Jenn Webb

Jenn Webb is a veteran of the newspaper industry turned freelance scribe, editor, and researcher. She is a nerd with a passion for technology and cultural disruption. She currently serves as O'Reilly Radar's managing editor and helps to investigate topics in the Design, IoT+, Data, and Emerging Tech spaces.

Democratizing technology and the road to empowerment

BIF9 storytellers share how their work and experiences enrich our world.

Advancements in technology are making what once was relegated only to highly educated scientists, engineers and developers accessible to — and affordable for — the mainstream. This democratization of technology and the empowerment it affords was an underlying thread through many of the stories at this year’s Business Innovation Factory (BIF) summit. From allowing hobbyists and makers to innovate and develop on an advanced level to enabling individuals to take control of their personal health data to using space suits to help children with cerebral palsy, technological advancements are beginning to empower — and enrich — at scale.

With the rise of quantified self, for example, people have begun amassing personal data based on their activities and behaviors. Some argue that QS doesn’t go quite far enough and that a more complete story can be told by incorporating emotional data, our sense of experience. While it’s empowering in many ways to be able to collect and control all this personal big data, what to do with this onslaught of information and how to process it remains a question for many.

Alexander Tsiaras, who founded theVisualMD, argued in his talk at BIF9 that “story gives a soul to the data,” and that it’s time to change the paradigm, to start using technology to create ecosystems to empower people to understand what’s going on inside their bodies as a result of their behaviors.

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The Amazon whisperer, invisible interfaces, FDA vs 23andMe, and robots usher in a new polical order

A backchannel look at what's on our radar.

The Radar team does a lot of sharing in the backchannel. Here’s a look at a selection of stories and innovative people and companies from around the web that have caught our recent attention. Have an interesting tidbit to contribute to the conversation? Send me an email or ping me on Twitter

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IoT meets agriculture, Intellistreets, immersive opera, and high-tech pencils

A backchannel look at what's on our radar.

The Radar team does a lot of sharing in the backchannel. Here’s a look at a selection of stories and innovation highlights from around the web that have caught our recent attention. Have an interesting tidbit to contribute to the conversation? Join the discussion in the comments section, send me an email or ping me on Twitter.

  • Pencil — FiftyThree’s new Pencil tool is a super cool gadget that exhibits interesting technology from a software meets hardware perspective. (Via Mike Loukides)
  • littleBits Synth KitlittleBits and Korg have teamed up to bring DIY to music with a modular synthesizer kit. From John Paul Titlow on Fast Company: “Hobbyists have been doing this for many years, either through prepackaged kits or off-the-shelf components. The difference here is that no soldering or wiring is required. Each circuit piece’s magnetized and color-coded end makes them effortlessly easy to snap together and pull apart … Notably, the components of the kit are compatible with other littleBits modules, so it’s possible to build a synthesizer that integrates with other types of sensors, lights, and whatever else littleBits cooks up down the line.” (Via Jim Stogdill)
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Podcast: the Internet of Things should work like the Internet

A chat about the future of UI/UX design with Alasdair Allan, Josh Marinacci and Tony Santos.

At our OSCON conference this summer, Jon Bruner, Renee DiResta and I sat down with Alasdair Allan, a hardware hacker and O’Reilly author; Josh Marinacci, a researcher with Nokia; and Tony Santos, a user experience designer with Mozilla. Our discussion focused on the future of UI/UX design, from the perils of designing from the top down to declining diversity in washing machines to controlling your car from anywhere in the world.

Here are some highlights from our chat:

  • Alasdair’s Ignite talk on the bad design of UX in the Internet of Things: the more widgets and dials and sliders that you add on are delayed design decisions that you’re putting onto the user. (1:55 mark)
  • Looking at startups working in the Internet of Things, design seems to be “pretty far down on the general level of importance.” Much of the innovation is happening on Kickstarter and is driven by hardware hackers, many of whom don’t have design experience — and products are often designed as an end to themselves, as opposed to parts of a connected ecosystem. “We’re not building an Internet of Things, we’re building a series of islands…we should be looking at systems.” (3:23)
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Podcast: expanding our experience of interfaces and interaction

A chat with Amanda Parkes, Ivan Poupyrev, and Hayes Raffle.

At our Sci Foo Camp this past summer, Jon Bruner, Jim Stogdill, Roger Magoulas, and I were joined by guests Amanda Parkes, a professor in the Department of Architecture at Columbia University, and CTO at algae biofuels company Bodega Algae and fashion technology company Skinteractive Studio; Ivan Poupyrev, principle research scientist at Disney Research, who leads an interaction research team; and Hayes Raffle, an interaction designer at Google [X] working on Project Glass. Our discussion covered a wide range of topics, from scalable sensors to tactile design to synthetic biology to haptic design to why technology isn’t a threat but rather is essential for human survival.

Here are some highlights from our discussion:

  • The Botanicus Interacticus project from Disney research and the Touché sensor technology.
  • Poupyrev explains the concept behind the Touché sensor is that we need to figure out how to make the entire world interactive, developing a single sensor that can be scalable to any situation — finding a universal solution that can adapt to multiple uses. That’s what Touché is, Poupyrev says: “a sensing technology that can dynamically adapt to multiple objects and can sense interaction with water, with everyday objects, with tables, with surfaces, the human body, plants, cats, birds, whatever you want.” (2:50 mark)

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Progressive reduction, Bret Victor rants, and Elon Musk is Tony Stark

A brief selection of articles highlighting UI/UX innovation.

Investigating emerging UI/UX tech in the design space is leading me to many interesting people, projects and innovative experiments. Here’s a brief selection of highlights I’ve come across in my research. Seen something interesting in UI/UX innovation? Please join the discussion in the comments section or reach out to me via email or on Twitter.

Getting users to interact with products in a particular way is hard. On one hand, you have experienced users who are ready for advanced features and interactions, but at the same time, you have new users who might be put off or confused by too much too soon. Think Interactive’s Alison McKenna took a look at a potential solution: Progressive Reduction — what if designers had a one-size-fits-all solution that allowed an interface to adapt to a user’s level of proficiency? She points to Allan Grinshtein’s seminal article, in which he describes how his company, LayerVault, implements Progressive Reduction and defines the concept: “The idea behind Progressive Reduction is simple: Usability is a moving target. A user’s understanding of your application improves over time and your application’s interface should adapt to your user.”
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Podcast: emerging technology and the coming disruption in design

Design's role in genomics and synthetic biology, robots taking our jobs, and scientists growing burgers in labs.

On a recent trip to our company offices in Cambridge, MA, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Jonathan Follett, a principal at Involution Studios and an O’Reilly author, and Mary Treseler, editorial strategist at O’Reilly. Follett currently is working with experts around the country to produce a book on designing for emerging technology. In this podcast, Follett, Treseler, and I discuss the magnitude of the coming disruption in the design space. Some tidbits covered in our discussion include:

And speaking of that lab burger, here’s Sergey Brin explaining why he bankrolled it:

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Investigating the state of UX and UI design in tech

As web and industrial design begin to collide, UX and UI design are particularly ripe for disruption.

The last major shift in design arguably occurred in the 90s as print design gave way to web design, and designers suddenly had to deal with web safe colors, alias fonts, and the information design challenges of a non-sequential medium. Two decades later, design is approaching a similarly monumental shift as designers move from designing for the web to designing for systems.

Software developers and hardware engineers are starting to face difficult — and atypically similar — questions in terms of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design as web and industrial design begin to collide. Software developers must now think about designing for hardware interfaces, and hardware engineers must now design with UX and UI in mind. This collision presents an opportunity for a tectonic shift in the design space, with the potential to spread across industries on a larger — and more personal — scale than design has experienced before. That’s why, beginning today, we’re kicking off an exploration of the companies and people experimenting with and innovating in UX and UI design.

We can already see the beginnings of this shift as wearable interfaces, such as Google Glass, Fitbit, and Jawbone, become more and more mainstream. But what about designing for a wearable computing system for assistance dogs that allows an animal to alert or even command its human? Or for a sensor system for your teeth that could monitor what you eat and drink?

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HTML 5 Geolocation, SharePoint Tech, Strangeloop, and More

Tech events you don't want to miss.

Each Monday, we round up upcoming event highlights from the programming and technology spaces. Have an event to share? Send us a note.

Intro to Raspberry Pi : Ed Snajder explains what a Raspberry Pi is, how it differs from an Arduino and shows attendees some cool things you can do with a Raspberry Pi. Register for this free webcast.

Date: 10 a.m. PT, June 25 Location: Online webcast

Graphlab Workshop on Large Scale Machine Learning: This workshop is a meeting place for both academia and industry to discuss upcoming challenges of large scale machine learning and solution methods. The main goal for this year’s workshop is to bring together top researchers from academia as well as top data scientists from the industry, with the special focus of large-scale machine learning on sparse graphs. For more information and to register, visit the event page.

Date: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. PT, July 1 Location: San Francisco, CA

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Using Iframes to Address Third-Party Script Issues and Boost Performance

SOASTA chief architect Philip Tellis talks about ways developers and third-party script authors can use iframes.

In the following interview, Philip Tellis, chief architect at SOASTA, talks about how iframes can be used to address performance and security issues with third-party scripts, and how the element can help third-party script owners make use of far-future expires headers. Tellis will address these issues in-depth in his upcoming Velocity session, “Improving 3rd Party Script Performance With IFrames.”

How can iframes be used to boost performance?

PhilipTellis

Philip Tellis

Philip Tellis: Iframes haven’t traditionally been good for performance. Sub-pages loaded in iframes still block the loading of the main page. Too many iframes hurt performance in the same way as too many images or scripts do. The problem is slightly worse with iframes because each page loaded in an iframe may load its own resources, each of which competes with the main page for available bandwidth.

All of this assumes that (1) the iframe is loaded within the page before the onload event fires, and (2) its src attribute points to a resource that needs to be downloaded. If we prevent either of these two conditions from happening, an iframe doesn’t have a performance penalty. We can then take advantage of the fact that the iframe is a complete browser window instance, and you can run pretty much anything you want in there without affecting the main page. This is great if you need to download and cache resources like JavaScript, images and CSS without blocking the page’s onload event or force a cache reload.

The three ways to reduce perceived latency in any system are to cache, parallelise, and predict, and iframes allow us to do all three without impacting the main page.

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