Saturday, June 27, 2009

Let’s Flock together

Finally, here is a browser that is an actual extension of your virtual entity, your portal to the Internet, as you want it. We have all worked on browsers that function the way their creators wanted, but Flock is the exact opposite and puts the user in full control.

Flock seems to have originated from the need of netizens to integrate their multiple virtual entities on a single platform, and gain full operational control. Built on Mozilla’s Firefox, Flock is ideal for social network junkies who can’t do without their hourly dose of Facebook or Twitter. Log in once and the browser keeps a tab on all your accounts for future, alerting about updates, new events and uploads. Most features are clipped on the Flock toolbar just below the address box.

The ‘people’ icon lists all your contacts online at any particular moment, and this includes even those from websites like Flickr and Twitter, not just Gmail and Facebook. The ‘people bar’, which appears on the left of the browser, allows you to chat, share content and even surf together with your online contacts — you just have to drag and drop a page on the contact for them to see it, provided they too are using Flock.

Another significant feature is the ‘media bar’ icon, which lets you browse through all media on a particular website using a coverflow-like interface. Search for India on YouTube for instance and all relevant media on the site are listed as large thumbnails on a strip above the page.

Once logged in using the browser, you can also upload photos to photosharing sites like Flickr and Photobucket by just dragging the image to the ‘upload’ icon. The browser also has a built-in blog editor, so that you can scribble down a new blog by just clicking an icon on the top bar.

The RSS reader on the browser, meanwhile, makes it easy for you to consume news by giving you feeds and updates from all the sites you have subscribed to. All you have to do is click the ‘feeds’ icon, which will conveniently light up every time you are on a site with RSS feeds. Click on the subscribe button once and feeds from the URL will be added to your daily customised news capsule. The feeds bar also makes it easy to organise feeds into various categories like sports, entertainment and science to avoid clutter.

With Flock, ‘favouriting’ sites is also a one-click process, with listings appearing as a drop down bar. But the real piece de resistance is the My World options which collates all your newsfeeds, social networking updates, blog comments and replies on a single homepage, ready for you every time you log in.

If you find all these features complicated, there is even a one-click Flock tutorial which will teach you how to use the browser to its full potential.

So why wait, start Flocking.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Business projections

Back in college, everyone would dread being entrusted any work with the ancient projector. Reason: the projector bulbs were notoriously flimsy and expensive. So, if the bulb blew up, which it did at regular intervals, anyone within a 10-metre radius would have to chip in for the replacement. But that was over a decade ago.

So the first thing that interested me in NEC’s new NP500G projector was its Eco-mode which ensures that the lamp lasts longer and reduces noise to a minimum. The unit also uses less power in this mode. Moreover, it even has a meter indicating how much longer the bulb and filter will last in normal course.

That’s not all. This was the first projector I’d seen where the colour split was not so obvious—in most the projected image splits into the Vibgyor from certain angles. The unit also has wall colour correction so that the image looks good even on coloured walls. The auto adjust button puts the image to the best fit for the conditions, while the aspect ratio selector allows users to choose the best screen mode—this is ideal if you are watching movies.

Though the company would like to project this as a business accessory, it works fine for home viewing too. I used it to watch a DVD movie and the effect was big-screen all the way. To add to the viewing pleasure, the menu has presets for movies, presentations and so on, which pick the best setting for the task at hand.

But no doubt this is a business projector. Just consider the number of sources it can handle—two computers plus a direct LAN input, S-video as well as a regular RF input. It can also play sound from all these sources using its two 7w speakers. The picture can be magnified too—I zoomed in on a word file and got a comma which was two feet high. This function is ideal if users need to focus on a specific chart in a presentation.

The projector is easy to plug in on computers and laptops. The extra long power cable, as well as the carry bag, is a very thoughtful addition.

But I did have some trouble with the keystone correction and image was slightly skewed at the sides. I found a way around in by beaming the image at an aspect ratio that stayed clear of the corners.

The NP500G costs Rs 75,000 plus taxes.

The others

VIEWSONIC: A cheaper option would be ViewSonic’s new portable DLP Projector PJD6210, with the latest BrilliantColor Technology. Its sophisticated five-segment colour (RGBWY) wheel promises to provide greater colour accuracy than any standard DLP projector with a four-segment colour wheel. The high 2700:1 contrast ratio guarantees bright images in virtually any setting. The 2.4-kg projector has a high brightness of 2,200ANSI lumens and also comes with the eco-mode option which extends lamp life to 4000 hours. The PJD6210 is priced at Rs 55,000.

CANON: On the other end of the scale is the Canon SX80 which features the new AISYS technology and LCOS reflective panels to ensure light efficiency, uniformity, and expanded colour space for extremely accurate colour reproduction. The projector has a 3000 lumens brightness coupled with a 1.5x zoom lens to reduce distortion. The USB / Pictbridge Connection allows for PC-free presentations. It also operates at a near-silent 31 decibels. Priced at Rs 2,49,995.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Director’s choice

Not impressed by the latest emotional concoction on offer from Bollywood? Well, it’s time to buy yourself a megaphone and light meter and catch the next train to Filmistan. That is if you first lay your hands on a Canon HF 11 HD camcorder, simply the sharpest smoothest handycam in town.

But to call the HF 11 a handycam would be like calling champagne a wine with fizz, for this is the first non-professional camcorder with a 24Mbps bitrate, the highest in AVCHD format. The camera, which weighs just 380 gm and easily comes within even a teenager’s grip, also has 32GB storage space — that’s about 12 hours of High definition video.

Though the camera is actually an improvement on the HF10 which was ruling the top spot till now, it also has Dual Flash Memory camcorder which allows users to record on the 32GB internal memory as well as the removable SDHC card -- can decide the capacity of that one.

But as someone who’s tried out some other cameras before, the feature that appealed the most to me was the zoom. To use a cliché it’s like a hot knife on butter, and can easily be mastered by even the most unsteady hand. And the 12x HD video zoom lens means that I could focus on the fireworks in a banquet hall down the road as if it was next door. To make life easier, the optical image stabiliser negates much of the noise that you would associate with digital images.

Though a touchcreen would have been really handy, the joystick perched just beside the 2.7” Multi-Angle Vivid Widescreen LCD just about makes up. The function and VCR controls are placed just below the flip-open LCD, not on the body opposite like some earlier camcorder models, and can be easily accessed with the joystick.

Though it has a maximum shutter speed of 1/2000, the night shooting is still a little below expectation. However, there is an autoflash if you want to take still photos and the HF11 can easily double up as a still camera. And like still digital cameras, this one too has white balance modes which can add to the effect along with preset transition effects and even an artistic mode thrown in for good measure.
The Image Mixer 3 software will do in the post production stage what you missed out with the camera and skills, but make sure that your PC has the potential to take the load.
Overall this is an ideal choice for those of you who would like to graduate from your handycam to a clearer picture and more flexibility—who knows, maybe even some independent cinema. There is a dampener though: the price. The HF11 costs Rs 95,995, so better be serious about what you do with it.

  • The others
  • Sony Handycam HDR-CX100E:This brand new Flash memory handycam can capture those special moments on 1920x1080 high-definition video. The model also features intelligent Face Detection and Smile Shutter technology — which clicks candid smiling photos while simultaneously recording video— along with 8GB of embedded memory. In addition to a high-quality Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 10X optical zoom lens, the camcorder comes with Steady Shot image stabilisation that reduces shake for smooth video and clear photos. Cost Rs 36,990.
  • Sony Handycam HDR-XR100: This one integrates the new ‘Exmor R’ CMOS Sensor and BIONZ image processor technologies, doubling light sensitivity to produce images of exceptionally high resolution even in low light environments. With the new highlight playback feature, the camcorder can also automatically extract key highlight scenes recorded based on features used such as Face Detection, Smile Shutter and Dual Recording. Cost Rs 39,990.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

On top of the pixel chain

A few years ago, when I was planning to graduate from my 1982 vintage Sears Electra to a digital camera, a 3.2 megapixel Canon was considered state-of-the art. Now, when even DSLRs are fiddling in the 8-megapixel to 12 megapixel range, Canon has come up with a point-and-shoot, sporting a 14.7-megapixel image sensor and promising a shot that can put even professional cameras to shame.

But the Canon IXUS 980 IS is not just about megapixels; it is a complete package. In fact, this compact and sturdy camera is the next best thing to a DSLR. To start with, Canon has improved on most features in its IXUS and Powershot ranges and added a few new ones too. While the 980 doesn’t have a touchscreen, the new dial, which reminds one of the iPod, more than makes up. It helps you shift through the picture styles and change the values with ease on the 2.5-inch LCD. The camera comes with the regular auto, quickshot, manual/ programme/ scene and video modes. But I did find the camera a bit tough to get used to in the manual mode, though it offers shutter speeds up to 1/1600 and two preset apertures.

The 980, however, is not meant for those who will ponder over shutter speeds, for this is an aim-shoot-forget camera all the way. And this is where Canon scores with an easy to use interface and reduced shutter lag. The camera also treads into Photoshop territory by presenting a colour accent mode, which allows you to take away all but one specified colour—however, the option can be unleashed only after a good read of the manual. The widescreen mode is ideal for squeezing in the entire family on a single frame and clicking landscapes. The digitised macro function is great if you like to zoom in on your neighbourhood ant family while the underwater shooting mode can capture your submarine exploits, provided you get a waterproof case along with the camera.

Canon’s night shooting capabilities have only improved, and the 980’s flash assures a bright shot even on a dark night. Moreover, there is the option of the adjusting the flash, so that pictures don’t suffer from burnouts due to excess light.

The playback function now comes with a timeline interface, which lets you skip to specific dates on which the camera has been used. You no longer have to waste time trying to find shots tucked away somewhere between the hundreds you have clicked with the camera. There is also the option of cropping the pictures in playback mode.

While Canon has got most of its features right, the Rs 23,995 price tag spoils the picture for the IXUS 980 IS.

Portable printer

If you are looking for printer to add some sting to your digital camera check out the Canon Pixma iP100, a full-featured, compact, mobile business printer. The IP 100 boasts print speeds of 20 ppm for B&W and 14 ppm for colour and comes with the new 5 Colour ink system. The iP100 also features the Full-photolithography Inkjet Nozzle Engineering (FINE) printhead to provide better quality print.The PictBridge compatible printer can spit out 4 x 6” borderless photo in around 50 seconds.

Reporting Iran: The News Revolution

We could be witnessing the dawn of a new era. As turmoil engulfed Iran following President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s re-election, the administration tried to plug the flow of news by banning all foreign media. But they were seemingly unprepared for what was to follow. Many independent journalists, and a handful of citizen journalists, have since been on the job, ensuring that the world gets to know what is happening in the Islamic Republic, by the minute.

Over most of last week, they have been posting photographs and news clips from their mobile phones on to micro-blogging site Twitter and to the Demotix, a new, but very popular, hub for freelance journalists. Conventional news agencies like Reuters and Associated Press have now started sourcing photographs from the websites for their newswires. Worried over this unwanted and unwarranted coverage, Iranian authorities are trying their best to stem the flow of “uncensored news”, cracking down on journalists and amateurs posting pictures of the protests and tracking down others. But their efforts have not yet dampened the resolve of the ‘news crusaders’.

While both Twitter and Demotix have been a source of from-the-spot news for sometime, Iran could be their big break. When Mumbai was attacked last November, minute-by-minute accounts from people close to the centre of action were the only source of news for millions of residents in the city, where cable networks had been taken off air for security reasons.

But the use of Twitter as a medium to post news photos is something new. Since Twitter was designed for SMS-based blogs, it cannot, and will not, accept anything longer that 140 characters. Users who wanted to post photos have been uploading to a sister site, Twitpic, and posting the link on Twitter. Twitpic now has over two million users, and scores of those in Iran have made it a platform for their “He is not my president campaign”. Many of their pictures have since been used by news agencies, giving due credit to the site.

Demotix has till now come in for many accolades, from being called “journalism for the 21st century” to suggestions that “it may change the way news is reported”. But no one would have imagined that this citizen journalism site would within six months of its birth become the “leading voice in the global news agenda” thanks to contributors from Iran.

With their correspondents banned from reporting, Demotix images are being scanned by photo editors of the world’s top newspapers. Many pictures have already been picked up by agencies, making it to front pages across the globe. It helps that Demotix submissions adhere to a certain image quality and have better production value than those posted from mobile phones.

Like the Lok Sabha elections in India this May, Demotix had created a special hub for Iran elections too. But the sudden change of events have meant that even a week after the results the webpage was still clocking stories—of protests, of the crackdown and of torture.

The Iranian Government, however, was not so impressed. It traced a reporter who had contributed video feeds of the protests in Tehran, seized his camera and kept him in custody for a few hours. “While in custody, he was led by officials to believe that were he to be found guilty as a spy, he could be executed,” says a Demotix post. “Just pray for me. Ten years ago in ‘Koye daneshgah’ (Tehran University) I was arrested, and it’s a nightmare for me to repeat my memories...,” it quoted the reporter as saying.

Global Post, another new media venture which specialises in long format features from contributing editors stationed across the world, too, has found many takers. However, since stories on Global Post are commissioned, most of them are available only to those who pay for their services.

With the websites being updated every minute with tweets and photos by those who are closest to the news, Iran has ushered in a new era of reportage—of reportage that cannot be gagged or fettered easily.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Let them do the talking

Automatic speech recognition technology is slowly taking over many mundane call center operations

THE next time you hear about the slowdown costing hundreds of call centre jobs around the world, at least a part of it could be the handiwork of Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR), a simple but effective technology that uses computers to identify and analyse spoken words. The technology has been around for a while — even your home computer has it –and is what sets a ringtone when you say the first line of a song or tells you the status of your train as soon as you speak its number into a phone.

In India, the technology has been used extensively over the past couple of years in the telecom, healthcare and automotive sectors. But things are a bit more complex here considering the plethora of regional languages in vogue. But Lattice Bridge Infotech Private Limited (LBIT), the Chennai-based company which pioneered ASR technology in India, has made this very challenge its USP by providing voice-based solutions in 11 Indian languages along with Arabic.

LBIT managing director C Mohan Ram says the ASR and related technologies were initially designed only for English, with regional language support almost non-existent. LBIT, however, changed this with its Simply Speak application for 11 Indian languages. “India has 300 million mobile phone users compared to just 4 million broadband connection, this shows that the spoken word is still supreme here,” says Ram.

He says ASR tries to bridge the communication gap, more prominent in India due to the rampant illiteracy in many parts, by providing services to the common man irrespective of location, time and language. “The application pushes all complexities to the back-end, keeping the front-end interactions simple,” he explains. Simply Speak can now handle live conversations in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarathi, Marathi, Punjabi, Oriya, Bengali as well as the Indianised English.

Though his company has clients in the BPO industry in the Middle East as well as South Africa, Ram is quick to clarify that the technology is still not good enough to replace call centres. “It can only help make some operations cost-effective. More complex tasks will still need the brain power of people. However, we can make their lives less boring by taking over mundane operations,” adds Ram, whose company has been recognised as among the top 10 centres of excellence in ASR technology across the world. But there is not denying the fact that ASR is cost effective as it can get to work without any requirement for personnel training, especially when faced with human resource or skill shortage.

Ram says his company has achieved accuracy levels of up to 95 per cent for English and between 79 and 92 per cent for the regional languages. The accuracy is measured as FARR (First Attempt Recognition Rate) for various languages and specific application.

However, the local dialects have only complicated things. “Hence, localisation and regionalisation is a continous activity. We spend a lot of time collecting corpus and tuning of various languages,” he adds.

Ram believes the ASR technology has seen a lot of development over the last decade. But work is on to build a larger corpus of words and understand the nuances of localisation and regionalisation.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Sing Song Browser

MOST of us prefer some music in the background as we surf the Net or check mail at home. Some others, especially the more culturally inclined among us, surf the Net mostly for music. It is keeping these two types of surfers in the mind that Pioneers of the Inevitable, a group of designers and developers, some of whom have worked behind popular programmes like Firefox, Winamp and Yahoo Jukebox, decided to create an “open customisable media player” called Songbird.

To put things in perspective it’s a great music player which also doubles up as a decent browser. Since its release last year, the webplayer has been a rage among hardcore surfers as well as Net music junkies. The programme is open source, and developers around the world are currently working on new add-ons that add to the Songbird experience. There are around a hundred add-ons — from the brilliant to the downright ridiculous — on last count.

The browser is basic, considering that almost all the add-ons are for the music player. However, with a look and feel similar to Mozilla Firefox, it works fine and even supports tabbed browsing.

But Songbird is more about the webplayer. It runs on Windows, Linux and Mac, and helps users create dynamic playlists that automatically update based on the criteria you set. It can also be customised by downloading the scores of skins, aptly called feathers, that help tweak the appearance according to your style.

You can search a multitude of songs directly on the webplayer and download them from free servers. There are also a couple of handy tools that help eliminate duplicity and ghost tracks in the library—I found out that my library had 300 tracks which were appearing twice. The player can also be synced with MP3 players like iPod.

Another interesting feature is SHOUTcast Radio which allows you to stream in media from hundreds of online radio stations in various genres with much less buffering time than other media players. Users also have the option to bookmark favourite stations.

Concert Ticket, though not of much use in India, alerts you if artistes in your library are playing in your city or region. It also allows you to book tickets for the concerts at the click of a link. Scrobbling, on the other hand, is a Twitter-like function that allows you to discuss and share tracks with friends. There are related add-ons that get you the lyrics of a certain track, suggest songs you are likely to like and even one that gives a 3D effect to you album. MashTape, meanwhile, helps you discover Flickr photos, YouTube videos, biographies, Google news (and more) for artistes.

The player does tend to hang up a bit at times, so it’s better to avoid opening too many tabs on the browser. But that is about it as far as negatives go. So go ahead, get yourself a Songbird.