Strategy Bot: An Experiment in Social A.I.

In this post I’ll introduce you to my new pet project: an experiment in Twitter automation. The Strategy Bot (pictured) is ‘programmed’ to select & retweet key digital media resources, case studies or news items that provoke a higher understanding of the formation of good digital strategy.

Strategy Bot
He thinks, therefore he tweets.

Some context… I will typically have the odd side project on the go at any one time. Recent examples have included:

  • Recategorising all my RSS feeds for mobile, web & iPad
  • Linking up Instapaper / ReaditLater / Pinboard & Twitter
  • Testing Facebook ads to see if I can drive Twitter followers
  • Playing with XFBML, the new Follow button and Google +1
  • Sketching people’s Twitter avatars with my new stylus

All of the above would be worthy of a blog post, and that might happen for a couple of them, but there’s been one project I’ve been thinking about for a while that I reckon just needs to be shared, because, dear reader, I need your help!

I’ve been interested in getting the most out of Twitter for a while, and I’ve been certain there is some utility among the network’s parasites: the lowly twitterbot. I’d love to perform an autopsy on one to see how they really work, as there are some excellent cases of these automata being actually quite useful or cool. For example:

  • Spotibot – @replies suggested music based on your requests
  • Wikipediabot – random links to Wikipedia pages every hour
  • Easy Joke – RT’s with “that’s what she said” on certain phrases

There are loads more listed on the Twitter Fan Wiki, and of course there are millions of spambots that behave in similar ways. But I wanted to make something that would be primarily useful to me, and that others might enjoy too.

The idea arose from the need to detect, share and archive truly excellent links, without cluttering my personal Twitter feed. Did you know you can automatically add Twitter links to Pinboard for archiving? It’s a bloody useful way to passively log the stuff that’s held your attention. And did you know you can create a self-hosted archive of all your tweets? I use Tweetnest to this end, where I’ve been logging my personal tweets here. Try searching for something!

Mr. Strategy Bot is just another way to add useful stuff to my own personal content library. But throughout the course of his life, I’d like him to be useful to everyone. Or at least, everyone that works in digital media (you gotta have a niche). So how should I automate him to this end?

In my attempts to pin down what makes these robots work, I found a number of approaches, typically making use of Twitterfeed (a pretty blunt RSS syndication tool) or the Twitter API (way over my head). I needed something that would let me ‘scrape’ the top links from a list of Twitter users, and automatically RT the top five links.

I have totally failed in my attempts, even after a whole evening spent in the depths of Yahoo! Pipes. For now, I’ve had to settle on the manual way. Yep, I’m manually RT’ing the links until I find a better solution, five a day, with a bit of prose each time to help round out his character.

I will continue to research means of automating his behaviour, as I think the idea of one’s own personal virtual pet social robot is a really powerful idea. Wouldn’t you agree?

[box]Please leave a comment if you can help create virtual life! Let’s give this guy his own A.I. existence out in the digital ether.[/box]

In the meantime, you should follow him on Twitter here.
He’s programmed to follow back!

Web Discoveries for July 24th

These are my del.icio.us links for July 24th

Applying McLuhan

I begin with McLuhan, whose Laws of Media or Tetrad offers greater insights for Mobile AR, sustaining and developing upon the arguments developed in my assessment of the interlinking technologies that meet in Mobile AR, whilst also providing the basis to address some of this man’s deeper thoughts.

The tetrad can be considered an observation lens to turn upon one’s subject technology. It assumes four processes take place during each iteration of a given medium. These processes are revealed as answers to these following questions, taken from Levinson (1999):

“What aspect of society or human life does it enhance or amplify? What aspect, in favour or high prominence before the arrival of the medium in question, does it eclipse or obsolesce? What does the medium retrieve or pull back into centre stage from the shadows of obsolescence? And what does the medium reverse or flip into when it has run its course or been developed to its fullest potential?”

(Digital Mcluhan 1999: 189).

To ask each of these it is useful to transfigure our concept of Mobile AR into a more workable and fluid term: the Magic Lens, a common expression in mixed reality research. Making this change allows the exploration of the more theoretical aspects of the technology free of its machinic nature, whilst integrating a necessary element of metaphor that will serve to illustrate my points.

To begin, what does the Magic Lens amplify? AR requires the recognition of a pre-programmed real-world image in order to augment the environment correctly. It is the user who locates this target, it is important to mention. It could be said that the Magic Lens more magnifies than amplifies an aspect of the user’s environment, because like other optical tools the user must point the device towards it and look through, the difference with this Magic Lens is that one aspect of its target, one potential meaning, is privileged over all others. An arbitrary black and white marker holds the potential to mean many things to many people, but viewed through an amplifying Magic Lens it means only what the program recognises and consequently superimposes.

This superimposition necessarily obscures what lies beneath. McLuhan might recognise this as an example of obsolescence. The Magic Lens privileges virtual over real imagery, and the act of augmentation leaves physical space somewhat redundant: augmenting one’s space makes it more virtual than real. The AR target undergoes amplification, becoming the necessary foundation of the augmented reality. What is obsolesced by the Magic Lens, then, is not the target which it obscures, but everything except the target.

I am reminded of McLuhan’s Extensions of Man (1962: 13), which offers the view that in extending ourselves through our tools, we auto-amputate the aspect we seek to extend. There is a striking parallel to be drawn with amplification and obsolescence, which becomes clear when we consider that in amplifying an aspect of physical reality through a tool, we are extending sight, sound and voice through the Magic Lens to communicate in wholly new ways using The Virtual as a conduit. This act obsolesces physical reality, the nullification effectively auto-amputating the user from their footing in The Real. So where have they ‘travelled’? The Magic Lens is a window into another reality, a mixed reality where real and virtual share space. In this age of Mixed Realities, the tetrad can reveal more than previously intended: new dimensions of human interaction.

The third question in the tetrad asks what the Magic Lens retrieves that was once lost. So much new ground is gained by this technology that it would be difficult to make a claim. However, I would not hold belief in Mobile AR’s success if I didn’t recognise the exhumed, as well as the novel benefits that it offers. The Magic Lens retrieves the everyday tactility and physicality of information engagement, that which was obsolesced by other screen media such as television, the Desktop PC and the games console. The Magic Lens encourages users to interact in physicality, not virtuality. The act of actually walking somewhere to find something out, or going to see someone to play with them is retrieved. Moreover, we retrieve the sense of control over our media input that was lost by these same technologies. Information is freed into the physical world, transfiguring its meaning and offering a greater degree of manipulative power. Mixed Reality can be seen only through the one-way-glass of the Magic Lens, The Virtual cannot spill through unless we allow it to. We have seen that certain mainstream media can wholly fold themselves into reality and become an annoyance- think Internet pop-ups and mobile ringtones- through the Magic Lens we retrieve personal agency to navigate our own experience. I earlier noted that “the closer we can bring artefacts from The Virtual to The Real, the more applicable these can be in our everyday lives”; a position that resonates with my growing argument that engaging with digital information through the Magic Lens is an appropriate way to integrate and indeed exploit The Virtual as a platform for the provision of communication, leisure and information applications.

It is hard to approximate what the Magic Lens might flip into, since at this point AR is a wave that has not yet crested. I might suggest that since the medium is constrained to success in its mobile device form, its trajectory is likely entwined with that medium. So, the Magic Lens flips into whatever the mobile multimedia computer flips into. Another possibility is that the Magic Lens inspires such commercial success and industrial investment that a surge in demand for Wearable Computers shifts AR into a new form. This time, the user cannot dip in and out of Mixed Reality as they see fit, they are immersed in it whenever they wear their visor. This has connotations all of its own, but I will not expound my own views given that much cultural change must first occur to implement such a drastic shift in consumer fashions and demands. A third way for the Magic Lens to ‘flip’ might be its wider application in other media. Developments in digital ink technologies; printable folding screens; ‘cloud’ computing; interactive projector displays; multi-input touch screen devices; automotive glassware and electronic product packaging could all take advantage of the AR treatment. We could end up living far more closely with The Virtual than previously possible.

In their work The Global Village, McLuhan and Powers (1989) state that:

“The tetrad performs the function of myth in that it compresses past, present, and future into one through the power of simultaneity. The tetrad illuminates the borderline between acoustic and visual space as an arena of the spiralling repetition and replay, both of input and feedback, interlace and interface in the area of imploded circle of rebirth and metamorphosis”

(The Global Village 1989: 9)

I would be interested to hear their view on the unique “simultaneity” offered by the Magic Lens, or indeed the “metamorphosis” it would inspire, but I would argue that when applied from a Mixed Reality inter-media perspective, their outlook seems constrained to the stringent and self-involved rules of their own epistemology. Though he would be loath to admit it, Baudrillard took on McLuhan’s work as the basis of his own (Genosko, 1999; Kellner, date unknown), and made it relevant to the postmodern era. His work is cited by many academics seeking to forge a relationship to Virtual Reality in their research…

Summary So Far

In summary, Mobile AR has many paths leading to it. It is this convergence of various paths that makes a true historical appraisal of this technology difficult to achieve. However, I have highlighted facets of its contributing technologies that assist in the developing picture of the implications that Mobile AR has in store. A hybridisation of a number of different technologies, Mobile AR embodies the most gainful properties of its three core technologies: This analyst sees Mobile AR as a logical progression from VR, but recognises its ideological rather than technological founding. The hardware basis of Mobile AR stems from current mobile telephony trends that exploit the growing capabilities of Smartphone devices. The VR philosophy and the mobile technology are fused through the Internet, the means for enabling context-based, live-updating content, and housing databases of developer-built and user-generated digital objects and elements, whilst connecting users across the world.

I have shown that where the interest in VR technologies dwindled due to its limited real-world applicability, Mobile Internet also lacks in comparison to Mobile AR and its massive scope for intuitive, immersive and realistic interpretations of digital information. Wearable AR computing shares VR’s weaknesses, despite keeping the user firmly grounded in physical reality. Mobile AR offers a solution that places the power of these complex systems into a mobile telephone: the ubiquitous technology of our generation. This new platform solves several problems at once, most importantly for AR developers and interested Blue-chip parties, market readiness. Developing for Mobile AR is simply the commercially sensible thing to do, since the related industries are already making the changes required for its mass-distribution.

Like most nascent technologies, AR’s success depends on its commercial viability and financial investment, thus most sensible commercial developers of AR technologies are working on projects for the entertainment and advertising industries, where their efforts can be rewarded quickly. These small-scale projects are often simple in concept, easily grasped and thus not easily forgotten. I claim here that the first Mobile AR releases will generate early interest in the technology and entertainment markets, with the effect that press reportage and word-of-mouth behaviour assist Mobile AR’s uptake. I must be careful with my claims here however, since there is no empirical evidence to suggest that this will occur for Mobile AR. Looking at the emergence of previous technologies, however, the Internet and mobile telephony grew rapidly and to massive commercial success thanks to some strong business models and advancements in their own supporting technologies. It is strongly hoped by developers like Gameware and T-Immersion that Mobile AR can enjoy this same rapid lift-off. Both technologies gained prominence once visible in the markets thanks to a market segment called early adopters. This important group gathers their information from specialist magazine sources and word of mouth. Mobile AR developers would do well to recognise the power of this group, perhaps by offering shareware versions of their AR software that encourage a form of viral transmission that exploit text messaging.

Gameware have an interesting technique for the dissemination of their HARVEE software. They share a business interest with a Bluetooth technology firm, which has donated a prototype product the Bluetooth Push Box, which scans for local mobile devices and automatically sends files to users in acceptance. Gameware’s Push Box sends their latest demo to all visitors to their Cambridge office. This same technology could be placed in public places or commercial spaces to offer localised AR advertising, interactive tourist information, or 3D restaurant menus, perhaps.

Gameware, through its Nokia projects and HARVEE development program is well placed to gain exposure on the back of a market which is set to explode as mobile offerings become commercially viable, ‘social’, powerful, multipurpose and newsworthy. Projects like HARVEE are especially interesting in terms of their wide applicability and mass-market appeal. It is its potential as a revolutionary new medium that inspires this very series.

Introducing… The Pico-Projector

mobileinnovation1Problem:
Mobile multimedia capabilities are increasing in uptake and potential, but the small form-factor we so desire in our handsets are beginning to inhibit a rich user experience.
The typical mobile screen size is 320×240.

Solution:
If your mobile has a pico-projector, it will be able to emit high-res imagery onto any suitable surface, up to 50″ in width.
This unlocks the full immersive power of your mobile web browser, 3D games engine, DivX movie player or video conferencing.

Market Readiness:
Pico-projectors are already on sale as stand-alone units, though are yet to be implemented in mobiles, PMPs or laptops.
The first of these hardware mashups will be on sale in the East by the end of this year, but it’ll likely be another 18 months before they reach Western shores.

Potential:
Aside from the new opportunities for deeper engagement with content and software on the mobile platform, the largest socio-cultural change will occur once people begin to share their mobile experience.
Picture regular consumers using the real world as a medium for virtual interaction.
Location-aware video advertising anyone?