FollowBot: First Thoughts

When I decided to attend DragonCon this year I started thinking about elaborations of the idea of ‘costuming’ that went beyond attire and accessories, to environmental effects and devices. I hit on the idea of a “followbot,” based on the Star Wars mousebot which you see zipping around the imperial corridors making electronic squeaky noises.

Such a mousebot would be Arduino-based, and consist of a motor system, steering servos, and some means of controlling direction. I’ve considered making a radio-controlled or even autonomous mousebot, but in this case I want one that will actually track me and stay at heel.

I don’t want to use any optical method of motion tracking, because that would require that my own costume have special features to enable visual recognition. Neither do I want to use infrared (IR) for pretty much the same reasons… even an IR beacon would have to maintain line-of-sight, and so would necessarily have to be a costume feature – not to mention potential interference problems.

That leaves me with radio frequency (RF) tracking, and the problem of determining direction and distance from the platform to me.

My first idea is to mount a circular array of 6 or 8 RF receivers on the platform and use radio signal strength indication (RSSI) to determine the angle from it to a pinging beacon I could carry hidden. The antenna with the highest signal level would be pointing to me, and I continuously scan the array to track my movement and provide control to the steering motors. Initial reading on this topic suggests that RSSI may be unreliable, as the signal strength doesn’t really correlate with the distance… in fact, the strength may even go down as the transmitter comes closer in some instances. I suspect this has to do with measuring wavefronts with a single antenna, and I’m going to see if using the circular array allows me to compensate for that, perhaps by calculating some product of the measurements from adjacent receivers.

So far, my only other idea is to mount a kind of ‘doppler array’ of only 3 or 4 receivers, and measure the time differences of wavefronts. That would require that the signal I transmit is actually coded, so that the processing program would know which ‘pings’ to measure the differences of. Distance measurement would probably then involve a ‘pingback’ of some kind, again for timing comparison. This is a sufficiently complex task that I think I’m going to stick with the RSSI method for now.

Clearly, none of this is happening for this year’s DragonCon. This little project is going to take a while.

Gestures Above the Fold

Back when wombats roamed the earth web pages were lengthy. Content flowed freely from top to abyssal bottom, tremendous grey trunks of text broken but rarely by an image or block. This was when “hypertext” was still the paradigm, when every term and notion merited a bit of blue underline guiding the patient reader to wider reaches of raw, seething information.

Then the class of User Analysts arrived, and convinced the Clients that everything important needed to be Above the Fold. Thus began the dual age of the Splash Page and of the Ridiculously Dense Landing Page – competing theories of attention-retention that both derived from the mandate that scrolling is bad, that the user needs to see everything  now, and that she would rather click her way through to More, than to grab that scrollbar and actually navigate the browser.

In effect, this was a gestural mandate at least as much as a visual one. Consider that Mac mice didn’t (and still mostly don’t) have scrollwheels, so rather than simply folding an index finger one is required to manipulate wrist and arm to browse a window. If Macs had scrollwheels, would The Fold have become as essential, bearing  as it does the borrowed context of newsprint?

In any case, larger screens and resolutions and better design finally loosened the tyranny of The Fold, and clients became less squeamish about using all that lovely real estate afforded by modern digital media. Sure, the top splash carousel became de rigueur, but no longer was it assumed that anything more than 400 pixels from the top of the screen would vanish utterly from the user’s eye.

And then came the Pad. And here we are again.

By now, you’ve probably seen Gawker Media’s new layout. It is very much a design of the Pad era. The fold is back with a bang, and the sidebar is a gestural scrolling runway. At a stroke, Apple’s technologies have (again) both constrained and leapfrogged convention, and its metaphors are going to determine how we think about web architecture.

The medium is the technology. The technology determines the shape of information and the range of one’s interactions with it. You flip a book’s page. You click an e-reader’s pager. You scroll a mouse. You flick a pad. Each means of presentation determines information esthetics, shapes editorial decisions, adds to or subtracts from the semiotic experience… each, therefore, affects what that information means.

We’re on a cusp, I think. There seems to be an uneasy conversation between the Pad Web and the Screen Web and the Mobile Web, each elbowing  the other for consideration in the plans of digital architects. I think that in the long run more convergence is likely, rather than less, and that there will emerge a new dominant metaphor for the next decade’s information.

And then of course, it will all change again.

Face It, I’m Not That Into You

The ‘net, as Douglas Adams observed of the universe in general, is really, really big.

It’s full of words and images that represent ideas. And the simple fact is that, for the most part, there are only so many ideas to go around at any given moment. Your ideas are probably not unique. In fact, the more time you spend on the ‘net, the more likely that even the language you use to express those ideas is pretty common, too.

Yes, you might have an interesting perspective or tone, or a certain degree of credibility. But unless you’re very special indeed, I can probably find whatever you have substantively to offer elsewhere.

So why do you make it so hard to read what you have to say? Why put up active barriers to my access of your ideas, or make that access so unpleasant that I just won’t bother?

Flash videos that I can’t stop until they’re over. Absurdly “creative” ads that mangle my browser. Mousetraps that wrest my control of navigation. Polls that pop up once out of every three pages. Splash screens and graphics that convey nothing but your self-regard, in defiance of my simple inquiry. Incoherent architecture that obfuscates and buries what ought to be clear and evident.

None of these convey anything useful to me, or make it likely that I will give you any further attention. Yes, you just got my page-hit, but you won’t get any more, and my dwell time will be negligible.

It’s a big place. I’ll find my ideas somewhere else.

Convince Me

So the inevitable conversation has finally arrived in my household, initiated by an innocent question by email:

I think we should get android phones.
Our phones are useless for anything other than calls, and everyone who has smartphones LOVES them. It really makes me wonder what we’re missing.

Ever the late adopter, I have to wonder whether I’m really missing anything at all… and it occurred to me that my own workplace, heavily populated as it is by smartphone devotees (and not a few outright Apple fangeeks), might be just the place to put such a question. And so I did: Continue reading