Sunday, September 16, 2012

Exciting innovation in Internal Combustion Engine

Internal Combustion Engines is one of the most important inventions of the 19th century. It laid the foundations of the automotive industry which transformed our lives forever. Top auto manufacturers have some of the finest minds working on improving the core engine and we have seen incremental improvements over the years. With gas prices rising the focus has changed from more power to more fuel efficient engines.

EcoMotors, based in Michigan, has come up with an innovative design of the Internal Combustion Engine that will lead to drastic improvements. Their patented "Opposed-Piston Opposed-Cylinder Engine" comprises of two opposing cylinders per module, with a crankshaft between them, each cylinder has two pistons moving in opposite directions. The configuration eliminates the cylinder-head and valve-train components of conventional engines, offering an efficient, compact and simple core engine structure. Here is an explanation by their chief technology officer, Prof. Peter Hofbauer:

EcoMotors investors include Khosla Ventures and Bill Gates. The technology looks very promising, now lets wait and see when it actually gets into production.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Human Face of Big Data

Big Data recently has been a pretty hot technology area. The Human Face of Big Data project is a globally crowdsourced media project focusing on humanity's new ability to collect, analyze, triangulate and visualize vast amounts of data in real time. Rick Smolan of the "Day in the Life" book series fame is the person behind this project. Here is a small video:

The data collection will happen through the downloadable mobile app for both iOS and Android (available September 25th), so anyone with a smartphone will be able to participate. The data will be collected from the users and their trackable activities in real time between September 25th and October 2nd and will be analyzed by data scientists to draw some interesting insights in an invitation only event in New York.

In November the data collection and analysis activity will involve connecting students around the world in grades 6-12 and their teachers sharing opinions and learnings. Also a large format book "The Human Face of Big Data" will be released on November 20th, its a collection of pictures illustrating the topic.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Google Maps Quest for NES

As part of the April Fools' Day 2012 Google engineering team in Japan came up with an interesting idea of creating Google Maps for the Nintendo Entertainment System. They created a very nice version of low resolution graphics with the old 8-bit games look and feel.

To interact with the live system go to Google Maps. Clicking on the area "Start Your Quest" takes you to the 8-bit version. You can perform all the functions that you can do with regular maps. Take an epic journey with 8-bit Street View. Get detailed directions to avoid dangerous paths, and battle your way through a world of powerful monsters and mystic treasures.

The Google post further claims that "As the first NES cartridge to be released in nearly 18 years, we’re working hard to make Google Maps 8-bit for NES available in the Google Store as soon as possible. A mobile version for Game Boy is also under development."

Time to find an old Nintendo to play this one.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Online Reviews - Can they be trusted?

In the Internet age people often turn to web for researching products and services. We turn to websites like Amazon for product reviews, Yelp for restaurant and other services reviews, or travel sites/blogs for trip reviews. Online reviews form an important input into our decision making for buying a product or service.

Since reviews can influence the sales of a product/service there is a big financial incentive for firms to keep them positive. Retailers/service providers realize the importance of reviews and dedicate resources to monitor them and even respond to them as appropriate particularly when its negative. Some firms have even resorted to dubious ways to create fake positive reviews.

Some of the techniques employed are paying people to write reviews using freelance services. In February of last year a home improvement company in Texas posted an online advertisement for “a writer who can write and post 25 positive reviews on 8 sites” that included Yelp, Google Places among others. Someone from Bangladesh won the contract for $100 and completed the job.

Then there is the case of a company encouraging its customers to write positive reviews by providing the product for free. New York Times reported that the company VIP Deals offered a leather case for Kindle Fire for $10 (official list price was $59.99) plus shipping. The deal got even sweeter when the product arrived, it came with a letter extending invitation to write a review on Amazon promising a refund of purchase price in exchange. The result was a near perfect rating consisting of more than 80% 5 STAR reviews and remaining 4 STAR reviews.

Fake reviews are a serious problem and companies like Yelp and TripAdvisor are taking steps to combat this as it raises the credibility of the core service itself and people may stop trusting their reviews. Yelp introduced the Review Filter to counter this. This kind of opinion spam is also being looked at by researchers from educational institutions like Cornell and University of Illinois at Chicago with funding from the industry.

Some of the simple tips to spot fake reviews include multiple reviews for one or several products of same company from the same person. The fake reviewers talk more about themselves than the actual product. Reviews are posted soon after the product launch and description will contain unusually large amount of praise sometimes irrelevant. The fake reviewers also aren’t usually long time members of a site.

Next time when you read an online review be aware that it could be fake.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lytro - Revolutionizing the art of photography

Photographs have always been a special medium, we use it to capture important moments in our life. Cameras over the years have made gradual transition from black and white ones to the color ones, from the film based ones to digital ones today. So what is the next revolution in this area?

Silicon Valley based startup Lytro unveiled a new camera based on light field technology which goes beyond today's technology of capturing a single static image, it captures a "living" image that can be refocused later, long after the picture is taken and digitally stored. Here is an introductory video from the creators:

The company's technology is based on the its founder and CEO Ren Ng's PhD dissertation titled "Digital Light Field Photography" at Stanford in 2006. Ren refined the idea from the lab to a consumer-oriented product with investments from VCs.

The Lytro Light Field Camera boasts an 8X optical zoom lens with a constant f/2 aperture, capturing maximum light across the entire zoom range. The camera has an instant shutter and requires no auto-focus, no unnecessary modes, dials, or settings. There is no flash either because Lytro claims to handle many low light settings automatically.

The camera comes in two models, a 8GB model that can capture 350 photographs priced at $399 and a 16GB model that can capture 750 photographs priced at $499. The camera is available for buying now but will be shipping in early 2012.

The camera has a 1.46 in. back-lit LCD touchscreen and weighs 7.55oz. The raw data of image is stored in internal flash storage and comes with a micro USB cable for data transfer and charging. The camera kit includes a free desktop application for importing, processing and interacting with living pictures from the camera. The application requires Mac OS X 10.6 or higher, no Windows support for now though coming soon. Lytro is providing free unlimited online storage. The interactive pictures can be shared on Facebook, Twitter, email or your blog.

You can interactively explore some of the photographs at the Living Pictures Gallery at

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Android leads the pack in mobile malware

Mobile devices have been growing at a rapid scale. Out of the various operating systems powering these devices two of the most popular ones are the Google's Android and the Apple's iOS. According to recent Gartner report on growth of mobile devices worldwide, Android OS accounted for 52.5% of smartphone sales to end users in the third quarter of 2011 doubling its market share of 25.3% from the third quarter of 2010. In the same time period Apple iOS based smartphones lost market share from 16.6% to 15%, though Apple shipped 17 million iPhones, an annual increase of 21 percent.

With the explosive growth has come an unwanted rise in mobile malware and Android is topping this. According to Juniper Global Threat Center post, there has been a 472% increase in Android malware samples since July 2011. In their annual Malicious Mobile Threats Report report, Juniper found a 400% increase in Android malware from 2009 to the summer of 2010. A few months back security firm McAfee quarterly report noted similar findings that Android OS-based malware became the most popular target for mobile malware developers.

Not only the attacks have increased but have also gotten sophisticated, by exploiting the OS vulnerability the malware would gain root access and install even more damaging software packages. This way the attacker gains access to any data on the phone including all communications, location, and other personal identifying information. The mobile malware developers are the same actors who originally wrote malicious code for the legacy platforms of Symbian and older versions of Windows Mobile.

So the key question is how does Android platform fare in terms of security with Apple iOS? There may not be a platform security issue comparing one to the other. The problem lies in how the application stores are managed for Android and iOS. Apple reviews each application and its code before publishing it to Apple application store, this is missing in Android open application store where attackers can easily sneek in their malicious applications without requiring upfront review. Such applications only get removed after the fact that someone discovered and reported the malicious behavior. By that time the attacker has already benefited from its use.

The app store restrictions on Apple hasn't totally kept the malicious apps out, hacker Charlie Miller discovered a method that exploits a flaw in Apple’s restrictions on code signing on iOS devices and demonstrated this by sneaking in an approved malicious app. Apple though quickly reacted to it by removing the bad application, terminating Miller's developer license and fixing the flaw in a software update.

The Android market does provide some free scanners but have been largely unproven and found unreliable. In a test conducted by the most popular of those is Antivirus Free by Creative Apps with over a million installations but scored a miserable 0% on both the manual and real-time scan, the best one Zoner Antivirus Free scoring a mere 32%.

To get an in-depth technical view into the security approaches of Google's Android and Apple's iOS mobile devices, read the report from earlier this year by security firm Symantec.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

HTML5 gaining traction

On November 9 Adobe announced their plans of phasing out development of Flash Player in the browser of mobile devices instead increasing investment in HTML5. The reason cited is the universal support of HTML5 on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively thereby making HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms.

Flash was already excluded on Apple iOS devices. In April 2010 Steve Jobs the CEO of Apple then had posted online his reasons for exclusion of Flash on Apple mobile devices. Some of the reasons included Flash's proprietary nature, reliability and security, poor battery life and touchscreen incompatibility.

So why is HTML5 important? HTML5 is a major enhancement over the HTML4 protocol that powers the web. All the modern web browsers already have extensive but varying level of support of HTML5. HTML5 will allow browsers to support interactive multimedia and graphic content easily without requiring proprietary plugins. This is especially very powerful for content developers who can now use HTML5 to develop web applications compatible across a variety of devices - smartphones, tablets and PCs. Also this is becoming an important tool for bypassing online app stores thereby eliminating their shares in the mobile commerce.

One of Zynga's popular game Words With Friends is already coded in HTML5. Other games are Zynga Poker and Farmville Express. Rovio Entertainment released Angry Birds on HTM5. Pandora, the internet radio, just a couple of months back launched an entirely redesigned web interface utilizing HTML5. Amazon recently announced a new file format Kindle Format 8 supporting HTML5. Various publications including Playboy, Rolling Stone and Financial Times are also using HTML5 ensuring multi-device support through web.

Job site indeed reports HTML5 as the #1 job trend in online job postings, more and more jobs are seen with the keyword HTMl5.