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Having built PumpkinBot last year, Ella and I have just completed another Arduino-powered creation for her Latin homework. She wrote a long essay on the Oracle of Delphi, and to accompany it we decided to build our own version, called OracleBot. You shout your question into a microphone at the top, and it then replies using one of nine canned replies that are, supposedly, actual replies given by the oracle. And they really are canned replies: the whole thing is mounted in a Pringles tin. Here’s what’s going on inside:

Essentially it’s a very similar set-up to PumpkinBot, only with a sound sensor instead of a motion sensor, and a little amplifier board so we don’t need to rely on the Jambox for sound playback. That means we can fit the whole thing into the Pringles tin, powered by a USB battery. Ella recorded the sayings of the oracle herself, and we messed her voice around a bit using various apps. The software measures the ambient noise level when OracleBot powers up, and then looks for a deviation from that noise level that lasts more than a couple of seconds before playing back one of its replies (“Pray to the winds”, “With silver spears you may conquer the world”, etc). Because the oracle’s answers were always ambiguous, you can read a lot into its responses, and even have silly conversations with it. We’ve had a lot of fun building it over the past few weeks, and we hope her teachers like it!

Together with my daughter Ella I’ve been working on a special project for Halloween, which we call PumpkinBot. We have just installed it on the front porch to amuse (or terrify) visiting children as they come trick-or-treating. This is what it looked like when we finished it this afternoon (above). There’s a box of electronics and, of course, a pumpkin, for which Ella chose an “Eye of Horus” design. (She actually wanted a giant Lord Vaati from Zelda eye, but we couldn’t find a suitable version of it online, and decided this was just as good.) Here’s what’s inside the box:

The whole thing is powered by an Arduino Uno board, which is essentially a tiny computer. We fitted it with an MP3 playback shield so it can play audio, and plugged that into a Jambox speaker/amplifier so it’s nice and loud. We loaded a selection of spooky sound files (including some from “Portal”) onto a micro-SD card that slots into the shield. Playback of sound files is triggered by the motion sensor at the front of the box. At the same time, we switch on two high-power LEDs, which are on long wires so we can put them inside the pumpkin. Ella’s friend Georgia brought her pumpkin round, with a Mockingjay design from “The Hunger Games”, so we ended up putting an LED into each pumpkin. When someone comes up the path, they hear a spooky sound, and the pumpkins light up like this. Behold, the PumpkinBot!

The wheels are turning on my new book. “How Luther went viral” is an article I wrote for the Christmas issue of The Economist, extracted from one of the book’s early chapters, on the use of social media by Martin Luther. It was very heartening to see such a positive reaction to the piece on Facebook and Twitter, and I’m amused that people are still tweeting about it now, three months later. I also did a podcast to accompany the piece in which I examine the parallels with the Arab Spring, and the reaction of large companies to social-media criticism, in more detail. I took January off to work on the book, and I’ve now reached the 17th century, John Milton and Areopagitica. Writing about the Facebook of the Tudor court was fun. But I seem to be short of examples of ancient social media from Asia or the Arab world. Tipao? Dazibao? Any suggestions would be most welcome!

The wait is finally over, and we have the details about Apple’s tablet computer, the iPad. (It’s not such a great name, but that was what people thought about the iPod, so I expect we’ll get used to it.) We put it on the cover of The Economist this week, with a cover leader, which I wrote. This post is the longer, geekier version of my analysis of the iPad. The new device is essentially a giant iPod touch with a 10-inch screen and a very fast but power-efficient chip designed by Apple. It has super-sized versions of the iPod/iPhone apps, with more elaborate pop-up menus. It runs existing iPod/iPhone apps, which can be expanded to fill the whole screen; it also runs new apps designed especially for its larger screen. There’s a Wi-Fi version and a version with both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity. (In America, there’s a special deal with AT&T allowing unlimited 3G access for $30 a month.) There’s an e-reader app called iBooks, backed up by an Apple e-book store called iBookstore. There are also new, touch-driven iPad versions of the apps in Apple’s iWork productivity suite: Pages, Numbers and Keynote.

What isn’t there? There’s no camera, but that’s not really a surprise; taking pictures with a device this big would be unwieldy. Instead, there’s an optional adapter to allow photos from digital cameras to be uploaded into it. Very handy if you want to post to Facebook while on holiday. Nor is there a forward-facing camera to enable videoconferencing. There’s no phone function. But there is a built-in mic, and I expect the iPad will work with the iPhone’s headphones, which also have a mic. It would then be possible to make calls using a VoIP app over either Wi-Fi or 3G. (Apple has just said that it will approve apps that do VoIP over 3G, something it would not allow before.) The ability to run multiple apps at once, which had been expected, is also absent. I think that will be added in due course, and to the iPhone too, much as copy and paste were last year. (A four-finger swipe might allow switching between full-screen apps, for example, like on the old Mac MultiFinder.) Some people were a bit disappointed by all this, but future software updates and hardware versions may fill in many of these holes, just as 3G was added to the iPhone a year after launch. And any disappointment ought to be tempered by the iPad’s price: it starts at $499, much less than anticipated. I expected it to cost $699 when I originally wrote my leader, based on my best guesses, on Monday afternoon. Read More

This week’s issue of The Economist has a lot of stuff about e-readers in it. There’s the cover story in Technology Quarterly about new display technologies (how can you make a low-power but full-colour screen) and there’s a Business story about the new joint venture between several American publishers to make a sort of iTunes/Hulu for magazine content. Neither of these pieces was written by me, though I edited both of them. My own take can be found in The World in 2010, in which I have two pieces on e-readers: one about the market in general, and a second about whether they can “save” newspapers. (Short answer: not in 2010.) I wrote these pieces in June and then spent the next six months updating them almost every week, because things were moving so fast. I now have more than just an academic/journalistic interest in the subject, having just been put in charge of The Economist‘s editorial content for mobile editions. It’s an exciting area: everything is up for grabs and it’s all moving very fast. Just like the web in 1994 or so.

A lot now hinges on what Apple does. I expect the tablet to be announced in January (upstaging everything at CES in the process) and to ship in April/May. It will have a 10-inch LCD touchscreen. It will have both a Wi-Fi-only and a Wi-Fi/cellular radio version (ie, a big iPod touch and a big iPhone). These versions will then be sold through the same channels as iPods and iPhones. Apple will add e-books/e-magazines to the iTunes Store, using the iTunes LP format (based on HTML, not Flash or EPUB or anything else). Developers will have three or four months to recode their apps for the larger screen, to ensure that tens of thousands of apps are available at launch. Lots of publishers will sign on, because Apple will offer more generous terms than Amazon.

These are all my best guesses; if you are in the mood for more predictions I recommend this post by Sarah Rotman Epps of Forrester, who is very good. Anyway, 2010 is going to be an even bigger year for e-readers than 2009 was. People have been asking me which one to buy for Christmas, and my answer is: none of them. The current crop will look obsolete by the end of January (there will be dozens of new models at CES). Your move, Apple.

In his book “The Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776, Adam Smith famously likened the unseen influence of market forces, acting on participants who are all looking out for their own best interests, to an invisible hand. In “An Edible History of Humanity”, I liken food’s influence on history to an invisible fork that has, at several crucial points in history, prodded humanity and altered its destiny, even though people were generally unaware of its influence at the time. And I have just learned (rather belatedly, because I have something of a New Yorker backlog at the moment) of Peter Leeson’s new book “The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates” which, according to this New Yorker review, explains pirate customs and behaviour using economic analysis. (It’s based on an academic paper from 2007 on pirate economics.) It sounds great.

apple-iphone-3g1Apple is holding an event on March 17th to preview features in its forthcoming iPhone 3.0 software. Presumably some of these features will be made available on existing iPhones via a software upgrade; but there may also be new features that depend on hardware in the next-generation iPhone handset, expected this summer. So we may get some clues about future hardware.

First, the easy stuff. A lot of people think Apple will add MMS support (which would be very simple; MMS is really e-mail under the hood). Also expected are cut-and-paste and “push” notification for third-party apps, which would allow Facebook and other apps to receive updates even when they are not running. Both of these features have already been hinted at, and partly implemented, by Apple. All this could easily be added to existing phones as a software upgrade. So too could internet tethering, though carriers might want to charge extra for that. I’m not expecting video recording to be added to existing phones; to do video efficiently you need special hardware to do the compression, which I assume isn’t present in existing handsets. Besides, that’s an obvious feature (along with a better camera, with autofocus) to add to a new iPhone handset this summer.

What I’ll really be looking out for, however, are two changes to the software that would tell us about Apple’s hardware plans. One is the ability to run apps in the background, and switch between multiple running apps. The second is the requirement that apps support arbitrary screen sizes. This would pave the way for a new, cheaper iPhone model, perhaps with a slightly smaller screen; and for a larger iPod touch, which might be Apple’s entry in the netbook category (iPad?).

This week I spoke to someone closely involved with a big Asian mobile-phone operator, who said the next iPhone was going to be much cheaper, which would allow operators to offer it at a lower price. In the case of the iPod, Apple introduced a smaller, cheaper model alongside it, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if it did the same with the iPhone. Also this week there were reports that Apple had ordered a large number of 10-inch touch-screens, which triggered a lot of speculation about netbooks. I think Apple is going to offer a large iPod touch, rather than a laptop-style device, in this category. It would be different and distinctive. You wouldn’t be able to author documents on it very easily (not without the option of a Bluetooth keyboard, at least) but it would be great for web-browsing on the sofa. The addition of cut-and-paste and multitasking would make such a product much more credible as a netbook alternative. It would also make an ideal e-book reader, of course.

The state of affairs with the iPhone today is rather like that of the Mac in 1985: all Macs were the same, with the same processor speed and screen size. Then the Mac II was announced, which could support bigger screens and colour, followed by MultiFinder, which allowed Macs to run more than one application at once. I think we’re about to see the same transition with the iPhone architecture. To give app developers time to tweak their code, Apple needs to announce this in advance, so that the software is ready when the new devices ship. Hence this week’s announcement. Roll on Tuesday!

* Post-Tuesday update: Yes, iPhone 3.0 will have MMS, cut and paste, and possibly tethering if Apple can sort things out with the operators. There will also be background notification, but not full multitasking. It will be easier to sell things through apps (such as e-books and magazine subscriptions — let’s see how quickly Kindle adds those). But there was no indication about new hardware. This doesn’t rule anything out, but it suggests that the next iPhone handset will either be an incremental upgrade — or that its new features will rely more on new hardware than new software that developers have to prepare for (eg, a better camera with video and/or autofocus).

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