Haptics, holograms and hype

Did you see the launch video of the new Amazon Fire phone? The graphics are really impressive, with special perspective and depth effects giving the screen a 3d feel.

Amazon smartphone

Very cool, definitely. But they’re not haptics.

Haptics is a simple yet breathtakingly complex technology that gives your flat screen not only a 3d feel and look, but a 3d texture as well. The word “haptic” comes from Greek and means any form of nonverbal communication involving touch. A handshake, for instance. Haptic technology recreates the sense of touch by applying force or movement. If you’ve ever played a Playstation game (3 or up) and felt the controller vibrate in your hand when you hit the wall or fall off a bridge or get bitten by the monster, you’ve already experienced haptics.

haptic touch display

image via Electronics Weekly

Relatively primitive, clunky haptics, though. The haptics technology that’s being developed now is positively freaky and could well blow your mind. It takes touchscreens into a new dimension, maybe not literally but as near as you can get.

I’m not going to go into the mechanics (sigh of relief), if you’re really interested you can find out more about that here and here. I do want to show you some of the applications for your smartphone or tablet that we know about, so we can briefly dwell on uses that we have yet to come up with. The potential impact on transport, research, surgery, video games and even prosthetics is also quite spectacular, but we can go into them another time.

The version of haptic technology most likely to make it to market in the near future uses weak electrical currents to create the sensation of friction on your fingertips. You run your fingers over a smooth touchscreen, and it really seems like it has bumps. The precision is such that this text could be published in braille. Yes, blind people will be able to read information online.

You can detect textures, even shapes in 3d. Pass your fingers over a flat screen and you can “feel” the image on the screen. Soft, hard, rough, smooth… You can feel a jellyfish, a book, a teapot… This video from Disney Research is quite jaw-dropping, but it does throw in a lot of phrases like “enhanced functionality” and “rich spatial dimensionality”, which is a bit much for this time of day (or any time of day, really). You might want to watch it with the sound off.

Will we even need keyboards? Your touch screen is already a keyboard, but I don’t know of anyone who prefers tapping to typing. With haptics they will become even more realistic, to the extent that the current interface which takes up a lot of space will soon seem clunky. Reconfigurable keyboards that look and feel 3d can create new functions for games and applications, in any language.

Think of the potential for e-commerce. Imagine being able to “feel” the fabric of the item of clothing you’re thinking of buying. Or the texture of the stuffed toy.

The implications for design and architecture software are also quite exciting. Microsoft recently demonstrated haptic technology which allows you to push items around a screen with your hands. You will be able to move texture-realistic furniture around with your finger, change materials, get a good idea of how the finished product will feel.

haptics in education

image from Disney Research

Imagine what this function, integrated into tablet screens, can do for learning. We all know that the more senses involved, the more we learn. Feel the river you’re labelling. Understand the difference between aluminium and iron atom structures. Identify leaves by their surface texture.

And, of course, there are the gaming possibilities. Find the exit in the dark. Choose the softest curtain to look behind. Know when the sand is not as dense.

haptics in gaming

image from senseg.com

Haptic technology will change how we interact with our flat screens, and as our culture becomes ever more screen-centric, haptics will provide a varied and more interesting experience. We will most likely end up loving our phones and tablets even more than we already do.

And not just our phones and tablets, haptics could even bring us closer to those most important to us. Imagine being able to hold the hand, or at least touch it, of a loved one on the other side of the world! Your touchscreen would register your touch and transmit it to another touchscreen. When their fingers touch yours, you would both feel it. I like the sound of that.

Combine the sensation of touch with the holographic effect of 3d images, and you open up a world of possibilities for e-commerce, games and education. Even relatively straightforward 3d illusions can seem startlingly real when you can “feel” the shapes. As hologram technology advances, and haptic technology can be projected, we will be getting really close to a virtual reality.

holograms and haptics

image via The Washington Post

In other posts I’ll go into the implications for healthcare, fitness, design… The potential uses for and advances in the haptic technology field are completely exhilarating, and as the cost comes down, we should soon start to see incredible haptics possibilities in everyday items. Meanwhile, I suggest you enjoy what is possibly the best example of haptic or non-verbal communication known to man: a good warm hug.

Annotations, notes, dialogue…

One of my favourite parts of a blog post, I confess, is the comments section. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that they are as informative and meaningful as the body of the article, but they are often interesting and sometimes entertaining, occasionally more so than the article itself. If, of course, and a big if, the comments are well moderated (I will never understand why people enjoy sending pure drivel, I mean, really, what can they possibly get out of it?). In some of the blogs I read, the comments open up other areas of debate, contribute new bits of information, validate some opinions and examples, refute others, and generally add variety in terms of tone and texture. Sometimes the comments are on other comments, rather than the text itself. It’s almost like going out for drinks after a conference and discussing what you’ve just heard.

A new trend I’m seeing more of recently, and that I like very much, is the concept of “annotations”, or “notes”. What are annotations? According to my online dictionary, they are “notes added to a text, drawing or book as a way of explanation”. And in the web sense, they are still that, but with hyperlink possibilities. While most computer programmers insert annotations into their code to explain to themselves and collaborators what the different sections do, here we’re going to talk about annotations and notes in published online content. The main difference is, the authors don’t add them, the readers do.

image from qz.com

from qz.com

So, what is the difference between annotations and comments? Annotations, and here’s the cool part, are inserted in the body of the text, or more specifically, in the margin. They’re like comments, but by paragraphs. You can comment on an individual paragraph, adding information, debating a point or asking a question. And this turns the article or post into even more of a conversation. People “interrupt” the flow of the article with comments or queries, just as in a real dialogue. If you find that annoying, you can ignore them, or go back to them once you’re finished reading. But personally, I enjoy the interruptions, they usually add depth and interest.

True, they’re not like a conversation in that the author of the piece does not respond in real time. But he or she can respond in another annotation, just as they can with end-of-post comments. The beauty is, you get the dynamics and sparkle of a conversation while at the same time retaining control of the pace. Read the comments, skim them, ignore them, it’s up to you.

image from medium.com

from medium.com

By this stage you’re probably wanting examples. So far the top two news sites that I’ve found that use annotations are Quartz, a general news site (I love it, the tone, the layout, the style…), and Medium, an open blogging platform, with quality writing and a clean, refreshing design. On both platforms, you can comment on a per-paragraph basis. Storify, which I confess I haven’t gotten to know very well yet, lets users thread social media clips together to form a story, and allows comments on each paragraph and social media insert. Quartz calls them annotations, Medium calls them notes, Storify calls them sidenotes. I call them fun to browse.

Now, Quartz, Medium and Storify are not the only content annotation opportunities out there. YouTube also supports annotations in the form of clickable text overlays, and Soundcloud, the music streaming site, has an original annotation system. You add your comment as you’re listening (to music, or a podcast), and your comment appears in the piece’s timeline, when you added it. I find this very compelling, you see the comments at the point in the song that the writer thought of them. There are others, and some interesting new software platforms are emerging to facilitate and manage commenting. We’ll talk about them in another post. For this post we’re focussing on news and article interactions, and the dialogue and thought they provoke.

Do annotations influence the overall effect of an article? Yes, I believe that they do. With more opportunities to interact, we feel more connected to the story. With more “actionable” ideas, we contribute more, possibly even think more about the message and its components.


from medium.com. note how you can even annotate a phrase in a paragraph!

This form of commenting changes the way that readers interact with content. It feels more immediate and interactive. You read a paragraph and react to that, you no longer need to wait until the end of the post to express yourself, and you don’t need to be broad and insightful about the message as a whole. Your comments can be much more specific, and thus relevant. Post-wide comments are interesting and often insightful, but paragraph-relevant observations can actually contribute content to the post, which itself can then be discussed. Rather than one discussion thread at the end, you can have several distributed throughout the post, which is more interesting and at the same time selective (you can choose which interest you).

The annotations concept makes it easier to comment, to add something to a small part of the content, satisfying our impulse to just jump right in. Having to wait until the end of an article to express a well-thought-out opinion is much more daunting.

Aesthetically, it’s not as chaotic as it sounds, the comments are “hidden” until the reader clicks on the icon that indicates that they’re there. The formats I’ve seen so far are not intrusive, the comments appear in little stacked boxes in the right margin, and they tend to be short. Another click on the icon will hide them again.

from quartz

from qz.com

Are bottom-of-post comments history? No, they’ll be around for quite a while longer, partly because of tradition and partly because of the programming required to switch, which is complicated for most of the basic blogging platforms. And they are enjoyable, it’s probable that many will continue to prefer the one-thread, generalist discussion. But I love that we’re starting to look at new ways of interacting. I do believe that most of us have something to say, but we’re usually in too much of a hurry, or too intimidated to sign off on an opinion. Let’s open up the dialogue, get more thoughtful participants, and share more ideas. Notes, annotations, whatever you want to call them, will become much more prevalent as we get used to this new form of participation.

(NOTE: I use WordPress, and am starting to investigate how to switch to annotations… Lyvefire looks interesting, they recently launched a service that enables clients to include annotations on their blogs. I’ll keep you posted!)


Beacons in retail – attracting attention

In case you don’t know what a beacon is, it’s a device that silently communicates with your smartphone. Which maybe sounds a bit sinister, right? But let me tell you how beacons are changing the way you shop.

Estimote beacons

(image from Estimote)

First, let’s go forward in time. I’m imagining, here, but stay with me. I walk into my favourite store. My phone beeps. The screen reads: “Would you like to check in?”. I tap on “Sure!” (noting the exclamation mark the copywriters thought would make me feel really positive). A second passes. Suddenly my phone flashes “Hi, Noelle, welcome back!”. Pause. “That handbag you were looking at last time you were here, now we have it in red, would you like us to pull one out for you?”. Ok, maybe a bit creepy, but with time and practice it could be seen as friendly and helpful.

Let’s say I’m standing by the T-shirt rail. My phone beeps, and reads “Would you like to see a video of the new T-shirt collection due in next week?”. I tap on “Sure!” (getting a bit tired of the exclamation marks), and suddenly I’m watching a video of happy young things sporting the colourful T-shirts that I will no doubt come back next week to purchase.

Or, I pick up a jacket and hold it up against my chest in front of a mirror. This magic mirror reads the product tag and converts to a screen that shows me images of matching products available in the store, and maybe a video of that jacket on the catwalk.

The thing is, that is not at all futuristic, the technology is already here and is already being tested in some stores. That technology is beacons.

beacons in retail

(image from inmarket.com)

Beacons use Bluetooth technology* to detect nearby smartphones and transmit messages, such as a greeting, store information, product information… They allow retailers to aim messages at individual customers, according to their location and profile. If you’re walking by the breakfast cereal aisle, you might like to know that there’s a special offer on Cornflakes, especially if you’ve bought Cornflakes there before. Or, you get offered a free cup of coffee as you approach the coffee bar. Sure, you could get the message by reading the flyers or posters the store has helpfully pasted on the shelves and walls. But, really, who reads those? A message on our phone is much more likely to be noticed.

Another cool thing beacons can do is track how customers move through a shop. This will help them improve layouts and merchandising, which should make the customer’s experience more efficient, could make staff planning more productive (how many customer assistants do you need, and where should you position them?), and could help sales (maybe a product is not selling well because customers don’t go by that shelf).

In general, people don’t like mobile advertising, but apparently it’s not so annoying if it’s sensitive to time and place. What would work well for me is personalized recommendations, of the “since we know you like artichokes, we’ve saved some of the new baby ones for you to try, pick them up at in aisle 8” variety, much more so than coupons or special offers. Beacon technology supports and enables the holy grail of efficient client-centric marketing. Personalized recommendations are client-centric. Coupons are not.


(image from Inmarket)

But beaconed coupons no doubt have their uses and their fans. Some retailers hope that coupons that get sent while you’re in a shop, or even in front of a particular product, will combat “showrooming”, when customers check out the physical product in a physical retail location, and then go and buy it cheaper online. And apparently, they do work: a study by beacon platform provider Inmarket shows that targeted marketing including couponing increased “product interactions” (which I imagine ranges from buying the product to just picking it up) by 19x over a given month-long period earlier this year.

Customer service could improve. With click and collect (you buy online, pick up in store) becoming more and more popular, the store could detect and verify a client as he or she walks in, and have their purchase ready and waiting for them at the service counter before they even get there.

supermarket apps

(images from wired.com and extremetech.com)

There are still significant barriers for beacon technology to become widely used. Cost, for one thing, although that is becoming less and less of a barrier. Estimote’s beacons go for as little as $30, and can run for up to 2 years on a coin battery (and they’re available in funky colours!). And customer resistance is usually a significant barrier. Convincing us that it’s worth our while to download the app, configure the settings, opt-in and enable Bluetooth each time we walk into the store is going to take some creativity on the marketing managers’ part, at least until opening apps and enabling Bluetooth becomes as reflex-automatic as locking our car.  And with improving battery technology, I imagine we soon will be leaving Bluetooth on all the time.

Now, if all this tracking and messaging has you somewhat freaked out, you do have a choice. You can leave your phone at home, or in the car. Or you can turn it off. Personally, speaking as someone who hates shopping, I’m all for a technology that makes shopping more efficient, less frustrating, and helps me get out of the store faster. I just so hope that the app doesn’t tell me to have a nice day.

*For those of you who don’t know what Bluetooth technology is (hi, Mum!), it lets things send information to other things without cables. A bit like the mobile phones, but instead of talking, it’s sending information.

Digital or paper textbooks?

“And starting in September, we get to take our iPads home!” My daughter is 11, and just last year she started using an iPad in class. Online exercises, downloadable homework, in-class games… Brilliant idea, we thought, finally, no more heavy textbooks. But no. It turns out that she still has to carry a heavy knapsack full of textbooks every day to school, and man, those things are heavy! So, why?

textbooks in schools

Paper textbooks are static, expensive and bulky. Digital textbooks are cheaper, updatable, and obviously, lighter. I’ve written before about the advantages of paper books over digital books, but in that post I was thinking mainly of reading for pleasure, and how I prefer paper over a screen. But for studying, learning and research, it’s a different story.

There are some who prefer learning from paper, and I get that – it’s somewhat easier to focus, and many claim that it’s easier to learn. I’m not saying that digital textbooks are the ultimate solution. But I do believe that their advantages far outweigh their disadvantages. Let’s look at both:


Obviously, with digital textbooks, weight and volume are no longer a problem. One 4GB tablet weighs approximately 600-700g, and can contain over 3,000 books. That many textbooks would weigh almost 5,000kg. Of course, no student will need that many, but it does show the difference of scale.

Having all your textbooks in one place makes preparing for class and studying so much easier. Who hasn’t forgotten a key textbook at some time or another? I still remember that frustrating feeling of slipping behind just because I couldn’t organize my books better.

The search function is also a huge efficiency gain. You don’t understand epistemology? Type it into the search function and see all the references to it throughout the textbook, and/or get a simple definition from the inbuilt or online dictionary. That saves so much fluffing around with dictionaries and indices.

One thing I love about e-books is the ability to highlight and make notes on the text, which are then summarized in another file. That makes my research so much easier, and I can just imagine what it would do for studying for exams…

Teachers can show a textbook page on the whiteboard, add detail with the e-pen which the students can annotate in the text on their screen.

E-textbooks can easily be updated. A new government in South Sudan? A new planet on the other side of Pluto? Having up-to-date relevant information makes the textbook so much more useful and efficient, especially if it has to do with sectors changing every year, such as economics or technology.

Shall we talk about environmental issues? Think of the number of trees that can be saved. It seems a bit hypocritical to urge people to not print emails unless absolutely necessary, but to then allow the unnecessary printing of textbooks.

digital textbooks in schools


Many say that the price is a barrier, that e-textbooks end up costing the student or the school even more than print, once you factor in the cost of the tablet. At university level, let’s face it, most students are going to have some sort of tablet anyway, right? And according to Mary Meeker’s seminal study on Internet trends, tablet usage is going through the roof (+52% yoy in 2013), so I think that it’s safe to assume that more and more university students will have their own device, so that’s a sunk cost that is not dependent on whether or not the textbooks are digital or paper. And, tablet costs are coming down fast, which is relevant for both older students paying for their own devices, as well as for schools funding tablets for younger students.

It’s likely that the cost of digital textbooks will also continue to decline as the production gets more efficient and as more people use e-textbooks, which will broaden even further the cost gap. And let’s not forget that the marginal cost of production of e-textbooks, that is, the cost of “printing” more once the production is complete, is $0.

Working in the digital world can be more distracting. The added functionalities can detract from deep focus, and jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink can lead to a loss of train of thought. However, the distractions and the link jumping can themselves lead to new insights, and the easy access to footnote sources makes deep learning more possible, not less. And for each study you find showing that students learn better on paper, you’ll find another one saying the opposite.

It is true that paper textbooks are easier to skim, and to jump back and forth. Personally I find it much easier to visualize the information in relation to its physical location, what the experts call “cognitive mapping”… I remember that the analysis of Germany’s economic decline was towards the beginning, on the right hand page, for example. However, as e-reader technology continues to advance and become even cheaper, we will be able to “visualize” books, with pages and all, on our tablets. If you use note-taking or writing apps such as Bamboo or Paper, you know what I mean. Check out this video from the KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence to get an idea of what’s coming:

We mentioned before that e-textbooks can easily be updated. That sounds like a good thing. Unless, as my husband points out, we decide that we don’t trust the updaters. With updatable textbooks, history can, literally, be re-written. However, with online information transparency and access to original print books, it is very unlikely that enough information can be supressed or revised to convince an increasingly educated populace. In fact, pre-Internet it would have been much easier to re-write history, as access to print books is significantly more limited than access to e-books.

What about vulnerability to power cuts? Since we’re looking into the future here, I think that it’s relatively safe to assume that the current trends in developing increasingly green, inexpensive energy sources will continue. And Internet connections will become even faster and more reliable (remember the dial-up modems? That was only 10 years ago!).

In the US, the decision to use digital or paper e-books for public schools is made at a local level, and some states and communities are adopting them faster than others. In the UK, the use of textbooks, paper or digital, is not obligatory in public schools, and just 10% of teachers issue whole textbooks to classes, preferring photocopies and individual exercises. South Korea has pledged to ban all print textbooks from its schools by next year.

And in Spain, where I live, the textbook situation is somewhat ridiculous. Here, the public education is free, but the textbooks are not. That itself is a point of contention, as the Constitution guarantees access to a free education for all citizens. And textbooks are an obligatory part of that education, you can’t go to class if you don’t have them. But they’re not free. Understandably, there is some resentment at the State’s interpretation of “free education”.

And these textbooks are not cheap. There is a type of cartel, with few publishing houses (the largest is part of a media group with considerable political clout) cornering the market  through agreements with the Ministry of Education, which establishes which textbooks are necessary for which courses. So there is no price competition. Families complain that they have to buy new textbooks every year. In spite of the editorials’ assurances, there is virtually no market for second-hand books.

Education is a local issue at state level, and each state has their own textbooks (Catalan textbooks are nothing like those from other states, for example, and not just because of the language). Smaller runs mean higher prices.

The law says that the textbooks can’t be updated more often than every four years. But the teaching style is for “participation” textbooks, in which the young students write, draw, colour, cut out… So, of course, they have to be replaced every year. Is that really necessary? Could the children not do their work in blank notebooks? Or on photocopied sheets provided by the teacher?

If you speak Spanish, I invite you to take a look at Enrique Dans’ effective and moving diatribe against Spanish textbook publishers in his blog.

I personally think that one of the greatest strengths of education is to show us how to find things out for ourselves. Whether we learn better with digital books or paper books is not the important question, inasmuch as I very much doubt that we will ever categorically answer it one way or another…  A more interesting question is which method is better for showing us how to discover?

— x —

If you want to see even more articles about the Future of Books, take a look at my Flipboard magazine “Books and Reading:

Books and Reading on Flipboard

A crowdfunding bubble?

Crowdfunding, where we all get to participate in the financing of worthwhile ventures, is a revolutionary concept which is opening doors of opportunity  to good ideas, creative innovations and interesting causes, and I will write about the exciting, constructive side of it very soon. But today I want to look at the silly side, the have-we-gone-off-the-rails side, because of not one but three items that appeared in the media yesterday.

First, I read in our Spanish online news source Voz Populi about the crowdfunded potato salad (more information in english here). It appears that people can really get behind potato salad. Not crazy about it myself, but maybe my taste buds are awaiting that sublime epiphany. Anyway, Zack Danger Brown, from Ohio, put up on Kickstarter (one of the principal crowdfunding platforms) his idea to raise funds to make a potato salad. If you donated $1 he would say your name while he made the salad. For $10 you could come to his kitchen to watch him make it. He hoped to raise $10 in a month, and as of right now, he is at $72,000, and looking for a new kitchen large enough to hold the 245 people that have donated $10 (and it will have to be long, slow salad for him to be able to say the names of the – so far – 5,000 people who donated a lower amount.) His latest published goal is that when the campaign reaches $3,000 (I imagine he’s having a hard time keeping up), he’ll rent a hall and invite the whole Internet to a potato salad party.

kickstarter potato salad campaign

Now this is crazy. Come on, there are so many more worthwhile causes out there than a potato salad! However, this will end up going down in the textbooks as a perfect example of “crowd” funding, and of social media engagement. And of how we love the kitsch, the unexpectedly charming, the simple… We can grasp the concept of a potato salad, and hey, $5 (the average contribution so far) isn’t really that much. (Tell that to a homeless person.)

Second, I was stunned by José Antonio Gabelas’ post about the Jeremy Meeks case. Charged with possession of a firearm, for some inexplicable reason the police decided to post his photo on Facebook. It was only a matter of time before comments on his “hotness” came pouring in, and a crowdfunding campaign was started to raise enough money to pay for his defence (ok, by his mother, but still…). So far they’ve only raised just under $6,000, and most of that because he’s handsome. I mean, really? You can invest your money in an interesting venture that creates employment, gives hope to a community, offers a service that can improve peoples’ lives… Or, you can try to get a convicted felon out on bail because of his dimples, which obviously means he’s a good person deep down.

Third, the Spanish press today also reported on our political party Podemos (“We can”… original?) launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise €10,000 to sue two leading political adversaries for “spreading lies”. They reached their target in three hours. Now, raising money for constructive political causes, I’m behind that. But where does a lawsuit leave us? What’s more constructive: investing in a campaign to investigate how to improve the school drop-out rate (for example), or contributing to a lawsuit in which only the lawyers win?

Crowdfunding has made many amazing things possible (such as the wedding list of a local hero who saved lives by disarming a shooter – a grateful community hoped to raise them $5,000, the campaign rapidly passed $50,000). And I imagine that, as with any young and growing concept, it needs its stupid somewhat irrational “puberty” phase. But let’s not turn thinking people against it and make it so much harder for entrepreneurs, dreamers and people who want to make a positive impact to raise the funds they need. Let’s avoid a crowdfunding bubble.

— x —

If you’d like more on crowdfunding, check out my Flipboard:

flipboard crowdfunding


A really moving story, that I hope shows some of the heart and creativity coming out of Spain these days…

The Arrels Foundation, a charity that helps homeless people get off the streets (I love their slogan, “No-one sleeps on the streets”) has converted the handwriting of a group of homeless people into fonts that can be purchased on their web homelessfonts.org.

from homelessfonts.org

from homelessfonts.org

The fonts can be bought by individuals (€19) or businesses (€290) for use on web design or branding, and the proceeds go the the Arrels Foundation.


– “Humanize your brand with homelessfonts”

Check out their video, really moving…