Thursday, July 4, 2013

Computers, phones make us all open books

Last week's disclosure that the National Security Agency has access to telephone call information, emails and more came as a surprise to people.

For years, there have been rumors of what we now hear is called "Prism," the NSA's program to scan emails and other communications of non-Americans. I can't figure out how to distinguish an email that's written by an American from one that's not.

But I am amazed that people are surprised to hear that this is going on.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it should happen or that there shouldn't be limits on it. Yes, I do believe there should be limits on what our government should be able to view.

But the fact exists that technology allows all sorts of digital eavesdropping, and it will continue.

One of the things that I tell colleagues and friends is that anything you do electronically, someone can see. From buying milk at the supermarket, to booking a flight online, to posting an update on Facebook, to driving around where our smartphone serves as our GPS, we create a digital trail quite literally wherever we go.

When people tie all of this information together, it makes a compelling story about who we are by what we do.

Of course, the story people like to tell is that this information about who you are and what you like, the better they are able to give you what you want. If you buy lots of diapers, you probably have a young child. If you subscribe to a number of online game sites, you probably do a lot of online gaming and may have a teenager in your home.

On the other hand, if you're buying dangerous products and are not qualified or licensed to use them, this could be a red flag. If you travel to places either typical or atypical of a person of your background, this could also be a red flag.

Another issue currently being addressed in Congress is legislation that would advise you when devices were listening or watching you. Most devices now have both a camera and microphone. We believe we know when they're active, but if someone chooses to turn them on, but not tell us, we may never know we're being watched or listened to.

Again, being watched and listened to has both benefits and drawbacks. Most people want to know when this is occurring, although knowing how the information is going to be used and who will have it are even more important, in my mind.

Nowadays, it's pretty safe to say that no matter where we go or what we do, with very few exceptions, we can be watched. For most of us, it's unlikely that anyone cares where we are or what we do, but with the advances in technology, including the reduction in cost for products and services to perform this surveillance, I predict that we're nowhere at the apex of how much information people will collect on us.

But neither do I fear this. My life is by and large pretty pedestrian. For people who want to be more private, they can choose to avoid many of the conveniences that we take for granted, such as using credit cards, mobile phones, computers and more.

And I do hope that we have say regarding how much our government can and does use this information. I realize that there are national security interests at stake here, and we have always had to balance our individual privacy with national security. I look forward to the conversation.

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 Tuesday 25 June 2013.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

'Immersive Telepresence,' videoconferencing on steroids

Most of us have now become accustomed to using our computers and even our phones to make video calls.

Applications such as FaceTime and Skype are generally good, especially considering that they're free. You can usually see the person on the other end, tell who they are and see what they're doing.

There are lots of flaws, however, including tiny cameras that don't make great images and inconsistent sound quality.

Videoconferencing has also been touted as a way that people don't have to travel. One can do business from a distance, and the money saved on time and travel expenses pays for these systems.

That argument sounds good, but I'd never seen a system that really delivered on its promise.

Until last month.

I had an opportunity to participate in a telepresence meeting using a Polycom RPX system. The sexier name is "immersive telepresence."

I had a meeting with people in both New York and Sydney, Australia. We hadn't had great luck with other videoconferencing systems, and I heard about immersive telepresence and was able to set up a meeting.

The rooms are specially designed with identical furniture, lighting, sound and decor. The tables are essentially a half conference table in one room with an identical half table typically thousands of miles away.

We face a wall where high definition television screens project an image of the other conference room in a panoramic view. Of course, the people in the other room thousands of miles away are seeing our room.

Due to many technical aspects — not the least of which were high bandwidth connections that gave crystal clear video and audio signals — the use of the telepresence system was nothing short of amazing.

Our eyes could follow each other and stereo sound enabled us to hear whether the speaker in the other room was on the left or right. All of the bits and pieces worked together to deliver an experience that let us carry on a normal discussion and almost forget that we were almost 8,000 miles apart.

Telepresence systems aren't cheap. But neither was making video phone calls 30 years ago. As this technology continues to drop in price, it will become far more prevalent. Already it can deliver the promise of the ability to save money through not having to travel as frequently, while providing an experience that's very close to being there.

The worst part of the meeting was that in New York it was dinner time, while in Sydney, it was breakfast. The people in Sydney were eating breakfast and it looked good. If we had been able to reach through and take some of the food the Australians were eating, the experience would have been perfect.

I understand someone's working on that.

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 12 June 2013.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Google Glass and Other 'Wearable' Technologies

We are taking more and more of our technology with us nowadays. It's generally called "wearable technology."

I wouldn't say smartphones are "wearable" because we really still carry them with us. But one of the most visible pieces of wearable technology is Google Glass (

Google Glass works like a set of eyeglasses, although it doesn't replace glasses. Instead, it augments them, and you don't have to wear glasses to wear or use Google Glass.

Google Glass provides you with the ability to talk to and use the Internet (mainly Google) in your everyday life without having to find and touch your smartphone, laptop or desktop computer.

A friend of mine has one of the first releases of Google Glass and I was able to try it out recently.

Essentially, it looks like a pair of optical frames, but without the lenses. On the right side of the frame is what looks like a prism, which is a heads-up display, essentially projecting a screen in front of you that only you can see.

Interacting with Google Glass takes a couple of forms. First, you can touch it, much like a touch pad on a laptop computer or a tablet. One stroke turns it from idle to on. Another stroke serves as the "Next" or "Back" functions.

But when Google Glass is active, you simply say "OK Glass" and it waits for your next command. You can then ask a question, such as "What is the weather on Thursday" or you can say "take a picture" or "record a video." Glass will do what you say, within limits, of course.

Google Glass is probably not going to be a mainstream product as it exists now. As amazing as it is, it's quite limited in what it can do. But what it does demonstrate is how powerful, light and portable these technologies can be.

More technologies that truly become part of what we wear every day are becoming available. UnderArmour, the athletic-wear company, has some pretty exciting ideas in mind. Specifically, clothing that not only monitors your vital signs (heart, respiration, blood pressure and more), but can also change colors (a fashion aspect) and provide either heat or cooling, as needed.

The UnderArmour technologies still are mostly in the "visioning" stage, meaning they're not ready for consumer products yet, but they are certainly well within the reasonableness of future products.

Other companies already are providing wristbands that can monitor exercise and distance traveled, along with heart rate and blood pressure. These go into software that can not only keep track of your exercise regimen, but also track your progress. These are key ingredients to an effective training program.

The miniaturization and consumerization of technology are providing more and more opportunities for us to have technology become part of our daily lives — not just for sending messages to each other or being entertained. And most of us will like this newfound connection with technology and the value it provides.

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 29 May 2013.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Creativity in Many Forms Makes Maker Faire a Success

Last Saturday saw not only perhaps the best weather of the year, but also the second annual Westport Mini Maker Faire, a one-day, family-friendly event that celebrates arts, crafts, engineering, food, music, science and technology projects and the do-it-yourself mindset. It's for resourceful, creative people who like to tinker and love to make things.

The faire featured the following events and activities:

The Nerdy Derby, a Pinewood derby with no rules. People build cars out of wood, paper, foam or whatever is handy. The entire supply of 400 kits were used.

Caine's Arcade, based upon the experience of a young boy in East Los Angeles who builds arcade games out of cardboard boxes. At this weekend's event, children built foosball tables, pool tables, skeeball games and more — all out of cardboard, tape and other donated items. And the kids played with them as much as they would have a professional machine, maybe even more so because they built the games themselves.

A high school student demonstrated his blacksmithing skills. The typical bellows to keep plenty of oxygen to the fire was replaced by an electric leaf blower. Yet, the blacksmith was quite able to pound tools out of red-hot steel.

Two $1,000 grants were given. One to two high school students who had designed and built an underwater propulsion system for SCUBA divers, and the other for a student here in Fairfield county who is working to create a solar oven for impoverished countries. The Awesome Foundation of Connecticut gave out the first grant and the Westport Sunrise Rotary Club, in combination with the Westport and Norwalk Rotary clubs, gave out the second.

3D printers abounded. Not only were there entry-level 3D printers in abundance, but some midrange Stratasys printers were on display in the Great Hall of the Westport Library, while Shapeways (a 3D printing service bureau) representatives demonstrated how items can be output in exotic materials such as stainless steel and porcelain.

While many of the makers emphasized technology, there were a couple of young girls who demonstrated how to make candies on a hot plate. Another maker used old comic books to make art. And still another maker demonstrated the art of violin making.

More than 40 students from Westport schools participated and students from at least five other school districts were showing off what they had made.

Dignitaries that attended the opening ceremonies included Congressman Jim Himes, Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, state Sen. John McKinney, and state Reps. Jonathan Steinberg and Gail Lavielle. They together delivered three proclamations and citations, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declaring Saturday as Maker Day in Connecticut and Joseloff declaring Saturday as Maker Day in Westport.

It's gratifying to see the interest in creativity and innovation are alive and well in Connecticut.

Editor's note: Mark Mathias is the founder and co-chairman of the Westport Mini Maker Faire.

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 1 May 2013.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Computer Conundrum: Desktop, Laptop or Tablet?

When personal computers came out, there weren't too many choices. It would sit on a desk. Then came the portability of laptop computers, which gave people additional choices, albeit typically with less horsepower than a desktop computer.

Most recently, we've seen the advent of tablets, primarily in the form of the Apple iPad, although there are quite a few contenders.

I'm frequently asked: "What should I buy? A desktop, laptop or tablet computer?"

As with most difficult choices, there are no simple answers.

First, I use all three and typically carry both a laptop computer and a tablet with me when I am out of my office.

The quantity of desktop computers I use has diminished greatly over the years. But I find I still use them for functions that require significant amounts of CPU and disk space. For me, this means video editing. For others, this may be database work, large spreadsheets or other computationally intensive tasks.

Other functions of desktop computers include situations where you want to add multiple monitors, although most laptop computers nowadays come capable of supporting two monitors without adding anything other than a second monitor. Desktop computers also have more expansion slots in case you want to add additional ports, such as USB, FireWire, video or other components.

Furthermore, desktop computers still give you the most "bang for your buck" than laptop or tablet computers, meaning that if you don't need mobility, a desktop computer is your best value for your money.

Second, I think all three — and more — types of computers will continue to be prevalent. I've already mentioned how desktop computers are great for cost-effective computational power. Laptop computers provide great mobility with good horsepower. Tablets provide a very portable device, but are not yet ready for everyday use, especially in the area of content creation, such as reports and spreadsheets.

Third, there are even more platforms coming out. Smartphones are up-and-comers, and with a new category called "phablets" —   combination phone and tablet that is really a phone with a really big screen, especially those from Samsung —  he distinction between each type is blurring. And remember Dick Tracy's wrist radio that included a two-way video-calling feature? We're not far away from that.

The biggest challenge I see with the tablets, phablets and other similar devices is their lack of input device, aka a keyboard. And voice recognition is still a few years away. Almost all tablets allow the addition of a keyboard, but then the weight and size end up being close to that of a laptop computer.

But tablets have done an excellent job of making touchscreen interfaces real. We're also starting to see much of this touchscreen work its way back into systems such as Windows, with its Windows 8 operating system. Because Windows 8 is trying to help Windows compete with tablets, we're starting to see a number of laptop and desktop computers that have touch-sensitive screens and applications.

So, one day, I hope that when I travel, I will have fewer digital devices in my bag, but right now, I travel with a laptop computer, tablet and "phablet." The combined total weighs less than some of the early "portable" computers I had, so I'm glad for that, but my dream for a single, lightweight device continues to be a dream.

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 1 May 2013.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When the Amazing Becomes 'Merely' Normal

When Orville and Wilbur Wright first flew an airplane, the idea of a man-made machine flying was amazing. Now, people take it for granted — and even complain about delays, lost luggage and bad — or no — food onboard.

I was driving my family to the airport recently. We knew the airline, flight number and gate, but not which terminal to go to. We literally spoke to our mobile phone and asked "What terminal at JFK is American Airlines flight 123 today?" The mobile phone responded with the correct terminal number. It was terminal 8.

How in the world does it do that? The technologist in me wants to know, but there's another part of me that just doesn't really know or care. I just know it happens, am amazed by it and now will be disappointed when I ask my phone any question that it can't answer.

Here are some other technological inventions or discoveries that have come along over the years that I see as being very important:

Fire: Before humans had fire, when it was dark or cold, life was much different. Staying warm and even eating food was very different.

Ships: When explorers started sailing the oceans, they started trading with foreign countries, which opened people's eyes to completely different other ways of life.

Electricity: The ability to power things like motors and light bulbs meant that labor didn't have to come from just people and horses and water.

Flight: Already dealt with that.

Automobile: The ability for individuals to travel long distances, commute to work and provide personal mobility is nothing short of amazing.

Television: The ability to see news, movies and entertainment without leaving your home also boggles the mind. While the announcement that television would help people to learn and travel virtually, I've been told that the most financially successful television program in history is "Baywatch," which became a global financial success.

Personal computers: Putting computational power into the hands of the masses has enabled people to do amazing things in business, arts and science. Personally, people now communicate in vastly different ways, specifically email and social media.

Internet: Connecting millions and millions of computers together globally has made the world a much more connected place.

Smartphones: Combining the power of a personal computer with the Internet with the ability to walk around and have the power of virtually unlimited knowledge and what's new with Kim Kardashian is truly astonishing.

And with each of these amazing technologies, we all just now accept them. They're part of our lives and we expect them to be available. Generally, we can't even imagine our lives without these technologies. Even going on a trip without them can be uncomfortable for many people.

Each form of technology essentially "raises the bar" and, hopefully, makes our lives better. I certainly can't think of any of the above technologies I'd like to be without for any substantial period of time.

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 17 April 2013.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Theme Parks are High-Tech Fantasylands

Theme parks have always been hotbeds of leading-edge technology. I remember growing up in southern California, not far from Disneyland, and marveling at the technology that we would see whenever we would go there.
Beyond the roller coasters, two that I remember from years ago include the videophone (now commonplace, but seemingly space age for decades) and the flying saucers, essentially bumper cars that floated magically on a cushion of air.
During the February school break, I had the pleasure of going with my family to the resorts in Orlando, Florida, for a few days.
Of course, the theme parks never disappoint, and Disney was at the top of the heap in terms of WOW! technology, two of which I will describe here.
First, Disney has changed the way one gains park entrance. Instead of relying on just tickets and/or magnetic stripes, they are using biometrics. Essentially, the first time you go through the turnstile, you have to register your Disney ticket card that has an RFID (radio-frequency ID) chip in it and put your index finger on a small glowing pad.
On subsequent days and at different parks, you simply wave your card over the RFID reader, then place your index finger on the pad, a green light glows and you're in the park.
Of course, all of the machines and readers have a very space-agey look and an appropriate amount of glowing to make them quite cool.
I did notice that both my wife and I had to register using our fingers, as did our 15-year-old daughter, but not my 8-year-old son. Clearly, there are some regulations about ages of children and what biometrics are allowed to be recorded.
I sometimes wonder why these technologies are enabled. I didn't see that they necessarily sped up getting into the parks, but I can imagine that they prevent people from giving their park passes to others.
All in all, the new ticketing system worked well. There were plenty of Disney people around helping those who had difficulties and to answer questions, but the lines moved smoothly.
Second, I was very impressed with some of the live-action video technology we saw at the Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo attractions. What looked like a digitally animated cartoon was, in fact, live action. Each show was customized with the characters on the screen interacting with people in the audience, using their names, describing their outfits.
Clearly, there was someone who was talking while the animation was being created in real time. I understand how it works, but haven't yet figured out how it would be done.
But that is one of the reasons why I like to go to theme parks. I like to see the new technologies. For my kids, they just want to get splashed on a roller coaster. Works for us all.
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 3 April 2013.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

When Science Fiction Becomes Reality

Science fiction has provided us with huge amounts of fun technology. Some of it even becomes real.

Start with space travel. Ever since people have stared at the night skies and seen the stars, we have wanted to travel into space. We developed rockets and spaceships, have been to the moon and now to Mars.

One of the most popular items from the "Star Trek" television series is the Communicator, essentially a mobile flip phone. Even Motorola and its StarTac phone a couple of decades ago modeled the design of the phone to mimic the "Star Trek" design.

In the series of books "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," by English writer Douglas Adams, the main characters, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, have a device with the same name as the books. The "Guide" is essentially a galaxywide tourist guide, but it is what we would know as a tablet or e-reader today, complete with text, photos and video.

Another "Star Trek" technology that is making great strides is what they called the "replicator." We now have 3D printers -- the Westport Library has three of them -- that can make a physical object from a computer.

For years, we've heard of videophones and the ability to see and talk to someone at the same time. At the low end of the videophone spectrum are products such as Skype that allow free video calls. At the high end, we have telepresence systems that use high-definition video technology to create the appearance that people from around the world are sitting in the same room.

The ability to use voice to talk to computers is also growing in popularity and usefulness. For a long time, computers have been able to convert text to speech to talk to us. However, the ability for us to talk to them and have them understand us has developed nicely over the past few years.

Most notably, Apple's Siri allows people to ask questions and give commands verbally and the computer mostly understands. Google's Android operating system has similar features. Both of these make computers easier for people to use and far safer if people elect to use their devices while driving.

Some "almost here" technologies that always seem to be just around the corner include jetpacks and flying cars. There are companies developing both of these, but they always seem to be a few years off and awfully expensive.

But the one technology that I really want is yet another "Star Trek" technology, the transporter. This is where one can get "beamed" from one location to another without having to ride in a car or airplane. As much as I like traveling, the ability to be beamed from one location to another would be amazing.

What's your favorite science fiction technology that either has become reality or that you really want? Send me your comments and I'll publish them in a future column.

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 20 March 2013.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

When Icons Don't Help

Icons are little pictures that usually represent something. Words are icons of a sort. For example, the word "tree" isn't really a tree, but it represents a tree. On your car's fuel gauge now there's typically a picture of a fuel pump like you'd see at a gas station.

Computers use icons all the time. This makes a lot of sense. Not only does it eliminate what would normally be written in different languages, but an icon tends to be smaller than a series of letters.

Over the years, a number of icons have come into being and generally work pretty well once you understand what they are. For example, to print, there's usually a little icon that looks like a box with a piece of paper coming out of it — a printer. For electricity, there's usually something that looks like a battery and typically something that looks like a plug when the battery is plugged in and charging.

But some icons are now out of date. Here are a few:

On my mobile phone, when I have a voicemail message, the icon is that of a small cassette tape, like one that used to be used on answering machines. Well, my answering machine hasn't used a cassette tape in decades. And I doubt that any school-age children have ever seen a cassette tape.

The icon in most applications to save a file is the image of a 3.5-inch floppy disk. Only people of my age even know what a floppy disk is, much less have seen one. Yet, there it is in the entire Office 2010 suite of products, as well as others.

Even the icon of a telephone is typically the old-style desk phone. I can't say when I've seen one of those in at least five years.

A good friend of mine reminded me over the weekend that on the iPad, the icon for the newsstand is a bookshelf.

If you look around, you'll see other examples of icons that at one time were quite meaningful, but whose relevance has diminished, if not been lost.

I really like the idea of icons. Having traveled in foreign countries where I don't speak the local language, icons have been extremely helpful in allowing me to navigate the country effectively.

Or when I've had to operate a piece of equipment with which I'm not familiar, having icons can greatly increase my ability to use it quickly and effectively — oftentimes without a manual.

As you look around, keep your eyes open for icons that help you understand the world and for icons that are past their prime.

Note that not all icons are just digital. My 8-year-old son recently saw a typewriter in someone's home. He asked what it was. He had never seen, much less used, a typewriter. For some, the typewriter as an icon is something that will be hard to let go of. Yet there's a new generation that has no idea what one is.

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 6 March 2013.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

On the Road with Evolving Technology

Over the years, the technology I have taken with me has changed dramatically. The first "portable" computer I had was barely luggable and used so much electricity, it only worked when you plugged it in the wall. Batteries in computers were but a dream.

As I travel now, what I take varies in some ways, as follows:

Business: Here, I typically am all geared up with my laptop computer, smartphone, tablet and two WiFi hotspots — one on my phone and a separate dedicated one.

The reason for this is pretty straightforward. When I travel, I need to get work done. Each of these tools helps me stay productive. Sometimes, I even opt for the in-flight WiFi service if it's available.

Vacation: Even this I break down into two categories: camping and non-camping. I could separate it between domestic and international, but won't for this column. The item that distinguishes vacation from business travel is the fact that I bring cameras on vacations.

While I no longer carry both digital still and movie cameras because my Canon Digital Rebel T4i does both, I now have a GoPRO sports camera that is fun to take places I wouldn't take a much larger, heavier camera, such as on roller coasters, down a ski hill or even near a swimming pool.

For camping, I still take some tech items, typically at least a smartphone for GPS and some checking of email. I find it amazing how most campsites, public and private, have either decent smartphone coverage or free WiFi. If one starts backpacking before pitching one's tent, odds are you'll have smartphone service, but hiking does tend to put one out of smartphone coverage. Even so, having a good GPS device that doesn't require cellular coverage if one is going far afield can be a great tool.

For non-camping, typically a road trip or flight with the family, I end up with the most gear, since we're typically not "roughing it," the gear is pretty easy to pack and we'll be able to charge it all up on a daily basis.

The one benefit I've found for taking computer gear with me when I travel with my family is entertainment. During long rides somewhere there's not much happening, and the family seems quite content to have me power up my WiFi hotspot in the car and they can check Facebook, watch a show on Netflix or something else. We still stop for points of interest, but even I have to admit that when you're driving somewhere, whatever is outside is typically pretty boring. Having some technology on the trip with us makes it much more enjoyable for the whole family.

So, while I've changed the type of gear I carry with me on business and personal trips, it all seems to weigh about the same because I carry more items. But I do find that my gear not only makes me more productive for business trips, it makes the personal trips much more pleasant, too.

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 20 February 2013.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Civilian Takes Controls of Drone Flight

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about drone aircraft, both military and civilian. Drone aircraft are generally described as unmanned aircraft that are remotely controlled. In the case of military aircraft, some of the drones are flown from thousands of miles away.

While the military aircraft are out of the reach of most, there are a number of consumer drones available to the general public. Last week, I had the pleasure of trying the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0.

The AR.Drone is a quadcopter. It's shaped like a big letter X with a motor and a propeller on the end of each of the four legs. At the center of the X is the brain, sensors, battery and cameras.

The AR.Drone comes ready to fly. You simply charge up the included battery, pop it into the unit and drop the cover on.

The AR.Drone doesn't come with a remote control. Instead, you use a tablet, such as an iPad or a smartphone. I used both an iPad and my Android phone very successfully. Parrot offers free, downloadable apps for both Apple and Android devices.

Starting the AR.Drone is very simple. Pressing the take off button on the tablet or phone, the device pops up to about four feet off the ground and hovers. From there, you can control the AR.Drone's height, rotation and forward, backward, left and right motions.

When you are ready to land the AR.Drone, you simply press the landing button on the screen and it sets itself gently down. If you think you're doing to crash, there's an emergency button that shuts down everything immediately.

The AR.Drone even comes with two built-in cameras that can record video to a USB memory stick, which you must provide.

There are much fancier -- and more expensive -- drone quadcopters out there, but Parrot has done a great job of making a very accessible, affordable product for about $300.

The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is available from, Brookstone, Apple, Toys-R-Us and even the Verizon Wireless store.

I shot two videos over the weekend that you can find on YouTube are "An 8-year-old boy flying the AR.Drone" and "Video from the AR.Drone".

Although I had to return the demo AR.Drone, I predict we'll have one in our home in the not-too-distant future.

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 6 February 2013.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A 30-year Revolution in How We Interact with Computers

With a career in computers that spans more than 30 years, I've seen a lot of different ways in which people interact with computers. With each iteration, the usability of computers has become more accessible and easier for people to use.

My first experience was with punched cards that could hold only 80 characters of information. This required a dedicated device whose sole function was to punch combinations of holes into cards that represented letters, characters and symbols.

Around that time, "dumb terminals," that were essentially a small television set with a keyboard attached, started becoming popular. This saved huge amounts of time because people — usually programmers — could write, edit and execute their software programs without having to punch cards, hand their cards to a computer operator and wait a few minutes — or hours — to receive a printout back. Results were available almost instantly.

When personal computers appeared on the scene, they introduced the "mouse" that we're all familiar with by now. A breakthrough device at the time, the mouse introduced "point and click" to the way people interacted with computers.

The graphical user interface, or GUI, — pronounced "gooey" — was made popular by the Apple Macintosh computer and later Microsoft Windows. The idea of dragging things around on a screen was novel at the time and opened up computing to a very wide audience, especially non-technical users.

Jump forward a number of years and there are some pretty amazing technologies that have recently become popular.

Perhaps the most "disruptive" technology is the touch screen, made popular by the Apple iPad. The ability to perform commands by touching a screen instead of using a keyboard and a mouse is changing the nature of how people compute.

Another creative idea is the Kinect interface from Microsoft, where people simply move their hands around in the air and make gestures while the computer watches them and takes instructions based on the person's movements.

But the computer interface that has been sought out for the longest period of time is voice activation. Great strides have been made in getting a computer to understand human voices, in different languages, while eliminating background noise or distinguishing normal conversation from commands. Every year, the voice interfaces get better and better, mainly as a result of the availability of cheap and plentiful computational horsepower.

I do look forward to the day when I can interact with my computers using voice alone, but there will always be times when a keyboard and mouse or similar quiet interface will be preferable to speaking. Much as not every conversation should be public, not every command should be spoken, either.

I look forward to having multiple ways to interact with computers, especially for safety, such as driving a car, or when my hands are full, i.e., "car, please unlock the doors." Multiple ways to communicate with a computer will continue to make them more beneficial to more people, and that helps us all.

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 23 January 2013.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Mobile Phone I Bought - a Phablet?

Many people ask me what technology I use. I'm happy to tell them, but I have to admit I'm not always using the latest gear.

In fact, I just replaced the phone I've been using for three years — a full 18 months after I could receive a discounted upgrade.

In looking around, there are many good choices, and I won't get into them all, but they pretty much fall into two camps: Apple or Android.

Yes, the Blackberry and Windows phones are out there — and the new Windows phones look really nice. And as much as I like underdogs, the market leaders have some great products.

I really like the iPhones — and my daughter insisted on one. And while I like the size of the iPhones and how well they work, their oodles of apps and integration with other systems, the Apple "ecosystem" prevents one from doing things that Apple doesn't want you to do.

So I went to the Google Android world. The real problem with the Android market is that there are new phones coming out quite literally every day. Today's killer Android phone is yesterday's road kill.

With many phone manufacturers selling Android phones, such as Samsung, HTC, Google and Motorola, which is now part of Google, the choices are dizzying.

When Samsung came out with their Galaxy S III phone, it was very nice. It was fast, light and just about everything I could want.

Then I saw the Samsung Galaxy Note II. It's pretty much a larger version of the Galaxy S III. The Note is a cross between a tablet and a phone.

As I looked at what I want in a phone, I decided that I use the phone feature much less than I use the tablet feature. However, I already have an iPad, which is too big to fit into a pocket.

The Note does fit into a shirt or jacket pocket comfortably. With my voice I can pretty much control the entire phone. By using a headset, either wired, which is my preference, or Bluetooth, I can leave the phone tucked away and not have to touch it unless I want to use the screen parts.

And the screen parts are stellar. With a screen size of 5.5 inches diagonally, whereas Apple's iPhone 5 has a 4-inch screen, it's definitely on the large size, but that extra real estate makes a world of difference when viewing web pages or email.

The large screen is also useful for watching movies on Netflix or when I use the phone as my GPS.

The "speech to text" feature, where I dictate emails, text messages or other items, is accurate more than 90 percent of the time. Simply amazing.

I wouldn't say that the phone is for everyone, but my wife and I both have these phones and we're quite happy with them. If you're in the market for a new phone, be sure to check out both the Samsung Galaxy S III and the Samsung Galaxy Note II.

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 January 2013.