As mentioned here before, ‘The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer’, a 1985 novel by Neal Stephenson featured in its opening chapter a flexible, bendable, rollable, newspaper screen. It’s one of those devices promised by ‘nano evangelists’ that never quite seems to come into existence. However, ‘hope springs eternally’ as they say and a team from the University of Oxford claims to be bringing us one step closer.
A new discovery will make it possible to create pixels just a few hundred nanometres across that could pave the way for extremely high-resolution and low-energy thin, flexible displays for applications such as ‘smart’ glasses, synthetic retinas, and foldable screens.
A team led by Oxford University scientists explored the link between the electrical and optical properties of phase change materials (materials that can change from an amorphous to a crystalline state). They found that by sandwiching a seven nanometre thick layer of a phase change material (GST) between two layers of a transparent electrode they could use a tiny current to ‘draw’ images within the sandwich ‘stack’.
Here’s a series of images the researchers have created using this technology,
Still images drawn with the technology: at around 70 micrometres across each image is smaller than the width of a human hair. Courtesy University of Oxford
The press release offers a technical description,
Initially still images were created using an atomic force microscope but the team went on to demonstrate that such tiny ‘stacks’ can be turned into prototype pixel-like devices. These ‘nano-pixels’ – just 300 by 300 nanometres in size – can be electrically switched ‘on and off’ at will, creating the coloured dots that would form the building blocks of an extremely high-resolution display technology.
‘We didn’t set out to invent a new kind of display,’ said Professor Harish Bhaskaran of Oxford University’s Department of Materials, who led the research. ‘We were exploring the relationship between the electrical and optical properties of phase change materials and then had the idea of creating this GST ‘sandwich’ made up of layers just a few nanometres thick. We found that not only were we able to create images in the stack but, to our surprise, thinner layers of GST actually gave us better contrast. We also discovered that altering the size of the bottom electrode layer enabled us to change the colour of the image.’
The layers of the GST sandwich are created using a sputtering technique where a target is bombarded with high energy particles so that atoms from the target are deposited onto another material as a thin film.
‘Because the layers that make up our devices can be deposited as thin films they can be incorporated into very thin flexible materials – we have already demonstrated that the technique works on flexible Mylar sheets around 200 nanometres thick,’ said Professor Bhaskaran. ‘This makes them potentially useful for ‘smart’ glasses, foldable screens, windshield displays, and even synthetic retinas that mimic the abilities of photoreceptor cells in the human eye.’
Peiman Hosseini of Oxford University’s Department of Materials, first author of the paper, said: ‘Our models are so good at predicting the experiment that we can tune our prototype ‘pixels’ to create any colour we want – including the primary colours needed for a display. One of the advantages of our design is that, unlike most conventional LCD screens, there would be no need to constantly refresh all pixels, you would only have to refresh those pixels that actually change (static pixels remain as they were). This means that any display based on this technology would have extremely low energy consumption.’
The research suggests that flexible paper-thin displays based on the technology could have the capacity to switch between a power-saving ‘colour e-reader mode’, and a backlit display capable of showing video. Such displays could be created using cheap materials and, because they would be solid-state, promise to be reliable and easy to manufacture. The tiny ‘nano-pixels’ make it ideal for applications, such as smart glasses, where an image would be projected at a larger size as, even enlarged, they would offer very high-resolution.
Professor David Wright of the Department of Engineering at the University of Exeter, co-author of the paper, said: ‘Along with many other researchers around the world we have been looking into the use of these GST materials for memory applications for many years, but no one before thought of combining their electrical and optical functionality to provide entirely new kinds of non-volatile, high-resolution, electronic colour displays – so our work is a real breakthrough.’
The phase change material used was the alloy Ge2Sb2Te5 (Germanium-Antimony-Tellurium or GST) sandwiched between electrode layers made of indium tin oxide (ITO).
I gather the researchers are looking for investors (from the press release),
Whilst the work is still in its early stages, realising its potential, the Oxford team has filed a patent on the discovery with the help of Isis Innovation, Oxford University’s technology commercialisation company. Isis is now discussing the displays with companies who are interested in assessing the technology, and with investors.
I started this post in March (2013) but haven’t had time till now (May 7, 2013) to flesh it out. It was a Mar. 28, 2013 posting by Jessica Bland and Lydia Nicholas for the UK Guardian science blogs which inspired me (Note: Links have been removed),
Science fiction and real-world innovation have always fed off each other. The history of the electronic book shows us things are more complicated than fiction predicting fact [.]
Imagine a new future. No, not that tired old vision of hoverboards and robot butlers: something really new and truly strange. It’s hard. It’s harder still to invent the new things that will fill this entirely new world. New ideas that do not fit or that come from unfamiliar places are often ignored. Hedy Lemarr [a major movie sex symbol in her day] and George Antheil’s [musician] frequency-hopping patent was ignored for 20 years because the US Navy could not believe that Hollywood artists could invent a method of secure communication. Many of Nikola Tesla’s inventions and his passionate belief in the importance of renewable energy were ignored by a world that could not imagine a need for them.
Stories open our eyes to the opportunities and hazards of new technologies. By articulating our fears and desires for the future, stories help shape what is to come – informing public debate, influencing regulation and inspiring inventors. And this makes it important that we do not just listen to the loudest voices.
Of course it isn’t as simple as mining mountains of pulp sci-fi for the schematics of the next rocket or the algorithms of the next Google. Arthur C. Clarke, often attributed with the invention of the communication satellite, firmly believed that these satellites would require crews. The pervasive connectivity that defines our world today would never have existed if every satellite needed to be manned.
The Guardian posting was occasioned by the publication of two research papers produced for NESTA. It’s an organization which is not similar to any in Canada or the US (as far as I know). Here’s a little more about NESTA from their FAQs page,
Nesta is an independent charity with a mission to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life. We do this by providing investments and grants and mobilising research, networks and skills.
Nesta backs innovation to help bring great ideas to life. We do this by providing investments and grants and mobilising research, networks and skills.
Nesta receives funds from The Nesta Trust, which received the National Lottery endowment from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.
The interest from this endowment is used to fund our activities. These activities must be used to promote the charitable objects of both the Nesta Trust and the Nesta charity. We also use the returns from Nesta investments, and income from working in partnership with others, to fund our work.
We don’t receive any ongoing general government funds to support our work.
On 1st April 2012 Nesta ceased being a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) and became a charity (charity number 1144091).
We maintain our mission to carry out research into innovation and to further education, science, technology, the arts, public services, the voluntary sector and enterprise in various areas by encouraging and supporting innovation.
Nesta’s objectives are now set out in our ‘charitable objects’ which can be viewed here.
Nesta continues to operate at no cost to the Government or the taxpayer using return from the Nesta Trust.
For anyone who does not have time to read the NESTA papers, the Guardian’s post by Bland and Nicholas provides a good overview of the thinking which links science fiction with real innovation.
Around the same time I stumbled across the Bland/Nicholas post I also stumbled on a science fiction conference that is regularly held at the University of California Riverside.
The Eaton Science Fiction Conference was held Apr. 11 – 14, 2013 and the theme was “Science Fiction Media. It’s a little late for this year but perhaps you want to start planning for next year. Here’s the Eaton Science Fiction Conference website. For those who’d like to get a feel for this conference, here’s a little more from the Mar. 27, 2013 news release by Bettye Miller,
… the 2013 conference will be largest in the 34-year history of the conference, said Melissa Conway, head of Special Collections and Archives of the UCR Libraries and conference co-organizer. It also is the first time the UCR Libraries and College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences have partnered with the Science Fiction Research Association, the largest and most prestigious scholarly organization in the field, to present the event.
Among the science fiction writers who will be presenting on different panels are: Larry Niven, author of “Ringworld” and a five-time winner of the Hugo Award and a Nebula; Gregory Benford, astrophysicist and winner of a Nebula Award and a United Nations Medal in Literature; David Brin, astrophysicist and two-time winner of the Hugo Award; Audre Bormanis, writer/producer for “Star Trek: Enterprise,” “Threshold,” “Eleventh Hour,” “Legend of the Seeker” and “Tron: Uprising”; Kevin Grazier, science adviser for “Battlestar Galactica,” “Defiance,” “Eureka” and “Falling Skies”; and James Gunn, winner of a Hugo Award and the 2007 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master, presented for lifetime achievement as a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
As for the impetus for this conference in Riverside, California, from the news release,
UCR is the home of the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy, the largest publicly accessible collection of its kind in the world. The collection embraces every branch of science fiction, fantasy, horror and utopian/dystopian fiction.
The collection, which attracts scholars from around the world, holds more than 300,000 items including English-language science fiction, fantasy and horror published in the 20th century and a wide range of works in Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, German, and a dozen other languages; fanzines; comic books; anime; manga; science fiction films and television series; shooting scripts; archives of science fiction writers; and science fiction collectibles and memorabilia.
In one of those odd coincidences we all experience from time to time, Ray Harryhausen, creator of a type of stop-motion model animation known as Dynamation and well loved for his work in special effects and who was recognized with a life time achievement at the 2013 conference, died today (May 7, 2013; Wikipedia essay).
Humanity’s lack of a positive vision for the future can be blamed in part on an engineering culture that’s more focused on incrementalism (and VC funding) than big ideas. But maybe science fiction writers should share some of the blame. That’s the idea that came out of a conversation in 2011 between science fiction author Neal Stephenson and Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University.
If science fiction inspires scientists and engineers to create new things–Stephenson believes it can–then more visionary, realistic sci-fi stories can help create a better future. Hence the Hieroglyph experiment, launched this month as a collaborative website for researchers and writers. Many of the stories created on the platform will go into a HarperCollins anthology of fiction and non-fiction, set to be published in 2014.
Here’s more about the Hieroglyph project from the About page,
Inspiration is a small but essential part of innovation, and science fiction stories have been a seminal source of inspiration for innovators over many decades. In his article entitled “Innovation Starvation,” Neal Stephenson calls for a return to inspiration in contemporary science fiction. That call resonated with so many and so deeply that Project Hieroglyph was born shortly thereafter.
The name of Project Hieroglyph comes from the notion that certain iconic inventions in science fiction stories serve as modern “hieroglyphs” – Arthur Clarke’s communications satellite, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ship that lands on its fins, Issac Asimov’s robot, and so on. Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research described hieroglyphs as simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.
While the mission of Project Hieroglyph begins with creative inspiration, our hope is that many of us will be genuinely inspired towards realization.
It’s great seeing this confluence of thinking about science fiction, innovation, and science. I’m pretty sure we knew this in the 19th century (and probably before that too) and I just hope we don’t forget it again.
A couple of diamond-related news items have crossed my path lately causing me to consider diamonds and their social implications. I’ll start first with the news items, according to an April 4, 2012 news item on physorg.com a quantum computer has been built inside a diamond (from the news item),
Diamonds are forever – or, at least, the effects of this diamond on quantum computing may be. A team that includes scientists from USC has built a quantum computer in a diamond, the first of its kind to include protection against “decoherence” – noise that prevents the computer from functioning properly.
I last mentioned decoherence in my July 21, 2011 posting about a joint (University of British Columbia, University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of Southern California) project on quantum computing.
The multinational team included USC professor Daniel Lidar and USC postdoctoral researcher Zhihui Wang, as well as researchers from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Iowa State University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. The findings were published today in Nature.
The team’s diamond quantum computer system featured two quantum bits, or qubits, made of subatomic particles.
As opposed to traditional computer bits, which can encode distinctly either a one or a zero, qubits can encode a one and a zero at the same time. This property, called superposition, along with the ability of quantum states to “tunnel” through energy barriers, some day will allow quantum computers to perform optimization calculations much faster than traditional computers.
Like all diamonds, the diamond used by the researchers has impurities – things other than carbon. The more impurities in a diamond, the less attractive it is as a piece of jewelry because it makes the crystal appear cloudy.
The team, however, utilized the impurities themselves.
A rogue nitrogen nucleus became the first qubit. In a second flaw sat an electron, which became the second qubit. (Though put more accurately, the “spin” of each of these subatomic particles was used as the qubit.)
Electrons are smaller than nuclei and perform computations much more quickly, but they also fall victim more quickly to decoherence. A qubit based on a nucleus, which is large, is much more stable but slower.
“A nucleus has a long decoherence time – in the milliseconds. You can think of it as very sluggish,” said Lidar, who holds appointments at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Though solid-state computing systems have existed before, this was the first to incorporate decoherence protection – using microwave pulses to continually switch the direction of the electron spin rotation.
“It’s a little like time travel,” Lidar said, because switching the direction of rotation time-reverses the inconsistencies in motion as the qubits move back to their original position.
Here’s an image I downloaded from the USC webpage hosting Perkins’s news item,
The diamond in the center measures 1 mm X 1 mm. Photo/Courtesy of Delft University of Technolgy/UC Santa Barbara
I’m not sure what they were trying to illustrate with the image but I thought it would provide an interesting contrast to the video which follows about the world’s first purely diamond ring,
What with the posting about Neal Stephenson and Diamond Age (aka, The Diamond Age Or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer; a novel that integrates nanotechnology into a story about the future and ubiquitous diamonds), a quantum computer in a diamond, and this ring, I’ve started to wonder about role diamonds will have in society. Will they be integrated into everyday objects or will they remain objects of desire? My guess is that the diamonds we create by manipulating carbon atoms will be considered everyday items while the ones which have been formed in the bowels of the earth will retain their status.
After reading Diamond Age (aka, The Diamond Age Or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Prime; a novel that integrates nanotechnology into a story about the future), I have never been able to steel myself to read another Neal Stephenson book. In the last 1/3 of the book, the plot fell to pieces so none of the previously established narrative threads were addressed and the character development, such as it was, ceased to make sense. However, it seems I am in the minority as Stephenson and his work are widely and critically lauded.
April 17, 2012, Stephenson will be appearing in an event which features a live interview by Technology Review editor-in-chief, Jason Pontin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). From Stephen Cass’s April 3, 2012 article for Technology Review,
With assistance from the the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, if you’re in the Boston area, you can see Neal Stephenson in person at MIT on April 17. Technology Review‘s editor-in-chief, Jason Pontin, will publicly interview Stephenson for the 2012 issue of TRSF, our annual science fiction anthology. Topics on the table include the state and future of hard science fiction, and how digital publishing is affecting novels.
Nanotechnology and diamonds go together like a horse and carriage … I don’t often resist song references and this was not one of those times. (For anyone who doesn’t recognize it, “Love and marriage go together like …).
Given how strongly diamonds are associated with nanotechnology, it’s good to see that a team from the A. J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute has published a review of nanodiamond research. From the Jan. 11, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,
Nearly 50 years ago scientists discovered that detonating powerful explosives had the ability to create, not just destroy. Nanodiamonds, diamond-structured particles measuring less than 10 nanometers in diameter, which are the resultant residue from a TNT or Hexogen explosion in a contained space, are now being studied in a variety of science, technology and health applications. A team of researchers who specialize in nanotechnology, led by Dr. Yury Gogotsi, director of the A.J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute, offered a review of nanodiamond research, in the December 18 edition of Nature Nanotechnology (“The properties and applications of nanodiamonds “) to sift through new ways scientists are using these tiny treasures.
Courtesy of reading Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel, Diamond Age, I tend to think of materials made from nanodiamonds as being construction materials but this team is suggesting some other applications (from the news item),
According to the piece, nanodiamonds possess a unique combination of qualities, such as accessible surface area, versatile chemistry, chemical stability and biocompatibility. These traits, and the fact that nanodiamonds are non-toxic, make the particles ideal candidates for a variety of tasks including drug delivery cancer diagnostics, and mimicking proteins.
This time I’ve decided to explore a few of the human/computer interface stories I’ve run across lately. So this posting is largely speculative and rambling as I’m not driving towards a conclusion.
My first item is a May 3, 2011 news item on physorg.com. It concerns an art installation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, The Ascent. From the news item,
A team of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students has created a system that pairs an EEG headset with a 3-D theatrical flying harness, allowing users to “fly” by controlling their thoughts. The “Infinity Simulator” will make its debut with an art installation [The Ascent] in which participants rise into the air – and trigger light, sound, and video effects – by calming their thoughts.
I’ve seen this a few times and it still absolutely blows me away.
If you should be near Rensselaer on May 12, 2011, you could have a chance to fly using your own thoughtpower, a harness, and an EEG helmet. From the event webpage,
Come ride The Ascent, a playful mash-up of theatrics, gaming and mind-control. The Ascent is a live-action, theatrical ride experience created for almost anyone to try. Individual riders wear an EEG headset, which reads brainwaves, along with a waist harness, and by marshaling their calm, focus, and concentration, try to levitate themselves thirty feet into the air as a small audience watches from below. The experience is full of obstacles-as a rider ascends via the power of concentration, sound and light also respond to brain activity, creating a storm of stimuli that conspires to distract the rider from achieving the goal: levitating into “transcendence.” The paradox is that in order to succeed, you need to release your desire for achievement, and contend with what might be the biggest obstacle: yourself.
Theater Artist and Experience Designer Yehuda Duenyas (XXXY) presents his MFA Thesis project The Ascent, and its operating platform the Infinity System, a new user driven experience created specifically for EMPAC’s automated rigging system.
The Infinity System is a new platform and user interface for 3D flying which combines aspects of thrill-ride, live-action video game, and interactive installation.
Using a unique and intuitive interface, the Infinity System uses 3D rigging to move bodies creatively through space, while employing wearable sensors to manipulate audio and visual content.
Like a live-action stunt-show crossed with a video game, the user is given the superhuman ability to safely and freely fly, leap, bound, flip, run up walls, fall from great heights, swoop, buzz, drop, soar, and otherwise creatively defy gravity.
“The effect is nothing short of movie magic.” – Sean Hollister, Engadget
Here’s a brief description of the technology behind this ‘Ascent’ (from the news item on physorg.com),
Ten computer programs running simultaneously link the commercially available EEG headset to the computer-controlled 3-D flying harness and various theater systems, said Todd. [Michael Todd, a Rensselaer 2010 graduate in computer science]
Within the theater, the rigging – including the harness – is controlled by a Stage Tech NOMAD console; lights are controlled by an ION console running MIDI show control; sound through MAX/MSP; and video through Isadora and Jitter. The “Infinity Simulator,” a series of three C programs written by Todd, acts as intermediary between the headset and the theater systems, connecting and conveying all input and output.
“We’ve built a software system on top of the rigging control board and now have control of it through an iPad, and since we have the iPad control, we can have anything control it,” said Duenyas. “The ‘Infinity Simulator’ is the center; everything talks to the ‘Infinity Simulator.’”
This May 3, 2011 article (Mystery Man Gives Mind-Reading Tech More Early Cash Than Facebook, Google Combined) by Kit Eaton on Fast Company also concerns itself with a brain/computer interface. From the article,
Imagine the money that could be made by a drug company that accurately predicted and treated the onset of Alzheimer’s before any symptoms surfaced. That may give us an idea why NeuroVigil, a company specializing in non-invasive, wireless brain-recording tech, just got a cash injection that puts it at a valuation “twice the combined seed valuations of Google’s and Facebook’s first rounds,” according to a company announcement
NeuroVigil’s key product at the moment is the iBrain, a slim device in a flexible head-cap that’s designed to be worn for continuous EEG monitoring of a patient’s brain function–mainly during sleep. It’s non-invasive, and replaces older technology that could only access these kind of brain functions via critically implanted electrodes actually on the brain itself. The idea is, first, to record how brain function changes over time, perhaps as a particular combination of drugs is administered or to help diagnose particular brain pathologies–such as epilepsy.
But the other half of the potentailly lucrative equation is the ability to analyze the trove of data coming from iBrain. And that’s where NeuroVigil’s SPEARS algorithm enters the picture. Not only is the company simplifying collection of brain data with a device that can be relatively comfortably worn during all sorts of tasks–sleeping, driving, watching advertising–but the combination of iBrain and SPEARS multiplies the efficiency of data analysis [emphasis mine].
I assume it’s the notion of combining the two technologies (iBrian and SPEARS) that spawned the ‘mind-reading’ part of this article’s title. The technology could be used for early detection and diagnosis, as well as, other possibilities as Eaton notes,
It’s also possible it could develop its technology into non-medicinal uses such as human-computer interfaces–in an earlier announcement, NeuroVigil noted, “We plan to make these kinds of devices available to the transportation industry, biofeedback, and defense. Applications regarding pandemics and bioterrorism are being considered but cannot be shared in this format.” And there’s even a popular line of kid’s toys that use an essentially similar technique, powered by NeuroSky sensors–themselves destined for future uses as games console controllers or even input devices for computers.
What these two technologies have in common is that, in some fashion or other, they have (shy of implanting a computer chip) a relatively direct interface with our brains, which means (to me anyway) a very different relationship between humans and computers.
In the next couple of items I’m going to profile a couple of very similar to each other technologies that allow for more traditional human/computer interactions, one of which I’ve posted about previously, the Nokia Morph (most recently in my Sept. 29, 2010 posting).
It was first introduced as a type of flexible phone with other capabilities. Since then, they seem to have elaborated on those capabilities. Here’s a description of what they now call the ‘Morph concept’ in a [ETA May 12, 2011: inserted correct link information] May 4, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,
Morph is a joint nanotechnology concept developed by Nokia Research Center (NRC) and the University of Cambridge (UK). Morph is a concept that demonstrates how future mobile devices might be stretchable and flexible, allowing the user to transform their mobile device into radically different shapes. It demonstrates the ultimate functionality that nanotechnology might be capable of delivering: flexible materials, transparent electronics and self-cleaning surfaces.
Morph, will act as a gateway. It will connect the user to the local environment as well as the global internet. It is an attentive device that adapts to the context – it shapes according to the context. The device can change its form from rigid to flexible and stretchable. Buttons of the user interface can grow up from a flat surface when needed. User will never have to worry about the battery life. It is a device that will help us in our everyday life, to keep our self connected and in shape. It is one significant piece of a system that will help us to look after the environment.
Without the new materials, i.e. new structures enabled by the novel materials and manufacturing methods it would be impossible to build Morph kind of device. Graphene has an important role in different components of the new device and the ecosystem needed to make the gateway and context awareness possible in an energy efficient way.
Graphene will enable evolution of the current technology e.g. continuation of the ever increasing computing power when the performance of the computing would require sub nanometer scale transistors by using conventional materials.
For someone who’s been following news of the Morph for the last few years, this news item doesn’t give you any new information. Still, it’s nice to be reminded of the Morph project. Here’s a video produced by the University of Cambridge that illustrates some of the project’s hopes for the Morph concept,
While the folks at the Nokia Research Centre and University of Cambridge have been working on their project, it appears the team at the Human Media Lab at the School of Computing at Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario, Canada) in cooperation with a team from Arizona State University and E Ink Corporation have been able to produce a prototype of something remarkably similar, albeit with fewer functions. The PaperPhone is being introduced at the Association of Computing Machinery’s CHI 2011 (Computer Human Interaction) conference in Vancouver, Canada next Tuesday, May 10, 2011.
The world’s first interactive paper computer is set to revolutionize the world of interactive computing.
“This is the future. Everything is going to look and feel like this within five years,” says creator Roel Vertegaal, the director of Queen’s University Human Media Lab,. “This computer looks, feels and operates like a small sheet of interactive paper. You interact with it by bending it into a cell phone, flipping the corner to turn pages, or writing on it with a pen.”
The smartphone prototype, called PaperPhone is best described as a flexible iPhone – it does everything a smartphone does, like store books, play music or make phone calls. But its display consists of a 9.5 cm diagonal thin film flexible E Ink display. The flexible form of the display makes it much more portable that any current mobile computer: it will shape with your pocket.
For anyone who knows the novel, it’s very Diamond Age (by Neal Stephenson). On a more technical note, I would have liked more information about the display’s technology. What is E Ink using? Graphene? Carbon nanotubes?
(That does not look like to paper to me but I suppose you could call it ‘paperlike’.)
In reviewing all these news items, it seems to me there are two themes, the computer as bodywear and the computer as an extension of our thoughts. Both of these are more intimate relationships, the latter far more so than the former, than we’ve had with the computer till now. If any of you have any thoughts on this, please do leave a comment as I would be delighted to engage on some discussion about this.
You can get more information about the Association of Computing Machinery’s CHI 2011 (Computer Human Interaction) conference where Dr. Vertegaal will be presenting here.
You can find more about Dr. Vertegaal and the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University here.
The academic paper being presented at the Vancouver conference is here.
Also, if you are interested in the hardware end of things, you can check out E Ink Corporation, the company that partnered with the team from Queen’s and Arizona State University to create the PaperPhone. Interestingly, E Ink is a spin off company from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Will you mourn the loss of the physical book if eBooks become the dominant format?
It doesn’t fill me with quite the degree of horror and sorrow that it seems to fill many of my friends. For one thing, I don’t think that physical books will cease to be produced. But the ecological impact of book manufacture and traditional book marketing –- I think that should really be considered. We have this industry in which we cut down trees to make the paper that we then use enormous amounts of electricity to turn into books that weigh a great deal and are then shipped enormous distances to point-of-sale retail. Often times they are remained or returned, using double the carbon footprint. And more electricity is used to pulp them and turn them into more books. If you look at it from a purely ecological point of view, it’s crazy.
Gibson goes on to suggest that the perfect scenario would feature bookstores displaying one copy of each book being offered for sale. Prospective readers would be able to view the book and purchase their own copy through a print-on-demand system. He does not speculate about any possible role for e-books.
For a contrasting approach from writers, let’s take Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and other members of the Mongoliad novel/project which is being written/conducted online. I’m inferring from the publicity and written material on the Mongoliad website that these writers, artists, and others are experimenting with new business and storytelling models in the face of a rapidly changing publishing and reading environment. I’ve posted about Mongoliad here (Sept.7,2010) and here (May 31,2010).
Edward Picot at The Hyperliterature Exchange has written a substantive essay, It’s Literature Jim… but not as we know i:Publishing and the Digital Revolution, which explores this topic from the perspective of someone who’s been heavily involved in the debate for many years. From the Picot essay,
It seems we may finally be reaching the point where ebooks are going to pose a genuine challenge to print-and-paper. Amazon have just announced that Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become the first ebook to sell more than a million copies; and also that they are now selling more copies of ebooks than books in hardcover. [emphasis mine]
As for more proof as to how much things are changing, the folks who produce the Oxford English Dictionary (the 20 volume version) have announced that the 1989 edition may have been the last print edition. From Dan Nosowitz’s article on the Fast Company website,
The Oxford English Dictionary, currently a 20 volume, 750-pound monstrosity, has been the authoritative word on the words of the English language for 126 years. The OED3, the first new edition since 1989, may also be the first to forgo print entirely, reports the AP.
Nigel Portwood, chief executive of the Oxford University Press (isn’t that the perfect name for him?), says online revenue has been so high that it is highly unlikely that the third edition of the OED will be physically printed. The full 20-volume set costs $995 at Amazon, and of course it requires supplementals regularly to account for valuable words like “bootylicious.”
Meanwhile the Shifted Librarian weighs in by comparing her Kindle experience with a print book in a September 7, 2010 posting,
I knew my desire to share content was the prime driver of the format I was choosing, but I didn’t realize how quickly it was shifting in the opposite direction. I now want to share one-to-many, not one-to-one, and I just don’t have the time or resources to transcribe everything I want to share. It makes me sad to look at that long list of print books I’ve read over the past year that I likely won’t share here because I can’t copy and paste.
Jenny (The Shifted Librarian) ends her essay with this,
Of course, your mileage may vary, but I think I’ve finally crossed over to the ebook side. I’ll have to go to bookstores and the library just to touch new books for old time’s sake. Only time will tell if there’s a “feature” of print books that can draw me back. My reasons for converting are definitely an edge case, and I haven’t been a heavy user of print resources in libraries in quite some time, but I can’t help but wonder how this type of shift will affect libraries. I see more and more ereaders on my commute every day.
I was on the bus today and was struck by how many people were reading books and newspapers but I’m not drawing any serious conclusions from my informal survey. I think the lack of e-books, tablets and their ilk may be a consequence of the Canadian market where we tend to get digital devices after they’ve been on the US market for a while and when we get them, we pay more.
Despite all the discussion about e-books and tablets, I think what it comes down to is whether or not people are going to continue reading and, if we do , whether we”ll be reading the same way. Personally, I think there’ll be less reading. After all, literacy isn’t a given and with more and more icons (e.g., signage in airports, pedestrian walk signals, your software programmes, etc.) taking the place that once was occupied by written words then, why would we need to learn to read? In the last year, I’ve seen science journal abstracts (which used to be text only) that are graphical, i.e., text illustrated with images. Plus there’s been a resurgence of radio online and other audio products (rap, spoken word poets, podcasts, etc.) which hints at a greater investment in oral culture in the future.
These occurrences and others suggest to me that a massive change is underway. If you need any more proof, there’s Arthur Sulzburger Jr.’s admission at the recent International Newsroom Summit held in London England (from the Sept.8, 2010 article by Steve Huff in the New York Observer Daily Transom),
During a talk at the International Newsroom Summit held in London, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. admitted that “we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future,” but, said Sulzberger, that date is “TBD.”
In the foreseeable future, we might need to read (although we may find ourselves moving to a more orally-based culture) but not as extensively as before. We won’t spend quite as much time learning to read and will better use the training time to learn about such topics as physics or coding computers or something. Knowledge, scientific and otherwise, is going to be transmitted and received via many channels and I don’t believe that the written word will be as privileged as it is today.
In the meantime, there are any number of avenues for writers and readers to pursue. One that I find personally fascinating is the subculture of literary tattoos (from The Word Made Flesh [Thanks to @ruthseeley for tweeting about the website.]),
It says “It rained for four years, eleven months and two days.” in portuguese. The illustration and phrase are from “100 years of solitude” by G.G. Márquez. That book means a lot to me. This picture was takes the same day i got the tattoo, so it’s a little bloody. It was very cold that day.
Given that I live in an area known for its rainy weather, this particular tattoo was a no-brainer choice.
I made mention of the Mongoliad writing project when it was first announced in late spring (my May 31, 2010 posting). The project features Neal Stepheonson and Greg Bear, both well known science fiction writers (in fact, both have written novels that incorporate nanotechnology), amongst a cast of other writers, artists, techno types, and others. They’re forging into 21st century publishing with a model that is lifted in part from the 19th century, stories produced serially and available by subscription, but made available with contemporary technology, the interrnet. I guess you could call it ‘steam punk publishing’.
Last week, a free preview was made available and registration was opened. Here’s the view from Andrew Leonard at Salon.com,
Behold the power of branding! Chapter I of “The Mongoliad” launched online this week, and I plunked down $9.99 for a year’s subscription, sight unseen, simply because Neal Stephenson’s name was attached. …
But after spending some time with the site and reading the first chapter, it is not exactly clear to me exactly how much Stephenson is baked into this project. He is the co-founder and chairman of Subutai, the start-up that is producing “The Mongoliad.” But the content-creation is a group effort. This serial digital novel is being produced online by a team of writers , artists, hackers and sword-fighting geeks — another big name involved is Greg Bear, also a veteran science fiction author. …
“The Mongoliad” is supposed to be more than “just” a book. Eventually the intention is to incorporate multimedia offerings, along with the hypertext-branching contributions of a user community extending far beyond the core team.
Ghengis Khan shook up the world in the 12th Century, and now in the 21st Century Neal Stephenson’s novel about him may shake up the publishing world: It’s partly interactive, partly social media, and wholly digital.
The Mongoliad promises to be unlike any other book ever written. For starters it’s written, in part, by Neal Stephenson, whose ideas in earlier novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age have contributed to many modern marvels like Google Earth and augmented reality. When you learn sci-fi writer Greg Bear is contributing to the team effort too, it makes the whole thing even more promising.
The innovation in The Mongoliad isn’t in its team writing effort, however: It’s in the entire concept of a serialized, dynamic, digital “book” that includes video, imagery, music, and background articles among the text of the storyline and comes with a social media companion, with which fans/readers can comment and interact.
In fact it looks as if they are incorporating fan fiction into their overall plan. If you go to the Mongoliad website, you are encouraged to add your stories and artwork to the site. This is from their ‘terms of service’,
1. Policy. We welcome the submission of text, stories, vignettes, paragraphs, concepts, characters, ideas, poems, songs, images, animations, or interactive features submitted by registered contributors for potential publication on the Site (“Contributor Submissions”). Subutai grants you a limited, non-exclusive, non-transferable and revocable license to modify, broadcast, and transmit Content solely in order to create and submit Contributor Submissions to Subutai.
You understand that whether or not such Contributor Submissions are published, Subutai cannot guarantee proper attribution with respect to any submissions because of the interactive nature of the Site.
It’ll be interesting to see whether or not this works purely from the perspective of its business model. As for the story itself, I’m not loving it so far. First, a précis. It’s the thirteenth century in Europe and the Mongolians have a conquered a chunk of it. (Apparently, they did conquer a good chunk by 1241 and were about to conquer the rest when Ögedei Khan, then current Mongol ruler, died and their general, Subitai, according to custom had to return to Mongolis. See: Wikipedia essay)
In Mongoliad, there is no withdrawal of the Mongol forces and they are poised to sweep Europe meanwhile a small band of European knights gather to fight (from the Mongoliad Welcome page),
It’s spring of 1241, and the West is shitting its pants (that’s “bewraying its kecks” for you medieval time-travelers).
The Mongol takeover of Europe is almost complete. The hordes commanded by the sons of Genghis Khan have swept out of their immense grassy plains and ravaged Russia, Poland, and Hungary… and now seem poised to sweep west to Paris and south to Rome. King and pope and peasant alike face a bleak future—until a small band of warriors, inheritors of a millennium-old secret tradition, set out to probe the enemy.
Their leader, the greatest knight of their order, will set his small group of specially trained warriors on a perilous eastern journey. They will be guided by an agile, elusive, and sharp-witted adolescent girl, who believes the master’s plan is insane. But this small band is the West’s last, best hope to turn aside the floodtide of the violent genius of the Steppes kingdoms.
In the preview chapter (which is free), we meet Haakon who’s obviously one of the small band of warriors fighting for Europe. At this point, he’s engaging in some sort of sword fighting duel in a Mongol arena while the crowds roar for blood. We never learn much more about him or any of the other characters we’re introduced to as the preview is designed to draw us into buying a subscription so we can find out more. I’m not a big fan of the writing that I see in the preview,
Haakon wanted to roar with anger, but it came out as a strangled laugh. “I am about to do battle with a demon,” he complained, “and you want me to–”
“It’s no demon,” Brother Rutger said, and spat on the loose ocher ground that had been tracked down the tunnel on the boots of surviving combatants. “It’s a man dressed as one.” He rammed the helm down onto Haakon’s head and slapped him on the ass. Even through surcoat, chain mail, gambeson, and drawers, the impact came through solidly. “Oh yes,” he added, “and the Red Veil. We would also like to know what is on the other side.”
Haakon grunted as he adjusted the helmet to suit him. The mysterious Veil. He might have seen it several weeks ago when a group led by the physician Raphael had been sent to retrieve Illarion, the ailing Ruthenian.
Now, their party had divided again, and Feronantus and his team were off on their secret mission–while Haakon and the rest of the Shield-Brethren remained to compete against the champions of the Mongol Empire.
Rutger put his hand on Haakon’s shoulder. They regarded each other silently. Saying goodbye would be worse than useless, since Rutger and the others would see it as a premature admission of defeat, and it might demoralize them. Haakon knew he would be back among them in less time than it took to run out to the gutter and take a shit.
I also have some questions about the politics of it all. Here are a couple pictures from the site, Haakon first,
Art by Jamie Jones (from Mongoliad site)
And here’s one of the two Mongolian thug images currently available,
Concept art from Aleksi Briclot (from Mongoliad site)
This is just the beginning of the series and I’m hoping they head away from seems to be a pretty standard storyline where pretty, blond, white people struggle and eventually turn the tide against a demonic, dark-haired and darker-skinned people.
A researcher, Ivo Swarties, at the University of Twente in The Netherlands is developing a means of allowing viewers to enter into a story (via avatar) and affect the plotline in what seems like a combination of what you’d see in 2nd Life and gaming. The project also brings to mind The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson and its intelligent nanotechnology-enabled book along with Stephenson’s latest publishing project, Mongoliad (which I blogged about here).
The article about Swarties’ project on physorg.com by Rianne Wanders goes on to note,
The ‘Virtual Storyteller’, developed by Ivo Swartjes of the University of Twente, is a computer-controlled system that generates stories automatically. Soon it will be possible for you as a player to take on the role of a character and ‘step inside’ the story, which then unfolds on the basis of what you as a player do. In the gaming world there are already ‘branching storylines’ in which the gamer can influence the development of a story, but Swartjes’ new system goes a step further. [emphasis mine]The world of the story is populated with various virtual figures, each with their own emotions, plans and goals. ‘Rules’ drawn up in advance determine the characters’ behaviour, and the story comes about as the different characters interact.
There’s a video with the article if you want to see this project for yourself.
On another related front, Cliff Kuang profiles in an article (The Genius Behind Minority Report’s Interfaces Resurfaces, With Mind-blowing New Tech) on the Fast Company site describes a new human-computer interface. This story provides a contrast to the one about the ‘Virtual Storyteller’ because this time you don’t have to become an avatar to interact with the content. From the article,
It’s a cliche to say that Minority Report-style interfaces are just around the corner. But not when John Underkoffler [founder of Oblong Industries] is involved. As tech advistor on the film, he was the guy whose work actually inspired the interfaces that Tom Cruise used. The real-life system he’s been developing, called g-speak, is unbelievable.
Oblong hasn’t previously revealed most of the features you see in the later half of the video [available in the article's web page or on YouTube], including the ability zoom in and fly through a virtual, 3-D image environment (6:30); the ability to navigate an SQL database in 3-D (8:40); the gestural wand that lets you manipulate and disassemble 3-D models (10:00); and the stunning movie-editing system, called Tamper (11:00).
Do go see the video. At one point, Underkoffler (who was speaking at the February 2010 TED) drags data from the big screen in front of him onto a table set up on the stage where he’s speaking.
Perhaps most shockingly (at least for me) was the information that this interface is already in use commercially (probably in a limited way).
These developments and many others suggest that the printed word’s primacy is seriously on the wane, something I first heard 20 years ago. Oftentimes when ideas about how technology will affect us are discussed, there’s a kind of hysterical reaction which is remarkably similar across at least two centuries. Dave Bruggeman at his Pasco Phronesis blog has a posting about the similarities between Twitter and 19th century diaries,
Lee Humphreys, a Cornell University communications professor, has reviewed several 18th and 19th century diaries as background to her ongoing work in classifying Twitter output (H/T Futurity). These were relatively small journals, necessitating short messages. And those messages bear a resemblance to the kinds of Twitter messages that focus on what people are doing (as opposed to the messages where people are reacting to things).
Dave goes on to recommend The Shock of the Old; Technology and Global History since 1900 by David Edgerton as an antidote to our general ignorance (from the book’s web page),
Edgerton offers a startling new and fresh way of thinking about the history of technology, radically revising our ideas about the interaction of technology and society in the past and in the present.
I’d also recommend Carolyn Marvin’s book, When old technologies were new, where she discusses the introduction of telecommunications technology and includes the electric light with these then new technologies (telegraph and telephone). She includes cautionary commentary from the newspapers, magazines, and books of the day which is remarkably similar to what’s available in our contemporary media environment.
Adding a little more fuel is Stephen Hume in a June 12, 2010 article about Shakespeare for the Vancouver Sun who asks,
But is the Bard relevant in an age of atom bombs; a world of instant communication gratified by movies based on comic books, sex-saturated graphic novels, gory video games, the television soaps and the hip tsunami of fan fiction that swashes around the Internet?
So, the Bard may be stereotyped as the bane of high school students, symbol of snooty, barely comprehensible language, disparaged as sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, representative of an age in which men wore tights and silly codpieces to inflate their egos, but Shakespeare trumps his critics by remaining unassailably popular.
His plays have been performed on every continent in every major language. He’s been produced as classic opera in China; as traditional kabuki in Japan. He’s been enthusiastically embraced and sparked an artistic renaissance in South Asia. In St. Petersburg, Russia, there can be a dozen Shakespeare plays running simultaneously. Shakespeare festivals occur in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Portugal, Sweden and Turkey, to list but a few.
Yes to Pasco Phronesis, David Edgerton, Carolyn Marvin, and Stephen Hume, I agree that we have much in common with our ancestors but there are also some profound and subtle differences not easily articulated. I suspect that if time travel were possible and we could visit Shakespeare’s time we would find that the basic human experience doesn’t change that much but that we would be hardpressed to fit into that society as our ideas wouldn’t just be outlandish they would be unthinkable. I mean literally unthinkable.
As Walter Ong noted in his book, Orality and Literacy, the concept of a certain type of list is a product of literacy. Have you ever done that test where you pick out the item that doesn’t belong on the list? Try: hammer, saw, nails, tree. The correct answer anybody knows is tree since it’s not a tool. However, someone from oral culture would view the exclusion of the tree as crazy since you need both tools and wood to build something and clearly the tree provides wood. (I’ll see if I can find the citation in Ong’s book as he provides research to prove his point.) A list is a particular way of organizing information and thinking about it.
Kit Eaton at Fast Company recently featured some information about a ‘new’ novel (both in form, it’s an app and in content, it’s being written by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and others). From Eaton’s May 26, 2010 article,
Late yesterday in San Francisco, at the SF App Showcase, a sneaky little startup company called Subutai demonstrated some of the tech that’ll be going into the Mongoliad app. This oddly-named creature is actually what we’re interested in–a reinvention of the novel as a serialized publication through a dedicated app. Stephenson isn’t the only one taking part, as both Greg Bear and Nicole Galland will be writing too, but Stephenson is really the core of the project.
This is exciting, as anyone who’s familiar with his [Stephenson] Diamond Age novel will attest: This book imagines a future where a super-smart, partially artificial intelligent book is created, and acts as a young girl’s life guide. The hope is, obviously, that Stephenson uses his imagination to leverage novel and unexpected aspects of smartphone or tablet PC tech to transform the resulting publication into something surprisingly new … possibly even more of a transformation than paper-based magazine publishers are attempting as they rejig their content models towards the iPad. Words like “para-narrative,” “nontextual,” and “extra-narrative” certainly suggest this.
Both Stephenson (Diamond Age, 1995) and Bear (Blood Music, 1988) wrote, at a fairly early stage, stories/novels that featured nanotechnology. For example, Diamond Age’s ‘partially artificial intelligent book’ is made possible with nanotechnology. Unfortunately, no details about the novel’s content were revealed either in Eaton’s article or on the company’s, Subutai, website. Eaton’s article does offer this,
Speaking at the SF event yesterday Subutai’s CE Jeremy Bornstein revealed that there would be gaming and social media events wrapped around and inside the novel, and even demoed a user profile page that included a measure of a user’s “standing” in the Mongoliad community. There was also scope for users to “rate” portions of the story as it progresses. And while it seems that user interaction won’t play a role in the actual text of the publication, it’s going to be such a blended-media thing that this means user’s inputs still affect the overall performance.
This doesn’t sound like anything outside of the ordinary community-building exercise that many authors and media publishers are engaged in these days but, as you can see in the first excerpt from Eaton’s article, they’re hoping Stephenson will come up with an unexpected way to exploit the capabilities of mobile technology.
As for the show where Mongoliad was announced, here’s a little more information about it (from an article by Daniel Terdiman on CNET’s geek gestalt blog,)
On Tuesday night, Socolow and Dale Larson, his partner in a consulting firm called SF App Studio, hosted the sixth iteration of their app showcase, the SF AppShow. And before a packed house of more than 200 people–their biggest crowd so far–at the famous 111 Minna Gallery here, the two gave a series of app developers the chance to get up on stage and take six minutes to explain their projects.
Part DiggNation, part Demo, and part real-world App Store front end, the SF AppShow seems to have a growing influence in the world of app development–be it for Apple’s iPad or iPhone, Google’s Android, or the BlackBerry–and the people who create the mobile products and evangelize them.
This all brought to mind Kate Pullinger, a writer who works both in the traditional media (she won the 2009 Governor General’s [in Canada] award for literature, The Mistress of Nothing) and is well-known for digital novels such as Inanimate Alice. This is from her April 29, 2010, posting titled, A Writer’s View of the Future of Publishing,
Over the past ten years I’ve been deeply enmeshed in discussions about the future of writing, and the myriad ways in which the new technologies have the potential to change literature. My interest is in text, and what happens to text when you put it on a screen alongside the full range of media computing offers. I write ‘digital fiction’, works that are not digital conversions but are ‘born digital’, using text and multimedia to tell a story that is meant to be viewed on a screen.
However, as well as digital fiction, I also write books – novels and short stories – and have been functioning as a writer within the traditional publishing industry for more than twenty years. I’ve watched as the publishing and bookselling industries have struggled to come to terms with the new technologies and what they have to offer to both readers and writers. I’ve had many discussions with agents and publishers about what the future will hold. I’ve stumbled down my share of blind alleys, waking up to discover that last night’s certainty (fiction for UK mobile phones!) is this morning’s well-that-was-a-dumb-idea (fiction for UK mobile phones!).
The Literary Platform is dedicated to showcasing projects experimenting with literature and technology. It brings together comment from industry figures and key thinkers, and encourages debate.
The key word circulating in book publishing at the moment is ‘experiment’. The showcase will demonstrate how traditional publishers and developers are experimenting with multimedia formats, how established authors are going it alone, how first-time novelists are bypassing publishers and how niche literary magazines are finding wider audiences.
Getting back to Mongoliad, I look forward to following the project’s progress especially in light of Kate’s comments about fiction for mobile phones, “last night’s certainty (fiction for UK mobile phones!) is this morning’s well-that-was-a-dumb-idea (fiction for UK mobile phones!).”
Two final comments. First, I was a student of Kate Pullinger’s at De Montfort University’s Masters of Creative Writing and New Media programme, which is now defunct. Second, I got curious about Subutai and it turns out it’s the name for a Mongolian general (from the essay on New World Encyclopedia which, in turn, has been modified from an essay originally found on Wikipedia)
Subutai (Subetei, Subetai, Sübeedei; Classic Mongolian: Sübügätäi or Sübü’ätäi) (1176–1248), also known as Subetai the Valiant, was the primary strategist and general of Genghis Khan (Temüjin) and Ögedei Khan. The son of a blacksmith, he rose through the ranks and directed more than 20 campaigns during which he conquered (or overran) more territory than any other commander in history. He gained victory by means of imaginative and sophisticated strategies and routinely coordinated movements of armies that were more than 300 miles away from each other. He is most remembered for devising the battle plan that destroyed the armies of Hungary and Poland within two days of each other, by forces almost a thousand miles apart.
I am amazed that someone who didn’t have telephones, telegraphs, or any other form of communication (pony express?) that could have traversed 1000 miles within two days to give updates and deal with changing conditions managed to destroy two armies at that distance from each other.