Making Long-Distance Not So Long

Ars technica reports:

Skype might not be performing quite as well as parent company eBay would prefer a $2.6 billion acquisition to perform, but that hasn’t dampened worldwide enthusiasm for the VoIP service. Skype is so popular, in fact, that new numbers out from TeleGeography suggest that it has become the “largest provider of cross-border voice communications in the world.”

When I went to France last year, my parents and I used Skype to keep in contact.   For anyone traveling overseas and wishing to keep in contact with people here in the States, or for those who are here and wish to keep in contact with someone overseas, I highly recommend using Skype because the service is convenient and it’s FREE!.   Just download the free Skype application on your computer, setup your free account, and have the other party download and setup also, and you’re on your way to free audio and video chats.   Did I mention it was free?

(Nod: Just Another iPhone Blog)

ESPN’s Magic Box

I’m late in commenting on this, but last month, SportsCenter on ESPN launched a new touchscreen graphic on their in-studio Perceptive Pixel touchscreen.   While they have been using their touchscreen since sometime in December, most notably with a telestrator graphic, this NFL Draft graphic marks their first appropriate (and cool) use of the technology.   I imagine we’ll be seeing more of this as the draft approaches.

16 February:

11 March:

New CNN Graphics Are Just Ok

Earlier this month, CNN launched new lower-third graphics for all of their shows.   On CNN, lower-third graphics (so named because they occupy the lower-third region of the television screen) display what story is being shown as well as the name and titles of anchors, reporters, interviewees, etc., the location of the report, and any other flags, such as breaking news, developing story, etc.   The new graphics on CNN give a unified look across each show, but while they are an improvement on the old look, they have faults of their own.

To start off, here are the old lower third graphics (via Media Matters):

old cnn lower-third

old cnn lower-third

One of my biggest issues with these graphics was when the story topic was long and would run into the show logo on the right there were visual proximity issues:

old cnn lower-third

And here are the new graphics (all via

new cnn lower-third

Here are the graphics in action:

As you can see, the CNN logo has moved to the bottom right corner to the left of the show logo, a story topic is now only one line, and, as you’ll see below, a story flag color change occurred.   What makes the new graphics partly successful is the simplicity a bordered, solid black rounded rectangle, and the animation is quick and simple, too.   What makes the new graphics undesirable, however, is much more.

(But before I list the faults of the new graphics, I first have to issue a disclaimer.   Anything I may say is wrong with the graphics could very well been proposed or discussed internally at CNN but shot down by the creative team or some higher-up-the-totem-pole executive.   A coworker of mine recently completed work on a major update to a popular weekly sports event, and there were some creative elements that were ridiculed in online forums.   What forum users suggested had internally been suggested to higher-ups by my coworker but were dismissed.   So, for all I know, anything I comment on here may very well have been discussed at CNN.)

First, the show logo and CNN logo bug is too huge.   Do we need to be constantly reminded what show were watching?   I’m assuming veteran watchers of Larry King Live or The Situation Room or Lou Dobbs Tonight know what show they’re watching by a) the host of the show and b) the time the show is airing.   Taking out the show logo would give story titles and other information more horizontal room to be displayed.   What happens now is any text is horizontally-scaled to fit inside the space allotted.   For example, in the Wolf Blitzer “Pres. Bush & Flying Shoes” image above, if president were spelled out instead of abbreviated, since the text would be longer, it would horizontally-scale to fit inside the same black rectangle.

Second, the CNN logo carrier (black, rounded rectangle) needs some work.   Here is the CNN logo with “Live”:

cnn live

The left edge of the ‘L’ hangs slightly over the left edge of the ‘C.’   The discrepancy is hard to see in this image, but on TV, it’s definitely there.   And because of this hang-over, when the “Live” text disappears, there’s another discrepancy:

cnn logo

The CNN logo carrier shrinks down to the logo’s size (plus padding), but there is more padding on the left side of the logo than there is on the right side.   If you look at the previous image with the “Live” text and compare with the above image, you can see the padding on the left and right of the CNN logo is the same in both images.   If the “Live” text were scaled down to fit exactly over the CNN logo, the padding could be uniform on both sides whether or not the “Live” were there.

Third, the displaying of someone’s name and title, for example being interviewed for a story or for commentary, can be excessive. Here’s someone’s name and title displayed:


If the story caption is displayed, for instance the “Pres. Bush & Flying Shoes” text, and the next shot is a commentator, the story caption wipes off and the person’s name and title wipes on.   After a while, the name and title wipes off and the story caption wipes back on.   This part is fine.   Where the problem creeps in is when the person commenting has more than one title.   For instance, a show I was watching last week had someone on who was a “CNN Contributor,” “Republican Strategist,” and the author of some book (the YouTube clip above has this many-titles problem, too).   Well, the director of the show thought, rightfully, all three titles needed displaying.   So, the story caption wiped off, his name and the first title wiped on and off, his name and the second title wiped on and off, his name and the third title wiped on and off, and finally, the story caption wiped back on.   The amount of animation for the small change of text (the name was the same each time) was excessive.   Even just animating from the story caption to a commentator’s name and title back to the story caption is a bit much.   Adding one or two extra titles is way too much.

To fix this excessiveness, the carrier for the story caption and the name and title of a commentator should never fully wipe off if it merely is switching text inside of it.   Instead, text should wipe off like it currently does but the carrier should remain with the same dimensions.   Once the text is fully animated off, the carrier should morph to the size of the new text and then the new text should wipe on.   Let’s look at an example to make this clearer.   Let’s say our story caption is “Pres. Bush & Flying Shoes” and we want to then display “Brad Simon / Fmr. Fed. Prosecutor” next.   The name/title text is horizontally shorter than the story caption.   The caption text would wipe off, but the carrier would remain the same size.   When the caption text finished wiping off, the carrier would adjust its horizontal and vertical size to fit the invisible name/title text.   When this animation finishes, the name/title text would wipe on.   This approach would give greater fluidity to the transitions and eliminate the excessive animation that is currently in place.   This approach would also eliminate the noticeable hitch when a carrier wipes off and a new carrier of a different vertical size wipes on.

Because CNN uses the real-time 3D rendering program Viz Artist to create their graphics, these new graphics likely employ the Viz technology called Transition Logic.   Basically, Transition Logic allows certain elements to remain or animate into new elements when other elements change.   So, using Transition Logic, the approach outlined above could be accomplished with a Noggi geometrical shape adjusted to be a rounded rectangle and with a center point in the lower left corner.   The width and height properties of the Noggi plugin could be adjusted and animated using Viz scripts (I know this because I’ve done it before).

Finally, this isn’t really a problem but rather a curiosity:

breaking news

The “Breaking News” text now receives a yellow background, changed from red in the older graphics.   I’m curious how the creative decision came to be to change the color.   Red is now for “Developing Story.”   Red seems like a more urgent color for a more urgent breaking story, not an ongoing, developing story.

In addition to the new lower-third graphics, the bottom of the screen received a major update.   Instead of the egregiously annoying news ticker that served to only distract viewers from watching, listening, and focusing on the story being aired, there is a “flipper” that displays more information on the current story and periodically switches to updates on top stories.   A fabulous and much needed change.

Overall, the new CNN lower-third graphics are an improvement on their predecessors.   The simplicity of the design and animations are excellent examples for other broadcast graphics developers.   But while they enjoy success in their simplicity, they have several faults that detract from an overall success.

Four Inches


Wired yesterday had a cool brief history of GPS.   I learned a couple of cool things:

The GPS story starts with Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. The night after it was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, researchers at MIT were able to track Sputnik’s orbit by its radio signal. And if you can track satellites from Earth, you can figure out how to locate objects on (or just above) Earth from the positions of satellites. […]

[Today,] GPS augmentation and precise monitoring techniques known as carrier-phase enhancement, differential GPS and relative kinematic positioning can now provide accuracy down to 4 inches.

4 inches! Incredible!   Hmm, if I were 4 inches to the right of where I’m sitting now, I’d fall off the couch.

(Photo: Wired article via NASA)

The F-35 Lightning

Ever since I attended an air show when I was young, I’ve been fascinated with military aircraft.   While I regret not following aircraft development as closely as I used to, yesterday while reading Patrick Appel, filling in for Andrew Sullivan, I learned something new: the Pentagon has a new plane, the F-35 Lightning.

The stealth-technology-equipped F-35 comes in three flavors normal runway takeoff and landing, short takeoff and vertical landing (like the Harrier), and aircraft carrier takeoff and landing and is a little brother to the stealthy F-22 Raptor.

Scheduled to enter service in 2011, the F-35 is aimed at replacing the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon and the Marines’ AV-8A Harrier and aimed at complementing the Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

The name “Lightning” is in honor of Lockheed Martin’s World War II fighter, the P-38 Lightning.

The F-35 Lightning:



The F-22:



In my excitement to see some awesome new military hardware, I did a little more poking around, and I learned the F-117 was sadly retired in April.   The F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter along with the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber are two of the most kick-ass aircraft ever developed.   The former is an angular harbinger of doom; the latter is an uber-sleek, bat-like phantom of the skies.

The F-117:



The B-2:



A few more F-35 views:


F-16, F-35, F-22 comparison:

F-16, F-35, F-22 comparison

And finally, an interesting tidbit about the development of the F-35:

[The F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)] evolved to an international co-development program. The United Kingdom, Italy, The Netherlands, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Australia and Turkey have formally joined the U.S. and contributed money toward the program. These partners are either NATO countries and/or close US allies, and peacekeeping and war fighting more recently have been done by coalitions. The reason to have all of these countries in co-development with the US is that there is currently a big difference in the type of equipment that they fly. Although some countries fly equipment similar to the US’s, others fly equipment that is less capable. With JSF, they can all fly the same airplane; as a coalition, they can all be the same. With this in mind, the U.S. invited these eight countries to participate in developing the airplanes. That is to say, they are not just participants to buy the airplanes. They will participate in the design, build, and test of the airplanes. This is a marked difference from past programs.

(Image credits: F-35 comparison and F-35 three-view from; all other photos from Wikimedia and the United States Air Force in the public domain)

“Sprinkles Make the Cupcakes, Don’t You Think?”

The spotlight Perceptive Pixel has been given from the presidential campaign is amazing.   Even though the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live are making fun of John King and CNN’s Magic Wall, the technology developed by Perceptive Pixel is now firmly entrenched in our lives, in part thanks to them.

Technological Warfare

As always, the major networks tried to out-technology each other on election night on Tuesday.   Some things worked, some didn’t, and some just didn’t need to happen.

CNN started the touchscreen bonanza with John King’s “Magic Wall,” a touchscreen developed by Perceptive Pixel.   On MSNBC, Chuck Todd uses a Microsoft Surface touchscreen.   One engineering difference between the two machines is that the Surface screen sits horizontally like a table and the Perceptive Pixel screen sits vertically like a big screen television.   Prior to election night, Todd’s Surface was linked to a large monitor so we could see what he was doing:

But on election night, he had a slightly more ambitious setup: a virtual set.   Instead of the Surface linked to a large monitor to see the results of Todd’s interactions with the Surface, it was linked to a giant virtual graphic amidst giant virtual columns.   There wasn’t actually anything behind Todd; this was a composite shot similar to a weather reporter standing in front of a green screen with a composited weather map and was MSNBC’s effort to out-perform the other networks:

The virtual set was an interesting idea, but there is, though, an inherent flaw with the Surface screen: we as viewers cannot see both the screen and the anchor at the same time.   This is where MSNBC’s setup fails.   With CNN’s screen, we see John King directly interacting with the screen and the results of the interactions; we can see things animate or change color when King touches them.

When King tells us to take a look at Chester county in Pennsylvania, we can see him touch the county, so we know which county it is and where it is on the map.   When Todd does the same thing with Miami-Dade county in Florida, we can only see the results of the interactions.   Todd highlights or points to a county on his screen, but when the camera is focused on the virtual screen, we can’t see what he’s pointing to and thus have a lack of correlation.   Without seeing what the anchor is doing, we’re left with a fullscreen graphic, so why even have the anchor on the set with the screen and interactions we can’t see?   Furthermore, in the first video, if we were to focus our attention on Todd, we would miss the results of his interactions on the large monitor.   If we’re watching Todd while he is talking to us, we miss seeing Nevada and Florida changing colors on the large monitor.   The director can try to compensate for this by giving us an overhead shot of Todd’s screen, but then we’re left with a pair of hands touching a screen instead of the whole anchor visibly and visually telling the story.   Not seeing Todd point to where or what he is talking about is akin to a weather reporter showing us a weather map with fronts, storms, and temperatures but not being on screen to point out what he is talking about.   Maybe not such a big deal if we didn’t see the weather reporter, but we’ve come to expect the visible instruction.   The Surface setup fails to take this expectation into account.   With CNN’s Perceptive Pixel screen, however, we can see the anchor’s direct interaction with the map making it superior to the Surface screen.

Like Chuck Todd, John King on CNN had some of his own virtual graphics.   For an explanation on the balance of power in the Senate, King highlighted key Senate races with a virtual Senate-floor layout:

What made this graphic good was the format.   The 3D virtual graphic on the looked great, and the tracking with the camera was well done.   Even though John King wasn’t in the camera shot physically showing us what he was talking about (like Chuck Todd), he didn’t need to be.   This particular graphic didn’t need the physical presence of the anchor to instruct viewers what he was talking about.

But not everything CNN did on election night was good.   In what was the ultimate bid to out-perform the other networks, CNN turned two interviewees into “holograms”:

Of course, though, they weren’t actually holograms; they were a series of green-screened images composited to look like a hologram.

From a technology standpoint, CNN wins the battle with their seemingly constant drive to advance on-screen broadcast technologies.   During the primaries, they were the first to unveil a highly interactive touchscreen that the other networks now try, unsuccessfully, to emulate.   What will be interesting to see is how this technology is used again and how it advances.   Like the virtual election maps, the “hologram” was a composite shot, so Wolf Blitzer couldn’t actually see Jessica Yellin.   Perhaps the next step is actually creating a true Star-Wars-like hologram with on-set video projection so the interviewer can physically see the hologrammed interviewee on the set?

From an information-delivery standpoint, though, the “hologram” was ridiculously unnecessary, and the developers behind it seemed to concede the presentation is more important than the information being presented.   What was the point of the “hologram”?   What did it achieve that a standard two-panel video graphic or a cutaway would not?   If she or were amidst the excitement of crowds, why not show the excitement?

Whatever the rationale behind some of this technology, the technology is here to stay.   And with the technology comes the wars between the networks to out-do each other.   I hope, though, that we in the broadcast graphics field can learn from what each other do and serve the viewers better by realizing information is more important than the presentation of it.   I fear, though, that we’ve permanently crossed the line, and it is more important to dazzle than it is to inform.


The Obama campaign has released an app for iPhone and iPod touch. Talk about a candidate who a) is in tune with the times and b) embraces today’s technologies.

Obama iPhone app

(Nod: Ben Smith)

New iPhone Games Coming

Just Another iPhone Blog is reporting that EA is developing NINE new iPhone/iPod Touch games:

  • Yahtzee Adventures
  • Mini Golf
  • Lemonade Tycoon
  • Mahjong
  • Monopoly: Here & Now The World Edition
  • SimCity
  • Tiger Woods PGA Tour ’09
  • Need for Speed Undercover
  • Sims 3

I’ve been wanting a Yahtzee game, and I can’t believe the Sims and SimCity are coming.   My only concern is battery life!

More on The Google

…as it tries to take over the world, or, at least, make it a better place.

In Google’s words, its recently unveiled “Android” is the “first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices.” But it is a signal of much more. Google is as much an ideology as a firm and can resemble a nation-state in its pursuit of power rather than a mere corporation chasing quarterly numbers. Google and its allies are now trying to make the principles of openness the commanding ideology of the Internet the conquering principle of the wireless world, and the Android announcement is just the first step.

The problem, as the article points out, is the choke hold the established companies already have on the market and the technology, in this case the wireless networks. They, of course, will do everything in their power to fight-off any competition, and certainly any company that would change the status quo. Normally, they’d have a high chance of success, say, against some small, start-up company. But this time they’re going against The Google. Let’s hope fairness and openness prevail, because in the world of wireless, we could sure use some.

The Bigger the Better

I thought the 160 GB iPod classic was pretty astounding in how much storage room was available on the device, even though it’s a hard-drive-based device. Well, a researcher at the IBM labs says in a few years, his technology can give us a 500+ GB iPod Nano. I don’t know what anyone would do with all that room for storage, but hey, that’s not the point! From the New York Times:

Now, if an idea that Stuart S. P. Parkin is kicking around in an I.B.M. lab here is on the money, electronic devices could hold 10 to 100 times the data in the same amount of space. That means the iPod that today can hold up to 200 hours of video could store every single TV program broadcast during a week on 120 channels.