The tech industry’s God complex is getting out of control

The Greeks had a word for this, I thought, as I worked my way through Marc Andreessen’s most recent epic tweet storm.

The venture capitalist — who has suddenly begun treating Twitter as his own personal pulpit for delivering Silicon Valley’s version of the Sermon from the Mount — was explaining to his 124,000 followers the awesomeness of the “superpowers” that emerging technology has bequeathed to each and every one of us:

A new age of wonder is at hand, Andreessen declared; a miraculous era in which our smartphones and network-accessible Web services and 3-D printers and Uber-on-demand-everything have made us all veritable demigods. The amazing things we will do with these superpowers will overwhelm the naysayers who worry about inequality and job loss and economic decline. With our new superhuman abilities, we will all be mighty Avengers, equipped to save the world from any possible crisis, and able to develop our individual potentials to the highest maximum.

But all I could think was be careful what you wish for, as I recalled my favorite — and most pithy — Greek myth, the story of Salmoneus.

Salmoneus, ruler over Elis, was a wealthy and unjust prince with an arrogant heart. He had founded a beautiful city and called it Salmonea, and he grew so overbearing in his pride that he commanded his subjects to give him the honors and offerings due to a god. He wanted to be taken for Zeus himself, and he traversed his country and other parts of Greece in a chariot meant to resemble that of the Thunderer. To accomplish this, he tried to imitate lightning with torches launched through the air, and thunder with the hoofbeats of champing horses which he drove over a brazen bridge. He even had people killed and then pretended that his lightning had struck them down. From the heights of Olympus Zeus noted his folly. He reached into the thick of the clouds, drew forth a real thunderbolt, and hurled it at this mortal, raging in madness and insolence below. The bolt shattered the king and destroyed the city he had built with all those who dwelt in it.

The story of Salmoneus occupies just one paragraph in “Gods and Heroes,” a 700-page compilation of Greek myths and legends put together by the 19th century German writer Gustav Schwab. But it is still one of the best definitions of the concept of hubris you are likely to find. And like all good Greek myths, its relevance to current affairs remains undimmed. The aspiration to have superpowers like gods is an invitation to trouble.

So watch out, Silicon Valley! Because Marc Andreessen is hardly alone in tech circles in his passion to imbue the fruits of the computer age with ecstatic digital millennialism. The Rapture is coming — only it will be delivered not by Jesus, but the Silicon Chip! At its most grandiose outer reaches, the rhetoric encompasses the dreams of post-Singularityimmortality spun by the likes of Ray Kurzweil, who is convinced that it won’t be long before we free ourselves from all mundane restrictions by downloading our consciousnesses into the matrix. (Seriously.) But on the opposite end of the spectrum, the new tech zealots display annoying habit of applying the same rhetoric to the most trivial of exercises.  Consider the start-up that calls itself Superhuman – it produces  software that allows you to seamlessly update your calendars via email. (Seriously?)

Andreessen situates himself between the sublime and the ridiculous, with the added fringe benefit that he is a prominent funder of many of the companies that he believes are handing out superpowers hither and yon. And he’s worth taking seriously, because of course there is plenty of truth to this digital transhumanism. Smartphones are amazing, connecting us effortlessly to the sum of human knowledge and artistic creativity, able to summon limousines in a single click. Accidentally leave your smartphone at home, and you may well feel crippled for the rest of the day. (Or liberated, because as Peter Parker well knows, superpowers can also be a curse.) There’s a lot of digital empowerment going on these days, faster even than we can keep track of.

But all this empowerment comes with a heaping dose of hubris. The metaphorical power of Silicon Valley’s superpower fetish has real-world implications. Once you believe you have superhuman abilities — or that you are bestowing superhumanity on the rest of the world — you also tend to believe no one can or should stand in your way. (Iron Man doesn’t play by the rules! Nor does he care about the puny quibbling of governments and social critics. He just does what he wants.)

He who wields the thunderbolt wields the power. Rules are meant to be broken. In the Marvel Universe, and on Mount Olympus, might makes right. When the apostles of Silicon Valley tell us to “let markets work,” or blithely ignore existing regulatory structures and plow ahead with their “disruptive” start-ups, they are making a similar show of force. But we should be cautious in our hero-worship. Because as even the most cursory acquaintance with Greek myth makes clear, Olympians really shouldn’t be trusted to use their godlike powers responsibly.

* * *

The gospel of Marc Andreessen goes all the way back to Prometheus. The first superpower was fire, after all. The fruits of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution advance the basic theme. Electric lighting, steam power, automobiles, the telephone — “For 500+ years,” Andreessen tweets, “we’ve collectively been radically enhancing capabilities of ordinary humans through technology superpowers.”

The last 10 years, however, have really kicked things into gear. Now our superpowers include having the world’s total knowledge base available “for free,” connection with “everyone important in your life” via social media “for free,” the ability to never be lost and always know where your kids are via GPS-enabled devices, access to the entirety of recorded music, anywhere at any time, and even the sharing-economy-enabled ability to “easily move around and then stay places with transparency and safety” via Airbnb or Lyft or Uber. And so on.

“I am firmly convinced many people are fundamentally underestimating the power and potential of these new superpowers in the years ahead,” tweets Andreessen, suggesting that future examples will include crowd-funding’s facilitation of fundraising, the quantified self’s “superpower to understand one’s own body continuously in real time, optimize health & wellness with high precision,” and 3-D printing.

“Combine modern bio, 3D printing, & computing–>prosthetics & exoskeletons; superpower: paralyzed to walk, disabled to abled, blind to see.”

Of course, we can quibble. Web services are not “free” — we pay for them by surrendering our most intimate personal information and allowing ourselves to be targeted by advertisers. Is the ability to summon a car via Lyft really comparable to fire? And come on: The superpower to always know where your kids are lasts as long as the charge on a phone battery, or until they decide to turn their trackers off. Hera is not impressed.

There’s also the niggling point that the same superpowers that enable our vast potential are easily used against us by governments and corporations and criminals. The NSA now has superpower surveillance ability. Hackers have the superhuman ability to invade and control our computers. Advertisers have superhuman behavior modification powers to influence what we purchase. Andreessen chooses to believe that technology is balancing the scales by giving individuals powers that put them on a level playing field with existing authorities. But that’s far from certain.

But Andreessen is certainly not wrong in seeing the last 10 (or 20 years) of innovation as a major and important transition. To Skype with your daughter on another continent can feel magical. The way that, say, YouTube tutorials enable an extraordinary efflorescence of DIY creativity is undoubtedly empowering. And, if the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, and workers in China are taking advantage of social media and smartphones to effectively organize for their rights, well, that is indeed super-powerful. More of that, please.

As Hillary Mason — a data scientist in residence at the venture capital firm Accel, who regularly gives lectures on how our new ability to make sense of big data gives us “superpowers” — observes, “A raw human voice can’t reach halfway around the world, but a tweet can. As a human, we can only perceive our own experience, but data gives us a window into the collective behavior of our species.”

We shouldn’t deny or dismiss the transformative power of technology. But we should investigate very carefully the psychological and political implications of embracing the superpower metaphor. On one level there’s the omnipresent danger of promiscuous trivialization — the hype that lumps room-sharing in the same category as fire or the steam engine. As Mason acknowledged to me, “there’s something deeply disturbing about the construction of these ‘change the world’ narratives around trivial products.”

But a bigger challenge is in understanding how fixation on superhuman abilities transforms feelings of powerlessness into attitudes of superiority. The modern conception of superpowers and superheroes got its start in the comic books of the 1930s.  Sociologist Harry Brod, the author of “Superman Is Jewish: How Comic Book Heroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way”  argues that the Jewish creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were working out their resistance to cultural stereotypes of nebbishness when they dreamed up their larger-than-life creations. (Michael Chabon makes a very similar argument in “The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay.”) For Brod, Silicon Valley’s embrace of superhuman abilities can be traced back to similar cultural forces. “The Silicon Valley interest in superpowers is the revenge of the nerd,” Brod told me. “It’s Walter Mitty in high tech.”

The once marginalized geek has discovered that, through power of the code, one can conquer. Google Glass is just an obvious stepping stone to a full-fledged Iron Man suit. (You know you want one.)

How this attitude feeds into libertarian ideology hardly needs belaboring. If you’re empowering the entire world to become superheroes, then anything that gets in your way must be Hulk-smashed. Arrogance is a natural byproduct of superpowers. And it makes possible the writing of sentences like, “if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 21st century, it’s hard not to feel a special connection to Renaissance Florence.” Yeah, start-up entrepreneurs in Palo Alto are just like the Medici Grand Dukes. Except, even better, because they’ve got superpowers.

Marc Andreesen tweets that tech superpowers “upgrade us as creators, builders, inventors, designers, artists: *producers*.” And it is certainly true that the smartphone — infinitely more accessible and far cheaper than the personal computers of yesterday — democratizes access to the information age. But what he fails to mention is that, when everyone has superpowers, that’s the same as nobody having superpowers, and the same social inequities that give some people advantages over others will reassert themselves.  The advantages of class, wealth and location don’t vanish.

We should also recall what really fuels our long-standing cultural obsession with superpowers, from the myths and legends of antiquity to comic book adventures in Marvel and DC right up to the newest app downloaded from our iPhone. It’s all about escape, whether from the humdrum existence of standing in line at the cashier, or our own sense of inadequacy and frustration. But as both Homer or Stan Lee could tell you, there is no escape. Superheroes and Olympian gods are just as petty and jealous and conflicted as the rest of us. Their personal lives are a mess and their ambitions often are the seed of their downfall. Silicon Valley should beware the example of Salmoneus.

Superpowers don’t make us better people, and they won’t necessarily deliver us a better world. But the people who figure out how to sell them will become very, very rich.

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Lift Your June Gloom With This Weekend’s Playlist

When June arrives in San Francisco, it brings with it a very particular brand of gray morning (and sometimes afternoon). While that grayness generally dissipates when the sun breaks through, it gives most mornings an otherworldly feel. Fitting, then, that so much of this week’s best new music mirrors that Yay Area summertime progression from gloom to bliss. Start out chill with new tracks from Real Lies and Sinkane, then turn up the tempo until the Ting Tings go disco and legend Giorgio Morodor brings it home with a high-energy tour de force.

As usual, we’ve added the tracks to our ongoing Spotify playlist of great new music, and created a standalone YouTube playlist for this week. Keep the recommendations coming.

The tracks:
Real Lies, “North Circular”
The Antlers, “Hotel”
Chet Faker, “Talk is Cheap (Ta-ku Remix)”
Sinkane, “Hold Tight”
SBTRKT feat. Sampha, “Temporary View”
Jo Mersa, “Rock and Swing”
Santigold, “Kicking Down Doors”
The Ting Tings, “Wrong Club”
Lana del Rey, “West Coast (ZHU Remix)”
Giorgio Moroder, “Giorgio’s Theme”

YouTube

Why You Should Only Spend $500 on Your Next TV

Welcome to the awkward HDTV transitional phase. If you need to buy a new TV right now, what do you do? Bet big on an UltraHD TV and wait for 4K content to become as plentiful as HD? Splurge on an early-generation OLED, then kick yourself in two years when they become more affordable? Buy a massive, high-end 1080p set, then regret it when everybody flocks to your buddy’s house to watch Super Bowl 50 on his 4K OLED?

At this moment, your smartest move is to go cheap. Buy a holdover HDTV, something simple and no-frills to keep you happy and entertained while UltraHD panels get cheaper, 4K programming becomes ubiquitous, and OLED prices fall to earth. For $500, you can get an excellent television between 39 and 50 inches. You may not get absolutely outstanding picture quality, but there are plenty of cheap sets that still rate as very, very good. You will also have to skip the design aesthetic of the more expensive models.

But the bulk of your savings will come from outsourcing features. For example, take a pass on those built-in streaming features and just buy a $60 Roku box, which has a better UI and more channels than any TV’s built-in “Smart” software ever will. Get a good soundbar if you care about sound; even the cheaper soundbars will outclass the speakers you’d find in a $500 TV set, and you’ll be able to use it with your next TV too. Cheap TVs usually only come with two HDMI inputs, so if you need more, just buy a $30 HDMI switch. And you most certainly do not need 3-D — why pay extra for it if there’s nothing good to watch?

By just buying a solid, affordable, and no-frills HDTV, you can minimize the compromises while you wait out the HD-to-4K transition.

Image: Courtesy of Vizio

Vizio E420I-B0 (42-Inch Full-Array LED) — $430
Good TVs at very low prices has always been Vizio’s schtick, and 2014 looks like a banner year. This full-array backlit set has local dimming and a 120Hz refresh rate for less than $450, which seems like a typo but is actually just an incredible deal. Built-in Wi-Fi, apps, and plenty of inputs sweeten the deal.

Image: Courtesy of Sharp

Sharp LC-48LE551U (48-Inch Full-Array LED) — $500
There’s another direct-lit LED HDTV in this price range, and it’s a big one. Sharp’s slim-bezeled 48-incher earned an Editors’ Choice award from PCMag. It lacks Wi-Fi, so make sure you have a set-top box if you want to stream. It’s also a 60Hz set with an “Aquomotion 120″ setting that simulates a higher refresh rate.

Image: Courtesy of TCL

TCL 50FS5600 (50-Inch LED) — $500
If you want to go even bigger, this 50-inch TCL set is the biggest one in this roundup. It has a native refresh rate of 120Hz, and it features an edge-lit LED backlighting system instead of the aforementioned full-array systems. No built-in Wi-Fi, but that’s what your Roku or Apple TV is for.

Image: Courtesy of Sony

Sony KDL-40W600B (40-Inch LED) — $480
This edge-lit Sony LCD set has a slick design, a rarity for its sub-$500 price. It’s among the most-popular sets in this price range on Amazon, with built-in Wi-Fi and plenty of inputs. Its 60Hz native refresh rate raises eyebrows, but it has a feature that ably simulates a 240Hz panel.

Image: Courtesy of Panasonic

Panasonic TC-39AS530U (39-Inch LED) — $450
Panasonic’s plasmas were considered the best in the business, but now the company has shifted to an all-LCD lineup. The 120Hz edge-lit AS530‘s slim bezel is an eye-catcher, making its 39-inch screen look bigger than you’d expect. Wi-Fi and mobile-device content sharing are also part of its tricks.

Image: Courtesy of Samsung

Samsung PN43F4500 (43-Inch Plasma, 720p) — $380
Picture-quality connoisseurs have long hailed plasma sets, which keep up well with fast motion and offer deep blacks and snappy contrast. This Samsung set punches well above its price, with great ratings on Amazon and a “Best” pick from The Wirecutter. A few things: It’s only 720p, you’ll have to BYO Wi-Fi, and it only has two HDMI inputs.

Image: Courtesy of LG

LG 42PN4500 (42-Inch Plasma, 720p) –$400
LG and Samsung aren’t just battling on the OLED front, they’re also competing on the super-affordable 720p plasma battlefield. This LG set gets very good reviews on Amazon, but like the competing Samsung, it has no Wi-Fi, no 1080p, and just a couple of HDMI ports.

Google Open Sources Its Secret Weapon in Cloud Computing

When Google engineers John Sirois, Travis Crawford, and Bill Farner left the internet giant and went to work for Twitter, they missed Borg.

Borg was the sweeping software system that managed the thousands of computer servers underpinning Google’s online empire. With Borg, Google engineers could instantly grab enormous amounts of computing power from across the company’s data centers and apply it to whatever they were building–whether it was Google Search or Gmail or Google Maps. As Sirois, Crawford, and Farner created new web services at Twitter, they longed for the convenience of this massive computing engine.

Unfortunately, Borg was one of those creations Google was loath to share with the outside world–a technological trade secret it saw as an important competitive advantage. In the end, urged by that trio of engineers, Twitter went so far as build its own version of the tool. But now, the next wave of internet companies has another way of expanding their operations to Google-like sizes. This morning, Google open sourced a software tool that works much like Borg, freely sharing this new creation with the world at large.

Unveiled by Google cloud computing guru Eric Brewer at a conference in San Francisco, the tool is called Kubernetes–after the ancient Greek word for shipmaster or pilot–and basically, it’s a way of more easily and more efficiently running online software across a vast array of machines. In today’s world, that’s a vital thing. As the modern internet serves more and more people, it’s not just Google that needs hundreds or even thousands of machines to run its web software.Illustration: Getty

When Google engineers John Sirois, Travis Crawford, and Bill Farner left the internet giant and went to work for Twitter, they missed Borg.

Borg was the sweeping software system that managed the thousands of computer servers underpinning Google’s online empire. With Borg, Google engineers could instantly grab enormous amounts of computing power from across the company’s data centers and apply it to whatever they were building–whether it was Google Search or Gmail or Google Maps. As Sirois, Crawford, and Farner created new web services at Twitter, they longed for the convenience of this massive computing engine.

Unfortunately, Borg was one of those creations Google was loath to share with the outside world–a technological trade secret it saw as an important competitive advantage. In the end, urged by that trio of engineers, Twitter went so far as build its own version of the tool. But now, the next wave of internet companies has another way of expanding their operations to Google-like sizes. This morning, Google open sourced a software tool that works much like Borg, freely sharing this new creation with the world at large.

Unveiled by Google cloud computing guru Eric Brewer at a conference in San Francisco, the tool is called Kubernetes–after the ancient Greek word for shipmaster or pilot–and basically, it’s a way of more easily and more efficiently running online software across a vast array of machines. In today’s world, that’s a vital thing. As the modern internet serves more and more people, it’s not just Google that needs hundreds or even thousands of machines to run its web software.

‘IT’S A WAY OF STITCHING TOGETHER A COLLECTION OF MACHINES INTO, BASICALLY, A BIG COMPUTER.’

Google is now sharing this technology with the rest of the world because its business has evolved. In addition to creating its own web applications, it now offers cloud computing services–services that let outside companies build and run software without setting up their own machines. Releasing Kubernetes as a way of encouraging people to use these cloud computing services, known as Google Compute Engine and Google App Engine.

But the new tool isn’t limited to the Google universe. It also lets you oversee machines running on competing cloud services–from Amazon, say, or Rackspace–as well as inside private data centers. Yes, today’s cloud services already give you quick access to large numbers of virtual machines, but with Kubernetes, Google aims to help companies pool processing power more effectively from a wide variety of places. “It’s a way of stitching together a collection of machines into, basically, a big computer,” says Craig Mcluckie, a product manager for Google’s cloud services.

The key, Brewer says, is that a tool like this can help make the most of your available computing power. In essence, if one machine isn’t using all its computing power, Kubernetes can send another task its way. This can be particularly important for companies running their software on cloud services, Brewer explains, because they typically use only a portion of the processing power they’re paying for. “We know, from aggregate statistics, that utilization for the typical cloud customer is kinda low,” he says.

With Borg and its successor, Omega, Google has done this sort of thing inside its own data centers for years, squeezing as much as possible out of its massive array of machines. “Kubenetes emulates a lot of the patterns we use inside Google with Omega,” Mcluckie says. But in an effort to democratize this technology, Google has also reshaped the concepts behind Borg and Omega to work in tandem with anotheropen source technology called Docker. The increasingly popular Docker provides a way of packaging online software into a kind of digital shipping container you can deploy across many machines, and then Kubernetes offers a better way of juggling all those containers. As Brewer explains it, Kubernetes helps you squeeze multiple Docker containers onto the same machine so that you can get the most out of it.

This morning, Google also unveiled new tools that make it easier to merely run Docker containers on its cloud services, and other cloud companies–such as Amazon and Rackspace–have embraced Docker in similar fashion. Docker is one step towards a world where we can treat all cloud services like one giant computer, and a tool like Kubernetes is the next.

Kubernetes is similar to several other existing tools, including Mesos, the open source tool that Twitter now uses. The difference here is that Kubernetes comes from Google, the company that pioneered this breed of “orchestration” tool. “It’s part of an arms race. There are literally dozens of tools coming out,” says Solomon Hykes, the chief technology at Docker and the driving force behind the company’s software containers. “But Google joining that battle–with code that comes from their massive experience–helps show where this kind of thing will go.”

Salesforce Makes a Crafty Play to Bring Wearables to the Workplace

Salesforce.com wants you to wear a computer at work.

This week, the big-name internet software company released Salesforce Wear, an open source software development kit that lets coders build business applications for wearable computing devices such as the Google Glass digital eyewear and the Samsung Gear and Pebble smart watches. Glass, Gear, and Pebble are largely billed as consumer devices, but Salesforce is among the many companies and analyststhat hope to push such wearables into the workplace as well.

Marc Benioff and company also released the software code for six example apps, including a tool that can display business metrics on a Pebble watch and a gesture-based application that lets surgeons to pull up patient records without having to touch an unsterilized keyboard, mouse, or touchscreen. These apps aren’t ready for prime time, but at this point, says the company’s senior vice president of emerging technologies Daniel Debow, Salesforce just wants to provide some wearable inspiration for developers.

THESE INCLUDE A GESTURE-BASED APPLICATION THAT LETS SURGEONS TO PULL UP PATIENT RECORDS WITHOUT HAVING TO TOUCH AN UNSTERILIZED KEYBOARD, MOUSE, OR TOUCHSCREEN.

There are plenty of examples of wearable computers being used in the workplace already. Epson and Evena Medical built a smart glasses system that helps health care workers find patients’ veins. Looxcie’s Vidcie head-mounted camera enables technicians to get live support in the field, as does a Google Glass application built by solar panel installation company Sullivan Solar. And last year, The Independentnewspaper reported that UK grocery chain Tesco uses electronic armbands to monitor employee activities and give them scores based on how well they perform.

What Salesforce hopes to provide is an easier and faster way for companies to create their own wearable apps for their employees and customers. “People would have to build everything–like identity and security–from scratch,” Debow says. “But all of this is already built into Salesforce’s existing developer platform.” Salesforce Wear dovetails with this platform, a set of online service for building and running software that hooks into other Salesforce applications, and at least at this point, it doesn’t work with other development platforms. That means Salesforce also sees this new kit as a way of driving interest in its existing services, but whatever Salesforce’s own interests, Debow is adamant that wearable gear is the future.

He says there are many places that smartwatches or glasses could be preferable to using a smartphone. Sales people pull their smartphones out of their pockets between 100 and 150 times per day, he says, and wearables can change this. “For a sales person it’s not a great idea to pull a cell phone out in the middle of a meeting,” Debow says.

One of the company’s sample apps addresses exactly that. It’s a Samsung Gear 2 smartwatch app that displays a wide variety of information from the company’s flagship sales information management product. Using the app, you could not only check forthcoming calendar appointments, but also see profiles of the customers expecting to present at a particular meeting– complete with a photo to help you put a face to a name before or even during the meeting. It’s also interactive, letting you do things like warn everyone else at the meeting that you’re running late.

It’s still early days in the wearable field. But in addition to giving us an idea of where this market is headed, Salesforce is providing at least one way we might get there. We don’t just need wearables. We need ways of tying them into existing online services. Something like Salesforce Wear can help do that.

Tiny Startup Completely Reinvents How We Use Touchscreens

If you want a reminder of how far technology has come in the last decade, check out the YouTube clip of Steve Jobs unveiling the first iPhone to a room full of people back in January 2007. In it, Jobs teaches his audience, step by step, how to swipe and scroll through photos. He shows them how to rotate the device so that they can see an image in landscape. And he demonstrates what he calls “the pinch,” pressing his fingers together and moving them farther apart to zoom in on an image. After the pinch, the crowd lets out a collective “Whoa.”

Yes, in hindsight, it’s kind of adorable. But what’s important to note about the moment is that when Jobs revealed the iPhone to the crowd, he was not only introducing the audience to a new device. He was teaching them a new language, a new way of interacting with a computer.

THIS TINY STARTUP HAS DEVELOPED A NEW TECHNOLOGY THAT CAN DETECT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FINGERTIP, A KNUCKLE, A FINGERNAIL, AND A STYLUS.

Now, seven years later, Qeexo is hoping to emulate Steve Jobs. Backed by $2.3 million, the San Jose, California-based startup has developed a new touchscreen technology that can detect the difference between a fingertip, a knuckle, a fingernail, and a stylus. By assigning different parts of the finger to different actions, this technology–known as FingerSense–could reduce tasks that currently require multiple steps to just one. “You can imagine it’d be like having different buttons in your hand,” explain’s Sang Won Lee, the company’s co-founder and CEO.

The iPhone, and indeed the entire smartphone industry, have evolved dramatically since that day in 2007. And yet, for all the features that have been tweaked and perfected over the years, the language Jobs taught us has remained unchanged. We still use a single input–a fingertip–to operate the device. And that limits the way we use our phones. On a desktop, there’s a mouse, a right click button, a shift button, and many other inputs that serve different functions. But on the smartphone, because there’s just the fingertip, a common task like copying and pasting becomes a tedious process of tapping, holding, dragging, and selecting. Qeexo wants to finally put the smartphone on par with the desktop.

Image: Courtesy of Qeexo

Good Vibrations

The technology was first invented by Chris Harrison and Julia Schwarz, the two other Qeexo co-founders, who were pursuing their Ph.Ds at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon. They, like many in their field, were trying to come up with a solution to this “multi-touch” problem when they began experimenting with ways to identify objects by their different vibration patterns.

At the time, Lee was working for electronics maker HTC, scouting new user experience technology for smartphones. Having worked in the product planning industry since 2003 when he got his start at Samsung, Lee was familiar with the industry’s desire to come up with a new way for people to interact with their screens. Then, in 2012, he found Harrison’s blog post about the prototype he and Schwarz had developed. “I thought this could really solve that problem the industry was having,” Lee says. So he left HTC, and in September of that year, the three co-founders launched Qeexo.

FINGERSENSE USES THE STANDARD ACCELEROMETER IN A MOBILE DEVICE TO PICK UP ON THE VIBRATION PATTERNS DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE HAND PRODUCE.

Today, FingerSense uses the standard accelerometer in a mobile device to pick up on the vibration patterns different parts of the hand produce when they come in contact with a touchscreen. The FingerSense machine-learning engine understands what part of the finger is touching the screen and triggers a correlated action. For instance, tapping a block of text with your knuckle could trigger the copy and paste menu to appear. To select text, you’d simply drag your knuckle down the text, much like you would a desktop mouse.

Lee says this technology could have implications beyond the world of smartphones and tablets. Touchscreens in cars could be greatly improved, for instance, if drivers could simply knock on a screen with their knuckles instead of taking their eyes off the road to press multiple buttons in a row. But what might really make Qeexo one of those rare technologies that can make a room full of people say “Whoa” is that touchscreens are just a start. The company is also working on products like FingerSense on Walls, which would allow you to set your device on a table and control it by tapping on the table. FingerSense on Body, another product that’s in its conceptual phase, would make it easier to control wearable devices with tiny screens, because it would enable people to tap on their arm or hand instead.

Lee says much more work needs to be done to develop sensors sensitive enough to pick up on vibrations through something like skin. Still, according to Mark Rolston, the former chief creative officer of frog design and founder of the user experience design firm argodesign, the progress Qeexo has made on smartphones alone is a major accomplishment. For years, he says, people within the industry have been researching new input methods, but few have found a way to actually tie those new inputs (the knuckle, in our example) to specific functions (text selection). “It’s not necessarily intuitive,” he says of FingerSense, “but neither were right click or the shift button, and those things have been adopted, and they help us. Something like this is one of the better ideas to come along.”

‘Dangerous Territory’

That doesn’t mean it won’t be without its obstacles. Rolston says Qeexo is entering into “dangerous territory,” because now, it has to convince all the major device manufacturers, from Apple to Samsung, to adopt its technology at once. Not only that, Qeexo also has to convince these ruthless competitors to come to an agreement as to how the technology should be used. A knuckle tap, in other words, can’t perform a different function on a Samsung phone and than it does on an iPhone.

“It’s all or nothing with methods like this. They’re useful when everyone expects them to be around, and therefore, application developers adopt it,” Rolston says. “So we can love it, but it’s really adoption that matters.”

And then, of course, there’s an even bigger risk, and that is the fact that these device manufacturers, with their swollen patent portfolios, could develop their own version of FingerSense themselves. Lee, for one, does not underestimate his competition. “Whoever wants to grab this market and become the next generation de facto standard is going to be our competitor and become one of the challenges we need to overcome.”

Apple Filed A Patent For A New Type Of iPad Cover That Displays Notifications

Apple filed a patent for a new type of iPad case that can display notifications.

 

The patent details an “accessory device for a tablet device” that can illuminate and communicate information.

Apple Insider first spotted the patent.

The iPad cover would be able to communicate with the tablet so that information from the device could transfer to the cover and result in different lights being illuminated in varying formations depending on the notification.

This would mean that you wouldn’t have to open the iPad case in order to see if you have any new notifications. You wouldn’t have to neurotically check every few seconds to make sure you didn’t miss anything. All you would need to do is wait for the case to flash, and then you’d know it was time to check your tablet.

HTC and Samsung have both already dabbled in displaying notifications on cases. Some of Samsung’s phones have cases with a tiny window that can display notifications. HTC’s new One phone has an optional case called Dot View that displays notifications through a bunch of holes punched into the cover.

While not all Apple patents translate to actual hardware, this at least shows that Apple has the ability to jump in the game if it wants.

Here are two of the images from the patent:

 

Apple patent

United States Patent and Trademark Office

 

Apple patent

United States Patent and Trademark Office

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/apple-patent-for-ipad-case-displaying-notifications-2014-6#ixzz34RzVKZ2m