Use VR to rebuild heritage

Would VR be an answer to Italy’s woes?

Recent earthquakes have badly affected some regions of Italy that are among the richest in the world on history and art.  Aside from the terrible personal consequences, the job of rebuilding so much heritage is daunting to say the least.  Much of this heritage has been reduced to dust, so for the most part it won’t be restoration, but total reconstruction.  Despite political demagoguery it is unthinkable that absolutely everything will be restored just as it was before the earthquake and even simply reconstructing the main fabric of major buildings would require decades of costly and intensive activity.equakechurch

In the meantime, the areas affected by the quake are likely to be further deprived economically by the loss of revenue generated by tourism.  But some of its original tourist appeal could be regenerated quite quickly.   Agriculture and animal husbandry will continue, so food production should quickly return to normal.   Functional dwellings can also be put up fairly rapidly and the visually appealing unique landscape (landmark buildings aside) will continue to exist.   Smells, sounds, taste and people make up for much of a tourist’s experience, but what to do about those destroyed monuments?

Here I believe, modern technology could help.  In their scholarly article Williams and Hobson talk about VR’s potential for tourism, while at the same time saying that uptake in that field would be ‘slow’.  Note that was back in 1995! In that respect Daniel A. Guttentag provides a much more contemporary overview, particularly in relation to Heritage Preservation.   Both papers (and there is much more on this topic around) talk comprehensively about the overall experience and the risk that just total immersion in VR might never provide a suitable alternative to a holistic tourist experience. So VR and tourism have a long history already, but this isn’t the point I am making here.

We often think of technological innovation as a one stop solution yet we all know that each innovation provides us with an opportunity to develop and evolve existing processes, rather than supplanting everything that was there before.  So, for example, though we may use emails to communicate, we are still likely to get a handwritten post-it note to stick a few thoughts on a board or book.  Therefore, my simple suggestion is that in the context of the Italian circumstances we shouldn’t look at VR as providing a definitive single stop solution, but as an interim measure to enhance visitors’ experience in the midst of an otherwise highly complex and changing situation.

Google streetview (outside the Coliseum, in Rome) as seen through some VR Goggles

Google streetview (outside the Coliseum, in Rome) as seen through some VR Goggles

Let’s take the example of the destroyed Basilica in Norcia.  Once basic clearing work had started and the locality was made safe, with some essential services also up and running, a tourist could reach the town and don a set of VR goggles.  Once on the main piazza they could step through the still standing facade and then into the area occupied by the old basilica, seeing it as it was before the quake. Just like other technologies VR is also evolving and even more immersive experiences could be achieved. For example, a visitor could be made to touch and feel surfaces that were there before and that might not have been within reach either.   In the words of Marco Faccini, an executive from Immerse that specialises in these matters, “Virtual reality can be the new reality.”  Clearly this is a simplistic example, but the implications of utilising this technology could throw a lifeline to the economies of areas impacted by natural disasters.

Obviously, VR heritage assumes that buildings and monuments have been surveyed and photographed in detail to provide a realistic immersive experience (though clever CGI can also help) and this raises the inevitable question of making sure that we do keep detailed image recording of every building at risk.  But photographing and surveying is still an essential part of restoring and reconstructing and one that is much less costly too. Sadly too much resources are often spent remediating after a natural disaster than in prevention, but this is another story.

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Innovation from Google is now almost dead.

This morning I received an infographic from Venngage depicting the highest and lowest of Google and I couldn’t resist adding my two pennies worth of wisdom.  Thanks to that useful graph you can actually take a helicopter view of the situation, demonstrating what I have been telling everyone for the last couple of years or so: innovation, at least from Google, is dead. OK I may be exaggerating a little, but if you take a look at 2008 you will see that there was an enormous buzz created by the launch of Android and the establishment of Chrome as a browser first and then a fully fledged operating system.  Yet eight years down the line all you can see is a great deal of product variants, interspersed by a number of experiments, mostly ditched.heart-cardiogram

I know that Google likes to trumpet its advances on projects like driverless cars and such likes, but we all know that these ventures will matter very little to many of us today or next year.  Who knows when driverless cars will become a reality, it could be ten or twenty years from now, but in the meantime we are still plodding on with what we have got in terms of day to day applications and our phones just continue to run out of battery even faster.

I would go even further.  Over the last three years or more we have seen a service degradation online and on mobile applications too.  Web pages have bloated, being filled by mainly junk like ads and similar, see this interesting report on the average page weight if you don’t believe me.  Big companies have gone to the nth degree to create barriers even where there weren’t any. Whenever they spotted a competitor their main concern has been to acquire them and then, almost always, shut them down.  Take Yammer, bought by Microsoft and now languishing.  Sunrise, once an excellent cross-

Sunset, not sunrise

Sunset, not sunrise

platform calendar,  has been the latest victim and it has now basically ceased to be, being ‘incorporated’ into Outlook.   Where you were once able to create some order and got apps to talk to each other you are now asked instead to download and install separate ones, all eating into your mobile’s processing power, memory and battery, and all vying for your attention without offering you very much at all in return (indeed in many case you are ‘paying’ by parting with some of your personal data used for marketing purposes).

Back to Google, I would like it very much for example if its Assistant instead of thinking of eventually running my car or even my home, understood that I was on a fast train to Edinburgh and not grossly exceeding the speed limit in my car, or that I didn’t have to leave the office at a certain hour when on holiday, simply because my work calendar can’t sync with my personal one.  It’s pretty basic stuff, but essential and therefore intrinsically boring to boffins and marketers.

So where next?  I don’t think any of the software giants out there have a great desire to offer joe public interoperability and really make life easier for all of us.  Despite the hype, once companies grow to the humongous sizes of Google or Microsoft they soon forget all the passion and vibrancy they had at the start and quickly get ruled by beancounters who adopt the same old fashioned business development and customer service models they are comfortable with.  After all a prestige project can create global buzz (Branson knows a thing or two about that…) this raises media awareness and with it the price of shares too. Why bother with tedious end users when you can simply continue to print money at will with just with a bit of glitz and glamour?

It’s all grey out there…

I am ashamed that I have confined my beloved blog site to the attic and haven’t contributed anything for a very long while, but life and all that has to take precedence.  Above all, I can’t get enthused with any of the latest technologies, as it seems we are just being flooded with product variants, rather than real innovation.

The web?

Take the worldwide web for  example.  It’s still dominated by Google, with the difference that these days instead of technology making headlines, it’s government vs Google, either because states are trying to claw back taxes from the corporation, or they are trying to apply regulations to prevent it from displaying specific search results under the guise of privacy regulations.   Either way, there is nothing much in it for the user, unless you are a lawyer.   As for websites themselves, they have become as utilitarian and exciting as your local Yellow Pages.  The largest ones, in an attempt to reach absolutely everyone, have either stripped everything away, or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, in a desperate effort to seek a profitable revenue model, are littered with inane advertisements.

Smarter phones?

Smartphones too seem to have reached the peak of the innovation sigmoid.  Newszines are desperately trying to get us excited by the latest iPhone or Android updates, really?  I have both and I can’t really get madly excited by either.  Recently, my Android phone upgraded itself to Marshmallow, that was a year after Google (or Alphabet) had pushed it out, but that’s another story.  Aside from some changes in the settings and the fact that you can’t manually push some apps to an external card I haven’t seen anything with the wow factor.   I looked at the latest phones, they are bigger (size, memory and display) but they all share the same drawbacks, like poor battery life.  Let’s face it, we have become accustomed to the daily ritual of charging our phones, but why should we?  Why can’t we have smartphones with batteries that would happily last 4-5 days instead?  Now that would be exciting news…

More of the sameOld typewriter

As for other gadgets you just have to peruse some of the specialist sites, or watch gadget shows, and yet again it’s much of the same, just slightly more powerful, a few buttons here and there, a few extra pixels, nothing truly revolutionary.  It’s a little like watching TV, just full of repeats.

Even in science and technology we are still awaiting the big breakthrough.  Remember how graphene was going to change the world we live in?  Can you think of a single commercially available product featuring this material?  I guessed so…  Quantum computing? And so it goes on.

I don’t want this to become the ramblings of an ageing man, but I do love innovation, yet I see much less around these days.   I have a theory or two for this.  The first is that it is well known that innovation comes in cycles.  We seem to have reached a plateau.  The second is based on the prevailing global economic model.  Truly revolutionary inventions require long term investment and vision.  Right now both of these ingredients are in scarce supply.  Companies are more interested in maximising short term profits and governments (inevitably the initiators of most of the essential research needed for innovation) are scaling back on long term investments.

Until there is a readjustment of some kind we are less likely to see anything greatly exciting around, just more marketing driven product variants, better packaged goods and more aggressive advertising  to support them, but nothing seismically significant.  Welcome to the grey age of innovation.

All things Google

The latest design from google

The latest design from google

Those who know me well know that I have a soft spot for all things Google. Perhaps it’s because I witnessed the development of search engines since the old days of Excite or Altavista and Lycos. When Google came out it was like a breath of fresh air.  Further on the company continued with missionary zeal along the path of innovation, another subject close to my heart. How could I not love Google therefore?

I am no dreamer, so I am sure it has its foibles and there are good and bad people in Google too (hopefully more of the former!).  Anyway, I couldn’t help pushing across to you today the excellent synopsis published only a couple of hours ago by The Verge on the 17 Most Important Things announced by Google.  Do take a few minutes to look at this article, it’s very pictorial and packed full with information about the very latest development from that company.  It would be truly amazing especially if Google really managed the provision of a cheap Android smartphone for the developing world.

There is also a new Google design, called Material Design apparently, which is truly cutting edge and fresh.  Here is the link to the Material Design page.

Short piece from me today, but I have a dawn start for a very early morning flight from LGW, enjoy the article from The Verge!

Innovation 2014 three months later

A couple of months ago I gazed at my e-crystal ball and published an overview of 2014 innovation.  The first quarter of every year is always a good time to find out how the land lies and whether there are now distinct signs of progress in specific directions.

Of all the subject areas mentioned in that article I am pleased to see that the three I had highlighted as ‘high interest’ remain firmly at the top, with the Internet of Things blazing away and over 140,000 news articles written on the subject, which is ten times more than what has been written so far for 3D printing or wearable technology.

The Internet of things rules

That the Internet of Things (IoT) is at the top is no surprise.  It’s a subject that excites journalists and politicians alike, a simple concept to explain, but immensely more complex to implement (see my article on this topic of April 2013) and as such it receives wide media coverage, together with substantial amounts of government funds too.  The UK alone has committed £45M on the project, announced by the Prime Minister at recent CeBIT summit and more dosh is available across Europe and elsewhere – little surprise it generates such interest as commercial gains could also be enormous.

Pack leaders

3D printing and wearables are neck and neck and I predict that we will see a lot more media interest on these, but fewer real applications aside from science labs for the former and a few early adopters for the latter, though a smartwatch by Prada or Gucci might change all that…  As for Google goggles outside exhibitions and specialist conferences I haven’t seen anyone wearing them and I suspect it will remain thus for a while longer and not until prices decline to much more acceptable levels, or until a couple of media and entertainment celebs would start wearing them, perhaps.

But what about some of the other innovations like super high definition TV, e-government and so on?  Well, I can comfortably predict that super high TV will definitely be widely available and at more accessible prices too from some time this year.  Samsung is already launching a 28” 4K monitor in the US this summer for under $700 so there is no reason to doubt that this technology will not be more established by the end of 2014.

As for the poor memristors we may have to wait until 2018 or beyond….  and some of the other stuff will probably continue to remain in the realms of journalistic imagination. That’s all until the next technology overview, probably in mid summer.

With the wrong infrastructure we are all back to the dark ages.

We can talk about the latest social media innovations, or the fastest smartphones available as much as we like, but behind all this glitz and veneer of modernity there is, at least in Britain, an ancient communications infrastructure which may be failing to meet demands.

You just need to subscribe to even a handful of tech review sites to see the latest in new apps and hardware.  For the most part every innovation comes with a tag of ‘better performance’, ‘higher definition’, ‘improved sound quality’ and so on.  If you owned a smartphone you would have noticed that apps that had started their lives with a few MB of data have in a matter of months become monstrous resources hogs (why is Google+ app so huge?), demanding more RAM, ROM, whatever, for their basic use, as well as asking for privileged access to all of your phone’s inner recesses.  Movie streaming, especially HD, requires greater bandwidth despite the latest in compression, and so on.  But while software developers and hardware manufacturers are happy to push ahead with higher specs, feeding on our atavistic desire for more and greater, the infrastructure that really drives the whole experience is developing at a much slower pace.

We are all going to be on 4G – maybe not.

Take mobile data communications in the UK.  Yes, 4G is (slowly) being implemented.  But I fear once the hype’s over we’ll be back to where we are now with 3G (do you remember the 3G assurances that in a matter of months we would all be virtually on 3G?  How many of you can reliably get 3G well outside key urban areas?).  The problem is that the basic mobile communication infrastructure is ancient, set in place in the ‘80s, rather than the 21st century.  It has since been patched up, but despite all claims no real major investment has been undertaken, and certainly without a long term coordinated strategy.  I often wonder whether it would have been more efficient to have had a separate network infrastructure provider (like the National Grid), with private operators piggybacking on it, rather than lots of different masts strewn around the country but almost totally inconsistent with the fast changing demographics, like travel and population patterns. Could we really ask such a network to cope with the demands and innovations of the 21st century?

Fast broadband – but only when it works.

The situation is similar for providers of broadband through landlines.  While BT, sorry Openreach, plods along towards a  fast fibre optics infrastructure at what appears to be the speed of an elephant through a jungle, other alternative providers like for example Virgin have little incentive to offer reliable services. I happen to live in a village where the option is stark – either take BT  at speeds of between 1.5 to 3.5Mbp, or jump on the flashy, and expensive, Virgin bandwagon and get up to 60Mbp, theoretically.   I can hear people commenting that I should just be thankful and keep my mouth firmly shut,  but the truth is that this isn’t real competition and you do feel it when things go horribly wrong.  And I am afraid to say with Virgin this happens all too often, with days with no service at all, with no explanation and never, ever, an apology (let alone a refund).  It’s just tough luck if you are working and the whole things go down – consider yourself fortunate that you have had a service up to that instant and despite your regular monthly payments of course. I do wonder sometime what would happen if I simply decided to take a payment break, alleging something like ‘I am aware of the situation and an accountant is on its way to fix this’. Think again then if you seriously believe that this kind of competition adds value to customers and if this is the sort of network infrastructure that can really foster innovation.

So we plod along, we buy smarter smartphones, faster computers, download biggers apps, while not giving much consideration to the communications backbone that’s needed to drive all this stuff.  And I haven’t even touched upon what’s behind all of this – electricity. Given the parlous state of our power generation infrastructure and the current climatic conditions we could shortly revert to candles and paper (my handwriting is now appalling, how’s yours? Time to get some practice!).  Shouldn’t we give these issues more thought before we rushed to upgrade our data hogging devices?