Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Codes that empower consumers

Stuck in a department store, unable to decide which brand of shampoo to buy? Wondering if a VCD is a geniune one? Having doubts if the latest best-seller book is worth buying and you want to read a review of it? A GPRS-activated smartphone could make your task easier.

Haven’t you noticed those black think and thin parallel lines or a rectangle of dots and designs on the back of a product? Those are barcodes and QR (quick response) codes that have in them huge amounts of data related to the product. Obviously, they are of little use if you don’t have a barcode scanner that can read and decipher the information in them. But the best part is, today you can have a code reader application on your smartphone.

These codes were originally devised with the aim of tracking product movement. In most countries it’s mandatory for all products to have the codes. Now, more and more people are using the scanners on their mobiles to read reviews, compare prices and find out where products are available for the best price.

There are any number of barcode and QR code scanning apps available for all smartphone platforms. On Android, Google has its own Goggles, which not only reads codes by also identifies well-known landmarks. Many models of Noika, like N82, E90 etc have the reader pre-installed in them. In Windows 7 mobiles like Nokia’s Lumia codes are scanned using Bing search engine. Ebay’s scanner RedLaser is one such that is available for iPhone, Windows and Android phones; and the company claims it has been downloaded over 15 million times.

All that you have to do is to hold the phone steady over the code, align the code in the box and scan. The codes have a variety of uses for the consumers. It uses web applications to check prices and search nearby stores where the product is available. It can be used also to search catalogues and locate books and CDs in libraries.

Though the app has wide potential, it has still not caught on in India, unlike in the US and European countries, mainly due to lack of available data and compatibility issues. But the day is not far off when code readers will turn into a potent tool in the hands of the consumers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dawn of smartphone era

This is what everyone has been predicting and waiting for -- dominance of the smart mobile device that will keep everyone networked all the time. Emerging figures not just validate the hypothesis but give us an idea of how information would be created, disseminated and consumed.  

Worldwide, for the first time ever, in 2011, smartphone shipment surpassed that of PCs. Canalys reports that while 488 million smartphones were shipped last year, the figure for PCs was 415 millon. Smartphone sales in the fourth quarter of 2011 made a 47.3% jump compared to the corresponding period in 2010, says Gartner. Sales figures too reflected the same pattern -- smartphone sales last year touched 472 million units, up 58% from 2010. Records are tumbling in India too. Shipments for 2011 crossed 10 million units for the first time, in November, says Cyber Media Research.

The useage too has seen a surge, The entry-level phone is no longer the low-end feature phone -- nearly 80% of smartphone users in India are first-time users, says a Google-IPSOS survey. And, youth are taking to them in a very big way: 36% penetration in the 18-29 age group and 17% penetration in the 30-49 age group, in cities.

With 97% of owners saying they are heavy users while at home, smartphone has clearly become the inalienable multipurpose device for the Indian. As many as 77% listen to music, 35% either read newspapers and magazines or watch TV, 78% use it for search, and 76% to access social networking sites.

Lalit Katragadda, India Head, Products, Google, says the surge has been driven by poor landline/ broadband connectivity, combined with the growth of the cloud technology, “There is now a huge appetite for information, especially among the youth. Everyone now knows that information is just a few clicks away. Nothing like getting it on the move, and on demand.”

Interestingly, though India has less than half of the US’s mobile users, Indians are outscoring Americans in their urge to go online. As many as 76% of Indians access social networking
sites on smartphones versus 54% of US citizens; and email access on smartphone in India is 81% while in the US it’s 73%, the survey shows. “Indians are device savvy, and it could just be a perception that Indians are not tech-savvy,” says Katragadda.

With 66% users saying they would access internet on mobile more in future, the smartphone revolution is bound to peak further.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Footnotes that talk and move

Textbooks are widely acclaimed to be boring, in spite of colourful pictures . Also, there is a limit to information textbooks can provide. Since Internet is an ocean of information, many textbooks now give URLs of websites where more data can be found.

Surajit Sen, a Bangalore engineer, has taken the integration between textbooks and multimedia to a new level. He calls it “numerically linked book”, a book that is supported by a CD. It uses a technology, developed by Sen, that provides footnotes in an audio-visual form. He says it’s the first of its kind in the world, and is awaiting patent approval. 

The working is simple and effective. On the book, instead of footnotes, you merely have numbers against words that need explanation. Insert the CD in your laptop. After the program loads, key in the footnote number. You are taken to a multimedia or internet page that provides you an elaboration on the topic. The software is compatible with Windows, and for sound and video, Adobe Flash Player is required..

To begin with Sen, who is the CEO of Bangalore-based startup Crest Technologies, has brought out a book “Birds of Bangalore”. It contains a list of birds, brief summary and numeric links to various webpages, like that of Wikipedia, Youtube, Internet Bird Collection, Birdforum, Karnataka government website on birds etc, where you can find more information about that particular bird.

Take a bird like Barn Swallow, which the book says is a common winter visitor. By keying in the corresponding number you can listen to the bird’s sound, see video clips and get lots of information about this bird.

The technology is useful in rural education. “To tackle the challenge of educating villagers, we must first get villagers interested in education. Linking multimedia to textbooks is one way,” he says.

Such books have immense scope, especially in teaching science. Says Sen, “In a chemistry textbook, for example, instead of explaining a reaction, all that’s needed is a numeric link to a video that demonstrates it. Usually a student goes to a website, gets distracted and drifts away from the book. Here, the relevant page is provided to the student, so the student never leaves the book,” says Sen.

If this technology catches on, hopefully children will love their textbooks, and mothers will have less reasons to complain.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Machines talk to each other

When you slouch on the couch, and use the remote to hop TV channels, you are unwittingly getting one machine to talk to another. This is a loose example of, what today has grown into a fledgling M2M, or machine to machine, communication industry.

The science of machine talk is telemetry -- transfer of data from one location to another. It’s been around for over 100 years. In the beginning, it was wired transmission, now it’s wireless. Collection of meteorological data using weather balloons is a good example.