Visit to TU Dortmund: Impressive Demos on Vision and Audio

After several tries we finally managed to travel to Dortmund (half an hour on the S-Train) to visit Gernot A. Fink‘s group at the Technical University Dortmund. Bastian Pfleging did with this group his master thesis before he joined us. The research focus of the group is on signal processing and computer vision. They also follow an experimental approach – building systems that work (which we saw in the demos). In their lab space they have setup a building (basically a house inside a house – impressive!).

I have learned about a new location technology based on passive infrared sensors. The idea is to pick heat emitted from people and combine the output from several sensors to localize the person. The technology is very simple, potentially cheap, and privacy preserving. Sometime back we thought of a project topic using thermal imaging (not really cheap or privacy preserving) for context-awarenes – but so far there was no student who wanted to do it. Perhaps we should try again to find a student.

The other demos were situated in a meeting room that is equipped with several cameras and microphones. It was interesting to see how robust several of the vision prototypes managed to track people in the room and to detect pointing actions. One basic mechanism the use to detect interesting regions in an image is saliency based on different features – and it works well.

The audio demo used two arrays of 8 microphones each; the arrays are nicely integrated in a ceiling panel. Using these signals they can calculate the energy that originates from a certain spatial region in the room. Looking at the complexity of the hardware and software for sound localization it appears not in the far future that this could become ubiquitous. We talked about the work James Scott did on sound localization (snipping on a light switch) – here is the reference [1].

The room is equipped with sensors, lights, switches and a UI panel that are linked over a commercial bus system (KNX). Sometime ago we had a bachelor project in Essen that looked at EnOcean (another home networking technology). We discussed how well these systems are positioned in comparison to web technologies.

I personally think medium term we will move – at least on a control and user interface level – to web protocols. The moment you use web protocols it is so much easier to create user interfaces (e.g. using a Web browser as frontend) and it is simple integrate with existing systems (e.g. facebook). It would be interesting to assess how easy it is to use RESTful services to replicate some of the features of home automation systems. Sounds like an interesting project topic. There is a workshop on the Web of Things at PerCom in Mannheim – I am curious what is coming up there.

[1] James Scott, Boris Dragovic: Audio Location: Accurate Low-Cost Location Sensing. Pervasive Computing: Third International Conference, PERVASIVE 2005, Munich, Germany, May 8-13, 2005. Springer LNCS 3468/2005. pp 1-18. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/11428572_1

Will it be possible to keep data secret in the future?

At the moment there is an interesting discussion in Germany: should the state buy data (leaked out of a Swiss bank) that give details on people who have not paid their taxes in Germany. I will not add to the political discussion on that as there have been many arguments – some interesting and others funny. I am only amused about a small party that is very much against it. But one has to be fair – this is after all an indicator that democracy works 😉 parties represent the interests of their voters…

I think on a more general scale this incident and similar current cases could be an indicator of a future where everything that is on (electronic) file is likely to become public, given that there is an interest. One hundred years ago it was pretty difficult to steal or copy a few thousand data sets. You would have needed access to the archives for many nights and copying would have taken days. 30 years ago it would have been still hard – e.g. copying stacks of paper on a Xerox or using several large magnetic disks. Over recent years it has become much easier – a memory card is fairly small and a digital camera to copy documents is in many current mobile phones. It seems that if someone has rightful access to data (at a certain point in time) it may proof very hard to keep them from making a copy – may it be by copying the data digitally or by capturing electronically what they see. And hiding a SD-card is much more trivial than a car load of paper.

And as we know technology is progressing – perhaps we will get laws that restrict how small the physical size of a memory device can be 😉 And there is always a party who will lobby for it…

Visiting TU-Berlin and T-Labs

We have a number of student projects that look at novel applications and novel application platforms on mobile phones. As Michael Rohs from T-Labs is also teaching a course on mobile HCI we thought it would be a good opportunity to meet and discuss some application ideas.

I gave a talk in Michael’s lecture discussing the concept of user interfaces beyond the desktop, context as enabling technology, and future applications in mobile, wearable and ubiquitous computing. We had an interesting discussion – and in the end it always comes down to privacy and impact on society. I see this as a very positive development as it shows that the students are not just techies but that they see the bigger picture – and the impact (be it good or bad) they may have with their developments. I mentioned to books that are interesting to read: the transparent society [1] and total recall [2].

In the afternoon we discussed two specific projects. One was an application for informal social while watching TV (based on a set iconic communication elements) that can be used to generate meta data on the program shown. The other is a platform that allows web developers to create distributed mobile applications making use of all the sensors on mobile phones. It is essential a platform an API that provides access to all functions on the phones available in S60 phones over a RESTful API, e.g. you can use a HTTP call to make a photo on someone’s phone. We hope to release some of the software soon.

In the coffee area at T-labs was a printout with the 10+1 innovation principles – could not resist to take a photo 😉 Seems innovation is really trival – just follow the 11 rules and you are there 😉

[1] David Brin. The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom. Basic Books. 1999. ISBN-13: 978-0738201443. Amazon-link. Webpage: http://www.davidbrin.com/transparent.htm

[2] Gordon Bell, Jim Gemmell. Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything. Dutton Adult. 2009. ISBN-13: 978-0525951346. Amazon-link. Webpage: http://totalrecallbook.com/