Tag Archives: geek stuff

California allows driverless car testing, if anyone still cares

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Driverless vehicles can be tested on California streets and highways beginning next month, but they won’t be completely on their own. The California Department of Motor Vehicles posted new regulations (and supporting arguments) for autonomous vehicles this week. Among the changes is a way for manufacturers or developers to get permission to run vehicles without anyone physically behind the wheel.

Physically. A remote operator is required, someone who “is not seated in the driver’s seat of the vehicle; engages and monitors the autonomous vehicle; is able to communicate with occupants in the vehicle through a communication link” and is “available to assist law enforcement at all times that the vehicle is in operation”.

The vehicle itself must meet industry standards for Level 4 – mind off – or Level 5 – steering wheel optional – operation. Either type can, in theory, drive themselves without a human onboard to watch over things. The difference is that a Level 5 car can go anywhere, any time, while Level 4 cars can only drive themselves within particular boundaries or circumstances. Otherwise, a human has to be ready to take over instantly.

The big question is whether it matters. Manufacturers and developers have other options, like going to Arizona, where the state government has welcomed Google and Uber with open arms and an open road. Or Nevada or Montana, which have governors who are equally accomodating.

California’s regulators are, well, regulators. Not high tech recruiters. Besides a relatively – compared to neighboring states – complex and bureaucratic licensing process, the DMV requires self-driving car companies to submit detailed reports of operations and, particularly, problems that occur. Those reports are then posted on the web, which is a nice perk for companies that are behind the competitive curve, but less thrilling for the market leaders.

Autonomous vehicle technology was born in California because the companies behind it happened to be here. They don’t have to stay.

Wireless charging is less fussy, but still a work in progress

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One of my goals for CES was to see if wireless charging technology is ready for mainstream consumer adoption. The answer is yes if you’re making contact with a charging pad, but only maybe if you’re not.

Charging pads, of one kind or another, were easy to find at CES. Near field charging – putting a gizmo in direct contact with a wireless charging device – appears to be a maturing technology. Although the Qi standard is gaining – Samsung, LG and Apple support it in some of their models – compatibility is still an issue. There’s no universal solution yet for wirelessly charging your smartphone or wearable device, in the same way that pretty much anything with a wire can plug into a USB outlet. That’s more of an issue for public spaces, though. Consumers can buy what they need to do what they want.

Wireless charging at a distance, though, is more challenging. I saw two companies that claimed to have technology that would allow contactless charging. The most aggressive claim came from Powercast, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based company that says its FCC-approved technology can deliver upwards of 100 milliwatts – enough for many wearables, if not for a smartphone – at distances of 1 to 3 feet. Very low power, Internet-of-things devices can be charged up to 80 feet away, according to company staff.

I’m cautious about accepting wireless charging performance claims at face value, mainly because of the second company, Energous. Two years ago, it exhibited a prototype that company executives said would work at distances up to 15 feet. And maybe it would, although I didn’t see them actually do it. It ended up on the scrap heap because the company couldn’t get technical approval from the FCC. It used the same 5 GHz band as WiFi devices, and blasting out multiple watts of radio frequency energy into that spectrum would be sure to interfere with data transmissions.

Energous has backed off from those claims, though. The company recently received FCC approval for technology that also has a 3-foot range. It hasn’t been rolled into a product yet, so there was no demo or prototype on display at CES, but company staff at the show expect that manufacturers will adopt the technology and integrate it into products by the end of the year.

We’ll see.

Santa Cruz techies get to CES the hard, fun way

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Four thousand companies brought their products to CES last month, but only one was brought by its product. A five person team from Santa Cruz – Jane Campbell, Elai Dankner, Nicola Hopwood, Cade Vlacos and Christian Shaw – rode 300 miles from Palm Springs to Las Vegas on a Onewheel+ XR, the new, extended range version of Future Motion’s single wheel, electric powered board.

“It was the most epic journey I’ve ever done”, said Campbell. “You feel so free. The first thing you want to do is call your mom”. And she and her teammates did, calling friends and family from the road as they glided through the Mojave desert.

It took them four days to make the trek, arriving in Las Vegas yesterday in a rain storm. Campbell kept on rolling, right into Future Motion’s booth at the Showstoppers media showcase last night, where she went to work demonstrating the XR with energy and enthusiasm to spare.

The team did the trip as a relay, swapping off riders and boards every 10 to 15 miles. They rode during the day, and pitched tents in the desert at night. It was a remarkably smooth run with no physical or mechanical problems, except for the diesel support van, which temporarily broke down after gasoline was mistakenly pumped into it.

There was a point – besides the sheer joy of it – to what Mudd calls “the longest recorded Onewheel ride”. It was a proof of performance for the XR, which has a range of 12 to 18 miles, more than double the range of the original Onewheel+. That makes it a plausible alternative to a car, said company spokesman Jack Mudd, who also took a turn riding with the team.

Future Motion is headquartered on the west side of Santa Cruz. It was founded in 2013 and initially funded via $630,000 Kickstarter campaign.

You can see the video of the trip here:

Big brother, small ball and connected cars at CES

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CES 2018 marked a turning point in the consumer electronics business. For the first time, the big companies talked more about services than products. This shift has been long in the making – it’s why the organisers no longer refer to it as the Consumer Electronics Show – and 2018 was the tipping point. It was all about connected home products, with long neglected categories like kitchen appliances and washers and dryers suddenly taking center stage. The products themselves are increasingly generic, with differentiation coming from the voice recognition and artificial intelligence services that manufacturers bundle in.

The thought of my refrigerator or garage door opener constantly analysing my actions and predicting what I’ll want next seems spooky, even unsettling, to me, but conventional wisdom is that what older consumers perceive as surveillance state products, younger ones embrace as high level service. Plenty of innovation was on display, but it came from cloud-delivered services, and not from a box.

Small and medium sized companies were not the place to look for breakout products this year. I checked out the evening showcases, which cater mostly to smaller and newer exhibitors. The first, CES Unveiled, didn’t have much under the veil. Most of the exhibitors were small companies with, at best, incrementally innovative products. The lineups at Showstoppers and Pepcom’s Digital Experience were better, but aside from a 300-mile marathon trek on a Onewheel electric board, there weren’t many wow moments. Same for Eureka Park, the now huge section of the CES show floor dedicated to start up companies. There were plenty of toys, and lots of me-too products and barely discernible upgrades to existing products.

Looking ahead, one path for startup success will be through the big AI platform operators, either the generic ones like Amazon or Google, or the in house systems developed by the big boys.

This year will also be remembered as the year when cars became a consumer electronics product. The north hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center looked like a car show. Automakers have exhibited in past years, but there were more of them, and more with marketing messages crafted around connected services. Even ones that you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with the automotive market, such as health monitoring.

Carmakers also have extensive AI projects underway, as the rush towards self driving cars picks up speed. If cars are just another consumer electronics platform, then the big auto companies will also be players in the consumer AI game.

Far from collapsing, the consumer electronics industry on display at CES was expanding into new services and new sectors, all of them linked by live data streams.

CES 2018 kicks off with cars, phones and artificial intelligence

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I’m en route to CES (don’t dare call it the Consumer Electronics Show anymore) for my annual exercise in continuing education. It’s a total geek holiday, but the fun you get out of it is directly proportional to the work you do. There’s a lot to learn.

Self driving cars are the market segment where mobile broadband, artificial intelligence and consumer electronics intersect, and it’ll be well represented at CES. I’ll be alert for clues as to how manufacturers and platform operators intend to balance on-board processing with real time data connectivity. The more it shifts towards the latter, the more the rollout of autonomous vehicles will be defined by mobile carriers rather than the industry itself.

I’ve discussed the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and voice recognition systems – two sides of the same coin, really – and the collapse of the consumer electronic industry into a two product market – big screens and smartphones in previous blog posts. CES should offer insight into where those trends are headed in 2018. In particular, I’ll be interested in seeing new core AI technology.

Two product categories that I’ve been following since before they were categories – wearables and home automation – have exploded. A user-friendly charging solution for wearables, smart phones and the other electronic bits that we carry around with us still hasn’t emerged, and I’ll be looking for any indication that one might. At some point, the home automation market will consolidate into standard solutions – a scattering of smartphone apps? in home hubs? voice recognition platforms? – and I’ll watch for signs of that too.

It’s a disappointment that Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai has bailed on the show, although it’s for a legitimate, and unfortunate, reason – the planned appearance sparked a presidential level of death threats. It’s been a CES tradition for FCC chairs to sit down and talk with Gary Shapiro, CEO of the show’s sponsor, the Consumer Technology Association. Unlike other trade association honchos, Shapiro asks intelligent and interesting questions, and isn’t shy about pressing for meaningful answers. Three other FCC commissioners – Brendan Carr, Mignon Clyburn and Michael O’Rielly – are still on the program, but that’s typically been a softball session moderated by an emollient minion.

As always, what I’m really looking for are surprises, new products, services and technology that I have no idea even exists. In that regard, CES never disappoints.

Artificial intelligence, led by voice recognition, will redefine digital world in 2018

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Three consumer technology trends gained speed in 2017: the shift from fixed to mobile video consumption, as I blogged about previously, the increasing utility and use of voice recognition technology and the adoption of the push model for artificial intelligence platforms and services.

In 2017, voice recognition technology reached the point where it can replace manual data and command entry on a routine basis. Usability is a work in progress – you can’t just look at a screen and say copy that and paste it over here – but the technical capability is there. We just have to learn how to make the best use of it.

However, the more useful it becomes, the more it is tied to massive artificial intelligence platforms, which gives Amazon, Google and Apple a huge advantage. Those three companies are positioning themselves to be the front door for all of our interactions with the digital realm. Think of what it would be like if there were only three companies that made computers, which could then only be used to access the online services those companies offered, or at least blessed.

But at least there are three companies. That’s not quite full competition, but it is enough of a market to produce some competitive checks and balances. No guarantees, though. It still needs watching, and that’s one of the things I’ll do next week at the Consumer Electronics Show. The pre-CES email flood promises a lot of AI-driven products and services.

AI is woven into an increasing array of online services, and the companies using it are not asking for opt-in permission or, indeed, permission at all. Web services, mobile apps and point of sale and similar devices are recognising who we are, or at least who we might be, and proactively tailoring responses, without us even asking.

If you’re not paying particular attention, it seems like simple convenience. You don’t have to work as hard to get what you want, even though you often end up with what an AI system thinks you should want. If you are paying attention, it can be very spooky.

But we will get used to it.

Happy holidays, and a huge thank you to everyone who browsed this blog in 2017

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If you’re reading this holiday post, then you truly are a dedicated reader. I’m thoroughly grateful for your interest. 2017 has been a wonderful year in many respects, but a writer’s greatest joy is to be read. Thank you for making this daily excursion into cyberspace so rewarding.

I hit a major milestone this month: five years of uninterrupted daily posts, at least one per day, every day, seven days a week. It’s been a pleasure and, it appears, useful. Readership has been at or near the 5,000 views per month mark for much of the year, not counting distribution via LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, which together generate thousands more monthly impressions.

The 10 most clicked posts of 2017 included six about the CenturyLink/Level 3 deal, with one getting nearly 6,000 views by itself.

There was no particular pattern to the rest of the top ten. One was about the City of Gonzales’ plan to buy Internet service for every residence in town, while another was a routine write up of 4K television forecasts presented at the Consumer Electronics Show – I’ll be following that up in a couple of weeks, when CES rolls around again.

A post from 2016 about AT&T’s deceptive talking points regarding its plans to replace rural copper networks with wireless service and another from 2015 about low cost service promises made by Frontier Communications rounded out the 10 most read list. These are topics that will have even more urgency next year as AT&T and Frontier begin to meet, or not, their federally subsidised obligations to upgrade broadband service in rural California.

But the most readership comes from people, probably a lot like you, who make it a regular habit to surf to the main page of this blog, browse through the posts and, sometimes, let me know if I gotten it right or wrong. I’m particularly thankful for your kind attention, and I’m looking forward to proving myself worthy of it in 2018.

Thank you!

Wet string delivers faster broadband than AT&T or Frontier for 1 million Californians

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The best broadband that AT&T and Frontier Communications offers to more than one million Californians is advertised at a download speed of 3 Mbps or less, if it’s available at all. That’s slower than the 3.5 Mbps that a British techie achieved using a couple of pieces of wet string and some ADSL gear.

He was sitting around the office one day and decided to give it a go. That earned him serious geek cred with his boss, Adrian Kennard, who runs Andrews and Arnold, an ISP in the U.K. As Kennard describes in his blog

It turns out he needed salty water to get anywhere. A 2m length…

And the result – it works!!! Not even that slow (3½Mb/s down) though slow uplink. Don’t dare touch the string though…

So, there you go, ADSL over 2m of literal “wet string”. Well done all for testing this. It shows the importance of handling faults that seem to just be “low speed”.

As a bonus, fit tin cans to both ends and you get voice as well as broadband on the same wet string!

According to the most recent California Public Utilities Commission data available, 709,000 Californians live in census blocks where the fastest download speed advertised (but not necessarily delivered) by AT&T and Frontier Communications ranges from 768 Kbps to 3 Mbps. Another 367,000 are in census blocks where Frontier and AT&T claimed federal broadband subsidies and offer no service, at any speed.

Although “it was a bit of fun”, the hack highlighted the capabilities of the core technology that delivers broadband over copper-based telco infrastructure. The CPUC should take note as it listens to Frontier and AT&T tell half-truths about wireline problems and magic radio solutions. The potential of rural copper-based networks is higher than AT&T’s and Frontier’s current service levels, and higher than their intended wireless replacements.

It’s even higher than wet string.

App challenge: what if you knew an earthquake will hit 5 seconds from now?

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The biggest natural disaster threat to Californians comes from earthquakes, wild fires notwithstanding. One quake can take out more homes, businesses and infrastructure in a few seconds than all of this year’s fires combined. There’s no scientifically valid way of predicting earthquakes, so most people assume they strike without warning.

Not so. Earthquakes run for many seconds, even minutes. The first vibrations that ripple out are called P-waves, which seldom do damage but carry critical information about location and intensity several seconds ahead of the big shake. The U.S. Geological Survey and west coast research universities have a pilot program in place to monitor P-waves, and send out alerts. It’s in the early stages right now, and only a few agencies are connected. BART, for example, is using it to slow down trains before the main force of an earthquake hits.

The next step is to figure out how to push that information out to the public in time for it to be useful. The City of Los Angeles has a request for proposals out, looking for a developer who can develop a mobile app that’ll deliver meaningful and useful information to the public within ten seconds of the first alert from the USGS system. The first step will be to develop an app that can beta tested by city employees. It’s intended to be an open source project. The code has to be published on GitHub and published on an open source platform.

The technical work is the easy part. The harder question is, what will people do with the information? USGS says that “the warning time would range from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds”. If ten seconds or more are eaten up processing and delivering the alert, and a few more seconds are needed for people to pick up and read their phones, there’s not much time to react and take useful action. Solving that problem will be the truly difficult, and interesting, challenge.

City of Los Angeles Informal Procurement: Los Angeles Earthquake Early Warning Mobile Application

Arizona innovates self driving cars while California pioneers regulation

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California is on the receiving end of another slagging for its top heavy approach to regulating the development and deployment of self-driving cars. Ian Adams works for the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C. consulting group – AKA think tank – that finds its home on the dark public policy corner where industry, academia and government intersect. Writing in The Hill, he points to the departure of the Waymo – formerly Google – autonomous vehicle venture for free range Arizona…

The reasoning behind Waymo’s deployment decision was simple: California opted for an overly prescriptive approach to regulating technological innovation. The state’s regulatory process simply too slow for it to capitalize on its seemingly insurmountable natural advantages…

Meanwhile, down in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey’s aggressively pro-growth administration issued an executive order to encourage self-driving vehicles, with only the barest necessary constraints on how they may be deployed. Since then, predictably, developers have flocked to the state.

He has a point. California took an early lead in opening the door to development of self-driving technology, but instead of offering a gateway to the open road, the door led to a bureaucratic maze. When the California department of motor vehicles slapped down Uber, the governor of Arizona scored quick and easy points by welcoming them, and any of the other 20 companies operating under the DMV’s supervision, to his state.

It worked.

The DMV’s response was to double down and publish new draft rules last month that close the loophole Uber thought it saw, generally tighten up language defining self-driving cars and adding new red tape to the testing process.

Autonomous vehicles are a step into the unknown for everyone, industry, consumers and government officials alike. The word for that is pioneering; a word we expect to find in the same sentence as California and high tech. But expectation is not entitlement. Unless the DMV rethinks its role, it’s a word we won’t be hearing as often.