Takeaways from Alexa Dev Day, Bangalore
Voice-based interfaces are all in rage right now. On one side tech is being driven by Machine Learning. On the other side, speech-to-text, text-to-speech and Natural Language Understanding are complementing it from the perspective of user interfaces. This is not to say that keyboards and touchscreens are going to go away. It does suggest that there are many applications where sight and touch can be freed for parallel tasks while you converse with your apps using voice.
Some of the speech agents that power voice-based interfaces are Siri, Alexa and Cortana, just to name the well-known ones. Today I had the chance to attend Alexa Dev Day organized by Amazon Alexa team. Similar events are scheduled to happen all across the world in the coming weeks. The event hall was packed, mostly with developers, and mostly with those who already owned Echo devices. I found this to be the key differentiator with Alexa. Amazon has managed to get Echo devices into a number of homes and offices. Early adopters perhaps bought them for the novelty factor but thanks to them, basic uses cases have been shown to work. Now there's sufficient interest from developers to reach this bunch of Echo owners and beyond to interest them with innovative apps. Novelty therefore is moving from Echo hardware to apps powered by Alexa. I met someone trying to do railway ticket bookings with Alexa. A couple of guys from Sulekha are exploring voice-based hyperlocal searches. Another person is looking to give first-aid advice and emergency care.
Achieving Meteor 2-second rebuild time for £830
This was my purely hardware solution to the problem of slow Meteor build times.
When I decided to get into development I was adamant that I wasn’t going to run out and buy the latest and greatest in hardware until I actually knew how to code and knew what my requirements were in the long term.
So I went out and bought a used 15" Acer laptop for £150. It had the following spec:
- Memory: 6GB RAM
- Processor: Intel Pentium CPU 6200 @ 2.13GHz (Dual Core)
- OS: Ubuntu 16.04.1 LTS 32-bit
- Storage: 153.5GB HDD
With this setup, I saw rebuild times of 15-30 seconds (including the browser refresh) of a side project using Meteor 1.4, React and a Mongo-db instance with around 1500 records. I found these times to be excruciatingly slow when it came to making multiple changes to my code and waiting to see the results. You can see the initial version of the project I was working on here.
Plus an exciting quiz on IoT
I am pleased to cover once again our quarterly IoT Project Day event, an event for demos and talks. More importantly, it's an event for exchanging knowledge, inspiring others and networking with peers. As usual, we are happy to have it at Microsoft, Bangalore, and we thank them for opening up their venue for this purpose.
Today's event was a mix of electronics, sensing applications and analytics. Because, in the world of IoT, one thing without the others is not all that useful. Collecting data is not useful if you don't analyze it at some point. Electronics is not useful if you don't drive it with intelligent firmware. Gadgets are not useful if you don't think about wireless connectivity. Finally, you need to use the right sensors to gather real-world data that suits your application.
A small selection across domains
There's so much happening in the space of Virtual Reality (VR), that it's becoming hard to keep track. The ecosystem has progressed sufficiently that content creation is becoming a serious focus. Those with intent and resources are in the race to create engaging quality content. Headsets are now available by the dozens and at a range price points. VR is by no means a mainstream technology yet but it's getting there.
Here's a selection of VR companies and content that have been in the news lately. This selection is of course just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Some of these are accessible with nothing more than a smartphone, a downloadable app and a cheap VR headset. Often the app itself is free. Often content is also free, which is expected of any new content distribution platform keen on attracting users. Where devices and content are at a premium, they're for the early adopters willing to splurge north of $2000. Thanks to them, innovation continues to happen and technology continuously nudges past its limits.
Comparing the two with examples
Two of the hottest technologies of this year have been Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). While both these are still in their nascent stages of development and application, lot of progress has been made. Big names and start-ups are getting into the game with a sense of urgency. They know the potential. They are keen to tap into them as early as possible. Let's begin with a simple scenario.
Suppose you wish to visit Paris, and in particular, the Eiffel Tower. In the world of VR, your tour agent may offer you a headset. You wear it and suddenly you see yourself in front of the Eiffel Tower. You turn around and you see the surroundings on a bright summer morning. You can hear people talking in French. You can see other tourists walking around with maps and Lonely Planet editions. Suddenly, the scene changes. It's past sunset. You are looking at the tower from a distance, beautifully lit on a moonless night.
A special coverage by an IEDF member
Makerfest 2016, held at the GIDC Bhavan, Ahmedabad, 22-24 Jan 2016, brought together makers from different parts of the world and drew in a large audience from many different walks of life and age groups. On display were a range of creations covering diverse areas including 3D printing, Internet of Things, assistive and interactive technologies, arts/crafts combined with engineering, and so on. The exhibits displayed were at different levels of maturity, from fully packaged commercial products to those that conveyed just the raw idea. This diversity is what makes the Makerfest so unique and attractive, for it gives the audience a wide-angled glimpse into the nascent thought processes that may become main stream in the coming days.
I will discuss briefly the stalls that I could visit. There was way too much going on to be able to absorb everything. In the true maker spirit, I request others to kindly add (through comments) what I may have inadvertently missed in my attempt to catch the action while also manning my own stall.
USB Type-C to the rescue
Recently I forgot to charge my smartphone and it ran out of power. I borrowed the smartphone charger from my friend and was able to use it even though my friend's smartphone was not the same as mine and was from a different vendor. This was possible because phone chargers are now standardized. This was not the case earlier.
Earlier every phone vendor had their own charger design. Then the Open Mobile Terminal Platform Group (a forum of mobile network operators and manufacturers such as Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and LG) announced that its members had agreed on micro-USB as the future common connector for mobile devices. In June 2009, many of the world's largest mobile phone manufacturers signed an EC-sponsored Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), agreeing to make most data-enabled mobile phones marketed in the European Union compatible with a common External Power Supply (EPS). The European Union and the Chinese standards also mandated the use of USB Battery charging solution. Thanks to these standardization efforts we can now use the same chargers that work with mobile phone from different vendors. The chargers for smartphones are now standardized and use micro-USB port for charging.
An opinion from user perspective
The evolution of technology is one thing. The evolution of how we use it something else. Take for example the size of mobile phones. They can fit in the palm of your hand but this shrinking size has meant that, in India at least, a lot of people move the mouthpiece to the lips while talking and move the earpiece to the ear while listening. Engineers and designers never intended this!
Dual SIM phones were something of a boon when they were first introduced. You could have a personal connection and an office connection on the same phone. Today, I see people carrying two phones to solve a completely different problem. One is a smartphone for all their data needs. The other is a basic phone that they use for voice, only because they don't have to charge it daily.