Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Virtual reality changing social behaviors

Maybe virtual reality is going to solve one of the greatest health issues facing Americans today - physical inactivity – by influencing their social behaviors through computer simulation.

“We have developed model that allows people to see what they are and how they look like on TV,” says Jeremy Bailenson at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University.

Jesse Fox, a candidate for Ph.D, who has actually done the studies and developed the model, says, “People who look at themselves running in virtual reality for a period of 24 hours actually exercise more in the real world”.

“This seems to indicate that program will make them do it (exercise) later or change their life pattern”, she says, speaking about a study she made about how people experience virtual reality.

Ms. Fox explains that she has created another program in which a teacher in virtual reality looks at every student at the same time. This makes the teacher appear more life-like. So students pay more attention to the lecture.

“In virtual reality, we can produce unique, new social structures,” Ms. Fox says.

Can lesson from the lab be used in business? Bailenson and Fox say they are not worried about the commercial relevance of their research. “It is not our job to do marketing,” says Ms. Fox. “We have developed a program. It is now up to the people who do business how they transform it in the market place.”

Two new players challenge the navigation market

While stopped in traffic, have you wanted to read the menu at an unfamiliar restaurant? Now you can do that -- and much more -- with new automobile navigation systems from a very young company and a very old one.

Over the next few months, Dash Navigation, of Mountain View, Calif., and the German automobile giant, BMW, plan to launch new navigation systems. Both companies previewed them at a Mobile Monday event hosted by Google at its headquarters this week.

Dash Navigation showed off a new Web 2.0-type "mashup" for cars; a Web-enabled GPS device that combines navigation -- how to get somewhere -- with information about what you can do, spend or buy when you get there. The information also includes customer ratings and low-price options.

Chris Butler of Dash handled the demonstration, deftly producing a favorite sushi restaurant from a general query. Mr. Butler also showed that the system can receive and benefit from information from a driver's personal computer.

Now Dash uses data provided by Yahoo, but "in the future we might use data from Google," Mr. Butler said, making his listeners -- consisting of dozens of journalists, engineers and business people -- chuckle in between eating slices of pizza, bought and paid for by Google.

The Dash system, presented by Mr. Butler, also shows how much traffic there is and suggests the fastest route to a destination. This is done by collecting data from other Dash users and comparing it with historical data collected, said Rob Currie, President and Chief Operating Officer of Dash.

Mr. Currie, who also was at the meeting, admitted that Dash's che challenge at this point is that there are not so many Dash users in order to provide adequate data for a complete picture of traffic flows. The system is designed to work better the more people use it.

The cost of the Dash system came as a surprise to some in the audience. The device, which will go on March 27th, will cost $599.99. In addition, there is a $10 monthly service fee.

"Why would anybody want to pay that much for traffic information system that has far too little data," wondered an engineer in the audience.

Some popular navigation systems can be purchased for under $200.

BMW, meanwhile, described new features to its existing navigation system, "BMW Connected Drive," which is currently sold in Europe. The product will be launched in the US market in April, said Jeff Zabel of BMW.

Mr. Zabel said the BMW system will make use of a Google application that includes current, accurate maps to be sent from a personal computer to the car's computer.

BMW has in the pipeline an application that allows a driver to browse the Web while sitting the behind the wheel -- hopefully stuck in traffic.

- After Dash was launched on March 27th, it has been tested by customers. Read what the Wall Street Journal's Walter S. Mossberg wrote about it.

Failing broadband policies a threat to innovation

The debate around network neutrality remains a hot topic of discussion among telecom companies and service providers. Vint Cerf, Vice President of Google, regards the lack of regulation a threat to innovation.

When Mr. Cerf and his colleagues at Stanford University built the foundation for today’s Internet back in the 1970s’, they built it as an open environment that would be accessible to anyone. The past 20 years have seen a transformation of the Internet and how people access it, from dial-up telephone modems to different types of broadband connections, either by cable, DSL, satellite or fiber.

“Many broadband suppliers suppress what should be an open media,” says Cerf. “Not only will that suppress open expression, but it will also suppress innovation. If you have to work in arrangement with every Internet service supplier in the world in order to try out your new service, it will essentially suppress the ability to invent and innovate in the Internet.”

A number of companies, including Google, became quite alarmed when the former head of AT&T, Ed Whitaker, said, “companies like Google are getting a free ride and are not paying me for their use of my broadband channels to my customers.”

“Today there is a lack of competition in broadband which makes it possible for the party that controls the physical access to the Internet to favor that company’s applications”, says Cerf.

That’s not the business model Cerf and his colleagues had in mind when they started the net.

“So when Mr. Whitaker made his assertion a number of us begun to see the potential for very biasing decisions on the part of the broadband providers of things that were very antithetical to the interests of the consumers”, says Cerf.

In the last few years emotions have been running high in the American telecom business as Congress debates whether a law should be passed saying you must not discriminate among the application providers. Suppliers of broadband promise they will not favor their own services over others, but treat everyone essentially the same.

“After the telecoms and cable companies asserted in hearing that they would never interfere with someone else’s traffic, it was discovered that Comcast was analyzing the traffic that was flowing on their broadband channels”, says Cerf. “Anyone who was running bit torrent was shut down. I don’t blame them for wanting to control the traffic, but they chose a method to do it that was chilling because it implied that someone who controls the underlying transport could decide what traffic could flow and what traffic could not flow on the basis on what kind of traffic it was.”

Cerf likens broadband access to other critical infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and water:

“In other parts of the world it is recognized that this is basic infrastructure and there may not be a natural ability to put in competitive, alternative physical facilities. In the United States facility-based competition has been the mantra of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for some time now and frankly I don’t believe it works. And in the absence of that we have to create the regulatory framework that says you cannot take advantage of your carriers to interfere with applications.”