Archive for January, 2010

Social Nets and Dunbar’s Number

Neocortex (image: salviaforme)

Dunbar’s Number (Dn) is a theoretical “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships”, according to this Wikipedia article about its originator; British anthropologist Robin Dunbar.  He proposed that this limit was a function of neocortical size, i.e that the ability of a person to understand  all of the complex relationships inherent in a community group was limited by the capacity of the neocortex to process the information.

Web 2.0 applications that promote social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are subject to some of the same social forces that govern our real life social interactions, so, if we ignore the “real vs. virtual” debate for the moment,  it’s reasonable to assume that Dunbar’s Number may apply here as well.

The theory doesn’t propose a precise number, but it’s generally understood to be approximately 150 individuals. Looking at “followers” lists on the social nets and blogs that I inhabit (or keep occasional tabs on), it’s hard to imagine that a single individual could count each of the thousands of listed friends or followers as participants in a meaningful relationship.  In Ashton Kucher’s twitterverse, for example, his aplusk twitter page currently lists 4,437,990 followers – but he’s only following 304.  Smart guy – he’s keeping fairly close to the Dn limit.

Blogger Seth Godin suggests that this is the reason social groups or tribes that exceed the Dn limit split in two soon after hitting it. It also explains the regular emergence of sub-sects in some religions – where a group of disgruntled disciples separates from a parent group to form their own version of religious devotion. (For a dissenting view to Seth’s blog look at the “Related Article” listed below).

It all comes down to how we define”relationship” as a concept.  It’s safe to assume that a reasonable number of Ashton Kucher’s millions of followers consider that they have some form of “relationship” with him just by picking up on his blog posts every day, but this is only from their own,  celebrity-fantasy-fuelled point of view. On his side, the mass of followers probably make good ego-building material and has great publicity-generating potential, but its highly unlikely he would consider this form of interaction as a relationship.

For me, it just has to be a two-way street.  And I really hate it when I recognise someone from my past who fails to equally recognise me.  Either I’m pretty forgettable (plausible) or they’re in the early stages of dementia (surely not!).  Or maybe I just happened to exceed their personal Dn limit.  OK, I think I’m going with the last one …

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Lessons from the Uncanny Valley

Chart of the Uncanny Valley phenomenon by Mori

Chart of Mori's Uncanny Valley (1970) (image: Wikipedia)

The concept of the Uncanny Valley has its origins in early 20th century psychology. German psychologist Ernst Jentsch’s 1906 paper, titled “On the Psychology of the Uncanny“, explores ideas discussed by Sigmund Freud on childhood fears, such as the fear of dolls coming to life, known as pediophobia.  More recently, roboticist Masahiro Mori proposed the theory that the more human-like robots become, the closer they get to a critical point where positive acceptance by humans quickly turns to revulsion.  The “valley” concept derives from Mori’s chart of the phenomenon, which shows a downward dip in the data along a y axis which rates “familiarity” against “human likeness” (x axis).

Here’s a discussion on the Uncanny Valley (UV) and how the theory impacts on recent media by cognitive psychologist Karl MacDorman (Parts 2-7 can be found by searching YouTube or clicking its “More from:” link:

The recent box-office success of James Cameron‘s film Avatar prompted a lot of commentary on  how sophisticated 3D animation has brought us ever closer to the UV precipice.  Some CGI production houses, such as Image Metrics have made it their mission to cross the Uncanny Valley by producing graphic animations of human faces that are hard to distinguish from the real thing.  Meet IM’s Emily:

Roboticists such as David Hanson have also taken up the challenge of bridging the Valley. His robot torsos of Einstein and SF writer Phillip K. Dick are “uncannily” real.  Digital media artist Peggy Weil discusses the UV and the concept of the “blurring test” a kind of “reverse Turing test“, in Fora.TV’s Picnic series,  here.

For me, these artefacts are certainly getting us closer to the other side of the Valley, but we’re not quite there yet.  If nothing else, they force us to consider the very concept of humanity and what it means to be human.  So we’re close, but no cigar.

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eReaders: breakthrough tech for 2010?

Plastic Logic's QUE ProReader (Image:

In three days time entrepreneurial firm Plastic Logic will launch the QUE ProReader at CES, the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas that’s arguably the world’s largest venue for geeky hardware gadgets. The ProReader has been ten years in development and features a flexible A4-size display with a gesture-based interface for navigating between pages and annotating content. The reader’s frontpane is a display using E Ink Vizplex technology, the same tech used in Amazon’s Kindle Reader and Sony’s Reader Pocket Edition. E Ink is known for its low power consumption which means long battery life between charges.  The TFT-driven backpane provides single-pixel control embedded in a flexible substrate. Click on the related article below about Barnes and Noble’s partnership with Plastic Logic which contains a video discussing the mooted (northern) Spring release of a colour version of the reader. Skiff, a publishing startup backed by Hearst Publishing, will release a large-format (A4) black and white Skiff Reader this year, targetting customers who want to access newspaper and magazine content from a e-reading service.

Speaking of colour, we can probably learn a lot by adopting a biomimetic approach to design.  Here’s an article on Qualcomm’s Mirasol technology that promises highly readable colour displays with minimal power consumption – based on the physics behind an iridescent butterfly wing. And here are Qualcomm’s promo videos on Mirasol, described by one developer as a “bistable, reflective technology that is an interferrometric modulator”. Which is really a fancy way of saying a non-pigment-based colour generating technology. (See the related article from, below)

Readius eReader
The Readius eReader unfurled

Polymer Vision, based in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, is another  developer about to break into the e-Reader field with Readius – billed as the “world’s first pocket eReader”.  Readius is a rollable display that uses proprietary electrophoretic display technology on its frontpane. In its most compact form, the Readius fits easily into the palm of your hand.

Electronic paper (Side view of Electrophoretic...

An electrophoretic display. (image: Wikipedia)

These display technologies are all attempting to solve the problem of screen-readability.  That is, most monitors and screens sold today (both CRTs and LCDs) have a visual resolution quality far lower than a printed page that uses ink on paper.  In effect, the time that most people can spend comfortably reading text from a page is determined by the type of lighting used (i.e. reflected from a printed page versus transmitted from a back-lit display), the resolution of the text, and the contrast between text and background.  Until recently, the optimal combination of the above criteria was provided by printed black ink text on white paper.  E Ink technology had begun to challenge this by using bi-chrome (black and white) micro-beads as physical elements of a text display, rather than bombarding phosphors with electrons or matting out reflected light with liquid crystals.

According to a Forrester Research Report from October, 2009, US consumers will likely purchase six million eReaders in 2010, around twice the number sold in 2009.  If you’re wondering what the future holds for this emerging technology, the Forrester Blog for Consumer Product Strategy Professionals makes 10 predictions for eReaders and eBooks in  2010.

I’m yet to be convinced that printed pages have been superseded, however,  as (conventional) books have their own look and feel, can be scribbled on, and smell different, particularly when they get older.  It’s hard to imagine curling up in bed on a wet and cold evening with a “favourite” novel if it’s all contained within a single page reader, flexible or otherwise.

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