Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Reader Question - Augmented Reality on Mobile Devices

Last week I got the following email message from a reader who had attended the Online Impact 2010 Event held at Springfield Technical Community College on January 14:

Hi Gordon,
I wanted to let you know I really enjoyed Online Impact. It was great and I look forward to the next one. During the second panel session you described a cell phone application where a user can look at the camera and have information display on the screen about what the person is looking at. This sounds pretty interesting. I just got an iPhone, can you point me to any specific applications I can try?
Thanks again, JJ

Thanks for the question JJ and really glad you enjoyed Online Impact, it was a great event and we're meeting next week to start planning the next one! The technology I mentioned is called augmented reality - basically layering digital information onto the real world. One of the most commonly known augmented reality applications are the yellow lines you see on televised football games indicated how far a team has to go for a first down. This technology has been around for a while - it was first used on September 27, 1998 by Sportvision and ESPN during the broadcast of a Bengals and Ravens game.

Mobile devices (like cell phones) can take this technology one step further, allowing developers to create applications that combine the built in camera, GPS, and compass to layer virtual data over the real world. We're just starting to see these kinds of applications for mobile devices like iPhones and Android phones. Here's some examples courtesy of a recent piece in Wired Magazine. I've included short YouTube video links of each application in action. Some of these apps are currently available and some are in production.

iPhone Apps
Yelp Monocle - uses iPhone camera and compass to place Yelp ratings over a live view of establishments. Demo video linked here.
iPhone ARider - Streams Google Maps from your iPhone to a special eyepiece you mount on your bike helmet. Demo video linked here.
Acrossair Nearest Subway - Overlays directions and subway line information on the iPhone's camera view. Demo video linked here.

Android (Google OS) Apps
TwittARound - Through the device camera, shows you location-stamped tweets (available from certain Twitter clients) from others nearby. Demo video linked here.
Layer Reality Browser - Point the Android camera at a cityscape and this application coughs up data - everything from the location of bus stations and skate parks to real estate prices. Demo video linked here.

Coming Soon
TAT Augmented ID - You knew this one is coming(!) Using face-recognition software from Polar Rose, this application can scan a strangers face and reveal their contact info and profile stats. Demo video linked here.

We're just in the infancy stages of this technology. Check some of these out and keep watching places like Wired and this blog for new information!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How To Put Your iPhone Into Field Test Mode & Compare Signal Strength Bars To Actual Signal Levels

In a previous post I showed how to do Decibel (dB) calculations when both the input power and output power are known for a transmission system. We learned that a 50% decrease between input and output power results in a power loss of -3 dB with the negative sign indicating the loss in power.

These calculations work great if you know both the input and output power but - what if you don't know the input power? And, because dB calculations are made based on an output power to input power ratio, they really don't tell you much when it comes to things like actual signal strength. What's the solution? Something called a dBm calculation. dBm calculations are done in basically the same way we do dB calculations, the only real difference being we replace the input power value in the equation with a 1 mW constant:

Psignal in dBm = 10 x log10(Psignal in Watts/1mW)

Where Psignal in Watts is the signal strength measured in Watts. This equation can be simplified using some basic math since 1mW is now a constant, yielding:

Psignal in dBm = 10 x (log10Psignal in Watts) + 30

Pretty simple, the dBm level of a signal that has been measure in Watts is just ten times the base-10 log of the measured signal plus 30. It's actually so simple it's much more common to measure and indicate communications signals in dBm. In fact, you can take some measurements yourself if you happen to own an iPhone. Let's learn how.

The iPhone has the ability to go into something called Field Test mode. Once in this mode you can look at signal strength in both signal bars (what we are all used to seeing) and also in dBm. To put an iPhone into Field Test mode just punch in the following number on the phone keypad, including the "star" and "pound sign" keys:


After you punch these numbers and symbols in, hit the Call button on the keypad and you'll end up with your iPhone screen looking like this:

Lots of interesting stuff here but - for now - let's ignore everything but the upper left hand corner of the screen. Take a look at where you usually see the signal bars and you'll see a negative number - this is the actual cell signal strength your phone is receiving in dBm referenced to 1 mW. In the above screen shot I'm measuring -113 dBm. Touch that signal strength number once and it toggles to the familiar signal strength bars:

Touch it again and it flips back to the strength number. You get the idea. What constitutes a good signal? Here's some rough signal strength guidelines:

Full Signal:-70 or lower
Optimal Signal:-70 to -75
Fair Signal:-75 to -85

Poor Signal: -85 or higher

Remember as a negative number increases in its numeric value it is actually decreasing with reference to zero. This means a -70 dBm signal is stronger than a -85 dBm signal.

This is interesting to experiment with - check your signal strength in different locations see and how it correlates to the numbers of bars you are getting. Does it match up? Not always based on my experience!

To exit out of Field Test mode on the iPhone just hit the Home button.

Have a Blackberry? (I don't so proceed with this one at your own risk) I've been told you can do something similar using the secret code Alt-NMLL to convert your bars to numbers. To convert back to signal strength bars just enter the same secret code again.

Have a phone other than an iPhone or Blackberry? Most phones will allow you to go into some sort of field mode to see actually signal strength numbers. Check your manual or do some searching on the web to find out how.

7/6/10 Update: This function appears to be disabled after completing the iOS 4 Software Update

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kindle SDK Released

It looks like the upcoming Apple Tablet release (rumored to be happening next Wednesday), with (also rumored) reader features including e-books, may be giving Amazon a little bit of a push. Today, the company will announce the opening up of the Kindle to outside software developers. Here's a New York Times piece quote from Ian Freed, vice president for the Kindle at Amazon:

We knew from the earliest days of the Kindle that invention was not all going to take place within the walls of Amazon. We wanted to open this up to a wide range of creative people, from developers to publishers to authors, to build whatever they like.

Here's more details on the Amazon announcement from Silicon Alley Insider:
  • Several partners, including Electronic Arts and Handmark/Zagat Guide, are already playing with the app development kits.
  • Apps will be able to be free, carry a one-time cost, or a monthly subscription fee.
  • Apps will be available "later this year."
  • Access to the wireless Web is expensive. Developers will have to pay a steep $0.15 per megabyte of data transferred over the Internet, to compensate for the fact that consumers don't pay for wireless Internet access on their Kindles.
  • "On the forbidden list: Internet voice-calling software, advertising, offensive materials, the collecting of customer information without consent, and the use of the Amazon and Kindle brands."
I'm a huge Kindle fan having purchased one of the first generation devices and am excited about this announcement. The Kindle runs on the Linux operating system and uses a number of open source software components. It's a great development platform. On the hardware side, the device uses an e-ink screen which is slow to refresh so we won't see a lot of fast action type games.

What will we likely see for apps? In the same New York Times piece Freed predicts publishers will begin selling a new breed of e-books, like searchable travel books and restaurant guides that can be tailored to the Kindle owner’s location; textbooks with interactive quizzes; and novels that combine text and audio.

When will an e-textbook become "better" than a traditional textbook? If the publishers really embrace and leverage this technology (still a big if) - I'm thinking very soon.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Social Media in Western Mass - Online Impact 2010

On Thursday we hosted Online Impact 2010 in the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC). This was the second Online Impact event held at STCC - we had the first one in June 2009. Both events focused on the use of social media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to reach out to customers and prospects. We had an excellent half-day of panels and workshop sessions that focused on social media tips and tactics - here's a list of the workshops along with the presenters:

Twitter and Blogging 101 - Gordon F Snyder Jr (my session!), National Center for Information and Communications Technologies (ICT Center) at STCC
LinkedIn 101: Getting Started & Avoiding Mistakes Tom Lewis, NeedleMine
Integrating Social Media into Your Website Jason Turcotte, Turcotte Design
LinkedIn 201: LinkedIn for Busy Professionals - Getting Results in 10 Minutes/Day Christine Pilch, Grow My Company
Market like the big brands do: How to build a Facebook Fan Page for your local business Mary Fallon and Amanda Gauthier, Garvey Communication Associates, Inc.
Twitter: Where's the ROI? Morriss Partee, Everything CU
The YouTube Effect: What you need to know about online video and the future of the Internet Dave Sweeney, The Communications Department
If We Can Do It, So Can You: Using Social Media in Organizations of All Shapes and Sizes Brad Blake, Director of New Media and Online Strategy, Massachusetts Office of the Governor and David Cavell, Communications and Speechwriter, Massachusetts Office of the Governor
Social Media in Education: An Education Essential Kelly Galanis, Westfield State College
Becoming A Digital Bigfoot: Five quick moves to enhance your digital footprint and gain a competitive advantage! John Garvey, Garvey Communication Associates, Inc.

We also ran a couple of great panels, both moderated by Dave Sweeney from The Communications Department:

Panel 1: Social Media from the Front Lines
Ed Carroll – WGGB abc40
Craig Swimm – WMAS 94.7
Kelly Galanis – Westfield State College
Gordon Snyder – National Center for Information and Communications Technologies (ICT Center) at STCC

Panel 2: Integration
John Garvey – Garvey Communication Associates
Tom Lewis – NeedleMine
Morriss Partee – Everything CU
Christine Pilch – Grow My Company

We had 90 attendees with over 25 people on the waiting list. The event - presenters, attendees, facilities - all excellent. Kelly Galanis (aka
RedHeadedDivaK on Twitter) has put up a nice video shot by WGGB on YouTube:

Special thanks to Dave Sweeney from
The Communications Department and John Garvey from Garvey Communications for their efforts in setting this up and also special thanks to STCC President (and blogger) Ira Rubenzahl for allowing us to host this event at the College.

With my work I get around the country fairly frequently and have to say
- there is some of the strongest excitement, knowledge, experience, dedication and commitment I’ve experienced right here in Western Massachusetts. This event certainly strengthened these impressions. A great day with great people - Western Massachusetts is a very special place to live and work.

We're looking forward to the next Online Impact event!!

Friday, January 15, 2010

What The Heck Is A Decibel?

Maybe "decibel" is not part of your normal vocabulary but it is a term we all occasionally read or hear used. Typically it has to do with noise levels - we use decibels to describe loud or soft sounds. US government research even suggests a safe exposure sound limit of 85 decibels for eight hours a day. We frequently hear the term but - have you ever wondered what a "decibel" really is? Let's take a look.

Decibel (abbreviated dB) measurement is a logarithmic measurement typically of a output/input ratio of power or voltage. According to Wikipedia, the decibel originates from methods used to quantify reductions in audio levels in telephone circuits. Over distance any type of transmission media (copper wire, fiber optic lines, wireless) signal gets lost. The simplest way to think of a transmission system is as a box with signal going in and signal coming out the other end. In the diagram below we'll use Pin for our input signal and Pout for our output signal.
Ploss in the diagram is the power lost as the signal moves from the input to the output of the system. Any communications system signal is going to lose strength as it moves from one point to another due to things like resistance, capacitance and inductance that are all integral parts of any transmission system. Heat (as in hot days) can be a major problem for cable and telephone companies because wire resistance increases with heat causing more power to be lost in the delivery system. Sometimes signal loss is so significant amplifiers have to be added to a communications links to clean up and boost signal strength. Let's take a look at how decibels are calculated.

Power loss in dB is calculated by multiplying 10 times the base-10 log of the output power (Pout) divided by the input power (Pin). Let's look at an example where Pin is 20 Watts (or 20W) and a Pout is 15W.

Ploss in dB = 10 x log10(Pout/Pin)

Ploss in dB = 10 x log10(15W/20W)

Ploss in dB = 10 x

Using a calculator to take the base-10 log of .75 we get -.125 Don't miss the negative sign - it is important here - it indicates power is being lost in the transmission system. Continuing with our equation.

Ploss in dB = 10 x (-.125)

Ploss in dB = -1.25dB

So, in this transmission system example, our output signal is said to be down (referencing the negative sign) 1.25 dB.

Let's work one more calculation, this time using a Pin of 16W and a Pout of 8W. Not a very efficient transmission system if we are losing half the power we put in. Let's see what we get for decibel loss working through the equation.

Ploss in dB = 10 x log10(Pout/Pin)

Ploss in dB = 10 x log10(8W/16W)

Ploss in dB = 10 x

Using a calculator to take the base-10 log of .5 we get -.3 Again - don't forget the negative sign. Continuing with our equation.

Ploss in dB = 10 x (-.3)

Ploss in dB = -3dB

In this example, the system is losing half the input power and our output signal is said to be 3dB down. This is important to remember - for every 3 dB power decreases or increases by 50%. How do we know if it is increases or decreases? By that very important positve or negative sign!

In a future post we'll take power calculations a little further and discuss something called the dBm Scale.

Update 01/25/10

Homework: If Pin is 7W and Pout is 5W what is the Ploss in dB?


To access Mike Q and my 22 minute and 50 second podcast titled What The Hcck Is A Decibel?, click here.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Time To Close A Telco Tax Loophole?

You may not have heard of a Reverse Morris Trust (RMT) - it's an obscure tax loophole that allows large telecommunications companies to dump assets on smaller weaker companies. In 2007 Verizon took advantage of one, selling off their landline services in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire to Fairpoint Communications for $2.7 billion and saving $300 million in taxes for themselves. The biggest losers in that deal today are the people of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire who are now left with deteriorating service after the recent Fairpoint bankruptcy. We've seen similar results in other places - in 2005 Verizon sold off landlines in Hawaii to Hawaii Telcom Communications. Hawaii Telecom also filed for bankruptcy in 2008.

Fast forward to today, the're another big deal in the works with Verizon looking to sell 4.8 million rural landlines in 14 states to Frontier Communications. It is estimated the Verizon/Frontier deal would save Verizon approximately $600 million in taxes due to an RMT. There's been considerable opposition to this deal - here's an interesting quote from a PC World article:

The deal is a "tax scam, at its base," added Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a media reform group. In a Reverse Morris Trust deal, the selling company can avoid paying taxes on its sold assets as long as its shareholders end up with more than 50 percent of stock of the buying company.

Tax scam or no tax scam - I'm not knocking the companies - if there is an opportunity to save money it is smart business to take advantage of that opportunity. What concerns me is what this is doing to the quality and growth of broadband services in the United States. We need to start building modern high bandwidth IP-based infrastructure everywhere in our country if we are to compete with the rest of the world. If RMT loopholes remains open, then telcos will most likely continue to expand their dumping of landline services and ultimately hurt us all - not just those living out in rural areas.

U.S. Representative Alan Mollohan (D-WV), is referenced also in the PC World article:

The Reverse Morris Trust deal with FairPoint should be an "ominous" sign for regulators looking at the Frontier deal...... Frontier will have to cut thousands of jobs, and Verizon will walk away with a tax break.....I'd prefer to see that funding go to extend broadband in West Virginia. This [deal] is not in the best interest of our state.

What can be done? U.S. Representative Paul Hodes (D-NH) has announced he will introduce legislation that would reform the Reverse Morris Trust (RMT). I personally believe this legislation is crucial if we are going to modernize the communications infrastructure in our country.

You can get more information on Reverse Morris Trusts, the tax loophole and working to close it at a site put up by linked here. If you agree with what you see there (be sure to also do your own research) you can send an electronic letter via the site urging your member of Congress to co-sponsor Rep. Hodes' legislation.