PlaceSite at ETech / New Partnerships

March 7th, 2006

I’m presenting PlaceSite this afternoon at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego. If you’re attending, please come say hi! Also: we’re teaming up with a few other scrappy startups to rent out a bar and host a party Wednesday night starting at 9 pm at the Caskroom, 550 Park Blvd., San Diego. If you’re in town, drop in and say hi!

In other news — today at ETech we’re announcing two new partnerships, with Sputnik and WaveStorm. Both are wi-fi infrastructure companies who help retail establishments and other venues to set up, maintain and manage public wi-fi networks. Sputnik’s an American firm based in San Francisco; WaveStorm is based in Paris and serves customers in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. PlaceSite’s community wi-fi software will be offered to customers of these firms.

Wi-Fi News Coverage: A Plea to the Press

July 5th, 2005

The latest from the Embarrassing Florida News Department: Police arrested a man in St. Petersburg, Florida for briefly using an open wi-fi access point in a public place.

The clueless cops charged Benjamin Smith III with “unauthorized access to a computer network, a third-degree felony,” according to the St. Petersburg Times.

Every day thousands of people do what this poor guy did. And they have no idea they’re felons. I’ll wager that most wi-fi users think that if a hotspot in a public place is open (i.e., if it announces its presence to the world via SSID broadcast and it’s not WEP encrypted or password protected), using it to access the Internet is legal and ethical. Such use is common practice.

The St. Petersburg Times article about this arrest belongs in the National Enquirer. It refers to Smith’s off-the-shelf wi-fi use as “hacking” into a computer network. (Of course the writer makes The Obligatory Greenhorn Tech-Reporter Mistake: use of the term “hacking” to mean “maliciously breaking into a computer network.” But that’s not the real problem.)

Imagine this: You’re at home. Your window’s closed. Your neighbor’s window is open. She plays a catchy tune on her stereo. You open your window to hear the song more clearly.

Now cops arrest you for opening your window.
Read the rest of this entry »

Where 2.0

June 24th, 2005

wherelogo.gifDamon, Jon and I will present Project PlaceSite and discuss wi-fi cafe fun in San Francisco next week at Where 2.0, O’Reilly’s new conference about location-aware tech.

If you’re there, come say hi.

Wi-Fi Cafes in the News: Look Again

June 12th, 2005

A bizarre media storm has gathered around wireless Internet cafes. Project PlaceSite and I have benefited. But this all deserves a closer look.

Tomorrow’s New York Times quotes me in an article by Glenn Fleishman. My words appeared in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer piece last week. On May 30 a Financial Times article about wi-fi in cafes mentioned “zombie effect” [definition here], a term we invented to explain some of the reasoning behind PlaceSite. All this mainstream coverage followed Web buzz about an entry by Glenn on his Wi-Fi Networking News weblog. The entry announced that a Seattle cafe had tried turning off wi-fi on the weekends.

I’m thankful for the PlaceSite publicity but for the record: each of my partners, Damon McCormick and Jon Snydal, contributed to this project at least as much as I did. Professor Marti Hearst served a critical role as our project advisor.

A problem with the coverage: The Financial Times article strongly implies a trend in cafes across the country that involves reduction or removal of wi-fi access. But the opposite is true, at least in Seattle and San Francisco: wi-fi is becoming more ubiquitous in cafes. The article cites just three cafes — one in Seattle and two in San Francisco — that have limited their wi-fi access. But hundreds of cafes in these cities offer wi-fi service, and more cafes add wi-fi every month.

I see no evidence of a new trend: both of the San Francisco cafes in question have been experimenting with limited access for more than a year.

The other articles, particularly the New York Times piece, were more balanced and better informed about this. But I sense a media snowball effect that might trigger an avalanche of inaccurate coverage.

A warning to reporters: consider the numbers here, so you don’t mistake aberrant behavior for what’s clearly the norm.

PlaceSite Launch: Tuesday

April 16th, 2005

[ UPDATE: Our launch period at A’Cuppa Tea is over. Keep an eye on for news of upcoming launches. ]

ps-logo-sm.gifWe’ll launch Project PlaceSite this Tuesday
at A’Cuppa Tea cafe and teahouse in Berkeley.

Full details:

Come out and join in!

Seeking Bay Area Wi-fi People

March 26th, 2005

wifi-survey.gifHelp supercharge wi-fi public places in the San Francisco Bay Area!

For my final Masters project at U.C. Berkeley I’m exploring new ways in which online social interaction can move into the offline (“real”) world — and learning what online services can add to face-to-face conversation.

An important part of our research is to learn how people here interact and use wi-fi (wireless Internet) in public and semi-public places.

If you’re 18 or older, live or work in the Bay Area and use wi-fi, you can help us immensely by taking a few minutes to answer the following brief survey. Your responses will be kept completely anonymous.

Here’s the survey:

We need all the responses we can get, so it would be great if you could spread the word by pointing your Bay Area friends to the survey.

This summer we’ll post a report about what we learn; I’ll link to the report from here when it’s available.


Project PlaceSite

March 13th, 2005

Imagine opening your laptop computer in a neighborhood wireless Internet caf� and firing up a Web browser. Instead of your usual startup page, imagine this on your screen:

That’s the core of Project PlaceSite. It introduces a new way of using wireless networks — to create a local information service by, for and about people who are in the same caf� together.

We’re rolling it out in Berkeley in a few weeks. Details:

Please let us know what you think. And come out and take part!

PacMan Must Die

February 7th, 2005

Lars Holmquist spoke of “PacMan Must Die” at Intel’s Berkeley research lablet Friday.

This is an innovative game developed by Holmquist’s students at the Viktoria Institute’s Future Applications Lab in G–teborg, Sweden. It’s a tweaked-out multi-player version of the classic game Pac Man, with two major twists.

The first twist: characters’ roles are switched. Players control ghosts invading Pac Man’s home turf, trying to recover the dots stolen by Pac Man in the original game.

The second twist: the playing field is distributed across two or more devices held by multiple players.

pmmd-screen2.gif         pmmd-screen1.gif

To finish a level, a player must eat dots not just on her own screen, but on the other players’ screens as well. If you send your ghost through a doorway on the bottom of your screen, the ghost disappears from your device. It enters another player’s screen through a corresponding doorway. The game allows up to five players to join in on the distributed fun.


Players have to look over at one another’s screens to see where to guide their characters. Physical strategy and cooperation become central to this virtual game. Opportunities for new sorts of pranks arise — for instance, you can physically run off with your friend’s ghost.


I love this; it’s another way of combining video game fun with the fun of play in real-world places.

This is the sort of rich, simple innovation that I hoped would emerge with the wi-fi enabled Nintendo DS portable video game system. But Nintendo seems to have locked down DS development, limiting it to internal and professional developers. Such professionals have years of experience and training in building traditional games. This background cripples their ability to innovate, to see beyond the constraints of traditional game platforms.

Nintendo, learn from eBay and Google and Amazon: let customers and outsiders build value for you. Open your platform and let it thrive.

LoJack for the Rest of Us

October 20th, 2004

Why not use wi-fi (wireless Internet) access points to track down stolen cars, bikes, purses and other valuables?

Many of Earth’s major cities are becoming saturated with wi-fi access points. It’s hard to find a public place in San Francisco, for instance, where a wi-fi device can’t detect a nearby access point.

Imagine placing a narrow wi-fi beacon device inside the frame of your bicycle. You tell the beacon that, every day at 4 a.m., the bike is locked up at your house. Next time the clock strikes 4 a.m., the beacon turns itself on and it makes note of which wi-fi access points it can “see” from your home. It remembers that these access points represent home. Then it turns itself off again. (Wi-fi detection drains a lot of battery power — the device stays off most of the time to save juice).

Two days later, at precisely 4 a.m., the beacon powers on and notes what access points it can “see.” If it detects one or more of the “home” access points, it turns itself off again. Two days later it does the same thing, and so on. We’ll call this state of affairs the beacon’s default mode.

During one of these early-morning access-point checks, if the device doesn’t detect a home access point, it switches into “stolen mode.” It powers on every 15 minutes and checks for any open access points. (Open access points are not encrypted, so anyone — and in our case, any beacon — can use them to connect to the Internet.)
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Smart Mob Tool Masquerading as Video Game?

October 8th, 2004

nintendo-ds.gifLook for unplanned potential within the Nintendo DS, an upcoming handheld videogame system. It uses wi-fi, as well as a proprietary Nintendo wireless format, to let a player compete and communicate with another in the same room, or with a potentially infinite number of other players via connections to the Internet through wi-fi hotspots. The New York Times says the unit will go on sale in the U.S. November 21 for $149.

Nintendo’s marketing, the press, and the weblogs all seem fixated on the fact that this unit has two screens, and the fact that it will let people play the same old types of multiplayer games in mobile settings.

But I think a special combination of attributes make this a potential source of compelling new smartmobbish applications and behavior:
      (1) Not only does it provide wireless networking capabilities, it’s built around using wi-fi in an ad-hoc person-to-person manner — regardless of whether wi-fi hotspots are nearby.
      (2) When an open wi-fi hotspot is nearby, it can be used to connect from the field with servers on the Internet.
      (3) Kids will use it, and kids aren’t locked into narrow wireless communication paradigms.
      (4) It’s not too expensive, which might encourage a critical mass of these things in urban areas. (Compare it with Sony’s upcoming $300+ wi-fi-enabled PSP game device.)

Imagine the sociolocative fun that this might enable — if Nintendo doesn’t block out nonlicensed developers.

(Thanks to Matthew Rothenberg for the tip!)

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