Layar: Augmented reality through mobiles in Amsterdam


Layar is one of the most visually impressive and powerful applications I have seen to date using a mobile. As noted on Download Squad,

“Layar uses the camera and location-based services of your mobile device — Android devices only, so far — and overlays information on the camera image. This is flying-car level tech, the kind of stuff that sci-fi nerds dream about, and it’s got plenty of practical applications for the average user, too.”

I last wrote about augmented reality on this blog around three years ago. At the time, this was experimental technology. That in just three years the technology has advanced to this degree I find quite incredible. I don’t for example know of a similar PC based application?

And as I said three years ago, the potential of such research to create devices that can support situation awareness, the understanding of a locale (important in Online Dispute Resolution) or just as a handy mobile phone based walking guide to a foreign city or region is fascinating.

Rather than useless experiments (such as getting Second Life to run on mobiles) this technology showcases just what is possible using mobiles today.

What Germany, the UK and the US will get anon I can’t wait to see come to my part of the world. What ideas can you think of for augmented reality applications in the real world, beyond real estate and commercial purposes?

Mobiles to dominate Internet access by 2020?


From Network World,

By 2020, mobile phones will be the primary Internet devices for most people in the world, according to a panel of experts, who also predict that Web technologies will probably not lead to increased social tolerance.

“The mobile phone – now with significant computing power – [will be] the primary Internet connection and the only one for a majority of the people across the world,” the Pew Internet & American Life Project writes in a new “Future of the Internet” report. “Telephony [will be] offered under a set of universal standards and protocols accepted by most operators internationally, making for reasonably effortless movement from one part of the world to another.”

The Future of the Internet report, now in its third consecutive year, can be read in full here. Some key points from the report are,

  • The mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the internet for most people in the world in 2020.
  • The transparency of people and organizations will increase, but that will not necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness.
  • The divisions between personal time and work time and between physical and virtual reality will be further erased for everyone who is connected, and the results will be mixed in their impact on basic social relations.

Emphasis above mine and a point I will deal with in a subsequent post on this blog.

Excerpts from the feedback of respondents regarding the future of mobiles and the Internet can be found here. However, none of respondents look as if they are from or located in less developed countries / regions or those who can speak authoritatively on the usage of mobiles regions / countries outside the developed world. But that’s a general criticism of the Pew Report itself, which is extremely US centric. Always has been.

That said, the report is essential reading for anyone interested in future scenarios and what role mobiles will play in connecting all of us to what I sincerely hope will be a shared humanity over the next decade.

Capturing violent conflict in Kashmir with mobile phones

For many people, recording events on mobile phones has become a hobby (c) BBC
For many people, recording events on mobile phones has become a hobby (c) BBC

The BBC runs a fascinating story today on how young people (who in the story are mostly male) are capturing violent events and processes in Kashmir using their mobile phones. 

The example of Kashmir suggests that the prevalence of mobile phones leads to a situation on the ground that mainstream news agencies could not have imagined even a few years ago. The BBC’s story ends by noting that the Kashmiri conflict has become fully digitalised. War today, as Estonia and Georgia demonstrate, is more than the destruction of bricks and mortar structures or military gains on the geo-physical battlefield. It’s also conducted online – either through outright cyberwar – or a more long drawn out propaganda war on the web. 

Kashmir’s mobile phone totting citizens are the new producers of this propaganda. Bearing witness to the violence of the every day, which is so normalised that it doesn’t even register on the radar of international wire agencies (what bleeds daily does not lead!), the content created by youth and young adults with mobile phone is as the story suggests capturing history in the making.

Of the hundreds of videos on YouTube, I am positive that one won’t get any context, a sense of history or impartiality. That’s still the realm of professional journalism and the more committed citizen journalist. What one does get are snapshots of a polity and society mired in conflict, where ordinary people, with no training whatsoever in journalism, are capturing vital moments, people, events, places and processes that define their lives and in doing so, are collectively producing an oral and visual history.

“This is a new trend in Kashmir. There are a lot of young people moving around the city with such mobile phone recordings,” says Amjad Mir of Sen TV, a local news and current affairs channel. In the restive Batamaloo area in Srinagar, a 29-year-old man, who owns a small mobile phone shop in the city, says he goes out every other day with his phone in search of “interesting footage”. This is the first time ordinary people like us are coming out with our phones and shooting. This is the only way we can show to the world what is happening here,” says the young man, who prefers to be unnamed.

This is bearing witness and what I have for the past two years worked hard to engender in Sri Lanka, where once again, information on the on-going war is limited to the bias of either the government or the LTTE. No one today knows what citizens in Vavuniya, less than 8 hours by road from Colombo, are going through because NGOs and INGOs still have not fully leveraged digital media in general and mobile phones in particular to raise awareness of the human rights and humanitarian conditions on the ground. 

There’s another dimension to this story. Telcos and big business, wherever they are and invest in, want political stability and ROI guarantees. The socio-political architecture that animates both is largely immaterial. This often leads to a resistence of telcos to support, or be seen to be supportive of efforts to augment democratic governance and human rights using their networks, devices, bandwidth and technology. The result of this is that telcos are often more conservative and closed than most repressive regimes. 

Yet, Kashmir is an interesting case where authorities didn’t ban mobile phone usage despite fears they aided attacks by armed militants, unlike in Sri Lanka where all major telcos routinely follow the overt and covert edicts of the Ministry of Defence to restrict and ban mobile phone usage. As a result, Kashmiris may already have more content on its conflict produced that Sri Lankans have produced on theirs, esp. from the front-lines of violence. This content is invaluable in any peace process or process of reconciliation as they capture aspects of violence that could possibly, if unaddressed, sow the seeds of future violence. 

In general, its damn exciting to see mobile phone based journalism kicking off in South Asia. There’s even now a word for these mobile phone totting citizens – camjos

Long may they live and capture!

The future of mobile applications and some other ideas

The Google Android Developers Blog lists the top 50 applications submitted to Round 1 of its developer’s challenge. It’s a damn impressive list. I was alerted to this from Appropriate IT’s excellent post on it, which I fully endorse. 

A PDF slideshow of all the apps, with screenshots and mock-ups, is available here

However, as Appropriate IT notes although the developer challenge suggested humanitarian work as a potential field to develop apps for, none feature in Round 1. However, there are potential uses for some of these apps in peacebuilding, governance and humanitarian aid (e.g. scanning barcodes through mobiles as a means of population tracking, just in time IDP registration and refugee camp logistics).

My biggest concern is into the future with the birth of a plethora of mobile apps that are not interoperable, leading to information silos and further fragmentation of action in response to, inter alia, crises, disasters and peace processes. While emergent mobiles apps can and often do communicate via web services, there isn’t yet a data standard say for the exchange of presence information, or disseminating vital information in the cloud to other mobile apps (e.g. needs in a particular areas matched with resources in another at a time of a disaster). 

There is also a proclivity to be shackled by a PC mindset in the development of most of these mobile apps. The point of a mobile phone is precisely that – it isn’t fixed to a location. Apps need to leverage far more location and presence awareness (enabled by most mobile networks and GPS functionality) and communicate with each other based on network, proximity or other settings (e.g. for users to “tag” their mobiles with meta-information related to work / interests /needs / challenges / deployment / agency / office / responsibilities / health / sex et al enabling proximity alerts and automatic mobile to mobile information sharing whenever individuals with shared interests, common goals are within certain radius. More interesting would be AI algorithms that alert individuals of potential solutions to a challenge, alerting / pairing for example the need for child protection in an IDP camp and the presence of a UNICEF aid worker within 1km of the camp).

Sadly I haven’t also seen, yet, an Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) application. As Appropriate IT states

In many ways, cell phones have become the sole communication and connectivity device for millions in the developing world. Therefore, it is imperative that we move away from thinking of a cell phone as another connected computer and treat it as a totally new device with its own specificities and peculiarities.”

This is precisely what I’ve been saying for years and proposing to the ODR practitioners and system builders and its great to recognise that others.

Further, instead of perennially balking at the smaller screens, lower resolutions and inferior processing power when compared to PCs, we need to start looking at them as devices of empowerment that are already in the hands of more people than PCs are and ever will be (see Some thoughts on mobile phones and the digital divide). launches the new FrontlineSMS

This is something I rarely do – plug a product. But my friend Ken Banks has something special with FrontlineSMS and I encourage you strongly to try it out. 

I’ve played with the beta and written about it (in sum, not a very positive experience) but Ken assures me that the feedback received from the beta testing stage has been incorporated into the final product. Importantly and excitingly, FrontlineSMS now runs natively on OS X and Linux, which means that I don’t have to use Bootcamp anymore to use this. 

For over a year now I’ve been following Ken’s work with FrontlineSMS and frankly, it’s been an inspiring story. In a conversation with Colin Rule in October last year, Ken Banks explains the raison d’etre of FrontlineSMS. Having already proven itself in Pakistan at the worst of times amongst many other places, the new avatar of FrontlineSMS with its multi-OS client will be a tool that drives SMS advocacy and strategic communications via mobiles, including that which I have written about earlier as the development of m-government services.

The Press Release of the new version of FrontlineSMS is here. Go to the FrontlineSMS website here

I’m looking forward to using the new version and will put a post in the coming months with my experiences of using it for my work in Sri Lanka. 

Mobiles for Social Development

There’s a very interesting paper on the web I came across recently that deals with the pros and cons of using mobiles for social development and linked to the discussions on Lirneasia’s recent post on the future of telecentres and the role of mobiles in complementing and / or supplanting them. 

The paper seems to end on a note that is weighted towards the mobile web – the development of the web as we know it and use on PCs for mobile phones. The paper also says that SMS is not a viable option to provide services to millions of people in the developing world who may be illiterate. I don’t agree with either proposition and find a disconnect here – if illiteracy is a problem (it is and more specifically, the lack of vernacular services on mobile phones) then how will the development of the mobile web ensure that more citizens get access to and use services on the phone?

The paper also talks about IVR, but in my mind, it’s not a question of one or the other by complementarity between various tools, platforms and services – with SMS as the basic foundation and developing up from there – that will reach the greatest number of citizens and encourage them in turn to actually make use of what’s available. 

In Sri Lanka, some relatively low cost mobile phones already fully support Sinhala and Tamil interfaces and UNICODE text rendering. And yet, there’s absolutely no interest in creating m-gov services for mobile phones, even though there are more than around 11 million SIMS in a country with a population of 20 million.

The paper was also clearly written before the advent of the iPhone, which in the US at least has revolutionised the way people access the web using their mobile phone:

M:Metrics, which has been researching the mobile market since 2004, found that the iPhone is “the most popular device for accessing news and information on the mobile Web,” with 85 percent of iPhone users doing so in the month of January.

That contrasted with 58.2 percent of other smartphone owners, and 13.1 percent of the total mobile market.

“It’s creating buzz among consumers that it can be pleasant and useful accessing the Web from your mobile phone,” said Greg Sheppard, chief development officer of iSuppli Corp. market research firm.

The lesson here is that it may not be entirely necessary to develop a mobile specific version of the web, even though it’s now possible to do so very easily using services such as Mofuse and other plugins for blogging platforms like WordPress

With regards to the points made about the high costs of data access on mobiles, all signs indicate significant reductions in cost to the point where in the near future, mobile web browsing may even be free with some packages.

Other points regarding the use of mobiles for governance are those I’ve already tackled in a recent paper published in the i4D magazine’s June 2008 issue titled Governance and Mobile Phones.

Read the paper by S. Boyera. It may be a bit dated, but it is a tremendously useful anchor to tether the heady optimism of mobile phone advocates.