Monday, 3 November 2008

Building for Eternity

When I was working on Turning the Pages with the British Library and Microsoft there was, as you might expect, a degree of cultural confusion. Our friends in London found it difficult that Redmond had quarterly targets and ways of hitting them. Our friends in Redmond found it extraordinary that the BL didn't think in such short timeframes.

So I used a story told to me about the architect of the BL, Colin Wilson. It was along the lines of the fact that when he designed the library, the specification of the materials was based on the need for the library to last for 400 years. Those are the horizons that major national collections have to have. The story helped bridge the cultural divide a little.

Now we see that Google has settled it's dispute with the AAP and Authors Guild and proposes a repository of out of print books that it will administer and charge libraries to use on special terminals. Harvard, one of the first to sign up with Google has bailed, stating it's unhappy about the restrictions.

Whatever the pragmatic sense in taking Google's money to digitise your collection, I believe you have to take a very long view when it comes to access.

I wonder if those who sign up to this new deal will have the foresight of Colin Wilson? The Open Content Alliance are already figuring out a response.

For more on (very) long term thinking I always find the thinking of the Long Now Foundation useful:

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Ideology and accepted wisdom

Just this last week or so I've been having ridiculous conversations about operating systems and RIA technologies.

I've had a concerted Linux attack, whereby I get a number of identical emails from Linux devotees decrying the lack of support for their chosen OS in a project we did.

I've had people saying how bad Vista is, and when I asked why, all they could do was quote other people. And I've seen some rabid Apple fanbois (love that word) talking up anything Apple they could think of, irrespective of their level of knowledge.

Then it struck me. This isn't informed opinion. It's a firmly-held ideological position based on a shared cultural/religious mindset (not technical). Linux geeks like being in a minority of more technically competetent people. Mac fanbois love it that they think they are cooler and more West Coast than sad Microsofties.

Ideology has a place in many areas - I just don't see it in technology. I am idealogically committed to access to cultural collections. But this blog is written on a Mac that dual-boots into Vista, and if I lean over here.....I can touch an Ubuntu machine.

No big deal. My cultural/religious sense of significance doesn't come from my choice of PC.

Monday, 13 October 2008

The need for magic

A while ago I was demonstrating Turning the Pages to Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England (he looked a bit chirpier then).

I showed off some of the features and, impressed, he asked "How do you do that?". I didn't want to go into specularity mapping, polygon vertices, web services and the like, so in an unguarded moment I said "Well Governor, it's mainly done using magic". Luckily he and his entourage laughed.

He then came back with "We in central banking generally don't hold with magic".

My company have built some software that creates such a convincing illusion that people are confident the book is real. If the governor could summon the same confidence now, that would be magic...

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Not as cold as all that

A while ago I was visiting a convent populated with only a few elderly Polish nuns. They had established the convent after the war, and their numbers had inevitably dwindled.

It was a freezing morning with a thick ground frost, and, in passing, I mentioned to one of the nuns how cold it was.

She paused before her reply, and looked me in the eye, eventually saying in a quiet, level voice "Not as cold as in the concentration camp".

I think of her nowadays when I watch the news.

Monday, 22 September 2008

It's the experience stupid...

Which end of the tunnel do you start digging from? Do you start off with digitising your collection, or designing a user experience first?

Two of our clients are taking very different approaches to this problem. In an ideal world of course, you'd do both at the same time and the tunnelers would meet up and shake hands. But most institutions aren't blessed with the budget, staff or energy to do that.

I asked the question from the floor at a conference a while ago, and addressed it to a body who were digitising 3,000 books a day. "What are you working on around user experience, or surfacing all this content?" The answer was "We haven't really got there yet". I see this a lot. The imperative is to scan, users often come a distant second.

Last week G. Wayne Smith, Secretary of the Smithsonian said:

"I worry about museums becoming less relevant to society... I think we need to take a major step. Can we work with outside entities to create a place, for example, where we might demonstrate cutting-edge technologies to use to reach out to school systems all over the country? I think we can do that."

This echoes the BL/JISC report earlier this year on the researcher of the future:

"The library profession desperately needs leadership to develop a new vision for the 21st century and reverse its declining profile and influence. This should start with effecting that shift from a content-orientation to a user-facing perspective."

I love Apple products - I have done since using an Apple Mac 256K in maybe 1985. Are Apple successful because they're cool, or are they cool because they are one of the only computer vendors to successfully integrate great content (eg music/movies) and great software and hardware (iTunes/iPod)? Put these together and you get a great user experience.

So who's going to be the Apple of the library or museum world. Could be the Smithsonian...

Monday, 15 September 2008

Technology as a synapse

"Thinking" said GK Chesterton, "is making connections".

A while ago I was lucky enough to spend an hour or so with Sir George White, erstwhile master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, in their small and jewel-like museum in London's Guildhall Library. He patiently talked me through the evolution of time-keeping and it's importance. Two things I recall.

One was the simple premise that those navigators who knew the time knew their location. Knowing where they were allowed them to map, name and own. This premise undergirded the foundation of the British Empire and helps explain the importance of John Harrisons chronometer.

The other was the scarcity of the knowledge of time. Up until the 1940 Ruth Belville took a very old but highly reliable chronometer to Greenwich every morning to set it precisely. She then walked into the West End of London and sold the precise time to watchmakers for a few pennies, allowing them to correctly set the time of the clocks in their shop.

Yesterday I was at Lyme Park in Lancashire and came across a collection of clocks by Thomas Tompion, Master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in 1703.

Sir George had told me of the importance of Tompion, and using the web I might have been able to connect Tompion or the museum with the collection at Lyme. The promise of the internet is connected knowledge, but we will always rely on people to help us make these connections.

Digitising and providing access to collections is one thing, but interpretation allows us to make connections.

Until the semantic web becomes a reality...

Monday, 8 September 2008

Seeing the light

Microsoft have been steadily porting a number of their key web properties to Silverlight over the last few months, starting with their dev sites, but the big (expensive?) coup was to get NBC to use Silverlight to broadcast the Olympics using Silverlight 2.0 (in beta no less).

For those who haven't come across Silverlight it's Microsoft's cross-platform entry into the Rich Internet Application space. People have compared it to Flash, but it's a bit more than that. With the ability to include HD video, act as a wrapper for C#, Python or Ruby, plus integrate seamlessly into a Visual Studio environment, it has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Just not the installed base.

So how did its debut go? Pretty well by all accounts. On 11th August, according to Microsoft, they served 250Tb of data on that day alone, and the uptake means that up to 8 million people a day are downloading Silverlight.

Adobe counter this with a smug 10 million downloads a day, plus an alleged installed base of 99% of all PCs online in mature markets, added to which they have a huge developer community with a strong vested interest in the platform.

My take is that Microsoft will start to eat away at Flash's dominance. Adobe's download numbers represent a large number of people downloading updates; Microsofts are nearly all first-time users of the technology. In the real world therefore Adobe is not pulling away from Microsoft.

Microsoft also claim there are 2.5 million .NET developers out there. All of those people will now be able to write Silverlight code right away, and even potentially repurpose existing applications in a relatively pain-free way.

But how to get the plug-in to the people? I can't see them being allowed to bundle it with IE8 for fear of further anti-trust legislation, so it comes back to content. Put up great content and people will put up with a 4Mb install.

When I first came across Silverlight it was called wpf/e (Windows Presentation Foundation everywhere) and pretty much the whole developer team was sitting in a small room in Redmond. The team passed 100 a year ago, and it's safe to assume it's still growing.

Microsoft has a lot at stake here. Bear in mind that this is effectively still a beta for Silverlight 1.0. Flash 1.0 was basically just a vector animation tool.

As an interesting historical footnote, the first people to use Flash online were Microsoft (MSN) in 1996 when it was called Future Splash. On the back of that success Jonathan Gay sold his company to Macromedia who re-christened the software "Flash", before being absorbed by Adobe.

So Microsoft only have themselves to blame...

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Mmmmm, synthy...

After much delay (like MUCH delay) Photosynth has finally launched. For those who haven't seen the TED video or the Live Labs blog, this is a piece of software out of Microsoft Live Labs that allows you and I to create 3D panoramas from a series of still images. Download the app, upload your images and you can view a 3D representation of the environment you photographed. No need to carefully line up the shots - this isn't a regular panorama - the app does it all for you.

I won't go into all the point cloud geometry craziness, but the algorithms it runs to create these worlds are very cool.

I first saw it quite a while ago in Seattle, demonstrated by Blaise Aguera y Arcas, who was brought in on the project to add some Seadragon goodness to some tech that at that point was called Photo Tourism - a research project by Noah Snavely, Steven M. Seitz, Richard Szeliski out of Washington University.

Seadragon has spawned Deep Zoom, which I blogged about a while ago and Photosynth is now in the wild with some very interesting first synths. I especially like the Potting Shed.

A few things jump out at me:
- this is still an early iteration - stand by for slicker versions to come.
- in the early days it took a cluster of PCs weeks to generate a synth - now your PC does it in minutes. This is where a lot of the effort has gone over the last two years - tedious but critical optimisation.
- Live Labs is designed to develop great technology, not necessarily to monetise it or even give it too much direction. After the thrill of recreating your own toilet in 3D has worn off, people should come up with incredible scenarios where this technology does things that are otherwise impossible.
- it isn't QTVR - this really does create a 3D space.
- why doesn't this leverage the traction that Silverlight got over the Olympics?

So for libraries and museums you could see a variety of applications from the virtual desk of a writer, to a virtual gallery. Or how about trawling your archives for photographs of a long-demolished building and recreating it?

Keep an eye on this one. QuickTime 1.0 was 160x120 12fps, 8 bit colour. From there to setting the standards for YouTube and having HD movies on demand was quite a journey. This one might be too.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

The Meaning Wrapper

I was reading about the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section conference of the American Libraries Association this week, held in LA.

Apparently there was quite a spring in everyone's step as rare books are seen to be gaining in importance.

This echoes a presentation I gave at the Museum Computer Network conference in Chicago a few months back. I picked up on a presentation at RBMS by Karen Calhoun from OCLC where she mentions a really important fact about special collections. She labels it "metadata +outreach skills=strategic assets".

In Chicago I billed it slightly differently. In a competitive knowledge economy, when users can go to multiple potential sites for the same content, what sets your institution apart?

My answers are:
- the special collections you hold
- the wrapper of meaning (metadata, interpretation, outreach, education) you put around those assets
- the user experience (including the online UI, the physical site and the facilities).

If you are just putting online material that will also be held elsewhere, people will go to Google. As Karen also highlights, 89% of all information searches start with search engines, not library websites (OCLC report, echoed by BL/JISC Google Generation report January 2008).

But if you can provide unique material, with a compelling user experience and toolset, bringing to bear some of the scholarship that your institution has, then you have a case.

If you can't you'll end end up a warehouseman. Bizarrely both Karen and I used this shot to emphasise this point.

Her slides are here.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Microsoft leaves the field

So Microsoft has decided to stop digitising books on behalf of partner libraries.

What does that mean for institutions who were hoping for a white knight to come along and fund their move to digital?

Well, you could argue from Redmond's point of view this is a good move - the kneejerk reaction to trace the footsteps of Google, wherever they might lead has been seen to be a futile exercise in this case. Being a fast follower is all very well, but where you're going has to make strategic sense.

Also, as a software company, what was Microsoft up to squatting in libraries with dozens of Kirtas scanners?

So it's back to plan A for libraries (unless you want to get into bed with Google). The advantages of this are that it forces institutions to think really rigorously about committing resource into becoming a digital entity and all that entails.

When you have to fund something yourself and sweat over getting the resources to do it, you normally make pretty sure you're doing exactly the right thing. If someone hands you a gift sometimes treat it more lightly.

Looking at the contracts with people like Microsoft and Google, treating it lightly would be unwise.

In a competitive knowledge economy with multiple potential sources for information, why will people come to your site rather than elsewhere?

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Why you should care about .NET 3.5 SP1 Beta

It's not an exciting name I know. The sort only a mother could love. But .NET 3.5 SP1 promises to shake up quite a lot in online delivery of rich assets.

.NET 3.5 is a Windows component that installs, amongst other things, the WIndows Presentation Foundation, which Turning the Pages relies on for it's 3D version. It turns your PC into one capable of stunningly realistic 3D rendering right in the browser (Firefox and IE) without plugins.

Three things leap out at me:
- improved speed of startup and execution, so your apps, either as xbaps in a browser or executables will run quicker and things like animations will be smoother. Plus a load screen for xbaps (hooray...)
- cooler 3d effects like improved shaders and the ability to have interactive 2d elements on a 3d surface. More realism, more options.
- a lightweight and intelligent client-side installer that can be bundled with an app. This will be about the size of an Adobe Acrobat install, so now for clients with XP (ie no .NET 3+) we can just run the installer when they go to the app for the first time and they're done in a few minutes

The very wonderful and altogether English Tim Sneath over at Microsoft has a great post on it all here.

So why is all this so important?

Most clients I am speaking to have now figured out 2d digitisation, even if they haven't got too far with it. 3d digitisation is the next frontier. Photogrammetry or laser scanning of objects has been happening in a sporadic way in cultural organisations for a while, but without a compelling way of surfacing this content, why would you press on spending time and money in this area?

If you could scan and then publish with a simple production pathway, knowing that 95% of people could view the content at great quality you might think seriously about that collection of fossils or sarcophagi or sculpture.

Some people we know who are pushing forward great work in this area are 3DVisa, based at Kings College London. There's also an interesting-looking conference in the autumn which could be very timely.

2009 might just be the year of 3d in the browser.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

The Public Library

Spring is sprung in London and here's the view from my desk. It's my local public library and very civic it looks too.

I wonder what goes on there as the nature of the use of libraries is changing so fast?

The other week I was in the Wellcome Library having a coffee with a client. The client wasn't the Wellcome, we just wanted to meet in a sympathetic space. Whilst I was talking to quite an eminent scholar, perhaps the leading Leonardo da Vinci academic in the country came and sat at the next table with his cup of tea.

All around people were not using this space as a traditional library.

Last week the British Library made the Times:
"The historian Tristram Hunt said that it was a scandal that it was impossible to get a seat after 11am when students were there. Many people travelling from outside London complain that they cannot get to the buidling any earlier. “Students come in to revise rather than to use the books,” he said. “It’s a ‘groovy place’ to meet for a frappuccino. It’s noisy and it’s undermining both the British Library’s function, as books take longer to get, and the scholarly atmosphere.”

Whilst the BL may be suprised, and indeed pleased, to be called groovy it highlights the changing role they, and all major libraries have.

As content has to move to digital, physical spaces can be used for other things and become expressions of what our commercial friends would call "the brand".

For those who love old school libraries though, I recommend a look here.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Back in Town

I'm back from Minneapolis and the Digital Libraries Federation conference.

Two things struck me. One is the phenomenal amount of work being done by some very smart people around digitisation, metadata and interoperability standards. These people are seriously laying down the groundwork for us all to have the libraries we want in the next ten years. I hope their home institutions realise how lucky they are to have them on board when they could easily take the Mountain View dollar.

The second was how little work is being done around innovative UI design (which I suppose is why I was invited along...). To my way of thinking, how you surface all this content is critical to a users experience and that experience will directly influence traffic and funding. Speaking to some delegates it seems this is something many people just haven't got around to yet.

Oh yes, there was a third thing - if someone suggests Minneapolis as a holiday destination, think very hard before accepting. I mean, snow in May...?

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

DLF - Digital Libraries (are) Fundamental

I'm speaking at the Digital Libraries Federation spring forum in a couple of weeks in Minneapolis (28th-30th April if you're interested).

The last industry event I was at had a real "bunker" mentality. Budgets seemed under pressure, people felt unappreciated and there was a dearth of great work. Same old same old I suppose, but in the presentation I gave, I tried to offer some hope.

In the library and museum communities we are currently sitting at a happy collision of a burning desire to have universal access to all human knowledge and the appearance of an array of tools that make that dream realisable. The people who will realise that dream were sitting in the room. How much more of an exciting challenge do you want in your career?

As we slowly make inroads into the vast mountain of paper than needs converting to binary information, libraries are moving centre stage.

I hope DLF Minneapolis is full of people excited by the challenge and not those wishing life was like it used to be - analogue.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Seadragon surfaces at last

In January 2006 Blaise Aguera y Arcas sold his company, Seadragon, to Microsoft. He'd built some pretty cool technology - it was imaging technology for the web that came with four promises:
- Speed of navigation is independent of the size or number of objects.
- Performance depends only on the ratio of bandwidth to pixels on the screen.
- Transitions are smooth as butter.
- Scaling is near perfect and rapid for screens of any resolution.

Think about that. Pretty scary.

We met up that year in his swanky new Microsoft office up the Smith tower in Seattle, and what he was doing blew me away. Luckily he was kind enough to express admiration for what we were doing as well.

Anyway, Blaise and his team got sidelined to work on the Photosynth technology (post to come on that too...) and there was radio silence for a looong time.

Until last week, when Microsoft released Deep Zoom Composer, a technology that's related to, but not identical to Seadragon. Take a look at a demo:

Does it deliver on the promises? Kind of. It's all inside a Silverlight 2 wrapper, so when the original Seadragon had 3D effects, this one doesn't. Also, I was REALLY hoping it would be using hdphoto, the new format currently undergoing ISO approval, and it doesn't - it's plain old jpegs. This is a big deal as hdphoto (or JPEG XR as it will be known) offers high dynamic range and compression twice as good as jpegs.

I know the softies wanted to keep the Silverlight 2 download as small as possible, but surely they could have snuck this one in?

Take a look at the demo and mentally swap Hardrock cafe memorabilia for 100 paintings from the Louvre, or 1000 stamps, or the entire works of Shakespeare.


Friday, 28 March 2008

For richer for poorer

One of the buzz terms flying around at the moment is RIA (Rich Internet Applications). Put briefly, this is the sort of application that would previously have had to be installed locally on a users machine, but can now be run in a browser. I suppose Turning the Pages is a RIA (as opposed to a ria, which I seem to remember is a drowned river valley...).

In one sense this is nothing new. Shockwave and Flash developers would claim they've been building these sorts of things for years. So what's changed?

Well one is the potential hybrid approach whereby data can be stored locally or on a web server, another is the amount of bandwidth and storage that is now cheaply available to deliver these sorts of apps, and another is the tools that are emerging.

When Adobe launches it's AIR platform, Microsoft launches Silverlight, and even Director/Shockwave gets a first new release for 4 years, all in the space of a month, you know something is up.

A compelling platform to deliver all sorts of collection assets, image, audio, video, 3D with a friction-free and engaging user interface opens up exciting possibilities for libraries and museums. Especially when you can hook it into your existing digital asset management system.

One thing comes back to haunt me though, and that is the number of appalling websites that appeared when developers got hold of Flash for the first time.

With great power comes great responsibility.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Time, place and work

I just came out of a meeting to figure out how to explain the affect of spatiality on literature. I guess that's an academic way of saying that place and time affect composition. We studied a diary of a writer and looked at data whereby a walk he undertook had been mapped using GIS data against Google Earth. You could see how far he had walked and over what terrain. In fact on one day he'd covered 26 km over some of the hilliest parts of England. I queried that if you could also find out meteorological data, you could work out his calorie burn for the day. How he would have felt at the end of that day could therefore be guessed and fed in to the research about what he wrote at the end of it in his room.

A year or so ago, we were working on James Joyce's diaries. Each page was dated and we knew his age and habits. Constructing a three-dimensional model of his diaries, in the software we lit the manuscript using known data about his latitude and longitude (Paris) and the date (17th February 1907). We had to guess on the time of day (we guessed a late start to the working day - 11am), and lit the book with data we had about the position of the sun at that time, on that day at that place.

So the question is, how does where you are affect what you do?

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Let's start at the beginning...

My company develops software to help museums and libraries provide access and interpretation for their collections. Turning the Pages is one of the things we've developed.

I get to work with an unreasonable number of fascinating people, whether that's down in the stacks at the Royal Society or in the corridors of Microsoft in Redmond.

This blog is to be a way of highlighting some of the great things I come across and maybe even spark some discussion about how we might best use emerging technologies to help people understand their past, and also, thereby, their present.

So expect to see some technical stuff, some collections stuff, some comment on events and people and a little idle speculation. 

Just don't expect me to post every day. I do have a day job to be getting on with...