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iPhones Controling Times Square: The Hoax, the Hax, and the Underwhelming Truth

The Recruit, a middling spy thriller with little going for it besides Al Pacino, hinged around a mostly ignored plot point that was alternately ignored or made into the focus that blinded moviegoers to all other plot devices going on: Colin Farrell invented a piece of software that would give him the ability to stream content from his laptop to any screen or device around him. It was a fascinating idea, and at the time a couple of people on the burgeoning device-hacking/maker scene spent countless hours with some limited success creating devices to do just that. CarWhisperer was probably the most well-known, widespread, and widely covered success, though there were other far more shady projects going on simultaneously.

Now after a brief lull in the action, it seems that the idea is catching on again. First, about a week ago we were introduced to the hoax video of two guys controlling the billboards in Times Square with an iPhone and some fancy-looking gadgetry. We now know that it was an elaborate hoax: viral marketing for the upcoming movie “Limitless”. Despite getting hundreds of thousands of hits in an incredibly short time, the hoax was exposed relatively quickly, and was doubted from the beginning on the more tech-savvy discussion boards due to the marketers’ poor knowledge of technology and the iPhone.

Still, it seems to have touched something deep inside the popular imagination, as yesterday (Mar 22nd, 2011), a Canadian inventor decided to try to pull off the stunt for real. Well, the verdict is in this morning, and even though he “succeeded”, the whole endeavor turns out to be a giant, heaping barrel of fail. Adi Isakovic, inventor and founder of TubeMote, managed to project both live streaming video and pre-recorded video from his phone to a billboard in Times Square. Amazing, right? Well, no. It would have been had the technology he was using not been several years old, and had he actually managed to take control of the screen as opposed to paying the screen’s owner to let him have access. In essence, what Mr. Isakovic did was set up a web-based and web-accessible streaming server that was controlled by his iPhone and paid for the digital billboard owners to turn their screen, already essentially a giant web browser, to his server. To demonstrate how old this technology is, when the Wii first came out, I used the same trick using a service called Orb to stream movies from my laptop, through my Wii, and onto my TV. To quote a meme, “Old News Is So Exciting!!!”.

Meanwhile it appears the true challenge, taking over and controlling a screen that gets instructions via ethernet cables and has no wireless recievers whatsoever, remains open and waiting for an enterprising computer guru. It’s bound to happen eventually…just not yet.