Your PDA: A Wireless Web and Music Server

June 4th, 2004

Imagine sharing the collection of MP3 music files that you listen to on your PDA wirelessly with anyone nearby. Imagine converting that PDA into your own mobile, wireless Web server, through which anyone nearby who has a wi-fi enabled laptop or device can browse and download whatever Web pages, photos or other content that you choose to offer up.

A new application called Pocket Rendezvous allows you to do that. This is exciting because it takes the mobile personal Web server paradigm (as seen in Intel’s Personal Servers and in Julian Bleecker’s Wi-fi Bedouin project), and rolls it out in a form that will run on mobile devices that thousands of people already use.

But get this: while Pocket Rendezvous uses the device discovery and networking protocol most famous for its use in Apple’s Rendezvous system, Pocket Rendezvous runs only on (Microsoft) PocketPC devices! How darkly ironic… Nonetheless, bravo to Simeda, the small German software firm behind Pocket Rendezvous. I hope they port this to PalmOS soon so I can use it on my wi-fi enabled Palm.

(Thanks to Joe, Howard and The Register for the tip.)

Addictive Weblogging

May 27th, 2004

netaddict.gifConsider this intriguing article about addictive weblogging behavior in today’s New York Times: For Some, the Blogging Never Stops. (I’ve pasted the article’s text below my commentary, for future reference.)

I do sense an addictive quality to the act of weblogging. I’ve felt it strongly; there have been several occasions when I compulsively keyed in a cheesebikini entry and then deleted it, realizing that it’s not of much value to anyone but me. So why did I write such things in the first place? I think it’s important to be conscious of the tendency to weblog for weblogging’s sake. Now I look over everything I write and before selecting “publish” I try to make sure that the entry offers something useful, interesting and entertaining. My most important criterion is that each entry should offer something new: something that hasn’t been said on other sites in other words.

Weblogging has some negative qualities and it may have addictive qualities, and some percentage of webloggers get carried away. But we’re missing a bit of context here.

It’s important to consider what all that weblogging time replaces. For instance: what if, for most webloggers, weblogging time replaces hours that they used to spend watching television? If so, is this really a negative thing? I’m disturbed by the Times’ photo of a guy ignoring his wife and typing on a laptop during their anniversary vacation, while others around him chat and read books in the sun. But this troubling image is counterbalanced by the thought of people engaging in new forms of interaction and creativity while their peers passively absorb endless vapid megacorporate marketing messages at the local malls and megaplexes.

I’d love to learn more about how weblogging affects people’s offline lives, and where online and offline interactions can intersect. In addressing such issues, can we design for more socially valuable and healthy online and offline activity? I’ll explore these issues this summer at Intel Research Seattle. I’ll work with Joseph McCarthy there beginning next Tuesday, on the Blogger Bridges project.
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Road Sage

May 16th, 2004

roadsage.gifRoad Sage, a project at Berkeley for which I led the user interface and interaction design, won second place among 18 contenders in my department’s final project competition. (Second-year students in my program must build and present a substantial final project before they graduate. At the end of each year two panels of outside judges select the best projects.)

Essentially, Road Sage is Mapquest on steroids: it takes live and historical traffic data into account in choosing and presenting routes, and in estimating travel times. It uses data logged from highway sensors operated by California’s Department of Transportation to forecast traffic between any given starting and ending points, and to suggest the best route at a given time in the future. It also shows live traffic along a given route, among other things.

Mikhail Avrekh, John Han and Lauren Wilkinson (all now graduated) came up with the idea and worked hard for much of the past year to build it out. Bravo team! (Sorry Bay Area drivers, but don’t get too excited. We don’t have a robust multi-user version of Road Sage so it’s not ready for public use. But if Mikhail and friends can track down funding, who knows.)

Imagine weighting the historic traffic data with historic weather records and with the latest weather forecasts — in this way we could more accurately predict future traffic and provide more accurate route suggestions. For regions that include sports stadiums, imagine weighting the traffic data on game days based on past traffic changes that occured on previous game days. Plenty more can be done here to provide ever-more-accurate traffic forecasts and route recommendations, all of which can be built on top of the Road Sage foundation.

Vizster Rocks

May 5th, 2004

It’s intimidating to take an information visualization class with a fellow student who’s one of the most talented and creative infoviz wizards on the planet. But it’s a great way to see sneak previews of his work.


Jeff Heer is the whiz, and Vizster is his class project. It’s the best social network visualization tool yet, by far. I’ve always wondered what Six Apart and Friendster and the rest were thinking in limiting themselves to flat textual Web pages, because it makes so much more sense to illustrate social networks as images with nodes (circles or squares) for each person linked via connectors (lines) showing relationships. Here and there a few people (academics and hackers yet not the social networking services themselves) have pieced together such creations. Friendster even put a small mockup of such a visualization on their front page, but they never implemented the real thing. Now Heer put all of this together in a tool that effectively and stylishly implements what we were imagining, plus much more.


Unfortunately you can’t yet download this awesome Vizster tool or see an animation demoing it, and you lose a lot when you lose the live interaction, so I hope Jeff will put Vizster up for download soon. But on the Vizster site you can explore a collection of screen shots and a written explanation of the project.

For more Heer wizardry, check out his prefuse toolkit, which enables programmers to quickly build visualizations.

Bedouin Devilry

March 22nd, 2004

Julian Bleecker’s wifi.Bedouin project has my mind churning. Bleecker frames this as a product and a service: essentially it’s a laptop in a backpack with wi-fi antennas, a PDA remote control, and software that creates your own little “island Internet.”

Forget about the packaging. The big innovation here lies in the paradigm, in viewing your wi-fi-enabled laptop as a server and a filter rather than a client.

What can you do with this? Here’s an example: have fun in Starbucks. Walk into a Starbucks cafe, sit back and watch customers come in, fire up their laptops and connect to your wi-fi node. They think they’ve jacked in to the Internet, but really they’re connected to your mobile server. You can serve their Web browsers whatever content you want — an art piece, brand-damaging fake Starbucks ads, fake coupons, photos of your cat, whatever. Mix your content with real Internet connectivity and content served up via the cafe’s wi-fi service. (Combine this with a Guerilla Cafe DJ setup and you’ve got a toolkit that would make Starbucks interventionist Reverend Billy proud.)

It’s important that we engage in this sort of play and think through these things, because not all the possibilities brought to light here are funny. McDonald’s or Starbuck’s or anyone else can intercept passwords and can easily monitor, record, forge and censor unprotected wi-fi communications. We can prevent such misdeeds through technical means, but before the solutions can be perfected and adopted we need to raise public awareness that the problems exist. Pranksters can spread this sort of consciousness.

This is just one example of what we can do with systems like Bedouin. Check out Bleecker’s scenarios page (and click through the three scenarios) for more.

3/24/04 UPDATE: Arthur Law brings up two other fun possibilities. (1) For business people and software developers: why not put the project work on a bedouin server and huddle the workgroup around a campfire? (2) For video game afficionados: won’t weddings and funerals be more fun when you and your laptop-toting friends engage in action-packed shoot-em-up tournaments during the ceremonies? Why wait for high-speed Internet coverage to reach your destination when you can bring the connectivity with you?

5/04/04 UPDATE: I recently came across another intriguing application that converts local machines (in this case, handheld computers) into miniature wi-fi Web servers. It’s called Hocman and it’s designed to allow motorcyclists to exchange social information via HTTP when they encounter one another on the road. Details here.)

5/16/04 UPDATE: It turns out that Intel Research has been doing its own work using the mobile server paradigm, using tiny Personal Servers.

I Want My Wi-Fi Telephony

January 4th, 2004

Last February I requested a small, cheap mobile device that:

  • notifies me when I’m within range of an open wi-fi (wireless Internet) access point, and:
  • allows me to call any telephone number on the planet, nearly free of charge, whenever I’m within range of a Wi-Fi signal, via a simple numeric-keypad interface.

    Back then, the hardware necessary to make this a practical reality wasn’t cheap and it wasn’t widely in use. Now it is. Many of the most popular PDAs (personal digital assistants), like my new Palm Tungsten C, provide Web browsers and high-bandwidth wi-fi Internet connectivity.

    We have the hardware. We have the infrastructure — the cities are becoming saturated with wi-fi hotspots, many of them free for public use, and robust Internet telephony networks have been in use for years.

    And we have the client software — but it hasn’t been designed for the right devices. A handful of firms like Dialpad and Net2Phone already provide cheap PC-to-phone voice service. But none of them seem to have ported their client applications for use on PDAs.

    What are these firms waiting for? For a very modest investment in resources, Dialpad and its competitors can make a very compelling offer: global telephone service on the go for prices less than one-tenth what you pay for mobile or even land-line phone service.

    Dialpad: I have my portable wi-fi telephone and I’m ready to pay you to use it. What are you waiting for?

  • Leaving the Nursery

    September 2nd, 2003

    Burning Man was phenomenal as usual, and as usual I won’t try to put it down in words.

    But I will point you to the most inspiring newswire article that I’ve read in years.

    Live Love Hotel Conference

    July 3rd, 2003

    love hotel conferenceRemember, the First International Moblogging Love Hotel Conference is going down today. Lovers all over the world (or just all around Tokyo?) are collaborating in one of the strangest weblogs around.

    Guerilla Cafe DJ

    June 21st, 2003

    reclaim the airwavesI want to be a guerilla cafe DJ.

    Here’s what I need: a small, portable FM transmitter powerful enough to override the signal in any cafe that’s playing megacorporate radio. This would be especially useful in cafes tuned in to that unbearable Clear Channel snooze-jazz station that has infected so many San Francisco Wi-Fi cafes.

    When I enter a cafe and power up my laptop, I’d like to plug this magic transmitter box into my laptop and use it to overpower the cafe radio’s reception of that cheesy station, replacing it with whatever music is emerging at the moment from my laptop’s sound card.

    If you know where I can obtain such a device, please clue me in.

    (If you know who created the power-tower graphic above, please let me know so I can give them credit. I pulled this image from the Web a long time ago and I can’t remember where it came from.)

    Twenty-First Century Transcontinental Love

    June 18th, 2003

    The First International Moblogging Love Hotel Conference:
    Just remember, it’s not about the sex.

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