Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Google Docs now does OCR

In June of this year, Google added an Optical Character Recognition feature to its free Google Docs service. This allows users to upload PDF or image files (.jpg, .gif, or .png formats) from which Google Docs attempts to automatically create an editable text file.

This is an excellent free resource for casual users who need to occasionally convert an un-editable PDF document, or (with a flatbed scanner or camera) need to include text from printed media in an electronic document.

Google Help Document: Uploading and exporting: Uploading image files with text to Google Docs

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Save the iPad's Orientation Lock

I just started this online petition. It's a first for me, but this change in what I heralded as one of the best ideas on the iPad is just stupid.

Update 1/12/2011: Apple's iOS 4.3 version update now allows users to choose whether the hardware switch is an Orientation Lock or Mute switch. Hoorah!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Future Arrives... in a Theater Near You

by Ellsworth Chou, October 7, 2010

In 1999, my wife (a TV/film professor) and I (also a media professional) saw Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace three times in two days. Not because it was so great (we learned that when we saw it twice on opening day, which involved sleeping in our car on Hollywood Boulevard down the street from Mann's Chinese Theater - but that's another story), but because we had the opportunity to see it projected digitally on two competing systems that were vying for what was expected to be the future of the cinema. We saw a traditional 35mm film projection, a Hughes/JVC D-ILA projector, and a Texas Instruments DLP projector. In the latter two presentations, 20th Century Fox had provided an exotic hard drive array with a digital, essentially high-definition video copy of the movie - in the form of a then-impressive 340GB of files, if memory serves. In these special Los Angeles area screenings, I took binoculars along, then brazenly walked up to the screen itself during the movie, where I was joined by others who shared my curiosity.

After seeing those presentations, as well as digital projections of the 1999 animated Tarzan, Pixar’s Toy Story (which was fully digital from production to projection - meaning that there had never been any light involved in the production at all) and a handful of other motion pictures, these points of observation and speculation emerged:

  • Motion picture distributors would absolutely want this as their future. Motion picture prints cost thousands of dollars each. Prints cost distributors a lot to ship. Prints scratch, break and wear out. Trailers - those previews of future movie releases - and commercial ads are hand-spliced to the beginning of the movie print by on-site staff. If a multiplex theater finds a movie performing unusually well, they must wait for additional prints to be shipped (if extras are available at all).
  • In a world of all digital theaters, it would be possible for movie files to be delivered electronically, via Internet or satellite. Need to add additional screens to accommodate unexpected capacity? Click on a button and license another projection. Replace your projectionist with an I.T. guy, and never handle film again. Additionally, any or all the screens in a theater could be booked to show live content - think Pay-Per-View for hundreds of people at once, or simply television content.
  • Though modern digital projectors looked fair to very good, they did not effectively produce similar images to film prints (in 1999, those digital cinema projections had only 2/3 the resolution of today’s HDTVs). Though this might improve over time, the political and commercial forces at play in the cinema distribution business would place little priority upon aesthetic merit. Cinematographers, whose entire artistic endeavor is to know and discreetly affect what the image will look like in your neighborhood theater, collectively cringed at the coming massacre of their craft.
  • Perhaps most profoundly, who would pay for these projectors? At the time, the projectors cost well over a hundred thousand dollars each. Theaters, who had invested in expensive film projectors when their facilities were originally built, would not benefit financially in the way that distribution companies would. But distribution companies didn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend to upgrade the theater chains with which they had business arrangements.
  • As the inevitable transition from an all-film distribution network to all-digital took place, how awkward would it be to deliver both forms? How would it work when only a small percentage of theaters had made the change?

Living in Los Angeles, we were privileged to see many of the pilot programs. Our neighborhood AMC theater in Burbank, California installed a single prototype theatrical DLP projector next to the film projectors in its booth, and when digital “prints” were made available of selected movies, presented them in that theater. We saw as many of those presentations as possible in both film and digital projections. In time, AMC added a few more digital projectors to its three Burbank theaters (totaling 30 screens). In the last two years, they installed a Digital IMAX theater. Keeping with the current trend, the Burbank AMC theaters installed several digital projectors in the past few years to project "3D" releases using the RealD stereoscopic projection system, which depends upon digital projection rather than film.

A little over a year ago, a friend who works for a major movie studio in distribution told us that they were approaching 20 per cent digitally-delivered “prints,” and that the studio was offering discounts for digital delivery as a way of incentivizing theater chains to foot the bill for the projector conversions.

A press release back in March of 2009 announced Sony’s signing a contract with AMC to replace all of its 35mm film projectors with so-called “4K” (having four thousand pixel resolution horizontally - considered by some to be the subjective equivalent of the detail reproduction of 35mm film) Sony digital projectors by 2012. It was a surprising announcement, but 2012 seemed a long way off.

And yet, when we were at the AMC Burbank theater tonight, and I was idly perusing the electronic marquee of this evening’s offerings, a sudden realization rather shocked me. At the end of 13 or so of the 18 listings were the characters “-D.” As in “Digital.” I’m sure I blinked, then skimmed the marquee. The only shows NOT bearing this code were listed as “IMAX” (which in this case is digital, and NOT the massive film format upon with the IMAX corporation made their name), and a live pay-per-view event - obviously video. I asked the teller, “What do the D’s at the end of the listings mean?” “Digital,” said the teller.

I quietly gasped. We’d been away this summer on a 40-day trip, and upon our return, found a lot of things changed - as though people had actually waited the previous 20+ years we’d lived here before making big changes. This one was the capper. No managerial staff in sight, I tried asking the ticket-tearer at the AMC whether all the theaters had digital projectors now - her answer wasn't satisfactory, and I'd still like to know how many film projectors remain in the complex. But the marquee spoke the message clearly enough: No film here.

It will take some time for this change to reach the far corners of this country, as it will the rest of the planet who have been using 35mm film since Thomas Edison patented it 115 years ago. Film will remain an acquisition medium for as long as the currently-working cinematographers - some of whom claim that they will retire when film does - can argue for its existence. That chemically-coated, light-sensitive film offers a durable, high-quality archival medium with a 100+ year history isn’t lost on film executives. These movers and shakers of the entertainment world still value keeping original negatives of motion pictures in vaults. These same executives are even now generating revenues by authorizing the re-scanning of movies which were originally projected in film; later telecined to video for television, home videotape and DVD release; and now re-scanned in high-definition for sale to the same public who previously purchased or watched the movies in the theater and on their standard-definition televisions.

The handwriting is on the wall for film. Despite its current superiority at reproducing the subtle tonal values of a given scene, film’s future is surely at risk. For one, much of the aesthetic qualities still uniquely credited to film acquisition is a cultural phenomenon. Those of us who have watched cinema for the past century were accustomed to the not insignificant “frame blur” of motion picture film exposed at 24 frames per second (try taking photos of any kind active scene with a still camera set to something near the 1/48th second of motion pictures). Likewise, we’re accustomed to just how film “looks,” including the nearly limitless abstractions that visual craftsmen have applied to alter the contrast, color, grain, and texture over the decades.

In a world without film acquisition - our near future - generations of humans will likely learn to think of the “look” of film as something representing the past - as we already do with black and white motion pictures and television programs. In our new “HDTV” world’s 16:9 “widescreen” aspect ratio, even slick television productions of just the last decade can’t hide their squarish 4:3 shape. Any contemporary arguments for the technical and artistic superiority of film acquisition will be moot points to most human born in the last decade or so.

Consider, too, that the technology behind film projection - aside from the lens and illuminating lamp - is the strip of film itself. As film manufacturers Kodak, Agfa and Fuji have improved their print stocks, their innovations are shipped out with subsequently-released motion pictures. Improvements to digital projectors will surely come, but will require the replacement of expensive projector components, or the entire projectors themselves - at exhibitors' expense. What incentive will the local theater chain have for improving the image quality of their huge investment in digital projectors?

Today, an increasing number of television programs and motion pictures are being produced without film. Television programs destined for high-definition distribution, even so-called “prime time dramas” which have been the last bastion for the prestige and “quality” associated with film, continue to transition to video production as cameras and techniques have more closely approached the perceived images produced by film.

Film’s demise may have been hastened by an unexpected source. Two years ago, a friend who works for the Screen Actor’s Guild (the labor union which represents performers for film and television), related a current issue within the union which was to have significant impact on the use of film. When television was still in its infancy six decades ago, SAG and AFRA (American Federation of Radio Artists) met to discuss how the two performers’ unions would divvy up actors working in motion pictures and television. SAG magnanimously offered AFRA the television work - which subsequently became AFTRA, while SAG would maintain the prestigious clientele of the fully mature motion picture industry. Flash-forward to 2009, when the Screen Actors Guild had been mired in internal negotiations for new contracts for almost two years. Its constipated efforts had remained in entertainment-industry headlines constantly, and entertainment executives were increasingly uncomfortable with dealing with the troubled union, even though all the most desirable actors were and are SAG signatories. At some point, someone in the industry realized that there was subtle language in that half-century old contract still held by AFTRA that specified that if a production was shot on video - the technology of television from the 1950s and today - then any AFTRA performer was eligible to work on that production. SAG and AFTRA have agreements in which members of either union are eligible to work on shows covered by the other union. The upshot? If you shoot a television show without film, then you can sign SAG and AFTRA performers alike - essentially all working actors - to your production. Following this discovery, the 2009 television pilot season was predominately shot on HD video, and all those performers were signed with AFTRA contracts. SAG - still bickering internally to this day - was left out in the cold. But so was film.

For all of the technical and aesthetic arguments that industry artists and craftsmen have made over the past two decades about the future of film itself, few to none would have predicted that a major force of change in film’s survival would be the impact of a half-century old union contract for actors.

Despite my progressive attitude toward technological change, I am also a filmmaker. When at age 13 I shot my first narrative sequence on 8mm film, then waited a week and a half for it to return from the processor, then threaded that film into a projector and watched the results, it was MAGICAL. Even sitting in dailies on a major motion picture and watching footage we shot the previous day, there’s a fantastic, psycho-visual effect: it feels like someone else shot that footage, years ago, far away. Conversely, I can play a personal videotape I shot in 1981 and believe that we’ve just returned from that trip this morning, and are reviewing footage - so powerful is our cultural association with the visual qualities and historical uses of the two mediums. I will be sad the day the last motion picture is shot on film: for nostalgia; for the deep cultural impact that film has had since photography’s dawning almost two centuries ago; and because once closed behind us, that door will likely never be re-opened. I already miss the smell of cracking open a new can of film and inhaling the strangely appealing perfume of emulsion emanating from within.

My wife has told her cinema students that this was coming for years. We’ve known this was the future, like it or not.

The future is here.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

facebook Announces Personal Content Archiving

The press announcement from facebook today (CNN, TechCrunch, addresses something I've really worried about (not for myself, so much): that all this effort people put into their fb profiles could some day vanish, or become unavailable to them. Facebook could be purchased, go out of business, or just have a massive data loss incident. You or your children might be interested in the life you shared online in 25 years - will facebook exist? Plus, this just appeals to the data manager in me.

From the CNN story:
With "Download Your Information," Facebook users will be able to create a zip file of everything they've done on the site.
From TechCrunch:

Facebook Product Manager David Recordon explains that you can access the “Download Your Information” feature from your account settings, hit the download button and Facebook will allow you to download everything off your profile, including your friends list, events, all of your messages, wall posts and all of your photos into a zip file.

Downloading your profile in this way does not delete it from the site, but simply provides you with a copy. Users wishing to erase their data entirely will have to go through the process of deleting their entire Facebook profile, separately from “Download Your Information.”

Recordon emphasizes that the product will be simple enough for laymen to use, a one click process.

More importantly, when asked during the Q&A whether a Facebook user could ostensibly download their information and then reupload it to a site other than Facebook, Zuckerberg answered:

“At a high level we’ve built two different things, Facebook Connect — which is our real effort to bring our sites to other sites, and “Download Your Information” where you can download your information and upload it to another site. Stuff that you put into the site, you should be able to take out.”

“Download Your Information” should be rolling out to all users beginning today.

As of this writing, the "Download Your Information" feature has not yet appeared on my facebook Account Settings.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Your Own AT&T 3G Tower for $150

OK, so it's not actually a cell tower, but if you have a broadband Internet connection, the AT&T MicroCell allows up to four simultaneous users to make 3G data or phone calls within a 40 foot radius.

So if you are one of those people who says, "I can't get a signal on my iPhone inside my house/office," this might be just what you need. You just plug it into your network, register the device online, and you've effectively extended the AT&T 3G cell network to a 5,000 square-foot bubble around the MicroCell.

Though the device is portable and can be relocated, note that the AT&T website recommends "Installing your device near a window is strongly recommended to ensure access to Global Positioning System (GPS). A GPS link is needed to verify the device location during the initial startup."

Why does it need GPS? Based on the next quote from the AT&T site, I'm guessing that there are probably FCC restrictions about using these transceivers outside a geographical area in which AT&T is licensed for radio transmissions: "The device may be moved, provided the new location is within the AT&T authorized service area and properly registered online."

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Analog Hole Closes - BE VERY AFRAID

When he was FCC Chairman, Michael Powell (son of Retired General Colin Powell) defended the rights of the taxpayers to retain the so-called "Analog Hole," which today continues to provide a method by which consumers can record television content from their cable boxes, satellite receivers and other devices to VCRs and other recording devices. Powell considered it a right of every citizen of the U.S. to be able to keep a recording of television programming which had already been provided to their home. That right is now in serious jeopardy.

Now, (idiot) entertainment corporations think that their customers (those of us giving them $100+ a month for the "privilege" of watching what programming they choose to provide) are pirating their content and depriving the corporations of income. To prevent us ALL from illegally copying and selling "first run" movies and television programs, the MPAA has managed to convince the current FCC to allow blocking the Analog Hole on selected programming.

U.S. Lets Hollywood Disable Home TV Outputs to Prevent Piracy (Bloomberg BusinessWeek)

This is horrifying.

The infrastructure for blocking the analog outputs on cable and satellite boxes has existed for some time, and software control of the analog video output ports on is already built into existing cable and satellite tuners and DVRs. Any given program could be "flagged" to turn off the analog video ports on these devices, thus preventing recordings from being made onto other media (tape, DVD, hard drive, etc.). Similarly, the ability to prevent any given program from being recorded internally on a DVR/PVR has been in place, potentially providing a mechanism for content owners to prohibit the delayed or repeated viewing of programming on DVRs, or even to force viewers to watch shows live. Consider the live voting aspects of today's performance reality shows - the call counts serve as collateral for advertising negotiations, and text-messaging may generate significant income. Some sources report that the 2009 season of American Idol generated 178 million text message for AT&T - an Idol sponsor.

American Idol sees 178M SMS interactions (

In 2007, media-ratings giant Nielsen Media Research adopted a metric known as "C3," which takes into account programs viewed on a DVR, but only up to three days from the original date of airing. Thus, forcing viewers to watch by "expiring" programs on their DVRs ensures a maximum rating.

The same advances of the Digital Age which promised (and in some cases, has delivered) higher-quality delivery of content is also perceived as a threat by those largest of entities which make their money from licensing media content. As a result, in a time when we should be able to make perfect recordings to view later, or share with our family and friends, we consumers are treated like criminals - and as a result may never again have the equivalent functionality of the lowly VHS videotape recorder again. Would Grandpa like to see that show about the Korean War that's coming on this week? Maybe, but unless he installs a cable service which carries that channel, or that show is eventually made available on DVD, or streamed on a paid Internet streaming service, you and Grandpa are out of luck.

Worse yet, those hundreds of millions of U.S. consumers who continue to use their analog televisions with cable, satellite and broadband carriers may be forced to buy new "digital" televisions, which by law incorporate hardware and software (HDCP) to make encrypted connections with set-top tuners and DVRs. Those consumers using legacy analog televisions are using the very Analog Hole through which "piracy" is considered to be such a threat. These taxpayers would be left out in the cold, unable to view "first run" programming unless they purchased a new television.

And is this stopping "piracy?" In the Digital Age, only a single source is required for an infinite number of identical copies. So does knee-capping the entire Planet of Paying Customers have any affect upon the Professional Media Pirate, who can pay off an employee of a movie distribution company to "borrow" a high-quality master recording, or hire a team of programmers to "crack" the latest encryption solution?

It takes me several hours of effort to archive a single hour of television programming extracted via the Analog Hole. The process requires:
  • connecting a video/audio digitizer and computer to their cable/satellite boxes
  • capturing programming in real-time (waiting the entire duration of the program to "digitize" to computer; and we've often already seen the program, so yet more time from our life is invested)
  • editing out the commercials
  • burning the resulting content to a DVD or encoding for playback on a portable device or computer
...a process I do several times a month to provide classroom material, which is presented to students (thus far) under the Fair Use Doctrine of U.S. copyright law.

How many people are going to this trouble? How many of those people, who have ALREADY SEEN THE PROGRAM, are going to choose NOT to buy the program, but rather spend hours of their life digitizing it? (We would and have bought programs on DVD when available - it's much easier and looks better.) And how many of these same people are going to distribute it to their friends, who will also then not buy that piece of programming? How many friends do they have? Where is the lost revenue for the industry?

Piracy is nearly unavoidable. Nearly every attempt to prevent piracy through technological means has been thwarted by even more clever humans - often more for sport than profit. I was amazed to discover almost three years ago that illicit, high-quality, high-definition copies of U.S. prime-time television series were available within only a few hours - barely time enough for doing the work - on Internet sites available world-wide. I repeat: only a SINGLE SOURCE - a single person - is required to devise a method to circumvent a copy-protection scheme. That single person can then provide perfect digital copies infinitely to the rest of humanity. Big Media knows this - they were the ones who paid for all the copy-protection schemes that have been "cracked." Their solution? Use The Law, so that it won't matter so much if the technological schemes are unsuccessful. Some aspects of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (Pub. L. 105-304, 1998) make it illegal to be in possession of implements (hardware or software) which might be used to circumvent anything described as a copy-protection device. So, for instance, if you had a piece of email which described a method to allow your cable box to continue to play video to your existing analog television, even when that program had been flagged to turn off the analog ports, you might be in violation of a Federal Law.

In response to this factory-style illicit sharing of current broadcast content, some large media entities have really come around. Big old-school TV networks ABC and CBS, for example, provide very high-quality Internet streams of their current and recent episodes on their corporate websites - free of charge. This was the Right Thing To Do. Give people an easier, better way to watch your TV shows than downloading an illicit copy from a file-sharing site. Better yet: they get to run advertisements - their primary source of income - in these Internet streams. Even better: unlike broadcast TV, where no one really knows who is watching what and when, you can guarantee advertisers that their "roll-in" commercials that run before and during Internet streams are being seen, with no options for fast-forwarding, and often being only 30 seconds, not long enough for a snack or bathroom break.

With the release of Apple's iPad in March of 2010, ABC Television released a free iPad app which just brings all the current ABC shows in very high quality to wherever you want to be with your sleek media tablet. These guys Get It. (The fact that Steve Jobs is on the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company may be significant here.)

Introducing the ABC Player for iPad™ (

If more content-owners were savvy enough to provide easy, low-cost methods for consumers to pay for content - say, 25 cents for a TV show - they'd find more people willing to give them money. By choosing only to make this MORE constrained, content-owning corporations may ultimately be driving customers away for good. As it is, every time we ask a teenager if they watch television, they tell us they watch "one or two shows," but "mostly I watch YouTube." Old-school television had better be paying attention. I, for one, would really like to continue to see stories told, rather than more people being hit in the groin with flying objects.