gadgets

Isis Mobile Wallet silently goes nationwide

It appears that without much fanfare the Isis Mobile Wallet has just expanded from the initial test markets of Austin and Salt Lake City to a nationwide rollout - at least for AT&T and American Express customers.

Originally announced on July 30 this year, the nationwide rollout of this NFC-based mobile payment system was revealed to be planned for "later this year". Apparently that day is today, since I was able to go to an AT&T store in New York City this morning and replace my original SIM card with a new SIM card with "Secure Element", which is a prerequisite for the Isis Wallet app. Once that SIM card was installed in my Samsung Galaxy Note 3, the Isis Wallet App (downloaded from the Google Play Store) allowed me to add my American Express card to my mobile wallet:

Galaxy Note 3 w/ Isis Wallet

Registering a new account with the Isis wallet app took a few minutes, as did activation of the credit card in the wallet, which required logging into my American Express account, but once that one-time setup process is complete, starting up the app is fast and you can secure the app with a customary PIN code and can pick how many minutes the app will allow access until the PIN code is required again.

You can also use the Isis website to find out where you can use the Isis wallet today and it is pretty much any cashiers' credit card terminal that shows one of these contact less payment symbols:

Contactless payment symbol

I was pleasantly surprised that in Manhattan there are literally thousands of stores already supporting the Isis wallet and I did my first test purchase at a Walgreens at Union Square. The checkout process worked smoothly, I just waved my Galaxy Note 3 at the contactless scanner while the Isis app was up, and the NFC chip in my phone transmitted the payment information to the checkout terminal, which processed my payment.

I've waited for NFC chips to be available in our smartphones for quite a while and it is a great pleasure to see mobile payments finally becoming a reality! Now we just need more stores to use contactless credit card terminals so I can finally leave my real wallet at home and use my mobile wallet everywhere!

iPad Review

With all the hype surrounding the iPad this weekend, I decided to wait a bit and only write about it on Monday. This was also just a picture-perfect weekend with ideal weather in New England and the Red Sox Opening Day on Sunday, so I spent most of my time outdoors rather than playing with or writing about the iPad.

Being a technology geek I had, of course, pre-ordered my iPad a while ago and so it arrived on Saturday via UPS truck as promised. The truck driver jokingly remarked that he had a full truck of just iPads to deliver and he wished he had bought Apple stock a while ago. The first sales data that Apple reported today does indeed sound promising.

But is the iPad really a new “magical” device as Apple likes to describe it? Or is it the beginning of a dystopian future where Apple controls what we are allowed to see, the apps that are approved, and the end of an open Internet (as some pundits claim)?

I won’t bore you with unboxing details that others have reported before, or give you a detailed guide to the best applications you should download to your new iPad.

Instead, I will distill the benefits of the iPad down to the one product image that explains it all:

Marvel Comics on iPad

Yes, the iPad is a primarily a media consumption device. Think of that cozy armchair in your living room, or the sofa, or the couch, or a bench in your backyard. Anywhere you would sit down with a good book to read. Have you tried using a laptop in any of those spots? It doesn’t quite work. Laptops are – despite their name – really only useful when you put them on a hotel room desk or airplane tray table.

By contrast, the iPad is really made for consuming media wherever and whenever you don’t want to sit at a desk! Now, in addition to reading books from the iBooks or Kindle bookstores, you can also read comics by Marvel (see image above), consume newspapers in digital editions, catch up on TV that you missed, watch movies you buy or rent on iTunes or Netflix, and browse the web. And if you are one of those always-connected people (like me) you can even read your e-mail and respond to the occasional important one, or access one of the many social networking sites or apps.

And it does all of that extremely well – to the point where it is indeed a new class of device and since everything just works and is super fast, it really has a certain “magical” feel to it. In fact, when I showed some of these apps to my family this weekend, I immediately got requests for additional iPads that they now want me to buy…

iBooks on iPad The one iPad app that is of great interest to this XML Aficionado is, of course, the iBooks app, which is both a very pretty e-Book reader and also a bookstore where you can buy these e-Books directly from Apple. The interesting thing about iBooks is that apple decided to support the open ePub file format for e-Books rather than a proprietary format like the Kindle. As you may have guessed already, ePub is XML-based and the content can be provided in either XHTML or DTBook format. The result is that with the launch of the iBooks bookstore there are not only a few publishers who have already signed up, but you also get a ton of works in the public domain, whose copyright has expired, and you can download all of them for free from the iBooks bookstore. 

WolframAlpha on iPad Above and beyond that, the iPad is really a great educational tool. Using WolframAlpha on the iPad is just a joy and there are also new apps, like The Elements: A Visual Exploration that are really beautifully made.

Yes, there are also some business applications, like Keynote for presentation, Pages for word processing, and Numbers for spreadsheet-type work. Those are really very pretty and easy to use and will certainly be useful for some people, but I am guessing these are more attractive for people who don’t have a laptop and, therefore, want to use the iPad for that purpose, too.

Regarding the iPad hardware: the device fits comfortably in your hand and even though it is a bit heavier than the Kindle, it just feels right. The screen is really beautiful and the colors are vibrant. I used the device for several hours on Saturday and Sunday and the battery life was much better than expected. And it is really fast and responsive. I didn’t find any feature or app where I had to “wait for the computer”. Very refreshing, indeed!

So should you buy an iPad now? That decision is entirely up to you, but this flowchart might help. All kidding aside, if you are an early adopter, like new technologies, and have the money to spend, I would go for it. Likewise, if you are considering buying a Kindle or a PSP, I would buy an iPad instead. However, if you don’t yet have an iPhone and are trying to decide between iPad and iPhone, I would probably rather go with the iPhone – in my opinion it is the more versatile device.

multi_touch_20100225 There is another group of people, for whom the iPad is probably ideal: those of the older generation, who have not yet bought any computer. The iPad is certainly the most gentle way for a senior to get access to e-mail, web browsing, and sharing photos with the younger generations. If you want your parents or grandparents to finally “get connected”, then a broadband Internet connection with wireless router plus an iPad is probably the best solution out there.

Are there any negative things to say about the iPad? I’m afraid not many. There is, of course, the one issue that developers of applications for the iPad are totally dependent upon Apple with respect to whether the apps can be sold through the app store, since Apple has a mandatory approval process and can reject any app for any reason. Tim Bray, co-author and editor of the XML specification, has been very outspoken about that issue and recently said:

“The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger.

I hate it.

I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom’s not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient.”

The same is true for the iPad as much as for the iPhone. On the one hand I agree with Tim about freedom not being optional, on the other hand there are very few apps that Apple rejected that I would miss (Google Voice being the only one I can think of right now). The one benefit of Apple’s tight control over the app store is the total lack of viruses and malware on the iPhone/iPad platform. And it adds a layer of QA on top of most applications, so the software you buy in the app store typically works and is useful.

The second issue with the iPad that is worth mentioning is that there are apparently some Wi-Fi issues that people have reported. I haven’t seen any of those problems myself - either at home or in the office - and the iPad has been flawless in its ability to connect to the Internet anywhere I tried.

Finally, for those who are not convinced and would rather want to see the iPad being abused, there are already some interesting videos out there…

Taking the leap into the 3D world

As many other computer geeks, I’ve always been fascinated by 3D technology and admired the big Silicon Graphics 3D workstations of the early days and saw the early 3D movies with red/blue glasses or the next generation based on polarized glasses in the movie theatre.

This past fall I finally made the leap into the 3D world myself and equipped my computer at home with fully immersive stereoscopic 3D capabilities. I already had the benefit of having a PC equipped with an nVidia geForce-based graphic card, so all I had to do is get the goggles and upgrade my monitor to a model that is capable of 100Hz refresh frequency or more.

As you know, a 50Hz or 60Hz refresh frequency is necessary for a smooth monitor picture, and since the 3D goggles are basically shutter-glasses that alternatingly show one frame to the left eye and one frame to the right eye, you need a monitor capable of doing at least twice the 50Hz for a smooth 3D experience. After checking the 3D system requirements, I decided on the ViewSonic VX2265wm 22” monitor.

But I didn’t want to just watch pre-made 3D content – I wanted to create 3D content myself, so I purchased the Fuji FinePix Real 3D W1 camera that can shoot both 3D photos and make 3D videos.

So my complete 3D setup looks like this:

Since I also wanted to show the 3D photos off in our living room, I added the Fuji FinePix Real 3D V1 viewer (a 3D photo frame) and put it on a countertop to run a slide show of the latest 3D images.

So what can you do with such a 3D setup at home? Essentially there are three main uses:

  • 3D Photography: the Fuji 3D camera is as easy to use as any point&shoot digital camera with one exception – you have to constantly watch where you are putting your fingers, because the camera has two lenses in the front and it is very easy to get your finger showing in one of the two photos. The back of the camera has a 3D display so you can immediately correct for parallax problems if they occur (mostly in close-ups). Just like with any other digital camera you can record photos or movies and then transfer them to your computer. Photos are recorded in the MPO format, so for those of us who like to edit their photos in Photoshop this is presently a problem.
  • 3D Games: most of the modern PC-based games have you walk around in a virtual world as you drive fast cars, shoot zombies, or practice magical spells. As such a large majority of them already support 3D and you can just put on your 3D goggles, push a button, and you are suddenly inside the game in a much more immersive experience. I happen to play World of Warcraft myself, and it is just a lot more fun when my mage faces dragons like Onyxia in immersive stereoscopic 3D vision…
  • 3D Movies: Avatar was just the beginning. There is a whole bunch of movies coming out in 3D in 2010, including Alice in Wonderland, How to train your dragon, Toy Story 3, etc. While Sony and many other TV manufacturers are now gearing up for 3D TVs, I think I’d rather watch 3D movies on my PC…

Of course, one of the problems with 3D photography is that you cannot easily share the 3D photos you produce with other people, unless they have their own 3D display setup at home already. However, as an interim solution, there is a website called Start 3D that lets you turn 3D photos into pictures that wobble left/right to create the illusion of a 3D effect – and those can be embedded in websites or shown on web-based galleries.

As an example, here are just two 3D photos that I took recently and converted into the Start 3D format for inclusion in the blog. This is a meeting with my architects and the builder for our house restoration project:

And secondly we have a 3D photo of my son and wife on the balcony of the new carriage house posing for the special 3D effect:

If you’d like to see more 3D images of our construction site as well as some 3D family photos, those can be found on this 3D image gallery

Portable 1TB drive from WD

Western Digital announced a portable 1TB drive today – the highest capacity portable drive so far. The My Passport Essential SE 1TB drive comes with USB 2.0 and built-in synchronization and encryption software (for Windows). They also have a model that can be built into laptops as an internal 1TB drive.

Theoretically it should be shipping today as per their announcement, but it is not yet listed in either the WD online store, nor on Amazon. Can’t wait to place my order…

Also see other blog reactions.


UPDATE:The drive is now available for sale in the WD Online Store

Amazon Kindle 2 Review

My Kindle 2 arrived from Amazon today! It appears that I am lucky in this respect, because Amazon had originally announced the ship date as February 25th, and most people are still waiting for their unit to show up. But I had ordered mine literally within 10 minutes of the announcement - so I guess being an early adopter finally got awarded...

As I had promised a few weeks ago, I am providing a review of the new Kindle 2 as a follow-up to my popular original Kindle Review from November 2007. Just like with the previous review, this one is based on unpacking the Kindle 2 and working with the device for about 2-3 hours. I plan to add information about long-term issues such as battery-life in a future blog posting once I have accumulated several days of usage of the Kindle 2.

Unpacking the Kindle 2 is fun. Just like the Kindle 1 the packaging is well-designed and this  resembles a shipping box with a "tear here to open" strip on one side. The package contains the Kindle itself, a thin "Read me" brochure, and the charging cable. The screen of the device shows instructions to plug it in and then push the power switch on top of the unit - for those that hate even the shortest of manuals.

Once you turn the Kindle 2 on, you immediately get to read the User's Guide on the screen, or you can skip ahead and press the Home button to get to your main library page.

Before I talk about the improvements in the software, let's take a look at all the improvements in the hardware of the device compared to the Kindle 1:

  • The Kindle 2 looks much more polished or refined and gets rid of some of the edginess of the original unit. It feels more "solid" and less flimsy, which may also be due to the fact that it is about 10g heavier (468g with book cover for the Kindle 2 compared to 458g for the Kindle 1).
  • The Kindle 2 now locks into place in the book cover / sleeve that you can order from Amazon. The original Kindle fell out of that cover far too often, so this is a great improvement.
  • Another annoying "feature" of the Kindle 1 is now a thing of the past, too: accidental clicks on the Next or Prev buttons. The buttons on the Kindle 2 are still on the very edge of the unit, but the buttons now have their pivot point on the outside edge and need to be clicked inward, which completely prevents accidental clicking. Very clever design change!
  • The new Kindle 2 gets rid of the shiny silvery and strange LCD sidebar that the old unit used to provide a selection cursor on the page or within a menu. Since the new display is much faster and more responsive, the selection feedback is now directly shown on the main screen.
  • The Kindle 2 has a better position for the power switch (top left of the unit) and gets rid of clumsy wireless on/off hardware switch on back of unit, too.
  • It comes with a better power adapter (mini USB plug on Kindle, charger cable can either use desktop USB plug or wall outlet), which is similar to what the iPhone charger from Apple does.
  • I'm lucky to be in a Spring 3G network coverage area, and so I found the unit to have much faster downloads using Amazon 3G Whispernet (only in areas where 3G EVDO service is available). This was especially noticeable when I downloaded all my previous purchases to the new device.
  • The new 16-grayscale display is great, especially for viewing web content, such as Wikipedia, newspapers, or blogs. It's probably not the most important feature, but certainly nice to have and much easier on the eyes than the old display when rendering images.
  • I never really liked the hardware on/off switch in the back or the sleep mode on the old Kindle, but this is now all much more user friendly and consistent: wake-up from sleep mode is now done using power-button instead of "Alt-AA", and it is much more responsive; pushing the power button briefly puts Kindle in sleep mode (artwork screen saver is shown); and pushing the power button for 4-5 sec turns the Kindle off.

In addition to these hardware changes, the Kindle 2 also apparently offers some improved software that contains several usability enhancements. Some of those are more network features and I assume they will be available as an upgrade on the old units, too, but I haven't heard any details about such an upgrade yet. Anyway, here are the software enhancements that I found notable:

  • The first positive surprise was how easy it was to migrate books from my old to the new Kindle. There are essentially two different upgrade paths: you can either just turn on the new Kindle and from the home page access "Archived Items" and it will show you all previously purchased books that are available in your Amazon account and you can download them right there. Alternatively, you can user your computer to go to the Amazon.com website and use the "Manage your Kindle" page to view a list of all your previously purchased Kindle books and send them to the new Kindle from that list.
  • The Kindle 2 apparently has a faster processor, so it comes with Text-to-Speech software built in. You can turn this on from the font-size menu or from the main menu, and you can customize reading speed as well as male/female voice. A nice feature is that the Kindle auto-turns the pages for you if you are using Text-to-Speech so you can still follow the text as it is being read to you. A neat feature, but the Text-to-Speech engine makes the usual pronunciation errors...
  • Another neat feature is the ability to sync devices, if you have more than 1 Kindle. This lets you read a book on one device and then continue from the exact same page on another device, if they are both linked to your Amazon account.
  • The search function now offers 6 choices: search my items (i.e. all books, documents, subscriptions on the Kindle locally); search the kindle store; search google; search dictionary; search wikipedia; and go to web, which lets you enter a URL. The same choices are also directly available from the address bar in the built-in browser, which seems to have gotten some improvements in usability.

So much for the positive experiences with the new Kindle 2. But not everything is perfect and there are a few disappointments that I experienced when playing with the device on the first day:

Mainly, the built-in browser still leaves much to be desired. It is not quite clear to me why it is not built on WebKit like Safari or Chrome to provide proper rendering of HTML pages. If a device like the iPhone that is less than half the Kindle's screen size can render web pages beautifully and accurately, then why can't the Kindle? This is a very bothersome oversight - especially when open source browser packages are readily available in the form of FireFox or WebKit.

Another issue: no doubt it is great that one can shop in the Kindle Store on Amazon.com using the Kindle, which allows you to buy new books on the road and has been a feature of the Kindle 1 from the start (see left). But the world has changed since November of 2007! On my iPhone I can use the Amazon.com iPhone app today and shop all of Amazon.com - not just the Kindle store. Why can I not order a DVD from my Kindle or shop for new electronic gadgets? It doesn't make any sense to just limit the Kindle application to shopping for Kindle books only....

Also, Amazon has unfortunately failed to address the following points that I had raised in my initial Kindle 1 Review over a year ago:

  • It is great that I can send PDF and Word docs to my Kindle via my personalized kindle.com e-mail address. But that is not enough. When I place annotations, notes, and highlights in such documents on my Kindle, I now want to be able to e-mail them back to my office e-mail address and I want to see those comments, annotations, notes, and highlights back in the Word or PDF doc so that I can send it to others in the company. This would allow me to use the Kindle for actually reviewing business documents – it would be fantastic!!!
  • How can I get additional blogs on the Kindle? I am happy to pay extra, but I want to be able to enter any RSS feeder URL into my Amazon account and create a Kindle blog feed for it. Blog authors can now sign up with Amazon to publish their blogs on Kindle, but as a consumer I would like to be able to pick a niche blog and pay for it myself - that still doesn't work.
  • It would be nice, if Amazon could integrate some Social Networking aspects into the Kindle. How many of my friends are reading books on it? What are they reading? How can I post comments about a book to my blog? How can I tell my friends about comments I have on a book?

Last, but not least, I wanted to test whether the Kindle 2 can now receive and process Open Office XML (OOXML) documents via the personalized e-mail address, and I was indeed able to receive, read, and review a DOCX document in WordprocessingML that I had created from an XML source with Altova StyleVision 2009.

So the overall verdict is: definitely a great improvement over the first generation Kindle, and still one of the best eBook readers in my opinion. But it leaves a few things to be desired - especially in the iPhone-age....

Is it worth to upgrade from the Kindle 1? I would say only if you have kids or other family members whom you plan to give the Kindle 1 unit to. The improvements from the Kindle 1 are certainly nice, but they are more incremental than revolutionary.


UPDATE: The Kindle's Secret has been revealed by XKCD:


New Microsoft 2D barcode released at CES

In a surprise move Microsoft released a new 2-dimensional barcode format today at CES. Yes, a barcode. The lines that are on the bottom of your milk carton, when you scan it at the supermarket checkout. And no, today is not April Fool's.

Two-dimensional barcodes are nothing new, and are most often seen on attendee badges at conferences or trade shows, but Microsoft's format is the first to use color and to be aimed at a specific reader device that most people already own: a cell phone with built-in camera.

The system is called Microsoft Tag and the idea is that you can encode URLs, vCards, phone numbers, or any arbitrary text in such a tag. The user then needs a reader application on their cell phone - and those are available already for all major cell phone platforms, including Symbian, iPhone, Windows Mobile, Android, and Blackberry - and once they scan the barcode, they get the encoded contact, are redirected to the website with the specified URL, or can call the encoded telephone number, without having to enter that number or URL or contact info into their cell phone manually.

MissionKitBarCodeFor a quick demonstration, download the beta version of the reader from http://gettag.mobi and install it on your cell phone, then use it to snap a picture of this barcode on the left and it will take your mobile browser to retrieve product information about the Altova MissionKit for Software Architects from our website. Clearly, it doesn't make sense to use these in a blog, but imagine reading an article about the software in a developer publication and being able to go directly to the website without having to type in a URL...

Btw, if you are using an iPhone, you can get the reader application through the familiar AppStore on your iPhone by searching for "Microsoft".

Microsoft envisions that such tags could in the future be printed on business cards, shown in print ads,XMLAficionadoBarCode on billboards, or even shown on TV, and the system is supposedly so flexible that it can deal even with out-of-focus or tiny versions of these barcodes. Hmm, so I created a new tag already for the URL of this XML Aficionado blog, and now I need to think where I should affix this to - maybe I'll print a T-Shirt with this new design and will wear it at the next conference I go to...

Further information and other blog reactions can be found on TechMeme.

Auroralites dog safety collar

A friend recently pointed out a cool gadget to me that deserves a brief mention on this blog. It is a dog safety collar from Auroralites that uses electroluminescent ("EL") technology to provide a long-lived and bright safety light for your night-time walkies. The product is already being used by police, search & rescue, FBI, and other security K-9 teams, and is now also available for civilian use. The collar is shock proof, water resistant and soft, so they won't break teeth. They produce no heat and are non-toxic. The collar comes in a regular steady-light version and a flashing version with 1s on and 1s off - especially for security applications where you don't want your dog to become a target for enemies. Since Marblehead is a rather peaceful town and I have no intentions to use our family dog in situations where "becoming a target" is even remotely relevant, I opted for the regular non-flashing version of the collar when I placed my order today....


UPDATE: Please do not order this product. My order never arrived, and other customers apparently had the same problem. The company and its website seems to now be defunct. See the comments thread on this blog post for more details!

Zoom H4 Portable Digital Audio Recorder Review

I recently bought the Zoom H4 Digital Audio Recorder for use both as a field stereo recorder for interviews during trade shows, and also as a 4-track recorder for a local a-cappella group.

H4_black This weekend I put the recorder through its paces and recorded a few different scenarios under varying background-noise levels and recording conditions, as well as different dynamic ranges. However, none were made in a studio setting, so these samples all reflect open spaces or a regular building without any sound-insulation or echo-cancellation. All recordings were done with the recorder held in hand. For even higher quality recordings, the device comes with a tripod mount.

Here are a few sample recordings that were done in 44.1 kHz sampling, 16-bit format and later converted to MP3 format after the editing process - use your favorite media player to listen to them. For the outdoor examples I walked through Marblehead this weekend and recorded a few different audio scenes: ocean waves on the beach and crashing against a seawall (MP3), docks at the town landing and harbor noises (MP3), patrons at the local Starbucks engaged in various conversations (MP3), children at the carnival in town (MP3), more carnival impressions (MP3). Some of these outdoor settings were especially difficult recording environments due to the wind today, which was quite strong at times. However, the noise guard that comes with the recorder worked well and reduced wind noises to a minimum.

For the indoor recordings, I have two samples of my son practicing on the drums: Seven Nation Army (MP3) as well as a drum pattern from some Linkin Park song (MP3). Those were particularly tricky to record because of the dynamic range, but in the end I found the right gain setting during recording and then the right mixing approach in the audio software. Last, but not least, to test the vocal recording-quality of the device my wife offered a short rendition of the chorus from the song Ukulele Lady (MP3) by Richard Whiting & Gus Kahn on her ukulele.

After returning from the field work, It was easily possible to transfer the audio data to the PC either using a USB cable, or by plugging the SD card into a card-reader attached to the PC - both methods worked fine.

Overall I'm very impressed with the results from this handy little audio recorder. It offers different quality settings, different gain levels, and has very nice built-in microphones in an X/Y pattern, so you get great spatial separation of the channels. From direct recording to MP3 for quick podcasting work to high-quality stereo recording with 96 kHz sampling in 24-bit resolution, the device has a broad range of applications and nicely delivers the corresponding quality.

There is just one glitch in the device that can at times be annoying: when turning the power-switch to the "On" position, the device normally takes a few seconds to boot, but sometimes the screen just stays dark. Another power cycle usually fixes the problem.

Also, the accompanying software that came with the recorder is an OEM-version of Cubase LE and it is over 2 years old, so it simply doesn't work on Vista. I tried to upgrade to the latest full version of Cubase 4, but the Steinberg website didn't offer any downloads or online upgrades - big mistake! However, I was able to simply use Audacity to edit the audio files produced and then encoded them to MP3 format using Lame

Phonautograph recording of the oldest sound

Most gadgets that I write about are at the fore-front of technology. This Phonautograph, arguably, doesn't look like such a device at first glance:

But in 1860, when Parisian inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville used his device to record Au Claire de la Lune, it was definitely cutting-edge technology, as his device predates Thomas Edison's work by 17 years. One recording from the above device has now been recovered and can be downloaded as an MP3 file almost 150 years later, and subsequently be played on your computer, or even your iPod or iPhone.

See the related press release and also the First Sounds website and this article on MSNBC for more details...

New York International Autoshow

I spent a day at the NY Autoshow this weekend with my son to take a look at the latest concept cars and the newest production cars from the world's largest and most exclusive automobile brands, and to check in on the progress of UIMA, an XML standard that has the potential to one day be used by cars to communicate with the road and with other cars around them.

Being a technology aficionado, I was very impressed to find more evidence of a move to carbon-fiber and aluminum construction evident with many manufacturers this year. Similarly there was are a lot of new developments with respect to electric and hybrid vehicles that could be seen in New York.

Here is a quick gallery of some of my favorite cars at the show:

Mazda Furai Concept Car

Mazda Furai Concept Car

Saleen Raptor

Saleen Raptor

Audi R8

Audi R8

BMW Concept Car

BMW Concept Car

And my favorite of the entire show - and a great example of the use of carbon-fiber and aluminum in a high-end production vehicle - is the Aston Martin DBS:

Aston Martin DB2

Aston Martin DBS

Sadly, a few revolutionary cars that I would have liked to see were absent from the show, such as the Tesla or the Gibbs Aquada. And a few other high-end car manufacturers were also missing, for example the Koenigsegg or the Pagani Zonda.

But there was a flying car on display. Well, at least a prototype of one. You just can't have a car show without a flying car:

I was also looking in vain for evidence of any production applications of UIMA or other similar software approaches that would allow XML to be used by cars to communicate with the road and other cars around them. But that technology still seems to be a few years in the future before it reaches production vehicles, as UIMA is presently being standardized by and OASIS TC.

The exciting thing about UIMA is, of course, that it is not only based on XML, but being described by a specific domain model in XMI (which can be used in the UModel UML Modeling Tool), and contains specific Web Services descriptions in WSDL (which can be viewed in the XMLSpy XML Editor and utilized in our MapForce data integration tool). Last, but not least, there are semantic web implications with respect to knowledge integration in UIMA (which result in RDF and OWL information that can be viewed and processed in our SemanticWorks RDF and OWL editor). I will be following UIMA closely and will report on any progress in this XML Aficionado blog.

More photos can be found in this gallery on my photo website. And for more news from the New York Autoshow, please refer to the various in-depth reviews on Popular Mechanics...

Tesla Roadster takes shortcut when it comes to safety

Tesla

I love technology. And I love cars. So when cool technology is used to build a cool car, such as the Tesla Roadster, I get excited. I've been following the Tesla story for the past couple of years and the idea of an all-electric car and the performance advantages and torque that they get as a result are just impressive. I can't wait to see the first units hit the road - it's supposedly going to happen in Q1 this year and all 2008 production units are sold out.

However, Engadget reports today that the Tesla Roadster will not need to meet the advanced airbag requirements that are now common for gasoline-based vehicles. In Engadget's post Paul Miller writes:

"Apparently when you're saving the planet with an all-electric car, there's no need to kill yourself over safety. The Tesla Roadster has been granted a waiver in regards to advanced air bags by the NHTSA, since the 'public interest is served by encouraging the development of fuel-efficient and alternative-fueled vehicles.' Standard air bags are still included..."

That's a bit of a disappointment, since I don't like to see it when safety needs to take a back-seat, but I guess the reality of creating an electric car company from scratch is that there are some financial and regulatory hurdles in your way.

Let's hope that they will fix this issue for the 2009 model year - they are already taking wait-list reservations...

Snowbike

Most gadgets that I blog about are somewhat electronic in nature, and often connectivity plays an important role. Today's gadget has no electronics, isn't connected to any network, and still beats most other gadgets in its design, usability, and ingenious concept.

I am talking about the Brenter Snowbike, which is somewhat of a cross between a mountain bike and skis. I had the opportunity today to try the snowbike for 2 hours and enjoyed the experience greatly:

AlfSnowbike

As a matter of fact, I had so much fun, that I am going to rent a snowbike all day tomorrow and have some more fun on the slopes. Driving a snowbike is incredibly easy to learn - provided you already have mastered two other skills previously: skiing and riding a bike.

After two test runs on the beginner slope we went up the mountain and on the regular slopes and had a blast. In a timed run, I was skiing downhill on the bike at a speed of 48 km/h (30 mph).

More photos of our lesson today are on my SmugMug photo web site.

Here is another cool tidbit: the owner of the ski school that we rented the snowbike from is Hermann Koch, and I chatted with him after dinner at the hotel tonight. Turns out that he just recently set a Guinness world record: on March 22, 2007, Hermann Koch and Harald Brenter (the inventor of the snowbike) skied downhill 107,400 vertical feet in 11 hours.

Atomic Clocks, Street Views, and Flash Disks

A few random things caught my eye today:

GPS has brought atomic precision time to us in the form of small portable GPS devices, as well as network time-servers that sync with the GPS data. The time from the GPS satellites comes to us with such precision, because the satellites carry cesium atomic clocks on board and are synchronized with ground-based clocks and being corrected for relativistic effects.
But for some folks getting the atomic time from GPS is not enough - they call themselves "Time Nuts" and have atomic clocks (such as the 5071A) at home as a hobby. See also this nice article in Wired today. Wow! I've always loved time, clocks, calendar calculations, leap seconds, and physics. I guess that's a hobby that I could get into, too....

From atomic clocks and GPS it is only a small leap to navigation, which brings us to cartography, which brings us to Google Maps - and the second item of interest today: Google has launched Street View in eight new cities in the US, including Boston. Very cool.

Last, but not least, here is something I want in my next laptop: Toshiba announced a 128GB Flash HDD yesterday. My current laptop has a 80GB conventional disk drive, and it looks like the form factor of that Toshiba drive would allow for an actual replacement.

Amazon Kindle Review

UPDATE February 24, 2009: I've received my new Kindle 2 today and posted a detailed review of the new Kindle 2 on this blog.


Being a gadget aficionado, I placed my order for the Kindle yesterday when it was announced and promptly received the new device today. I've now spent about 3-4 hours with the Kindle, including reading a book at the hair dresser, having my hair stylist and friend recommend Anne McCaffrey's Talents series to me, and using the Kindle right then and there to promptly buy Pegasus in Flight and have it download to my Kindle wirelessly within a minute.

But before I begin with this review, let's put a few things straight: (a) I love books - my parents have always had tons of them, my wife and I have thousands of them, and I will never give up paper books; (b) this review is not being paid for by anyone (however, if you click on a link to Amazon.com from this site and then purchase something, I will earn a small percentage under he Amazon Associates program); (c) I've started using the original Sony Reader over a year ago and just upgraded to the newest Sony Reader about 2 months ago - the reason is that I travel a lot and I like to read when I'm traveling, but I don't like to either lug around 5-6 books with me or run out of reading materials during a trip.

To make things interesting, I purchased a few books and a couple of magazine subscriptions for the Kindle through the Kindle Store yesterday after placing my order for the device. Amazon promised that these would "magically" be delivered to my device once I unpacked it.

So when the package arrived today and I unpacked it this evening after coming home from work, I was immediately surprised by the lightweight nature of the Kindle. I had expected it to be heavier based on the leaked photos, but it is actually quite light - it appears to even be lighter than the Sony Reader. The package is a bit of an homage to the Apple iPod (as is the white color of the Kindle, the power supply, the cables, etc). Luckily the book cover that you can attach the device to is still black!

Kindle The actual Kindle is not even half as ugly as the previously leaked photos seemed to imply. The alphabetic keyboard at the bottom takes a bit of getting used to, but the page-turning buttons are cleverly located where they ought to be (the lack of those was a big flaw in the original Sony Reader, that was, however, fixed in the newer version this year). Once you put the Kindle into its book cover, it has the right touch and feel of a book, and is very comfortable in the hand.

The first time starting it up took a little while, but after it had booted I was very pleasantly surprised to find the following on the home page (after going through a few basic introductory help-file pages of how the device works): (a) a letter from Jeff Bezos that started with "Dear Alexander"; (b) all the books and magazines that I had purchased online the previous day; (c) all the blogs that I had previously subscribed to via the Amazon.com Kindle Store. Furthermore the device was pre-configured to be linked to my Amazon.com account so that all shopping from the device was linked to my account and credit card right away without any setup. The promise that is works right out of the box without any kind of setup is actually quite true.

I then proceeded to read a few articles in the Wall Street Journal and it was nice to see that the scroll wheel and cursor sidebar actually worked quite well. I was able to follow links to web pages (courtesy of the built-in web browser). Navigating was very easy with the page-turn buttons in combination with that scroll wheel.

But I couldn't really play nearly enough, since I had a hair dresser appointment and so I took the Kindle with me. As I mentioned above, it was an immediate hit at the hair salon and I ended up purchasing a book wirelessly right there.

After returning home I continued to read a few blogs - including Robert Scoble's review of the Kindle - and then proceeded to test some more functions that the Sony Reader is lacking:

  • I have always been a fan of search (since I can never remember where I've read about stuff before), and so I searched for the most elusive stuff out there - "dark matter" - and promptly found 7 references in the Amber Spyglass (part of Pullman's His Dark Materials series), one entry in the built-in Dictionary, a link to look up "dark matter" on the Wikipedia, and a link to search for it via Google.
  • Where the Sony Reader can only bookmark pages with a very simple bookmark function, the Kindle shines with its ability to either highlight certain paragraphs in a book (by placing a rectangle around the paragraph), to add annotations at any place (via the keyboard), or to store parts of a page or a whole page as a clipping in a separate clipping file that you can access later.
  • The built-in dictionary lookup lets you position the cursor on any line of text and look up all the words on that line simultaneously in the dictionary.
  • I wanted to continue reviewing a recent trade show report that I had received, so I forwarded an e-mail with a Word attachment to the private e-mail address of my Kindle, and was able to read that document in the comfort of my living room without having to balance my laptop on my knees.

All of these features - combined with the ability to go online and buy new eBooks wirelessly from anywhere - easily is worth the $100 extra that the Kindle costs more than the Sony Reader.

And both devices use the same screen technology from eInk, so they both have excellent daylight readability as well as working in dim lighting conditions. Btw, if you have never seen this kind of screen, be ready to be wowed: the text is crystal clear and the resolution is so fine that you can hardly make out the edges of the pixels that are used to render the text. Since it is a grayscale device, it will also render pictures reasonably well (in black&white). However, one thing that requires some getting used to is that the page blinks briefly when you turn it - this is inherent to the screen technology and not a flaw in either device.

There has been much talk about whether the iPhone isn't a better eBook reader than the Kindle. Trust me, it is not. I love my iPhone and carry it with me all the time, and it is great for reading a few web pages here and there and maybe some blogs on Google Reader. But the screen doesn't even come close to having sufficiently high resolution that you would ever want to read an entire book on it, nor is it big enough - you'd go crazy flipping pages every 2.5 seconds. The iPhone is fantastic for what it was designed to do, but reading books isn't part of that scope.

One thing that is presently being criticized by many is that Amazon actually charges for blog subscriptions - what these people don't realize is that the wireless service that is offered with the Kindle is free. There are no monthly fees, no yearly contract, no hassle. However, if you want content delivered over the wireless network, Amazon charges a small fee for the use of the wireless network, and actually splits the revenues with those bloggers - that's only fair.

In addition to all the official features, the Kindle also has a section of functions that are termed "Experimental", which include a Web Browser. So you can easily venture beyond the blogs that are presently offered through the Kindle shop and access any web content out there. However, reading the fine print in the terms & conditions reveals that Amazon reserves the right to charge for such web usage, since you are, of course, using the wireless network for that purpose.

Another fact that might be of interest to international travelers: currently the Kindle doesn't offer roaming outside of the US. You can, however, still get new content onto your Kindle if you are abroad: all you need to do is connect the Kindle to your laptop via USB, download the files from Amazon.com manually and place them on the Kindle via the USB interface (the Kindle appears as a storage medium to the laptop, like a USB stick or iPod). I might be testing this, when we go skiing in Austria this winter...

Overall, I am definitely rather impressed with this device from Amazon and look forward to reading a few books on it on my upcoming travels. There is, of course, plenty of room for feature enhancements and improvements, but it is a great first version and definitely beats the Sony Reader in just about every aspect, so it will be in my briefcase on all future trips.


UPDATE December 5, 2007: I've now owned the Kindle for two weeks and I continue to be impressed by it. So far I've added about 12 more books to my library already, and after "borrowing" my Kindle a few times, my lovely wife has also bought one and we are both looking forward to reading a lot during our upcoming skiing vacation in Austria.

I've also found a few more things over the past two weeks that I wish Amazon had done differenly or simply a few additional feature requests for the next version, and I provided the following feedback to Amazon already via e-mail - repeated here for your enjoyment:


  • The search function doesn’t seem to index all books on my Kindle. I bought the CIA World Factbook 2007 and it is not getting indexed. Unfortunately this totally defeats the purpose of me buying the book. For example, searching for “Linz” does not find the entry for Austria in the CIA World Factbook.

  • I’ve bought plenty of books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers (and I’m using an SD card) and the home-page on the device is getting a bit unwieldy (4 pages already). It would be nice, if I could create folders/directories on the home page to group my books into categories. And it would be necessary to be able to sort different folders by different criteria. For example, I would like to be able to group them into:

    • Periodicals/Subscriptions (blogs, newspapers, magazines) – the content of this folder I would want to sort by Most Recent First

    • Technical Books (sorted by title)

    • Reference Books (dictionaries, CIA factbook, etc)

    • Economcis Books (sorted by title)

    • SciFi Books (sorted by author)

    • Others


  • It is great that I can send PDF and Word docs to my Kindle via my personalized kindle.com e-mail address. But that is not enough. When I place annotations, notes, and highlights in such documents on my Kindle, I now want to be able to e-mail them back to my office e-mail address and I want to see those comments, annotations, notes, and highlights back in the Word or PDF doc so that I can send it to others in the company. This would allow me to use the Kindle for actually reviewing business documents – it would be fantastic!!!

  • How can I get additional blogs on the Kindle? I am happy to pay extra, but I want to be able to enter any RSS feeder URL into my Amazon account and create a Kindle blog feed for it.

  • It would be nice, if Amazon could integrate some Social Networking aspects into the Kindle. How many of my friends are reading books on it? What are they reading? How can I post comments about a book to my blog? How can I tell my friends about comments I have on a book?

Amazon Kindle - the eBook gets connected

A very interesting new gadget is being announced by Amazon today: the "Kindle" is an eBook reader that is always connected to the Internet. Unlike the Sony Reader, which I currently own and have used with great delight on several recent business trips, the Kindle does not require a connection to a PC in order to buy/download new eBooks. The two devices share the same eInk screen technology, which provides for a very crisp display with excellent readability both in bright (i.e. sunlight on the beach) conditions as well as in low-light environments (e.g. airplane during trans-Atlantic flight).

amazonkindle

Looking at the first leaked photos, the Kindle does certainly not look pretty at all (unless you are into 70s retro design). This is in stark contrast with the Sony Reader, which is extremely elegant and regularly gets people excited like the iPod and iPhone when they first see it. However, the Sony Reader has certainly not been met with any business success so far - which is largely due to the fact that the Sony Connect application, which you have to use to buy your eBooks, outright sucks. Therefore, the Kindle has a fair chance to become a success-story, especially due to its always-on connection to the Internet and the ability to buy eBooks directly on the device as well as read blogs or do other connected things. Together these things could more than make up for the design deficiency - it's definitely worth giving it a try, and I plan to purchase mine tomorrow.

Newsweek has a 7 page article about the Kindle based on an interview with Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon. There is also plenty of buzz in the blogosphere already: TechCrunch, TechMeme, Gizmondo, Scobleizer (the latter one pointing out a fantastic similarity with an April Fool's joke posting that is worth reading), ...

UPDATE: I just placed my order on Amazon.com with overnight shipping (courtesy of Amazon Prime) and will blog more once I have received the device tomorrow.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III

The Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II has been my favorite camera for the past 2 years. Several of my best digital photos were taken with that camera, and I really love the versatility of the EOS series and all the lenses I can use with that body.
I was, therefore, very delighted when Canon recently announced the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III successor model that will ship in November this year:


The technical features are just amazing: a 21.1 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor, dual Digic III image processors, 3.0 inch LCD monitor with live-view, 45-point AF, SDHC support, and tons more.

And the sample photos in this gallery are equally impressive (even though only four have been posted so far).

For more details see the whitepaper (PDF).

Sure, it's not a Hasselblad, but then I'm not really a good enough photographer to warrant that either.

So this Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III gets a clear Thumbs Up from me and is hereby officially added to my Christmas wish list....

Spidey in my basement

It finally arrived this week:

Spiderman 3 Pinball by SternCall me old-fashioned, but I've always been a pinball aficionado. In 1997 it almost looked like the last pinball companies woul disappear, but fortunately we've seen a bit of a rebirth lately with Stern Pinball in the US and the Pinball Factory in Australia reviving Bally and Williams machines.

And I was very excited when I learned about this Spiderman pinball game earlier this year, as Stern has added some very exciting features - chief among them the Fusion Malfunction (a magnetic lock right in front of Doc Ock).

I first got to play the game this summer at Canobie Lake Park, and our entire family immediately became fans.

It's not just Doc Ock - there is Sandman, the Green Goblin, Venom, plenty of ramps for skill shots and combos, and some nicely-done audio effects that complement the game.

Here it is directly quoted from the Stern Pinball website:

"This Stern Pinball Machine, SPIDER-MAN™, was designed by Steve Ritchie, Lyman Sheats, and the engineering staff at Stern Pinball, the pinball machine takes Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3 and puts them all into one fast-paced pinball machine that will excite both operators and homeowners.
In the SPIDER-MAN™ pinball machine, you are Spider-Man™. Your goal is to defeat the villains from all three movies: Green Goblin from Spider-Man, Doc Ock from Spider-Man 2, and Sandman and Venom from Spider-Man 3. There are detailed, vibrant toys of each of the four villains on the playfield with an associated shot. Defeat all four villains and experience Battle Royale!
"

What can I say... this game simply rocks:


Current high-score in our house is 128,626,000 (held by my wife, Nora).

iPhone vs. Windows Smartphone

Which one is "better" - the iPhone or the Windows Smartphone? That's the question that many gadget-loving road warriors and cell-phone geeks are asking these days...

Here is my personal take:

I've been a big proponent of smartphone technology for a long time, and have been chasing the "perfect smartphone" for a while. Specifically, I've been hooked on using Windows Smartphone devices, because of the seamless integration with Outlook and the resulting automatic synchronization of all my contacts, calendar entries, tasks, notes, and e-mail over the air. And my favorite Smartphone so far was the Cingular/AT&T 8525. To meet a new business partner on the road, enter their contact details into the smartphone, and find the same person automatically in Outlook when you get back to the office is simply great - same goes for calendar entries.

So when my wife wanted a new iPhone when it came out, I was very sceptical. Sure, I do use an iPod Video and have been a big fan of the early Macs from 1986-1996, but I could no conceive of how the iPhone could offer anything to me - especially since my AT&T 8525 device had it all: UMTS, Wi-Fi, Push-Email, Windows-based Smartphone, PDF Reader, Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Video, etc.

It took just one week.

I played with her new iPhone while we were in New York. I played with her new iPhone at home. I played with her new iPhone on the boat. After a few days she said "Buy your own iPhone!"...

So I did (at the Apple Store on 5th Avenue in NY) and I haven't touched the Windows Smartphone since.

The reason is very simple: UI design, UI design, and UI design! Just like with any great piece of software on the computer, it all boils down to the design of the user interface. Apple has managed to pack the essential applications into the device in such a way, that I actually started using them. Sure, the Windows Smartphone had a browser (Pocket IE), but it pales in comparison to the Safari browser that comes with the iPhone. Integrating Google Maps into the iPhone was a stroke of genius - it's so easy to use that I actually use it. Technically, I could have used it on the Windows Smartphone, and I even did once or twice. But I use it on the iPhone on a daily basis: to find a restaurant, get the phone number for a school, get the doctor's number, or just look up the way, if the car GPS is confused again (which happens a lot in Boston!).

E-Mail connectivity with our corporate Exchange server works great, and the difference between Push-Email and email that gets polled every 15 minutes is unnoticeable in reality.

Sure, I'm missing out on over-the-air synchronization of my contacts and calendar at the moment, but Apple has already licensed ActiveSync from Microsoft, so it's only a matter of time, before that will work on the iPhone. And until then I happily plug my iPhone into the laptop once a day to sync my contacts and calendar.

Bottom-line: even though the Windows Smartphone has some technological advantages (UMTS, Push-Email, over-the-air sync), the iPhone wins this comparison easily with the best UI design I've ever seen on a mobile phone plus it's 1/4 the thickness of the Smartphone and has a much larger screen!

Here's another reason why this XML aficionado likes the iPhone: it's all Web 2.0 based and you know what that means. Yup, it's using XML to talk to the servers!

UPDATE: Apple just annouced that the iPhone price has been reduced by $200 - what are you waiting for - go and get your iPhone now!