Technologizer

The History of Technology, as Told in Wacky British Pathé Newsreels

How computers--gigantic, noisy ones--changed practically everything

In an inventive, generous act, British Pathé has uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 pieces of footage from vintage newsreels to YouTube. If you stop by to check it out, you might have trouble pulling yourself away. It’s a fascinating survey of what happened to the world from 1896-1976, told in bite-sized chunks.

The collection is searchable, so I pulled up some choice bits relating to computers–especially how they got used to automate practically everything in the 1960s. This stuff was amazing at the time–especially, it seems, if you were a British newsreel announcer.

1949: An engineer teaches a machine to play noughts and crosses, better known to you and me as tic-tac-toe

1962: Pan Am and IBM sign a deal to computerize airplane reservations (watching this, it hit me: how the heck did they do them before computers?)

1966: Rowland Emett, the Rube Goldberg of the U.K., demonstrates his homemade computer

1967: During an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease, horse-racing fans settle for a computerized simulation

1967: The latest in automation–from the Auto-Typist to a pocket-sized dictation machine–gets demonstrated at the Business Efficiency Exhibition

1968: Honeywell demonstrates its “girl robot,” Miss Honeywell, who, I regret to say, I suspect of being an elaborate hoax

1968: A report on the Univac-powered Tinder of its day, complete with a Beatles soundtrack

1968: A Putney man composes music with his home computer, which happens to be a PDP-8 minicomputer

One thing I learned from watching all of these: Unless British Pathé sweetened its soundtracks, computers used to be noisy. I’m just as glad we no longer have to listen to that incessant clackety, clackety, clackety, clacking.

Technologizer

Bye-Bye FuelBand: Nike Won’t Be the Last Company to Get Out of Wearable Hardware

Nike FuelBand
Nike

A pioneer in fitness trackers decides they don't have a future--at least as a Nike product line

Nick Statt of Cnet has a scoop: He’s reporting that Nike is laying off most of the people on its team responsible for the FuelBand fitness tracker. Instead of making its own hardware, the company will focus on fitness-related software henceforth.

It’s impossible to hear this news without bringing up the fact that Apple CEO Tim Cook is on Nike’s board and wondering whether it relates in any way to any plans Apple might have in the smart watch/fitness category. There, I just did. But that’s all I’m going to say, because who knows?

This I do know: I’m sorry to see the FuelBand go away. Though it didn’t do anywhere near as much as a Fitbit or Jawbone Up, I loved Nike’s hardware design, with its straightforward display and a clasp that locked securely and doubled as a USB connector. (It’s one of the few wearables that doesn’t make you keep track of a stupid little charging dongle.) I was hoping to see it evolve further; Statt says an upcoming model was canceled, though the current FuelBand SE will stay on the market.

Still, I think it’s possible that Nike’s move is a smart one, strategically. There are just gazillions and gazillions of fitness trackers on the market now–a little like there were once gazillions of e-readers, and before that, gazillions of MP3 players. And now phones such as Samsung’s Galaxy S5 are adding enough fitness-related features–it even has a heart-rate monitor–to render a wristband superfluous for some folks. (The evidence suggests that Apple plans to turn the iPhone into a health aid, too. )

Bottom line: Whether or not Nike has any specific knowledge of anything Apple might be planning to unveil, it has a good idea which way the wind is blowing. I’ll bet it won’t be the last player to exit this category.

Technologizer

Facebook Adds a Feature That Lets People See Your Location — But It’s Optional, Optional, Optional

Nearby Friends
Facebook

The social networking site has announced a new feature for its iPhone and Android apps called "Friends Nearby." The feature will notify users when they have friends in their vicinity — but it only works if users turn it on

Facebook is announcing a new feature for its iPhone and Android apps called Nearby Friends. If you choose to turn it on, and have friends who do likewise, you’ll get notified when you’re in the same vicinity — so you could discover you’re both at the same movie theater, for instance, or both happen to be attending the same conference.

In broad strokes, at least, Nearby Friends is conceptually similar to Highlight and other ambient social-networking apps. The category was hot, very briefly, a couple of years ago — at the time, Facebook bought one such app, Glancee — but didn’t turn out to be the next big thing after all.

One reason the idea didn’t truly take off is that many folks aren’t instinctively thrilled by the notion of an app automatically sharing their location with other people. Facebook gets that: It mentions that Nearby Friends is optional in the headline on the blog post announcing the feature, then stresses that it’s turned off by default and only works if both you and other friends have chosen to enable it. You can also choose to restrict your visibility to a specific list of friends, such as family members or close friends.

At the other end of the location-sharing spectrum, it sounds like Nearby Friends never shares your whereabouts with anyone who’s not on your friends list; that’s a fundamental distinction between it and Highlight, which aims to enable serendipitous connections between people who don’t already know each other. That should remove some of the potential privacy-invading creepiness factor, since strangers being able to determine where you are isn’t on the table.

Facebook’s blog post says that you’ll be notified of nearby pals “occasionally” — I’m not sure if that means you sometimes won’t be alerted to their presence, or simply that you won’t be pelted with so many notifications that it becomes irritating. The post also doesn’t specify the how large a geographic radius the feature covers, which has a big impact on what the experience is like. (Here in San Francisco, I might have dozens of friends within a mile or so of me at any given time — but probably only a few, or none at all, within a hundred miles.)

In a rational world, Nearby Friends would be uncontroversial. If the idea appealed to you, you’d switch it on, and if it didn’t, you’d leave it turned off. I’ll be interesting to see how people react as the option shows up in Facebook’s iPhone and Android apps, which the company says will happen in the “coming weeks.”

Technologizer

FarmVille Is Back — and This Time, It’s Portable

FarmVille 2: Country Escape
In FarmVille 2: Country Escape, your farm is on the coast--and on your phone or tablet Zynga

The one-time Facebook phenom arrives on iOS and Android in its first made-for-mobile edition

Remember FarmVille? Of course you do. Once upon a time, circa 2010, chances are that you either played it on Facebook or were annoyed by addicted friends seeking your help tending to their crops. It was the Facebook game that made Facebook gaming famous.

A lot has happened since then — particularly to Zynga, FarmVille’s creator. The company boomed, went public, paid a lot of money to buy Draw Something developer OMGPOP, saw its stock crater, went through multiple rounds of layoffs and brought in former Xbox chief Don Mattrick to replace founder Mark Pincus as CEO. Although the FarmVille franchise is no longer a phenomenon, it’s still important to Zynga: In its last quarterly results, it reported that its first and third highest grossing games were FarmVille and FarmVille 2, respectively.

The new Zynga wants to be a much bigger player in mobile gaming, a category where King’s Candy Crush Saga is enjoying a reign of pop-culture dominance that’s reminiscent of Farmville back in the day. And it’s bringing FarmVille along with it, in the form of FarmVille 2: Country Escapes, a game for iOS and Android that’s launching worldwide today. (It’s already been available in Canada and a few other countries as Zynga tested and tweaked it before the full rollout.)

This isn’t FarmVille’s debut on mobile devices: That came with an iPhone app back in 2010. But it’s the first version designed with mobile devices in mind from the get-go, and that competes with existing mobile farming games such as Supercell’s Hay Day.

As the name indicates, FarmVille 2: Country Escape is an extension of FarmVille 2, which modernized the famously blocky franchise with fancier 3D graphics when it premiered in 2010. Visually, it’s quite similar, with the same adorable little farm folk and animals, rendered with lots of details and little animated flourishes. You touch and swipe your way around your land in a manner that, if anything, feels more natural than the pointing and clicking of FarmVille in its Facebook incarnations.

FarmVille 2: Country Escape
Zynga

But FarmVille 2: Country Escape isn’t just FarmVille 2 in app form. In fact, it doesn’t even involve the same farm. You start all over again with new farmland nestled on a cute little coast, and the gameplay, while still involving tending to crops and animals, is quite different in its details. (The two incarnations are linked through a feature that lets people who have farms in both games move goods such as water and sugar between them.)

You can connect FarmVille 2 to Facebook, iOS’s Game Center (iOS) or Google Play Games, play with friends and speed your progress by forming co-ops with other players. But in a FarmVille first, you can also opt to play in standalone mode, without having to go online at all. “Friends are not required to play this game, ever,” says Zynga VP of Games Jonathan King. “As you can imagine, that’s a big deal for FarmVille.”

Though the game looks and feels like FarmVille, it’s not aiming to be a FarmVille-like timesink. Instead, in recognition of the fact that people often use mobile devices when they’re doing stuff like waiting in line at the grocery store, it’s designed to provide more instant gratification. “You can have a short session that actually has meaning,” Knight says. “You don’t have to feel that every time you open FarmVille, it’s a giant commitment.”

As always in FarmVille, there are forms of currency you can trade for items, including both ones you can earn and ones you can buy with real money. New this time around are stamps that can be traded for prize animals, such as a special cow capable of producing more milk than the game’s plain old cattle.

Here’s Zynga’s trailer for the new game:

FarmVille 2: Country Escape may rejigger the FarmVille experience in multiple ways, but Zynga hasn’t fundamentally reimagined it. I asked Knight about where the series might go, especially in light of Zynga’s acquisition in January of NaturalMotion, whose Clumsy Ninja iPad game features spectacular production values more reminiscent of a Pixar movie than a Zynga game. Though he didn’t have anything specific to share, he told me that the company sees lots of opportunity to embrace new technologies and take the franchise new places.

“We think FarmVille is an evergreen,” he says. “I expect FarmVille on the Holodeck in a couple hundred years.”

Technologizer

Eyefi Cloud Is the Best Wi-Fi Camera Experience Yet

Eyefi
Eyefi

New apps and a web-based service make it much easier to get to your photos from anywhere.

You might think that the market for Eyefi cards–the SD cards that have built-in WiFi, providing any camera with wireless networking–would have dwindled away by now. After all, the first cameras that came with Wi-Fi debuted almost a decade ago. But Wi-Fi still only ships as standard equipment on slightly over a third of new models, giving Eyefi a big market to go after.

I’ve used its cards with my cameras for years, especially since I started spending most of my time on my iPad, which otherwise only accepts SD cards through an external dongle I never remember to take with me. They’re indispensable. But in the past, I’ve never been overly impressed with the company’s software: It’s tended to be tough to set up and pretty clunky in everyday use.

Now that’s changing. The company is unveiling Eyefi Cloud, a new service designed to make it a cakewalk to to get your photos off the camera and onto every gadget you own: phones, tablets and PCs. And it’s coupling the service with all-new versions of its iOS and Android apps that are major improvements on their predecessors.

The service and apps work with Eyefi’s Mobi cards, which start at $49 for a model with 8GB of storage. The company’s more PC-centric X2 line remains on the market, and isn’t compatible with the new stuff.

As before, the apps snag photos wirelessly by connecting to the card while it’s still in your camera. But now they’re much meatier and modern-looking. Using an interface that reminds me of Dropbox’s new Carousel app, they cluster your pictures by date, present them more attractively and let you create tags and albums.

And now the apps automatically upload all your photos in full resolution, as well as snapshots you take with the camera on your phone or tablet, to Eyefi Cloud. (You can choose to have them do this over Wi-Fi and cellular connections, or only Wi-Fi.) Once they’re there, they’re available on all of your devices running the app, as well as in a browser-based version of the service you can use on your Windows PC or Mac. You can also share images and albums with other folks, who don’t need to have Eyefi Cloud accounts to view them.

The apps keep only recent photos on the devices themselves so they don’t gobble up all your storage. But you can quickly swipe backwards in time to get to any photo you ever took, and save it on any of your devices. (Any photo you took with your Eyefi card or device’s camera once you started using Eyefi Card, that is: The apps don’t provide a mechanism for getting your older pics into the service. But the company says it’s working on that.)

The Eyefi Cloud service lets you store an unlimited number of photos indefinitely at full resolution, so it shouldn’t come as stunning news that it’s not a freebie. After a 90-day trial period, you pay $49 a year. If you don’t want to spring for that, you can still use the new iOS and Android apps and take responsibility for moving your pictures between devices yourself.

Eyefi Cloud isn’t doing anything radically new: It’s already possible to automate the process of putting your Eyefi photos online by using the automatic uploading features provided by apps such as Dropbox, or the Google+ uploads built into Android. But it does what it does really well.

I do have one remaining beef, though. Each time you want to pair an Eyefi card with a phone or tablet, you need an activation code that’s in the original packaging. It’s possible to find the code online or in the app on an already-activated device if you’ve misplaced the printed version–which I did, inevitably, moments after buying my card. But the apps don’t explain that. And why do you need to re-enter the code manually, anyhow?

Nitpicks aside, this is the best user experience that Eyefi has ever offered. I recommended its cards in the past; now I do so more heartily than ever.

Technologizer

Anki’s Slot Cars for the iPhone Era Get a New Game, New Tracks and New Cars

Anki Drive
Anki's new cars, Corax and Hadion Anki

Whenever I write about Anki’s Anki Drive — a remarkable plaything that involves tiny robotic cars you control via iPhone — I call them a dazzling modern-era take on the slot-car racing of my youth.

They are. But strangely enough, until now, Anki Drive hasn’t been racing. The gameplay involves shooting tiny virtual weapons at other cars (controlled by your friends or artificial intelligence). Rather than being the fastest car, it’s often been advantageous to hang out in back so you can shoot at the ones in front.

And for all the ways Anki improves on old-school slot racing, it’s only offered one track — the giant, roll-up one it comes with. With slot car racing in its old-school form, you could vary gameplay by breaking apart the track pieces and reassembling them in new configurations.

With some new additions to its lineup, Anki is addressing both these issues. It’s giving its iPhone app a free update with a new game that really does involve racing: You compete to be the first to complete a set number of laps. The weapons are still part of the play, but the dynamics of the competition are meaningfully different, since you can’t win through pure violence alone.

The company is also rolling out two new tracks, each with the same dimensions as the original one (8.5 feet by 3.5 feet). “Crossroads” has a figure-eight layout, with an intersection where cars may cross each others’ path as they whiz by in both directions. And “Bottleneck” has an unevenly-shaped road, with one particularly narrow area that forces cars to squeeze through one at a time. You can play in either battle or racing mode on either track. They’re $99 apiece, and here they are…

 tracks
Anki

Then there are two new Anki cars, which go for $69 each. Like the others, they’ve got their own capabilities and personalities: Corax can use two weapons at once and works only in AI mode until you’ve beaten it on the track, and Hadion is Anki’s fastest car to date.

Anki’s cars may be physical, but a huge percentage of what makes its products interesting is the software that powers the experience. When the company does something like introducing additional tracks, it’s less about designing the new layout, and more about updating the iPhone app — which orchestrates the competition and keeps track of where the cars are — to deal with the new gameplay dynamics that layout introduces.

“People should expect products to change over time,” says Hans Tappeiner, Anki’s co-founder and president. “You see it with cell phones, but you don’t see it in this industry with toys. That’s just wrong. There’s no reason you can’t use software to make things better over time.”

The updated app and additional cars are available on Anki’s site beginning today. The two new tracks go on sale May 6.

Technologizer

12 Things to Know About Project Ara, Google’s Amazing Modular Phone

Project Ara
Google's Project Ara phone, broken down into its component parts Google ATAP

It's wildly ambitious, it's designed not to fall apart if you drop it -- and it may not come to the U.S. anytime soon.

When Google announced Project Ara last October, its plan to make modular smartphones, it shared some photos and very little else. This week, at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, the company is digging into the nitty gritty, by hosting the first Project Ara developer conference. It’s showing prototypes in public for the first time and explaining the technology to the hardware engineers it hopes will build stuff for the platform.

Back in February, I wrote the first in-depth look at Project Ara. It includes most of the key facts Google is discussing at the developer conference. (At least so far: It’s still in progress.) Here’s a recap of what makes Project Ara so ambitious, fascinating and — in some respects — odd.

1. It’s an infinitely customizable phone. Every feature — the screen, the cameras, the battery, stuff nobody has invented yet — comes in the form of a tile-shaped module. You slip these modules into a framework called an “Endo” to build a phone with the features of your choice. And modules are interchangeable, so you could decide to skip the rear camera and slide in a second battery, for instance.

2. It’s not going to be for you, at least at first. The concept sounds like it’s aimed at lovers of bleeding-edge gadgetry. But Google wants to offer Project Ara phones to folks who’d otherwise be unable to afford any smartphone. It plans to roll out the platform in developing nations first, and isn’t saying when it might reach the U.S.

3. The cheapest, most basic phone will be very cheap and very basic. With the target market in mind, Google aims to offer a $50 “grayphone” starter model — no wireless contract required. That version wouldn’t have frills such as one or more cameras. It wouldn’t even be capable of working on cellular networks — just Wi-Fi. But owners could upgrade their grayphones on the fly as their needs changed and budgets permitted.

4. Google is trying to do this fast and efficiently. Work began on Ara in earnest only a little over a year ago, and only a handful of Google employees are involved, along with outside collaborators as required. The company plans to have its first phone on the market in January 2015.

5. It’s inspired by the U.S. Department of Defense’s approach to innovation. Project Ara is part of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, which models its small-team, tight-deadline approach on the Defense Department’s fabled Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which brought us the Internet and satellite navigation, among other things. Regina Dugan, who heads ATAP, is a former DARPA director; Paul Eremenko, who’s spearheading Ara, is also an alumnus.

6. Google thinks of it as Android for hardware. The company’s mobile operating system has done well because it’s essentially a joint effort between Google and the multitudes of software developers who have embraced it. The idea of Project Ara is to allow even tiny companies with inventive ideas to make modules and market them to phone owners — a big shift from the current situation, in which a few large manufacturers crank out one-size-fits-all phones designed to please the masses.

7. The phone isn’t as bulky as you’d expect. You can’t build a phone made out of multiple blocks and make it as skinny as the skinniest entirely-self-contained handsets. But Google’s prototype is 9.7mm thick, which is only half a skosh chunkier than the new HTC One M8. (The final shipping version may be slightly thicker.)

8. It won’t fall apart if you drop it. At least that’s the idea. The modules will use capacitive technology for electrical connections, and will lock in place using super-strong magnets (for modules on the back) and latches (for ones on the front). Google says an Ara phone should be as sturdy as a typical smartphone.

9. The project involves some 3D printing breakthroughs. Project Ara modules will be encased in covers that will be produced on demand using a new generation of 3D printers designed by 3D Systems. Consumers will be able to pick custom designs and snap new covers onto their old modules if they choose.

10. Google’s vision for how Project Ara phones will be marketed is pretty wacky. The company is designing portable stores, which it will be able to ship by sea to the first countries where Ara phones will be available. It’s also developing technology that will do things such as measure your pupil dilation and scan your social networks to help you choose an Ara phone that matches your personality.

11. The platform is going to require lots of enthusiasm from third parties. The only Google-branded part of the hardware will be the Endo. Everything else, like batteries, wireless subsystems, cameras and sensors will be produced by other companies, who will presumably only choose to get involved if they think they can make money. If only a handful of such companies buy the vision, it won’t work.

12. Being both excited and skeptical is a reasonable response. I’m glad Google is trying this: It involves both a big dream and multiple technological innovations, and it’s going to be awfully neat if it takes off.

But that doesn’t mean that I think the folks who are instinctively dubious — such as Daring Fireball’s John Gruber — are being unreasonable. Many things have to fall into place for Ara to evolve from a wild concept to a functioning product to something large numbers of people want. And if Google does indeed have a phone ready to sell in January of next year, it’s not the end of the journey, but the beginning.

I’m not placing any bets on its chances of success, but I can’t wait to see how the world — and especially the smartphone newbies who Google envisions would want this — will react.

Technologizer

Neil Young on PonoMusic, the Third Biggest Kickstarter Project of All Time

Neil Young
Neil Young is honored at a Grammy Week event in Los Angeles on January 21, 2014 Michael Buckner—Getty Images

"The MP3 era is in for a shock," says the rock icon of his no-compromises portable player

Back in 2012, when legendary musician Neil Young started talking about Pono–his effort to build a portable player with an emphasis on audio quality above all else–it wasn’t particularly obvious that the idea had legs in the 21st century.

For a lot of us, after all, music has become something we listen to on our smartphones, streamed from a service such as Pandora, Spotify or Rdio at whatever quality the service in question chooses to give us. To riff on William F. Buckley’s memorable description of the conservative movement, Young seemed to be standing athwart tech history, yelling “stop!”

PonoMusic

Pono still hasn’t hit the market. The wedge-shaped touchscreen gadget–bigger than an iPod, but smaller than a Bluetooth speaker such as the Jambox–will sell for $399 when it shows up. (Once expected to ship last year, it’s now due this fall.) But enough people are excited about the concept to have made PonoMusic the third biggest Kickstarter project of all time. The campaign hit its goal of $800,000 in 10 hours, then went on to raise a total of $6,225,354 from 18,220 backers, who pledged anywhere from $5 (for a thank-you) to $5000 (for an invitation to a VIP dinner and listening party, plus a Pono).

I chatted with Young as the campaign was rocketing past its original target. He told me the idea that became Pono has been kicking around inside his head for years, and didn’t always involve a new portable player.

“First of all, I thought this would be an Internet thing, then I realized that’s not going to happen,” he explains. “The bandwidth isn’t there. We’d have to go back to the original model of the iPod, but with really, really top quality.”

With typical services, he says, “music has been downgraded to ‘content,’ It’s a Xerox of itself. When you see the original art compared to the Xerox, the difference is startling. Whatever the artist creates is what you hear when you hear Pono.”

Although Young talks about Pono as a movement as much as a business enterprise, and sought grassroots funding through Kickstarter, it is in fact a company, with veteran executives and technologists on board. “I’m pretty much the vision of it,” Young says. “I drive the purity and the quality and the transparency of the original artists’ intent.”

Part of Pono’s Kickstarter success was due to its artfully managed campaign, which involved the ability for backers to reserve limited-edition PonoPlayers with the engraved signatures of musicians who back the concept: Everyone from Elton John to EmmyLou Harris to Foo Fighters to Herbie Hancock to Pearl to Willie Nelson to Young’s own groups Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young.

“They get it immediately,” says Young of the response to Pono by other musicians. “There’s no learning curve. They’ve been waiting for something like this for a long, long time.”

But he says he’s aiming for mass-market success: “Anyone who thinks this is only for nerds and audiophiles is in for a surprise. Anyone can hear the difference. That’s why we’ve priced it low.”

The era of purely digital music got underway in the late 1990s with the arrival of apps such as Winamp and gadgets like the Diamond Rio, the first successful MP3 player. (I still have audio files I ripped from CD back then, opting for absurdly aggressive compression to conserve precious storage space on my 32MB Rio.) Today, some level of compression–the rate varies widely–is still standard practice for digital music. Which means that there are adults who may be largely ignorant of music in its pre-MP3 form.

Will those folks care about Pono? “The MP3 era is in for a shock,” Young says. “They’re going to realize what they’re missing when they hear this. One hundred percent of the time it happens. They hear it and can’t believe it: ‘I’m hearing things I’ve never heard in songs I’ve heard many times before. How can it be?’”

Pono is not without its critics and skeptics. They argue that the platform’s use of super-high-resolution data–it uses lossless files in the FLAC format, at up to 192 kHz and 24 bit sampling–is a pointless exercise in specsmanship, because going beyond CD quality doesn’t result in a difference human beings can actually hear. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s the last word on Pono, since focusing on audio quality might allow a company such as this to design hardware that’s capable of better audio reproduction than your average phone. And PonoPlayer will be able to work with CD-quality files as well as higher-resolution ones.

It’s no shocker that Young is dismissive of the Pono opponents, pointing out that they’ve reached their conclusions without having listed to the still-unreleased player. “They don’t have to waste their time. They can get another MP3 and keep on rocking.”

If Pono is erring on the side of lavishing music with more tender loving care than it may really need, that seems to me to be more admirable than giving it short shrift, as has often happened so far in this century. Other companies have tried to build a business on super-high-quality music and failed, such as MusicGiants; if nothing else, Young’s ambitious, high-profile effort should be the definitive test of whether there’s a market for this.

And it’s not just about the player and whatever music will be available at launch. He talks about, well, just about every song eventually being available for Pono: “The goal is to keep doing it until we’ve got it all—get the new stuff out there and the older stuff that’s still available to get.”

Young calls music “a window to the soul” and “a reflection of civilization.” Sounding like an archivist as much as a purveyor of hardware and software, he says that Pono’s mission “is to create an ecosystem that preserves the history of music for the world in its highest possible form. It’s something that the technological era we live in, the 21st century tech, is capable of delivering.”

“We wouldn’t have a museum where people listened to Frank Sinatra on MP3. It’s the 21st century’s most obvious idea.”

Technologizer

This Animated GIF of a 3D Bear Has a Secret

Spoiler: He's not as digital as he looks

I’ve become obsessed with the below animated GIF, which I discovered over at Amid Amidi’s Cartoon Brew. Stare at it, and you might be obsessed, too, at least for 30 seconds or so.

Bear Walking
Blue Zoo

It looks like something I might have seen as part of a 3D animation demonstration by a computer scientist when I attended the SIGGRAPH conference back in 1989. But here’s the remarkable thing: It isn’t computer animation. That bear may be made out of polygons, but he isn’t made out of bits. He’s a physical object–or, more precisely, 50 of them.

Two London-based companies, DBLG and Blue Zoo, created the animation, Bears on Stairs, which did begin with a computer-designed ursine protagonist. But rather than just rendering a bunch of frames, the companies printed out the sequence as 50 models. Then they photographed them as a stop-motion sequence, using the same basic technique studios such as Rankin/Bass used long before computers had anything to do with animation.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes video:

As Amid points out, the idea of using 3D printing to meld computer and stop-motion animation isn’t new. Laika (the studio behind Coraline and the upcoming Boxtrolls) is already doing it. But normally, the goal is for it all to be so seamless that the viewer doesn’t know or care that computers were used. What’s clever about “Bears on Stairs” is that it evocatively flaunts its use of computers–so much so that almost anybody would assume that it was a purely digital production.

Technologizer

Shocker: In 1980, Motorola Had No Idea Where the Phone Market Would Be in 2000

When you make predictions about tech, prepare to be wrong

Yesterday, I wrote two pieces about the impossibility of making tech predictions–one involving a 1981 magazine cover, and one concerning current predictions about the wearable-gadget market in 2018. I promise to move on to other subjects in a moment, but I stumbled across one more random artifact that’s too good not to share.

Marty Cooper is the legendary inventor of the mobile phone, which he came up with in 1973 while working at Motorola. Over at the website of his company, Dyna, there’s a digitized version of an amazing article about the wireless phone market by H.P. Burstyn, from the November 1980 issue of Electronic Business magazine.

At that point, the wireless phone industry barely existed. The story reports that it may be shaping up as a war between AT&T and Motorola; says that what we later came to refer to as “car phones” would make up the bulk of the market, but that pocket-sized phones could be a big deal someday if they could be made to work indoors; and addresses concerns such as whether thieves would be likely to break into automobiles to steal phones, as they’d done a few years earlier with CB radios. Reading it today, it’s both an endearing period piece and a pretty smart summary of where the market was at the time.

It also features some stats forecasting the number of wireless phones to be sold in 10 major U.S. markets:

Wireless phone projections
Electronic Business

The projections I find fascinating are the ones in the middle column. They’re from Motorola, and they involve the year 2000, which was then two decades in the future.

It’s not entirely clear whether the total figure of 207,399 phones represents cumulative sales or sales in the year 2000 or the number of subscribers. But no matter how you slice the data, it’s wildly off. I don’t have numbers for the 10 markets mentioned, but according to the FCC, when the year 2000 rolled around, there were 109 million wireless phone users in the entire country. That’s 400 times Motorola’s estimate for the markets in its study.

In 1980, the folks at Motorola knew more about wireless phones than anyone else in the world. But they couldn’t see what economies of scale would do to pricing for handsets and service. They weren’t aware that the breakup of AT&T, mandated by the U.S. federal government in 1982, would lead to dramatically increased competition in the communications market. They likely didn’t envision that by 2000, it would be clear that phones and PCs were on their way to merging into one category of device.

Today, as far as I know, no research firm is attempting to estimate sales figures for the year 2034. Bu things move a lot faster than they did 34 years ago, so looking out even a few years is an exercise fraught with peril. And the best way to look smart isn’t to act like we’re capable of predicting the future with any precision–it’s to cheerfully admit that we often don’t have a clue.

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