Monday, June 15, 2015

Comments about eBay article: 10 “Before Their Time” Technology Devices

(Several friends shared this eBay article on facebook. What started out as a "Comment" grew to, well, this.)

Original eBay article: '10 “Before Their Time” Technology Devices'

Oh my, yes, I know all these items well, save the Polavision . . .

Apple Newton & Palm PDA

I still regret not collecting a Newton somewhere along the way.

I used Palm OS for almost a decade. I can probably do 50-60 words per minute in Graffiti(TM). I carried a cable in my pocket so I could Web browse via a connection through my Motorola StarTac (the best cell phone ever) and RAZRs (with a mild hack to allow them to act as a modem.

Mattel Power Glove

I attended all 24 continuous hours of the Cyberthon virtual reality convention in San Francisco (not sleeping from waking in L.A. until I was on the plane to fly back from SFO 40 hours later), at which I saw Mattel PowerGlove co-developer and VR evangelist Jaron Lanier speak. I also used many "goggle and glove" immersive VR rigs using Lanier's VPL Data Gloves, which measures the amount of bend in each finger joint by measuring the change in light refraction in optical fibers which were slightly cut at the joint. 

Sony Digital Cassette Players/Recorders

Never owned a DAT recorder, but told anyone who would listen of the Recording Industry Association of America's efforts to thwart what they perceived as a dangerous vector for music piracy. DAT recorders were delayed introduction to the U.S. thanks to the RIAA's lobbying efforts. The RIAA also mandated a federal trade restriction that DAT recorders sold in the U.S. were required to incorporate technology to detect and honor commercial recordings that were "marked" with a notch filter (a tiny part of the sound spectrum was artificially removed from recordings - if the CopyCode-enabled DAT recorder saw no audio level in that narrow band of frequencies, it would refuse to go into Record mode). DAT technology never succeeded in the consumer marketplace, but saw some application in professional audio production. 

These strategies are still practiced by the movie and music industries, which is why we never got a replacement for VCRs, and you can't really share that story you saw on television with your grandfather. He'll just have to wait and see if anyone cares to offer it for sale, and if so, he'll have to get a broadband Internet connection, a credit card and an HDTV to see that program, because only a monitor with HDCP technology will convince his new streaming media player that he's not trying to pirate a digitally-perfect copy of that story about Korean War ships by inserting some data capture device between the streaming box and TV. You and your grandpa look like pirates to the MPAA and RIAA. If you read the fine print of those 40-page user agreements you've been checking "yes" to, you'll find that the music, movies and TV shows you've been "buying" on steaming services certainly aren't "yours," and the next time you want to listen to or watch one of your purchases, you may find its no longer playable for reasons that mean nothing to you.

Lest you think that your cable/satellite DVR fulfills the functionality of your old VCRs, the MPAA has poked its paranoid nose in there as well. If you haven't encountered it yet, cable and satellite providers have incorporated infrastructure into their business agreements, data networks and your DVRs so that you can be prohibited from recording any given show on your DVR, and already recorded shows can be rendered unplayable.

If I'm ranting, it's because we're being mistrusted by entertainment industry heads who wrong-headedly believe that it's possible to stanch the losses of media piracy by globally impeding the cultural and humanitarian benefits of communications technology. The truth is that because digital media can be infinitely and perfectly copied, only a single determined pirate has to be successful to pirate intellectual material. In reality, thousands of clever profit-oriented pirates are picking away at any given time at whatever weaknesses they can exploit, and those of us who are actually paying money that goes to MPAA and RIAA members and signatories for our entertainment content - we get treated like criminals and the notion of Fair Use is further eroded.

Polaroid Polavision

It strikes me as odd that this is the only product on this list which doesn't ring a bell, since I started shooting experimental Polaroid stills and making Super-8 movies in 1971 or so, and became fascinated with the instant-playback promise of the $1,795 1/4" AKAI videotape recorder being sold in the 1971/2 Lafayette Radio Electronics catalog. My production life began with my family giving me a Norelco Philips cassette recorder around 1967 (almost the year that format debuted), so just the mention of "videotape" was enough to explain what that might mean to the 11 year old filmmaking me. 


Before it was "MSN TV," WebTV offered a way for citizens to have Internet email and rudimentary Web browsing without owning "a computer." Obviously a purpose-built computing appliance itself, WebTV used the consumer's television as a display device. This presented a familiar experience to other TV-connected devices (i.e., VCRs, video game consoles, DVD players), and made using the Internet a non-threatening, "family room" experience. But as the content of the World Wide Web became richer and more sophisticated (in the first years of the Web, there weren't even images), trying to view Web pages became more and more challenging. Microsoft bought WebTV in the late '90s at which point it had over 800,000 subscribers generating over a billion dollars of annual revenue. But personal computers would win out over Internet appliances (too bad, really - no one should have to maintain a computer if all they do is email and facebook), and MSN TV was shuttered at the end of 2013. 

Coleco Electronic Quarterback

"Coleco Electronic Quarterback?" Hey, Mattel Electronic Football was first, and while it didn't offer passing and kicking, it should get the mention. I took my Electronic Football along on the Campbell College Jazz Band tour in 1979. I'd hear the strangely syncopated "Charge!" tune play from somewhere on our former Greyhound bus as my band mates passed it around during our tour of eastern North Carolina high schools. Here's me demonstrating the game when my friend Riley sent me one in December 2012 (I still have my original as well):

Dragon NaturallySpeaking

Dragon NaturallySpeaking was the best attempt at machine speech-to-text in a consumer product to date when it debuted in the late '90s. But for me, a pretty fast touch-typist, it was far more mentally constipating to learn to speak my thoughts perfectly as separate words (most of us use a lot more "ums" and "uhs" than we realize until it's transcribed by a computer), and far too much work to edit after the fact than composing on a keyboard. Today, some of the best speech-to-text gets done remotely on massive computing platforms after streaming your audio somewhere else in the world over an Internet connection (something I anticipated over 20 years ago, before we had the Internet in our pockets), rather than getting done locally on your computer. When Joni was in college, one of her professors was interested in machine speech detection, but said that the task of parsing "connected speech" - actual conversation where the starts and stops of each word overlap - was devilishly difficult. Her professor wasn't wrong. It took three decades of exponential performance improvements - millions of times the computer speed - as well as intensive research to achieve the amazing speech recognition that's at our fingertips today. As with a human brain (but still not nearly as good), modern speech recognition systems try to guess what the likeliest words to follow already interpreted words would be. And Google even knows where you are and what else you've been searching for recently, so it also applies that to its guesswork. If you always wanted to talk into the air to your computer assistant, it's pretty much here. 

Diamond Rio MP3 Player

I bought a Diamond Rio 500 MP3 player - the third MP3 player product from that company. I played a little music on it, and used it to listen to Audible audiobooks (Rios were among the first devices to support Audible's encryption scheme). But when we got the first iPod (the beautiful if bulky 5GB model with a hard drive and FireWire connectivity), there was no going back. Actually, I dug the Rio out of retirement briefly to play podcasts while at the gym, but it again got bumped by the superior experience of a tiny iPod nano. 

AT&T Videophone 2500

Forty-eight years ago, I attended the Expo '67 World's Fair in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Inside the iconic U.S. Pavillion, a massive Buckminster Fuller geodesic sphere, I talked to my father (50 feet away) on an AT&T Picturephone. In retrospect, the exhibit hardly represented the immense amount of money AT&T are purported to have spent on developing the technology. The demo was just two phones and two closed-circuit cameras and CRTs. Pushing a button on your phone caused you and your caller to see only themselves - a nod to the notion that we're not always, uh, presentable. Over the decades, I never really missed that particular Vision of Tomorrow from Yesterday. I would often hear people proclaim, "Where's my Picturephone," but I couldn't really imagine too many of my acquaintances  caring to participate. I played with videoconferencing on personal computers in the early '90s. At a time when maintaining a dialup data connection could be challenging, successful video chat was, to say the least, frustrating. One user would have picture but no sound, and the other would hear your sound playing back many times slower than normal time. So you were still listening to a short sentence of them saying, "disconnect and I'll call you on the phone" (at normal pitch, but each syllable sounding for seconds) two minutes after they'd given up after three busy signals. I know families separated by great distances who video chat regularly. And when Joni and I have been traveling separately during the last decade or so of well-developed video chat, it's been wonderful just to look at each other wordlessly. We set up video chat cameras on our moms' computers (and even on a "smart TV"), but after the novelty wore off, we discovered that you eventually stop looking at each other in the second or third hour of conversation, and we haven't video chatted with them much in years. Today, even having a Picturephone in my pocket doesn't  play a part in my daily life.

Ubiquitous access to videoconferencing did provide an experience I found worth sharing back in 2007.

"What's possible" and "what exists" have been passionate topics for me as long as I can remember. I grew up in the glorious Space Age and was inundated media mythology of the spy-wiz technology of the Cold War (some of which was true, and much of which has come to pass). In these times, when so much technological might has become everyday magic for the uncurious masses, I still Want To Know. 

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