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.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

BMW i Concept Cars

Earlier this year BMW introduced the next generation of electric cars as BMW i Concept cars.

BMW i is coming out with two models - BMW i3, the all-electric urban commuter car and BMW i8, plug-in hybrid sports car. They look super cool and also embody a lot of cool innovative features. The LifeDrive architecture divides the body into two modules. The drive module that forms the foundation, combining the battery and drive system, plus a range of structural and basic crash devices into a single lightweight, high-strength compartment. The Life Module, is similar to what one might find in a Formula One car: a high-strength and extremely lightweight passenger cell made from CFRP (Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic). CFRP is 50% lighter than steel but provides the same strength as steel. The interiors are eco friendly as well. In addition to the extensive use of natural fibers and naturally tanned leather, 25 per cent of the weight of the interior plastic is accounted for by recycled or renewable raw materials for the i3.

The eDrive technology in i3 provides a decent acceleration, from 0 to 60 kmph (37 mph) in under four seconds and from rest to 100 kmph (62 mph) in less than eight seconds. The battery can be charged in 4 hours but a DC charger can accomplish 80% charge in 30 minutes. An optional driving range extender is available which employs a gas engine driving the generator to maintain the battery charge.

The sportier i8 with 220hp hybrid engine will accelerate 0 to 62 mph in under five seconds with a fuel efficiency of 94 mpg. The i8 introduces new laser headlights, they can produce a near-parallel beam with an intensity a thousand times greater than that of conventional LEDs while consuming less than half the energy of LEDs.

Also planned are mobility services to complement the vehicle. Example of services include solutions to make efficient use of existing parking space, intelligent navigation systems that can also offer location-based information, an Intermodal Route Planning service and premium car-sharing services. In addition to offering its own services BMW plans to partner with other companies to come up with new ones.

The BMW i3 Series car will be available in 2013 and the BMW i8 Series car will follow shortly thereafter. Experts guess the price for i3 to be closer to a BMW 5-series (starting at $47000) and the price for i8 closer to a Tesla Roadster (starting at $109,000).

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Nest - The Learning Thermostat

Thermostats have been around for more than 125 years since its invention in 1883 by Warren S. Johnson. Almost quarter of a billion households and offices in US have them with over 10 million sold each year in US alone. So when Tony Fadell, the brain behind the iPod, launched the company Nest Labs which will make thermostats it baffled everyone.

The idea was born after Tony left Apple in 2008 and began designing his green home in Tahoe. To his dismay he couldn't find a single thermostat in the market that was smart. Looking at its wide usage he decided to turn this seemingly boring device into a gadget that people will love to use. Nest Thermostat was born.

So how is it different? By the looks it resembles the classic round thermostat but that is where the resemblance ends. Like iPod the basic control is by rotating the wheel around it. There is a round LCD at the center which turns blue when in cooling mode, and red when in heating mode. The device programs and adjusts itself monitoring various things like historical use, outside weather through its WiFi connection, turn down when you are not around by detecting through its motion sensors. You can connect to it securely from anywhere even remotely using PCs, tablets and smartphones.

Here is a video that introduces the product:

The gadget sells for $249 and can be self installed. The launch has been quite a blockbuster as it is already sold out through early 2012.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Privacy on Kindle Fire's Silk Browser

On September 28, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced Kindle Fire. A very interesting feature of this device is the Silk browser.

Silk is a split browser that runs off of the tablet but the fetching and compilation of the web page happens at the Amazon cloud, known as "cloud acceleration" mode. Based on predictive analytics on where the user is going to navigate next, it can prefetch web pages on the cloud thus providing extremely fast browsing experience as the data is to be fetched from one source (Amazon cloud) which can deliver the content to the tablet using the fast SPDY protocol.

On one hand it seems like the right technological step in the evolution of browsing but on the other hand it raises severe privacy concerns as Amazon acts as the proxy thus being in a unique position to predict consumer patterns.

Electronic Frontier Foundation recently released a report that eases some of these concerns. First and foremost users will be able to turn off the cloud mode easily using the browser settings which will make the Silk browser act as a normal browser thus sending the requests directly to the website without Amazon acting as the middleman. Encrypted (HTTPS) traffic will not be intercepted by Amazon and will be directly routed to the origin server. This is good news as many popular websites including Google are making SSL as the default mode. The persistent SPDY connection that Amazon uses to transfer the content from it's servers to tablet is secured and does not contain any user identifying information. The only information that is stored is URL of the resource being requested, timestamp and session token. The information is only persisted for 30 days. The use of secure SPDY information is seen as a positive development which would thwart snooping on unsecured network.

Although most of the common concerns are addressed the report did highlight some concerns. First is the storing of URLs visited, including search queries, which can sometimes contain identifying information. Second, the content of the EC2 servers' cache might in some instances might contain information that could identify an individual. Other concerns include attractiveness of collective browsing data of Amazon's users for law enforcement agencies.

EFF recommends disabling the cloud acceleration mode to users who are concerned about privacy. I think users could alternately use HTTPS browsing wherever available, like Google Search, Facebook and Twitter.

Secure Google Search

Recently Google announced that its encrypting the search queries and the corresponding results page for users signed into their Google Account. Secured search is not new, in fact Google launched a secured search service at last year, the difference is this will now become the default behavior.

Why this change? Google says that it is just following the broader industry initiative like those of Twitter and Facebook. Google explains "As search becomes an increasingly customized experience, we recognize the growing importance of protecting the personalized search results we deliver. As a result, we’re enhancing our default search experience for signed-in users." For users who are not signed into Google Account can navigate to

How will it impact the users? This will protect the users against unwanted eavesdropping particularly when using unsecured Internet connection in a public setting. Since there is an additional step of encrypting the data, the browsing experience can be slower.

Not everyone is excited about this announcement. The Search Engine Optimization (SEO) industry experts argue that this is Google's attempt to sideline them. By securing the connection, digital marketers will no longer be able to see what search results lead users to a website. This is an important metric for them to improving a website attractiveness. The information however is available to Adwords advertisers who will see this data irrespective of the connection used, giving them the edge over the SEO firms.

As an end user I am very pleased with this announcement. Hopefully it will reduce some of those annoying ads that seem to follow me based on my prior searches.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Future of Mobile Advertising

Mobile devices are everywhere today from smart phones to tablets. The media is full of success stories of how different mobile devices break sales records every time a new one arrives, latest case in point is the Apple iPhone 4S with 1 million phones pre-ordered in first couple of days. According to Gartner, worldwide mobile advertising revenue is forecast to reach $3.3 billion in 2011, more than double the $1.6 billion generated in 2010. By 2015 it will reach $20.6 billion with search and maps delivering the highest revenue, while video/audio ads seeing the fastest growth.

What makes advertising on mobile special? Mobile devices seem to be much closer and personalized to the users so mobile ad targeting can be made very effective. In addition these devices can tell the exact location and movement of the user. User searches for product and services using mobile devices tend to be more focused and immediate thereby success rate of actually making a sale would be higher.

Traditionally the most common form of ads have been simple text, images and banners. This is hardly engaging but is changing rapidly. With mobile users spending more and more time on social networking, games and other interactive apps advertisers are getting more creative in getting their attention. Applications like Shopkick use user's location to provide them with real time incentives in terms of virtual cash, offers and promotions for visiting nearby stores. Augmented reality apps like Layar using the mobile phone's camera, GPS and compass feed are delivering the technology that can be used to provide more targeted ads based on what you are viewing. Wayin uses a clever gaming platform to allow the advertisers to gauge customer behavior by pushing entertaining real time polls, again rewarding the users by virtual points to vote. These are just few of the examples.

In next 5 years it is estimated that the online searches through mobile devices will trump those through the desktop. This indicates that mobile marketing space is crucial for companies in the coming years and we will see lot more innovations in how we engage the consumers.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

How green is iPhone 4S?

Apple iPhone 4S is official and the pre-orders seem to point to a blockbuster launch. I was curious to see how eco friendly is the new iPhone 4S.

We know that in terms of outward appearance Apple iPhone 4S shares the same form factor as the iPhone 4 so packaging should be the same as iPhone 4. According to the iPhone 4 product environmental report, the packaging of the current iPhone 4 is 14% lighter and consumes 14% less volume that iPhone 3GS. This means that more units now fit in a shipping container thereby resulting in fewer CO2 emissions. However there are some differences as compared to iPhone 4, the most alarming is the estimated greenhouse gas emissions for iPhone 4S over its life cycle. According to the iPhone 4S product environmental report, the estimated greenhouse gas emissions over the product life cycle for iPhone 4S is 70kg CO2 which is considerably higher to 45kg CO2 for iPhone 4.

So what changed? The two biggest components that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions are production and customer use. In case of iPhone 4, the production accounted for 57% or roughly 26kg CO2 whereas customer use accounted for 34% or roughly 15kg of CO2. In case of iPhone 4S, the production accounted for 69% or roughly 48kg CO2 whereas customer use accounted for 23% or roughly 16kg of CO2. That means the production of an iPhone 4S is generating more emissions single handedly than those generated by all activities combined for iPhone 4. Apple being so secretive about its product development and manufacturing, it will be hard to understand the exact reasons.

In terms of restricted substances, Apple boasts of arsenic-free display glass, mercury free LED-backlit display, BFR free, PVC free and use of packaging material made of post-consumer recycled and bio materials. The power adapter outperforms the ENERGY STAR specifications. Apple offers free recycling at 95% of locations where its sold.

Energy efficiency will get a get a boost with the introduction of dual core processor A5 chip which will be able to do more with less as compared to A4 in iPhone 4. The new chip can dynamically adjust its frequency to save battery life thereby providing more talk time.

Although not directly but with the introduction of a sharper 8 megapixel camera with 1080p video Apple may reduce the consumption of the point and shoot cameras which sure will help in reducing some of the CO2 emissions. The argument is similar to downloading a song to the device than buying a CD from a store or having one shipped by mail. The cloud-based services through iCloud may additionally consolidate some personal storage thereby reducing the energy footprint further.

Measuring the environmental impact of iPhone 4S features may be difficult but in terms of measurable features like the greenhouse gas emissions Apple definitely seems to have taken a step back.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Voting can be fun

Its always interesting to know opinion of other people on entertaining topics. Various news websites post online polls to gauge user sentiments about a certain headline. How about if you have the power to create and vote on a poll and have the ability to share it with a wider audience worldwide. Wayin attempts to do just that and in real-time.

Wayin is a startup launched by Scott McNealy, founder of Sun Microsystems. Wayin is a virtual sentiment sharing app available on mobile devices like iPod, iPhone, Android. Using the app users can create a post with image and question and share it with global Wayin community. The post is available instantly for other people to vote. The posts are intended to gauge user sentiment on variety of topics ranging from entertainment to sports. It also serves as a gaming platform where people can earn points by creating and answering posts. Here are some posts:

To learn more, here is a video from Scott McNealy about the service.

Check it out, getting started is very easy.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Automating web tasks

What comes to your mind as you read the title? Many of the techies like me out there would start to imagine a tool that one can program to perform some actionable operations on a webpage. Oh my god, yet another tool for web automation, what browsers will it support, what programming language do I need to learn to use it? Is it worth looking into?

Totally, it is very interesting and fun to use. I am talking about "if this then that" or in short ifttt - pronounced lift without the l. Ifttt promises to be a simple solution to connect two web services, it's event driven programming (if this then that model) for the masses. For example, by using an easy user interface you can customize which photos from your Flickr stream appear on your Facebook wall. This could turn into a very useful and creative exercise, you can create interactions between the different web services that the original owners never even imagined.

Ifttt calls each end to end interaction a task. A task connects one channel (web services like Facebook, Twitter, Email, Phone call) trigger with another channel action. Currently more than 30 channels are available for use. Users can create a recipe to share task with other people. Currently there are more than 3800 recipes, the most popular one automatically saves Facebook photos where you are tagged in to your Dropbox folder. Task can be switched on or off and task polls for new trigger data every 15 minutes.

The service is free for now.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Online Privacy is a Myth

Online privacy has become a major concern. With the rapid growth of social media and mobile devices people are spending considerable time on the internet. According to comScore Media Metrix average American net surfers spent 32 hours per month in 2010.

According to the recent Nielsen report, 80% of active internet users visit social networks and blogs. Facebook is the most visited U.S. website. Nearly 40% mobile owners use their mobile phones to access social media content.

The norms of privacy have changed over years. A few years back people were scared to have an online presence but now have gotten savvy enough to put frequent status updates. We have become comfortable sharing our geographic location, associations, education, work history and pictures of ourselves and our loved ones. Friendship is not just limited to people but even to brands. Such information is key to online advertisers who can then target customized ads.

In October 2010, Wall Street Journal broke a story on Facebook how most of the popular Facebook apps had been transmitting people's names and in some cases their friends names to at least 25 advertising and data firms that track online activities of users. RapLeaf was one of such tracking companies that compiles and sells information on users online activities. The company had linked Facebook user ID information obtained from apps to its own database of Internet users, which it sells.

Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook is nearing a settlement with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) if approved would require Facebook to get explicit consent from its 800 million users before making privacy changes. The probe started when Facebook made changes to users account that exposed their names, pictures and other personal information which the user had specifically confined to specific people. As part of the proposed settlement, Facebook would also submit to government reviews of its privacy practices for 20 years.

Google has had similar issues with its soon to be shut down Google Buzz service where they exposed the users contacts to general public through their profile page without consent. Google entered into a similar pact with FTC on the issue.

Klout, a startup, that integrates with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and many more to measure just how effective one's online presence is also ran into a privacy issue. Klout was creating auto-profiles for users including children who never registered for one with them. After the huge uproar Klout is no longer creating auto-profiles for anyone and user can delete existing profiles.

In the age of social networks its hard to keep yourself off of one so it is critical to understand the impact of information you share online. Understand the privacy settings of your online accounts to adopt tighter privacy control. Here's the disheartening part, even with such settings there is no guarantee. Even though you may not disclose personal information, but your online friends may unknowingly do it, referring to your school or employer, gender, location and interests. Computing power has grown exponentially to correlate all this information to produce a social signature of you which can be quite accurate.

The best advice is to realize that your online activities are more public than you may think and so act accordingly.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Apple iPhone Rumor Mill

On September 27 Apple announced iPhone event on October 4 which read "Let’s talk iPhone". Whether we will see a new iPhone 5 or an iPhone 4GS remains to be seen. The rumor mill is grinding like previous iPhone releases. Lets take a look at the how the iPhone 4 rumors turned out.

Release DateApril 2010June 2010
Network4G LTE3G
CPU Speed> 2 GHz1 GHz
Graphics chipPowerVR SGX545 GPUPowerVR SGX535 GPU
Maximum Storage64 GB model32 GB model
Camera5 megapixel with LED flash5 megapixel with LED flash
Screen Resolutionhigher than 320x480640x960 @ 326ppi
ApplicationsVideo chatVideo chat - Facetime

In addition to the above list there were various other rumors including stylus, push antenna, bumpy screen fueled by patents that Apple filed over the years.

Here is a list of rumors for next iPhone release (a.k.a iPhone 5).
  • Hardware improvements - Faster CPU with dual core A5 chip, 1 GB memory, improved graphics chip PowerVR SGX543, fully HD 8MP camera, bigger 4 inch display, slide out keyboard.
  • Applications - Voice navigation, iCloud, iOS 5.
  • Carriers - Sprint in addition to existing AT&T and Verizon.
The good part is that we don't have to wait much longer to find out.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cognitive Computing Chips

Advancement in computer chips over the last few decades have been focused on getting things faster and more compact. Fundamentally the chip design hasn't changed over the last 50 years, is still based on Von Neumann architecture of sequential execution of instruction sets.

IBM Research recently announced a new generation of computer chips that are designed to emulate human brain's abilities for perception, action and cognition. Cognitive chips are designed to process large amounts of data using very little power. Unlike traditional computers it does not require any programming rather learns from experiences, finds correlations, creates hypotheses - and learns from - the outcomes, emulating the human brain.

To mimic the cognitive abilities of brain, IBM brought together the disciplines of neuroscience, nanoscience and supercomputing. The digital circuits inspired by neurobiology constitute “neurosynaptic core” with integrated memory (replicated synapses), computation (replicated neurons) and communication (replicated axons). There are two working prototypes - one core contains 262,144 programmable synapses and the other contains 65,536 learning synapses.

Why is this important? Such a system can find wide ranging use. By monitoring the world water supply it can analyze ocean temperature, pressure, wave height and develop a decision model to accurately predict tsunamis. By monitoring financial transactions it can prevent fraud and spurious activity.

This does sound science fiction. Are we closer to building truly intelligent systems that can replace humans? Only time will tell, for now I am excited to be living in such exciting times.

To read more about the technology, click here.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Incentivized Innovation using Crowdsourcing

Heritage Provider Network, a California physicians group announced a competition, the goal of which is to develop a predictive algorithm that can identify patients that will be admitted to a hospital within the next year using historical claims data. The competition started on 4 April 2011 and will run until 3 April 2013, grand prize money is $3 million along with milestone prizes totaling $230,000.

Contest entrants will be provided with deidentified Heritage patient records collected over a period of 3 years. The contestants can participate individually or as a member of a Team.

Heritage believes this can be game changing in our efforts to fixing American health care system. In 2006 more than $30 billion was spent in unnecessary hospitalizations. By predicting how many days the patient spends in the hospital, health care providers will be able to take better preventive measures thereby reducing unnecessary hospitalizations. This will be a win-win for both patients and the providers.

Heritage isn't the first to use such incentivized competition approach, applying Internet enabled crowdsourcing to solve complex scientific problems. In 2006, Netflix the online movie rental company held a contest, the goal was to improve their Cinematch recommendation engine accuracy rate by more than 10%. The dataset comprised of 100 million movie ratings from scrubbed clean Netflix customer data. According to the website, 51051 contestants on 41035 teams from 186 countries participated with the winner walking away with a prize money of $1 million in late 2009.

This is truly remarkable as it allows the scientists and researchers from around the world to apply their expertise in solving large-scale predictive modeling to solve problems in various fields of science, commerce and politics.

Space Tourism is real

Is space tourism for real? It has actually been for a while (over the past decade) but only to select individuals who paid somewhere between $20 million to $35 million. Russian Soyuz capsule flew the space tourists to International Space Station for a period of about 10 days. The exorbitant cost involved and safety concerns have been large impediments.

This may change in very near future. Virgin Galactic is promising to make it safe and affordable. Tickets would cost $200,000 and the company already has started bookings for the trips. Already the company has booked hundreds of future astronauts from all over the world. The timeline for the actual travel though is not yet clear.

Founded by Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, The Spaceship Company headquartered at Mojave Air and Space Port is actively engaged in building the first fleet of commercial spaceships (SpaceShipTwos) and carrier aircraft (WhiteKnightTwos) that will constitute Virgin Galactic's fleet.

In 2006, Federal Aviation Administration came out with more than 120 pages of rules for space tourism that covers everything from passenger medical standards to pre-flight training of the crew. Virgin Galactic claims that the required medical assessments are simple and nonrestrictive and most people with good health should be able to clear.

Are you ready for space tourism or the bigger question is do you have the $200,000 to take the leap?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Selenium Tips for better automation

Selenium provides a powerful and yet simple way to write and execute automated browser tests but poorly designed tests can add a lot of maintainability headache. Here are some tips that I have learnt using Selenium.

1. Use CSS Selectors rather than XPATH
They are faster and much more readable. Don't just take my word for it, read more at this blog.

2. Use UI Map for storing UI object locators
The idea here is to use a central place to store all the UI object locators of application under test. This is advantageous in two ways. This makes the logic in the tests cleaner thereby easier to read and less prone to modifications when application UI changes. The maintainability improves as there is only one place to make changes when application UI does change which happens all the time.

3. Use waitForCondition instead of timeout
In the Web 2.0 world we find a lot of pages using dynamic elements that load asynchronously without loading the parent page. The classic method waitForPageToLoad fails miserably and very often people resort to using certain timeout assuming the element will be available after that. This technique is very inefficient and error prone. Instead use the waitForCondition. The method takes two arguments - a javascript snippet that evaluates to a boolean value and a timeout in milliseconds. The javascript snippet is run repeatedly until it evaluates to "true" or until the timeout is reached after which the command returns an error.

4. Write user extensions to extend selenium api for your application
Sometimes its more efficient to have Selenium execute your custom Javascript functions natively. Extending selenium to add your own actions, assertions and locator strategies is easy, more information can be found in the official selenium documentation here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality as the name suggests is reality that has been augmented by computer generated elements like sound, graphics and text. For example the yellow first down line shown in the television broadcasts of American football games.

Now with the explosion of portable electronic devices augmented reality may start to find even more interesting uses in everyday lives of people. Mobile app development company Layar is one of the first to deliver AR on the mobile phone. Using Layar development kit users can create AR apps that uses mobile phone's camera, GPS and compass feed. The technology can be a big hit with publishers and brand agencies who can provide more targeted ads based on what you are viewing.

Interestingly even Apple is considering its use. In February 2010, Apple filed a patent with US Patent and Trademark Office titled "Augmented Reality Maps". In Apple's method, the device using its camera, geographic position, direction and tilt can determine what objects are being viewed. The device than overlays additional information regarding the current object in view thus enhancing reality. The video feed could not only show facts about the object in view but also provide information on more-distant object. The user can then interact with the display (touch screen) and select other distant objects whose information is available currently. If the user chooses to request directions to the remote object the directions will be overlaid onto the presently displayed video feed.

How is this different from other AR apps that exist today? Apple notes that to achieve the same in other applications user must switch application or at minimum the AR view. This transition can be confusing to the user who now has to relate the objects in the augmented view with the real objects.

This is an interesting area and we will see some exciting applications in near future.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sifteo Cubes

Looking for a new type of gaming device - here comes Sifteo cubes.

Sifteo cubes are physical blocks with colored graphical screen that can sense each other and their motion. It provides a highly physically interactive gaming experience that can be both fun and educational. To see this in action watch the following short video:

The Sifteo cubes are the result of the MIT Media Lab's Siftables project, first demoed at TED conference in February 2009. In January this year the company launched an early access program for $99. The company just started the pre-order for all now. For $149, the Sifteo Starter pack consists of three Sifteo cubes, charging dock and AC adapter and a USB wireless link. Additional Sifteo cubes can be bought for $45 each. The system can be expandable up to 6 blocks currently. Games can be bought online at Sifteo store for $5 each.

Few things that I would love to see in future versions. First, there is a lot of dependence on the computer (PC or Mac) as it runs the games and plays the sound so you need it around while playing. Anyways that dependency can be minimized/removed will be cool. Second, after watching a few videos demonstrating the system it becomes clear that even 6 cubes won't be enough. Third, currently only one side of the cube has the screen, multiple screens of the cube might make it even more interesting.

Overall I love the idea and definitely be seriously considering to buy one.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Big Data - Tools

To manage and use the large amount of data there has been a great amount of innovation.

There are various storage devices that are out there targeted towards this market like EMC Isilon, IBM SoNAS and HP X9000. Netapp recently announced E-Series range of storage devices.

Storage software includes relational databases like Teradata which is row-based. There are column oriented databases that stores content by column rather than row. They are advantageous for fetching data for large number of rows but only a small subset of columns. Examples include Oracle Exadata, EMC Greenplum and HP Vertica. One of the new trends for big data is move away from traditional RDBMS software.There have been a new class of "NoSQL" (Not Only SQL) alternatives that does not require fixed schemas and are highly distributed and horizontally scalable. Examples of a few such databases are Cassandra, CouchDB and MongoDB.

To analyze and process the big datasets, the processing is not carried on a single powerful computer but a network of commodity servers clustered together. The most popular framework in this realm is Hadoop. Inspired from Google's MapReduce and Google File System (GFS), it was originally developed by Yahoo but now is open source managed by Apache. Hadoop utilizes a highly scalable and distributed file system HDFS to store data and MapReduce to rapidly process data in parallel on cluster of nodes. In addition to HDFS and MapReduce there are other useful sub-projects associated with Hadoop like HBase, Hive and Pig. Hive is a data warehouse infrastructure that provides data summarization and ad hoc querying similar to SQL. Pig is a high-level data-flow language and execution framework for parallel computation.

Hadoop has been a framework of choice for many big data implementations in various companies including Yahoo, Facebook, EBay and Twitter. There is a healthy ecosystem of commercial vendors that provide tools and services based on Hadoop platform like Cloudera, Datameer and Karmasphere.

As we can see the list of tools for big data is itself big and growing.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Big Data - Introduction

The term "Big Data" is used for referring to datasets that are typically in the order of petabytes, exabytes and even larger. The data could be either structured or unstructured. In simple terms any data that has a definite structure and could be stored easily in relational databases could be considered structured. Unstructured data does not have an identifiable structure, examples are email, images, word documents, phone conversations, etc.

With the advent of cheap digital storage and advancements in computational power we are seeing an explosion in the growth of digital data. It is estimated that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the past two years. According to IDC, in 2011 more than 1.2 zettabytes of information will be created and stored and by 2020 will grow to 44 times that of 2009.

The big question is what does it mean for us?

Should this scare us? Governments and companies acting like big brothers with their ability to collect and retain personal information about us and our behaviors through records of our searches, chats, health records and any other form of interactions that can be digitally tracked.

Shelving the privacy concerns for now let us see how it can benefit the businesses and consumers. Businesses can analyze this data to gain efficiencies within their organization and strategic advantage over their competitors. Consumers will greatly benefit from the innovations that will affect some core sectors like health care where effective use of data will help doctors make more informed decisions in treating patients. Real time traffic and weather data from Mobile phones and GPS devices will help avoid traffic congestions.

What opportunities does it bring for engineers and scientists? Big Data is still mostly a buzz-word and adopted by larger companies - internet giants like Google, Yahoo, Facebook; retailers like Walmart; financial services companies. So there are lot of businesses that in coming years will be looking for talent to manage and use big data and associated services.

In the upcoming blog I will talk about some of the popular tools associated with Big Data.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

TinyMCE and Selenium

TinyMCE is a platform independent web based Javascript HTML WYSIWYG editor control that can be embedded in web pages. Selenium is an open source automation framework that can drive tests on most web browsers.

The web page that I wanted to test using Selenium consisted of multiple tinymce editors used for various rich textareas. Internet Explorer 8 was the target browser. Obviously simply using the type command with input text did not work. So googled on how other people achieved this, found following two solutions:

1. Select frame and then type text

selectFrame id_of_tinymce_iframe
focus tinymce
type tinymce Text_text
selectFrame relative=parent
2. Identify the text area using DOM locator
type dom=document.getElementById('id_of_tinymce_iframe').contentWindow.document.body Test_text

Both of them seem to work on Firefox where I develop my test using Selenium IDE. But on IE 8 I would not see the "Test_text" in the TinyMCE textarea even though the steps would run fine. The way I ended up achieving this was by using the following:
focus dom=document.getElementById('id_of_tinymce_iframe').contentWindow.document.body
getEval selenium.browserbot.getCurrentWindow().document.getElementById('id_of_tinymce_iframe').contentWindow.document.body.innerHTML = 'Test_text';
Yes and this did work on IE 8.

Click here to read "Selenium tips for better automation".