June 12, 2008
Mr. Waite has developed a software program and database for mobile devices that turns it into a bird identification guide with an intelligent search feature. This FAQ answers some important questions about the program and its impact on the traditional book based field guide.
Q. You have said that Winged Explorer™ is “disruptive” technology. Can you explain what that means?
A. By disruptive I mean the product alters the way a certain painful activity has been performed traditionally. For example when the automobile replaced the horse and buggy, when windows replaced DOS, and perhaps the best example today, the way the iPhone has turned the cell phone business on its head. Winged Explorer™ is an attempt to change the way we identify wild life, particularly birds, and so in that sense it is disruptive to the traditional book based field guide.
Q. How large is this field guide market?
A. Its one of the largest in the book trade, the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America is in its 5th Edition and has sold about 3 million copies. There are many examples of subject areas and markets where quick access to reference information is required, and the market is in the billions of dollars. Goggle's initiative to create digital copies of all educational books is an example of a company that "gets" how ancient our book technology is, and is doing something wonderful about it.
Q. Are you saying that the field guide is as antiquated as the horse and buggy?
A. The book based field guide is a remarkable tool – it can be cheaply mass produced, pages of paper are wonderful in a huge number of ways, the quality of the images and photos in books can be very high, and the book allows you to flip through the pages and see much of the contents quickly. However the book has its limits in terms of performing its ultimate job, identifying birds.
Q. And where exactly does a field guide type book fail?
A. Where do I start? OK what is the first thing you say when you use a book and what to find something? "Where is it?" And the answer to that question is pain. There is no great way to physically access information embedded into a flat two dimensional surface. That's just the beginning of the pain. Most field guides are in phylogenic order meaning according to how the different species evolved. While this is great for scientists its a crummy way to for the average person without a lot of biology to locate a bird they saw. I think of books as lacking in operating intelligence, there is no assistance in using a book other then your own ability to flip pages and use the index and table of contents.And no where is that more apparent than when the bird has flown off before you have come even close to the page where its information is buried. We are so far away from Star Trek and Tom Cruise's wavy hand holographic book its not even funny. We are still flipping pages like we did a thousand years ago.
Q. So what exactly does Winged Explorer™ do that a book can’t do?
A. Winged Explore uses the power of a mobile device like a cell phone or PDA to function as a search engine for birds. Instead of text it uses visual icons to help you narrow the choices. For example you can select a “location” icon and choose “California” and almost instantly a list of species narrows to just the 440 that around found in California. Then you can select another characteristic like say shape and then pick the shape of a hummingbird. Now your list of California birds is narrowed to just those birds with the shape of a hummingbird. The entire process took about five seconds. With the book you would still be looking up page 342 where the Trochilidae family begin.
Q. That is certainly impressive but there are still 17 hummingbirds, how would you find the particular one that you saw in the field.
A. Good question. In my example I used location and shape for our characteristics. There are another 12 attributes you can use to continue the whittling down process. For example you can use color, which selects birds by up to 14 prominent colors or habitat, which selects birds by the type of physical environment they inhabit.
Q. This searching sounds interesting but how accurate are the results, I mean how sure can you be that the bird you narrowed down on the device is the one you saw on your fence in the yard?
A. Basically you cannot be 100% sure the bird that appeared on your screen is the same one that you saw on the fence or in the tree, but when using this kind of search it forces your brain to think in a step-by-step elimination mode, so your thinking becomes more organized. This in turn is more likely to lead to a correct ID. But here is the cool part…once you have narrowed your choices to a number of likely species, you can “rotate’ through the profiles of each bird, and listen to their calls, see their range maps, read their behaviors, listen to the sounds of similar birds, and much more. You can for example rotate through the range maps and see how the hummingbirds are distributed, almost like watching a slide show.
Q. I assume that being able to hear the sound of the bird is one of the disruptive aspects of your product over the book, but are there already devices on the market that play bird songs?
A. Yes there are some clever products available such as the Identiflyer made by For the Birds, which plays bird sounds from song cards you plug in. It makes a great affordable gift for kids and young adults, but it’s not a serious identification tool. The typical mobile device which runs Winged Explorer, such as an HP iPAQ 110, which we like a lot, has a robust and loudspeaker, so that you can use Winged Explorer™ to attract birds to you.
Q. What other things about Winged Explorer™ make it “out-book” the book?
A. Well first the shear amount of information stored in Winged Explorer™ is equivalent to about a 4,000-page book. Yet it weighs less than4 ounces and fits in your shirt pocket. Second the size of the illustrations exceed those found in typical “portable” field guides like Sibley and National Geographic by 400%, you can in fact magnify any bird image and then pan it on the screen to see it even closer.
Q. Can you tell me how you came up with the idea for Winged Explorer™ in the first place?
A. It was kind of an accident. I was working on a visual search engine for the Internet that would be based on visual icons instead of text or words. My idea was to make the search a narrowing down kind of process so you would not get back so many pages of useless information like you do in Google. And I thought it would be great if you could search things that fit nicely in a collection, like stamps, coins, artwork, cars, computers, drugs, etc. I’ve always loved birds so that naturally came up as a good example. I was extremely fortunate to find Robert Levy, a brilliant 17-year-old programmer in West Virginia who was an expert in Microsoft programming languages and mobile devices. Together we came up with a new algorithm for searching that would guarantee there would always be an answer. Our plan was with our search engine you would never get the dreaded message “sorry nothing found try again”. That eventually led us to a product called Percevia, a desktop version of the search engine. We eventually moved it to the Internet and it became WhatBird.com.
Q. I’ve visited Whatbird.com, it’s a very nice site, and I particularly like the images and the way it allowed me to search. Where did you get your images?
A. Initially I looked for good photographs but it turned out they where expensive to license, some up to $300, and I needed about 900 to do the birds of North America. Do the math, its got lots of zeros.
Q. So what was the solution to your art issue?
Outsourcing. When I started the project I wanted to use illustrations instead of photos because I planned to put them on the web (where they are now at http://www.whatbird.com) and I anticipated allowing people to print them out, so high resolution was important. I approached artists locally (in the USA) and found out that the cost to draw a bird can be very high – drawing feathers is very difficult so they don’t end up looking like fur – maybe $300 to $500 each. And I needed over a thousand. Do the math. Then I found a web site called Elance where I posted a request for artists to draw 800 birds in an auction. Since there are no borders on the Internet I got offers from artists all over the world, some in places you would not expect. In the Ukraine for example the per capita income is $800 per year! So instead of $300 per illustration they were $30, which was way more affordable to me. I met amazing people from around the world. For example one artist lived on a coffee plantation in India in the middle of a rain forest. He worked in the coffee fields by day and painted by candle light at night on a dirt floor, scanned his images and uploaded them to my server. His art was remarkable.
Q. Where there any problems in working with artists so far away, like language barriers or equipment issues?
A. Not so much language as cultural. I’ll give you an example. The gentleman in India would disappear for weeks at a time, which made schedules difficult to meet. Eventually he told me he was embarrassed because he had no electricity. He explained when the river was not running his waterwheel could not turn his generator, and he could not run his modem to get on the Internet. There was confusion with some artists around copyrights. I could tell the artists not to copy the examples I sent, and I would get back exact copies. I eventually discovered that in certain cultures if you make a copy and trace over it, they consider it original!
Q. How does your digital field guide compare to the classic best selling field guides from Sibley, Peterson, Kaufman, etc?Is the content up to par and do you expect to hear criticisms?
A. Its very difficult for anyone to publish a comprehensive field guide to bird life today and not get strong reactions from birders. There are two ways Winged will be controversial: the quality of the illustrations, sounds and data, and basic idea of using a digital device to replace or supplement a book. Art wise the quality of books you mention are truly spectacular, as one friend put it, people that buy field guides today are accustom to Rembrandt quality art. I very much expect we will hear some squawking from the aficionados of the birding community about our artwork.
Q. Why will they squawk? Are you contributors’well-known ornithologists and artists?
A. David Lucas is a well-known expert in birds of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. Gary Owen Dick is an aquatic restorationist and naturalist at the Institute of Applied Sciences, University of North Texas. Martyn Stewart is one of the best-known bird song recordists in the country. They are among a few of literally dozens of talented writers and artists who have contributed to this project.
Q. What about your own experience in birding? Have you been a birder all your life and have a huge life list?
A. I consider myself a rising novice. I’ve loved birds since I was a child, collected bird nests and eggs, painted birds, even drew the hawk for my high school student body card. But no one in birding has probably ever heard of me.
Q. So what is your expertise did you bring to the project.
A. My experience is in computer technology, I wrote and then published books when they first came out. I bought an Apple One computer from Steve Job’s garage and started writing computer books. That eventually turned into Waite Group Press, which I sold to Simon and Schuster in the late 90s. Since then I have played with software development. I stumbled onto the idea of a handheld digital field guide while on a hike and struggling to ID a bird. We had the whatbird.com web based search engine working well so I wondered if I could get that to run on my small HP iPAQ. Could I could use its intelligence to help me narrow the search, built in audio to hear the birds, note taking for lists, animations, alerts and much more.
Q. Given your lack of status in the birding community are you concerned about people accepting the device?
A. In his entertaining book Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, Scott Weidensau explains how the experts slammed Roger Tory Peterson’s first field guidebecause he left out a grouse or two. The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America was criticized for using graphic teams instead for art, rather then the book being derived from the perspiration of a single legended artist. Even Sibley received muted complaints that the images were too small or too washed out. It took the experts a while to recognize that Sibley created disruptive technology with each species account spread across two pages and organized as a grid. And used watercolors.What is important to me is this: does Winged Explorer help you identify a bird? Does it help you learn about birds in new ways that a book can’t? If it opens the door to new kind of experience for birders then I think I have done my job.
Q. I understand that there is a product similar to Winged Explorer that runs on the Palm device, can you tell how they compare?
A. Yes we actually sell quite a few of the National Geographic Handheld Birds of North America product from our estore. It’s a very good product that actually got the ball rolling in this niche (see http://www.whatbird.com/Articles_Tutorials/Articles/Review of Handheld Birds.aspx for my full review). From my perspective the first version of anything new is kind of a beta test of the idea. And in the case of HHB I would say it was a real success. However it has a few weaknesses that I hope Winged Explorer™ fixes. Of course the most important distinction I can make is that Handheld Birds is for Palm while Winged Explorer™ is for Microsoft’s Windows Mobile devices. Windows Mobile is growing while Palm seems to be shrinking, so I would be concerned about someone who does not own a handheld device buying into that standard.
Q. So that is your only complaint with HHB, that the Palm platform it is based on may not have a bright future?
A. There are differences. Our illustrations are larger and can be zoomed in and out, we have many more search criteria and the amount of species information is way more comprehensive in our device. But I am sure the people behind HHB have plans for a new unit so I would not give up on them and if you already own a Palm they are the only game in town. (Actually there is an open source Palm identification system for birders but I don’t recommend it because it’s difficult to use. However the author has been updating it for years, so Palm owners may want to check it out. Do a google search on "peck birds" to find it).
Q. What other features of Winged Explorer™ do you consider revolutionary for a field guide?
A. Lifetime updates. When we update the whatbird.com database with new illustrations, corrections, new species and so on, owners of Winged Explorer™ received a message on there computer desktop. They can then review the changes and choose to download and install them, all seamlessly and effortlessly. This essentially means your North America database is always up to date. A species splits, you get an update, a species is renamed, or its migration changes, we update. Life List. Another disruptive technique is putting a life list inside of Winged Explorer™ and tying it to the species pages. When you ID a bird you can add a detailed account of your observation that remains attached to that bird. You can add multiple observations; there are favorites to speed up data entry, counters for bird counts. We are working on a similar life list feature on the whatbird.com web site that will synchronize with your device life list.
Q. Do you think today’s birders are ready to give up there precious books with all the notes, folded corners and post-its for something as technical as Winged Explorer™?
A. Young people will lust after this product because they are so comfortable with tech, but I think the older generation, of which I am a card-carrying member, will resist kicking a screaming. Which I understand completely having grown up making my career in books, I love them too. You grow attached to what you know. But young people’s attachments can last a few hours and then disappear with no remorse – they are fickle and that is just fine. Kids are being raised in a world where change is a constant and anything constant needs to change or its considered old and tired. I don’t necessarily think that is a good thing, but reality tends to get in the way of what we like and don’t like.
Q. How do you think the average birder will respond to Winged Explorer™?
A. Birders have an undeserved stereotype which includes words like old fashion, technophobe and frugal. Most of the people I know who bird as a hobby are just the opposite, they love new gadgets. For birder’s still using rotary phones and cameras that take film, I’m hoping Winged Explorer™ might help pull them into the computer age. (note - there are pockets of high tech birders, there habitat is often near high tech areas, such as silicon valley, boston, texas and washginton.)