Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Internet Marketing Companion

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What would you do if you were CEO of Google?

Every so often I like to play a game I call “CEO of Google.” The idea of the game is that through some combination of weird circumstances, you are now the CEO of Google. Don’t worry about how you became CEO–maybe you won a contest to be CEO for a day. I’d like to know: what products would you launch? What ideas would you fund?

I’m specifically interested in Big Ideas. Things like data liberation or self-driving cars. Or what’s the one huge feature missing from a Google product? In essence, what are the big products, features, or ideas that you would like to see Google work on?

I’m specifically interested in ideas that would improve the world, the web, or Google itself. What would you like to see Google do in 2011 or beyond?


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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Open Kinect Contest: $2000 in prizes

I’m starting a contest for people that do cool things with a Kinect. See the details below.

Open Kinect Logo

Before I joined Google, I was a grad student interested in topics like computer vision, motion self-tracking, laser scanners–basically any neat or unusual sensing device. That’s why I was so excited to hear about the Kinect, which is a low-cost ($150) peripheral for the Xbox. The output from a Kinect includes:
- a 640×480 color video stream.
- a 320×240 depth stream. Depth is recovered by projecting invisible infrared (IR) dots into a room. You should watch this cool video to see how the Kinect projects IR dots across a room. Here’s a single frame from the video:
IR Projection
but you should really watch the whole video to get a feel for what the Kinect is doing.
- the Kinect has a 3-axis accelerometer.
- the Kinect also has a controllable motor to tilt up and down plus four microphones.

What’s even better is that people have figured out how to access data from the Kinect without requiring an Xbox to go with it. In fact, open drivers for the Kinect have now been released. The always-cool Adafruit Industries, which offers all sorts of excellent do-it-yourself electronics kits, sponsored a contest to produce open-source drivers for the Kinect:

First person / group to get RGB out with distance values being used wins, you’re smart – you know what would be useful for the community out there. All the code needs to be open source and/or public domain.

Sure enough, within a few days, the contest was won by Héctor Martín Cantero, who is actually rolling his reward into tools and devices for fellow white-hat hackers and reverse engineers that he works with, which is a great gesture. Okay, so where are we now? If I were still in grad school, I’d be incredibly excited–there’s now a $150 off-the-shelf device that provides depth + stereo and a lot more.

It’s time for a new contest

I want to kickstart neat projects, so I’m starting my own contest with $2000 in prizes. There are two $1000 prizes. The first $1000 prize goes to the person or team that writes the coolest open-source app, demo, or program using the Kinect. The second prize goes to the person or team that does the most to make it easy to write programs that use the Kinect on Linux.

Enter the contests by leaving a comment on this blog post with a link to your project, along with a very-short description of what your project does or your contribution to Kinect hacking. The contest runs until the end of the year: that’s Dec. 31st, 2010 at midnight Pacific time. I may ask for outside input on who should be the winner, but I’ll make the final call on who wins.

To get your ideas flowing, I’ll offer a few suggestions. Let’s start with the second contest: making the Kinect more accessible. In my ideal world, would-be hackers would type a single command-line, e.g. “sudo apt-get install openkinect” and after that command finishes, several tools for the Kinect would be installed. Maybe a “Kinect snapshot” program that dumps a picture, a depth map, and the accelerometer values to a few files. Probably some sort of openkinect library plus header files so that people can write their own Kinect programs. I would *love* some bindings to a high-level language like Python so that would-be hobbyists can write 3-4 lines of python (“import openkinect”) and start trying ideas with minimal fuss. To win the second contest, you could write any of these libraries, utilities, bindings or simplify installing them on recent versions of Linux/Ubuntu (let’s say 10.04 or greater).

Okay, how about some ideas for cool things to do with a Kinect? I’ll throw out a few to get you thinking.

Idea 1: A Minority Report-style user interface where you can open, move, and close windows with your movements.

Idea 2: What if you move the Kinect around or mount it to something that moves? The Kinect has an accelerometer plus depth sensing plus video. That might be enough to reconstruct the position and pose of the Kinect as you move it around. As a side benefit, you might end up reconstructing a 3D model of your surroundings as a byproduct. The folks at UNC-Chapel Hill where I went to grad school built a wide-area self-tracker that relied on a Kalman filter to estimate a person’s position and pose. See this PDF paper for example.

Idea 3: Augmented reality. Given a video stream plus depth, look for discontinuities in depth to get a sort of 2.5 dimensional representation of a scene with layers. Then add new features into the video stream, e.g. a bouncing ball that goes between you and the couch, or behind the couch. The pictures at the end of this PDF paper should get you thinking.

Idea 4: Space carver. Like the previous idea, but instead of learning the 2.5D layers of a scene from a singe depth map, use the depth map over time. For example, think about a person walking behind a couch. When you can see the whole person, you can estimate how big they are. When they walk behind the couch, they’re still just as big, so you can guess that the couch is occluding that person and therefore the couch is in front of the person. Over time, you could build up much more accurate discontinuities and layers for a scene by watching who walks behind or in front of what.

Idea 5: A 3D Hough transform. A vanilla Hough transform takes a 2D image, looks for edges in the image, and then runs some computation to determine lines in the image. A 3D Hough transform finds planes in range data. I’ve done this with laser rangefinder data and it works. So you could take a depth data from a Kinect and reconstruct planes for the ground or walls in a room.

Idea 6: What if you had two or more Kinects? You’d have depth or range data from the viewpoint of each Kinect and you could combine or intersect that data. If you put two Kinects at right angles (or three or four Kinects around a room, all pointing into the room), could you reconstruct a true 3D scene or 3D object from intersecting the range data from each Kinect?

I hope a few of these ideas get you thinking about all the fun things you could do with a Kinect. I’m looking forward to seeing what cool ideas, applications, and projects people come up with!


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Get out there and vote!

If you’re a U.S. citizen, have you voted yet? You can find your polling place by searching on Google for [where do I vote] or [polling place] or [where to vote]. We’ll even give you a map:

Example map

If you’re at all worried that the polling place doesn’t sound right, Google also gives a link to your state voting place locator on the left-hand side of the screen.

I’d like all my U.S citizen readers to be voting today. The election in 2000 came down to a few hundred votes in Florida, so your vote can absolutely make a difference. You’ll feel good today, and if you want to complain over the next couple years, you’ll be able to start with “Hey, I voted in the last election and I think…” :)


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30 day challenge: meditation

I just finished up a 30 day challenge of spending 15 minutes a day meditating. I tried everything from traditional posture to sitting outside to lying on the ground. I experimented with keeping my eyes open vs. shut, breathing, counting and listening. My favorite was cat meditation, which is when you meditate with a cat lying on you, kind of like this:

Emmy and me

There’s something about a relaxed cat that really helps me relax too. Cats are zen masters.

Meditating was harder than I thought, in a few ways. First, it was difficult (impossible?) to turn my brain off. I’m accustomed to using my brain all the time, every day. I don’t like to turn my brain off. I definitely struggled with that all month. Someone recommended counting, for example counting leaves on a tree, as a way to help. That worked very well, but it also felt like counting was keeping my mind busy rather than clearing it out.

Also, it was surprisingly hard to carve out the time to do it. I ended up missing about six days altogether, partly because of some travel during the month. I think the fact that it wasn’t my favorite activity also played a role.

But I learned a few things, too. I became much more aware this month of how little irritations can snag your attention and pull you down. A few deep breaths would often help me get some distance from the irritation.

Am I glad that I meditated this month? Absolutely. But for now, I don’t plan to maintain this habit going forward, or at least not every day.


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Goo.gl url shortener is now open to everyone!

I love this: the goo.gl url shortener is now open to everyone! I know the folks that worked on this, so let me answer a few quick questions.

Q: Why are you doing this?
A: Google needed a url shortener for its own products where we knew the shortener wouldn’t go away. We also wanted a shortener that we knew would do things the right way (e.g. 301/permanent redirects), and that would be fast, stable, and secure.

Q: Why open it up to the public?
A: Initially we launched it only for Google to use on things like the Google Toolbar and FeedBurner. It only took about week before someone dug into the toolbar to see how the shortening code worked. One popular Chrome extension showed up within a few days and now has almost 70,000 installs. Clearly, a lot of people wanted to use goo.gl themselves. :)

Q: Fair enough. Any cool new features?
A: The main feature is that you can use goo.gl just by going to the web page. But if you go to http://goo.gl and login with your Google account, you’ll get analytics and history features for the urls you’ve shortened. Here’s what the analytics page looks like for a recent link I tweeted, for example:

Goo.gl analytics

Q: Is goo.gl an “X killer”?
A: No, goo.gl isn’t an effort to kill anything. I think the whole “product X will kill product Y” meme is getting a little threadbare. We needed a url shortener for Google itself. And then lots of people asked for this, so we’re opening our own url shortener to the world. Different url shorteners have different philosophies; I view the goo.gl philosophy as running a tight, fast service without piling on a ton of features.

My favorite Chrome extension to shorten urls is right here, but see the official blog post for other good extensions that use goo.gl. Danny Sullivan is also writing a screenshot-by-screenshot article over on Search Engine Land.

I hope you like the service. I’m biased, because I know the people that work on it, but why not give it a try yourself?


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Friday, November 19, 2010

My 2010 Halloween Costume: Ninja!!

I got the inspiration for this year’s Halloween costume from a parade in Modesto, California. I’ve dressed up as some silly stuff in previous years, so I wanted something cool this year. And there’s not much cooler than a ninja! Here I am showing off my ninja costume:

Me in my ninja costume

(Click to see a full-size image.)

I tried to be authentic. Check out the details of my costume and shuriken:

Me in my ninja costume

(Click to see a full-size image.)

The best part about this costume is that when kids ring our doorbell, I’ll go into stealth mode. They’ll never even notice as I silently drop to the ground behind them, pad up on split-toe tabi boots to drop candy in their bags, then fade into the shadows. I’m looking forward to trick-or-treaters this year. And I can even use the costume after Halloween to slip up behind spammers.

Thanks to the ninja parade for inspiring my ninja costume this year!


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New 30 day challenges: Get my finances in order. Write a novel.

Alright, I’ve decided my next two 30 day challenges. In October, I’m going to get my finances in order. Follow along with me to talk about money, hatch plans, and carry them out–it should be fun!

Then in November, I’m going to write a novel. Yup, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. There’s all kinds of reasons not to do this:
- I have good reason to believe I’ll write a sucky novel. My high school English teacher gently recommended that I stick to technical writing instead of creative writing.
- Also, I have no training/experience with creative writing.
- And I have no idea what I’m going to write.

But who cares? I’m doing it regardless. The thirty days will pass either way, so I might as well get a novel out of it. Or more likely, a novella. The NaNoWriMo folks shoot for 50,000 words, but I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t write that much.

I don’t know whether I’ll make the novel public or private. I’m leaning toward private. 50,000 words is ~175 pages in 30 days. That’s going to mean a lot of dialog on stilts and campy plot. The goal for me is to do something creative, but I see no particular reason to heap embarrassment on top of that. While you’re learning about NaNoWriMo, you can join in the fun if you want! November will fly by either way–why not try something new for a month?

And yes, I will be using Google Docs to write my novel. It has two things I need: auto-saving, and a word count function. Okay, three things, because you can do comments and formatting and weird fonts and colors and pictures and hyperlinks and stuff. And who knows, maybe I’ll need that? Who says a novel has to be just *words*?

If you want to join me and write a novel too, sign up at http://www.nanowrimo.org/ . Go do it right now, before you forget.


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Say hello at PubCon 2010

I’ll be at PubCon in Las Vegas next week. I’ll speaking on the search engine super session on Wednesday, November 10th.

If you see me at PubCon, please say hello to me!


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Thursday, November 18, 2010

30 day challenge: write a novel?!?

(My 30 day challenge for October was to get my finances in order. They’re in pretty good shape at this point, although I still have 6-7 things I want to do. If I get free time, I’ll blog about finances more. But in the mean time, it’s time for a new challenge!)

For November, I’ll be participating in National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo.” The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Does it sound like too much to do? Well, ask yourself: what’s the worst that could happen? The worst is that you write a little bit and then don’t finish. That’s not the end of the world. In fact, it’s better than not writing anything.

Okay, maybe that’s not the worst thing that could happen. The worst would be if you spent time writing, then you enjoyed it so much that you got really into it. You were so into it that you started thinking about your novel all the time, even when driving, and suddenly WHAM you weren’t paying attention and you ran someone over. But not just anyone–you happened to run over a beautiful Nobel prize-winning physicist, the only person in the world who could figure a way to stop the meteor hurtling toward the Earth from outside our solar system. A month later, BOOM: meteor meets world, and all intelligent life in the solar system is extinguished. That’s probably the worst that could happen. But that’s not very likely, so I wouldn’t let that keep you from trying to write a novel.

Why not try to write a novel yourself? As I’ve been saying about these experiments: the 30 days will pass either way. So why not try something new and different, so that you remember the month instead of it just flying by?


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Report on 30 day challenge: A picture a day

In August 2010, my 30 day challenge was to take at least a picture a day. It was a good challenge, because that month I traveled with friends to Tanzania and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I finally got around to making a picture-a-day public photo gallery with the pictures I selected. Here’s one of my favorite photos of the rain forest near the base of Kilimanjaro, for example:

Rain forest at the base of Kilimanjaro

It took a while to pick the photos, upload them, and add captions, so I hope you enjoy the photos!


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