Marketplace Tech®

with Ben Johnson

About the Program

Hosted by Ben Johnson, this daily "journal of the Digital Age" airs during broadcasts of Minnesota Public Radio's Morning Edition.

Official program website

Latest Show
The movie (literally) in my mind

The annual Sundance Film festival kicked off on Monday and for the first time, the line-up will include a film made with the help of virtual reality technology or VR. The movie was made by Story Studio, a division of Oculus VR. The company has said is wants to produce original VR content as well as work with Hollywood to make more films using VR. We spoke with CEO Brendan Iribe to find out more about Oculus’ plans.

We have been hearing a ton about virtual reality. But the biggest hurdle to reaching consumers seems to be about content and you guys are hoping to change that.

Well there've been a number of hurdles. We needed to create a product which would be really comfortable for people. Whether it was gaming or cinema, you wanted to be able to enjoy that for five, ten, twenty, thirty, sixty minutes and feel good in it, take it off and want to go back and do it again. And then want to go do it the next day. Now that we've started to get over a lot of those challenges - the elephant in the room of nausea and discomfort - we’re starting to really get close to having that pretty well addressed for some forms of content. Of course, developers can make people feel whatever they want so it’ll largely be up to content developers. But now that it’s getting really close, we’re starting to work with content developers to get ready for the consumer launch.

What would Oculus movies made by former Pixar employees look like?

We have one group up in Seattle that's been working on different tech demos for games.  They are a group of former game developers. We have another group, which we are going to be talking a lot about at Sundance. They are working on the cinema side. We are all about games. We are all about putting you in the game, and as we created those made-for-VR experiences internally, they started to look a lot like cinematic experiences. So as we showed different people, a number of people said, has Hollywood seen this yet? One or two directors came down and tried it, and they turned and said, I want to make a movie with this. This is awesome. How do we get started? We’re looking that these incredible directors, and we are saying, I don't know how to get started. You're the cinema expert. We are the game guys. We’ll need to come back to you. The last thing I want to do is to make a movie with you and screw it up. So we put together this story studio group to figure out how to do VR cinema. And then educate and inspire the community, and provide these samples to directors so that they can be successful with VR cinema.

Is it harder to make a movie or game for VR technology than it is to make a Hollywood film?

I wouldn’t say it’s harder or easier ... it’s so new and so innovative that just by nature of it being so new, there are a lot of challenges. It's unknown whereas traditional film is a very mature medium. VR Cinema is this completely rich, 360 environment where you can lean in and out,  you can interact with the environment and with characters. It's a brand-new medium that Hollywood and even game developers haven't been working with yet. We've been dreaming about it but we haven't been creating content. So, yes, there a lot of challenges to how new it is. But the same time, there's a huge amount of opportunity to be a pioneer and to be one of the first developers to get it right and to start proving how to do it.

Is this medium, in some ways perhaps a future or a near future threat to the movie business, or perhaps the theater business?

I don't think so. Just like the traditional film business that we know of originally wasn't a big threat to the stage. That's the way everybody was experiencing entertainment - you go to the theater and watched somebody perform on a stage and then as we started to capture frames and get movies going, you started to have this new medium that took a while to get going. It took a long time to get sound and color. And then to get to at a real kind of mass-market adoption to get to the TV. These things took a pretty long time and even today still have players. But now you have movie theaters and TVs and it's a big, big medium where we see that same kind of leap from traditional 2D content to real true VR where you are getting that magical sense of presence, where you actually feel like you're in the movie. I am dying to be in gravity, in space, looking out over the entire world and a new universe and Earth, but it's going take a while to fully be realized. And I don't think it's going to necessarily disrupt traditional 2-D medium for quite a long time.

Let's talk a little bit about Facebook as a parent company. How are you going to navigate that as your company progresses; just avoiding some of these things that people don't actually like about Facebook?

Well, it's important to understand the kind of partnership we formed with Facebook. We were given the independence and autonomy to continue down the path that we are on. That was really important to this acquisition and to the relationship. Mark and the Facebook team didn't want to disrupt what we were doing. They did this with instagram. It turned out to be a huge success since Instagram didn't get disrupted in any way and they stayed on their mission. The same with Whatsapp. It's really up to the Whatsapp team to decide what to do. Even more so with Oculus, given how different we are as a platform, and as a company, developing our own hardware and building out this virtual-reality platform. If anybody would've been potentially affected it would have been something that was a lot closer to Facebook like Instagram or Whatsapp. For Oculus, It's like hands-off, help them as they need it and just do whatever we can to accelerate and make them a bigger, better, faster company, especially getting a consumer product out.

I get that the way this is set up offers you guys a lot of freedom set up but if that's the case then why was Facebook interested in buying you guys? What is the win for them there?

Well you you have to ask Mark himself to get the full details. But when we sat down and we talked about where we wanted to go and the vision that we had for VR, the idea was that this is the only platform that can give you this magical sense of presence. It will begin with games, start in games and always be rooted in a 3D gaming engine at the core, running in real-time that you're moving around inside. But the different applications of where this would eventually go were so broad and so exciting. The potential to be courtside and watch a game or have a social experience where you're able to talk to other people and truly believe other people are face-to-face with you, in the room with you, and yet they could be hundreds of miles or thousands of miles away. It has the potential to make the world a much more connected and smaller place. With VR, long-term, we are going to be able to give people this view where they really feel present like they went to London or they went to Barcelona or they went to the moon or to Mars and that is the potential that VR has and no other platform has. Mark got very excited about the future of virtual reality and augmented reality and Oculus is the pioneer and leader on the VR side.

Are you worried at all about the fact that the technology you're working with really cuts the viewer off from the environment? In the end, we might find that people might be more interested in augmented reality?

No, we are not worried about that at all. VR and AR are very different user experiences. In VR, you are totally immersed, you’re teleporting to another environment, whether that’s somewhere on earth or somewhere in a fantasy environment. You're really in this new place and there can be other people there with you. You're not going to get that in AR. We’re not looking at people walking around all day, every day in VR glasses. We’re looking at it as being largely an entertainment platform where you're getting you are going into the rift. Whether its 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes or two hours, you are going to get an entertainment experience,  a social experience. But you’re not going to wear VR glasses and walk across the street and look both ways and I wouldn’t recommend that for anybody for a really incredibly long time. In AR, that is the goal. How successful is AR going to be unless we’re all wearing these glasses all day long, every day? That's the dream of AR  - to complement and in many ways replace the cell phone. That’s going to take a really long time. I haven't seen anything - whether it's Hololens or Magically - that is even remotely close to being able to replace my prescription glasses that I wear today and have me walk around the office or my house or even outside and cross the street. We are really far from that. Google tried with glass. It was awesome for them to take a huge risk and go for it. I think it was very early and we’ll see a few attempts at this and it’s anybody's guess how long will it take to get down to that form factor, and that user experience.

You guys were early as well and I think that's been really good for you. You’re the most talked about company in VR right now. That comes with a little bit of responsibility to make an argument that this thing is really useful. I know that people have used this and have been really impressed by it. But do you feel the pressure to make that argument in a way that Glass failed perhaps?

I think we try to set expectation. It's incredibly important to who we are as a company, how we got started on kickstarter, working with our backers, and our community, setting expectation right from the beginning at what we're making, how it was going to work, how well it was going to work in the beginning. It's easy to dream about AR and this holographic reality we could walk around in. It's easy to dream about VR and teleportation and social experiences. You also have to back up to where we are today right now, what works, what doesn't, and set expectation with consumers. We’re delivering VR and it’s going to be amazing. It's not going to be for everybody, and it's not going to be that perfect VR we are all dreaming of, for a while. It's going to evolve incrementally and Oculus has done a pretty good job at trying to really be honest and transparent with where we are - putting out developer kits, taking feedback, not shipping a consumer product until we feel like the technology and the platform and everything was at a place where consumers could embrace and enjoy.

I know, you're killing me … I'm waiting for the consumer version. Can you help me out? When is that going to happen?

I am waiting for it also. I'm really excited. We’re not there yet. We are getting close, and at this point we have said the Crescent Day feature prototype that we've been showing is really, really close to the consumer we won on the Rift side. Gear VR on the mobile side is also very close and on the PC rift side we are very close with Crescent Bay. So it's not going to be too much longer, but there are things that we still want to get right. There are things we are still fixing. It's been pretty well known that I'm the most sensitive in the company. I want to be able to use this thing for 30, 60, 90 minutes comfortably, enjoy it every time I use it, take it off, and want to go back in quickly the next day, or later that day. We are really close. We are not quite there but it’s going to be worth the wait.

What are the ethical questions you're concerned about?

We’re very concerned always about health and safety. So we’re doing a lot of user testing. We’re looking at all the different aspects of health and safety. We put the warnings out there, even though none of us love those warnings out there. We are trying to really make sure that consumers and everybody is aware of this being a very new platform, a very new technology. It's early days. There's a lot of unknowns to this that we’re working on as fast as we can to find out more information about. So a lot of uncharted territory, which is super exciting, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility and we are taking that very seriously. Facebook is also helping us take that seriously. They have a number of different teams here on different kinds of policy. So they've really dug into help us on this. At the same time on the ethical side, VR can be used or has been in the past used for a lot of good. It's been offered as therapy on the psychological side of things. You can simulate vertigo or claustrophobia, there's all these things you can do in VR when you can suddenly make people feel present in an environment they are not really in. You can start stimulating a lot of things and learning a lot. Right now are really just focused on video games so we’re not out there actually engaged too deeply with all the different research centers that are doing that. We leave that up to them to use our product just like they could use an iPhone or a tablet. So we’re excited to see where this all goes and how it applies to other places beyond games and cinema. But right now that (games and cinema) is where we are focused.


A responsible approach to artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence, or AI as it’s usually known, is gaining ground fast. Microsoft’s Cortana is all over Windows 10, and German researchers claim they have introduced emotions to Mario, a famous video game character. All of this is making some people wary.

People like Ryan Calo, assistant professor of law at the University of Washington an an affiliate scholar at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. 

Calo recently signed an open letter that detailed his and others’ concerns over AI’s rapid progress. The letter was published by the Future of Life Institute, a research organization studying the potential risks posed by AI. The letter has since been endorsed by scientists, CEOs, researchers, students and professors connected to the tech world.

What they want is research that works toward creating socially responsible AI. That is, algorithms that don’t inadvertently “disrupt our values,” or “discriminate against people who are disadvantaged or people of color,” says Calo.

Isn’t it our responsibility to make sure that doesn't happen? Sure, says Calo, but he doesn’t think it’s that simple or even straightforward. He thinks it’s more a question of how AI evolves and how much agency it develops. Would it develop to such an extent that an AI system could break out of it’s given role and attempt to do more?  

He says we need more research to understand how AI could be harmful, even if it isn’t at this moment. If we use AI to drive cars in the future, he adds, “it’s conceivable that they’ll act in harmful ways.”

“That’s a more plausible scenario than a robot twisting its moustache trying to plan to kill humanity,” he says. “What's exciting about AI is precisely what’s dangerous about it.” 


Silicon Tally: A bird? A plane? No, it's crystal meth!

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news.

This week, we're joined by Harry Campbell, whose experience as a driver for Lyft, Uber and Sidecar fuels both his blog and podcast known as The Rideshare Guy.


Pipeline spill exposes a fracking cost

From North Dakota comes word of a record oil and gas spill. No, not the petroleum itself, but the wastewater from the fracking process. And these days there’s a lot of it.

The water could be toxic, even though federal rules exempt it from treatment as hazardous waste. Fracking pumps huge volumes of water into the well, and even more comes back out. A typical well can spit about 1,000 gallons a day. Some of the water is recycled back into fracking, stored in pits or used to de-ice roads. It's also injected deep underground, which has been known to cause earthquakes.


Technology can't make you fall asleep

If I learned anything from watching the Back to the Future movies, it is that prescience is dangerous. Someone who knows too much about their own future might try to reprogram it in their favor, and every small change has the potential to rewrite history.

In an early scene from Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly and his girlfriend Jennifer Parker - played by Elisabeth Shue - travel from 1985 to 2015. The DeLorean is airborne and Doctor Emmett “Doc” Brown is wearing a funky visor.

But forget flying cars and fashion - Jennifer wants to know what happens to her in the future: “I’m gonna be able to see my wedding dress! I wonder where we live. I bet it’s a big a house with lots of kids!”

Worried about where her curiosity might lead her, Doc pulls out his sleep-inducing alpha rhythm generator - it looks like a pair of high-tech opera glasses - and knocks her out with a flash. Doc and Marty then hide Jennifer’s unconscious body in an alley to protect her from the shock of crossing paths with her future self.

How can we be in the future? on Make A Gif

"The future? Marty, what do you mean? How can we be in the future?"

Doc Brown is a time travel expert and practiced meddler, so it is not surprising that he carries around a sleep-inducing alpha rhythm generator in case he needs one to cover his tracks. But does a sleep-inducing device exist in the real 2015? It does not - at least not in the way Back to the Future imagines.

That flash of light is the first clue that the technology is too good to be true. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that nighttime exposure to light - especially the kind emitted by electronic devices - makes it harder to fall asleep.

Aiming a little lower than instant-sleep-inducing technology, we find ourselves among a range of devices that won’t make you fall asleep, but might make you sleep better.

The U.S. military is very interested in efficient sleeping. In 2003, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) put $20 million toward its “Continuous Assisted Performance program,” research that looked for ways to keep soldiers awake for up to seven days “without suffering any deleterious mental or physical effects and without using any of the current generation of stimulants,” according to DARPA’s then-director Tony Tether.

In conjunction with DARPA, a company called Advanced Brain Monitoring is developing a sleep mask called the Somneo Sleep Trainer. It blocks light and noise, and heating elements around the eyes may help people reach a deeper stage of sleep faster.

Another technique to encourage better sleep is called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. TMS uses magnetic fields to create small electrical currents in parts of the brain, and researchers are trying to tune those currents to nudge a sleeping brain toward restorative, REM sleep.

Sarah Lisanby is Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University. “Sleep is a rhythm,” she says. “And you can actually use the different forms of stimulation - such as magnetic stimulation, or direct electrical stimulation, or sensory stimulation - at different frequencies to modulate those brain rhythms. The idea is to try to entrain the rhythmic activity of the brain in a way that would be comparable to sleep.”  

Which brings us back to Doc’s device. Alpha waves are a type of brain wave that occur during REM sleep. If an alpha rhythm generator did exist, maybe it would stimulate the brain rhythms associated with restorative sleep. But there is another flaw in its design.

Brain-stimulating technologies like TMS are better at suggesting behaviors than forcing them. So, short of a blow to the head or some other kind of trauma, there isn’t a reliable, non-invasive way to knock someone out. To put someone to sleep, they have to want it.

You can find more from our Back to Back to the Future Part II series at Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog and on Soundcloud.


Is net neutrality the real issue?

It used to be, way back when — say, two years ago — that when you clicked on a Netflix video, it would take a winding journey from a server in one location, through wires owned by any number of companies, until finally it hit your internet service provider. These days, that journey is a whole lot shorter.   

“A few feet,” says Richard Bennett, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

More often than not, Netflix just connects a wire from its server to boxes owned by ISPs like Comcast, Verizon or Time Warner. They’re generally in the same building. 

This is called interconnection, and it’s how most of our internet traffic gets to us now. It’s more reliable and efficient. Think: less buffering. And, increasingly, content companies like Apple, Google, and, of course, Netflix are paying fees for this service.  

This is where things get controversial.

“In America, where these very few ISPs have so much market power that they can extract payments, it's just like the mob,” says Susan Crawford, who co-directs Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "Just say, 'you’re not going to reach our subscribers unless you pay us.'” 

The Federal Communications Commission is getting more complaints about these deals. And, now, it has to decide what — if anything — to do about them. It’s not sure whether interconnection should be part of net neutrality regulations expected next month, tackled separately later on, or left alone completely.

That’s what many ISPs would like. 

“We all get the services we want,” says Matthew Brill, a partner at Latham & Watkins who represents many big ISPs. “There’s a real danger that if government gets in the middle of those relationships, it will distort things in a way that ends up very harmful for consumers.” 

But what if Netflix videos are basically unwatchable unless Netflix pays an ISP for a direct connection. Is that fair?

“Comcast could say, well, you’re using a third of our traffic, and we could say, well, we’re providing a third of the value your subscribers are getting, so you should pay us instead,” says Ken Florance, Netflix’s vice president of content delivery.  

What Netflix really wants is to pay nothing. It will be up to the FCC or Congress to decide whether they have a role in these disputes.


What can you make with cardboard and tape? A robot

There’s a new DIY robotics toolkit in town, and you don’t need to know anything about electronics or programming to use it. HandiMate, developed by researchers from Purdue and Indiana universities, lets children (or anyone else) build robots with cardboard, velcro, and other cheap, easily available materials. They can even control it wirelessly through hand gestures while wearing a glove that acts as a controller. And, according to Kylie Peppler, one of the researchers and an assistant professor at Indiana University, it’s also “gender neutral.”

“It can be whatever color you want it to be,” says Peppler. The idea is to use the kit to teach children concepts in a way that's fun and engaging. The play  the process of building the robot  lasts about 90 minutes, and in that time students use engineering principles that are typically taught in college.  

Since the toolkit uses recyclable materials like cardboard, Peppler says it’s cost-effective and accessible for schools across the board.

She thinks the DIY approach is a great way to get kids to think on their own and innovate. During the research, for instance, they found that children often improvised with the kit to make their robots different  Like the 11-year-old who wanted to build one with legs, or the 14-year-old who wanted to mount his robot on a car.

“A more playful approach to learning gets us to redesign and rethink,” she says.


The unending race to make the fastest supercomputer

Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory may once again be home to the world’s fastest supercomputer. It held the title in 2012, but only kept it for six months — then a computer in China took the top spot. But the U.S. recently put aside more than $400 million to stay in the race.

The supercomputer at Oak Ridge, called Titan, is the size of a basketball court and sounds like a jet engine. It can make 27 quadrillion — that’s 27 followed by 15 zeros — calculations per second.

“It’s almost like it’s alive,” says Buddy Bland, director of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. “It has a pulse to it. You can feel it in your body when you walk in the room.”

These kinds of machines are used to do incredibly complex simulations of real-world things, such as analyzing weather patterns over time or predicting new chemical combinations in drugs. Faster computers mean more scientific breakthroughs.

Like any computer, whether it's a Titan or your personal laptop, it will be basically obsolete in a few years, Bland says.

“Because we can go out and buy a new machine for less than it costs to pay the maintenance of the old machine,” he says.

The U.S. has been a leader in supercomputing for decades, and staying up-to-date and ahead of the pack is pricy. Oak Ridge’s next computer, called Summit, could cost up to $280 million.

Yet Congress has funded supercomputing with gusto. In November, the Department of Energy pledged $425 million to help build Summit and a computer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., says it’s a priority that stretches across party lines.

“This is a case where the Obama administration and I and others in Congress since 2008 have had the same goal: We wanted double funding for supercomputing,” he says.

Alexander gives two reasons: First, national security — some federally funded machines manage the country’s nuclear weapons.

Second, private companies can apply for time on the computers to develop products more quickly. For example, Procter and Gamble has used Oak Ridge’s Titan to research how  skin might react to its products.

And then there’s something that has nonmonetary value: pride.

“It’s like being number one in football,” Alexander says. “We like the idea of having the fastest supercomputer in the world, and we have had that at Oak Ridge.”

Summit is expected to go live in 2017, but Oak Ridge isn’t calling it the fastest yet — by that time, some other country may be building one that’s even faster.



Growth industry: Preparing for a cyber attack

The U.S. and the U.K. plan to conduct cyber war-game exercises with each other later this year through a staged attack on the financial sector. The move is a first for the two countries even though simulated attacks are used often in private industry when companies concerned about becoming targets of hackers look to bolster their digital defenses. But the goals of businesses and nations differ.

"The government is more interested in infiltration and defensiveness than it is about process or remediation," says Joe Loomis, CEO of CyberSponse.

According to Loomis, the list of things private companies test for during cyber-attack simulations includes deciding what to do first after an attack, figuring out what data should be collected, determining how people in the company will communicate and checking to see if the network is compromised.

While cyber security is a growth industry, not enough businesses are running simulations, Loomis says.

"Companies have been doing terribly because they haven't been testing," says Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Co3 Systems. "Companies are realizing that this has been a hole in their security."

Global spending on information security is expected to grow 8 percent this year to $77 billion, according to research firm Gartner. The cost of digital crime is estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C.


So, who's behind the online black market Silk Road?

Ross Ulbricht, the alleged mastermind behind Silk Road — the online marketplace that used bitcoin for transactions  is on trial this week. Ulbricht’s defense: he was set up by the real Dread Pirate Roberts or DPR, the site’s mysterious founder and administrator.

Who would that be? Mark Karpeles, according to the defense. That’s the former owner of Mt. Gox, a bitcoin exchange that went bankrupt in 2014.

Sarah Jeong, a tech policy journalist who has been writing about the case, says the defense is leaning on the fact that Karpeles had been a prime suspect at one point. She also says Jared Der-Yeghiayan, the agent from the Department of Homeland Security who arrested Ulbricht, is the one who suspected Karpeles.

Ulbricht doesn’t deny that he was involved. In fact, when he was arrested, he was logged into Silk Road on the account “Mastermind,” which showed the site’s finances in detail. But the defense is now claiming Ulbricht founded the site only as “an economic experiment," and that he later “handed it over to others” who lured him back to take the fall.

“The timeline is very odd,” says Jeong. “The same DHS agent who helped arrest Ross, who was undercover as a Silk Road moderator ... less than two months before he participated in arresting Ross Ulbricht, he swore in an affidavit that he had probable cause to believe that Mark Karpeles, the CEO of Mt. Gox was Dread Pirate Roberts. That is really strange.”


Google decides to shelve Glass, for now

Google is ending sales of its Google Glass eyewear, those futuristic looking little wearable computers that were the embodiment of tech cool for a short period of time.

The company made the announcement yesterday, but says the move is not the end of Glass. Rather, it’s is just the end of “beta testing” for the Glass eyewear. 

"It doesn't come as a huge surprise that Google has decided to bench what they've been making so far, and putting the core technology into other things," says Chris Green, a Technology Industry Analyst for the Davies Murphy Group. All along he says, Glass was just a proof of concept.

"The future of Google Glass may live somewhere else, whether it's integrated into clothing, whether it’s integrated into a smart phone," says Green.

While some critics say the move hurts early adopters—the people who paid the hefty $1,500 cost to purchase Glass—Google says this is just another step in the products development. 

Others say going back to the drawing board might be actually be good idea.

“It was not the easiest to use, the most intuitive, or even the most useful product out there,” notes Rebecca Lieb, analyst with the Altimeter Group.

Lieb says that doesn’t mean the Glass experiment was a failure, even smartphones when they first came out weren’t a huge hit. Just look at fitness tracking products like Fitbit she says.

We're only beginning to scratch the surface of wearable technology,” says Lieb. "It’s a topic you're going to hear a lot about this year, and in the next five years to come."

Even though regular people won’t be able to buy new Glass, Google is keeping its “Glass at Work” program for use in industries like hospitals and factories.

“Their strategy might be a gradual shifting away from the consumer market to industry,” says Chris Hazelton, Research Director for Enterprise Mobility at 451 Research.

“Their search engine business definitely provides them with a steady stream of cash and a healthy advantage over their closest competition,” he says.

Going forward, Google says the Glass team will move out of the semi-secret “Google X” incubator labs to become standalone division reporting to a new CEO.


Silicon Tally: Et tu, glitter?

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by science reporter Flora Lichtman, host of the forthcoming podcast on climate change entitled "The Adaptors".


Barcode license plates? Try mass traffic surveillance

"Back to the Future Part II" was a classic '80s movie in part because it was an escape.

From the harp plucking and the optimistic-sounding French horn in the first scene, it’s obvious that you’re going to get a picture of the future that is probably closer to "Star Trek" than Big Brother.

So when you’re watching the movie and you see that every car’s license plate is a barcode, it’s easy to think, “Sure, easy scanning. Very convenient.” It’s also easy to imagine why, in a movie released at the peak of one of the strongest periods of economic growth in the U.S., one of the most recognizable symbols of commerce – the Universal Product Code – was picked for plates.

Spoiler alert for those who haven’t yet looked closely at a car in 2015:  We don’t have barcode license plates. But the reality is in some ways more impressive and more concerning. Instead of codes that usually need to be scanned with the help of a laser, license plate recognition cameras are being used all over the country to constantly record traffic. And we’re often keeping all of that data for uses we haven’t yet realized.

The “haven’t yet realized” part is worries Kade Crockford worried, director of the Technology for Liberty project at the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union (she also writes the Privacy Matters blog). In the last decade, the practice of collecting and storing traffic data has become widespread but mostly unregulated, she says.

The barcode plates of “Back to the Future Part II” and the plate-scanning practices of the real world do have something in common: They’re both about making information machine-readable. Barcodes were invented to make it easy to attach data to products that could be organized by computers. LPR technology, also called Automatic License Plate Recognition, does the same thing, either by reading a plate and attaching metadata in a matter of milliseconds, or sending a constant stream of photos to a server farm where the data is read and stored. These cameras usually capture not only the plates but an image of the car as well.

Technology now being used across the U.S. began as an invention of British law enforcement in the 1970s. It gained popularity there in the 1990s as a weapon against terrorism, following bombing attacks by the Irish Republican Army. LPR seems to have crossed the pond as computing power, storage, and camera technology became cheaper. By some estimates, LPR usage by police departments in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled, going from 20 percent to 71 percent between 2007 and 2012.

The problem, says Crockford, is that there is little oversight or even an understanding of how LPR technology is actually being used. Private companies like Digital Recognition Network and Vigilant Solutions “Hoover up” billions of data sets, she says, and sell them to both law enforcement and private repo companies. Even though the technology has been in America for over a decade, the first real federal scrutiny of it seems to have occurred last May, via a task force created by the Justice Department.

States are just starting to lay out rules about the collection and storage of data. In the last two years, around 30 pieces of legislation have been written, but only a handful have gone into effect. Of the bills in place, those that endeavor to make police departments clear data after a certain amount of time has passed or try to prevent private companies from using LPR technology are already being challenged in the courts.

Here’s one last bit that wasn’t imagined in "Back to the Future Part II" but could become a reality: The Center for Investigative Reporting recently found what it says are documents that suggest Vigilant wants to create a massive data collection system that combines LPR, public records, and facial recognition. Almost makes you wish for silly barcode license plates.  


Does a big user base mean big success?

The other day Evan Williams a former CEO of Twitter and now the head of Medium, posted a rant on Medium, the publishing platform he helped create. It caught our eye because it touched on a hot topic: Monthly Active Users. That’s the number of people who interact with your service or your platform at least once a month.

If you're a social media company in 2015, especially one that has gone or is going public, there's a good chance you're talking a lot about monthly active users. This number is used to measure the success of companies like Twitter or Buzzfeed. But Williams doesn't think that's the only metric for success. 

What kicked off his rant in the first place was a question about whether Instagram is bigger than Twitter because it has more users. But what exactly does bigger mean? Williams says it’s frustrating that so many people measure the success of consumer internet services  news, social media etc  solely by number of users. Twitter's CEO Dick Costolo is facing investor criticism right now because the social network isn't seen to be gaining new monthly active users fast enough.

Williams says that single number  the number of people who visit or use a site at least once a month  isn’t a fair metric. For one, it doesn't tell you how many people spent less than a minute on the site, and how many stayed longer. “What value are you measuring, either to the people or to the company?” he says.

Williams thinks time is “one of the other dimensions worth paying attention to,” but it’s an imperfect way to measure a site’s impact on people.

“The ultimate metric is probably not traceable,” he said. But for now, he’s interested in defining what bigger means.



The latest in virtual reality from CES 2015

Virtual reality is big at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, with Razer showing off its latest OSVR headset. We took it for a spin, and found it almost disarmingly immersive.

Click the media player to hear more.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the VR headset. The text has been corrected.


Silicon Tally: Hello, 911? My PlayStation doesn't work

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by science and technology reporter, Rose Eveleth.


Internet's only just begun to run your life

Plugging everyday items onto the Internet is expected to be an expanding trend at this year's CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, which opens Tuesday in Las Vegas. 

"Things like your toothbrush or your door locks or other objects around your workplace or home" are all getting censors and being plugged onto the Internet, says Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association which puts on CES. DuBravac says last year was a turning point in this trend, known as "The Internet of Things." And this year, he says, there are more such objects than ever.

"For example, Adidas has a connected soccer ball ... and will measure your kick," DuBravac says. "How high it was, how fast it's rotating." Such a service can connect to a smartphone app, allowing athletes and amateurs to improve their form, he says.

But with more censors in everyday objects come more data collected about our everyday actions.

"Obviously there are privacy and security risks," says Adam Thierer, a technology policy researcher at George Mason University.

Thierer says consumers need to be more aware of who is collecting what information, and they need to become more vigilant about passwords and data protection. But Thierer says companies need to do their part, too, but adopting best practices "to make sure that these new technologies are as secure as possible and safeguard our information, and do not share it too freely or openly."


Back to the Future II takes place this year

Every decade produces iconic pieces of futurism that help to define a generation. For the 1960s it was The Jetsons and Star Trek. For the 1970s it was Future Shock and Soylent Green. What about the 1980s? It was almost certainly Back to the Future Part II.

Sure, Back to the Future Part II didn't get great reviews when it first came out. The 1989 film was seen as a lesser achievment than the original Back to the Future. But it became firmly wedged into the brains of a generation that wanted to believe the future was going to be filled with amazing technological advances.



I know I wanted to believe. It's half the reason I write about past visions of the future! When I was a kid I wanted nothing more than that hoverboard Marty zips around on. But BTTF2 was more than just hoverboards. 


It's now the year 2015 (the year that Marty McFly travels to in the film) and Marketplace Tech and Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog are launching a series looking at the different futuristic aspects of the movie.

You can hear the first episode in our series by clicking the media player below, and feel free to let us know what your favorite BTTF2 technology is by emailing Was it the automatic dog walker? How about that thumbprint payment system? Some of the technological predictions were spot on, while others are still yet to be realized. We'll be exploring many of them in the next few months.


Silicon Tally: Our romance is off the Hinges

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by digital dating consultant Laurie Davis. She's the founder of eFlirt, a service that helps clients polish their online dating profiles, decode text messages from dates, and improve their online chatting.


Silicon Tally: Robots ate my adspace

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Paul Kedrosky, partner at SK Ventures.


Program Schedule

MPR News

Listen Now

On Air

Morning Edition®

Other Radio Streams from MPR

Classical MPR
Radio Heartland