Sunday, June 14, 2009

NBA Finals on ABC – Blurry Picture and Sub-Par HD

Tonight the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Orlando Magic 99 to 86 to win the 2009 NBA Finals. I am not a huge Lakers fan, but I do enjoy watching a good basketball game and did manage to catch the first and last games of the series. While the games were good I was a bit distracted because both games that I watched had pretty poor picture quality and the majority of the wide-angle shots were really bad for a major sporting event. Not at all what I had expected in today’s  High Definition standards.

The first game I watched was on a projector at a sports bar, and I had just figured that there was an issue with the projector, but the same thing happened tonight while watching at home on my new computer. After upgrading and purchasing a new antenna I have been able to receive all of the local HD broadcast channels (also called Over The Air or OTA) in full digital HD format. I prefer watching recorded TV from a DVR so that I don’t have to watch commercials, but for sports I will usually switch to the OTA HD signal and watch it live. In tonight’s game though I noticed that while the Cadillac commercials and commentary shots were sharp, a lot of the actual game was pretty blurry and hard to follow.

It sounds like other people have noticed this too, and it appears to be an issue with how ABC broadcasts the event to TV stations and cable providers. While their other shows look great, the sporting events that involve a lot of fast motion do not end up looking very good. My guess is that they try and compress the signal too much, because if you combine a low bit rate signal with a lot of fast movement and flash photography you are bound to get poor picture quality. Luckily the original recording is kept at a higher quality, so all of the highlights and re-broadcasts appear much better than the live event.

The funny thing was that even the overlay graphics like the scoreboard would appear blurry at times. Check out this 10 second video of the scoreboard that I made, where you can see the whole thing (including the ABC logo) goes blurry and then takes a few seconds to recover. Gets pretty annoying when this happens throughout the entire game. If this had happened during the commercials you can guarantee the sponsors would be asking for their money back!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Google Translator Toolkit: Makes me wish I knew another language

Google recently launched the Translator Toolkit, which helps users translate and edit documents or web pages from one language to another. This is industrial scale crowd sourcing and machine learning at it's finest and is a rare win-win-win situation:

  • Users get tools that help make their job easier. With a few click a document gets processed and translated automatically. The user then has to proofread, edit, and publish the results, but they get access to tools like dictionaries, glossaries, and previous translations that may be related.
  • Partner websites like Wikipedia and Knol will get better translations for articles because they are edited and approved by humans.  
  • Google gets to train it's translation algorithms using data from the human edits to improve it's accuracy. I took a basic natural language processing class a few years back, and getting access to mistakes and their correlated corrections is invaluable for refining and improving these types of algorithms.

If you are interested check out or just watch the video:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Google Wave - High Frequency Innovation in Online Communication

About 5 days ago Google previewed their new Wave communication service at the Google I/O conference, and already the web is abuzz about it. A search for "Google Wave" returns over 33 million results, and there are over 30 tweets for "Google Wave" posted in the last 5 minutes (and another 20 while I wrote this sentence). Needless to say this is one of the biggest product announcements to come from Google in the last few years and has completely outshined Microsoft's announcement of rebranding their search engine from Live to bing. While Microsoft tries to gain ground in online search, Google has been planning ways to change how people communicate and collaborate online.

Google Wave is set to be released later this year and will combine features commonly found in IM, Email, Forums, Social Websites, and Wikis to create a unified communication platform designed for the modern web. It is based on HTML 5, which means it will run in a web browser but should feel a bit more like a desktop app in terms of response and the way a user interacts with the service. It also has some cool features like real time updates from multiple users, conversation playback, and advanced spellchecking using natural language processing.

The product is currently in a closed beta stage that is only open to developers that want to build applications or extensions on top of the Wave platform and protocol. The Google team thinks that one of the big drivers for success of email over the last 25 years has been that it was built using an open protocol that anyone could implement. The Wave protocol was designed to mimic the same type of system where servers from different providers can interoperate with each other using an open source federation protocol. Google has a vision for how to improve online communication, but they also are aware that to succeed they need to share with all the other kids in the neighborhood.

It is way to early to separate the hype from reality, but if Google's track record is any indication then this has a lot of potential to have a large impact one way or another. I use Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar on a regular basis nowadays, and it is hard for me to envision working without those type tools without taking a large drop in productivity. Also the Google Wave team is lead by the same two guys that created Google Maps, so they have a lot of experience in creating these types of highly interactive applications.

If you want more information you can watch this 80 minute presentation demonstrating Google Wave or go to to sign-up to be notified when it is publically available. I guarantee that you will hear more about this in the future, as it truly does show potential for a new way to communicate online.