Connected Paper

Gotta love those Swedes.  From the country that brought us Celsius, the safety match, dynamite, the cream separator, and the internal pacemaker we now get connected paper.  The smarty pants at Ericsson have developed a paper label capable of communicating a variety of bits of data using you own body as the network.

Check it out, very cool.


Skype Translation Halfway There

I watched the Microsoft video on Skype’s new Translator feature.  According to Microsoft it is a big leap in voice translation, thanks to the move to deep neural networks for speech recognition.  The video shows a German and an English speaker having a Skype call and Skype translating and synthesizing the speech in their respective native language.  All very cool and as the video states all very Star Trek.

It made me think about the speech recognition technologies I presently use.  Anyone who has access to such services has probably at one point shared a laugh with a friend or coworker over the latest voice to text faux pas.  Who hasn’t heard “Hey, look at what <insert service provider / technology brand name here> thinks you said”  They can be as hilarious as auto-correct mistakes on your cell phone.

I sure hope that the new Translator feature performs more reliably.  Can you image watching the the screen and seeing the reaction of the person you are talking to when Skype translates your  “mountain biker and trails” to “mountain biker entrails”.  In English you can easily see the mistake, but in German it is not so obvious -> “mountainbiker und wanderwegen” becomes “mountainbiker eingeweide”.

What struck me the most in the video was the apparent lack of progress in speech synthesis.  It sounds like they are still using the same voice engine that shipped with Windows XP.  This alone makes me look slightly askance at the new feature.  A sexy new thing like real time voice translation really deserves a better speech engine than that.  Something that sounds a bit more lifelike.  It really is not that much better sounding than the phone based technology we had in the 1980’s. Anyone else remember trying to program a Heathkit HERO robot to talk? No, just me?  Well, never mind then.  Cool stuff in the 80’s, lame today.

Nostalgic Status Report

In a previous life I spent a few years doing strategic planning at a telecommunications company. One of my responsibilities was to contribute to the long term network evolution plan that would be the roadmap for key network investments and build outs. This was back in the late 1990’s.

One of the things we talked about way back then was a concept called IP Multimedia Subsystem, or IMS. IMS for us was the core of the next generation converged public telephone system. Creating it was our holy grail. It would allow you to build a network that would be access independent and support rich media communications. An IMS core meant that the cellular network, your home phone, and a soft phone on your PC are all using the same system. Not simply interworked through gateways but actually the same system. Applications created for one are available to all.

Without getting into the how’s (we’ll leave that the the phone companies) an IMS based network could allow you to do things like start a phone call, promote it to a video call, then as part of the same conversation open a window and transfer some files to a co-worker. How about being able to see the presence of your brother in Vancouver before you make the call and get his voicemail? Or selecting to simultaneously ring my home phone and my cabin phone? Better yet how about it the call follows me and rings the cabin phone automatically once I get the the cabin?

Many of these types of features are now available in today’s VoIP PBX systems. There is also a growing list of features like these in services such as Google Voice and Google+ and Microsoft’s Lync/Skype integration. It’s not hard to see why telco’s consider these guys as the next big competitors.

But as I said, that was the late 1990’s. At the time I don’t think I appreciated how far ahead we were looking. The Google machine tells me that IMS was developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) as a packet switched Next Generation Network for cellular networks in 1998/99. The dates elude me now by I am pretty sure we had it in our plan as early as 1997. If that is so then it must have been based on some pre-standard work.

Today I find myself working at the very same telephone company, but this time in the role of a unified communications consultant. Yesterday I sat in on a presentation by my successors in the planning department for an update on IMS. To my great chagrin I hear that the world is still in early days of deploying this technology. Some companies in North America and Europe have deployed, removed and redeployed systems trying to find the right mix of vendors. Others are just in their initial deployment stages. My employer is at the lab stage; testing and validating and developing fulfillment and assurance processes. Launch of commercial services based on our shiny new IMS core won’t be for another year.

Wow. Our network strategic plan has taken 15 years to come to fruition. A large part of that time has been waiting for the technology to mature; perhaps only the last couple of years could be blamed on other factors. Most of the people in the room have no notion that we talked about this so long ago. It’s all very exciting and they chomp at the bit to sell the new services. I do too, but a part of me is feeling maybe a little old that the others have no idea this isn’t “new” and maybe a bit proud too. Not too many arrows shot today will land as close to the target 15 years from now as our plan did. A little late and $3.5B in capital investment later, but right on the mark.


Sitting around half watching Canadian Pickers, half playing on iPad. Downloaded an app called Etchings the other day, here are a couple of examples.

Oakley on a Stamp
Yellow Creek Bridge as an ink and watercolour

October is Gadget Month

If I were to look back over the last few years it seems that October is gadget month for me. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is that summer and all the yard work and running back and forth to the lake is done so I have extra time (and money) to find and buy stuff. Maybe it is that payroll taxes like CPP and EI premiums are maxed on and I have extra cash. Whatever the reason this year is no different.

Tonight I finished installing my swanky new Nest thermostat. It would have been last night except for the need to replace the old wiring. I ordered this prerelease a couple of months ago and it has been sitting on my dining room table for two weeks waiting for me to install it.

Self learning programming, motion sensing, Internet connected for remote management, it is the perfect gadget for me. I can’t wait to see how much it tells me I saved by having a night and away lower temperature program that actually works with our erratic bedtime schedule. Adjustable from an app on my iPad I can sit comfortably back on the couch and control the heat without getting up, leaving me more time to play with my other new gadget, the Harmony Touch remote, but that’s a story for another day.

DNA Storage Media?

Holy Smokes!  Harvard University researchers have developed a method to encode binary data onto bits of DNA making DNA the densest, most stable storage media ever.  The approach they use is actually quite simple even if the enabling technology of DNA sequencing and synthesizing has taken years to develop and perfect.  When I read the article and watched this video I could help thinking of the computer in Star Trek.

Obviously this is a long way from being practical in any sense.  This work is research and I say very cool research.  If you read the comments on the article you will see lots of people slagging the work and pointing out all sorts of problems.  People who are poo-pooing this research completely missed the point and are incredibly short-sighted and just plain naïve.  Future advances in biochemical based information processing will solve many of the issues the naysayers point out.  Researchers will continue to look to nature for answers and they will find them.

Read up on it here

or better yet here.