart from being a space for some of my students to explore Second Life, it is also the venue for the informal meeting of the Kiwi Educators group at 2pm (NZ time) every Sunday afternoon.
If you are interested there is more information on our Second Life Interest Group website (www.nmit.ac.nz/research/2ndlife) and also at https://eduforge.org/blog/blog.php?/categories/140-NZ-Education-in-a-Virtual-World which is run by Aaron Griffiths.
We are now planning several projects which will be undertaken once the island is operational and have received some funding from the government’s e-Capability Fund to help us get going! The exploration of NZ education in a virtual world is very definitely underway.
Many thanks

Dr Clare Atkins
School of Business and Computer Technology
NMIT

The Kiwi Firefox connection

by Peter Griffin | from Griffin’s Tech Blog Herald Online

Aucklander Robert O’Callahan, who as a contractor to the Mozilla Corporation has been working on some of the new features that will be built into the upcoming Firefox 3.0 web browser, gave an interesting Webstock presentation on where browser development is going.

O’Callahan demoed some new Firefox features, such as the updated Gecko rendering engine and offline web browsing functionality that will be available in Firefox 3.0, but he used the bulk of his presentation to explain the philosophy around open source web development.

O’Callahan seems wary of the growing focus in web content development on Adobe’s Flash player. That’s because Flash and its new rival, Microsoft-developed Silverlight, operate on a different model to the web tools the open source community comes up with. They’re essentially privately owned and controlled.

“We want to avoid people getting a monopoly on web clients. If you can control who can render web content, you control the platform,” says O’Callahan, who has contributed to Mozilla since 1999.

He believes there’s plenty of life left in HTML, the standard language of the web and that focus should be put on fixing the bugs in existing web pages and doing smarter things with HTML than trying to “supercede the web with shiny new design”.

“You can add things to HTML that are harder to do if you don’t control the platform,” he added.

O’Callahan believes the dominant browser vendor, Microsoft “isn’t so interested in the web at the moment “.

“We have to unseat their dominance and gain market share with browsers interested in pursuing our mission,” says O’Callahan.

The mission of course is to keep development of the web open so that no one company or technology can control its evolution. O’Callahan seems pretty ambivalent about Apple’s move to release its Safari web browser for Windows computers.

“We’d like Safari to take all of Internet Explorer’s market share and none of ours,” he says.

“I wouldn’t trust Apple any more than Microsoft necessarily if they got the monopoly.”

O’Callahan said developing open source alternatives to more sophisticated web tools was essential to keep browsers like Firefox competitive. One set of functionality that’s viewed as being particularly important is offline browser capability.

The idea is that when you type a URL into the web address bar when you’re not connected to the internet, the browser will search local storage for a cached copy of the page and allow a certain amount of functionality and data back-up. When you go back online, the local version of the application syncs with the version stored on the web and updates it.

“It’s similar to cookies, but with more grunt and more storage,” says O’Callahan. Google has developed similar technology to allow its applications to be used offline with the open source development tools, Google Gears.

New Zealand’s association with the Firefox browser, which has rapidly gained market share at the expense of Microsoft’s dominant internet Explore browser, is very strong. Ben Goodger, a lead Firefox developer who also works for Google is a kiwi and O’Callahan said there are three paid Firefox developers based in Auckland, with scope for the team to be expanded if people with the right skills can be found.

O’Callahan’s blog can be found here.

COMMENTS

Barnacle
You might want to check out Robert’s presentation at the Auckland Web Meetup. He covers the offline stuff, new video formats and font rendering in FF 3. It can be found here – http://www.meetup.co.nz/2007/06/21/video-june-meetup-robert-ocallahan-

(MANNED) MISSION TO MARS Peter Griffin Jun 25

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by Peter Griffin | from the Herald on Sunday

Photos courtesy of my friend Ellie who visited Nasa in 2003 and got up close and personal with the Mars Rover!

It has to be one of the more unusual job descriptions ever advertised: spend 18 months locked in a metal tank with five other people, eating vacuum-packed food, with only radio contact with the outside world.

But that’s exactly what the European Space Agency is looking for people to do, and it’s all in the name of space exploration.

The agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems want to simulate a manned mission to Mars, including the 520-day trip to and from the Red Planet, the landing of a space craft and the scientific testing such a trip would involve.

Why undertake such a time-consuming experiment? Because space agencies have their hearts set on landing people on Mars. As the ESA explains: “To go to Mars is still a dream and one of the last gigantic challenges. But one day, some of us will be on precisely that journey to the Red Planet.”

To give any such mission a chance of succeeding, it needs to be simulated first, in part to determine whether astronauts would be able to psychologically cope with being cooped up together for such an extended time.

The agency admits the whole thing has the feel of a reality TV show. I could imagine it turning into one massive episode of Big Brother, with bed-hopping astronauts, territorial arguments and emotional meltdowns.

But the agency says the volunteers on the simulated mission will be kept busy carrying out the activities Mars-bound astronauts would be given. So it wants candidates with scientific, engineering and medical backgrounds.

The six participants will live in a series of metal compartments about 200sq m in size – roughly the space of four studio apartments stuck together. There will be living quarters, a kitchen, a research area and medical room. They’ll be able to talk to the equivalent of ground control and presumably their families, but once the hatch is closed and the astronauts start their journey, they will be on their own, having to fend for themselves if anything goes wrong.

The experiment could produce a treasure trove of information for psychologists and the agency is working out what scientific tests it will carry out on the participants.

Key will be exploring the group dynamic that develops, the effects of the confinement on things like sleep, mood and the ability to perform complicated tasks. The agency also plans to look at medical procedures that could be performed.

As the months pass, scientists will no doubt be peering into the tanks via closed-circuit TV cameras, to scrutinise everything that goes on.

Mars is about 1 1/2 times as far from the Sun as the Earth is, though the distance between the two planets fluctuates wildly from around 56 million kilometres in 2003, when they were at their closest in tens of thousands of years to 380 million kilometres at their farthest apart.

As epic as any manned trip to Mars will be, many countries – the US, China, and the members of the European Space Agency included – are investigating the potential.

There have been several unmanned trips and another will begin in early August when the US$414 million ($542 million) Phoenix Mars Lander will be launched. Phoenix will land on the northern Martian plains, on top of ancient fields of ice which lie below the planet’s surface. The plan is for Phoenix to scoop up some ice and analyse it, beaming the results back to Earth.

As much as the Mars Rover’s exploits on the Red Planet caught the world’s attention, that will be nothing compared with the buzz a manned mission would generate. So who wants to be the first Kiwi to pretend to go to Mars? The hyperactive and claustrophobic need not apply.

A few robotic Mars discovery vehicles from the Nasa colection. Remember when Rover’s wheel got stuck on a rock? Easy to dislodge on the floor at Nasa, not so easy when you’re using a joystick to control a robot that’s tens of millions of kilometres away…

THE PROBLEM WITH "P" Peter Griffin Jun 24

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The stories in the Sunday papers about Millie Holmes’ problems with pure methamphetamine reminded me of Cyan Sunday, a feature screenplay I wrote very quickly a couple of years ago. The story is about an intelligent young woman, Charlotte White, who is also a very good P cook who has created a lucrative little business in Auckland supplying the gangs with high grade merchandise for their street drug trade.

Charlotte likes to deal to her favour customers from the rear pew of St. Patrick’s and when leaving church one Sunday she is knocked unconscious and kidnapped by Thomas Schumacher and his colleague Keith. The two are middle aged bankers whose children’s lives have been ruined by the P Charlotte sells. Frustrated at the pace of the police investigation into Charlotte’s activities, Schumacher decides to take matters into his own hands leading to the following scene…

INT. SCHUMACKER’S GARAGE — MORNING
The garage door closes behind Thomas’ car. He and Keith climb out and slide Charlotte across the backseat. She is limp within their arms but begins to revive and fight.

THOMAS
Get the chain and lock!

He holds Charlotte while Keith grabs a chain off a workbench that runs the length of one side of the garage. Thomas slaps Charlotte across the face twice and she stops struggling. He drags her to a steel chair that sits with its back hard against a boat trailer which holds a large red speed boat. Taking her arms he holds them together behind the chair while Keith wraps the chain tightly around them and loops the chain through the safety latch of the trailer.
Charlotte looks up at Thomas groggily. He leans against the workbench tired form the exertion. He points at her.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
There she is. Doesn’t look like a drug baron
does she? With a broken nose, chained up. It’s
not like the movies. No henchmen, no weapons?

He flicks a look at Keith who pants away wearing a Balaclava.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
You did check her for weapons?

MR GREY
I checked, just a mobile phone and
some keys.

A shot of the phone and keys sitting on the workbench.

THOMAS
Good.

The three of them regard each other. Charlotte spits onto the garage floor. The spit is red, laced with blood.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Be my guest. And scream away if you want.
We’re pretty private here.

CHARLOTTE
(clears her throat)
What is this, you want me to cook for you?

Thomas bursts out with forced laughter. Keith joins him from behind his mask. The laughter carries on, echoing in the garage. Charlotte studies the two men and looks around the garage. A series of shots with the men’s laughter over the top: Tubs of paint on a shelf, a ride-on lawn mower parked in the corner, fishing rods hung from the rafters of the garage.

THOMAS
I think you’ve done enough of that for one
career, madam. Think of this as the Spanish
Inquisition but it doesn’t matter if you truly
do believe in God, which you obviously do
because you deal drugs in church!

Schumacher breaks out laughing again. Charlotte scans the room, looking for an out. A shot of her hands exploring the chain and the safety latch of the boat trailer.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
No, this is a confessional in which you are
going to tell us every detail of your operation,
who supplies you with the cold pills, where
you make it and how your dealer network
functions. Understand?

CHARLOTTE
You’re wasting your time, I’m just a dealer, I
get given the stuff and sell it on the streets, I
don’t know whose above or below me.

THOMAS
Bullshit! We’ve been watching you for weeks.
You’re not some curb-crawling drug pusher.
You’re a major player in Auckland, below the
radar. Till now.

Thomas walks up to Charlotte and looks down at her.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Now the game is over. It’s confession time
and you better not leave out any details.

CHARLOTTE
Or what?

THOMAS
Or what? Or what?

Thomas goes back to the workbench and opens a drawer full of tools. He begins taking them out and placing them on the table during the next piece of his dialogue.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Well it’s your industry Miss White, you
know what the thugs running it are capable of.
What was that I read in the paper the other
day?

He slams down a hammer on the workbench.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
About that guy working for the Head Hunters?
He was stealing from the gang apparently,
skimming off his own cut of the merchandise
and selling it. Under the table, so to speak. They
cut his head off. A farmer found it in his sewage
pond. They never found the rest of him! Identified
him by his crowns!

He takes a long MACHETE out of the drawer and holds it up for Charlotte to see.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
I can’t claim to be an expert in the use of this thing,
but I’ll give it a go.

He throws the machete on the workbench and nods to Keith. They walk towards Charlotte who retracts against the boat trailer. Schumacher produces a tape recorder, presses the record button and balances it on the speed boat.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Who supplies you with the pills?

Silence from Charlotte. Thomas produces a smaller knife from his pocket and points it at Charlotte.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
(irritated)
I’m serious, you mess around and I’ll cut
flesh, I swear I will. Where are the pills
coming from!

Silence from Charlotte who sits defiantly. Thomas looks at her annoyed, trying to look staunch. Then he nods to Keith and they walk into the corridor leading to the garage, out of view of Charlotte.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
(whispered)
The bitch is going to be difficult.

He paces around the plush corridor – designer lights, expensive tiles and artwork on the walls.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
I was serious when I said I was prepared to
hurt her, to make her talk.

KEITH
Hurt her? How much?

THOMAS
It depends how difficult she is. I can’t say
she’s got off to a great start. I’m going to ask
her about the source again and if she doesn’t
talk I’m going to cut her?

KEITH
Cut her? You could kill her?

THOMAS
I’m not going to kill her, just a flesh wound. I’m
not going to stab her!

Keith is sweating profusely. He wipes his face with a handkerchief.

KEITH
You could hit an artery or something. What then?
We turn up at the hospital with some girl bleeding to
death? How do we explain that?

THOMAS
I’ll cut her on the ear, cut a piece out of her ear. See
how she handles that.

KEITH
Are you serious?

INT. SCHUMACHER’S GARAGE — MORNING

Charlotte is sitting on the steel chair, the blood drying on her face. She strains to hear the conversation in the hallway and can make out the gist of it. She runs her fingers over a NUT on the trailer’s safety latch, worrying it.

INT. SCHUMACHER’S HALLWAY — MORNING

THOMAS
(angry)

I’m dead serious. What the hell are we doing here? I’m completely serious. I’m not going to cut her ear off I’m going to stick the end of this knife into her eye ball!
He goes to go back into the garage, worked up. Keith grabs him and pulls him back.

KEITH
Wait, wait. Calm down. Okay? Cut her
on the face, away from her neck. If she
doesn’t talk!

They look gravely at each other. Thomas nods resolutely and looks at the knife. Keith puts his Balaclava back on. They walk out of screen and we hold on a thermometer on the wall of the garage. The temperature is 32 degrees.

THE PROBLEM WITH "P" Peter Griffin Jun 24

No Comments

The stories in the Sunday papers about Millie Holmes’ problems with pure methamphetamine reminded me of Cyan Sunday, a feature screenplay I wrote very quickly a couple of years ago. The story is about an intelligent young woman, Charlotte White, who is also a very good P cook who has created a lucrative little business in Auckland supplying the gangs with high grade merchandise for their street drug trade.

Charlotte likes to deal to her favour customers from the rear pew of St. Patrick’s and when leaving church one Sunday she is knocked unconscious and kidnapped by Thomas Schumacher and his colleague Keith. The two are middle aged bankers whose children’s lives have been ruined by the P Charlotte sells. Frustrated at the pace of the police investigation into Charlotte’s activities, Schumacher decides to take matters into his own hands leading to the following scene…

INT. SCHUMACKER’S GARAGE — MORNING
The garage door closes behind Thomas’ car. He and Keith climb out and slide Charlotte across the backseat. She is limp within their arms but begins to revive and fight.

THOMAS
Get the chain and lock!

He holds Charlotte while Keith grabs a chain off a workbench that runs the length of one side of the garage. Thomas slaps Charlotte across the face twice and she stops struggling. He drags her to a steel chair that sits with its back hard against a boat trailer which holds a large red speed boat. Taking her arms he holds them together behind the chair while Keith wraps the chain tightly around them and loops the chain through the safety latch of the trailer.
Charlotte looks up at Thomas groggily. He leans against the workbench tired form the exertion. He points at her.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
There she is. Doesn’t look like a drug baron
does she? With a broken nose, chained up. It’s
not like the movies. No henchmen, no weapons?

He flicks a look at Keith who pants away wearing a Balaclava.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
You did check her for weapons?

MR GREY
I checked, just a mobile phone and
some keys.

A shot of the phone and keys sitting on the workbench.

THOMAS
Good.

The three of them regard each other. Charlotte spits onto the garage floor. The spit is red, laced with blood.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Be my guest. And scream away if you want.
We’re pretty private here.

CHARLOTTE
(clears her throat)
What is this, you want me to cook for you?

Thomas bursts out with forced laughter. Keith joins him from behind his mask. The laughter carries on, echoing in the garage. Charlotte studies the two men and looks around the garage. A series of shots with the men’s laughter over the top: Tubs of paint on a shelf, a ride-on lawn mower parked in the corner, fishing rods hung from the rafters of the garage.

THOMAS
I think you’ve done enough of that for one
career, madam. Think of this as the Spanish
Inquisition but it doesn’t matter if you truly
do believe in God, which you obviously do
because you deal drugs in church!

Schumacher breaks out laughing again. Charlotte scans the room, looking for an out. A shot of her hands exploring the chain and the safety latch of the boat trailer.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
No, this is a confessional in which you are
going to tell us every detail of your operation,
who supplies you with the cold pills, where
you make it and how your dealer network
functions. Understand?

CHARLOTTE
You’re wasting your time, I’m just a dealer, I
get given the stuff and sell it on the streets, I
don’t know whose above or below me.

THOMAS
Bullshit! We’ve been watching you for weeks.
You’re not some curb-crawling drug pusher.
You’re a major player in Auckland, below the
radar. Till now.

Thomas walks up to Charlotte and looks down at her.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Now the game is over. It’s confession time
and you better not leave out any details.

CHARLOTTE
Or what?

THOMAS
Or what? Or what?

Thomas goes back to the workbench and opens a drawer full of tools. He begins taking them out and placing them on the table during the next piece of his dialogue.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Well it’s your industry Miss White, you
know what the thugs running it are capable of.
What was that I read in the paper the other
day?

He slams down a hammer on the workbench.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
About that guy working for the Head Hunters?
He was stealing from the gang apparently,
skimming off his own cut of the merchandise
and selling it. Under the table, so to speak. They
cut his head off. A farmer found it in his sewage
pond. They never found the rest of him! Identified
him by his crowns!

He takes a long MACHETE out of the drawer and holds it up for Charlotte to see.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
I can’t claim to be an expert in the use of this thing,
but I’ll give it a go.

He throws the machete on the workbench and nods to Keith. They walk towards Charlotte who retracts against the boat trailer. Schumacher produces a tape recorder, presses the record button and balances it on the speed boat.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Who supplies you with the pills?

Silence from Charlotte. Thomas produces a smaller knife from his pocket and points it at Charlotte.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
(irritated)
I’m serious, you mess around and I’ll cut
flesh, I swear I will. Where are the pills
coming from!

Silence from Charlotte who sits defiantly. Thomas looks at her annoyed, trying to look staunch. Then he nods to Keith and they walk into the corridor leading to the garage, out of view of Charlotte.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
(whispered)
The bitch is going to be difficult.

He paces around the plush corridor – designer lights, expensive tiles and artwork on the walls.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
I was serious when I said I was prepared to
hurt her, to make her talk.

KEITH
Hurt her? How much?

THOMAS
It depends how difficult she is. I can’t say
she’s got off to a great start. I’m going to ask
her about the source again and if she doesn’t
talk I’m going to cut her?

KEITH
Cut her? You could kill her?

THOMAS
I’m not going to kill her, just a flesh wound. I’m
not going to stab her!

Keith is sweating profusely. He wipes his face with a handkerchief.

KEITH
You could hit an artery or something. What then?
We turn up at the hospital with some girl bleeding to
death? How do we explain that?

THOMAS
I’ll cut her on the ear, cut a piece out of her ear. See
how she handles that.

KEITH
Are you serious?

INT. SCHUMACHER’S GARAGE — MORNING

Charlotte is sitting on the steel chair, the blood drying on her face. She strains to hear the conversation in the hallway and can make out the gist of it. She runs her fingers over a NUT on the trailer’s safety latch, worrying it.

INT. SCHUMACHER’S HALLWAY — MORNING

THOMAS
(angry)

I’m dead serious. What the hell are we doing here? I’m completely serious. I’m not going to cut her ear off I’m going to stick the end of this knife into her eye ball!
He goes to go back into the garage, worked up. Keith grabs him and pulls him back.

KEITH
Wait, wait. Calm down. Okay? Cut her
on the face, away from her neck. If she
doesn’t talk!

They look gravely at each other. Thomas nods resolutely and looks at the knife. Keith puts his Balaclava back on. They walk out of screen and we hold on a thermometer on the wall of the garage. The temperature is 32 degrees.

RISE OF THE ROBOTS Peter Griffin Jun 18

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by Peter Griffin | Herald on Sunday

A pasty looking child was the centre of attention in Japan last week. He made faces, rolled around on the floor and barked out words. None of that would be too special were if not for the fact that CB2, as he’s called, is a robot.

CB2 has a biomimetic body, which includes dozens of actuators to replicate muscles and sensors to simulate touch and hearing. Tiny cameras substitute for eyes.

When CB2 stands up, he needs the support of an adult and his legs shake just as those of a child who is learning to walk would.

CB2’s creators hope the robot can be used to improve understanding of how children develop human relation skills – learn language, recognize objects, interact with other people.

The Japanese have been fascinated by robots for decades, but biomimesis, the imitation of biological functions, is seen by many scientists worldwide as the key to building robots that can operate in unstructured environments. That science is in its early days, but

think of the Terminator or the hordes of sleek androids in I Robot as the ultimate biomimetric robots.

Robots already man the assembly lines of car and electronics factories the world over. It’s a different story when it comes to consumer uses for robots. We’ve been told for years that robots will be infiltrating the household, but the only one to successfully do so has been the Roomba vacuum cleaner, which motors around your floors sucking up dust, mapping out your home in its memory so it knows where it has already cleaned.

Sony last year ditched its much loved Aibo robotic dog and the Qrio humanoid robot because the robots, while impressive, simply didn’t have commercial appeal.

But while the home may remain robot free for a good few years yet while models that can cope in non-structured environments are developed, there is plenty of robotic progress being made in other fields.

The US military, for example, is taking to robots as it seeks to lessen the risk of its soldiers being killed or injured.

The Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot (BEAR) from US robotics company Vecna, is designed to rescue an injured soldier, scooping the body into its arms so that other soldiers aren’t put at risk retrieving their wounded comrades.

The six-foot tall BEAR can cross unstable ground and stay upright thanks to the use of gyroscopes and motors controlled by computer. It can carry over 200kg in its arms and kneel down to gently scoop up a wounded soldier. It even has a teddy bear face to put wounded soldiers at ease. It’s expected to be ready for testing within five years.

Built on a much smaller scale, but potentially as useful in the war zone, are LANdroids, tiny robots that can be dispersed to form a wireless radio network to maintain communications.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing LANdroids to overcome the problem of patchy radio communications in the field. The idea is that the robots are light enough to be carried by soldiers so they can be dropped at regular intervals to collectively form a wireless network for voice and data communications. Mounted on wheels, The LANdroids will also be self-adjusting, so that they can change position to ensure the best signal strength of the network. DARPA wants to get the average cost of a LANdroid down to around US$100 which will be a tall order given the sophisticated work they will be expected to perform.

The robots are coming in all shapes and sizes, but are unlikely to appear any more humanlike for some time to come.

On the web:

http://www.darpa.mil/ipto/solicitations/open/07-46_PIP.pdf

http://vecnarobotics.com/robotics/

NEW WALKMAN PHONES

Ahead of the iPhone’s arrival Sony Ericsson has announced two new music phones with similar memory storage to Apple’s music phone. The Sony Ericsson W960 has 8GB (gigabytes) of internal storage, Wi-fi networking, a first for a Sony Ericsson phone and high-speed data access. There’s a 3.2 megapixel camera and the W960 has smartphone capability syncing Windows email and documents. The slimmer W910 also has the digital camera but not the hefty onboard flash memory allowance. It’s unique feature is “Shake Control” which lets the user shake the handset to turn the playlist to random. You can see the Nintendo Wii’s influence there. The new phones will debut before Christmas.

www.sonyericsson.com

THE NEWTON FACTOR Peter Griffin Jun 18

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Philip Baker, who worked on Apple’s Newton PDA device back in the early 1990s has an interesting blog post about the iPhone. The hype surrounding the new device which will be released on June 29, is reminiscent of that which greeted the Newton, says Baker. The Newton was killed by poor handwriting recognition. Ironically, Baker points out, its touch screen data entry that is again the make or break point for the iPhone. An interesting perspective from someone who has been deep within the Apple development camp.

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