Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hello? Great Wall Calling

As you read this, we will be returning from a trip to China celebrating my wife's and my 25th wedding anniversary.

Of course, a trip abroad is always an opportunity to try out some new technology, which we were able to do.

Despite something in our Beijing hotel causing two power bricks for my laptop computer to fry themselves (and having to find replacements), technical issues have been fine.

Of particular fun was sharing some of our experiences with one of my brothers in California. Bill and his wife, Johanna, have two children, both under 12. We thought they'd enjoy seeing the Great Wall when we're in Beijing.

I rented a portable WiFi Internet device for the duration of our trip. These devices essentially put a WiFi hotspot in your pocket while connecting to the 3G cellular service. They're available from most of the mobile companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, although I rented mine from a Chinese company that offers services to travelers.

Along with this device, I brought our iPad 2 which supports Facetime, a video chatting service, not unlike Skype, although Facetime only works over WiFi on an iPad or iPhone.

We tried Facetime from our home in Westport prior to our departure, then tried it again as we were driving out of Beijing. This test allowed my niece and nephew to see the Olympic "Bird's Nest" stadium as we were leaving town.

When we arrived at the Great Wall, I wondered what sort of cellular service we would have. I was quite pleased when the WiFi device sported five full signal bars, despite us being out in the countryside.

While standing on the Wall, I powered up the iPad and tapped my brother's name in Facetime. About 20 seconds later, our niece and nephew's faces appeared on the screen.

The general cacophony of the people on the wall meant we couldn't hear what my niece and nephew were saying, but we could see them smiling broadly and we were able to show them the Great Wall and surroundings. They later told us they were able to hear us clearly and it ended up being a great experience for both them and us.

It was also funny to see people around us trying to figure out what we were doing. I was holding up and talking to this black tablet thing. iPads are not unknown here. There are billboards advertising them. But they are not nearly as popular as one would see, say, on a Metro-North train.

We intend on sharing some of our other experiences with them as we continue our tour, including seeing the Terra Cotta warriors, Li valley and Hong Kong.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 24 August 2011.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

3-D: Finally Here?

Three-dimensional (3-D) imaging has been a novelty for decades. I remember wearing the red-and-green glasses as a kid and seeing movies that were 3-D, but without realistic colors.

Hollywood has been trying to make 3-D into a viable medium for the past few years, with some success. Some of the movies out recently look very good in 3-D, beyond the gratuitous water squirting or swords being thrust towards the audience.

One of my favorite 3-D movies was "Avatar" that used 3-D to add quite literally an additional dimension to the movie, where backgrounds appeared in the background and even large landscapes had a real depth.

Some have argued that the primary reason why Hollywood likes 3-D is because they can charge a premium for 3-D movie tickets. I'm sure there's a lot of truth to that.

Of course, as a consumer, the biggest drawback of 3-D is having to wear special glasses to see the 3-D effect. While this yields a good 3-D experience, the polarized lenses end up darkening the screen, so the brightness of a movie is subdued.

Screens that don't require the viewers to wear glasses are coming, but so far the biggest limitation is that the viewer must sit within a very small angle in front of the screen.

All of these limitations will be overcome, I believe, and here's why.

I remember when computer screens were all monochrome (typically a green or light grey phosphorescent glow). When color monitors came out, no one could comprehend why we would need color screens.

I also remember when printers came out. Originally, line printers only print one color. First-generation laser printers also printed only black. The costs of four-color printing, when they started to become available, were prohibitive. Again, very few people saw the growth of color printing as becoming commonplace.

Yet most monitors and printers purchased now are color.

I believe that 3-D displays will eventually become standard on personal computers, TVs and in movies. From a personal computer standpoint, I can see where spreadsheets and even word processing documents could benefit from 3-D, much as they now do from color and different fonts. Business charts in 3-D could be far more informative with 3-D as a component.

From a video perspective, there are now consumer grade 3-D video cameras on the market. As 3-D video editing comes of age, we'll have videos on YouTube and of people's vacations that are in 3-D, much as we have people creating 2-D videos now.

While we're still a few years away from mainstream acceptability and technical capability, I believe in 10 years, we'll look back on 3-D capabilities as an essential part of computing, as we now do color monitors and printing.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on  Wednesday 9 August 2011.