William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Look, Ma: 70 WPM With One Hand!

From this morning's editing work on my Architects of Tomorrow book, due for release next month on Amazon and Smashwords. Thad Starner was a wearable computing pioneer at MIT and is now head of Georgia Tech's Contextual Computing Group. We were discussing the one-handed chording keyboard he uses for his wearable system...

Starner: People are typing 10 words a minute using Multitap and T9 ...and these sorts of things. That’s ridiculously slow, especially if you use it for your main email. Can you imagine doing your main email on a mobile phone? That would be ludicrous. My Twiddler [www.handykey.com], the keyboard we use, looks exactly like a mobile phone’s 3 x 4 button system, but I do 70 words a minute on it. That’s seven times faster than the current best rate by other methods out there. The only thing that we’re doing differently is we’re allowing you to hit more than one button at a time. And much to our surprise, the learning rate is so much faster than anything else you’ve seen in the literature. We just finished formal studies on this. Our average users were at 26 words a minute after 400 minutes of practice. After about 25 hours or so, they were averaging 47 words a minute. Our top person types letter by letter at about 67 words a minute. It’s also better for your wrists.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Smart Contact Lenses Coming Soon?

A New Scientist article recently reported that University of Washington researchers are edging closer to perfecting a contact lens able to project full-color images onto the wearer's retina. Today, prototypes only   have red and blue miniature LEDs. Researchers need to find a way to bring in green in order to achieve full color output. Data and electricity arrive via a near-field antenna loop, much like the technology used in PayPass cards. In the lab, this look is taped to the face and wired to a belt pack, but I would expect that higher power versions might be worn as a necklace or over the ear, perhaps integrated into a phone headset. The end result would be an augmented reality system able to overlay data about the world directly onto the wearer's regular field of view

Interestingly, this heads-up display technology (which includes 3D viewing potential) was not the main focus of the New Scientist article. Rather, the focus was on Sensimed's Triggerfish Sensor. Triggerfish is the first commercial application of this contact lens technology, but its purpose is to detect changes in the cornea's curvature that would signal a glaucoma condition. The UW team also adapted the lens to detect glucose levers for those with diabetes. Interestingly, though, by the time I found the story on the PlanetDTV blog, all trace of health applications had been wiped from the topic. Apparently, the media is more interested in having a cyborg-like way to find the nearest Starbucks (a la Wikitude on smartphones) than improving public health.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Released! Strange Horizons Ebook - Get Your Free Sample!

Some years ago, back around the dot-com and Y2K days, I wrote a nationally syndicated column called Strange Horizons. The tone and topics of Strange Horizons should seem familiar if you've been reading this blog. In fact, without me consciously realizing it, Behind the Lines quickly became a shorter, resurrected form of Strange Horizons.

The score of topics covered in Strange Horizons Retrospective, Volume 1 sat at the intersection of cutting edge science and speculative fiction when I wrote about them over a decade ago. Today, it's fascinating to see which of those ideas came to pass, which did not, and which are still in progress. Thus I've written a new "Update" section for each chapter, detailing the latest news and thoughts within that field.

The 21-chapter ebook is now on sale for only 99 cents at Smashwords. That's well over 40,000 words and many hours of thought provocation for about the price of a candy bar. If you'd like to take the text for a no-strings-attached spin, try the free sample version. Either way, your feedback would be greatly appreciated, so please don't hesitate to comment!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Basic Math: Students + State Money + iPads = Bad Idea

The New York Times today ran an article about how Roslyn High School in Long Island is handling out "free" iPads to some students as part of a trial. Ultimately, the school wants to outfit all 1,100 students with their own devices.

From the NT Times article: "Roslyn administrators also said their adoption of the iPad, for which the district paid $56,250 for the initial 75 (32-gigabyte, with case and stylus), is advancing its effort to go paperless and cut spending. Some of the tablets are being used for special education students."

That's $750 per iPad. You can buy knock-off Android tablets for under $200. Oh. My. God. I'm glad the New York schools are so wealthy that they have $500+ to burn per device. Could they maybe share some of that with bankrupt California, or even my own deficit-choked Hillsboro, OR? How in the world does this "cut spending?"

"But school leaders say the iPad is not just a cool new toy but rather a powerful and versatile tool with a multitude of applications, including thousands with educational uses."

Yes, and all of them could be done for a lot less money. For that matter, students could use Google's design tools to create Android apps.

"Educators also laud the iPad’s physical attributes, including its large touch screen (about 9.7 inches) and flat design, which allows students to maintain eye contact with their teachers."

What?! How exactly does one admire that flat design and big screen WHILE maintaining eye contact with teachers?

"Scott Wolfe, the principal, said he hoped to secure 20 more iPads next school year to run apps that, for instance, simulate a piano keyboard on a screen or display constellations based on a viewer’s location."

Seriously? I can do that today on a freaking cell phone! Come to think of it, half of the student body probably already have phones able to do this.

I'm all for tablets and notebooks being issued to students, and I wouldn't mind at all if those were Apple products at a reasonable price. But dropping $750 per tablet is INSANE. There is no redeeming factor in Apple's technology that makes it necessary.This is an egregious misuse of sadly sparse educational funds, and I sure hope my own local districts wise up before the iFad hits here.