Archive for January, 2009

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Microsoft Tags vs. QR Codes

January 25, 2009

Microsoft have relatively recently launched their new “mobile tagging” beta programme.  It’s quite similar to the existing QR codes that have been around for some time and it was for this reason that it caught my attention and I decided to give Microsoft Tag an evaluation in comparison to QR codes.

For anyone unfamiliar with QR codes, they use a simple matrix of monochromatic pixels to encode a string of text.  Microsoft Tag on the other hand is a “High Capacity Colour Barcode” (HCCB) that uses five lines of a series of triangular markers coloured cyan, yellow or magenta (CYM) to encode a string of text.  The text strings contain meta data as well as data effectively identifying what the data should is and how it should be used.

So the first thing to examine are the types of ‘things’ that the two technologies could encode.  For these comparisons I’ve used the QuickMark QR Code Generator and the Microsoft Tag Beta.

Data Object QR Code Microsoft Tag
URL Yes Yes
Bookmark Yes No
Phone No. Yes Yes
SMS Yes No
E-mail Yes No
vCard Yes Yes
meCard Yes No
Generic address Yes No
Simple Text Yes Yes
Encrypted Text Yes Yes
Geographic Coordinates Yes No

Microsoft Tag has a couple of features that can be applied to each of its available options. First of all a password can be applied to apply an additional level of security.  Validation dates can also be added to any option allowing things to expire or be valid during a certain event or marketing campaign for example.

So at this first stage QR codes seem to have a greater range of ‘things’ that can be coded than Microsoft Tag, but Microsoft Tag has a few additional features that if you’re just encoding URLs may make it a better option.  One thing I would like to see that isn’t covered by these (but I guess could be if you created a URL to an appropriate file) is something relating to a an event definition – e.g. iCalendar.

The next element I examined was the generation options for the final image.

QR Codes

PNG |JPG |GIF |SVG |TXT

Microsoft Tags

PDF | WMF | XPS

The QR code generation has a range of code generation sizes (30 levels) with UTF character set options and a couple of four level (L/M/H/U) error correction options.  The Microsoft Tag generator on the other hand only offers a size changing option but rather than being level based the user can choose a code size between 0.75″ and 120″.

Whilst the Microsoft Tag file formats for code generation are based around vector graphics formats ideal for printing I personally find it useful to be able to put the codes on a web page.  I’ve frequently used QR codes on web pages to get software links or other information onto my Windows mobile phone so I think having the codes available directly as images to be published in-line on a web page to be a distinct advantage.  So for me on this one I think that QR codes definitely have the edge as I would think that SVG and WMF could be used equally well by publishers (though if there are any publishers reading this who know differently then please add a comment to this post).

At this point it’s time to look at the software used to capture the code.  I’ve used my Samsung Omnia i900 as the capture device and two separate pieces of software for the capture of the codes.  For QR codes I’ve used the QuickMark Reader and for the Microsoft Tags the Microsoft Tag Reader.  In terms of user interface the two are very similar providing a framed viewer on the phone’s camera view and both automatically capture a code when they recognise it.  On the i900 however the QR code reader is definitely the easier to use to focus over the tag as the Microsoft Tag Reader inexplicably seems to rotate the image 90° anti-clockwise making it quite disorienting just to centre the code.  However the Microsoft Tag Reader seems capable of picking out and actioning much smaller tags than a the QuickMark Reader (which was the most accurate QR code reader I’ve found).

In my tests on an reading from an X-black LCD display an 88 x 88 pixel QR code for a URL was successfully read.  A Microsoft Tag for the same information was successfully captured for just a 52 x 52 pixel tag.  Less space for successful pick-up of codes is obviously an advantage as they take up less screen or page estate and so would cost less to put on a media advert for example and scaling up is not going to be an issue.

//rebootit.wordpress.com

QR Code

rebootit-tagcolour

Microsoft Tag

rebootit-tag-greyscale

Greyscale Tag

It was at this point that I wondered about the colour aspect of the Microsoft tag system so I thought I’d have a bit of an experiment and try a simple conversion of the colour tag to a greyscale tag – after all monochromatic printing is cheaper than colour printing.  It turned out that the Microsoft Tag Reader could still capture and interpret it so it looks like the encoding may be more to do with contrasts than the actual CYM colours.  However in greyscale the same basic tag used earlier could not be recognised at 52 x 52 pixels, but it was recognised at 73 x 73 pixels which is still significantly smaller than the equivalent QR code.

The greyscale tag is 97% larger in area that the colour tag and the QR code is 186% larger than the colour tag.  It may actually be that a vCard code can now fit on the back of a business card or be displayed on a phone screen such that a code reader enabled phone can now read the vCard straight in.

So assuming that the Microsoft Tag Reader rotation issue gets resolved for the Omnia then the size benefit of Microsoft’s HCCB system gives it quite a competitive edge, and being Microsoft there’s a little more to this competitive edge….

The Microsoft Tag system relies on the reader having an internet connection as all of the encoded links actually link to information held on Microsoft servers.  QR code decoding however requires no such connection.  The benefit of the Microsoft route is that the number of uses of a particular tag can be measured and reported on – which is great.  However if you want to use it to exchange a vCard on a midlands cross country train in the UK then you won’t have an Internet connection and it just won’t work.

So which is best QR codes of Microsoft Tags?  Well I personally think that the QR code system might have reached the end of its functionality pretty much.  The future is probably in some higher capacity data format.  However QR code readers are far more prevalent on today’s phones and so I think they still have some life left in them, particularly if you consider how embedded they are in Japanese society who are undoubtedly the leaders on mobile technology.

Microsoft Tag may however be the future – after all it is a beta.  So what do I think needs further development to move forward?

  • I’d like to se the niggly camera rotation problem on my Omnia resolved (and I’ll mail it in once I’ve posted this).
  • Add more encoded formats such as e-mail, geographic co-ordinates and calendar entries.
  • The option to decode non Internet related items (such as vCards) without an Internet connection.
  • Some additional guidelines on how to use the Microsoft Tags in greyscale to optimise the recognition on the reader (for reduced publishing costs).
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BETT Show 09

January 14, 2009

As anyone who’s been following the RebootIT Twitter feed today will know, I’ve been at the first day of the BETT Show 09. BETT (or British Education and Training Technology) is an education focussed technology event with the global industry giants of IT such as Microsoft right the way down to businesses run by individuals providing specialised learning materials. Whilst the Academy is not dealing directly with educating students, we do work in the HE sector and so the suppliers are often the same. Additionally we do need to train our own staff in technology and so there’s some parallels there too.

I spent a few minutes at one of the two large Microsoft areas watching a demonstration of Microsoft Surface. This has been all over the Internet and in the media in general for some time now but this was the first opportunity I’ve had to see it actually being used. I had expected it to be a bit sluggish or non-responsive, but it was working really smoothly and Microsoft have obviously been investing in developing software specifically for using it in a school environment with a range of demonstrations including – wiping the screen to reveal an underlying image a bit at a time, building a photo collage and interacting with an intricate 3D model of the human heart.

The reaction from the audience was verfy positive and the people around me were audibly impressed with it. This became particularly so as small groups were invited up to have a go themselves with some of the software and they all had no difficulty with it finding the interface very naturalo and fluid to work with. It was interesting to note that Microsoft had adopted the use of some finger based pinching gestures that Apple have used on the iPhone … but these gestures seem to be appearing on many of the laptops these days as “gesture enabled glide pads”.

I had been looking forward to looking at some of the latest offerings from ASUS that might be useful for the Academy’s mobile workers. Unfortunately the tempting news item on the BETT web site about the new EEE tablet was a bit of a let down as there wasn’t one available at either of the ASUS stands. There were a variety of other ultra mobile laptop developers showing off their latest and greatest including Dell, HP and MSI.  I also got a close look at the Sony TT Series laptop.  Whilst the integrated web cam was not the best I’ve come across it is dockable and has the most amazing flexible screen I’ve seen – it looks much more durable than past Vaio machines.

I revisited a couple of suppliers who I spoke to last year to see what updates they had. The first was a supplier for AceCad DigiMemo a clipboard that acts as a real time scanner and captures whatever you draw or write. This can later be exported or even OCR’d (handwriting recognition). Their update was a plugin Bluetooth module for the clipboard, but at significantly over sixty pounds (+ VAT) I think most people would stick with the ubiquitous mini-USB cable that comes with the clipboard.

My other visit was to Mimio. They now provide a portable tablet device to remote control this portable interactive whiteboard and data capture system. This probably won’t be of much use in the Academy, but I can see how this would free a classroom teacher to be able to walk amongst the class whilst teaching and also allow children who maybe aren’t confident enough or are unable to stand in front of a class to use the system without leaving their desk. What I did discover however was that there has been a significant update to the Mimio Studio software and this is available from the Mimio web site as a free upgrade for existing customers.

The Academy York office has both of these technologies available for staff to make use of, but I’m hoping to run some sort of show, tell and use session in the not too distant future to highlight some of the underused and unknown technologies that the ICT stores have to offer.

BETT has a whole section on assistive technologies and since the Academy hosts and provides ICT support for JISC TechDis I also had a chat to some of the suppliers. One of particular note was HumanWare who provide a number of products for supporting people with visual impairments and visually related learning difficulties such as dyslexia. The item I found most interesting was an item called the BrailleNote – a kind of Braille laptop. It features WiFi, a Braille output, text to speech, and text entry for the onboard applications (word processor, e-mail, etc.). At the same sort of price as a low end laptop or a netbook this appeared to be a very functional and versatile device. Apparently there are cases that allow it to be worn at the waist and “used on the move” … but I’m not exactly sure how safe that is whether your sight impaired or not.

Specifically in relation to events I had a chat to some guys from TxtTools about their SMS system for use by the Academy at the larger events such as the Annual Conference or Academy Away Day. The system essentially allows the routing and collating of text messages for groups. This allows an events team to text delegates reminders or changes to an event schedule and delegates to text in responses for evaluation of a session or questions for a live debate. Whilst I think that an RF based remote control system would be good for a consolidated session such as a main presentations (allowing for instantaneous responses, feedback in zero cell reception areas and typically more sophisticated data collection), the SMS approach allows people who are spread across a site to have simple, direct and personal interaction with the event when it suits them. So if you’re attending one of the aforementioned Academy events in the furture it may well be worth ensuring you have your mobile phone with you to take advantage of this sort of offering.

An interesting theme throughout the event was that of robotics. Whilst not relating to the work of the Academy it was something you couldn’t really help but notice. As usual LEGO Mindstorms had a popular demonstration though they were having trouble with their coloured brick sorter when I wandered past – red and blue were good but yellow proved a bit of an issue for the new colour recognition sensor. There were also a couple of Wow Wee robots (such as Robosapien) suppliers providing programming software and another one from the Far East (probably Japan) that I’m sure was aimed at encourging kids to build little robots for the next series of Robot Wars. Finally Dell had brought along their robotic salesman.

I was hoping to get some information at BETT around Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), remote and self-supported computer based training systems (CBT) and services for broadcasting and arranging online learning sessions.

Most of the VLEs were heavily focussed on fulfilling the needs of primary or secondary education which was not surprising but I hadn’t expected the focus to be such that it really didn’t look professional enough to be used in a progressive corporate HE environment (for supporting the training of Academy staff). There was an organisation who support the leading open source VLE of Moodle, but I was amazed that there was no representative for Blackboard – the leading commercial package.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any CBT or broadcast based products to examine and talk to someone about. There were plenty of course materials bundled with the VLE packages on offer and also various video recording systems with online functionality, but there was nothing for really allowing the sort of CBT functionality and webcast/webinar functionality I was really looking for.

I came across many others at my day in BETT and apologies if you didn’t make it to my blog post … but from my point of view you just weren’t quite interesting enough for me to blog to the masses about – so please don’t take offence. Hopefully I’ll be able to use some of the informaiton and contacts I made to good use and progress the efficiency and effectiveness of the Academy’s ICT services.

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New Addition – Post IT

January 7, 2009

In order to try and keep the blog fresh I’ve added a new feature to the right hand column – Post IT. This is an aggregation of a couple of feeds.

The first is Twitter which I’ve never used before, but I’m going to try and use to highlight some of the areas I’m currently looking into or maybe struggling with.

The second is a “secondary blog” I’ve created called Flag IT. I’m going to use this as a micro-blog and basically post really short and more niche posts which may not be of wider interest but may interest an individual.

These two micro-blogs are combined using a Yahoo Pipe construct into a single news feed and dumped out into the section on the right.

Keep an eye on it – you may spot something good.

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Casting for Apple Devices from Windows

January 1, 2009

When it comes to podcasting Apple is the king.  The iPod and its variations lead the market and  the software bundled with Mac OS X makes creating any sort of podcast a breeze.  Unfortunately not everyone has access to an Apple Mac be it for financial reasons or for internal IT related issues.  Creating podcasts from Windows is a little more laborious, but with the right tools it can be made much easier.

Many Academy staff have an interest in creating podcasts and they do find situations where they and/or the people they are working with may only have access to a PC running windows.  It is for this reason that I’ve decided my first post for the new year will focus on some tools for creating a range of podcasts.  Specifically I’ve also chosen to look at creating them in formats for the Apple suite of podcast players (iPod/iTunes/iPhone) as this is probably the most common format for playing them back – but keep in mind that it isn’t necessarily the most accessible format.

The software and information are not a de facto way of creating the podcasts, but they are all ways that I’ve used to create these podcasts on a PC running Windows and just by using free software.

Types of Podcast

Apple have specified a number of supported formats for podcasts and there are actually four types of podcast:

  • Audio – a podcast
  • Audio, still images and web links – an enhanced podcast
  • Audio and video – a video podcast  / vodcast
  • Text – a PDFcast (not a textcast) … for iTunes only

Podcast

Freeware:

File Format: MP3

Audacity has been the people’s choice for recording audio on many operating systems for some time now.  A simple  way to record and edit audio content.

Enhanced Podcast

Freeware:

File Format: M4A

Again Audacity is the choice for recording any audio which is the first step.  Then a note of the time stamp should be made for each point in the audio recording where the image to be displayed should be changed or where a URL should be overlaid on an image.

In order to build an enhanced podcast we also need to put the audio into AAC (MPEG4) format.  If the audio is not in this format (which Audacity as far as I’m aware doesn’t do natively), the you can use iTunes to convert it for you. You would probably want iTunes installed to test your podcasts in any case.  To convert the audio, drop the file into your iTunes library, and then right click on it and select Create AAC version.  Once created you can copy or drag and drop it from iTunes into an appropriate podcast building folder.

Images could simply be screen shots from the PC, photographs uploaded from a digital camera, scanned images, or simply an image copied from elsewhere (an e-mail, the web, etc.).  Often these will need to be cropped or edited in some way and whilst there are some really sophisticated image editing packages that are freely available (e.g. the GIMP), they are often complicated to use.  A relatively simple image but feature full image editor is paint.net and is a good tool for producing the images for an enhanced podcast.

Once the audio and video is prepared Slideshow Assembler can be used to put the audio and the images together.  Slideshow Assembler however is the least appealing tool in that it is a command line tool, but it is still possible to use it without typing in commands at the command prompt.

An instruction file (a POD file) has to be created to tell Slideshow Assembler how to put the enhanced podcast together (what audio file is being used, what images, when to insert them and what URLs to add in too).  This can be edited with any text editor including Windows’ Notepad application, however I favour NoteTab recommend the free light version for all your text editing needs.  Slideshow Assembler includes an example file and it is quite straight forward to put together as the example also contains some explanatory comments, but if you do get stuck try and get someone who has some technical know-how to walk you through it.  Once you get the idea of how to add each image change in it really is simple to build.

Finally find your Slideshow Assembler executable (take a look in the Slideshow Assembler folder that should be linked to in your start menu after you installed Slideshow Assembler).  By default it will be in C:\Program Files\Slideshow Assembler and be called SSA.EXE.  Next drag and drop your POD file onto this EXE file.  A window will appear telling you that the instructions are being processed and when  it closes the enhanced podcast file will be available in the same folder as the POD file.

Vodcast

Freeware:

File Format: MP4

With a vodcast you could produce the video in a number of ways such as through screen capture (e.g. using Auto Screen Recorder, CamStudio or Wink) or by recording from a camera – directly attached or by filming off-line and uploading a video file to the PC later on.

VirtualDub is a simple video editor in much the same way that Audacity is used for audio it provides a simple interface for editing video files.

MediaCoder is a branched selection of media encoders that will convert video to a range of formats, form factors and quality.  One particular version is available for Apple devices and would be the recommendation for vodcast production.  The video file is simply passed to MediaCoder, the output format selected and then a click of a button initiates the transcoding into MP4.

PDFCast

Freeware:

File Format: PDF

This final format is included here more for the sake of completeness but is probably a form of podcast that many don’t realise is an available option.

Many applications can save or export to the PDF format but for those that cannot there are a number of pieces of software that install as a virtual printer which you can then print to in order to generate a PDF file.  My favourite of these is CutePDF writer.

The last step is to publish the file you have produced.  Without this publishing step you don’t have a podcast as it is the XML file that links the media file to an RSS feed that makes it into a subscribable podcast.  There are many tools and services to do this depending upon your web site/podcast hosting provision.

My own preference is to take an existing XML file and edit it to match my own needs, but for those who don’t like getting their hands dirty there are other methods … unfortunately far too many for me to cover in a single blog post.

Hopefully you now have enough information to produce any podcast you need to on a Windows PC (should you not be able to lay your hands on a Mac).  So good luck with your podcasting and happy new year!