After a Year of Hype, Augmented Reality Finally Gets Useful


Augemented reality was one of the most overused buzzwords of the year, but for the most part, the applications we saw weren’t really augmenting reality. Instead, like Layar and others, they take a phone’s camera picture, GPS coordinates and compass heading and provide users with an overlay of nearby sights and shops. For some apps – especially stargazing apps like Star Walk – this is fine, but for most use cases, it’s not really useful.  Another type of augmented reality (AR) app that’s hot right now uses paper markers and replaces them with 3D animation on your phone’s screen – even Hallmark is getting in this business now, but it’s more of a gimmick than a useful application of AR. The real promise of AR reaches far beyond this, however.

According to a new report by Forrester analyst Thomas Husson, AR is indeed ready to become more than just a gimmick. Husson thinks that “in the years to come, it will be a disruptive technology changing the way consumers interact with their environments. It will bridge the real and digital worlds, enabling new ways to engage with customers via advanced digital interactivity. Because mobile AR makes the most of unique mobile attributes, it will help in transforming mobile phones as the new remote control of our personal daily lives.” Indeed, the first apps that get close to this vision are now making their way to users’ phones.

Word Lens

Last week, we got our first glimpse at what real augmented reality can look like. Word Lens takes the live video from your iPhone’s camera and automatically translates any text it sees. Right now, you can only buy Word Lens’ English/Spanish and Spanish/English translations as in-app purchases, but more languages will soon arrive as well.

Using this app is an eye-opener. Not only do you get the translation, but Word Lens actually replaces the text in the live video with the translation. That’s something we haven’t seen before and that gives me great hope for the next generation of AR apps that will interact with the actual images from your phone and not just the GPS and compass.

Wikitude Drive

Another app that pushes AR further is Wikitude Drive, which was just released for Android in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The app should come to other platforms and locations soon.

At its core, Wikitude Drive is a turn-by-turn navigation app, but unlike similar apps, it can display live video in the background. Thanks to this, you never really take your eyes off the road as you drive down the street and the AR mode shows you exactly where you need to go. The app doesn’t interact directly with the camera images, but it clearly shows an area where current apps can be extended with AR views that provide lots of additional value.

3:27 pm

5 Reasons Why You Should Give Opera 11 a Try


Opera just released the 11th version of its desktop browser for Mac, Windows, FreeBSD and Linux. For a while, Opera was just an also-ran as Firefox and Chrome battled for the speed crown and additional market share in the browser business. Over the last year or so, however, Opera staged quite a comeback in the desktop arena and version 11 is the current culmination of this work. Here are the top 5 new features that make Opera 11 worth another look.

Tab Stacking This feature is huge. With Tab Candy/Panorama, Firefox was the first to test new ways for organizing tabs visually, but for me, this feature never quite felt right and was too much of a hassle to use. Tab Stacking is Opera’s attempt to rein in tab overload, but while Mozilla tries to do this with a very visual interface that can quickly get confusing, Opera simply allows you to drag multiple tabs on top of each other and then see their content and select different tabs in a pop-up window that appears as you hover over the combined tabs. If you use a lot of tabs at the same time, using this feature is quickly going to become second nature.

Extensions With this latest version, Opera finally fully embraces extensions. There are currently about 200 add-ons for Opera 11 in the company’s gallery, ranging from ad blockers to password managers, with all the usual suspects in between.

Mouse Gestures This takes some getting used to, but with mouse gestures, you can control your browser with “small, fast movements of your mouse” that quickly become second nature and allow you to speed up your browsing session. To see which gestures are available, just hold down your right mouse button and follow the on-screen guide.

Speed Opera used to be able to claim that it was the fastest desktop browser. Over the last few years, other browsers sped past Opera, but with this latest version, Opera is back on track. Indeed, in most tests it is right up there with Chrome at the top of the list. In our own benchmarks, it was only a little but slower than Chrome, though in daily usage, this difference wasn’t noticeable and pages generally rendered just as fast as in Chrome.

Opera Turbo This has been in Opera for quite a while but never gets the credit it deserves. If you are regularly stuck on slow WiFi connections in hotels or airports (or even on planes – though some WiFi providers block the proxy mechanism that makes Turbo work), Opera Turbo can turn your browsing experience from miserable to perfectly acceptable by compressing your data (especially large images) and thereby reducing the amount of data you have to transfer.

Other noteworthy features: This, of course, isn’t all. Opera also features cloud-based syncing between machines, a built-in mail and RSS client, as well as some surprisingly useful developer tools with Opera Dragonfly. You can download Opera 11 here.

11:21 am

Google Puts Renewed Focus on Real-Time Search with New Social Search Test


Somehow I completely missed the fact that those blue “shared by” links on Google’s search results page that I started seeing a few days were new. Given the pace of the search giant’s development cycle, I have to admit that I’m sometimes actually rather confused about what’s new and what’s been around for a while on Google…

But these “shared by” links are clearly new – and more and more people are now seeing them, too, so this seems to be more than just one Google’s many bucket tests and could be here to stay. These links tend to appear underneath links to news items in the OneBox news results section when you search for recent events. Another new feature is a live count of recent updates that now appears underneath the “Recent Updates” box when you search for keywords that are currently popular or trending on Twitter and Facebook.


All of this points to a new emphasis of real-time search results in Google. Over on Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan speculates that Google could soon restrict these searches to just your friends, which is entirely possible and would make sense in light of Bing’s recent addition of more social features, but I actually find the new focus on real time more interesting. All of these new links, after all, point to Google’s real-time search feature, which was mostly hidden from sight until now. Instead of just pointing to a somewhat cryptically names “Updates” section in the sidebar, this new test actually explains that these updates come from “Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and more.”

11:06 pm

Calacanis to Challenge TechCrunch: "The World Really Wants Deeper Stuff Right Now"


According to the Guardian, serial entrepreneur Jason Calacanis plans to launch a new tech blog in early 2011. With this project, Calacanis plans to challenge TechCrunch, the influential Silicon Valley-based blog run by his old nemesis Mike Arrington. According to the report, Calacanis plans to hire a small number of editors. These writers will have the freedom to do in-depth research and will only have to file one story per week.

While Calacanis says that these stories will go out over email and won’t run on a dedicated blog, chances are that he will do both in the long run in order to profit from the valuable ad sales for the email newsletter and the online ad sales that are keeping the current generation of tech blogs afloat. Calacanis will also host a new startup conference early next year that will challenge TechCrunch’s highly successful Disrupt conference.

“The Tech Blogging Scene is in a Race to the Bottom”

In his interview with the Guardian, Calacanis claims that he is not trying to challenge the existing tech blogs on their own field, but that he is “going for something that doesn’t exist in the market – not a blogger writing the story in two hours. The world really wants deeper stuff right now.” He also notes that “the tech blogging scene is in a race to the bottom and is dragging mainstream media down with it.”

Those are fighting words. Blogs like TechCrunch and others have made their name by rushing stories to their readers as fast as possible – sometimes at the expense of depth and analysis. Indeed, the reality of tech blogging is that very few authors actually have the time to spend two hours on a story. Breaking news stories often take less than 15 minutes before they appear on TechCrunch, the Next Web or ReadWriteWeb. Clearly, there is an audience for these stories, but Calacanis is betting that the market also wants more depth, knowledge and thoroughness (a mix we strive for over on ReadWriteWeb).

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the marketplace. Starting a new tech publication is not easy, given how many players there already are today. With his successful e-mail list and high name recognition, Calacanis clearly has an advantage over smaller editorial startups and his best work has always been in developing editorial concepts. Even Calacanis’s biggest detractors have to admit that he has created a number of successful startups in the past and should not be underestimated, especially now that his motivation is to challenge his old arch-nemesis Arrington. We have not seen a lots of newcomers on the tech blogging scene in the last two years (let alone in the tech mailing list scene), but if anybody has a chance to make a difference in this business it is likely Calacanis.

Image Credit: Joi Ito

10:51 am

Can The New Version of iTunes Breathe New Life Into Apple's Ping?


Apple just released a new version of iTunes for Mac and PC that makes some much-needed changes to how the company integrates its social network Ping into the application. Until now, not only was Ping somewhat hidden in iTunes, but you could also only really interact with it from within the iTunes store and not from within your iTunes library. Unless your friends are compulsive music shoppers, chances are that few of them ever went through the store to mark their favorite songs. Now, however, in the new version of iTunes (10.0.1), you can very easily like songs right from within your music library and you can choose to see a sidebar with the latest activity from your Ping friends while browsing your library. Chances are that this will raise the activity level on Ping, though it remains to be seen if this will be a dramatic change.

ping_hasselhoffIn an ideal world – where Apple was following the Lala model it acquired not too long ago – you would be able to not just see what your friends like, but also play those songs in full once or twice. As of now, seeing your friends’ likes is great, but you can’t really do much with that knowledge unless you buy the song or album. For the most part, Ping is still too closely linked to iTunes to be genuinely useful.

For the time being, Ping is also still a completely isolated network without a connection to Facebook and Twitter. Not only is it still too hard to find your friends on Ping (due to Apple’s inability to come to an agreement with Facebook).

With this update, Apple has addressed one of the major grievances that most early users had with Ping (the inability to like items from the music library). Is that enough to breathe new life into Ping? Probably not. Until Ping is connected to other social networks, it remains a silo where you can put information in but can’t get any of it out to the rest of your friends.

11:32 am

The Microsoft Tanker Has Turned and You Ignore it at Your Own Peril


Whenever I hear people discussing Microsoft, it usually doesn’t take long before somebody mentions that the Redmond-based giant is like a huge oil tanker. It takes a while to turn such a huge company around and get it back on track. When Microsoft stumbled after the dotcom boom and couldn’t even produce a viable browser to compete with the open-source offerings of Mozilla, quite a few pundits assumed that the age of Microsoft was about to come to an end (the less said about the disaster that was Windows Vista, the better).

Microsoft Today

Flash forward to late 2010. Windows 7 is a huge success. Internet Explorer 9 has the potential to be one of the best browsers on the market. Windows Phone 7 is about to be released (and after seeing it in action during a short trip to Redmond earlier this week, I’m convinced that it will be a huge hit). Bing is bringing much-needed competition to the search engine market. Windows Live is becoming a great little social media aggregator for its users and a central hub for all of Microsoft online consumer tools. Hotmail – as much as it is ignored by the tech press – is still one of the most popular email services on the planet and continues to quietly innovate. The Windows Live Essentials desktop tools can easily hold their own in comparison with Apple’s tools. The Office Web apps easily beat the offerings of Microsoft’s competitors in both design and functionality.

What’s interesting is that most of these apps and services are only one or two iterations removed from really horrible products like Windows Mobile 6.5, Internet Explorer 7, Live Search.

Turning the Tanker Around

Spending some time earlier this week on the Microsoft campus, I couldn’t help but think that this is a very different Microsoft from the company we all loved to hate not too long ago. Instead of trying to build its own Facebook clone, for example, Microsoft is using Windows Live to aggregate other social networks. Just ten years ago, Microsoft would have never done that. Windows Phone 7 isn’t just a copy of the Android and iOS operating system and neither is it some weird adaptation of a desktop OS. Instead, Microsoft developed a vibrant new user interface based on its experience with the Zune (a good device, no matter how it failed in the marketplace) and the XBox.

Of course, there are still areas where Microsoft struggles (and the Kin was quite a disaster), but it’s hard not to think that the tanker has now turned and is sailing ahead at full steam.

10:34 pm

Embedding an Official Tweet Button (just for the sake of it)


Looks like Twitter is launching its own Tweet buttons later this week. While you can already embed the code (see below), not everybody can actually use the button to retweet the post yet.

Just for the sake if it, I have embedded the code (courtesy of Mashable) here.

I’m guessing we will see a new wave of discussions about Twitter’s relationship with third-party developers over the next week, as this move will likely put Tweetmeme (which is more well-known for its retweet buttons than for its core product) out of business in the long run. I know I wouldn’t invest in a Twitter-releated company at this point…

8:21 pm

Facebook Questions Goes Live: Will it Kill Quora, Yahoo Answers, Ask and Co.?


Facebook just launched its long-awaited question and answer product dubbed Facebook Answers. You can now ask your social network any question you feel like and get answers from your extended network. This – by the way – includes friends of friends as well, so your questions will actually reach an exponentially larger audience than just your closest friends. At the same time, you can also go to the new “Questions” section in Facebook and see questions that your friends and friends of friends asked. You can also ask questions about your friends directly from their profiles – which looks just like a regular wall posting.

Thanks to its tagging feature, you can ensure that the right people will see your questions.


Social vs. SEO

With, Quora, Google’s recent acquisition Aardvark and a few other startups, the Q&A market is getting very crowded now. Facebook, with its 500 million users is likely to crush all of these services, though more SEO oriented Q&A platforms like Yahoo Answers may not suffer the same effects as the more socially oriented products like Aardvark (assuming Google does anything with it) or Quora.

Chances are, though, that if users will find Facebook Answers to be a satisfactory solution (to a problem most probably never considered in the first place), they won’t go out to explore these other products.


1:55 pm

15 Million Downloads Later: TweetDeck Turns 2


TweetDeck, the popular Twitter client, just celebrated its 2nd birthday. According to the company’s founder Iain Dodsworth, the TweetDeck desktop client has been downloaded 15 million times and the iPhone app has been downloaded 2.5 million times. Overall, TweetDeck now sends out 4 million tweets, Facebook status updates and Buzz messages every day.

That, of course, is a major achievement for any company. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that TweetDeck is now 5 times larger than its closest competitor.

Looking Ahead

TweetDeck - (Build 20100625223402).jpg

According to Dodsworth, Tweetdeck’s “mission is to help our users manage and harness these information flows. To that end, we are moving towards being truly multi-stream, re-building our clients from the ground-up with multi-stream functionality ingrained rather than simply bolting on new disconnected networks.”

TweetDeck wants to be at the intersection of all of the multiple networks that its users use and ensure that it doesn’t make a difference on which network somebody says something.

Of course, like many of its competitors, TweetDeck is also still looking to effectively monetize its service. For the time being, it still isn’t clear how TweetDeck plans tomonetize its service.


1:29 pm