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Computer displays made of mist unveiled by the University of Bristol

16 Apr 2014

The University of Bristol has made a computer display from a curtain of mist, which allows users to reach through fog screens and move images around with their hands.

Due to be unveiled later this month, the "MisTable" technology was shown off in a video embedded below. The invention includes a conventional interactive table with personal screens made using fog, Kinect and a Leap Motion Controller.

Professor Sriram Subramanian and Dr Diego Martinez Plasencia from the University of Bristol's Department of Computer Science, who are leading the research, claim that the development could change the way people interact and collaborate in the future.

"These personal screens are both see-through and reach-through. The see-through feature provides direct line of sight of the personal screen and the elements behind it on the tabletop," the university said on its website. "The reach-through feature allows the user to switch from interacting with the personal screen to reaching through it to interact with the tabletop or the space above it."

The personal screen allows a range of customisations and novel interactions such as presenting personal 2D content on the screen, 3D content above the tabletop, or supplementing and renewing actual objects differently for each user.

"MisTable broadens the potential of conventional tables in many novel and unique ways. The personal screen provides direct line of sight and access to the different interaction spaces," said Subramanian.

"Users can be aware of each other's actions and can easily switch between interacting with the personal screen to the tabletop surface or the interaction section. This allows users to break in or out of shared tasks and switch between 'individual' and 'group' work."

Subramanian noted that users can also move content freely between these interaction spaces, allowing them to share it with others or to get exclusive ownership over it. Having personal screens allows each user to customise their own view.

Written by Lee Bell

Twitter turns eight: First tweets from the great and good of the tech world

21 Mar 2014

 Twitter

It is now eight years since the world was given the ability to share what was on its mind in 140-character snippets. Since then world leaders, pop stars, sporting heroes and top tech talents have all joined the bandwagon.

To celebrate eight years of success Twitter has created a nifty tool to help you easily find your first ever post on the site. V3 thought it would be fun to use the site to find out what some of the tech luminaries had to say for themselves. Some are more inspiring than others.

Bill Gates was snappy and to the point.

Oracle's Larry Ellison was his usual bullish self.

Apple CEO Tim Cook was late to the party and in typical business mode.

Security hero Eugene Kaspersky set about offering pearls of wisdom on staying safe online.

We're not sure what was going on when Sir Tim Berners-Lee first posted, but as he invented the web, we'll forgive him.

We here at V3 can't criticise too much, though, as our first effort was hardly the stuff of legend. Still, we like to think we've got a little better since then.

Our favourite, though, is Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who kicked-off with a message about dancing and has never looked back.

Happy birthday Twitter. Here's to the next eight years.

Apple claims Samsung owes it $40 per Galaxy device sale

13 Mar 2014

Rich man with moneyApple has always prided itself on its uniqueness. Usually this has related to its products' design and software features, but this week the company's unique nature was shown by its legal department, which mounted fresh legal action claiming that Samsung owes it $40 for every Galaxy handset it sells.

The iPhone maker made the claim during a hearing at the US District Court, Northern District of California. The case claims recent Samsung smartphones, such as the Galaxy S3, infringe on five critical patents owned by Apple and is due to be heard on 31 March.

The patents relate to Samsung phones' data tapping, unified search, asynchronous data synchronisation, slide-to-unlock feature and auto-complete technologies. As a side note, during a previous case with Motorola, Apple claimed one of the same patents involved in its new Samsung offensive was worth just 60 cents per phone.

The move is atypical to most technology companies, which are currently moving to diffuse the ongoing, never-ending cycle of patent claims raging between them.

Samsung has already signed licensing deals with Google, Cisco and IBM, promising to play nice with them when it comes to patents. Even HTC and Nokia have joined the game, signing a cross-patent licence agreement in February.

V3 welcomed the deals, viewing them as a sign that smartphone makers were finally going to stop quibbling about who copied who, and re-focus on creating better phones.

But our hopes were short lived, as Apple's move against Samsung shows that even though it risks painting itself as the villain, it has no intention of making peace with its competitors.

This is particularly true when you consider Apple's past successes in the courtroom. Before its latest claim, the court ruled that Samsung owes $930m in damages to Apple, which isn't small change by any means.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Web@25: Sir Tim Berners-Lee's computer where it all began on show at Science Museum

12 Mar 2014

 Tim Berner's Lee computer at which the web was born

The computer used by Sir Tim Berners-Lee to write his proposal for the World Wide Web has been brought to the UK and is on display at the Science Museum. The NeXT cube has been brought over from Cern in Switzerland as part of celebrations to marks 25 years of the web.

Berners-Lee wrote his proposal at the machine in 1989, finally submitting it to the world on 12 March, with the terminal also acting as the world's first web server.

V3 went to the unveiling at the Science Museum to take a closer look at the machine and took some pictures of the historic piece of computing.

Sticker warning people not to turn off NeXT cube server

As you can see, Sir Tim's note to other Cern members warned them not to touch his machine as it was acting as a web server. The sticker is somewhat worn and torn, but it's still going strong. Credit must go to the pen makers too, as the writing has barely faded at all.

Keyboard used by Sir Tim Berners-Lee to write web proposal

The impact of Cern on the world can't be overstated. While it may spend much of its time hunting for hidden particles, it's also the birthplace of the web, as noted by the rather stylish ownership marks stuck on the various items Sir Tim used when he was working there.

The mouse at Sir Tim Berners-Lee computer

The NeXT computer may be a thing of the past now, but we can't help thinking its colourful logo and square design would actually look right at home in the world of Android and iOS 7 interfaces.

Tim Berner's Lee computer at which the web was born

Ultimately the machine is not much to look at, but it is incredible to think that from just this one machine an almost unfathomable amount of change, disruption and revolution has occurred. And it was all given to use free of charge by a man named Tim.

The Science Museum will now display the historic machine to the public. In the autumn it will become one of the key exhibits in the new £15.6m Information Age gallery where it will sit alongside other major exhibits such as the first transatlantic telegraph equipment used in 1858, the BBC’s first radio transmitter 2LO and a giant tuning coil from the Rugby Radio Station.

PRISM: Sir Tim Berners-Lee thanks Edward Snowden as US congressman pleads for silence

11 Mar 2014

Edward Snowden NSA Prism whistleblowerThe appearance of PRISM whistleblower Edward Snowden at any event is always going to cause controversy. However, turning up to speak at an event happening in the US – albeit on a satellite video feed – meant Snowden's appearance at the SXSW conference in Austin caused a storm.

The controversy began before Snowden even had a chance to open his mouth, when it was revealed that US congressman Mike Pompeo had pressured conference producers to retract their offer for the whistleblower to speak.

Specifically, Pompeo sent a letter to the organisers that said: "Mr Snowden's appearance would stamp the imprimatur of your fine organisation on a man who ill deserves such accolades. Rewarding Mr Snowden's behavior in this way encourages the very lawlessness he exhibited.

"Such lawlessness – and the ongoing intentional distortion of truth that he and his media enablers have engaged in since the release of these documents – undermines the very fairness and freedom that SXSW and the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] purport to foster. I strongly urge you to withdraw this invitation."

Putting aside the question of whether you agree with Pompeo's argument, for us here at V3 the really scary part is quite how removed it was from the opinions of most technologists at the conference. The moment he appeared live on the video feed Snowden was met with a rock star's welcome, with attendees clapping and cheering. One particularly enamoured attendee even wolf whistled.

The divide in opinion was further showcased during the question and answer session. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the web, extended his thanks to Snowden for leaking PRISM documents to the press.

This proves our worst fears are coming to pass and the PRISM scandal is causing a gradual, but increasingly large, rift between technologists and government agencies.

As we noted in our New Year PRISM feature, this is a terrible state of events that can only cause more harm than good. On one level this is because the PRISM revelations will undoubtedly damage international trade, with governments fearing that the NSA's far-reaching surveillance powers mean any US company cannot be trusted to handle data. This was already showcased in August 2013 when reports broke that the Chinese government planned to investigate IBM, Oracle and EMC, following concerns that the NSA could be using the firms' technologies for cyber espionage.

It's also bad because it has the potential to undo a lot of the positive work agencies such as the Cabinet Office and GCHQ – which is known to have used PRISM data – have done with the private sector to fight cybercrime.

Since launching the UK Cyber Security Strategy in 2011, the UK government has announced a steady stream of new initiatives designed to increase collaboration between the public and private sectors. The campaigns have had some success, but given the constant flow of new cybercrime campaigns it's clear there is still much to be done, which will require the public and private sectors to continue working together.

This schism shown by Snowden's SXSW appearance indicates that many technologists – and as a result companies – may no longer be quite so happy doing this. As a result, perhaps the most notable is not what Snowden said, but how it demonstrated the growing divide between government agencies and industry.

Here's hoping this isn't lost on the two sides and we can use the SXSW fiasco as a starting point for building bridges and finally have a frank discussion about mass surveillance and what needs to be done to repair the relationship between the public and private sector.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

ICO in tricky predicament with £200,000 fine for pregnancy charity

07 Mar 2014

tightrope

For years data protection watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) was regarded as a toothless tiger.

It sounded big and scary and delivered stern warnings about the importance of data protection, but it could do very little about any data breaches, except perhaps wag its finger.

Then in 2010 everything changed. It was given fining powers to the tune of £500,000 and since then it has levied over £4m against organisations. But some may now consider it something of a heartless hound.

The latest to fall foul of the ICO’s desire for justice is the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). The charity provides help and guidance for women with an unplanned pregnancy, from abortions to counselling and more besides.

For some its work is contentious and in March 2012 an anti-abortion hacker used his computing skills to wreak havoc on its website, defacing it and stealing details about those who had contacted the charity for help.

The hacker – James Jeffrey – got almost three years in prison as a result of the incident.

As the hack affected personal details of members of the public, the ICO got involved and its investigation found several technical lapses at the BPAS that made the incident worse than it should have been.

The long and short of it is that the BPAS now faces a fine of £200,000 for an incident which, as its CEO Ann Furedi understandably points out, was caused by a hacker who is now almost seeing his actions rewarded.

“We accept that no hacker should have been able to steal our data, but we are horrified by the scale of the fine, which does not reflect the fact that BPAS was a victim of a serious crime by someone opposed to what we do,” she said.

“It is appalling that a hacker who acted on the basis of his opposition to abortion should see his actions rewarded in this way."

Furedi also said the fine was “out of proportion” when compared with others the ICO has handed out, especially when those organisations’ breaches were not caused by criminal behavior.

A trawl back through recent fines suggests this claim is not without merit:

- Glasgow City Council fined £150,000 after losing 74 unencrypted laptops, including one containing more than 6,000 people's bank records.

- Aberdeen City Council fined £100,000 after a member of staff inadvertently posted data relating to the care of vulnerable children online.

- Islington Council fined £70,000 after details of over 2,000 residents were released online due to a basic misuse of Excel by a staff member.

Even if the BPAS pays its fine early – by the end of March – it still faces paying £160,000, more than any of those listed above.

None of this is to say the ICO has acted unreasonably though: it has to enforce the law and if it encounters incidences of poor data protection – as in this case – it must take a stand so others sit up and take notice. If other firms and charities up their game after seeing a fine being levied, the public are better protected.

Conversely, if it does not issue a fine, it will be seen as weak and unwilling to take a stand, while any organisation that is fined can make a claim to being harmed. A council delivers vital frontline services and a fine will hamper its efforts to do this, it could be argued.

Clearly, this is a controversial case, driven by the scale of the fine. The fact this money will end up in government coffers – having been given to charity – is also questionable, as noted by Stewart Room, partner at law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse.

“The users of the BPAS charity services have high expectations of privacy and any security weakness that could expose them is bound to trouble the regulator,” he said.

“But the financial penalty regime here is moving money from the collection jar direct to The Treasury. Perhaps the cash could be better spent on improving security and data protection at the charity?"

The BPAS is now appealing the fine in what could prove a fascinating case to see if the ICO's desire to fine can be tamed.

By V3's Dan Worth

Bill Gates is worth 10 Nokias, reclaiming long-lost crown of world's richest person

04 Mar 2014

Bill Gates has reclaimed his title as the world's richest man, passing telecoms magnate Carlos Slim Helu for the top spot in Forbes' annual rich list with a current estimated net worth of $72bn.

To put that in perspective, Bill Gates now worth a little over ten Nokias, the company Microsoft is in the process of buying for $7.2bn. Gates – who is re-acquainting himself with Microsoft's product team as the firm's new technology adviser – hasn't held the top spot in four years

As a man who spends most of time these days on philanthropic schemes to spend his money on at every given opportunity, it's highly unlikely that he cares about a fairly superficial list of people in sharp suits.

There are plenty of familiar faces from the world of IT. Oracle's Larry Ellison ranks fifth, with a net worth of $48bn. You have to head down the list to 17th before you find another tech name; Google co-founder and chief executive Larry Page. Page is apparently worth $32.3bn, or 10 Nests, the connected home company Google bought in January for $3.2bn.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos is close behind at 18th, with $32bn in his metaphorical coffers, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin weighs in at 19th place, with $31.8bn. That's 11 Motorolas, if you're counting. Lenovo probably is.

Where's Mark Zuckerberg? He's down in 21st place with $28.5bn, or around one-and-a-half Whatsapps.

Other than tech, retail dominates the list, as do financial investments. The outspoken Carl Icahn is worth $24.5bn, which isn't bad for a man who expresses his business grievances on Twitter.

By V3's Michael Passingham, who's also worth it

Worse than Orwell could ever imagine: UK spy drama takes dark twist

28 Feb 2014

An eye in close-up superimposted by a screen of random numbers

Ever since revelations of mass spying, data gathering and web surveillance broke last summer there has been shock and outrage at the government's intrusion into the lives of innocent web users around the world.

However, amid the entirely justified furore caused by the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, there has also been an underlying tone of ‘quelle surprise’.

We all used to joke that governments were spying on us and – hey presto – they were. And as they insisted on telling us, the data they gathered was only metadata, nothing that made citizens identifiable. Yes it was wrong, a bit over the top, but it wasn’t that bad, and after all, it was in our own security interests.

However, things have taken a darker, more insidious twist this week with the news that Yahoo webcam users were spied on by GCHQ and millions of images were taken and stored, many of which caught people in a state of undress.

This isn’t metadata. This is taking photos of people inside their own homes. MP David Davis said the revelations "exceeded even the worst Orwellian nightmares".

"Even in 1984 the citizen was aware that they were being watched,” he added.

It’s worth repeating to really drive this home: the UK government has taken photographs of millions of people inside their own homes, without their knowledge, in order to create a giant mugshot database of innocent citizens.

How on earth did such a system come to be in place? Who devised it, designed it, created and approved it? Who oversaw its operation? Did anyone ever raise a concern that this could be ever so slightly immoral, illegal, outrageous?

To date, the security services have managed to avoid any true scrutiny of their work, hiding behind bland stock statements or the classic ‘that’s a national security issue’ line.

Still, while it is unrealistic to expect spy chiefs to tell all about their efforts to protect us grateful citizens – What would they say anyway? Yes, we take naked photos of you, sorry – there are some with the power to keep the spies in line.

One of these people is the intelligence services commissioner, Sir Mark Waller. His role is to provide “independent judicial oversight” of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and is appointed by parliament.

So his role should involve monitoring these agencies, and reporting on their work and how it is being conducted whenever he is asked to do so by those in the parliament that appointed him.

But in order to get Waller to do this, a committee of MPs – the Home Affairs Committee – have had to force him to do so, so they can find out more about what it is he’s actually overseeing. It’s positively Kafkaesque, to add to the Orwellian reference earlier.

Not only that, but Waller had tried to palm off the Committee by pointing its members in the direction of a report that covered the work of the services between January and December 2012, published in July 2013.

This was at the same time as the Snowden revelations were just appearing, and the report is no help seven months later, when the world’s understanding of the spying being carried out by governments is still only just being understood.

Waller will now give evidence on the 18 March, in a session that is likely to prove testy, and will no doubt feature the phrase ‘I can’t discuss that’ once or twice.

For the rest of us, we are now living in a world that is ever-reliant on digital communications, but where our own government is monitoring it all, from phone calls and emails, to taking photos of us in a state of undress, while those in charge are seemingly immune to any scrutiny.

Orwell may have been 30 years early in his predictions, but he was right. Terrifyingly right.

By V3's Dan Worth, who hears a clock striking thirteen

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