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.