Cyber culture: This cellular wireless standard goes up to 11. Well, it's one faster, isn't it?
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Thursday 08 March 2012
There's a scene in the film Spinal Tap where lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel unveils his custom-made amplifier and points out that the volume settings all go up to 11. When asked why, he says authoritatively: "Well, it's one louder." That single-digit increase – totally meaningless and yet somehow so indicative of improvement – is something that also blights the world of technology.
There were howls of disappointment a few months back when it was revealed that the iPhone 4S wasn't going to be called the iPhone 5. (Because the iPhone 5 would have been, well, one better, wouldn't it?) And now we're seeing the same thing applied to the next generation of mobile-phone networks – because those of us who mutter crossly when our 3G phones have sluggish internet connections need something to look forward to, to pin our hopes upon, to wait breathlessly for. And that's 4G. Which is obviously one better, right?
To lay aside withering sarcasm for a second, the prospect of 4G is exciting. With peak-rate speeds that exceed those of current fixed-line networks, it can bring broadband connections to parts of the globe that aren't served well by ADSL or cable and has world-changing potential. The problem is that mobile-phone companies are so desperate to herald the arrival of 4G that they're getting ahead of themselves. The bidding for the 4G spectrum in the UK doesn't even begin until the end of this year and yet the networks feel so hamstrung by unsexy terms like 3.5G, 3.75G and 3.9G that they've started referencing 4G to get us excited.
Three had to backpedal last week after describing a new service as 4G, when it's actually a new version of HSPA+ (a 3G technology). Of course, the definitions and the labelling and the terms such as "spectral efficiency" mean very little to us. All that matters to us is the speed and reliability. In Three's case, its new offering promises download speeds greater than 20 megabits per second – double its previous. So in theory, that's twice as good – a statistic far more meaningful than the "one better" marketing spin of 4G.
Microsoft's R&D geniuses need to beware the peril of the Gorilla Arm
For all their glossy stylings, dropped shadows and airbrushed icons, our computer desktops still inhabit a two-dimensional world.
We can move things up and down, or left and right – but Microsoft is now exploring the idea of in and out, too. A video on YouTube (ind.pn/micro3Ddesk) showcases research that's being done by its research and development Applied Sciences Group towards the goal of a 3D desktop.
By combining depth cameras with a transparent screen manufactured by Samsung, your hands are able to do the work that for decades has been undertaken by a mouse or, more recently, a trackpad.
Files and windows stack in front of each other; they can be leafed through by hand, pulled out and brought to the front of the screen, while your head movement is also tracked to give you a 3D vantage point. Your screen effectively becomes a three-dimensional space to store your work.
Much like the room or office that you're sitting in, in fact.
One problem that'll mean stopping short of full 3D immersion is "gorilla arm". Any technology that requires our hands to be kept raised off the desk for long periods has been proven to cause odd sensations and tiredness in the arms – one of the reasons why Apple has stated that its laptop and desktop displays will never feature touch screen technology. But that hasn't stopped Apple making forays into the 3D desktop world. A series of patents filed since the new year have hinted at forthcoming 3D innovations: one for hovering gestures, where we control devices with a wave of the hand; one for an eye-tracking interface; and another, most recently, where the computer desktop again resembles a 3D space that looks just like a room, with piles of files and notes stuck to the walls.
History has shown us to be pretty ambivalent towards 3D technology, but who knows? Maybe we're waiting to be freed from the tyranny of the 2D desktop.
Nerds! Please let us work out what to do with the Raspberry Pi ourselves
At the opposite end of the computing spectrum to Minority Report-style gesture controls of the Microsoft's 3D desktop (left) sits the Raspberry Pi, the much-heralded new computer retailing for just over £20 with no box to hide its circuitry and looking for all the world like a spare part in the dusty back room of a computer store. But this visually unappealing gadget sold out of its first run of 10,000 in about an hour last week, as early adopters and geeks rushed to get their hands on it and put it through its paces.
The ethos behind Raspberry Pi is to provoke a new enthusiasm for programming among kids, but as the first results of experimentation started to leak onto the internet, it became clear what its primary use will be; to perform tasks we would normally assign to a computer costing 10 or 20 times as much.
The website Gizmodo ran through a handful; you can use it to run the XBMC Media Center, install VNC to use it to work on remote machines, make your TV "smart" by using it to run browsers and apps in your living room – which is all wonderful, except that all the capabilities of this little computer are being found out for us.
Geeks get there first, the internet then allows us to benefit from their wisdom, but ultimately we learn very little. To truly recreate the intense curiosity of the early 1980s, we'd probably have to isolate ourselves and try to pretend that the internet doesn't exist.
YouTube commenters are the last people you should ask: 'Am I ugly?'
The vast majority of the stuff we post on social media can be interpreted as needy. That's the nature of the medium. Whether we'd care to admit it or not, much of our online output effectively says "do you like me?"; we then sit back and wait for the reaction. If it's positive, then great. If it's negative, it causes consternation and hurt. If no one says anything, that's pretty dispiriting, so we try again until people take notice. It encourages us to fish for compliments and can be a pretty unedifying spectacle – particularly when the neediness is exhibited by children who aren't prepared for the abuse the internet can throw up.
Katie Baker, a writer for Jezebel, recently identified a trend of teenagers taking to YouTube to pose the question: "Am I ugly?" It's a question we've probably all heard, but if you're doing the asking, you'd normally direct the query towards someone who's likely to give you a positive answer. YouTube, with its mean-spirited, pseudonymous and slightly deranged commenters, is probably the worst place to pose such a question. And as a result, teenage hang-ups are now being exhibited to thousands, reinforced by unpleasant retorts, and have no chance of being played out naturally. On her blog, Baker posed the question: "How do we get YouTube to make this illegal?" The answer is, we can't. It's a distressing symptom of online culture that parents and friends need to be aware of, and offer the kind of reassurance that social media fails to provide.
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