2008 April : Ron Riesenbach's Blog

Inputs and Outputs

Filed Under Tech

I am ‘tech support’ for my parents and in-laws. Whenever I travel to Winnipeg to visit them, I spend hours installing drivers, purging spam, defragmenting disks, installing printers and memory, etc. etc. 

During my last visit, my mother-in-law was telling me something about her ‘computer’. It took me a moment but then I realized she was actually talking about her CRT monitor. To her,  the monitor was the computer. That is because that is the part that she looks at. The glowing screen is where she receives feedback on her keyboard and mouse inputs and see the resulting outputs. She doesn’t interact with the grey box full of boards, wires and spinning disks — it is irrelevant to what she is trying to accomplish. To her (as to many people) the input/output transducers are the computer.

My mother-in-law’s cognitive model of computing brought to mind a time in the 90’s where I worked with a group of user-interface geniuses at the University of Toronto.  I was a research manager funding and promoting the work of professors, students and staff working on multi-disciplinary projects within the departments of computer science, engineering, sociology and psychology.  These folks were creating the intellectual framework for many of the user interfaces that we use today.

Hiroshi Ishii working the Active Desk at the Ontario Telepresence Project

I worked closely with a team that was on the forefront of what was then called Computer Supported Collaborative Work.  The Ontario Telepresence Project  built and experimented with numerous computing, audio and video systems to enable collaboration at a distance. It was there, years before the Internet became part of our society’s fabric, that I learned about distance collaboration through videoconferencing and computing systems.

Another one of my favourite groups were the Neural Networks guys.  This eclectic bunch were exploring how to create dynamic, adaptive computing systems which simulated how our brains learn.  Their research accomplishments were many, but among the most evocative for me was student Sidney Fels’ Glove Talk II.

Sidney Fels' Glove Talk II

Listen to the Hand (click for 30-second movie)

In Sidney’s own words:

GloveTalkII is a system that translates hand gestures to speech through an adaptive interface. Hand gestures are mapped continuously to ten control parameters of a parallel formant speech synthesizer. The mapping allows the hand to act as an artificial vocal tract that produces speech in real time. This gives an unlimited vocabulary in addition to direct control of fundamental frequency and volume. Currently, the best version of Glove-TalkII uses several input devices (including a Cyberglove, a ContactGlove, a three space tracker, and a foot pedal), a parallel formant speech synthesizer, and three neural networks. One subject has trained to speak intelligibly with Glove-TalkII. He speaks slowly but with far more natural sounding pitch variations than a text-to-speech syntesizer. 

It is incredible to think that this ground-breaking work was done 15-years ago and only now are gesture-based inputs finding their way into the marketplace.  Apple’s iPod with it’s gesture control is only the most famous example of many new products in this field.

I believe that increased processor speeds, miniturization and mobilitiy are important factors in bringing the benefits of information technology to our society.  But we will also need innovative, adaptive, intuitive user-interfaces which fit the way we work and interact.


Capped in the Back of the Head … a Lot

Filed Under Tech

Over the years I have notice an interesting pattern in the way that innovations enter the marketplace. A technology that is intended for one purpose often finds greater utility and appeal in a completely different context.  The examples are many (the telephone, TNT, the gramophone, Teflon, and so on) and there is even a body of research on the subject.

Sometimes an innovative idea finds re-application in a market with diametrically opposed purposes to the one in which it was conceived. This week, I came upon an eye-brow arching example of this while I was researching telehealth solutions.

Dr. Mark Ombrellaro got impatient while awaiting FDA approval for a telehealth haptic system that enables a physician to remotely perform a physical examination of a patient.  This vascular surgeon developed a telehealth-enabled vest. A clinician using specially instrumented gloves moved their hands to teleoperate the remote vest. Through hand-gestures, the specialist would trigger the inflation or deflation of pneumatic cells on the vest to simulate a hands-on-body examination. So far, so good.

Irony: incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

However, getting a healthcare product into the market requires enormous time and effort. Not content to fritter away the months and years while his patent for the telemedicine system worked it’s way through the health care bureaucracy, he turned to his brother who worked at a VP of Sales & Marketing at a gaming company. Together, they re-implemented the idea (with some interesting modifications) as a force-feedback device for first-person shooter games.

Click above to watch a geek get capped

The telehealth vest was altered so that it works with popular PC-based video games of the shooting, driving, monster-killing variety.  The user puts the vest on together with an optional helmet and jacks into the control unit. The control unit connects to the PC. Then, when your character in an on-line game gets jostled, bumped or shot, you get a “pneumatic thump” to the appropriate area on your torso or head.

Bang, bang, thump, thump, you’re dead. 

What is interesting here is that a device that was originally intended to help care for people, has been subverted to one which simulates hurting people. The market is bigger and the commercial returns are likely better than the original idea.

The irony is delicious.

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

Filed Under Tech

With only the odd break, I have been a jogger for over 25 years.  I don’t go far and I don’t go fast but I am regular. Four to five times a week I slip on my running shoes and hit the street (or basement treadmill in the winter).  Some of the many things I like about jogging is that it takes little in fancy equipment, you can do it any time, you don’t have to go somewhere or book something to do it, it’s simple, and you don’t have to be seen wearing some mega corporation logo (which I hate to do).  So, I  surprised myself earlier this week when I let myself get sucked into buying a matching electronic pedometer when I purchased a new pair of sneakers. Not just any pedometer, but one from the marketing monsters Nike and Apple.

Nike + Ipod = distraction nike ipod display

Nike + iPod = Personal Area Network

There are two pieces to the kit. A sensor/transmitter slips into a specially built cavity in the left-shoe foot-bed.  The sensor uses a piezoelectric accelerometer and a proprietary 2.4GHz radio transmitter. The non-replaceable battery is supposed to be good for 1,000 hours of active use (it goes to sleep when still). The receiver is a small plastic rectangle that slots into a generation 2 or 3 iPod nano.  Any significant movement of the sensor results in a link being established with the receiver and your in business. You can upload your stats to a website and trend your workouts, compete with others, etc. They have sold hundreds of thousands of these things since the launch in the summer of 2006. I must admit, it has been fun to play with as I jogged. I could see real-time updates of my speed, distance and calories.

Peek-a-Boo, I see You

Having bought the gizmo spontaneously without my usual compulsive pre-purchase research on the internet, I spent some time shortly after my first workout to see what’s what with the product.  Cutting through the marketing clutter, I came across a real eye-opener.  Shortly after it’s launch, some enterprising young engineers from the University of Washington figured out that the device had some serious security flaws. They figured out that the transmitter did not establish an encrypted channel to the receiver, that the transmitter would send signals even though the receiver was not in range and that multiple transmitters could be detected by a single receiver.  Using low-cost electronics equipment, they hacked the receiver so that could pick up any transmitter in range and display the transmitter’s unique ID on a computer.

cheap Wifi tracking device for Nike+ipod Google map of nike+ipod people

Follow the bouncing jogger

$200 Distributed Surveillance System

Not content with a single short-range detector, then hooked up some cheap electronics to a linux board and added a WiFi wireless antenna (total cost < $200) so that they could show how a bad-guy could deploy lots of these things around a campus and detect nike+iPod transmitters as they came in range.  Finally, to add salt to the wound, they constructed a website that displays the whereabouts of all the nike+iPod transmitters detected by their grid of WiFi devices onto a Google Map. The result of this exploit is a poor-man’s surveillance system that can track and trend where you are and where you have been.

A lot of attention has been paid to the privacy issues associated with unsecured 802.11 networks, RFID tags and open Bluetooth networks.  These clever kids from Seattle have demonstrated that even proprietary consumer wireless devices can present a security nightmare in the wrong hands. This cautionary tale should give us folks in the telehealth business pause. We have to think about the security posture of the many wireless telehomecare bio-telemetry devices that will be pouring into the market in the coming years. What do we need to do to insure that the data from these devices never finds their way onto a Google Map?

For more information on the hack, see: http://tinyurl.com/ufq5c .