history of science and business

Bell Labs, one of the world’s premiere research institutions, was promoting the development of the PicturePhone by 1969. The first article documenting that the sight of lips annunciating sounds affects hearing (the McGurk Effect) was published in Nature, a leading scientific journal, in 1976. The authors of the article, Harry McGurk and John McDonald, were affiliated with the Department of Psychology, University of Surrey, UK. Did researchers at Bell Labs know about the McGurk Effect by 1969?

At least this is clear: good science, whether known or yet to be discovered, is not sufficient to produce a profitable new product.

sensory ecology

The PicturePhone was a spectacular failure in the U.S. in the early 1970s. Many factors contributed to the PicturePhone’s flop. It required significant up-front equipment expenditure coordinated across users. It was expensive to use. It was bulky. It highly constrained the bodily position of users: compared to the PicturePhone, the fixed line phone of that time was a “mobile” phone. Because of these and other weaknesses, the PicturePhone became the communications industry’s Edsel.

The massive, money-losing investment in PicturePhone shouldn’t be understood to indicate that voice is all that most persons want in most personal communication. The PicturePhone had the technical capability to combine voice and images. That is not sufficient to create economic value in communication. Economic value in communication depends on broader sensory circumstances and more specific behavioral goals of users.

Good sensory design of communication services requires understanding behavioral goals. Consider, for example, voice quality. High voice quality might mean transmitting the full audible range of a person’s voice, and nothing else (no “noise”). Research indicates, however, that persons are able to identify locations based on their acoustic qualities. If the goal of a voice conversation is to transmit specific information in speech, then ambient sound is “noise”. But if the goal of a voice conversation is to make sense of the other’s circumstances, then ambient sound might enhance communication, particularly for a mobile device.

Identifying specific persons, while often taken for granted, is an important goal in communication. Factors relevant to identifying persons by sight are not just pixel resolution and color depth. For example, the orientation of a face affects the amount of time to detect whether the face is smiling or frowning (please do future frowning upside-down). Moreover, the sound of a person’s voice creates a sense of what the person looks like speaking. The value of a communication service depends on the sensory affordances it provides in relation to the multimodal human perceptual routines for identifying persons.

Another goal in communication, one that is probably overvalued in theory, is understanding what a specific person is saying. Seeing lips annunciating sounds affects what sounds are heard. Moreover, the orientation of a face affects the integration of the sight of lip movements and the sounds that are heard (check out this amazing demonstration). Recognizing a face, seeing lip movements, and hearing sounds are all sensory dimensions that contribute to understanding, or misunderstanding, what a specific person is saying.

Google has integrated visual identity in Google Talk and Gmail. Visual identity doesn’t generate any additional constraints on the use of the service. The cost to users is image acquisition and set-up costs. All in all, it’s a minor innovation. But, unlike the PicturePhone, it enlarges sensory circumstances to serve a specific behavioral goal in communication. That’s a major way to create value.

ecology shapes communications technology

It seems that The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes. This is a large-scale example of ecology shaping communications technology.

This sort of effect also occurs at a much smaller scale. Compare the geometric patterns in the paintings in the Morgan Picture Bible of Louis IX to those in the Marc Chagall Bible Series. The artists that produced the Morgan Bible primarily illuminated books. Marc Chagall primarily produced individual paintings. Not surprisingly, the Morgan Bible’s paintings look a lot like text, while Chagall’s don’t.

text messaging is unnatural

Recent research indicates that human visual processing capabilities have shaped text. Letters in 96 non-logographic writing systems, Chinese characters, and natural scenes all have similar distributions of topological configurations. The human visual system evolved to process natural scenes. Writing systems from around the world and throughout the history of written language appear to be well-matched to the evolved visual capabilities of human beings.

This same research indicates that motor complexity of writing is less important than visual processing for reading in shaping the distribution of topological configurations. The frequency ranks of topological configurations in widely used writing systems are not significantly correlated with a measure of the motor effort required to produce the letter or character. Moreover, shorthand, which is designed to be written quickly, has a significantly different topological distribution of letters than does more widely used writing systems. Young children’s scribbles, which reflect relatively weak motor capabilities, also have a significantly different topological distribution than widely used writing systems. Within the space of relatively simple topological possibilities, motor complexity seems not to have strongly affected the design of writing systems.

from the sky

This research suggests that the design of text favors reading over writing. That’s a plausible design orientation. The invention of text was probably oriented toward the market for memorializing events and storing knowledge. Those are communicative functions that involve writing that is read many times. Text messaging among family and friends is not that type of communication.

Text has other disadvantages as technology for personal communication. Compared to audible language, text has a relatively high bodily cost. Babies easily learn audible language. In contrast, the capability to read and write requires from humans a large, specialized investment in time and attention (schooling). Moreover, broad patterns of media use indicate that persons prefer spending time with audiovisual media than with text. This suggests that the marginal bodily processing cost of reading is higher than for audiovisual communication.

The design of text and the design of the human body disadvantage text messaging for presence-oriented, personal communication. Experts in the field assure me that their teen-aged daughters find great value in text messaging among their friends, value that voice communication does not provide. I respect this expertise. The research discussed above, however, at least indicates the importance of considering carefully how text messaging creates value relative to voice communication.

reaching down to the well

Addendum: The research on topological configurations in written languages is brilliant, pioneering research. Extensive discussion of the analysis and duplication of the findings would help to ensure that they are correct. I noticed that the analysis did not weigh topological configurations by frequency of use in representative text. Perhaps this wasn’t done because generating such weights might require considerable additional effort. I would like to see future research at least consider the significance of use weights.

The full citation for the research on topological configurations is:
Mark A. Changizi, Qiong Zhang, Hao Ye, and Shinsuke Shimojo (2006), “The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes,” American Naturalist, v. 167, pp. E117-E139.

Update: Included in Tangled Bank #54, hosted by Science and Politics. Check out that carnival for other interesting science posts.

Public Service Recognition Week

To celebrate Public Service Recognition Week (should’ve been a month), I watched Ikiru. In this film, Kanji Watanabe, an aging bureaucrat, notes three rules for bureaucratic success:

  1. Always be on time.
  2. Never take any vacation.
  3. Do no work.

He also poignantly sings

Life is brief
Fall in love, maidens
Before the crimson bloom
Fades from your lips
Before the tides of passion
Cool within you

With less than a year to live, Watanabe takes a vacation and works passionately and successfully to transform a mosquito-infested cesspool into a children’s playground.

Kanji Watanabe died a hero in public service. He received full bureaucratic honors in his funeral. May the memory of Kanji Watanabe live on in the public service of bureaucrats around the world!

rights to communicate using radio spectrum

An important trend in communications policy has been to give persons more freedom to communicate using radio devices. The U.K. Office of Communication (Ofcom) currently is consulting on new ways of defining licenses for communicating using radio spectrum. Ofcom proposes to specify in licenses spectrum usage rights. It proposes to define these rights by specifying geographic boundaries and about thirteen parameters relating to power flux density, including parameters relating to time and location density. Of course, many other parameters will be relevant to modeling and measuring these rights. Compared to the structure of parameters embedded in specific technologies and applications, this new structure of license parameters gives licensees more freedom to communicate using different radio technologies and for different purposes.

Adjudication of spectrum usage rights through an institution separate from the spectrum regulatory body would make spectrum usage rights less uncertain and more secure. The authoritative meaning of spectrum usage rights may not be clear. If the spectrum regulatory body adjudicates the spectrum rights that it issues, it can further specify or revise the rights it grants through the adjudicatory process. If an independent body adjudicates the rights, then the spectrum regulatory body cannot do this. Independent adjudication disciplines the public specification of spectrum usage rights. Similarly, the spectrum regulatory body might prefer at some future time to revise spectrum usage rights granted earlier. Having an independent institution adjudicate spectrum usage rights makes those rights more secure under subsequent changes in spectrum policy.

cities are important structures for internetworking

The growth of the Internet has emphasized functional rather than structural aspects of networking. The end-to-end principle, the concept of “the Internet,” and widespread concern about “bandwidth of connections to the Internet” push into the background ownership interfaces between networks and the geographic structure of interconnection. One result is that opportunities to innovate at the edges conflict with network “pipe” innovation, i.e. the paradox of the best network.

Major industry trends have major implications for network geography. Municipal networks, such as wi-fi networks or open-access municipal fibre optic networks, are a rapidly developing form of network infrastructure. From a regional or national perspective, municipal networks make cities important elements of network structure. If you just understand these networks to be providing Internet connectivity, you miss that they connect residents of a city to other residents of that city in a distinctive network organization.

Network geography significantly affects the cost of providing network services. If communication bandwidth cost is distance-senstitive, then local caching reduces the cost of distributing content. That effect is particulary important for high-bandwidth content such as video. Even if you believe that bandwidth costs will rapidly go to zero irrespective of physical distance, transaction costs associated with providing services are likely to remain distance-sensitive. At any given degree of infrastructure ownership consolidation, the number of ownership interfaces are likely to increase with distance. Ownership interfaces are a source of transaction costs. In addition, customer behavior and customer service have local components. Local knowledge allows a service provider to respond better to (local) customers’ needs.

The economic geography of internetworking is starting to attract more attention. In an interesting presentation at the recent Firstmile conference, Mike Hrybyk discussed BCnet transit exchanges in British Columbia (if you’re wondering, that’s in Canada). These transit exchanges provide a low-transaction-cost environment for the exchange of network services, including peering of local users and user purchasing of network services from a variety of carrier suppliers. Research and educational institutions seeking to foster local network development and to experiment with innovative networks have led the development of these transit exchanges.

The Internet is wonderful. Future forms of internetworking can be even better. Recognizing cities as important structures for internetworking can help to make the Internet better.

essential reading to prepare for the future

Ponder the possibilities for funding network infrastructure. Think about how to contact persons dispersed after a cataclysm. Understand the deep significance of exchanging a chicken. This isn’t highly successful fiction, or merely a fantasy game that you can enjoy from the comfort of your telecom fortress. If you’re not reading Telepocalypse, you really are gonna be left behind!

fortress telecom

spineless gene contributes to smell, taste, and color vision

As an FCC bureaucrat, I’m intrigued by a recent discovery about the spineless gene. I’m trying to understand better the demand for communications services, particularly across sensory modes. A leading researcher on the spineless gene in fruit flies explained:

“Spineless plays a key role in the antenna and maxillary palp, the two major olfactory organs of the fly,” said Ian Duncan. “It’s also important in mechanosensory bristles and in the taste receptors of the legs, wings, and mouth parts. There has been a sensory theme to the gene, and now we learn from Claude’s work that it plays a key role in color vision.”

The spineless gene also produces certain random structures apparent in the eye:

“Nobody knew what controlled this random pattern,” said Dianne Duncan. “Now we know it’s spineless.”

This discovery may provide an important insight into the evolution of the communications industry.

fruit fly

For more information and images of invertebrates, check out this month’s Circus of the Spineless at Burning Silo.

law review article distorts reality

A forthcoming Michigan Law Review article on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series indicates that these books present a “scathing portrait of government”:

a Ministry of Magic run by self-interested bureaucrats bent on increasing and protecting their power, often to the detriment of the public at large.

The author, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, explains that Rowling’s critique of government:

is also particularly effective because, despite how awful Rowling’s Ministry of Magic looks and acts, it bears such a tremendous resemblance to current Anglo-American government.

This is mere fantasy. It’s self-interested scholarly attention-seeking that makes little contribution to public knowledge at large.

los burocratas