Happy Birthday David

Meet David: the 8th generation android from Weyland Industries that pushes technological, intellectual, physical and emotional barriers in robotics:

We’re told one of these units is serving as the butler and maintenance man on Project Prometheus, so I’m sure they’ll be in safe hands…

Gameboy Emulator for Android

You know how I love my phone like it was a sexy robot from the future? Well check this shit out. It’s also a full-blown GBA emulator, which with its massive AMOLED screen, and dual core processing, makes my Samsung way more awesome than I could possibly have conceived.

This is a screenshot from Tiger GBA running Advance Wars 2, on it’s original resolution (you can upscale but I like to kick it oldshool). The app integrates with a ROM downloader, where one can select ‘backups’ of the games they already own in order to play.

Legal note: it is against the law to download and play ROM backups of games you do not own. So play safe!

The Ultimate Android Homescreen

I recently upgraded to a brand new phone, the Samsung Galaxy S2, and let me tell you, her beauty is a thing to behold.

This is my second Android device, my first being an HTC Hero, whom I loved like a little brother. But I love my Galaxy like she’s a sexy robot from the future, trained to be awesome.

Given I’ll be spending the next couple of years with her, it’s important that I maximise all that awesomeness. For me, that boils down to the following areas:

  • She needs to look attractive
  • She needs to let me do my thing
  • She needs to last ’til at least midnight
  • She needs to be constantly surprising
  • She needs to feel like she’s all mine

It’s quite possible to achieve these things from your Android device: it just requires a bit of time to work out your priorities, and sometimes the advice of a few well respected sources. Ultimately, it’s experience that leads to a happy relationship. By the way, yes, I’m still talking about mobile phones.

With all of this in mind, I think I’ve found my ultimate Android setup, the perfect relationship, if you will. So without further ado, I present to you my Ultimate Android Homescreen, a perfectly-tuned combination of sexiness, usefulness, battery life and entertainment.

At just three screens, she’s the most efficient I could conceive of – the product of several hours hard thinking!

  1. The ‘Immediacy’ Screen – stuff you need right now
  2. The ‘Entertainment’ Screen – stuff to feed your head
  3. The ‘Productivity’ Screen – stuff to get shit done

A couple of things glue this all together: Tasker, and LauncherPro. I also advise JuiceDefender, but like all of the apps listed below, it’s not an essential. After all, this is more a ‘what worked for me could work for you’ article (like this one).

(click the graphic to view in fullscreen)

Whether you follow this exact recipe, or you choose to develop your own ultimate Android homescreen, I hope you’ll be very happy together, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Everyday Coolness on the App Store

As much as I hate Apple (despite having an iPad… long story) you’ve got to hand it to them that they’ve really nailed their app ecosystem, haven’t they?

But that’s a redundant idea.

Of course they’ve developed a clever app ecosystem: a perfect storm of mutual reward for all stakeholders. Everyone knows that. But the app I’m about to showcase has highlighted, at least to me, that there’s another killer feature of the App Store that I’d not yet considered – it’s cool.
And you know what? Coolness attracts coolness.

For what other reason would Everyday for iPhone exist in the world?
I mean, just look at this fucking hip promo video:

Nice, huh? A simple idea, executed well. And I believe it could only exist because Apple has cornered the market in providing a place for cool apps like this to flourish. You don’t see this sort of shit on an Android (Androidify is probably their coolest though) or on BlackBerry, do you?

And what’s really cool is that Noah Kalina, the guy behind this famous video felt he could enter the market with no prior experience, purely on the perceived strength of his one cool idea. Where one or two interesting product features or a single USP would struggle to attract a buying audience in the real world, on the App Store it’s all that really counts. Apple have democratised the adoption of these cool little tweaks, and have created a playing field for all sorts of single-serving software and one-trick ponies.

Basically I’m saying that because of the App Store, the world has more cool stuff – which is just one more reason to love hate Apple.

Digital Cortex Is Back!!

Before I say anything about my months in the digital wilderness, let’s celebrate the return of fresh content to this blog with an expression of pure robotic joy:

Right then. What have I been up to?

  • Lots of cool, creative and techy stuff for MediaCom and MBA.
  • Went on an Android development course, and made an Asteroids game!
  • Moved to Ladbroke Grove from Clapham South. West is best.
  • Joined Foursquare and learned to love it.
  • Tried and failed to make a Foursquare widget for bloggers.
  • Joined the Gym – tickets to the gunshow now on sale.
  • Did a bit of consultancy for Moviestorm and Optricks Media.
  • Went on a few awesome nights out, inc. the Viral Video Chart relaunch.
  • Found some simply stunning new music which I’ll share with you soon!
  • Tried a pickled herring sandwich in Amsterdam.
  • Flew to Berlin and back again in a day.
  • Watched about a million films.
  • Proclaimed Warren Ellis the best comic book author of all time.
  • Created Digital Cortex Lite and filled it with interesting content tidbits.
  • Constantly tweeted across numiferous topics.
  • Redesigned Digital Cortex using the Thesis theme.
  • Bookmarked loads of interesting stuff to share with you here.

So quite a few things really. But please accept my apologies! I’m ready to be a better blogger. Starting now. Stay with me. Grab the feed. Let’s try this thing again.

Love Tom x

On the Potential for Branded Robots

Last year I wrote about these awesome fighting robots from Japan, where  I asked this question:

“I am very interested in at least progressing research into the potential for branded robotics, androids & cybernetics if any readers have thoughts?”

I received an equally awesome response from one Pius Agius, who challenged me on my Western predilection to see robots fighting rather than fulfilling a higher place in society. I reproduce the key lines of our dialogue here:

“Because [the Japanese] accept robots as part of their daily lives more than a majority of those living in the west does not mean we in the so called west cannot build great machines […] We can make better use of our creations than place them in roman like battles. What does that say about us as a civilization?? Let us build machines that can develop and reach their full potential.”

Stunned to have stimulated such a well-considered response, in answer I cited a company that I think are making some great stuff in this field – Festo:

“I think their design-led approach is not only creating some very useful mechanisms, but can potentially change the way we in the West perceive robotics as part of everyday life.”

Check them out if you like – Festo do great stuff.

Meanwhile, I went to see what I could find out about the guy who’d crashed in with his well-considered comment. I found Pius dwelling on the vibrant community pages of Grandroids, a Ning-based social network full of heavyweight discussion on robotics. Members spoke of a ‘Steve Grand’ as the patriarch of their micro-culture. I’m coming back to this…

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up surrounded by members of the Games Industry in Cambridge. My father was Director of Development at Millennium Interactive, which became Cyberlife, then Creature Labs, and then Gameware Development.

The common thread between these companies was a breakthrough series of Artificial Life games called Creatures. Cyberlife was created to commercialise the work of this very same Steve Grand, where together with a team of artists and programmers they went about developing the Creatures series.

Though artificial life simulators are now a well-established genre (Tamagotchi; Sims; EyePet), the series was first to reach critical and commercial acclaim. Players would take on the role of keepers to cutesy ‘Norns’. But these were no ordinary creations, and in the 90’s Creatures was far ahead of its time.

These creatures would learn and grow, each with their own neural network, and were motivated to survive, and eventually breed in order to pass on their digital genotype. They had the ability to adapt and evolve, iterating towards an understanding of and harmony with their environment.

Years later, Steve is well-established as the leading thinker in AI and robotics. As well as mounds of academic submissions, he’d been running a project to build a series of intelligent robots for rent, as crowd pullers in public events and trade shows. His first robot was a five foot tall humanoid female called Grace, I discovered.

Because I’d found myself on his site, and because I know the guy, I thought I’d go to Steve to ask my initial question once more:

Hello Steve,
This is Tom Saunter here, Ian’s son.

A member of this very network recently commented on my blog, and one Google later I found myself here. With such a vibrant community there’s so much to digest, so I thought I’d go straight to the source…

Part of my job these days is to seek out emerging technologies for advertising purposes, and now that I’ve read about your Grandroids project I am interested to hear your thoughts on how you feel robotics could be of benefit to brands and, in turn, to consumers.

Besides increased traffic to conference booths, what part do you feel your robots might reasonably play when faced with a brief to change the buying behaviours of the general public?

There’s got to be a great piece of research in there.
Do you know anyone who can help me with an answer?

All the best,
Tom

The response, and get ready for it, was this phenomenal piece of prose:

[…] So, um, how might robots like Grace change buying behaviours? God knows! They could certainly have an impact on brand perception, and I suspect that’s a double-edged sword. If the robot is suitably impressive then it improves the company’s image, but if it’s a bit naff then at best it’s just a novelty to draw crowds that the client would then have to secure by other means, and at worst it damages the client’s image.

For instance Asimo has done wonders for Honda’s public image (not in terms of AI, particularly, just general technology), but some other Japanese robots have fared less well, especially those that fall into the Valley of the Uncanny. In other words, they’re lifelike enough to trigger the circuits in our brains that detect things that “aren’t quite right” in other people (signs that we’re being deceived or threatened, say), but they’re not lifelike enough to actually pass the test, so we find them disconcerting. 3D computer games frequently suffer from the same problem, as I’m sure you know, and years ago I predicted that as 3D graphics got better, the demands on intelligent behaviour for game characters would grow intense.

Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent. It was a big factor in our design for Grace, though. We deliberately made her look like a robot and didn’t give her human-like skin, etc. Instead I relied on psychological cues of sexiness and lifelikeness that didn’t risk us falling into the Valley of the Uncanny. My point is, you have to get the psychology right or you won’t produce the positive associations in people’s minds that your client needs. The consumers aren’t necessarily going to be able to articulate these things, so they’ll feel bad without knowing why, and you could damage the brand rather than enhance it. I felt I had enough unique experience in designing artificial lifeforms to stay on the safe side of that boundary, though.

One of the things I was keen to achieve was understatement. There are various companies renting out “robots” as crowd pullers (although really they’re just animatronics or remote controlled) and they go for a big noisy splash – flashing lights, big press releases, comedy routines, etc. I wanted Grace to just sit there at the entrance to a booth and be as much like a normal sales girl as possible. I wanted people to do a double-take and then be intrigued. Let them discover it for themselves. It’s a bit like knowing you’ve just been passed by a really powerful motorcycle because you didn’t hear it coming. I think if you do something like this with a fanfare then people will be primed to find something wrong with it, but if you go for the soft sell then they’ll be supportive and impressed. When I wrote Creatures all those centuries ago, my prime principle was that I shouldn’t try to fool people into thinking norns were alive – I should really try my best to make them alive. If people knew I was being honest and doing my best then they’d be on my side, and I think the same is true here. Undersell the robot and you make their company look good by association, as if there’s a lot more under the hood of their products than they’re letting on.

There are also many other kinds of subliminal association that can work for you or against you depending on the client and your ability to tap into the right psychological triggers. I based the look of Grace on the robots Chris Cunningham designed for the video to go with Bjork’s “All is full of love”, because I think he got a lot of those triggers just right – especially the tension between femininity and technology. It’s a bit like designing the iPod – the right curves and the bits you leave out are so important. And with real robots you have to get the behaviour right too, which is a big subject all by itself. Almost all current robots fail miserably in that regard, especially by being too predictable and not subtle enough.

But I don’t think I’m really answering your question, am I? Sorry. Advertising and marketing aren’t my field (I have quite enough fields without adding any more). I don’t really know of anyone who knows about this stuff. One of our “competitors” in New York has a site where they talk quite a bit about the marketing potential of their remote-controlled “robots”, but I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the company (so maybe their advice doesn’t work!).

Looks like it’s down to you to figure it out…

There it is then. The planet’s preeminent ALife & robotics academic, whom has been referred to by Richard Dawkins as “the creator of what I think is the nearest approach to artificial life so far”, is leaving it up to us to answer the big questions:

  • What is the potential for branded robots?
  • Will they ever form part of a marketing strategy?
  • Will we ever allow robots a part in everyday life?

And so, I ask again, dear reader, what do you think?

Let me know in the comments.

Astro Boy is Blasting Onscreen

Astro Boy will be landing on our screens in October this year, it’s been confirmed.

Astroboy Blasts Off

For those who don’t know, ‘Astro Boy’ is an anime sci-fi series set in a dystopian future where humans and androids coexist. It’s main character is a powerful robot called Astro Boy (Astro for short), who was created by a great scientist called Doctor Tenma following the death of his son Tobio.

Despite looking identical to Tobio, Tenma soon realized that the little android could not fill the void of his lost son, especially given that Astro could not grow older or easily express human feelings. Indeed, in one set of comic panels, Astro is shown preferring the mechanical shapes of cubes over the organic shapes of flowers. I’m a bit like that sometimes… 🙂

Astro is gifted with awesome robot powers and skills, as well as the ability to experience human emotions. Astro has fought crime, evil, and injustice across five decades of great comic and television series. Most of his enemies are robot-hating humans, robots gone berserk, or alien invaders. Almost every story includes a battle involving Astro and other robots. Cool huh?

In advance of Astro Boy’s Autumn 2009 cinematic release, let’s take a trip through the many ages of Astro Boy…

1960’s

Astro Boy was the first Anime to be exported to the West.
Check out this intro to his first TV series, dubbed from Japanese:

1980’s

Here’s the Astro that most of us will recognise.
He’s been in this colour form for the longest (excepting his past in comics):

Modern Day

Finally, the trailer for his upcoming movie, which I’m pretty excited about.
I’m predicting a new wave of popularity and cool merchandise from this:

Astro is a cultural icon in my eyes, and for me is the strongest symbol of a Japanese media form being highly attractive to a Western eye, together with Hello Kitty. Who’s with me? Would love to hear some thoughts.