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.

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.

Confirmed – it’s curtains for review sites

A new reality
switch

This is something that has been at the back of my mind for a while: review sites and I therefore reworked this blog that I posted a year ago.

When review  sites came out I became an instant fan of them, not just as a contributor, but also as a user wanting to cut through the inevitable sales flannel to get a fair idea of whether a restaurant was good, or dreadful, if a place was worth stopping by and so on.   Times, however,  have moved on and I am of the opinion that most review sites have now become yet another tool in the extensive marketing armoury.

Trip grovellers

Take the famous TripAdvisor.  I was one of its very first contributors, so have now got a fair number of reviews under my belt and heaven knows how many of their useless (except to some very sensitive egos) badges I have accumulated.  By the way, it’s futile to look me up as I am contributing under a nom de plume, something which will become clearer later on too.  I still keep adding reviews out of a sense of affection and duty towards the site (entirely one sided I hasten to say), but I am realising how useless this exercise has become.

Allow me to explain with some examples.  About a month ago I was in the north of England and wanted to look up some places to eat.  Everything on TripAdvisor was either ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’,even down to a local chippie or sandwich bar. There was no way, not even by poring over the review details, that one could get a sense of reality. Most of those entries appeared to have been written either by professional sycophants, people with a pecuniary interest in the places in question, or those under the influence of something!  It was almost too tempting to look hard for those very few poor or average places and paying them a visit for the sake of getting some sense of reality, rather than being in some rosey parallel universe.  This situation isn’t unique.  I was in Bournemouth recently it was virtually a carbon copy of the experience mentioned, hardly any review lived up to expectations and my ‘very good’ hotel turned out to be a hell hole.  If you can’t easily get to the truth what is the point of a review site then?

Cautionary tales, cautious style

After some soul searching I looked back at the way I used to write reviews and realised that over time I also adjusted my style to be much more conciliatory, vague and in effect more forgiving.  This is partly due to the fact that on a couple of occasions I have had some truly nasty individuals responding to my otherwise objective reviews in a threatening way, so much that I had to refer them to that website admin.  In a specific instance the hotel owner even managed to track back my  reservation and ended up contacting my elderly parents.  Scary.  Clearly at that point you ask yourself whether putting up with all this aggro is actually worth the hassle…  which is why, probably with countless other people, I then decided to err on the side of caution and have since hardly ever left a ‘poor’ review, except for some vague warnings in the body of the review itself or areas where I knew I would never visit again.

I don’t know how we got to this situation.  Perhaps this is a reflection of our litigious society? Partly I guess it’s also down to the sites in question which effectively failed to protect their most precious asset, the reviewer.

Just marketing?

If you included the people who were incentivised to write on review sites (many, and few of the review websites are able or willing to do anything about), those blatantly compiling phoney reviews (like the ones written directly by business owners and their associates, marketing and PR agencies etc), the neophytes, the uneducated, the inexperienced and added them all up, linking to it the more belligerent attitude of the featured businesses, like in the examples I have just given,  you’d clearly begin to question the nature of much of that content and therefore of those sites.

There was a time when review sites sprouted up left right and centre.  I don’t recall seeing a new one in a long while, so we are pretty much stuck with the likes of Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Trustpilot, Google+ and so on.  In addition, there are those sites which are blatantly sponsored by business owners, which begs the question of why of course anyone would want to help them. So it looks as if the review sites landscape has in fact bottomed out with more of them under siege by by professional reviewers like those highlighted in this interesting article from The Guardian that explores even the ‘review turf wars’ between competing companies.

Demise or resurrection?

There are now four possible scenarios.  The first is the technology option. By this I mean that review sites would need to get a lot smarter and should start applying the kind of technology available within search engines to stamp out phoney, poorly written and useless reviews. They also need to reevaluate the star rating.  Everyone wants to be a 5 star performer these days, even school kids, so a new ranking is sorely needed.

The second is that of manual intervention. This is however very expensive and would require editing and validating every review, therefore it’s an unlikely scenario in tight commercial circumstances.  The third, and in my opinion more likely, is that major review sites will continue to devalue themselves to a point where the general public will consider them as yet another promotional tool of little or no use.

The last point is more revolutionary.  Small review sites could spring up and close down after a short timespan, almost like forums used to be created.  The evanescent nature of such sites would counteract some of the pitfalls just highlighted above and be more in keeping with the more dynamic social media angle of contemporary digital communications.

But I am no optimist and therefore just believe we are experiencing the beginning of the end of many review websites, unless they are willing to reinvent themselves.  Time will, as always, tell.

IoT? Smart watches? Boring.

BoredomI feel a little guilty for not having written that much in this site for a few months, but I have a number of disparate interests and with the impending elections here in the UK I have also immersed myself into politics.  Fear not, I have a separate blog for my own political activities, so I am not going to mention the ‘p’ word again here.

The truth is that my passion for innovation hasn’t been fired up by anything over the last few months.  As an avid reader of technology blogs all I have been seeing is basically variations on existing themes.  In fact I pity those journalists who have to make a living looking at technology as sure as hell they must have even run out of nibs by now  (news in brief for the uninitiated by the way).

Variations on a theme

Yes, we have had smart watches (of all shapes and sizes), Google has thrown out its glasses (such timidity shows how much the company has transformed itself into just another boring corporation), the IoT is still in its inception and… well the list goes on almost ad infinitum.  And what about SEO and innovation on the web front?  Yes, search engines are turning smarter and smarter, locational devices offer immense possibility, but we all come a cropper when we try using them either in densely populated areas, where the signal has deteriorated, or in the countryside where there is none. Have you noticed that we are stuck using the same old browsers, except of course they are becoming larger, slower and even less secure by the day?

It’s just a monotonous pattern of product variants and tweaks, rather than real innovation.  It seems we have stalled, just refining and redefining, rather than truly inventing and imagining a new, smarter and more exciting and sustainable world.  Take the ubiquitous  smartphone; it has changed shape (slightly), has had more pixels, more memory (and less battery life, another story!), but we are still essentially split between Android and iPhone.  And when you see the buzz that the imminent launch of Windows 10 creates, well you know that we are living in truly dire times, virtually in the midst of the Gobi desert of technological innovation.

So, could someone out there please come out with something truly inventive, innovative, imaginative, like the internet, or smartphones, or the telegraph, or the light bulb, something, anything, before we all die of boredom?  And if you disagree could you please add your thoughts and above all a link or two, before my brain goes to pulp.

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.