Redial: First Class

My Redial class looks to be awesome.  A description:

New technologies, such as Voice over IP, and open source telephony applications, such as Asterisk, have opened the door for the development of interactive applications that use telephony for it’s traditional purpose — voice communications. This course explores the use of the telephone in interactive art, performance, social networking, and multimedia applications. Asterisk and low cost VoIP service are used to develop applications that can work over both telephone networks and the internet. Topics include: history of telephony, plain old telephone service (POTS), voice over IP (VoIP), interactive voice response systems (IVR), audio user interfaces, voice messaging systems (voicemail), text to speech and speech recognition, phreaking (telephone hacking), VoiceXML, conferencing and more.

What’s great about it is that it takes what used to be the standard technology when I was growing up (when I tied up the phone line by being online 24/7), and which has since cooled off so much that a lot of people hardly do voice calls except to narrow down to the exact location when meeting up, and has reappropriated the technology again towards a kind of underground hackerish playground.  Almost the way it used to be.  It also takes into account my past in the Army when I was doing communications interception stuff for military intelligence.

Phone rituals and usage have changed dramatically.  Cellphones have privatized and insulated communications from something that used a shared resource (payphones, house phones, party lines) and made it intimately individual (your phone is your digital you).  But there used to be a public phone infrastructure that you would share with other people on the street, in establishments, etc.  The Matrix reminded us of the metaphor.  You could use cellphones within the Matrix, but no infrastructure existed outside of it.  Cellphones within the Matrix only let you communicate with other people, but you needed a “physical” hardline in order to actually leave the Matrix back to the real world.

What’s more, my classmate Phil, who is an international development sort along with myself (but he’s done way more in the field), pointed out that mobiles and the phone market are HUGE, in developing nations.  They are the premiere infrastructure for trading minutes, passing along money, talking with families.  It’s still the best way for diaspora families to stay in contact.  But for a first-world white society, the world of prepaid calling cards, throwaway burner phones, and international cost/minute plans are completely foreign.

Some poignant examples that came to mind when I thought of phone/PBX projects:

QuestionBox: A service in India where someone in a rural village without reliable phone or internet would press the button on a box, paging an operator in a city.  The villager can ask the operator to look up something, like raw good market prices, bus schedules, cricket scores, or, uh, I don’t know, googling Wikipedia for nyan cats.  What I like about it is it’s kind of like a 411 service for disconnected regions.  It also works well for areas where illiteracy is high, because it doesn’t require any reading to interpret the interface, the query, or the results.  Just requires one phone line of some sort, a power source, and a place to house the button and its equipment.  Some limitations may be on whether the operators speak the dialect of those who call in.

QB TED edit from Mike Paterson on Vimeo.

Nokia 100 & 101: Nokia just released a phone that’s about $30 for developing markets that is loaded with Nokia Life Tools.  As best as I can understand it (some of their documentation and marketing is pretty poor), the interface uses icons and pictures to convey meaning instead of using text, which makes it more useful for those who can’t read.

The above two projects I learned about as a result of the senior Yahoo!/Institute for the Study of Diplomacy researcher my year (when I was a junior researcher), Gaurav Mishra.  See his slides for the panel he had with Evgeny Morozov, Ivan Sigal, and Trebor Scholz:

The phone is said to have 25 days of standby power, and has a built-in flashlight.

More details on the Nokia phones, from Nokia’s site: link 1 & link 2.  And from another site: link 3.

Thus voice still has a valuable role in communication, despite the internet moving to a world of textual sharing and chat, and video consumption.  Until we can video chat each other with the same degree of ease that we transmit text, voice comms will have tons of sleeper applications.  And now that the server-end is available to mess with, perhaps we can get some more interesting backends that bring new uses for voice phones to the public, and to those who don’t have access to rich applications and data that we’re beginning to take for granted.

It also brings back the hacker mentality.  Free hacks that benefit the clever and creative?  The potential to serve a public good?  Sounds ripe for hacking!

Kevin Mitnick’s recent autobiography, Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most-Wanted Hacker, was all about how he managed to social engineer access into internal networks so he could steal source code for cell phones, call routing software, etc.  He figured out how to clone cell phones and re-route calls long before even the engineers did, and certainly before the government was able to co-opt national communications.

My interest in this is primarily how servers are no longer just in the hands of specific companies, but now in those of anyone who can download Asterisk, maintain it, and write dialplans for it.  In the class, I’m looking forward to making some fun apps as well as learning how to secure my system against trolling.  I wonder if the class could become one where all the students are trying to punk each other?

So here’s a test dialplan I made to play with the ITP Asterisk server.  I took Prof. Kairalla’s default script but added a SayDigits() for my personal phone #, so someone dialing in to my extension could get my actual phone number (for class purposes).  I didn’t know which sound file to use because all there is is a list of sound filenames, not descriptions of what they mean.

exten => s,1,Wait(1)
exten => s,n,SayDigits(${CALLERID(num)})
same => n,Playback(vm-num-i-have)
same => n,SayDigits(5555550001)
; use Archer’s joke voicemail sound
;exten => s,n,Playback(demo-echotest)
;exten => s,n,Echo()
;exten => s,n,Playback(demo-echodone)
same => n,Hangup()

I had trouble finding a good web summary of what Applications were available and what they did.  Same for sound filenames.  Any help pointing me to the right locations for this?