The Nerdvana of Google I/O

July 16, 2012 at 8:28 am Leave a comment

Some months ago I was working on 2 separate projects for Voxeo Labs,
a portable mobile phone network for disaster relief and a Phono’s prototype implementation on WebRTC, calling from a web page to a classic phone network.

I can’t resist a good mashup, so I did some hacking and arranged to have a call from my web browser route to local the GSM cell I was running:

Chrome WebRTC talking to OpenBTS (youtube)

This demo resonated with Sam at Google who felt that the disaster relief use-case for WebRTC was interesting, especially in the context of a independent cell network. So he asked me if we could reproduce it at Google I/O as part of the Chrome Sandbox. So with a lot of help from our friends at Range Networks and Tethr we did.

Tropo and Tethr at Google I/O

All of which is a round-about explanation of how someone from darkest Cheshire came to be at the annual google Shwag fest.

Here’s the official story on the Tropo blog

Yes folks, we really did run our own licensed GSM network in the moscone building!

Behind the scenes was somewhat more stressful, the original video had used 3 amazon EC2 instances and an iMac, for the disaster relief case I needed to squeeze it down to 2 lightly configured Intel Atom machines. So quite a bit of work was needed, so much so that I had to turn down a friend’s BBQ invite on the saturday before!

The stress was topped off by finding that the Chrome team had pushed an update to Chrome late in the afternoon of the day before we were due to be on show. Naturally the update broke our code (WebRTC is still an evolving standard, so that is to be expected, but not exactly welcomed).
Luckily no one had plugged in our demo macbook since the upgrade, so a quick edit in the plist file and it was trying to download updates from a server of mine and getting 404s.

Our stand was allocated on the first day, so once that was over I could relax and take in the rest of the conference.

My first impression was of having arrived on the set (or in) an early George Lucas film (THX 1138) – it was very white, white sofas, white carpet, white ceiling.

Image credit to Krishna Vattipalli

White space at Google I/O

Perhaps as a result of this thought, I was on the lookout for signs of a dystopian future.
There really were plenty to be had.

I think the first shock was when they presented JellyBean – the latest android version. One of the new features (as opposed to the numerous and valuable enhancements) is “Google Now”. Now is a sort of adaptive home screen, which uses cues (time, location, calendar) to decide which widgets to display, say a map and route to your next appointment. This attempted omniscience is a bit spooky, the presenter then really worried me by saying that it would display sports results, based on your previous searches. They clearly don’t realise that there is no margin for error in these things.
So Reds, never ever let a Blue borrow your computer, or you’ll get constant annoying updates on their progress.

Google were kind enough to give us all a phone  running JellyBean. The UI is lovely and responsive, but the phone’s form factor falls between two stools for me, the screen isn’t big enough to use for more than a few minutes at a time, but it is too big to sit comfortably in my jeans pockets. Besides it isn’t a particularly good phone – the ring/message notification isn’t loud  enough to penetrate a busy exhibition floor, as a result I missed a message from a colleague who couldn’t talk her way past the strict security.

The next give away was much better – the 7inch quad core Asus tab is great.  It is large enough for prolonged use – but small enough (and light enough to go in a jacket pocket). The 7 inch tablet format works well for Hangouts, keeping your laptop or desktop free for ‘work’ while you attend a virtual meeting. The screen’s aspect ratio also lends itself to watching movies on planes or trains – or whilst waiting for something/someone. The audio seems slightly less clear than that of the Galaxy Plus 7 tab I also have access to, but that may be a driver issue. Today I received an update that should allow American google users to buy and play TV on this device from Google’s Play shop. Unfortunately users in the UK seem to be deprived of this pleasure.

The Q is a sinister black sphere with no visible controls.

Speaking of TV – Google also gave us a Q .
I’m at a loss to know what I think of this device. (I’m not even quite sure what it is) I am sure I don’t want a thing that looks like an unexploded bomb in my living room. I feared it would be geo-locked so I decided to have a quick play with mine in the hotel room in California.
The configuration is both brilliant and bizarre. If I understand correctly it goes like this:

1) you power up the Q (it glows like a space mine or a dalek spawn)
2) you place your android handset on the Q
3) the handset uses NFC to cause you to download an app that turns it into a glorified remote control.
4) you run the app, then the phone uses bluetooth to send your wireless access details (SSID and password) to the Q.
5) the Q joins the wifi
6) the app and the Q talk over the wifi.
7) when playing the phone adds streaming requests to the queue for the Q to play.
8) the Q downloads queued content from the google cloud.

As a friend said ” it is a consumer appliance with no controls”.

Unfortunately a combination of DRM hell and a lack of sneakiness on my part prevented me from watching ‘Iron Sky’ on it. For that I had to make do with the iPad’s smaller screen. I did watch the YouTube trailer on the Q via the hotel TV and was unimpressed with the image quality.

Once I got home I dragged out an old pair of mission speakers and listened to some free music on it from Google Play. Again a sad disappointment – either my speakers have gone bad or the Q isn’t compatible with them, the sound was muddy and confused.

I really want to like the Q, but it puts too many feet wrong.

More wrong footedness – I found myself swerving to avoid a woman walking across the floor of the Moscone, she was being followed by a gaggle to sound crew and minders, but that wasn’t what had put me off in the first place. It was something about the way she moved and held herself that made me shy away. I looked back from a safe distance to see she was wearing Google’s glasses.

The problem was that my monkey brain was shouting ‘Avoid – something wrong with this one – not all there’ – as indeed she wasn’t, she didn’t make proper eye contact, she moved in a stilted fashion and there was something alarmingly asymmetric about the way she held her head – like a thrush studying a snail before smashing it’s shell. (see mobiledia for an image)

I’m sure that there will be a role for these glasses, but they are a Segway sort of invention, useful in niches, but too asocial for most people.

The final give away was a ‘chrome box’. It’s the web-top version of a mac mini – you plug in a mouse, keyboard, screen ,webcam and you get a device that will run the full suite of google tools from within chrome OS . I see the point of the chromebook (it’s laptop sibling), but by the time I’d rounded up a compatible set of peripherals I was already bored with the device. If I can find a webcam it likes I may use it for Google + hangouts, but the 7inch android tablets do that very well already, so it would be a large screen thing.

Discussing the Nerdvana that was Google I/O afterwards we came to the view that Google’s hiring policies are the cause of the monumental disconnect between most of their products and what real people want to live with. If you only hire people who can solve cryptic crosswords, you’ll struggle to have the common touch. Google thrives because once in a while one of their oddball inventions hits critical mass, and then analysis of bulk user numbers can be used to guide it to the point where it is actually a market leader.

I really appreciate the chance to be at Google I/O and learn more about a whole load of new (and new-to-me) Google technologies, here’s hoping a few of them manage to crawl out of the uncanny valley to delight the rest of us.

P.S. I’ll be at Android Manchester on Monday  16th July in Madlab with some of these devices and opinions, which I’d be happy to discuss over a beer!


Entry filed under: media, VoIP. Tags: , , , , .

The end of an error. The name of a Rose

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