Tuesday, March 07, 2006

O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference Focuses on the Attention Economy

I'm getting some good leads on some new web applications here at O'Reilly's Emerging Technologies Conference in San Diego . I saw a demonstration by Ray Ozzie of Microsoft of a new web app that creates a "clipboard" for use with a web browser so you can copy and paste things like contact information presented on a web page into your Outlook address book or a schedule of events into your calendar of choice. It also has a secured items feature that lets you paste things like your mailing address or credit card information into a web page from your own personalized encrypted object library.

I also saw a demonstration of a touch screen input panel that can use multiple points of stimulation to manipulate objects. For example, you can have a screen full of images and you can rearrange them and size them by grasping the image with both hands and stretching it out to the size that you want. Very intuitive. It had the look and feel of sorting pictures on a real desktop. They also showed a mapping application where you have a globe of the earth and you use your hands to spin the globe around to the point you wish to see then zoom in moving your fingers in a "brushing sand away motion". You can even tilt it by using three fingers so you can get a topographical view.

Another synopsis of the presentation: "Jeff Han, a consulting research scientist, give a demonstration of his Multi-Touch display screen. Developed at NYU's Department of Computer Science as a part time project, this display screen allows users to control the computer by touching the screen. Unlike old single point touch-screens that we know now, the multi-touch interface allows the user to touch the screen at multiple points at the same time. Multiple touch points on the screen surface open up a world of possibilities where the user can manipulate objects with multiple fingers, and these can map to many more operations that a single point interface can. This new interface will require rethinking of many of the common user interface concepts that we all take for granted today.

Supporting multiple points at the same time allows the developers to break out of the current UI box and start thinking in new ways. For instance, using this screen with a new desktop system a user can control the desktop using simple hand motions to pan and zoom. With beautiful and smooth graphics we watched as Jeff dragged and zoomed dozens of pictures on a desktop, as if we were watching Apple's Expose features on steroids. If there wasn't enough space on the desktop, simply zoom out and find more space on the edge of the desktop and then move windows there. " - Robert Kaye

Of course the theme of the conference is the new attention economy so there is a lot of discussion on ways to datamine attention information. One company named lastFM.com offers: "You get your own online music profile that you can fill up with the music you like. This information is used to create a personal radio station and to find users who are similar to you. Last.fm can even play you new artists and songs you might like. It's addictive, it's growing, it's free, it's music." The company's web app actually runs as a background process with API hooks into your audio player (iTunes, RealPlayer, etc.) and invisibly records what songs you are listening to and how many times you listen to a particular song or artist. It not only uses this information to recommend new music but aggregates your information with the data from other lastFM users to provide data on the most popular music, artists, genres, etc.

At a presentation on Greasemonkey, a great Firefox extension that enables you to modify or augment your personal view of existing websites, I learned about another neat Greasemonkey script that automatically links any text on a website that has an entry in Wikipedia to the appropriate Wikipedia article.

I also saw an interesting presentation on a virtual world called SecondLife where users actually buy, develop, and sell virtual land and businesses for real money. I had a bit of trouble understanding what they meant so I went up to my room on the break and logged in and checked it out. Apparently, subscribers are given space on a server and tools to create virtual objects and services in their virtual world. Other users living in the virtual world then pay real money to obtain the virtual objects that have been created. I couldn't believe this would really work but at another presentation I attended, the speaker mentioned that secondary income derived from the sale of objects and services for use in virtual worlds is a multibillion dollar business. I went up on the site and looked at the type of services that are being sold and found things as diverse as a virtual pet groomer, a custom avatar creator, an interior decorator, a fashion designer, etc. What is really amazing is that some of these virtual providers have gone on to sell their creations to real world companies like clothing manufacturers, etc. I can usually get my mind around most concepts but this one is a bit mind boggling so I'm obviously going to have to do some more research.

I went to another presentation about using game theory mechanics to make functional services more engaging and satisfying. One of the strategies recommended is implementing a collection aspect to your online experience. The presenter, Amy Jo Kim, founder of Shufflebrain.com said that one GPS company in Japan has a website feature that enables users to run around Tokyo and "find" virtual objects by uploading their current location to the company website. The web application then populates their virtual collection exhibit with a picture of the virtual object "present" at that location - sort of like virtual geocaching. Another top strategy is to implement a means to rate things and gain points. The points could be redeemed for "easter egg" services that are not normally provided to less frequent visitors/users. One of the most important strategies she mentioned is to use feedback in some form to create positive reinforcement for the use of your web service. She mentioned a game that is extremely popular in Japan called BrainAge. The users login and perform a variety of mental exercises (math problems, etc) that stimulate different parts of your brain. The user has a profile that, based on how many brain exercises they do, keeps track of the age of their brain. The more mental exercises you do the younger your brain supposedly becomes. Health conscious users are now making a visit to the site part of their daily exercise routine!

A really interesting product I checked out at the exhibitors' fair was a free product called RSSBus. The RSSBus engine has the ability to essentially "scrape" XML namespaces for attributes then enable the user to specify search criteria in the attributes and convert the query response to an RSS feed that is then formatted as a constantly updated web page to display the results. For example, the developer demonstrated how to use RSSBus to create a live RSS feed of the traffic conditions for a particular location using Yahoo Traffic. RSSBus can detect the XML attributes of location and route on the Yahoo Traffic website and provides a popup box asking you for your criteria. When you submit your criteria, it performs the query and formats the results as an RSS feed. This feed is then incorporated into your RSS aggregator. Then each day when you get ready to leave work you glance at your news aggregator and quickly check the traffic conditions without having to go to Yahoo traffic and manually conduct a search.

I also learned about a search engine for open source developers named Krugle. "Krugle makes it easy for developers to find source code and technical information—fast! Krugle enables you to quickly find and review source code, find code related technical information, save, annotate and share your search results with others...all from within a single, easy-to-use, web application."
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