Interesting & Peculiar Products
As described in The Perfect Vision for September/October 2005, this $170 box from Sima Products may be the same unit I saw in use at an ALA Annual Conference, where it was noted as a legal way to make backup DVDs from commercial DVDs. It’s also quite possibly a way to copy commercial videocassettes to DVD, although I wouldn’t swear to that.
How does a DVD-copying device avoid DMCA problems? By operating in the analog domain.
The unit has S-video and composite-video inputs and outputs. The key here is that the box includes video signal processing options that would appear to undo certain forms of protection built into most commercial VHS and DVD products.
Is it legal? As far as I know, Sima hasn’t been shut down (yet). Do you get perfect DVD-to-DVD copies? Absolutely not: You lose menus and special features and you only get two-channel stereo. Video quality won’t be as good as the original, but should be close.
Here’s the disclaimer at www.simacorp.com:
Notice: Use of these products for unauthorized duplication of copyrighted material from DVD, VHS or other media is prohibited under federal copyright laws. These products are intended for use in a manner consistent with and permissible by the fair use provisions of federal copyright laws.
It’s not exactly a product; it’s a website (www.zoominfo. com) and an interesting idea, carried out better than I would have expected. Go there and enter your name. See what happens. Try some people you know who have a significant “web presence.”
Maybe you’ll get nothing much, maybe something fairly strange—but maybe you’ll get something that looks like a plausible third-party personal summary. Sometimes the summaries are pretty, good, sometimes they’re pretty bad. Most are generated by “parsing” online information—but people can sign in and clean up their own information.
There’s an article about ZoomInfo in the September 2005 EContent. The founder talks about privacy issues, noting that what ZoomInfo collects “tends to be the types of information people want people to know about them,” and that it’s all information deliberately placed on the open web: The company doesn’t read court records, realty transactions, and the like.
So you think some people are needlessly paranoid about RFID—that there couldn’t really be dangers to privacy? Take a look at page 12 of the July/August 2005 EContent. TagSense and MediaMark Research are testing RFID as a means of measuring magazine readership—not only of a magazine issue, but also of specific pages. I’m not sure how this could work, but it implies considerably longer-range scanning than the couple of feet we’re told is all that’s possible (unless, of course, you’re a hacker who demonstrates 60-foot readability). With any luck, the reader is carrying something with an RFID chip—new drivers’ licenses, perhaps?—and the way is open for all sorts of research. Here’s the final paragraph:
She [Jean Bedford of Shore Communications] expects RFID to be used for plenty of market research within five years and to become so commonplace in 10 years that nobody takes much note of it, much like people treat barcodes today.
I mentioned this device in a recent copyright essay; the full-page review in PC Magazine 24:14 (August 23, 2005) offers more detail—although Bill Howard starts out noting that the $249 device “scratches an itch you may not yet have.” Basically, the set-top box compresses live TV, satellite, or DVR video and transmits it over the internet to a single PC somewhere else. It’s one-to-one transmission, with some quality loss. If you’re on the road a lot and really, really want to watch local news or some show on your TiVo, and are willing to watch it on a notebook screen, and have broadband access at your hotel…then this might be just what you’re looking for. PC World 23:9 has a half-page review, noting that the image quality may be disappointing unless you have ultrahigh bandwidth, but the reviewer “nonetheless found the Slingbox nifty.” Their suggested use? “Have a craving to watch TV in the office?” Productivity is such a bore.
According to a “News & trends” item in the September 2005 PC World, Sony BMG and EMI have both “begun shipping compact discs using technology that limits the number of copies you can make of any disc to three.” The story says most Sony BMG CDs sold in the U.S. by the end of the year will be pseudo-CDs (although the article fails to recognize the “pseudo” portion), with either this form of copy-protection or another form. Company people call it “a series of speed bumps” and claim that customers “find a limit of three copies to be fair.”
Reading the article, it becomes clear that “speed bump” is the right word. First, the disc launches “its own audio player software” when you insert the CD in a PC—which means using Autorun, which many of us turn off. Unless the regular CD Audio tracks aren’t really CD Audio tracks, so much for the limit. In any case, once you copy the CD tracks to PC and make one of your “three permitted CD” copies, the CD version is just another CD track—which has no protection. The article says the protection isn’t meant to be unbreakable—it’s basically a nuisance. The companies talk about “casual piracy,” but I don’t regard using my own CDs to make a range of mix CD-Rs as any form of piracy—and casual file-sharing with friends is also not piracy, a term that should be reserved for commercial infringement. Ernest Miller’s quoted in the article in a similar mood: He calls “casual piracy” “really a bit of propaganda. It’s an effort to use language to frame the legal arguments.” And, of course, part of an ongoing effort to erode fair use.
It’s a little sad that the co-creator of the CD format is moving to pseudo-CDs; that leaves Philips to uphold the Red Book standard.
That same September 2005 PC World offers an interesting “News & trends” piece, “Flash memory to speed up hard drives.” Samsung plans to produce more “SSDs,” pure flash drives to replace small hard disks, but there’s still a huge price differential: $75 per gigabyte for flash RAM as compared to $1 per gigabyte for a 2.5" hard disk (smaller is always more expensive). One solution is a hybrid drive: small hard disks with 64MB or 128MB of fast flash RAM. By saving applications and data to the flash RAM when your notebook goes to sleep or idle mode, or when you’re ready to power down, you’ll be able to get back to work much more rapidly next time. Using the flash RAM as a “supercache” also means that the hard disk can power down most of the time, which will improve battery life. That requires OS changes, which should be present in the next version of Windows. All things considered, this seems like a sensible combination.
That’s the title of an unusual “roundup” in the September 2005 PC World—four options to provide some form of surround sound without installing a full set of speakers. You know you’re dealing with a PC magazine when one criterion for success is “louder audio.” But never mind. Highest rated among this somewhat oddball group is the most expensive unit, which I’ve seen discussed favorably elsewhere: Yamaha’s $1,500 YSP-1 Digital Sound Projector. It’s a 40.5" wide by 7.6" high by 4.6" deep box—look at those dimensions carefully—that has 42 speakers (40 little ones, two midrange) and loads of circuitry. If the device—about the right size to sit under or above a big-screen TV—is in the right position, signal processing and reflections off walls can work to provide remarkably effective surround sound, according to this and other reviews. You’ll probably want to add a subwoofer, and it’s not cheap—but it does include amplifiers, which helps to simplify matters.
I’m not sure whether this is interesting or peculiar: Sharp’s prototype LCD display that shows two different full-screen images to two different viewers, depending on where you’re sitting. I’m not making this up: A half-page note appears in the September 6, 2005 PC Magazine. Supposedly, the two-way displays will be available later this year. “The displays aren’t cheap to make”—but Sharp is aiming for a target price 50% higher than existing displays.
Of the suggested uses, I can’t really see the first (the person on the left browsing the web while the person on the right watches a video), but the second is plausible—an automobile display that shows a map to the driver, a movie to the shotgun passenger. Not that I’m thrilled with the idea of drivers looking at map displays instead of the road, but that doesn’t appear to be illegal.
Fujitsu claims to have color epaper with an image-memory function, able to withstand bending. “Public display advertising, including displays of information on curved surfaces, is one of several expected applications. The paper is to be commercialized in 2006.” That’s from the blurb in PC Magazine 24:15 (September 6, 2005). It sounds like a bendable thin-film display (and is based on film substrate); calling it e-paper seems to be a stretch. But isn’t it wonderful that there will be yet another innovative way to show us ads?
Here’s an odd one, or maybe not: Wurld Media’s Peer Impact (also described in the September 6, 2005 PC Magazine). Supposedly, the service already has more than a million tracks from four of the music biggies. The difference from most buy-by-track services: Files can be purchased and downloaded from your machine after you’ve paid for them, and you earn “up to five percent of the song’s price as credit for further purchases” if someone buys a file you recommended and downloads it from your PC. The company talks about “greater bandwidth and storage efficiencies”—but since the payment system requires that it be downloaded from one PC, not via a BitTorrent-like cascade, and since most home broadband setups limit uploading to a relatively slow pace (e.g., 384K) and may even limit total uploading each month, aren’t we talking about slower downloading? Here’s the charming closing statement, from Adam Klein at EMI, one of the RIAA members who’s helped fight P2P every step of the way: “Peer-to-peer is a really good thing. It’s the illegal use of peer-to-peer that’s not a good thing.” Except that the prevailing assumption from RIAA and MPAA has been that virtually all peer-to-peer is illegal.
You can pick up a digital camera for as little as $25. Should you? Jim Louderback’s column in the September 6, 2005 PC Magazine addresses this question: He picked up four cheap digital cameras to see whether they would make good pictures. These are unusual brands: Digital Concepts, FlatFoto, Gemini—and the slightly better known Concord.
Radio Shack sold him an $80 FlatFoto, a 3MP camera with a 1.5" LCD display (the only image display in the lot—but the 16MB of internal memory only holds seven pictures, the flash was weak, and battery life was short. Target asked $48 for the Concord 1500: 1.3MP resolution, 8MB internal memory, AA batteries—but after he ran through (and replaced) the first set of batteries, the camera was dead.
What about a $25 Digital Concepts camera from Fry’s or a $30 Gemini Micro Slim fro Walgreens? 640x480 images, tiny LCD status screen, no flash, no expandable memory slot.
None of the cameras produced 4x6 images “worth sharing,” no matter what the light. “Bad design, bad results, anemic storage, and flimsy construction were only a few of the deficiencies of these products.” He concludes that if you want a cheap digital camera, you should spring for the $170 Canon PowerShot 510. (Or you could buy a film camera—there are some decent 35mm units at around $100.)
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