Google’s Self-Driving Car Is For Real-Life Crawling

Google revealed a secret project it was working on to make cars that can drive themselves without any human intervention. These aren’t just experiments in a controlled environment either. The cars have “driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control” on real highways, streets, intersections, and even Lombard street in San Fransisco.

The media has picked up on the theme that Google is doing it to improve society with the goal of reducing automobile fatalities and freeing up time spent commuting. These would be very positive things to come from this research but could take several years to come to fruition. I have a feeling Google is doing this for its own reasons.

The Google search engine has web crawlers that follow every link it can find, slurping down the HTML which Google can analyze to determine where that page ranks in its index. These autonomous cars can be the start to real-life crawlers.

Google Street View started when a bunch of cameras were strapped to a car continuously taking photos as it drove through an area. The photos that appear online are several months old at the earliest. If it could make gathering these photos more efficient, it could update the images faster, making Street View more relevant.

Imagine if Google could send out these automated cars to collect data in the physical world that Google could use in it’s local search product. Some of the more practical applications include updating maps when roads are closed, continuously updating stores in Street View that might have changed ownership, or even determining the popularity of a place based on the number of people seen around it at various times of day.

Google wants to start ranking real-life data in conjunction with online data. This is a clear step in that direction. And it should be no surprise that the self driving car project was led by Sebastian Thrun, co-inventor of the Street View mapping product.

MapQuest Gets A Fresh Coat Of Paint

Remember when MapQuest was the online map site? Then Google came along and rained on their parade in 2005 with their dynamic-loading AJAX secret sauce which enabled you to infinitely pan around the map. Ever since then, MapQuest has been dead to me – until now.

The AOL-owned site unveiled their new look today and it is a complete revamp. Their logo took a turn from a comic typeface to a more serious, sans-serif one. Reddish-marroon, out! Green and purple, in! The new branding will certainly take some time but there is more to this re-launch than a new log0.

MapQuest has made their maps look more like paper maps. Well what do I mean by that? The color choices by the MapQuest team are really spot on. You might not really think about it, but the distinct colors used by MapQuest make their maps easier to read. Major interstate highways are blue, secondary highways are an orange color, and streets are yellow. This visual hierarchy of most important roads to least important helps focus your attention as your looking around. Compare this to Google Maps where the colors are so similiar that the roads kind of blend together.

The label style on Google Maps is a bit easier to read than MapQuest as I think Google Maps is better for locating city names and MapQuest is geared more towards a visual search of a map. For a more in-depth analysis about map design, see A Brief Comparison of Google Maps, Bing Maps, & Yahoo! Maps by 41Latitude.

The new MapQuest layout is akin to Google Maps with two-thirds of the screen dedicated to the map and the left third of the page for search and directions. Along the top of the map is a carousel navigation featuring groupings of locations like grocery stores, bars, and gas stations. It’s a well done interface for finding nearby attractions on the map.

Most people stick with MapQuest because they trust their directions over others. After a couple of test searches, I prefer the directions from Google better. But MapQuest is more enjoyable to just browse around. One feature MapQuest did really well is right clicking anywhere on the map will bring up the address of that location. Sure the address is an approximation, but the map bubble that pops up gives the house number, street, city, and zip. Sometimes there is even a 360 degree view just like Google’s Street view. MapQuest’s street view feature is more basic but I find it more intuitive to pan around. It doesn’t take up the whole screen and its easy to just pop in, pop out and continue on your way.

Will I’ll drop Google Maps and make MapQuest my dedicated online mapping service? Probably not. Google Maps has too many extra features for a power user like me (auto complete, public transportation, scroll wheel to zoom in/out). But for those people that feel Google Maps is too complicated and  hard to use MapQuest provides a clean, easy to use mapping site that is geared for people like them. I would easily recommend MapQuest to an average computer user while Google is for people who want more features.

The more competition the better for all of us. MapQuest has certainly stepped up it’s game and I can’t wait to see what else they have in store.

Google’s Nexus One Will Be $530

…according to a recent leaked screenshot courtesy of Gizmodo.

The $530 price tag is for the unsubsidized, unlocked version. There is one other option of plunking down $180 with a 2-year T-Mobile contract which is attached to a special $80 a month plan including unlimited text + web and 500 minutes. Specifically Weird.

I think the unsubdized rate of $530 is a fair price for a top of the line smartphone. This isn’t like your traditional cell phone, it’s a mobile computer. Here is how the math works out for both options after two years:

$530 phone + $60/month (cheapest plan with unlimited text + web and 500 monthly minutes) x 24 months = $1,970.

$180 phone + $80/month (only available plan with this deal) x 24 months = $2,100, a difference of $130 compared to the unsubsidized plan.

Now this may be completely and utterly wrong. Google’s already officially announced an Android event for January 5th, at which point all will be revealed. Even if these rate plans are real, I’ll still be placing my order as soon as I can. My 3 year old T-Mobile Dash is already shaking in its holster.

Oh and the first hands-on video review of the Google Phone has made its way to YouTube.

The Google Phone Cometh, A Timeline Of Events

The blogosphere exploded with rampant speculation about the latest Android phone to poke its robot head out.  Here is the sequence of events that led up to what we know now.

The first mention of a Google phone came from The on October 20th.  Michael Arrington from Techcrunch heard similar rumors and really got the speculation started with their post The Google Phone Is Very Real. And It’s Coming Soon on November 17th. A leaked HTC phone roadmap gave us the specs for the Bravo on December 6th, which has also gone by another codename Passion.  The specs listed sound very impressive squashing any complaints of slow and pokey Android phones that have been released to date:

  • Snapdragon QSD 8250 1GHz CPU
  • HD 720p Video capture
  • 3.7″ WVGA AMOLED screen
  • 256 MB RAM or 512MB RAM
  • 16GB MicroSD card in-box
  • 1400mAh battery

Things were fairly quite over the next few weeks until all hell broke loose when several Googlers got their own employee version of the Google phone and tweets started flying out about the sleek device. @lhawthorn had the first say. It was being described as “A sexy beast. Like an iPhone on beautifying steroids” (@GreatWhiteSnark). All of the commotion and rumor-mongering caused Mario Queiroz, Google’s Vice President of Product Management, to put up a post on the official Google Mobile blog about how Google likes to “dogfood” its products for quick feedback.

A popular term on the interwebs is picture or it didn’t happen and Cory O’Brien holds the honor of posting the first picture of the device in the wild.  The previous tweets about how good-looking and sleek the device looked were confirmed.

First shot of the Google Nexus One phone

John Gruber from Daring Fireball revealed the name of the phone as the Nexus One by looking through logs of web browser user agent strings. Thanks to the name, it wasn’t long before Engadget dug up photos taken with the phone which were found on Google’s own photo sharing site Picasa. This proved a max resolution from the camera phone of 2592×1944 which comes from a 5 megapixel sensor.

Google Nexus One next to a Apple MacBook Pro

I noticed went to a different 404 error page compared to something like The Wall Street Journal published an article stating Google planned to sell its own phone direct to consumers early next year, as well as confirming the name Nexus One.

People weren’t sure which carrier this dream device would land on and initial rumors suggested it was to work unlocked on all 4 major U.S. carriers (quite a hefty feat). Hope for this slowly faded to just the two GSM carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile. The AT&T compatibility was from an anecdote by Jason Howell about how he saw a Google employee playing with it using an AT&T sim card.  Other leaked photos were showing a T-Mobile logo in the upper right. Peter Kafka heard from his sources that Google approached all 4 carriers about the phone but only T-Mobile agreed to help sell the phone.

Google does not intend to sell its new “Nexus One” phone the typical way, sources familiar with the company’s plans say. Instead, it envisions a scenario where customers who buy the handset on a separate Web site are provided with a list of carriers from which they can make a selection menu-style.

By the end of the weekend, Joshua Topolsky of Engadget tried to make sense of it all with a summary post titled The Google Phone: what we know… and what we don’t. He pointed out that there was no hard evidence that this phone was even for sale and postulated it was most likely the 3rd developer phone used for testing Android apps. That would be a major bummer.

Google Nexus One gets an Android facelift

Come Monday morning Engadget confirmed the device is compatible with T-Mobiles radio frequencies thanks to an FCC filing which also mentions the Nexus One name. A nice surprise is revealed that it supports UMTS/HSUPA meaning it is capable of taking advantage of T-Mobile’s faster 3.5G data service. (7.2Mbps down/ 2Mbps up). No mention of AT&T frequencies.

Reuters hinted at a January 5th launch date which coincides with the biggest consumer electronics show on the planet taking place that same leak. Mashable thinks this is going to be a huge CES announcement.

Boy Genius Report got two more shots of the phone in the wild. The first shows off the gorgeous (though still rumored not confirmed) 3.7″ AMOLED screen, while the second shows off the slender Nexus One next to chunky-monkey T-Mobile G1. It is interesting how the trackball sticks out kind of like the nipple on the Apple Mighty Mouse.

Google Nexus One Phone Screen

Google Nexus One compared with a T-Mobile G1

Finally, the Nexus One boot animation made its way to YouTube for all the phone nerds to drool over as they wait for more information to pour in.

So that pretty much sums up how we got to this point. I’m anxious to see what else is revealed as we inch closer to a launch date.

Picasa People Tagging / Facial Detection Guide

Picasa 3.5 brings a new feature that scans your photo library looking for faces so you can tag people in your photos. This walkthrough video embedded below from Google covers the basics of people tagging. There is also this written guide.

First Impressions

The face detection technology built into Picasa 3.5 works ok. The scanning processes is slow but Google is aware of this problem. When it works, Picasa can group together common faces making tagging people a breeze. But when it doesn’t work you can get all kinds of wrong matches which are tedious to go through and correct. It’s certainly not something you can set and forget as you will need to spend some time double checking the suggested matches.

With that said there are a few tips and tricks to make the process a little easier. Most of the following info was culled from a help forum post.

Tips for better tagging

Set the suggestion and cluster threshold to 85. By default both of these values are set at 80. You can change this in the following locations:

Windows: Tools->Options->Name Tags
Mac: Picasa->Preferences->Name Tags

I found a noticeable decrease in false positives by bumping this setting up a notch, especially if your photo library is greater than about 10,000 photos.

Picasa Suggestion and Cluster Threshold

Be careful tagging blurry faced photos. When you have a bunch of blurry faces attributed to a person, the number of false positives goes way up as Picasa struggles to make a vague connection.

To see the unknown faces for only one folder at a time just do a search for the name of the folder and select it from the auto suggest list that drops down from the search box. Now you can easily go through the unnamed people for that folder alone cutting out the noise of unnamed people from other photos.

Picasa Filtering Unnamed People Using Search

When you’re combing through a bunch of faces, turn on the Faces filter at the top of the Picasa window. This will hide any photos that don’t have any faces in them saving you a bit of time when moving from picture to picture.

Picasa Show Only Photos with Faces button

How does Picasa’s facial recognition work?

Picasa scans the photo looking for facial patterns. When it finds a match, Picasa adds two pieces of information to a picasa.ini file (hidden by default) in the folder holding the picture. The face data is stored like this:


The first part, enclosed in rect64(…), is the relative coordinates for the rectangle around the face. The second set of characters after the comma is a unique identifier linking the face with a name in Picasa’s contact database which is stored in the following locations on your computer:

Windows: /Users/%USERNAME%/AppData/Local/Google/Picasa2/db3/
Mac: /Users/%USERNAME%/Library/Application Support/Google/Picasa3/db3/

(Source: Mye)

The 16 characters enclosed in rect64(…) is a 64-bit hexadecimal number which can be broken up into four 16-bit numbers used to identify the position of the rectangle used to mark the face. If you divide each of the four 16-bit numbers by the maximum unsigned 16-bit number (65535), you’ll get four numbers between 0 and 1 which give the relative coordinates for the face rectangle in the order: left, top, right, bottom.  To calculate the absolute coordinates, multiply the left and right relative coordinates by the width of the image and multiply the top and bottom relative coordinates by the height of the image.  This way the faces will always be identified even when the image is re-sized.

(Source: Oedious)

Embedding tagged people data in picture files

The fact that Picasa stores the tagged people data in an external data is less than ideal for some. The .NET program AvPicFaceXmpTagger reads Picasa 3.5 face definitions for a given list of pictures and writes them as XMP metadata tags inside the picture files. It can also add the person’s name as XMP keywords and/or IPTC keywords which can be read by other photo programs.

I haven’t tried it out myself but it is worth mentioning as a workaround until Google addresses this problem.

avpicfacexmptagger Main Picture Display

(Source: Andreas Vogel)


Overall the people tagging features introduced in Picasa 3.5 are a nice start but there is still a lot of work to be done. Hopefully the future improvements will be frequent and steady as this is an exciting new vector of information to make digging through photo collections a joy. Things will really get interesting when it will be able to talk to other photo services (like Facebook) to gather and sync and kinds of metadata.

HTC Hero With Sense UI Takes On Apple’s iPhone

Big news in the cell phone world this week. On Monday T-Mobile announced the MyTouch 3G as the follow-up to the G1. This morning HTC, maker of the MyTouch 3G as well as a slew of other phones, announced a new device called the Hero. While the two devices both run Android and sport nearly the exact same specs (MyTouch 3g specs, HTC Hero specs), the Hero gets a sparkling new interface which will make even Apple die-hards drool:

The MyTouch 3G will go on sale in the US in August while the superior Hero device will only be available in Europe and Asia by the end of the summer. There are rumors that the Sense UI will be available for the MyTouch 3G, but that could be a long time. While this could be my next phone I might just wait to see how some of the rumored Android phones pan out like the Samsung Bigfoot, Motorola Morrison, and the Samsung i7500. At least there are finally phones to choose from now.

Adding Your Own Tools To Google Search

This might be a couple years old but I just happened to stumble upon this feature last weekend. Google has always had shortcuts built into it’s search results for things like mathematical calculations (10! / 2 -12), definitions (define: boisterous ), and local weather results (weather 90210). With Subscribed Links, you can add your own custom functionality to specific searches like nutrition data for food items via or a list of the cheapest gas stations in your area by GasBuddy.

This is a neat customization that I’m surprised has n’t changed much since it was brought back nearly two years ago. Adding custom functionality to your searches is kind of like adding custom programs to your command line. My only complaint is they don’t behave like I expect them.

For example, the subscribed links are never near the top. They always seem to be mixed into other results. If I explicitly signed up for added functionality and I need to use a custom syntax like “gas prices 20906”, I expect the add-on to be the first result. The Weather Radar add-on is a bit too small and cramped to be of any real use. It also shows up four items down below Google’s default 5 day weather outlook which comes up on top.


I hope Google has plans to expand these search add-ons. I can only imagine there are heaps of companies that would like to provide an add-on that puts their products and services front and center in the crowded search results.

Two Unreleased Gadgets That Caught My Eye

Zune HD

Yup, I’m a Zune fan. Gizmodo has a video of the buttery-smooth animation used in the Zune HD interface.

I’m sold after it comes out this fall.

HTC Magic

The successor to the T-Mobile G1 has been unveiled by Google who gave out 4,000 of them to the attendees of the I/O Conference. After further prodding it is revealed that the phone uses a T-Mobile SIM card which pretty much seals the deal that it will land with the magenta carrier.

HTC Magic G2

Initial reviews indicate the battery life is acceptable, lasting at least through the work day with 3G on. This covers two of my three requirements for a new phone.

No word on when this phone will officially launch.

Picasa For The Mac Finally Available

I just read over on Techcrunch that Picasa for the Mac is finally ready. You can get it at I wrote about the rumors of Picasa on the Mac 10 days short of a year ago. The Mac version is nearly identical to it’s PC counterpart, interface and all. Check out the overview video embedded below.

One of the main reasons I like Picasa over iPhoto, the free photo program that comes with every new Mac, is Picasa keeps your folders in tact not forcing you to keep your library in a specific hierarchy. Plus, I find Picasa more intuitive and easy to use.

Picasa 3 for Mac Screenshot

Now I just need to figure out how to sync my photo library and information between my Mac and PC instances of Picasa.

If you haven’t tried Picasa yet, give it a whirl .It really is a great way to organize and edit photos.

Google Chrome’s Logo Looks Like…

The Google Chrome Ball

Google’s snazzy new browser, Chrome, is slick both in looks and performance. But look at that logo. It kind of looks like…

the Death Star?

The Death Star

(via Paul Jacobson)

Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey?

HAL 9000

(via Jaireh aka exuberantfool)

the Windows Media Player 10 icon?

Windows Media Player 10 Icon

(via me)

Samus Aran’s Morph Ball from Metroid?

Metroid Morph Ball

(via Metro Mapper)

the eyes of the Martians in War of the Worlds?

The Martians Eyes from the original War of the Worlds

(via John Wohn aka JDub)

the game Simon?

Simon the game

(via Going Like Sixty)

a Poké ball from Pokemon?

a Poké ball from Pokemon

(via various people)

So as you can see Google was inspired by a multitude of geeky things when it came up with the logo for it’s latest project. Let’s hope it wasn’t really inspired by Pokemon. Eck!