Sunday, July 08, 2007

VR Panoramas and Google Earth

When I was enjoying a stunning view from a mountain in Nordfjordeid, I was discussing with Pål how great it would be to embed a layer of Quicktime VR Panoramas in Google Earth (here are some examples of small VR Panoramas). The ability to embed URLs in the panoramas would then make it possible to jump location by clicking inside your panorama, hopping for instance from mountain top to mountain top!

I've been fascinated by these panoramas for some time now, and wrote about them long ago in connection to generalizing point-and-click adventure games. As for now, I don't think there exists an open alternative to these, and I don't think it is possible to create them in GNU/Linux. Hopefully somebody steps up.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Know thy audience

About a month ago I went to a talk by a famous Russian professor, who came to talk about something very important he had contributed to mathematical physics thirty years ago. Now the room was filled with mathematicians, and there was also a handful of people from physics. If I remember correctly, the topic had its roots in Quantum Field Theory, a theory that I briefly touched upon when I still studied physics. Nevertheless I didn't understand at all what he was talking about, and looking around I estimated that at most ten percent of the audience might have a clue what he was talking about.

Ten percent!

At most five of the fifty people were not completely wasting their time. No matter how ridiculous this may sound to an outsider, this is not at all uncommon for academic talks. So what was the rest of the audience doing there? Most probably thinking about their own research. Maybe many of them were actually thinking that the majority of the audience had no problems keeping up with the speaker. What I'm sure of is that after a countless number of incomprehensible talks, most of the idling ninety five percent had accepted this situation and learned how to cope with it.

Now before anybody rightfully accuses me of a holier-than-thou attitude, I have to admit that I was guilty of this as recently as three weeks ago. While my audience consisted of just three people, I think large parts of my talk might not have been understood because I assumed a wrong background. Talking for just a couple of minutes about their background could have prevented this. The solution is obvious: let there be no misunderstanding about the (target) audience from either side. Below I worked this out in a little more detail from the point of view of the audience, the speaker and the organizers.

What can the audience do? When you plan to go to a talk you should always try to find out what the level of the talk is going to be. Either contact the organizers (who often don't know this) or directly contact the speaker. If the talk is in the same building, don't shy away from going there and asking the speaker directly. This is just as beneficial for the speaker as for you: it allows him to become familiar with the audience and thus make a better connection. Once you feel that this talk is aimed at you, you no longer feel that if you don't understand the talk, then that is because you don't belong in this room. I often find it much easier to ask questions when I am sitting in the front, because you directly face the speaker and don't have to get past the audience first. Remember, asking questions also helps the speaker to make a connection with the audience.

What can the speaker do? Always discuss with the organizers what kind of audience you can expect. When you are able to send out an abstract, add a paragraph discussing the background that you assume your audience to have. Let there be no misunderstanding about the target audience. Just before the talk go around the audience, start establishing a connection, and find out what kind of people have come to the talk. For me this has as a side advantage that I tend to be a little less nervous whenever I see familiar faces in the audience. If done properly you will manage to give an understandable talk without boring people to death.

What can the organizers do? Discuss with the speaker what the target audience will be, and communicate this to the audience in the promotion of the event. Make sure there is an abstract of the talk containing a paragraph about the target audience. Ask the speaker to give more details about what he will talk about, and use this to reconsider the target audience. In short: be more than a medium, don't leave the communication up to the audience and the speaker.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Coding Theory Conference in Nordfjordeid

After my exams in Statistical Methods and Spline Methods and a presentation, I found myself half asleep in the nightbus bound for a conference in Nordfjordeid, a small city at the west coast at equal distance from Oslo and Trondheim. The nine-hour trip made me realize again how big Norway actually is. The length of Norway is comparable to the distance from the top of Denmark to the South-West of Portugal. And on this scale, my trip would only bring me to the German border.

The topic of the conference was Coding Theory, the mathematical theory for encoding information in such a way that you can correct several errors that occur from transferring the information without using too much additional bandwidth. The three lecture series were all quite good, and so were the practice sessions. The conference reassured me just how important it is to have practice sessions, and not only passive lecture sessions. Most of the lectures were understandable, but I only managed to get a grip on them after doing the practice sessions. Furthermore it was a lot of fun: we had a small active group of nine people from nine different countries, and it was fun to figure the answers out together.

We had some spare time during the week, which we spend going up the mountain, playing football, swimming and visiting the largest glacier in Norway. It now seems that I overdid this all a bit, as the next ten days I wasn't able to walk on my left foot anymore. Friday I went to the doctor, but nothing could be seen on the x-rays, so it is probably not as serious as it feels. Fortunately I sensed a small improvement yesterday and today. Hopefully my foot will be mostly healed when we go on a car holiday through Norway in two weeks...

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Video presentations on Zentation.com

For most presentations that I have attended, the accompanying visuals are what Garr Reynolds from Presentation Zen refers to as a slideument, an unfortunate compromise between slides and a document. On the one hand, these slideuments are used as suboptimal hand-outs that are distributed after the talk or can be found in the conference proceedings. More importantly, however, these are bad because research has shown that it is more difficult to process information if it is coming at you in the written and spoken form at the same time. So although such slideuments are aimed to enhance the message, they obfuscate it instead. Try it yourself. Next time somebody presents to you a slideument, listen only to the speaker and ignore the slides. Can you focus better on his message?

In all honesty I have to admit here that all my own previous presentations were built around such slides, because this is how you're supposed to do it, right? Everybody does it like that! Note that I write "built around", and this brings me to a second nasty side effect of slideuments: They draw attention away from the speaker. This is probably an important reason for them to be so popular: It makes it easy for people to hide behind their slides. (see Garr Reynolds' eye-opening post about "naked presentations"). But your audience doesn't come to see your slides, then they might as well have read your article or whatever. They come to see you, and make a connection with you.

What I'm trying to say is that slides alone are not enough to transfer your message. You can either read an article, which mostly lacks the (emotional) connection with the writer, or you can view a video of a presentation. However, from most video presentations that you can find on for instance Google Video it is impossible to read the slides, so you're missing out on a large part of the talk. The obvious solution would be to somehow be able to see the slides and the video at the same time. This is exactly what Zentation.com does. Moreover, you can embed such presentations into your blog or website. As a test I include below a talk by Guy Kawasaki on the Art of Innovation.

Got interested? Check out the excellent review by Robin Good.

Update/Warning: It seems the application can only work with Powerpoint slides as for now.

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