10 December 02007

Animating the future of population and cities

One of those happy synchronicities has alerted me to two different ways of presenting information information about population growth. And, to compound the coincidence, the same topic was raised in a discussion with David Puttnam that I attended in the same week as I discovered them.

First is this video, which was featured in the Long Now Foundation blog. The animation of population growth from year 00000 to 02020 (Common Era) runs from 0:45 through to 3:35. The quickening pulse rate is a bit hammy, especially as the visuals alone tell a pretty compelling story (hint: wait until the last few seconds).

A more recent treatment of the same situation, but projecting from 02000 to 02100, and focusing particularly on our biggest cities comes from the site 19.20.21. The basic premise and story here is that there will be 19 cities in the world with 20 million (or more) people in the 21st century.

screenshot from 192021 website

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9 June 02007

Buy my first book!

Blimey. I'm just filling in a questionnaire for my publisher to help them with publicity for my new book. They ask me to list: "Books previously published (title, publisher, date of publication, cloth or paperback, ISBN, unit sales)". As it happens, when I wrote my MA thesis at Sheffield Hallam UniversitySubjectivity and Intersubjectivity in Human-Computer Interaction — the university asked me if they could publish it. I was flattered, and naturally agreed. It was sold for £4, though I got copies for £3.60. Whenever I got more of them (to give away), it always seemed that they had to blow the cobwebs off the box, and I was never aware of any publicity for the series in which the book ("monograph" we called it, pompously) was published. It was very low key, and it was 16 years ago.

Anyway, I know I have a copy of the book somewhere, but I doubt if I could find it. So, to track down the ISBN number I put the title into Google, and was stunned to find an Amazon listing showing the book as available. I'm almost sure it's not, but I'm very tempted to order a copy just to see. As for 'unit sales', ha, ha, ha! Never had a report of any kind from the publishers.

8 May 02007

Give me back my tags: portable attention data

Locked up tagsHaving recently moved and been caught up in a silly broadband snafu, I spent a couple of weeks without regular Internet access: the previous entry on this blog was composed in the local pub, which offers free wi-fi along with a pint of Youngs bitter. This interrupted form of net access is fine for keeping up with important emails or news on the web. What I missed, though, was the Last.fm tag radio streams that I've built up over the last six months (in fact I missed them more than my CD and LP collection that I still haven't been able to unpack for other reasons).

Throughout this disturbance I had continuous access to my iTunes library (3,000 tracks — large by some standards, modest by others). Many of the artists and tracks in the library are ones I've tagged on Last.fm, but I don't have access to those tags from within iTunes or without Internet access.

What I really wanted to do was apply my Last.fm tags to the relevant entries in my iTunes library. And my MyStrands tags, while I'm about it. In fact I started tagging with MyStrands first. My tags are still there, but I rarely (if ever) add to them these days, as I realised I was very constrained in getting value out of them. But I tag a lot on Last.fm: I find it a great way of gradually expanding the penumbra of music that I know a bit about, but don't know very well. Firstly, it can be like listening to the radio and using tags to mark the songs you want to come back to, or include in a playlist. Secondly, if I read a review or a story about a band that sounds interesting, I tag them for checking out later.

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18 September 02006

Wikipedia to bifurcate?

Just last week I was writing (for my book), "No one is going to set up a new free wiki-based online encyclopaedia any time soon: there can be only one." Now I'm considering whether I can edit that to say "No one is going to initiate from scratch a…" or should I just delete it altogether. This in the light of the news that Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger is setting up the Citizendium project, which he describes as a "progressive or gradual fork" based on Wikipedia. The difference between this fork and the mothership? Experts have the final say over edits.

There has been some scepticism about Citizendium, but I think it's an interesting and healthy challenge to any dogma of hardline bottom-up evangelists. In the end, the opinions we experience are a mix of expert and amateur, qualified and ad-hoc. Why not try and build that mix into the ecosystem of an encyclopaedia system?

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24 July 02006

Information foraging theory

I came across information foraging theory via Jakob Neilsen, who described it as "the most important concept to emerge from Human-Computer Interaction research since 1993". Wikipedia has a reasonable overview, noting that "information seekers… use the same strategies as food foragers — informavores constantly make decisions on what kind of information to look for, whether to stay at the current site, trying to find additional information or move to another site, which link to follow, and when to finally stop the search." And there's a general introduction in a New Scientist article.

I'm interested in the theory for its possible applications to how people discover new music, in connection with the book I'm writing. Although Nielsen has referenced it a few times. There aren't that many other published applications of the theory on the personal page of Pete Pirolli, who is its principal proponent. There are a large number of academic papers on the theory among Pirolli's publications, of which I've read just the 01999 Psychological Review paper and the 02005 HCI International one. What follows is my assessment of what I like about the theory and what I don't like.

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21 May 02006

A clutch of future-gazing events to plug

First is the b.TWEEN 06 forum of future entertainment, coming at the end of this week (25 and 26 May) in Bradford. The programme covers pioneering cross-platform work that straddles art and commerce. Sadly I can't make it this year, but I enjoed the 02002 event, and aim to be there next year.

I will however be at the one-day Content 2.0 event at the RSA, London, on 6 June. The programme looks interesting, as long as it doesn't descend too much into voodoo-speak and hand-waving about brands. If you'd like to attend, let me know, as I may be able to do a deal (for one person only) on ticket price.

Finally, I may be at the MusicStrands summer school on The Present and Future of Recommender Systems in Bilbao, 12-13 September, which includes participants from MusicStrands, Yahoo! and several universities. Thanks to Paul Lamere for flagging this.

23 April 02006

Update on playlist services

In preparing the White Bicycles playlist yesterday, I revisited a subset of the playlist services that I reviewed last year and in January.

Here are some notes on what's changed, plus some notes on different contexts for searching for tracks.

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17 April 02006

Visualisation of music collections

thumbnail of visualisation from Musicstrands research paperThe picture on the left is an annotated version of a possible visualisation of someone's music collection, as proposed and described in a research paper available from Musicstrands. The segments in the circle represent different genres of music within the collection; the distance of each track (represented by dots) from the centre shows how old or recent it is; adjacent tracks all come from the same album; and the colour highlights show whether a track is part of a current playlist. I've shrunk the image down to about half size, partly to minimise accusations of infringing the authors' copyright, but also to give some indication of what this visualisation would look like on the screen of a mobile phone, iPod or other handheld device — not much use, I think you'll agree (download the paper, 580 KB pdf, for full-size image and explanation). I take that as reinforcement for my instinct that iPods, phones and such like will not be the main music device for serious music fans (people with more than a thousand tracks), but will continue to be just portable playback devices.

However, I'm not writing here principally about music devices, but about music visualisation in general, and assuming no particular constraints on screen size. I'm interested in visualisation for people organising and managing their own collections, sharing them with others and exploring others' collections, plus generalised visualisations of what might be called the 'music universe' (i.e. all the tracks and artists in the world), and how music maps onto other non-musical domains.

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30 March 02006

Musicube sharing of BBC listening profiles

musicubeThrough Radio 1, the BBC has introduced a Flash interface to its on-demand 'listen again' feature, which enables listeners both to personalise the user interface they use to access radio programmes, and to share this interface with their friends. My personal 'musicube' is shown below. The elements I got to specify are the genres included in the 'cube', and the amount of space they take up.

One blogger has reviewed the musicube as "a cool (if fairly useless) concept". The cool bits are the ease of personalisation, the sharing capability and the eye-candy look. As far as the utility goes, if you're an efficiency-conscious hacker, there are quicker, less pretty ways of building your own console for the BBC's radio programmes.

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19 February 02006

Is the dust settling on podcasting?

Is it just me or are all the bubbles in the podcasting lather turning into a thin layer of slightly manky detergent on the surface of internet pond life? There was a spell last year, after iTunes first included podcast subscriptions, where the response to everything seemed to be "The solution is to start podcasting — now, what did you say the problem was?" This year there seems to be some sanity creeping into assessments of what podcasts might actually be good for.

Apparently the Ricky Gervais Show on Guardian Unlimited is going into the Guinness Book of Records as the most downloaded podcast. I subscribed to the podcast a few weeks ago, so I've helped contribute to the record, but I didn't get round to listening to one of the episodes until a couple of days ago. It was crap; like the Wayne's World cable broadcasts, but without the irony. As with most podcasts, I didn't get to the end.

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1 February 02006

Publishing your perspective and expertise with Squidoo

Here's another Web-2.0-style tool for aggregating information and links. It's the idea of Seth Godin, who has made his name from a series of books on innovative approaches to marketing in the age of the web. He sees this service, called Squidoo as a means for others to make their names in their areas of expertise — as captured in Squidoo's tagline, "a co-op of everyday experts".

I've created my own Squidoo 'lens', reviewed some other people's, and read Seth's free ebook about the concept behind squidoo. What follows are my reflections on these.

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15 January 02006

Peer-to-peer recommendations coming to mobile

Proving that convergence is rapidly becoming a fait accompli, news of personalised radio on mobiles is supplemented by peer-to-peer recommendations on mobile devices, currently in prototype development through the Push!Music project in Gothenburg. The site encourages you to

Imagine that you have a mobile device that can store and play back music files, for example a mobile phone with an MP3 player. As you encounter various people, the devices you are carrying connect to each other wirelessly and media agents from the other nearby devices check the status of your media collection. Based on what you have been listening to in the past and which files you already own, new music might spontaneously and autonomously 'jump' from another device to yours (and vice versa). Later, when you listen to your songs, your Push!Music player also plays some newly obtained tunes that you had not heard before.
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9 January 02006

Personalised radio moves to mobile

An unavoidable usability limitation of mobile phones is that you can't create a small, multi-purpose user interface that is well-suited to all the tasks asked of it: text entry, information browsing, taking photographs, playing games and even making calls. That's why a phone will never have the ease of use for music applications that the single-purpose iPod — every aspect of iPod design is intended to help it do one job as quickly, easily and pleasurably as possible. But if you could find a music application that required just very simple user input, that would get round the limitations of a mobile phone's interface — which is what this announcement from Vodafone and Sony does.

Think of the user interaction with Last.fm radio or Pandora (reviewed previously on this site here are here, respectively). Mostly it's restricted to clicking 'I love this track', 'Skip it' or 'Never play this again', which is pretty simple. So the new Vodafone Radio DJ will replicate this on your 3G mobile:

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7 January 02006

Playlist portability: comparative review

One thing leads to another and, when we saw Barb Jungr play just before Christmas, I got a copy of her Every Grain of Sand album of Bob Dylan covers, which triggered another bout of my recurrent mania for these cover versions. I went through all my old covers albums again, ripped my favourite versions onto iTunes, scrabbled round on the web once again and even ordered a further album (The Bob Dylan Songbook).

I ended up with 81 songs in an iTunes playlist, which fills my iPod Shuffle to just over 80% full. The rest of this posting is the story of what happened when I tried to upload and publish this playlist using three different playlist sharing services.

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19 December 02005

MusicStrands: playlist sharing and music discovery

Last week MusicStrands launched a major upgrade that extends its scope by adding new ways to tag, discuss, and discover music — see the overview of the new features. This is moving in the direction of the MySpace music community — technically I think it's a step ahead of MySpace, but clearly lacks the latter's current buzz — so in some ways it's unfair to concentrate just on its playlist sharing features. But that is what I'm going to do here, as I didn't include MusicStrands in my previous reviews of playlist services.

To try out the new MusicStrands, I first created a new Philip Jeays 'imaginary celebrity playlist' (see more about this genre and more about Jeays), then I repeated my Neil Young playlist, to provide a direct comparison with creating the same playlist on other services. More about the details of these below, but first an overview of MusicStrands playlists, using my standard criteria.

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15 November 02005

Use case examples of Web 2.0

"This article may be confusing for some readers, and should be edited to enhance clarity." That's the editorial foreword at the top of Wikipedia's entry for Web 2.0, an entry which says straight off, "a consensus upon [the term's] exact meaning has not yet been reached" (all quotes as of the time of writing, but subject to change). I discovered, after I started writing this post, that searches for Web 2.0 were briefly in the top ten searches on Technorati's blog index, so bloggers at least are keen to know more. I found all of that strangely reassuring, because it meant that it's not just my lack of brainpower that's to blame for me not being able to get a firm handle on the concept.

But a presentation at this week's User-Generated Content seminar from Colin Donald of Futurescape gave me some more insight through reasonably concrete examples — the kind of use cases that I was missing when I wrote about Digital Lifestyle Aggregation (a very Web 2.0 technology).

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7 November 02005

More usability nightmares with DRM

Leaving aside the moral, legal or economic arguments about Digital Rights Management (DRM), how does it affect usability and the user experience?

Last week a new form of DRM used by Sony BMG CDs came to light — though it has apparently been in use since March [source] — which installs a 'rootkit' on Windows-based computers. A rootkit hides software both from the user and from security or virus-protection software (hence its existence going undetected by users for months). The software, which controls what you can and can't do with the music files on the CD, is correspondingly difficult to remove. Here's an article that gives an overview of the case, and here's the original discovery.

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24 August 02005

Browse interface for BBC Creative Archive clips

Last week the BBC made available the first video content under the terms of the Creative Archive initiative. The footage includes material covering natural history, wildlife, science, locations. I heard there was a hundred hours of footage, though it's hard to check this; the clips appear to vary in length from under 30 seconds to 10 or 15 minutes.

The positioning of this material as video resources for VJs makes sense for at least two reasons. First it emphasises the re-mix, re-purposing scope and ambitions of the Creative Archive. Second, more prosaically and practically, it gets round the problem that little or none of the footage is the kind anyone would just sit down and watch (the Tomorrow's World clip is almost comical in the way the audio drops out — sometimes mid-sentence — presumably when some uncleared music is mixed in with the voice-track).

I may be proved wrong here, but I suspect the BBC will be hoping to discourage anyone drawing direct comparisons between use of this video material and the recent runaway figures for downloads of Beethoven symphonies. The Creative Archive is a very different proposition from music downloads, and the 'public value' test in a year's time will no doubt reflect that — including the different uses to which the material is put. Obviously this trial is just a start, and there has been correspondingly little fanfare about it: the blog coverage is fairly neutral so far, mostly just noting the existence of the new material.

The element of the trial that gives me pause is not the material, the formats or the (UK only) licence, but the user interface for browsing and finding clips.

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3 August 02005

Aggregation of data across social networks

A few days ago Marc Canter sketched the idea of a technology to interconnect social networks together, via a post on the Pho list, and it caught my eye. "Instead of a giant centralized social network with 1,000,000 members, we'd prefer to see 1,000,000 social nets with 10-25-150 members each", he wrote, referencing work done by his company Broadband Mechanics.

That got me thinking, and this posting is an attempt to capture some of the thoughts triggered by that vision — even if some of them are tangential to what Marc is trying to build.

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19 July 02005

Last word (for now) on playlist sharing

Having initially reviewed four playlist sharing services, three providers of further services have let me know of what they're doing in this area. I've already posted addenda on FIQL and Mixmatcher. Here are some comments on the GoFish playlist service, and a consolidated comparison table.

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1 July 02005

Mixmatcher playlist sharing service

After my original review of playlist sharing services, and FIQL addendum, I've been contacted again, this time from Ben of Mixmatcher. So here's a quick canter through a review, based on my experience of setting up the same-old, same-old playlist using Mixmatcher.

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29 June 02005

FIQL: a further playlist service

Following my review of playlist sharing services, Mike Wu of FIQL.com got in touch to point me to his site. Mike writes,

FIQL.com is also a playlist sharing site and we have close to 2,000 community contributed playlists divided up by genre, mood and occasion.

Our playlists are hooked up to itunes, msn music and we recently added support for Real Rhapsody. The latter is great because if you're a rhapsody subscriber, you can listen to entire playlists with one click and that's been incredibly popular.…

We also have writers who pen regular columns for us about playlists covering such diverse topics as "Songs With Backmasking" to "Prom Songs". Each (often heavily researched) column includes an accompanying playlist. These can be found off the homepage and in the "buzz" section.

Anyway, there are many similarities between our site and the sites you've played around with recently but we do think we also have some advantages. We hope you'll take a look and let us know how we compare.

Which I'm very happy to do.

Continue reading "FIQL: a further playlist service"

26 June 02005

Playlist sharing services: a comparative review

Since my series of postings about different playlist sharing experiments, Wired has picked up on the theme with a feature on the playlist phenomenon a few days ago. This focuses on the social and community potential of sharing playlists, though, in my opinion, it's important not to get carried away with the everyone-a-DJ concept: if DJs act as 'filters' and mediators for new music then, when more people become filters, you start to need filters for the filters…

Over the last few weeks I've tried five different online playlist services: you can see my pages on Webjay, Soundflavor, Upto11.net and Art of the Mix. I've used GarageBand.com as well, but not extensively, since playlists created there are restricted to tracks from other GarageBand.com members. [Update, 19 July 02005: I've now used three further services — see this posting for reviews and comparison.]

Based on that experience here are a few review comments on how each of the services measures up in terms of audio, community features, usability, portability of playlists, and their main selling points.

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19 June 02005

Evaluation of Learning Activity Management Systems

I've finally finished the rigorous evaluation report of Learning Activity Management Systems (LAMS). Seb Schmoller has an overview of the report and commentary on the small number of actual LAMS implementation cases.

One strand of the report jumped out at me. It observes that "it is less easy to adapt [a] lesson 'on the fly' in LAMS than in a traditional teacher-facilitated session," and that "some [students] were frustrated by the inflexibility of a LAMS sequence". Elsewhere the report refers to the linearity of LAMS sequences as restrictive and less than satisfactory.

What this suggests to me is that LAMS — in common, it must be said, with most e-learning approaches — reinforces the separation between the planning of a learning experience and its execution. This separation reduces the scope to be sensitive to the interactions with (and between), and to adjust and improvise accordingly.

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27 May 02005

Usability of People's Network Enquire service

I covered the announcement of the People's Network Online Enquiry Service last year, and, as of last week, the 'Enquire' service is operational. Here is the press release about the launch from the Museums Libraries and Archives Council, wherein the Chief Executive says "Enquire is designed to get answers to people wherever they are, night and day.  It is a route to the librarian's expertise without ever crossing the library threshold."

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3 May 02005

Update on Learning Activity Management Systems

Seb Schmoller's fortnightly mailing provides the latest news on Learning Activity Management Systems (LAMS), which I touched on last year. The LAMS concept, developed in Australia, now has a web site, from where you view a four-minute Flash demonstration of LAMS in action and download the open source LAMS software. Seb has more details on the background and the UK trial of LAMS. [Update 27 May 02005: the LAMS evaluation report has now been published.]

The LAMS concept depends for its 'pay-off' on teachers developing sequences of learning activities, and then sharing them and/or re-using them themselves. This is effectively a programming task, even if the programming environment is heavily visual, to make it easy to use. And research shows that this kind of 'end-user computing' is bound up with many social, organisational and task-specific influences — because end-users are not drilled in the systems analysis and design disciplines that allow software engineers to abstract from real-world requirements to modules of code. People like Bonnie Nardi have done extensive and insightful research on the social ecology of users participating in the design and re-use of everything from spreadsheets to intelligent agents. It would be interesting to see that kind of research applied to the use of LAMS by teachers.

6 April 02005

Researching how communities share music via iTunes

This research paper on patterns of sharing iTunes music in an office, presented at the CHI (originally Computer-Human Interaction) conference yesterday, is the other side of the coin from the personal-stereo research I reviewed in my last posting.

Where that research was about using music to reclaim public space as private space, this paper is about how people project and present their identities in social settings, through their music collection. Where I was disappointed that the personal-stereo research had little to say about the music itself, this research is very much concerned with the choices people make between different musical selections, and how they relate to their personal collections. As the press release puts it,

Employees in a mid-sized U.S. company reported that they consciously worked to portray themselves in certain ways through the collections of music they shared with co-workers, some of whom they barely knew. Sometimes their self-portrayals were misread by co-workers with different musical interests and knowledge. Nevertheless, music sharing served to build a community within the workplace.
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24 March 02005

What does On-Demand Media really mean?

This week Arbitron and Edison Media Research published a report of their research survey on Internet and multimedia usage, The On-demand Media Consumer. The headline result being quoted is that "One in ten Americans show a heavy preference to control their media and entertainment". Reading the summary report, however, suggests that this conclusion is not warranted by the data.

This article covers the flaws in interpretation in the report, and then suggests some distinctions that might form the basis for a more sophisticated approach.

The biggest problem is that the researchers constructed a scale which they say "represents the level of control that consumers exercise on their own media usage", and most of the report is based on correlations with this scale. If you look at the fourteen items that were used to make up this scale, it's clear that these are just measures of adoption of the latest gadgets and technologies (e.g. owning a BlackBerry®, or a portable DVD player, having watched or listened streamed video or radio online in the past month, spending seven hours or more on the Internet per week). Not for these researchers the methodological rigours of testing the reliability of their scale using Cronbach's alpha or other established disciplines.

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13 February 02005

Online Social Networks Conference (feeling overloaded)

I'm currently taking part in Online Social Networks 2005, and online conference that runs until 23 February — as the web site says, "It's not to late to register". It's organised by leading evangelists for online networking, Howard Rheingold, Lisa Kimball, and Joi Ito. Most of the proceedings are available only to people who have registered, but Joi Ito has posted an openly accessible mp3 of the opening keynote session via his blog.

It's been a long time since I participated in one of these events — the last one being Collaborate 98, produced by some of the same team, which now has its proceedings openly available for browsing online. I think the price has dropped significantly in the last seven years (Online Social Networks 2005 is $35 to register, which is just under £20).

The conference is just starting up before more focused business gets under way next week. But already I'm finding it hard to keep up with the many voices. Online networks used to be smaller and less Babel-like than this.

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6 February 02005

The politics of location-based technologies

Attending the PLAN network last week, the biggest surprise for me — given that PLAN is an arts organisation — was how many of the speakers focused on macro issues of policy, regulation and infrastructure.

This emphasis led me to search out Jonathan Grudin's prescient paper from fifteen years ago, The Computer Reaches Out: the Historical Continuity of Interface Design (download as 1.1 MB PDF file). In it, Grudin charted how the focus of the 'interface' in computing extended — over the period from the 1950s to the early 90s — from the hardware, to software, through the screen, to groups and organisations. He argued that, with this shift, the duration of the events studied to design the interface increased from microseconds to days, and the methods used to study them changed from ad hoc techniques, through lab experiment, to ethnographic observation. (For a concise overview of these trends, see Figure 1 and Table 1 in Grudin's paper.) With the era of ubiquitous computing ('ubicomp'), one could argue that the computer has reached out once more: the interface is at the level of society and the public domain; the events studied develop over months and years; the methodology is historical and political analysis. Here are some examples from the PLAN event.

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27 January 02005

User interface for on-demand radio

A couple of days ago the BBC launched Version 2 of its successful BBC Radio Player. Rather than attempt a review — except to say it seems to be an all-round improvement, notwithstanding the frames that make it more awkward to link to individual programmes — here is The Guardian's assessment [free registration required] and an account from Dan Hill, who played a leading role in its development.

Stations (or channels) have less relevance in on-demand listening, except insofar as they map onto clear genres of programming. When it comes to music, I find great programmes on all five of the BBC's music stations, and often on Radio 4 as well (many excellent music documentaries in the Tuesday 13.30 slot). Radio Player v2 allows users to browse by genre (the same genres the BBC Music site has been using for a while, plus documentaries), which is a major aid to cross-station listening for those (all?) of us who cannot regularly scour all the listings for all the stations.

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24 January 02005

Single- and multi-purpose devices (iPod & Mac Mini)

The iPod was originally designed as a single-purpose device, and all the signs suggest that Apple wants to keep it that way for now. However, it's popularity has inspired an industry of accessories — as BusinessWeek puts it, "a rising iPod lifts all boats" — and a sub-culture of adaptations or hacks. Some concentrate on the hardware, for example, turning the iPod into a flashlight or laser pointer. Then there's the pPod gimmick and the more serious podSites, which aren't really 'sites', but exploit the potential for hypertext links between the iPod's text notes.

As information utilities in the own right, things like podSites are hardly enticing. Rather less so than WAP sites, which is saying something. But they have led to commentary that Apple should publish the application programming interfaces its teams use to write programs [registration required], to promote the development of the iPod as a platform (see also this alternative argument).

There's a straightforward usability trade-off here.

Continue reading "Single- and multi-purpose devices (iPod & Mac Mini)"

20 January 02005

Art applications of ubiquitous computing

The combination of wireless communications and miniaturisation of devices, from mobile phones to RFID tags, opens up a rich seam of new technology applications that do not depend so exclusively on screens for interaction with people. In some cases the user interface can be embedded in physical objects that are aware of their location in space. Howard Rheingold's book Smart Mobs was among the first to raise awareness of the potential for new services that give a new twist social and physical spaces.

At the start of February the two-day PLAN Workshop at London's ICA features a lot of research on applications of the new technologies in the arts: dance, sound, installations and new media. It may be conservative of me to say so, but I feel this area needs a better vocabulary to communicate to a wider audience: for a start, the word 'locative' has an established meaning, different from one that the PLAN people seem to give it.

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23 December 02004

Using social spaces to seed sales

Interesting to see how this Guardian report of a record label recruiting school-children to help promote its artists in schools (requires free registration) led almost immediately to the label, Universal, suspending its scheme. Clearly it crossed some taboos about commercial and possibly cynical 'exploitation' of children, even though the children were clearly happy participants.

This practice is common outside schools, where labels refer to their under-cover promoters as 'street teams'. The 'street' is also moving online, according to this report from CNET. Universal probably got caught out by the blatant physical presence of posters on school boards and children giving presentations in class. The children apparently had to prepare 'school reports' to evidence their activity. By comparison, the idea that children might discuss their favourite music in online forums and chats is likely to feel less sinister, less obtrusive, as well as being easier to evidence. It seems a fair bet that some labels are still doing that now.

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9 December 02004

The limitations of search for supporting learning

Search engines have a high profile on the web, and understandably so. The web changes faster than any human attempt to catalogue it. For most people's purposes in answering specific questions, Google works most of the time — which is a recipe for success.

But the kind of success Google has enjoyed, and the way it has become a part of every web user's vocabulary as well as habits, can create a kind of tunnel vision (the kind where the only tool you have is a hammer, and every problem looks like a nail). Search facilities are necessary and important tools for rich learning resources, and particularly archives, but they have weaknesses, and are by no means sufficient without complementary ways of discovering new material.

As a complement to search, any service that aims to support learning should have some mechanisms for guiding learners (though this doesn't mean constraining them) to explore particular routes.

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29 November 02004

Does content protection undermine usability?

The INDICARE project is dedicated to researching the consumer acceptability of Digital Rights Management (DRM) in Europe — its partners include two German organisations, one Dutch, and one Hungarian. Its web site features regular and insightful articles on content protection across different platforms — mobile, Internet — and reviews from a user perspective.

Usability of online content affects its sales. But often the interests of users are pitched against those of providers. Users are perceived as wanting complete control over the media content in their possession, free of any DRM restrictions. Providers and copyright owners are seen to be 'getting in the way' of users by pegging back the sharing and unpaid distribution of their material.

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12 November 02004

The Music of Loudspeakers (notes from CyberMusic event)

Having organised the three-day symposium for Cybersonica '03 and edited the proceedings, it was a more relaxing experience to attend today's event as a punter. (Apparently Cybersonica '05, scheduled for late April, will return to full-length format.)

My notes from the event focus mainly on Robert Worby's talk on "The Music of Loudspeakers" and Jon Cambeul's Wacom tablet guitar.

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9 November 02004

Outline for social software to enhance personal media collections

I had an idea today for a bit of software and/or web-based service that would combine the features of cataloguing all your personal media collection (CD, DVD, digital files of various formats) and linking each item to the commentary (reviews, interviews, fan comments) that may enrich your experience of the song, album or film. This would combine the database functions of software like Media Catalog Studio with the facilities for sharing and 'social tagging' of resources offered by del.icio.us and Flickr.

It would enable you to compile your own 'boxed set' for your favourite albums, artists and films: the core media content that you've acquired through normal retail channels, plus the 'extras' that you and others have compiled to go with it.

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2 November 02004

The tricky ergonomics of mobile video

At last week's Apple special event, Steve Jobs gave some reasons why he thinks mobile video is not an attractive proposition right now, and hence not something Apple is going to build into iPods in the near future. Some people think he is wrong. Bill Gates sees video as a key part of his Digital Entertainment Anywhere vision: according to him it's simply that "video today is sort of where music was… four years ago". Meanwhile there were reports yesterday of new research suggesting consumers are not exactly gagging for mobile video, compared with music and audio.

Most of the discussion focuses on the scarcity of content for mobile video and small screen size, but I haven't seen much coverage of the straightforward ergonomic and cultural differences of mobile video and mobile audio:

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1 November 02004

New DJ Alchemi bookmarks and feeds

As promised three weeks ago, I've now added several links to my archive of bookmarks, which stands at 185 entries so far, from the home page. The seven most recent bookmarks are displayed as well.

Since I'm tracking a developments in digital music a lot at the moment, I've included a direct link to this largest category of bookmarks. But you can access any of the categories by adding the category name to the URL http://www.furl.net/members/davidjennings/, so for my e-learning bookmarks can be found at http://www.furl.net/members/davidjennings/e-learning, and so on.

If you use any news aggregator software or service, you can get these bookmarks at aggregate or category level using the RSS feeds.

For more details on the workings and implications of Furl and other approaches to 'social bookmarking, see this recent article by Brian Lamb, who's making similar use of the Furl service.

18 October 02004

Article on the evolution of social software

Christopher Allan's Life with Alacrity blog has an amazing article Tracing the Evolution of Social Software, which manages to be both comprehensive and concise in covering almost fifty years of people using software for organising themselves collaboratively.

Allan covers all the key visionary figures, including Doug Englebart and the Johnson-Lenz's. I saw the latter give a talk ten years ago, and their perspective of group awareness and conflict resolution through software definitely put them at the hippie end of the Californian ideology (which was actually quite refreshing since they were speaking as guests of the DTI).

Allan's article focuses mostly on the evolution of terminology. If I have one criticism, it is that it misses out on the shift from local networking and community bulletin boards to the social entropy of the Internet in the 1990s. From my perspective this growth of the Internet worldwide had a major effect on the kind of social organising that was possible and realistic.

10 October 02004

FURL: creating and sharing better bookmarks

I came across the FURL site (short for File URLs) because someone has linked to one of my postings about wikis from there — see the interesting collection of wiki-related sites for an example of how FURL works. The site is a useful tool for extending the scope of bookmarking web pages, and because you can share your bookmarks it also provides a useful complement to a blog site.

Self-style 'usability guru' Jakob Nielsen pointed out that browsers need better bookmark management in the middle of the last decade. More recently, he has observed that "Web browsers' despicably weak support for bookmarks/favorites has contributed to the decline in users' interest in building a list of favorite sites". FURL helps address this.

I plan to use my FURL archive as a store for online resources that I may or may not write commentaries on here on this site. I'll add it to the links from the home page in a bit, but right now there's hardly anything there.

19 September 02004

Usability of museum web sites

Paul Marty and Michael Twidale's article A conceptual framework for analyzing the usability flaws of museum web sites is very clearly written and pretty much delivers what its title promises.

It reports evaluations of 36 museum web sites (I'm guessing that most, if not all, were for US museums), on the basis of which usability issues common to the museums sector are identified. The evaluation approach is based in the sound principles of user scenarios, though the authors implicitly concede that their application of it might be termed 'quick and dirty'. Whether or not you want to pick holes in the methodology, some of the results are certainly interesting, and at least plausible, not to say provocative.

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30 August 02004

Building a wiki learning resource

Over the last month I've built a web site that allows me to test out a few ideas about collaborative and 're-mixable' learning resources. And to indulge a passion for The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, my favourite album.

69 Love Songs information is a 'wiki' site. I've touched on wikis briefly before. The technology — which allows many people to edit the content of web pages without knowledge of HTML or restricted logins etc — has been around for several years, though its adoption has remained most enthusiastic with the technical community. I have found one other wiki site devoted to a cultural artefact or artist — a sophisticated site for They Might Be Giants with over 70 contributors — if you know of others, please let me know.

The rest of this posting covers how the site is built and develops, what its potential for learning might be, and the limitations that I have either hit already or expect to hit.

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24 August 02004

The job I'm aiming for

It's time to come clean about the motivation behind the many articles on this site about how people learn about, and consume, music online. Yes, I am angling for work in this area. My interests are in a niche music-and-learning opportunity that I believe will emerge over the next few years.

Right now this is probably some way from being viable enough to pay anyone a serious salary. In the medium to long term, I feel my mix of experience makes me particularly well suited to being a part of a team that could deliver a full product/service, but I'd need collaborators — both individuals with complementary skills and organisations that might offer alliances and help develop a 'route to market'.

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19 July 02004

BBC 6 Music as a learning resource

Born in the digital era, BBC 6 Music is a radio station at the intersection of traditional 'wireless' programming and less linear, on-demand access to audio and supporting material. It's in the vanguard of mixed (old and new) media and the BBC governors apparently want it to go further and "heighten the level of interactivity, develop the use of the archive and strengthen the station's relationship with its audience", according to this recent Media Guardian article (Media Guardian requires free registration to read its articles).

The Statement of Programme Policy includes an explicit, though very general, statement on listeners' learning: "6 Music aims to extend its audience's understanding of popular music, and programmes will continue to examine the cultural development of music, including less familiar genres like ska and backbeat, supported by information online and on-demand recordings." (As an aside, it's interesting to do a word search for 'learn' through this document to see the different contexts in which it arises for different stations.)

The rest of this (long) article reviews the learning features of 6 Music so far and suggests how they could be extended — using 'learning' in the broad cultural sense that I've referred to before.

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7 July 02004

BBC 6 Music and usability of archives

The campaign to lobby for the BBC Creative Archive is principally concerned with the form in which the archive material is made available, and specifically whether this is 'open' enough to allow (re)use for non-commercial purposes. My lobby is also to consider how the 'user interface' to this massive archive is made usable enough to ensure that everyday Jo(e) Punter can extract some value from it without needing to expend the time and energy that a researcher or artist might be prepared to commit.

The BBC's first digital radio station, 6 Music, is committed to digging up and re-presenting many of the amazing recordings they have in their archive. This week it has re-launched it most archive-based programme — the Dream Ticket, which replays recordings of live gigs and a few BBC sessions — in a tacit acknowledgement that the original format wasn't working. I think one of the problems was that it was serving up the archives in 'lumps' that were too large to be indigestible to the casual listener. The new format breaks the archives down into more refined grains, though this has cons as well as pros.

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7 June 02004

Wikis and learning

I don't fully understand the technology that underpins what a wiki is and this article on educational wikis doesn't fully enlighten me. But it doesn't assume any knowledge, and is reasonably concise.

It's important to remember that the web as we know it provides only a limited subset of the features that were envisaged and developed for early hypertext systems. Wikis, like blogs, provide a means to manage the content of web pages without needing detailed web authoring knowledge. The unique feature of wikis appears to be their support for collaborative authoring.

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14 May 02004

Are you red/green colour-blind?

Shocking confession: the DJ Alchemi web site has had a red/green colour scheme for over six years and I've never looked into (or even considered) how it looks to colour-blind people. Jakob Nielsen's latest guidelines for visualising links identify potential risks for using red and green for link colours. This article on colour-blindness and web page design suggests that some people may not be able to distinguish the red colour of unvisited links on this site. Here's a test for colour-blindness.

So if you know you are red/green colour-blind, can I ask a favour: please could you post a public comment or send me a private message to let me know whether you can distinguish (a) the links on the right hand navigation of the home page (especially those in 'This Month'), (b) the difference between visited and unvisited links in the postings, and (c) any change when you put your mouse over the navigation tabs above, plus any other problems you have with the site? Many thanks!

6 April 02004

David Byrne and the (bogus) PowerPoint art debate

Last autumn there was a flurry of comment spurred by Wired pitching Information Design guru Edward Tufte against artist and musician David Byrne on the pros and cons of Microsoft's PowerPoint software. Tufte argued that PowerPoint is Evil for "elevating format over content", while, in Learning to Love PowerPoint, Byrne said "I soon realized I could actually create things that were beautiful... and use [PowerPoint] as an artistic agent."

The gist of Tufte's argument is easy to grasp for anyone who's sat through interminable slides of bullet points. But David Byrne's brief essay is more oblique, and the examples of his slides available on the web — links below — don't make much of a case themselves. thumbnail of one of David Byrne's PowerPoint slidesAs a consequence much of the commentary declared Tufte the 'winner' — here's a typical example. Intrigued by the difficulty of pinning down Byrne's use of PowerPoint, I shelled out the £50 for his Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information (EEEI) book/DVD package to take a closer look. It's clear from looking at this that there never was a real 'debate' of any kind between the Byrne and Tufte positions, as Byrne's purpose is in many ways orthogonal to Tufte's.

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2 April 02004

E-commerce usability

Last week I resolved a dispute with an e-commerce service provider after two weeks of email arguments and contacting several third parties. The dispute hinged on the usability of the page on the retailer's web site that came up when I clicked the 'cancel membership' button: the page left me with no obvious next step, so I assumed my cancellation transaction was complete and left it that.

When it transpired a few days later that the transaction had not been recorded by the system, and that I'd been billed for a further month's membership which the service provider was unwilling to refund, there followed the email arguments (21 messages exchanged between us), the letters to VISA and the provider's 'affiliate programme' partner, plus a report to Trading Standards.

There are lessons in this story for e-commerce providers and for consumers.

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17 February 02004

Online Business Networking

After six months developing this site, I can tell I'm not a natural 'blogger.' I find it difficult to write in 'bite size' chunks: if I'm going to cover something, I want to do the 'full meal' and say all the things I have to say about the topic.

So, I'm at my most bloggish when short of time, as now when — instead of the full essay on social software that I mentioned previously — I only have time to provide a quick link to the Online Business Networking site, which provides a review guide to a range of sites for...you guessed it: online business networking. Their review of Ecademy is accurate and comprehensive as far as my experience goes. The site also contains a good blog section, and a promo for the authors' book about… you know.

4 February 02004

Social software and venture capital

I'm considering doing a proper review posting on 'social software' at some point — sites like Ryze, LinkedIn, Friendster, and the one I use, Ecademy, which provide means to broaden your network of contacts. But in the meantime, I recommend the admirably cynical comments of Venture Capitalist Jon Staenberg on the sector.

Sample quotes: "Let's not fool ourselves, sex still is the motivator and most of the activity around these sites is still around dating"; "I am on every service. I get almost no value from the services and in fact am starting to find them annoying as more and more random people are asking me to meet Bill Gates..."

3 February 02004

Usability of Online Content

I read the paper A Usability Study for Promoting eContent in Higher Education because the title promises a lot — how to optimise the usability of all that stuff we put online, so that people can learn from it — and I wanted to see whether the authors would pull it off.

I think the paper asks the wrong question. I'm not quite sure what the right question is, but reading helped me think where it might be found.

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4 November 02003

#2 Past Projections of Future User Interfaces

still image from Starfire video, copyright Quailwood designThe Starfire video prototype, produced by Bruce Tognazzini and colleagues at Sun Microsystems, was explicitly conceived as a kind of response to Apple's Knowledge Navigator (described in my posting a couple of days ago).

But Starfire set itself a harder challenge by focusing on a scenario exactly ten years in the future (Knowledge Navigator was set some unspecified date at least twenty years in its future). Nine of those ten years have now elapsed, so the chickens are on their way home to roost. Starfire shows an even clearer case study of social and economic factors having hard-to-predict but easy-to-underestimate influence in shaping the development of user interface technologies.

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2 November 02003

#1 Past Projections of Future User Interfaces

In 1987 Apple produced the Knowledge Navigator video, which presented in scenario form the kind of user interface that they thought knowledge workers would be using twenty or more years in the future. Over the last week there's been considerable interest raised by Jon Udell's revisiting of that video, and his review of how accurate its projections were.

My feeling is that Udell's assessment is sometimes a bit generous in his assessment of what progress has been achieved. Comparing Knowledge Navigator with Bruce Tognazzini's sister video, Starfire — which projected only ten years from 1994 to 2004 — shows how many of the projections of the past turn out to have been over-optimistic.

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1 November 02003

Agent-based user interfaces for collaboration

Today I dug out an old academic-style paper I wrote in 1992, On the Definition and Desirability of Autonomous User Agents in CSCW, and put a web version in my archives section. (CSCW stands for Computer-Supported Co-operative Work.)

I think the paper still stands up fairly well as a critique of the idea that our computers will one day have faces and talk back to us (and each other) as though they were independent, anthropomorphic beings. Computers that appear like people are still a novelty item — see Ananova, the virtual newscaster for example — which thankfully behave with none of the autonomy that characterises real people. Since 1992 research has progressed on software agents, which carry out some tasks quasi-autonomously using artificial intelligence techniques, but a review of the MIT Software Agents Group's list of projects shows that these are rarely if ever presented as autonomous beings on the user interface.

The trigger that prompted me to re-visit this old paper will be made clear in my next posting.

25 October 02003

"Culture Online" first projects announced

The UK Government has announced the first seven projects it will be supporting under the £13 million Culture Online initiative.

The objectives of this initiative include "to open up our cultural institutions to the wider community, to promote lifelong learning and social cohesion [and to] extend the reach of new technologies and build IT skills and support wider and richer engagement and learning by all adults." Although announced by the Arts Minister, Culture Online is also intended to link to Curriculum Online, which is run by the Department for Education and Skills.

It will be interesting to see how well these projects fulfil the criteria of good culture and/or good learning.

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5 September 02003

Multimedia Soundtoys 1996/2003

Writing my review of the multimedia elements of the Tate E-learning portal reminded me of another review I wrote seven years ago. Back then CD-ROMs were still seen as new and a bit experimental. I thought there was a rich vein to be mined at the point where new multimedia 'toy' and game interfaces were used to make/manipulate/re-mix music. I thought the Header CD-ROM from Tui Interactive Media was the best example I'd seen of this at the time.

I hoped to stir up some of my comrades in the Usability/Human-Computer Interaction professions by championing something quite different from the interactive 'systems' we were used to working on. I failed in that and my other objective, but before I go into the details, and how things have changed in this field since 1996, here's the historical article, originally published in the British HCI Group's Interfaces magazine.

Review of Header #1 CD-ROM, September 1996

This CD-ROM challenges much of the received wisdom about usability and multimedia. From the opening screen — where the menu choices swirl in orbit and depth of focus, challenging you and the cursor to 'catch' one of them — it confounds conventions of user control and user feedback. This can be a risky tactic, and many recent multimedia titles have sacrificed even basic usability in the name of innovation. But with Header the risks mostly pay off. In the process, it presents its musical content in a range of settings which subtly reframe our ideas of what recorded music is, and what interaction with music can be.

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2 September 02003

Tate E-learning — a quick critique

After other dot.com models have been (sometime over-hastily) discarded, e-learning still has that sense of being a 'public good' that, coupled with vestigial fashionability, makes it irresistible to many public/subsidised organisations.

The Tate now has an 'e-learning portal'. But learning about art collections isn't the same about learning how to make MS Office software do what you want, or, say, GCSE English.

I'm not aware of any major arts/culture organisations partnering with with educational institutions to offer full accredited courses by e-learning (if you are, please add a comment to this post). Mostly they dip their toes in the water by taking bits of their archives or collections and putting a thin wrapping around those bits to turn them into in 'digestible packets'. The design is driven by the content available rather than a coherent programme of learning objectives.

With those prejudices of mine in mind, the rest of this post is made up of reviews of a few elements of the Tate's e-learning resources.

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26 June 02003

Cybersonica 2003 Symposium

In May and June I organised the symposium strand of the Cybersonica festival of electronic and interactive music at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I also managed the editing of the proceedings, along with John Eacott and Richard Barbrook.

You can download the abstracts of the papers as a 208 KB pdf file.

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1 June 02003

Online Learning Clusters

In 2000 DJ Alchemi carried out action research in Yorkshire, trialling the development of online "learning clusters". The report is available to download (368 KB pdf file) from the Marchmont Observatory for lifelong learning. [Update, 2005: that Marchmont link is not working any more, so here it is for download on this site.] It has been described on a leading UK lifelong learning email discussion list as "recommended reading".

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