Those auto-magic algorithms are getting pretty slick

Today I got to work, powered up my Nexus tablet and saw a notification in the notification area I have never seen before that said “4 auto-awesome videos”

What the heck is that?

So I check it out and see that it is, actually, something that is pretty awesome.

I’m not a huge Google photo user. I don’t store much in the Google photo cloud. But when I got my first Nexus phone a few years ago, I did experiment with auto-uploading photos and videos I took to Google Photos. So, I’ve got some stuff from 3 or 4 years ago just sitting in the Google Photo cloud.

When I clicked on the “Auto-Awesome” notification, a video menu screen appeared with stills from 4 albums I had created in 2009 & 2010 during my auto-upload days. I clicked on one and saw that the Auto Awesome feature had automatically taken the photos and videos from each of those albums and made a movie out of it.

Here’s what the auto awesome feature did to a photo album I had on Google Photos from 2009 when my kids were a tad younger. It’s pretty impressive.

Well, played, Google marketing machine. Well played. You got me with your auto-notification and auto awesomeness. I have to admit that when I saw this video, I got a bit nostalgic. I had forgot that these photos and videos existed (I am sure that I have them tucked safely away in my own storage somewhere), but for a moment, the Google machine caught me and made me go “wow, that is pretty slick”

And then I come back to real life.

I am in the middle of reading Dave Eggers The Goog…er, The Circle, which is a dystopian novel set in a world where the fictional “Circle” corporation has taken transparency, openeness, sharing, privacy, ecommerce and social networking enabled by technology and wrapped in technological utopian ideals to an extreme, creating a dysfunctional 1984-ish nightmare scenario. In the past 2 days, with this auto awesomeness feature and yesterday’s personalized endorsement opt-out decision that means my face should not appear as “endorsing” a product that is returned in a Google search, Eggers vision (which, when I started the book last week seemed farcical with its extreme point of view) has suddenly become highly plausible (although, it should be noted that in the world of The Circle, I probably wouldn’t be able to opt-out of the service). Timing, as they say, is everything.

Like many, I think I am torn between two extremes. One, I find surprises like auto-awesome pretty, uh, awesome. And I can see a great utility in it. It has me reconsidering whether or not I should start using G+ and the photo service more as the final result did something that I want my photos and videos to do – evoke feelings of love and nostalgia of a time when my kids were younger.

But in the back I know that this is exactly what Google wants me to do. It’s a brilliant marketing ploy – using my own memories to play on my sentimentality to market their products and services to me, to get me to contribute more to their machine so that the data on me can be fine tuned. You can sense the algorithms at work, analyzing the video. Oh look, Clint has kids (serve ads about kid safety products). They are 9 and 7 (83% of 7 year old boys like Pokemon. Suggest Pokemon as possible Christmas present for son). He takes them skating (send 2 for 1 skating coupon to Gmail). They have a yard (target Home Depot garden ads), and the yard has trees. The trees look like apple trees. He probably harvests apples from those trees (ad’s for Better Homes and gardens website apple pie section).

When you start to go down the data mining hole, it is easy to scream, “stop the ride, I want to get off!” And in the final analysis, you begin to see even more clearly than before that the product Google sells is you.


Google Docs adds search to documents

I opened up a new Google Doc this morning and was greeted with a new Google Docs feature called Research.

Use this research tool to learn more information about the topics in your document.

WWhat is this new Research bit?ell now, this looks interesting. And potentially very useful.

At first, I thought that Google had come up with a method of extracting information from your document and using it to return relevant search results, perhaps using some kind of semantic search. Turns out, it isn’t quite that sophisticated (yet?).

But, it still looks like a useful feature as it adds search capabilities right there in the document you are working on, and makes it quite easy to add that web content directly to the document you are working on.

The search interface is a basic Google web search, with a drop down option to search for images or search for quotes. It will also return a Google map that you can embed when you do a location search.

Filter search results by licenseOne of the nice features of the search is that it adds an image license filter so you can filter search results based on usage. The options are limited (it looks like the only CC license they use allows for commercial reuse, which really will restrict the results and may be overly restrictive compared to the types of results you would get with a non-commercial use license), but it is still a nice feature that can probably easily be expanded to include the other types of CC licenses.

As I hinted at earlier when I mentioned what I hoped the search would be, you can get a sense as to where this can go, with semantic suggestions popping up based on the content you are entering into the document. Start working on a document that mentions something like the B.C. Education Plan (as I happened to be doing), and resources related to that would auto-magically appear in the search results area, perhaps using my network connections as part of the filter parameters. Which will then turn this feature into a very powerful research tool.


The value of Android

Powered By Android

As I read about the low cost tablets popping up in India like the $140 Classmate and the $45 Akash, I can’t help but wonder, would these low cost tablets exist if it were not for Google and their open source Android operating system?

It once again points to the importance that open source software plays in driving innovation. If Google had decided to create a proprietary operating system available only to an elite group of manufacturers with hefty licensing fees, would we see these kinds of inexpensive products appearing? Would we be seeing the kind of uptake of mobile devices that we are seeing right now?

Sure, you can argue that these tablets are nothing but cheap riffs on a truly innovative product (the much more expensive iPad), and you wouldn’t find me necessarily disagreeing: the iPad was a truly innovative product that created a whole new segment of products. But it is one thing to create an innovative product, and quite another to create an innovative environment that enables more innovation, especially innovation that lowers the cost barrier and allows technology to move from the elite to the common.

More is different. And by providing us with an open source platform to build on, Google has helped ensure that we will see what this different will look like.

Image: Powered by Android by JD Hancock used under Creative Commons Attribution license.


MIT Launches New Center for Mobile Learning

MIT has received some funding from Google Education to launch a new mobile learning centre focusing on “the design and study of new mobile technologies and applications, enabling people to learn anywhere anytime with anyone”. Not surprising since it is being funded by Google that Android looks like the platform the center will be concentrating on, at least initially.

While I am breathless to see what kind of mobile apps will come out of the center, I am equally excited that the center will be focusing on developing and improving App Inventor for Android.

The Center’s first activity will focus on App Inventor for Android, a programming system that makes it easy for learners to create mobile apps for Android smart phones by visually fitting together puzzle piece-shaped “programming blocks” in a web browser.

App Inventor was in a bit of a limbo after Google announced it was shutting down Google Labs, and by having the lab take over the development ensures that the platform will live on, at least awhile longer. And by focusing on App Inventor, the center will continue to develop a tool that empowers learners to create their own mobile learning apps. While a good mobile learning app developed at an MIT lab is a very good thing, there is something even better about developing a simple platform and ecosystem that allows people to create and share their own mobile learning apps.


Google Body and Art

Two resources created by Google have popped onto my radar screen this week that will certainly be valuable for educators; Google Body and Google Art Project.

Google Art Project is a series of interactive virtual tours of some of the worlds top art galleries built using the same technology that powers Google Maps. You can take virtual tours of the Museum of Modern Art and view works of art like van Gogh’s The Starry Night in incredible detail. Here are some screen captures I took of a close up of this work.

Now, I am no Art student, but even I can see the inherent value for a student  to have access to this level of detail as they understand the techniques of the masters. How much pressure did they use? How did they mix the paint to achieve those colours? What brush did they use to achieve this or that effect? You just can’t get this type of perspective by viewing the work from behind a rope 15 feet away from it.

The second resource is Google Body, an interactive 3d model of the human body (this one requires Google Chrome, Firefox 4, or another browser that currently support WebGL to get the full effect). This is an immersive 3d body simulation that looks to me like it was built using similar technologies to Google Earth. You can fly around and into the body at different angles, strip away layers and examine the body from it’s various system perspectives. If you don’t have a browser capable of viewing, here is a short video of the technology in action (there is no audio with the video):


View documents in the browser with Google Docs Viewer

Google Docs Viewer is a handy little service that let’s you view documents and presentations within the browser without having to open a third party application. It eliminates the need for students to have additional applications (such as PowerPoint or a PDF reader) installed on their computer to view PowerPoint or PDF files.

Here is an example. I am using an old PowerPoint presentation on podcasting done by a colleague of mine a few years ago that lives on our web server. The link to the original PowerPoint file (2.2 mb) will either download to your computer, or force you to open PowerPoint to view the presentation (depending on how your browser is configured, assuming you even have PowerPoint). Now, here is a link to the same PowerPoint presentation (which opens in a new window/tab), but this time viewed through the Google Docs Viewer.

It’s important to note that I did not upload the presentation to the Google Docs Viewer site – the original PowerPoint file still lives on our web server. The Google Docs Viewer is not a repository to store documents.  If I delete the original file on our web server, the link to the Google Docs Viewer breaks since the original file is no longer available. I retain complete control over the source file, but the user gets the benefit of not having to download and open a PowerPoint file.

How to use Google Docs Viewer

There are a couple of ways to use Google Docs Viewer; either directly from the site, or you can construct a special url that will link your document with the document viewer.

To use the site, go to the site, enter the url to the PDF or PowerPoint document, and click Generate Link. You then get a few different options, including a link that you can tweet, IM or email, HTML link code that you can paste in a website, blog or LMS, or embed code that will bring the document into your blog, site or LMS (I’ve embeded a PowerPoint presentation at the end of this post for you to see how this works).

The second way to access the service is by crafting your own URL. You can create links that pull documents through the service. You don’t even need to use the website to use the service. To create your own URL start with the base path of, followed by a question mark (?) and the path to the original document (url=path) The path needs to be encoded so no spaces or special characters. Knowing this, I can build a url to any PDF or PowerPoint, so a link to our example above would look like this:

So, Why Use Google Docs Viewer?

Why would you even do this and not just link directly to, say, the original PowerPoint file? Well, from a technical perspective, there are some barriers for students when they try to deal with PowerPoint files (and, to a lesser extent these hold true for PDF files as well, although PDF is by far a more web friendly format than PowerPoint).

  • The files can be large, especially if you use animations and transitions.
  • They require students to have additional software installed on their computer, in this case PowerPoint or the PowerPoint Viewer.
  • Depending on the browser, how it is configured and the security settings, PowerPoint files can cause strange and unexpected behaviours. One user may have their system set up to have PowerPoint open in a browser window, while another may be prompted to download the file. A third may get a security warning that a potentially malicious file is about to be opened.
  • The files take a long time to load. In most cases, when someone clicks on a PowerPoint link, the first thing that has to happen is that PowerPoint has to open up, which eats up time. No one likes to wait for content and those few seconds add up to frustration for users.

By using a service like Google Docs Viewer (or Slideshare, another free alternative) , you can mitigate some of these barriers and provide a better experience for students.

Here is the same presentation embeded using Google Docs Viewer.


Google site aggregates Internet statistics

Did you know that over 30% of our leisure time is now spent online? Or that 20 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute? Or that worldwide, over 6 billion songs have been sold on iTunes? Where did I find these fascinating Internet stats I hear you asking? Why, from the Google Internet Stats site of course.

I just came across this site, but can already see how useful it will be to both monitor the Internet zeitgeist, and use as a starting point for current research about Internet and technology. Google has set up an aggregate site that monitors stats from a number of third party sites. The complete list of data sources is available on the site, but includes The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, TechCrunch, and Neilsen (among many others). Somehow the list of data sources also includes Coke, which makes me go what the heck? Is this the cola company? I didn’t realize they pounded out a lot of Internet stats and figures, but I digress..

The topics are grouped into 5 categories; Macro Economic Trends, Technology, Consumer Trends, Media Consumption and Media Landscape so if you are in any discipline that intersects with these areas, you should find something here useful. Also, the site is UK based, so expect the results to be skewed slightly towards the UK and Europe, but still this should be a useful resource if you are looking for stats as a starting point, or to quickly support a point.


Google Image Search adds license filter

Google announced a new feature for Image Search today that should make it easier for you to find, modify and reuse images from across the web.

Google Image Search now has a license filter which will allow you to filter out images based on the license type. This makes it much easier to find public domain or Creative Commons licensed images to reuse or modify.

To access the license filter you have to go to the Advanced Image Search options. At the bottom of the page you will see an option called usage rights with a dropdown list with the options to return images labelled for reuse, labelled for commercial reuse, labelled for reuse and modification and labelled for commercial reuse and modification.

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Translate feeds with Google Reader

Translate in Google Reader

I had my horizons greatly expanded this week when I discovered a feature of Google Reader I didn’t know existed. Google Reader will translate foreign language feeds into English. To access the translation feature, click on either view settings or folder settings, depending on where you currently are in Google Reader.

Now, if you have ever used Google Translate, then you know what gets spit out at the other end is often a linguistic nightmare. But it is improving and will continue to improve, and it opens up the possibilities for me to follow along with the work of my peers in other languages. Maybe someone can recommend some French speaking edtechies from Quebec I can follow?

Actually, who am I kidding. The biggest benefit for me is now the ability to follow the progress of Canadian soccer players plying their trade in Germany, Spain, Romania and the Netherlands.

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Why I like Feedly

Feedly is a Firefox extension that allows you to create a magazine like start page for your Google Reader subscriptions and while the  magazine style does add a nice look and feel to Google Reader, that isn’t what I like about Feedly. What I like about Feedly is that it  allows me to find content I am searching for from my trusted sources (in this case, my Google Reader subscriptions) without changing my current search process. Feedly does this by extending my general Google search to my Google Reader subscriptions, and adds matching results to my Google search results page.

Search results augmented by Feedly

Click to see larger

Let me give you an example.  This morning one of my students emailed me a Globe and Mail article about copyright, bloggers, big media and republishing rights (Gatehouse, NYTimes settle copyright suit). I wasn’t familiar with this story so, after reading it, I wanted to find out a bit more, like who is Gatehouse Media (an aside – if the Globe would have included a link to the company in their article this step wouldn’t have been needed). Over to Google I go and search for GateHouse and get my standard set of results that I can begin sifting though.

But wait – what is this? Because I have Feedly installed, there is a list of matches from my sources showing up. Feedly has searched my Google Reader subscriptions to find matches and is presenting me those results in the regular Google search results page.  Here are incredibly relevant results, vetted by me from my trusted sources. This immediately gives me a much richer and accurate set of search results than if I relied on a standard Google search.

Now, if you are a Google Reader user you might be saying I could do the get the same kind of network result if I just started my search in Google Reader using the built in Google Search engine, which is true. But what is nice about Feedly is that I don’t have to take that extra step of doing my search in 2 places – Google and Google Reader. Feedly slips right into my current workflow unobtrusively and without the need to repeat myself.

This concept of searching your network is something that I touched on briefly in the current SCoPE seminar Scott Leslie is doing on Open Educational Resources. The question posed there is how do you currently find open educational resources?  Increasingly we are going to have to rely on our personal networks. We need to find those sources we trust (which is something we have been doing for a long time) and find simple ways to mine their collective intelligence in order to effectively find what we need. This little feature of Feedly helps me do that.


Google's new search results feel more than a bit like social bookmarking

Updated November 22: Since writing this post, Google has turned this feature off and made it an opt-in service through Google Experimental Search.

Update November 24: aaaaaand it’s back.

Last night I noticed a couple of new options on Google search results.

Just to the right of the title of the result are two boxes that allow you to Promote or Remove a result from the search. These choices are then saved and, if you perform the same search in the future, your preferred selections bubble to the top while results you choose to remove as not relevant are removed.

Also new is the ability to annotate the search results, essentially giving you a way to create saved lists of your favorite search results with annotations.

Google calls this new service SearchWiki, but really I think the new features have more in common with social bookmarking sites like delicious or Diigo than wiki’s. Sure, you don’t get the customization or network granularity of  delicious or Diigo when it comes to defining your personal network, but certainly the ability to create a highly relevant lists of annotated links using keyword tags is right up the social bookmarking alley. And I suspect it won’t be very long before you will be able to share your search results and annotations with selected Google users.

Google has said this doesn’t affect the results PageRank rankings, but you have to think it will only be a matter of time before the wisdom of the crowds approach wins out and the data collected as a result of peoples choices will be worked into search results or, most likely, the ads that appear with my search results. Not all think this is a good thing, but ultimately making search results more relevant to me is highly desirable.

I think the feature that will prove to be the most disruptive is annotation. Overnight Google has turned their search engine into one gigantic comment engine. Now anyone can add comments about any web resource and make those comments open for the world to see. Talk about transparency. Now that Google has thrown their collective weight behind annotating the web, and made it dead easy to do so, expect the conversation to get a whole lot more interesting as more people take part.


My morning with Google Sites/Apps

Well, it took a lot of effort this morning, but I’m finally taking a look at Google Sites, which is rising from the ashes of the Jotspot wiki acquisition by Google last year.

I almost bailed on the process before I even started. I couldn’t use my existing Google account to log in. Seems that in order to try out Google Sites I needed to enter an email address of a work or school domain. Huh?

Upon further examination, it looked like I was actually signing up for Google Apps and not just Google Sites. Double huh?

I reread the Google Sites page and realized that Google has bundled Sites with Google Apps. If you want Sites, you need to have an Apps account. I couldn’t find any way to tie Google Sites to my existing single Google account.

So, if my first impression is correct, it doesn’t look like creating a wiki is going to be easy for your average user. I suspect individual users aren’t even on the radar for Google with respect to Sites. By bundling it with Google Apps, Google has sent a clear signal that they are targeting organizational IT departments moreso than individual users.

That’s not a bad thing. But don’t expect Google Sites to compete with PBWiki, Wetpaint or Wikispaces in the “hey I can get a wiki up and running in 5 minutes” department. It appears that’s not the purpose. It looks like Google Sites has become one little piece of a bigger puzzle for Google as they take aim at domain wide collaborative applications like SharePoint.

I did plunge in and sign up for a Google Apps account. I control a domain name so I used an email address from that domain to sign up and have now spent the better part of the morning getting distracted by Google Apps (and getting WAAAAAAY more functionality and services than I wanted). But for many of the people I am trying to convince to use wiki’s as a learning and teaching tool, this won’t be the first one out of my mouth.


Google Docs adds Forms

Google Docs users have a new tool at their disposal – forms. And it looks dead easy to use.

Create a spreadsheet, share it as a form, choose who you want to email that form to and Google Docs will collect and tabulate that information in a spreadsheet.

I created a form in a minute. Fill it out if you would like to give it a try (no personal info or Google account is required). I’ve set it so that responses will be displayed in the form so if you fill it out and go back to the form you’ll see your response. This info also gets added to a spreadsheet that I’ve made public in my Google Docs account.

Dan Schellenberg has created a screencast on how to create a form with Google Docs.


I just joined Twitter and I'm lonely – wait a sec…Google can fix that!

Google releases Social Graph API

The scenario:
EdTech geek finally joins YASN (Yet Another Social Network), in this case Twitter. Said EdTech geek now needs to find friends also using Twitter (and find a reason to use it) or else see it go the way of other social networks. Fortunately, some folks whom I virtually follow on a regular basis are already using it, so I check out their profiles and follow along. Uploading my Gmail account catches a few more friends, but this all feels pretty clunky.

Soon there will be a better way. Today Google announced their Social Graph API. Using 2 technologies I’ve never heard of – FOAF and XFN – Google will now be able to track my relationships like they track the linked relationships of webpages. They then open this information up to social network developers who can now make it possible for me to, say, find all my Facebook friends who are using Twitter.

Here’s the high level overview.


Teach Collaborative Revision with Google Docs

Google for Educators has partnered with Writing magazine to put together a handy little piece on how to use Google Docs to teach collaborative revision.

The content is aimed at secondary students, but still contains some useful takeaways for post-sec, especially if you are new to Google Docs. There is a step by step how-to guide to using Google Docs (available as a pdf, not a Google Doc?) and a pdf about the revision features of Google Docs.


Google Calendar knows Gmail

I’m not a power user of any of the Google tools. I have accounts and I do use Docs & Spreadsheets, Calendar and Gmail, but I barely scratch the surface beyond the basics of these tools. So when I stumbled across this little feature today, it made me pause and reflect that I really need to investigate these tools for more of these productivity enhancements.

I received an email from a non-Gmail using friend inviting my family to a dinner at their house. In the body of the email was a time and date for the dinner. Since I use Google Calendar, I decided to create an Event from the email. This is the first time I have used this feature. So, I clicked on the more actions dropdown menu and choose Create Event.The event pop up opens up with the date and time already prepopulated within the event. Google Calendar has gone through the Gmail message and found a date and time in the body of the email and prepopulated the event based on that information. It even went so far as to make a decent guess as to what the title of the event might be and prepopulate that as well.

I know in programming terms it is really not hugely difficult to parse the email message and find dates and times, although in this case it was made a bit more difficult because it wasn’t a well formed date and time, but still it was a really nice productivity feature to stumble upon in the Google suite. And one that makes it much easier to schedule an event from an email in Google than it does in Outlook.


Google releases new research API

Some new geeky goodness from Google aimed squarely at researchers. The University Research Program for Google Search is a new API that gives programmers the ability to tap into Google. In their words:

The University Research Program for Google Search is designed to give university faculty and their research teams high-volume programmatic access to Google Search, whose huge repository of data constitutes a valuable resource for understanding the structure and contents of the web.

Our aim is to help bootstrap web research by offering basic information about specific search queries. Since the program builds on top of Google’s search technology, you’ll no longer have to operate your own crawl and indexing systems. We hope this will help enable some useful research, and request only that you publish any work you produce through this program for the academic community’s general benefit.

The major restriction is that the program is open only to academic faculty members and their research teams at colleges and universities. However, the flip side of that restriction is that any research results obtained using the API must be made available to the public.

From Programmable Web.


Keep working in web apps offline with Google Gears

One of the big sticking points with using web applications is that you have to be online to use them. No internet connection = no access to the application. It looks like Google is working to plug that hole with the beta release of Google Gears. Google Gears is a browser plugin (still in early beta release) that allows you to use web applications even when you are offline.

While initial reaction has been that the plugin is a good proof of concept, Gears still has a ways to go before being unleashed onto the world.

One of the stumbling blocks right now is that Gears only provides the read functionality of the read/write web. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done before Gears will provide full read/write functionality. Plus, there is only one app in Google’s stable that works with Google Gears and that’s Google Reader, although there has been strong hints that Gmail and Calendar will be next. So, rather than this being a beta release, I consider this more of a proof of concept release.

Regardless, the release of Google Gears is poised to solve one of the major hurdles towards mass acceptance of web applications as a replacement for their desktop counterparts. For that reason Google Gears is an important release in the evolutionary cycle of web application development.

For more on how Gears works technically, there is a good post by Nick Gonzalez at TechCrunch.