Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Whither (or Wither?) Mac Mini?

It's been over three years since the Mac Mini was introduced. At the time it had a clear mission and was built to fit its goals. Apple was pushing hard to convert Windows switchers. The Mini filled the niche of an entry-level PC replacement priced to compete with the beige commodities. After several revisions and a price increase, it seems to me the Mini has lost its way.

In early 2005 a person could become a Mac user for $499 if they already had peripherals. A full system with 17" CRT could be had for $799 in the form of the eMac. Since the transition to Intel processors, however, Apple seems to have been sapped of its desire to compete for the low-end market. The eMac was discontinued and now the Mac Mini comes in $599 and $799 models.

The extra $100 for the modern Mini would not be so bad if it purchased a full-powered system. Unfortunately, the base model includes only an 80 GB hard drive, a combo optical drive (no DVD writer), and a graphics card using 64 MB of shared main memory (no dedicated video RAM). Even the one gigabyte of main memory is problematic in that it fills both memory slots, so upgrading means discarding the old memory.

The design of the Mac Mini is very nice; too nice in my opinion. In order to fit the components into the miniscule 6.5 x 6.5 x 2" case, more expensive laptop components have to be used. Is extreme smallness really so important? Why does anyone need a desktop system that weighs less than 3 pounds?

If Apple continues the Tuesday updates it has been releasing every week, I would like to see a Mac Mini update. The AppleTV, now priced starting at just $229, is very similar to a Mac Mini internally. Teardowns show a one GHz Intel processor, 64 MB NVidia video card, 256 MB of RAM, and a Fujitsu laptop hard drive. Obviously the Mini could have improved specs and/or a lower price.

The desktop PC market is no longer as explosive as the laptop market, but Apple could be a much larger contender by answering the wishes of many users and making a Mac Mini "Maxi". It would necessarily come in a bigger case. It would have a desktop hard drive, a full video card in a real PCI or AGP slot, and open memory slots. Ideally the case would even swing open easily like the Mac Pro, encouraging people to upgrade it. With a larger hard drive and better video card than currently offered and otherwise similar specs, the base model could still be priced back at the $499 level.

My imagined Mac Mini Maxi

Whether this would be a new product or a redo of the Mac Mini would be up to marketing, but such a formulation would demonstrate a commitment on Apple's part to continue to court Switchers. Without such a model in their arsenal, the Hackintosh becomes much more appealing to potential Mac users. Better to have a low-margin customer than no customer at all.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Immersive Virtual Reality Is All About the Turing Test

While the technical specifications and modes of interaction with modern computers and gaming systems continue to advance, we are still quite a long way from graphics, sound, and user interface that provide a life-like experience. Even so, a properly programmed virtual world could be extremely immersive if the focus was in the right place. Imagine a game world where it is impossible to tell which characters are controlled by real humans. If the ugly troll might be your cousin, and that swamp rat could be your neighbor's pet, while the friendly paladin might simply be a computer character, the world suddenly has some moral ambiguity.

The key to a new breed of virtual reality is the Turing test. Simply put, the idea is that a true test of artificial intelligence is whether you can interact with it and a human being and not know which one is the computer.

Most of the immersive games up to this point have primarily focused on hack and slash. World of Warcraft (or a decade ago Diablo II) allowed people to create a virtual personality and go around looking for evil to slay and treasure to liberate. Other virtual worlds focus only on the social aspect. Services like Second Life let people set up homes and environments and communicate via avatars. The web site, Virtual Worlds Review, lists almost 30 such games.

Some single player games have started to introduce the idea of players choosing their character's morality. Most notable in this genre are Black & White and Fable. Both have sequels in the works. These games were novel in their approach to the characters' interaction with the world. Stealing, killing civilians, and other "evil" acts are allowed. The game tracks a characters' behavior and changes accordingly.

An evil character in Fable has grown horns.

While it is a start for games to apply their own interpretation of ethics, having the world apply real, natural consequences seems even more interesting. If you have no idea whether that troll is computer- or human-controlled, attacking it without provocation becomes much more problematic. Say you kill a real player's troll character. He may have friends or family in the game or even the ability to be resurrected. Those characters could either seek revenge or go through the legal system and seek justice.

This would lead to many new types of game play. Being a thief stealing from both "real" and artificially intelligent shopkeepers adds a new level of potential danger. Some characters might specialize as bounty hunters, tracking down the miscreants. Even the details of a world could vary to increase player interest. Some communities could be frontier towns with only personal revenge type justice, similar to the Old West. Others would be more "civilized" and have complete systems of laws and consequences. Racial prejudice from place to place or outright war would add further interest.

All of this could be realized with existing technology if only people were allowed to play a wide variety of roles in the virtual world and the computer characters became smart enough to blend in with the humans. If Turing is satisfied, the game world would be very satisfactory.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Pulling My Leg, Robotically

For over four years bipedal robots have had the ability to run (defined as movement where both feet are off the ground at some point). High tech walking robots have been developed by Sony (the QRIO) and Honda (Asimo).

These developments are of more than academic interest to me because just over two years ago I lost the ability to move. On December 28, 2005, I went over a downhill ski jump, landed on my neck, and shattered a vertebra and damaged my spinal cord. After a five-hour surgery and another three months of inpatient physical therapy I slowly regained my physical function. Now I can walk slowly for short distances using a cane.

Spinal Cord Injury is more complicated than I would have imagined. My accident resulted in hemiplegia, which means paralysis of one side of the body. Doctors also call people like me "walking quads". But even paralysis has a lot more subtlety than you might expect. Some of my nerves are indeed disconnected, causing those muscles to be unresponsive and atrophy. Another result, however, is that sometimes the muscles get into a feedback loop causing an uncontrollable sputter or spasm. Still other muscles are overactive, firing all the time. This results in an inability to move the affected limb in the opposite direction.

This last is the main factor inhibiting me from walking better. My calf and hamstring are perpetually flexed, so lifting my foot and bending at the knee are very limited. In addition, for reasons I don't really understand, my balance is very poor.

If robots can be made that walk and even run and climb stairs bipedally, couldn't this technology be applied to a medical condition like mine? I can envision a cast-like legging containing robotics for helping to propel the leg forward and keeping balance. There would be some adaptation necessary to take the mechanics of a solid robot and transform them into a hollow shell. I suppose keeping the balance of a six-foot, 150-pound person would be considerably more difficult than for little Asimo, but the mechanics wouldn't have to do the job alone. The person still has some sense of balance to contribute.

Even if such uses are being developed, one major problem remains: medical technology is ridiculously priced. As an example, I recently found geared manual wheelchair wheels available online. They allow downshifting like a bicycle to facilitate climbing hills. This kind of wheel would be great for someone like me with limited upper-body strength. I checked the order form and discovered that a pair cost $5,000!

$5,000 "Magic Wheels"

Part of the problem is surely the proprietary nature of this kind of development. If it is patented technology, the manufacturers basically have a monopoly to charge whatever they want. A bigger issue, I think, is our whole health care insurance system. It is standard practice for doctors to charge more when someone has insurance than if they don't. Likewise, products that are typically paid for by insurance seem to have super inflated prices. For those of us with no or limited insurance it makes these items out of reach. I hope that some day in my lifetime our country puts an emphasis on quality of life and helping people whose lives can be greatly enhanced by some of these great developments.