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July 2, 2013

Firefox OS: Impressions from Reviews and Demos

Firefox OS has now been seen in the wild, with inexpensive phones going on sale in Spain this week. From the reviews I have read, and from the demonstrations I have seen, the release of Firefox OS really looks like a challenger to Android than to anyone else.

The reviews are generally positive, in that they can't find much wrong with the OS. It's pretty much a standard display, much like Android or iPhone (or WebOS), not something radical like Windows Phone. The apps, which are in the Firefox Marketplace seem pretty sparse, but really cover the general gambit you would expect from any phone OS. Sure, you don't have everything that Android or iPhone has in their marketplace, but you have the essentials and some fun little tools that would make the phone useful.

The real catch for Firefox OS is the price tag. It's priced to be competitive with the low end Android phones, those that still run Gingerbread and are the bane of Google in their hopes to see faster adoption of the latest and greatest Android OSes. From the reviews I have seen, Firefox OS manages to do that easily, making an easy bid for the low-end smartphone market.

So who should be worried about Firefox OS? Honestly, it's going to put the push on the number of Android activations. Why? Because while it is a pretty solid OS in and of itself, it runs on less expensive hardware, like low end Android phones. The apps are all free (at least the first 200 or so that I looked at), meaning that you can buy the phone and be up and running, just like low end Android phones. All that, and you have the most recent OS available for you, instead of a 3 year old OS on your brand new phone.

At this price point, you most likely are not going to have big spenders in Android, and with such an old OS running, probably not a lot of brand loyalty. Moving to another OS that is just as solid and provides replacement apps for free wouldn't be that hard. Market-wise, Firefox is playing it smart, not trying to compete at the high end like Microsoft where brand loyalty is running high, but rather shooting for the entry market for smartphones, where people are just looking for that experience.

So should Google be quaking in their boots? Absolutely not! Google's Android has matured, and with Samsung's Galaxy doing so well, they don't have to worry about lower end markets going to another OS. Likewise Apple doesn't have to worry, as their market share is pretty much defined.

So, who has to worry? Microsoft. Windows Phone 8, as solid an OS as I have found it to be, doesn't seem to be doing very well in the overall market. Ideally, Nokia and Microsoft should have really tackled the low end market as Firefox has, and now they will face some competition. Of course the low end smartphone market is a double-edged sword, as that small price point would make it easy for someone to move from one OS to another, and without paid apps, there is no equity placed within an ecosystem.

So what do you think? Has anyone had hands-on experience with Firefox OS? What are your impressions?

May 31, 2013

A Clinical Use for Google Glass: Diagnosing Autism?

Article first published as A Clinical Use for Google Glass: Diagnosing Autism? on Technorati.

Boy with autism in a sun hat, sun glasses, and using an iPod Touch.Not long ago I posted an article questioning the usefulness of Google Glass for those with autism. Using it as intended, those with autism (and other disabilities) would have difficulty interacting with the device.

But then I read an article outlining research that uses eye-tracking technology to diagnose autism. It appears that children with autism move their gaze more slowly, and therefore even with babies as young as 7 months old, an autism diagnosis can be made by tracking eye movements.

Of course, this is all well and good, but technology currently used to measure eye movement can be expensive, cumbersome, and not very mobile. Enter Google Glass. Eye tracking is built into the device, though it is only looking for specific movements. Should the device be significantly open enough to allow access to the eye tracking technology, it's possible some enterprising software developer could turn Google Glass into an eye-tracking diagnosis tool for any doctor, specialist, or parent.

Eye tracking studies are not new in autism research. Zillah Boraston and Sara-Jayne Blakemore published a paper in the Journal of Physiology outlining the application of eye-tracking technology in the study of autism (6 Jun 2007, Vol. 581, Issue 3, pages 893-898). In the past autism research and eye tracking has targeted focus points, finding that those with autism tend avoid the eye region of the face (therefore lack of eye contact). The same research has been applied to mirroring emotions in others (Dapretto et al, Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders, Nature Neuroscience 9, p.28-30, 2005). But to date this is the first case of tracking the speed of eye movements and it's relationship to autism that I've read.

So, perhaps there is a use for Google Glass in the world of autism after all, if only a use for clinicians and not directly for those with autism. It would be fascinating to see how this research progresses, and if Google Glass becomes a very useful tool in identifying those children who will need autism support services.

May 28, 2013

Useful Tools for Navigating the Waters of Autism

Article first published as Useful Tools for Navigating the Waters of Autism on Technorati. Boys with autism and their mother, posing for photo.

Autism is confusing, frustrating, and often misleading when looking from the outside in. Trying to understand someone else with autism is difficult, because you have to understand what they know versus what they repeat, what they learn versus what they don't, and what they can do versus what they can't. In the past five years since my oldest son was diagnosed, I thought I would go mad. Everyone had a theory, everyone had something to say, nothing seemed to be remotely relevant to the situation my family was in.

Fortunately I had a few tools that have managed to bring focus to my life as I wrestle with the enigma that is autism in my family.

  • Google Scholar: The Internet is a rather vast place, and perhaps the best example of ordered anarchy. As such, everyone with any kind of supposition, theory, or guess is able to publish to others who are willing to accept that "information" as truth. Fortunately Google has provided Google Scholar, a repository for searching scholarly journal articles that are peer reviewed. Of course, you do need to have access to those journals in order to read the research in their entirety, which is why it's so useful to work for a University. With this resource, I have been able to find out the myriad research points about autism being done, and just how credible they are based on the evidence.
  • Blogging: Blogging is more than a cathartic method of releasing frustrations, concerns, or sharing news. For me, it's been a useful method of getting feedback from industry leaders, concerned parents, and even proponents of various other theories regarding autism therapy and research. I've also been able to share my experiences.
    Another aspect of blogging is reading other blog entries of other family members, parents, social workers, psychologists, neuro-psychologists, pediatricians, and therapists who experience the world of autism first hand, and share their expertise.
  • Technorati.com: When Technorati first offered to allow me to post directly to their news as a specialist in the Lifestyle Family section, I was blown over! I had no idea just how popular my blog had become, and how many people were following it. It was thrilling to know they wanted me as a contributor. It's been helpful to widen my reach with posts, get the word out there, share with others, and hear from so many it there.
  • Facebook: I never thought I would have believed it, having had so many negative experiences with students using social media while in class (hint: not a good thing to do with your teacher), but Facebook has become a useful source of news and information about autism, autism research, and autism therapies. It's still some sifting through chaff to get to the good kernels, but still a great sauce of information.
  • Twitter: Just like Facebook, Twitter has provided some good information about autism, though still requiring sifting.
  • Google News: A lot of good sources can come through Google News, with a special search for autism. A lot less sifting, so that means more time reading up in scholarly journals.
  • Google +: Another unexpected source of relevant information, Google + has become a valuable tool in learning about research, therapies, and keeping in contact with families from all over the world.

Without these sources from which to refer, I would have been lost in the sea of uncertainty that first enveloped me when my son was diagnosed. Sure, you can read Piget and his developmental psychologist theories, spend hours in a bookshop looking at this book or that, but how do you know which source is accurate, and which is just looking to make money from a demographic desperate for answers? It's so nice to have real sources and science on your side, if only to point out that there are no answers...yet.

May 18, 2013

Could Google Glass Work for Someone with Autism?

A boy with autism at Turtle Reef in Sea World San Diego.

First posted on Technorati as Could Google Glass Work for Someone with Autism?

Google Glass has been in the news quite a bit lately, with concerns about privacy, the "cool" factor, and some businesses already wanting to ban the thing before it hits mainstream.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, praised Glass for it's more socially acceptable use over smartphones.

Glass reacts to your eye movement, finger gestures on the side, or voice commands. The video Google provides is pretty compelling, with lots of exciting things being done and hands-free computing being done at the same time. 

But it got me thinking: could someone with autism use Google Glass? Could someone with a disability use Glass? 

Smartphones can be very enabling in many cases. Apple, for one, uses Voiceover to make it possible to use an iOS device if you are blind. And while Android doesn't seem to have the same technology built in, there are code projects that are available for download. Being able to interact with the device directly with or without looking at it is ideal. Can Glass do the same thing? 

A marketing professor at Gallaudet University (a University for the deaf and hard of hearing) presented the Google Glass demonstration videos to his Intro to Marketing classes. The response was almost unanimous: It wasn't deaf friendly. Anything that requires spoken word for interaction would be unaccessible to someone who communicates through sign language. That means that this current iteration of Glass at least would only provide minimum support for someone who doesn't communicate verbally. 

But could it be used by someone with autism? Smartphones and tablets have been adopted with gusto by the autism community, because they are intuitive to use and allow persons on the spectrum who cannot communicate verbally interact with their world. The capacitive screen allows for accuracy without an implement beyond the human finger, and the display is a natural place to look when "reading". 

Now take Glass. 

  • Glass uses eye-tracking technology, not a useful bit of tech for someone who has a hard time with eye contact as is common with those with autism.
  • Glass can use voice commands, but if you don't speak, it's not much use.
  • Glass can use finger gestures on the side, but it requires more fine motor skills than touching a tablet, and a direct correlation between what you see and what you do. While this is natural with the keyboard and mouse crowd, a tablet is far more useful in this regard, you are "touching" the "thing" with which you interact, not touching an interface point on the side of your head when the thing is in front of you.
  • Glass requires something to touch you. That alone is a deal breaker with a community that is known for it's sensitivity to sensory events. Speaking for my children alone, I think it would be difficult to get my eldest to wear it at all.

There would be a lot of hurdles to overcome in order to make Glass accessible to someone with autism. But once accessible, would it be of benefit? Honestly, I can't see a situation when using Glass would help someone with autism beyond displaying social stories in real time with an augmented reality (which would be awesome!). 

If given the choice, right now, I don't think I would recommend anyone get Google Glass for someone with autism, at least until the interface is worked out. And even then, only if an augmented reality app was invented with built-in social stories based on location were available. Given that as the killer autism app, it would be worth a look. But given a choice between a tablet and Glass? The tablet's versatility wins hands down.

April 15, 2013

Successful "Grown" Kidneys in Laboratory Rats

The BBC is reporting the success of "growing" laboratory kidneys and implanting them in living animals, with the result of creating urine. This is huge news, and shows progress in one very important area: transplant organs.

Organ transplants remain a very complicated procedure, with the need of finding donors, matching them to needy recipients, and doctors having the difficulty having to prioritize need for the very limited supply of donor organs. Being able to "grow" organs from stem cells has been a holy grail for transplant doctors, because it would mean being able to grow a replacement organ from a patient's own stem cells that works properly without worrying about rejection. Because even if there is a great match for donation, there is a limit on how long the organ will remain viable with anti-rejection drugs.

Many of my friends and family know that my wife is a living donor, having donated a kidney to her brother when we were married for 6 months. It was an ordeal for all of us, but her brother is alive and well with a working kidney. But to think that he could have his own kidney, fully functioning, no anti-rejection pills, that's something that I think would be fabulous.

The donation process was an amazing process, bringing the whole family closer together as we looked for ways to help my brother in law and my wife through the ordeal. I wouldn't want to take that process of closeness, bonding, and connection away from anyone. But I can't wait until those who need kidneys, hearts, lungs, livers, etc. will no longer need to wait for years on a waiting list, or search through family members for close matches, and can have the life-saving transplant in a matter of months. This is an exciting time, and it makes me hopeful for the future!

March 19, 2013

Computing Ecosystems: Why?

If blame needs to be assigned, I suppose you could throw it at Apple. They started it, with their own operating system on the first Macintosh. Then they introduced the iPod that played music from iTunes, which brought the iTunes store. Then they introduced the iOS devices, the App Store, then the App Store to for the Mac, and as such started to control the user experience through an ecosystem. Everyone told them they were crazy from Microsoft to Google, from tech pundits to grandmothers.

Now, Microsoft is doing it with their cloud offerings, Google is starting it with their Android-only software releases and Google Chrome app store, and even Samsung is starting to build their own ecosystem for their phones, regardless of their OS. Now everyone is all about building a walled garden of some sort, in order to control the user experience.

Why? That may sound like a crazy question from an Apple user, but I think it needs to be asked. An ecosystem doesn't in and of itself guarantee success of a company, but it seems to work for Apple. So why is everyone trying to copy it when it was considered such a lousy idea?

Suppose you as a user want to install an application. In the good old days of Microsoft dominance with a few Macs and Linux boxes out there, you would have to go down to a computer store and pick it up. Or perhaps you would purchase an online download of the software. Either way, you had to actively go out and find the software you wanted, make sure it was compatible for your platform, purchase it, then run the installer.

Linux, interestingly enough, started streamlining this process. RedHat, Mandriva, Ubuntu, etc. would provide cloud-based "app stores" where you just run your install command and it would, well, install your application, service, or tool. Don't have all the required dependencies installed? It would install those as well. This was a HUGE improvement over the old fashioned way of grabbing an app from some repository somewhere, try to install, get dependency errors, try to install dependencies, get more dependency errors, and spend a week trying to configure and install an application. It made it convenient for users, and many in my Linux classes saw this as a way to get more people using Linux in the mainstream.

But no one took Linux's direction seriously, because they didn't have to. People were already conditioned into the "go and buy" process that they didn't really care what Linux was doing. But another platform that had a small footprint in the general computer environment, and therefore a small footprint in the PC-heavy software store, found it difficult to get good software to their users. So Apple, after seeing the success of the App Store on the iPhone, figured they could just import that to the Mac. It made sense, and now there are thousands of Mac apps available from big box and independent developers available to anyone with a Mac to purchase. And still people scoffed, particularly when big box companies like Adobe and Microsoft were reluctant to share 30% of the sales with Apple just for a spot on their App Store.

But with the release of Windows 8, Microsoft has built an App Store for Windows. Part of that is because Windows 8 really is developed for a tablet to use, but it's also a brilliant marketing move in that Microsoft can now, just like Apple, RedHat and the like, have more control over the client's computing experience. Clients now have easy access to applications that do what they want without having to read boxes, look at shelves, drive to a busy mall, etc.

So what about Google, they are just all about the cloud right? Well, sort of, but then they released two operating systems: Android, and Chrome. Android, which has matured quite nicely with Jelly Bean, provided they can keep more continuity between developers. The one really poor thing about Android is the varying quality of devices on which it sits. Sure, you have the high end devices like the Galaxy S4, but you also have really cheap android devices that just barely work. Add onto that a confusing App Store experience, and Android really struggled.

But Google quickly wised up and developed Google Play, an almost exact copy of iTunes and the App Store. Now with the one stop shop, they can control the quality of the apps, help limit some of the historical security issues with apps (lots of malware and spyware on that platform in the past), and control the user experience from sign in to purchase. More control means better experiences for the users, which leads to more adoption of the platform.

Amazon did the same thing with the Kindle Fire, as did Barnes and Noble with the Nook. Sure, they may not be "Android Tablets" like the Galaxy Tab or Motorolla Xoom, but they run Android, Android apps, and have complete top to bottom ecosystems that support them. Great control over the platform means good customer experiences.

So what does this really mean? Ecosystems mean loyal customers, because loyal customers have good customer experiences. The more you build out your ecosystem, the more dedicated your customer base.

But what about the drawbacks? Having used Windows 8, just about every Apple product, and Android devices, I now have three ecosystems to which I belong. For years I've used Google cloud services, but I'm starting to ween myself from them because many of the services I enjoyed are going or have gone away (iGoogle, Google Reader, Google Wave to name a few). The Windows ecosystem has been something new in which I have dabbled, as it plugs into many of the services I already have for my Macs. Apple already has me currently, and as long as the experience remains good, they will have me for a long time.

The consequence of these ecosystems are several email addresses of which I need to keep track, apps that I have purchased remain unavailable unless I use a device within the ecosystem, and I feel frustrated at times when I want to use a feature that I find great in one ecosystem that doesn't exist in the other.

Perhaps one day it will no longer be a problem, and all the ecosystems will exist in harmony. After all, we are still, technically, in early days within the mobile computing world. Perhaps the issue will be resolved some other way.

But in the mean time, what do you think about the computing ecosystems developing? What do you see as pro's or cons?

March 14, 2013

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 - Review

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Android TabletLet me preface this blog post with declaring the fact that I'm a Mac user. I've been certified as an instructor for Apple since OS X 10.4, and I've been a huge supporter of using mobile tablets as laptop replacements because of iOS. With this in mind, let me give you my review of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 from Samsung.

First, the feel was very light, much lighter than my iPad. This is most likely because the case is plastic instead of aluminum. I'm not going to say it feels "cheaper", but it makes me more nervous to have my kids use it, as they are pretty rough with tablets (a couple have been dropped down the stairs, and took it like troopers!). Aluminum feels more robust.

The OS originally was older, most likely Froyo (though it could have been Ice Cream Sandwich or Gingerbread). The tablet registered as a phone, much to my annoyance. 30 minutes later, after running the update, I was on Jelly Bean, and the look was much more like a tablet. That being said, I wasn't able to install Lync 2010 for Android, because it wasn't available for my device. Not sure why, but that was annoying. Other than that, most of the other apps I use regularly I was able to install without a problem.

In comparing this tablet with my experience with the Motorolla Zoom, I think this tablet wins out. The Zoom was obviously older hardware, as apps would crash regularly. I didn't have that problem on the Galaxy Tab, even with the prior OS installed. The apps were quick, responsive, and worked as I would have expected a tablet to work.

So what did I like?

  • Weight: The weight was the first thing that struck me. It had to be half the weight of the first iPad, and that made it a pleasure to hold. It's slightly lighter in feel to the iPad last generation, and much heavier than the Motorolla Xoom.
  • Performance: The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 had some great performance overall. Everything snapped well, worked well, came up quickly. Large documents, 3D games, and various other general tests I ran went well. Once configured, this little baby was a great tablet.

What I didn't like:

  • Keyboard: The keyboard in Google Drive and other apps was, essentially, a large phone keyboard. It was difficult to type (and I'm used to typing on a tablet screen), making it a pain. I'm sure with some more practice it wouldn't be that big of a deal, but having less space between the "keys" wouldn't have killed them, would it?
  • Configuration: Configuring everything from email to wireless to social networking was more complicated in my opinion than it should have to be. Of course I'm used to the preconfigured settings available to the iPad, so I'm spoiled for time, but I shouldn't have to take 5 to 10 minutes to set up my email when I want to get some work done now. Of course, if you have special settings, complicated setups, or just plain want to have a lot of control, then it's not that big a deal (and actually preferable). Personally, I like things to just work so I can, instead of working at getting things to work.
  • Front-facing Camera: I was testing Skype using my iPad and the Samsung Galaxy tab. The display from the iPad front-facing camera was stellar, looking great in the call. The display from the Galaxy was, well, badly pixellated. They were both on the same network, so I'm going to assign this to the cameras. Still, not everyone uses their tablet for video conferencing, right?
  • USB Port: Okay, I don't have one on the iPad so this shouldn't bother me, right? But the Galaxy Tab doesn't have a USB, micro or otherwise, on it as does the Motorolla Xoom. You don't even have a mini or microSD port. Just a 30-pin adapter, much like the old iPads. Not exactly the same, I might add, they are not interchangeable, but still very, very similar.
  • Default Apps and Home Screen: The setup was confusing, nothing worked until you had everything configured, and even then some of the apps didn't work. Most of the apps in question were Samsung specific, which I quickly removed from the Home screen.

All in all, the Galaxy Tab was a great tablet, it gave me an experience that was closer to my iPad than the Motorolla Zoom, it did the job over all, and my kids chose to use it if an iPad wasn't available (they often overlooked the Xoom). It was missing some of the features that I've come to expect from my iPad, such as controls on my earbuds, but that's something that you can only expect from a company like Apple that wants to integrate and release the entire experience at once. If you are looking for an Android tablet, Samsung makes a great one.

But I'm still glad I have my iPad.

So, any opinions from anyone out there? What do you think?

March 8, 2013

Auti-Sim: Providing Insight to Autism World

Article first published as Auti-Sim: Providing Insight to Autism World on Technorati.

Auti-Sim showing a child with autism in full meltdown.  The screams you don't hear, are deafening.

As a parent, you want to understand your children. You want to comprehend what is going through their minds, and how to reach them. As a parent of a child with autism you have to try that much more to understand why going into a supermarket means dealing with meltdowns, and walking in crowded parks means lots of pressure. At times, you are so bewildered that you just throw up your hands and sigh.

In order to help alleviate that frustration, A new "game" has been developed to help people see the world from the eyes of a child with autism. Called Auti-Sim, it features you, a child with autism, in a playground full of children.

The premise is simple, try to engage with the kids (walk up to them) while they are playing. The reality is somewhat complicated: the noise is too much to bear and your vision becomes blurred and pixelated. Now, I don't honestly believe that children with autism have blurry vision in social situations, but it's a visual illustration of how the world around them changes when not in a comfortable situation.

It quickly becomes clear that staying on the outside of the action, along the edges of the playground, is the "safest" place to be. Things are clearer there, less unbearable in noise and vision. In a word, being antisocial makes you feel more comfortable.

After playing with the controls, hearing the screams, and realizing that the more time I spend trying to tough it out the longer it takes to calm down, I think I gained a little insight into the world that my boys currently live. For those looking to gain such an insight, I would definitely recommend this game.

February 22, 2013

Romo's Potential for Autism

Article first published as Romo's Potential for Autism on Technorati.

Romo with a confused look, courtesy Romotive.com

Often I have written about mobile applications and their impact on children with autism. Some have been pretty basic, some have been very useful, and some have been just plain fun. All of them have been smartphone or tablet related, which highlights the usefulness of this new medium in helping children on the spectrum.

But something I saw this morning, at least in my mind, has the potential to trump them all. The good folks at Romotive in Las Vegas, NV have developed a robot, Romo, that uses an iPhone 4S/4/3GS or iPod Touch 4th Generation, an app, and a mobile base. With this combination, they have created a whole new ecosystem based on behaviors and interactions that make Romo a great "pet". The BusinessInsider video played to using it as a toy, but I saw something more in that expressive face.

But here is the thing: studies have suggested that children with autism find it easier to interact with a robot than with a human person. This one from Pragmatics and Cognition evaluates the successes of the Aurora project, using autonomous mobile robots as therapeutic tools for children with autism.

Recent studies such as those outlined in this survey have shown that robots are being welcomed as an interaction tool, but it's still too young a technology to see effects over the long term. Still, short term results are encouraging.

The conclusion was one of hope, but realistically lowering expectations that any one device can be a universal device to help children on the spectrum. This is mostly because autism runs across to many demographics in so many areas it's difficult to develop a platform that can meet all your needs.

Robots have been developed to follow these paths, such as Bandit, Keepon, and KASPAR all have focused on those study findings, and built robots to help kids interact and learn emotions. They have been great, but they also tend to be pricey and limited to the proprietary code developed for that robot. Great for a large budget, not practical for the family at home or an underfunded school district.

But mobile applications have proven that one device category, the mobile device (iOS, Android, Windows Phone, or WebOS) with a clear development SDK can provide an ecosystem with variety. At my last count there were over 2,000 apps for iOS and over 1,000 apps for Android that focus specifically on autism. The Aurora project was conducted in 2004, before this interactive, prolific environment had been introduced.

And now, with the introduction of Romo, we have integrated this new platform into an autonomous robot that is (relatively) inexpensive, and very open. Romo has it's own development SDK to allow development of new apps for Romo to use. The autism community, who have already been diligent in developing apps for mobile devices, now have a new dimension to their development: an interactive, personal robot.

There are a lot of other possible applications for the Robot that I can see (recall the personal presence device from Big Bang Theory and the Verizon commercial?), but this one makes me really excited. The price tag of $149.00 is reasonable for the device, but still a little pricey for a "toy", if viewed in that context. But if you see it as a way to interact with your child on the spectrum without having them look away, it just might be worth it.

If there is anyone out there that has a Romo or robot device that they use for their child with autism, please let us all know what works and what doesn't work. I'm sure we would all be interested in hearing details.

November 29, 2012

Blog Moved Again

Well, Wordpress became a problem:  I couldn't keep it from getting hacked.  I'm not sure how it was hacked, how all those PHP files started redirecting to porn sites, but enough was enough.  I had rebuilt the site from scratch four times, and I didn't want to do it again.  So, I moved to Movable Type.  Let's hope this one stays relatively hack-free.  

For those who have missed my posts for the past couple months since I moved the site to a static HTML page, I have some posted on my Blogger blog, and will work to get them posted here as soon as I can.  In the mean time, I'll keep up with my posting again on ths site.  And perhaps, someday, will be able to build up my page rank.  Perhaps.  

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