Monday 31 January 2011

Location Lacks Logic

For the last couple of weeks I've been assiduously checking in to places using both Foursquare and Facebook Places. I was hoping to understand the logic behind the excitement that check ins allegedly generate. I have so far singularly failed to do so.

So far the only benefit I've received from checking in is a free slice of cake from Moo Cafeteria for my first check in there, but even that highlighted some difficulties in the process. That delicious incentive was a one-off, and immediately carries the risk to the merchant of me now heading off to find out which of his many competitors are also offering free stuff for a first check in and only returning when I've exhausted those offers.

The process wasn't without hassle for me, the consumer, either. First of all I find Foursquare's Android app deeply unusable. It is slow, often not returning any information before I loose patience and quit the app. Even when it does connect, it shows me a list of usually laughably out of date check ins from friends and acquaintances. I have to specifically selected a list of places, wait again, and only then check in.

This first time I checked in at Moo I get my cake voucher. The waitress understandably wanted to see the voucher, but I couldn't find any way of bringing it back on screen once I'd moved away from it. Some negotiation resulted and my claim was accepted. Just as well that the Moo owner is a really nice guy as my phone battery had died by this point and I couldn't show him the check in let alone the voucher.

Each time I use Foursquare I get the impression that I'm on a secondary user journey, while the main purpose is seeing where my friends are currently checked in. There are several issues with this concept. The first is that there is no check out so the location information is in most cases hopelessly out of date. Secondly I am blessed with good vision and it is just so much easier to look round and see if there is any one I know in the place. Thirdly, if I was planning on meeting up with someone I'd have planned it using some other social-media connection or that old fall back, a voice call, before arriving at the venue.

As for Foursquare's badges and majorships, all I can say is they are deeply, sadly pathetic. I managed to become major of one place I visited once - what value is there in that to anyone? Last time I was excited about badges I was still at school and discovered that I could use the Edinburgh Student Union badge making machine for 10p a shot. At least those had dayglo paper and sharp pins; Foursquare ones don't even raise a flicker of interest with me.

Facebook Places is generally faster and cleaner to use, but I'm afraid that is only because it is still new and as yet underdeveloped. News that their Offers system is being launched suggests that I might get some benefit from checking in, but that depends on whether I check in to anywhere that has offers.

Maybe if I lived in a larger city (ie London, San Francisco or New York) or if I had more mobile-active friends I'd see some utility in location check ins. Maybe if the interfaces were slicker, read instant, it would be better. But for the moment checking in is a chore with marginal  benefit at best.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

That Retro Look

No one interested in photography can have failed to notice the incredible numbers of DSLR cameras parading round the streets. Branded camera straps for Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony make it abundantly clear that mid-range kit is very much de rigeur for the serious tourist. And mid-range kit nowadays takes incredibly high-quality technical images, even if the content is poor.

But there are two counter movements afoot. The first is Lomography, celebrating nasty cheap plastic lenses, mechanical marvels and film developed deliberately in the wrong chemicals. The second is the rise of fake Lomography via apps for smartphones. Leading the charge here is unquestionably Hipstamatic, although other iPhone apps do the same thing. On Android we have Retro Camera.

The images these apps produce do indeed resemble the low-end quality that was typical of cheap colour films and cameras in the 1970s and 1980s, with some artistic license thrown in on top like frames and spool marks. Given the right subject they lend a kind of mysterious air; the preferred word of Lomographers is "dreamy".

So what is the appeal of these apps? The cynic in me says that it is a way of compensating for the low quality of the phone's own optics, although that is less true for people with iPhone 4s than other devices. The cynic is also saying that its a way to make an otherwise bland image more interesting, but I don't think that's completely fair. The creative side of me really likes the appearance.

As a test I created a number of identical images with different settings plus a control taken with my Canon. I think that the Retro Camera has the more interesting effects, but only by a small amount. What do you think?

Retro Camera

Thursday 13 January 2011

The Reality of Augmented Reality

There is still lots of hype and words sloshing around augmented reality, but I have yet to see one person actually using it. And bear in mind that I live in a city that is full of tourists all year.

For this reason I think the classic notion of holding up your phone and watching an annotated version of the street scene in front of you through its screen will never become anything other than an amusing toy. The use case is just too difficult and uncomfortable, and in some places too dangerous.

But that doesn't make the whole idea of augmented reality doesn't work, and I'm not thinking of waiting until corneal implants remove the need for looking through a phone camera. Audio guides have been with us for a long time, and a location-sensitive platform like a phone have the potential to work well in this context. We already have Google Maps walking directions on Android with its disembodied voice telling you which way to turn from your pocket. I can see lots of professional and consumer applications using voice alerts.

It will be interesting to see if 2011 will bring some more practical applications of augmented reality or if we are still in the hype phase.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Back to Android

My replacement Nexus One finally arrived on Monday evening.

Reconfiguring the new device turned out to be blissfully simple: almost everything was restored automatically from my Google account. This included WiFi passwords and bookmarks, which was a pleasant surprise. And all my apps were automatically reinstalled which was nice. The only things that were lost were my text messages and the layout of app shortcuts and widgets on the screen. Not too fussed about the latter as a slight rearrangement was due anyway, but I would have liked to keep at least some of my SMS history. Clearly there is an opportunity there as I've mentioned here before.

Three things struck me since having the device back. The first was how much I use it in conjunction with what I'm doing on my laptop - it is a secondary screen for looking things up, often satisfying my curiosity about who has just sent me an email without moving away from what I'm currently doing. It's less of a distraction than switching tabs or windows.

The second was how the combination of updating apps and running mobile Skype over wifi chewed through battery charge so fast you could practically count the level down. Switching off the wifi and exiting Skype restored battery use to normal levels.

The last item was how important the screen was to the user experience. Returning to the small, low-res, dark Samsung screen for a while has really highlighted how good the screens on top-end devices really are. Smooth animations, great fonts and intense colours don't make a great user experience on their own, but they certainly contribute enormously to them.

Perhaps the best way to express my delight at being back with this device is to quote Sondheim's Sweeney Todd when he is reunited with his razors: at last my arm is complete!

Saturday 8 January 2011

Website Fails Undermine Trust

Today we wanted to take the opportunity of younger daughter being at a party to go and see The Deathly Hallows part 1 on the big screen. Checking on the Cineworld website there was a perfectly-timed showing. However when we got to the cinema there was no record of that showing and the next one wasn't for three hours.

Out came my wife's iPhone (since my Nexus One is broken and the browser on the Samsung Genio isn't up to such complex activities) and we checked the other Edinburgh cinemas. Vue at Omni promised a showing with just enough time to jump in a cab and get there.

And, yes, you guessed it: that showing wasn't happening either! So we're now left wondering if on-line cinema times can be trusted. I don't suppose they offer phone numbers any more either.

Trust is a critical issue with all publishing. That's why people cling to their familiar titles - trust that the content will at least conform the reader's world view if not being entirely accurate. We've taken a decade for on-line sources to become the reference. Incidents like today undermine that.

Vodafone Fail

The continuing saga of getting my broken Nexus One replaced hopefully has taken a step forward.

I spoke to yet another person yesterday and he tells me that the request for an exchange (as they call replacing a broken phone with a repaired one) had not happened properly and there never had been one waiting for delivery. SCREAM.

So now the new exchange is scheduled for Monday, although I have yet to received and tracking information. I'm suspicious and more than a little bit sceptical. Furious too. This guy was the sixth I've spoken to at Vodafone, so that means four people didn't bother checking.

Sunday 2 January 2011

Just call it YAPS

Yes, Yet Another Profile Site - I've created my profile to join my as well as the inevitable and others. is noteworthy for three things. The first is that setting up profile didn't require me to enter any URLs or fish about for passwords. All the links just worked. Integration at it's best. The second is the exemplary use of DHTML: the interface is highly dynamic, gorgeous but with excellent usability. Thirdly because the company, with no obvious means of generating revenue, has already been acquired.

Slumming it

My replacement Nexus 1 has, apparently, become lost in the backlog of Christmas deliveries due to the unexpected snow storms. Earliest expected delivery will be late next week, although the tracking number I've been sent by Vodafone doesn't work as it's missing some digits.

So not wanting to be cut off from the world too long I went into Car Phone Warehouse to buy me a backup device. Apparently PAYG phones start at 99p plus £10 for phone credit, but that seemed a bit too basic. The cheapest devices with data connectivity come in at £50 plus the £10 for calls. There was even a touch-screen device at slightly more.

However I opted for the Samsung Genio QWERTY which looks incredibly like a BlackBerry. Even the user interface looks superficially like a BlackBerry. Because of this it is easy to criticise the device for not being a BlackBerry: no 3G, no WiFi, virtually no interface customisation, lumpy email client, and 220x170 screen, but that would be missing the point. This device costs a fraction of a real BlackBerry and you get what you pay for, and this includes excellent call quality, a better external speaker than the Nexus 1, a reasonably music player, and preconfigured for Facebook, Bebo, Myspace, Twitter, Flickr, Picasa and pretty much any other useful mobile service.

However there are a couple of things that struck me as weird. The first was that connecting the built-in email app to my gmail account showed me the oldest 100 messages and had no means that I could find of looking at the newest. So I installed the good old Java ME gmail app which works a treat. Except that once in the app the screenblanker is disabled, so the device chews through batteries faster than an N95 with GPS enabled.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the phone, however, is how light it is after years of smartphones. I barely notice that it is in my pocket. As ever batteries are where we wait for big progress. Maybe 2011 will bring some power breakthroughs - that could be the next mobile revolution.