Our hybrid, playful media, games and toys project Hybridex carried out yesterday a joint workshop in Lisbon on ideating new concepts for future services and products that innovatively combine the strenghts of physical materials with the digital functionalities. Headed by Annakaisa Kultima, c. 40 European researchers from multiple disciplinary backgrounds experimented using the IDECARDS approach – and I think that we got valuable feedback on the method, as well as some very interesting new product or service concepts. Link to the COST Action FP1104 info page is here.
Category Archives: technology
Here is a short video I took of the upgraded Vaio Z3, booting into Windows 8 in 6-7 seconds:
I did the Windows 8 upgrade to my workhorse Vaio Z3 (short for Vaio, Z Series, 3rd Generation) today. My experiences from testing with the Asus Vivobook had been mostly positive, and as I had started getting bluescreens to Windows 7 in Vaio, it crashed if it went to sleep mode, the PMD discrete Radeon card was no longer recognised, etc., it would had been necessary to reinstall its OS in any case.
It was necessary to unplug the PMD during the installation, as that peripheral meant that Windows 8 would get stuck into the adding devices phase. And that meant borrowing another external DVD drive to access the installation media from, but otherwise the process was pretty straightforward. Some drivers had to be removed prior to installation and loads of drivers for Windows 8 were available from the Sony support page for Windows 8 upgrade. The only thing missing was the display driver for the hybrid Radeon/Intel display system Vaio Z3 is using. I try to post the link for that later, it is an unofficial beta thing, but seems to work fine with the PMD.
A new Windows laptop with a touch screen is an intriguing proposition. After a couple of days of playing around with my new ASUS Vivobook X202E, I am pretty convinced: there are few obvious challenges, but apart from those, this is clearly the direction our media and information use will be heading in the future.
It is not only about having screen and keyboard and a touchpad as alternative ways of interacting with the same old windows, settings, applications and services. The increased freedom in interaction modalities feels liberating, and having the new (“Metro”) interface and the classic desktop both available is also contributing to the feeling that using a computer is now fundamentally altered. The touch screen is probably just an intermediate step; there are already some systems that come with pattern and movement recognition software that will recognize gestures, and when we are in the millimeter class of precision (see: https://leapmotion.com/), there is nothing stopping developers from coming up with games and utilities that will react to a blink of an eye or wrinkle on a brow. Gestures will feel unnatural in some situations, spoken commands in some others, like mouse, keyboard or touch screen all have their non-optimal use contexts — but all together, all these increasing alteratives will make it more free and more natural to do what we want to do, where-ever we want to do that.
The hybrid interface of Windows 8 is an obvious work-in-progress thing. Sometimes you click something in the Metro tiles and are suddenly taken to the traditional desktop app. Sometimes you will find a Metro-looking UI element stuck in the middle of traditional Windows stuff. It is confusing, to say the least. But I find it exhilarating: finally we have something interesting happening, something new. And it is not obvious what the right solutions to these multiple challenges and problems (of interacting with a plethora of different functionalities, applications and services with multiple different interaction techniques) will be. So: there is going to be interesting times ahead! Already it puts a smile to my face when with a flick of a finger I jump from blog writing to spreadsheet and then into Angry Birds Space, that works beautifully, like many other touch-enabled games that I tested from the Windows Store.
This ASUS laptop itself is also a sort of compromise. If a really optimal, top-of-the-line ultrabook with a fast SSD, touch screen and all the latest bells and whistles costs here perhaps around 1200 euros, this thing was only half of that. The 11,6″ touch screen is fine for me: it is bright, sharp and responsive, even while there is light leaking through from the corners and viewing angles are far from perfect. The processor could be speedier, there could be more memory (there is 4 GB), and the keyboard definitely would profit from backlit keys, but I am not complaining too much. The battery is too small to keep up on the road (it goes for maybe 3-4 hours and cannot be replaced by user), but I will be using this thing in home. The hard drive is larger than your typical SSD (320 GB nominal capacity, divided into two logical drives), but it is of course slower (and makes a bit of noise now and then) as compared to a solid state disk. So, there is one potential upgrade target, if wanted. But reinstalling the OS (and paying for a new licence key, as the preinstalled OEM Windows 8 does not come with a valid, user-accessible product key), all the drivers and all the applications — plus rehearsing all those tweaks and modifications to the OS I have done already — all of that feels too much hassle right now. ASUS has done admirable job in preparing so nice a package to the market in this price. Mechanical construction is solid, keyboard is very good, touchpad also ok, and it is easy to compare this e.g. to Macbook Air, even while I personally would not want to move into using the Mac OS. So, to conclude: small laptop that feels just right for me, right now. An interesting learning and testing environment.
I just placed an order for Asus Vivobook X202E – a small and affordable, touchscreen-enabled Windows 8 mini-laptop. This will be an upgrade to the Samsung N220 netbook I got in March 2010. Windows 8 does not make much sense without touchscreen, and it’s success will be related to how fast people will move to hybrid, touch-enabled paradigm. Working (at home) with the Vivobook should provide opportunity for some experimentation. Its battery is not good enough for serious on-the-road use, but for home it should be ok, we will see…
X202E is not a high-end device, but if you update the touchpad driver and do a few other tweaks, it should be enough for most things. There are good tips in the Amazon.com reviews: http://www.amazon.com/VivoBook-X202E-DH31T-11-6-Inch-Touch-Laptop/product-reviews/B009F1I1C4/
Having spent some time travelling to the other side of the world recently, I have come to think about the role of Internet, content and technology a bit differently than before. The key lesson has been how useless the promises of various media and service ecosystems are, if you cannot access them. You might have bought access to a streaming media service that would be really useful for you and your family while you are away from your friends and family, but you cannot use it, since streaming media is just extremely expensive. Or you might go out and buy a DVD or Blu-ray, but you cannot play it on your device, since it is coming from another “Area” than that of the content you just bought. It is no matter if you try using your iTunes content, something that you could buy from Google Play, or from Microsoft – all those shiny devices and smart services are inherently fragile, dependent on whether there is an open Wi-Fi hotspot somewhere (probably with a 50 megabyte/30 minutes download cap), where you could try to make them run for a moment.
Having to admit that living with unlimited Internet broadband in a well-connected Western country definitely frames this issue as a “First World Problem”, but the lack of a global, pervasive Internet backbone is an issue larger than that. As long as our network technologies are based on high-speed access that is restricted to few urban centres, the true usefulness and radically democratizing potential of Internet and connected services remains limited at best. We need much more ambitious endeavours to get the entire planed connected: this is an issue that can be backed up by commercial, political and even ecological reasons. Establishing solid, reliable links between people living in their villages in the South and the North as well as in the East and the West, can promote local empowerment as well as global collaboration and exchange that is qualitative leap over the current situation.
Satellite data is prohibitively expensive today, but if the initiatives in this area would be given a high enough priority, there is no stopping us having a truly networked world where the global “infosphere” of sharing and communication would be available on equal basis, regardless of the geographical location.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all readers of this blog!
To say something positive for a change, the single feature that really has impressed me in the new Vaio Z is how fast it wakes up from the sleep mode. Sony advertises this “Rapid Wake + Eco” functionality as an environmental issue (I think it functions like the regular Hibernate function), and the advertised 2 second wake up time really feels to be true. More: http://www.sony.net/SonyInfo/csr/SonyEnvironment/products/lineup/VAIO-Z.html
Sony video ad about the Rapid Wake:
My new workhorse, Vaio Z (3rd generation), arrived today. It is bit early to say anything conclusive yet, but mostly my first impressions are positive. The overall build quality is better than in the first generation “Z” that I have been using so far. The Full HD screen is very sharp and colours are vivid. The laptop is very light, even while after the long-duration sheet battery has been added the weight goes up a bit. The keyboard feel is pretty good even while the key travel is so short it takes some time getting used to. But luckily the “click” (tactile-auditive feedback) you get from the keys is ok.
My main concerns right now relate to the touchpad. On the other hand it is a clear upgrade from 1st generation Vaio Z’s touchpad that did not properly support multitouch. Here you can do all the scrolling and rotating gestures you most usually need. But touchpad is rather small, and most serious thing is the nonreponsive left mouse button. There must be something wrong with its mechanical construction – getting it to register button clicks is pretty frustrating hit and miss thing. Really unacceptable from a laptop of this caliber. I still need to check whether this could be something that a driver upgrade could fix.
Things that I have not yet got any chance to test include the discrete graphics chip in the Power Media Dock, in Blu-ray as well as gaming modes. It is also interesting to see how long the battery will actually last: since the sheet battery is installed on top of the regular one, there is two of them, and it seems that when the power brick is not plugged in, Z3/Win7 first starts draining the long-life battery and the regular one will stay in 100%. Sony promises 14 hours of usage, but I will see this in the real life later.
Also, I have not found yet where to insert SIM card (this thing should come with 4G/LTE mobile data module). Maybe it is buried underneath the battery compartment like in the old Z1.
Lewis Mumford, a critic and historian of technological civilization, has written that art and engineering were separated in the fourteenth century. Before that, engineers were artists, and vice versa. (See his Technics and Civilization, p. 219.) Yesterday, Apple registered a win in courtroom over Samsung for copying too much of Apple’s design of iPhone and iPad. (That, how much Apple originally had taken inspiration/copied from other manufacturers was not decided upon.) What remains clear is that the tools we use have a deep impact on our actions, and on our thinking and finally also to our societies. It is good to think about our tools sometimes, and also consider how tools figure in our thinking.
My two main daily tools are my smartphone (I use actively both Apple iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S2, not taking sides in that argument) and my laptop. It is difficult to say which I use more. The smartphone is probably taken up more often, for small things, quickly checking up something, for checking in somewhere, for checking other people’s check-ins or statuses. But laptop is the one I would not get very far without during the working day. My correspondence, my main calendar interface, all my projects, documents and materials reside in its memory, waiting to be reorganised and recombined and expanded upon with a few touches and key-presses.
In May 2009 I started to use Vaio Z series laptop (Vaio Z31WN, to be precise), and have not looked back since. The art of engineering that is put into Vaio laptops is probably not going to evoke similar degrees of cult following like that of Apple ones, but for a person who prefers Windows OS over the Mac/OS X one, there did not use to be a better option. Today, there are dozens of ‘ultrabook’ portables which all claim to have good combination of light, solid construction, long battery life, fast SSD storage, bright screens and speedy processors. Working on ‘state of the art’ on that edge has thus got more interesting – if you are into that kind of things, that is.
After some comparison work, I have concluded that for my particular needs, the new version of Vaio Z series is probably the best option still. I travel a lot so light design is a priority, and I work with videos, photos and other media in the production side (in addition to the basic Word, Excel and web design stuff), and then there are also all those games I should be analysing. My eyes are not as good as they should be, so a really sharp screen that has wide viewing angles is also a must. Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina Display is sure an interesting machine, but it is too heavy for me, and as I said, I do not like OS X as a work environment (I get stuff done in a PC, but keep hitting on walls while on a Mac). Thinkpad X1 Carbon has solid build, and is thin and light, but the tests tell also that its screen is so-and-so, as also is the battery life. Vaio Z has its own issues (the keyboard and trackpad for example are not the best you can find), but its combination of good screen with lightness and capable performance fits my needs best.
The mid-2012 Vaio Z has been tested here and there, but there are some exiting options that have not been addressed in review so far. One of them is 4G/LTE connectivity option that is interesting to an active traveller. (According to this German page, it appears to support 800, 1800 and 2600 MHz, as well as 2100 and 900 MHz bands: http://m.heise.de/mobil/meldung/Subnotebook-mit-integriertem-LTE-1576015.html?from-classic=1.) The premium screen option is Full HD and the long life battery claims to keep going for 14 hours (depending on use, of course).
My original plans were to do the Vaio upgrade in 2013, but there are reasons (both push and pull, financing and research needs) that suggest earlier date. I have been in talks with Sony Europe (really talking with them multiple times, which was not my original plan), and it is interesting to see whether we are able to close a deal on a specified system at all. The experiences so far have not been exactly promising. The Sony web store gives me cryptic errors regardless of the browser used, calls to the customer service go to Belgium where they tried to recover (unsuccessfully) my Sony account, then resorted to taking the specs of the Vaio over the phone. In the next step, their system was unable to process our EuroCard (MasterCard). They did send me an invoice by email. The invoice needs to be processed by due course through the university administration, which takes at least a week. Sony informed me that the order will expire after ten days. Placing an order to a web store need not be quite this exciting, I think.
It might be that the 15th Anniversary Edition of Vaio Z laptop is the proud paragon of Japanese electronics engineering, but there are still gaping holes in their overall customer experience, unfortunately.
My Raspberry Pi had arrived while I was at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, and I got finally some hours to test drive it. As far as contemporary PC hardware goes, RPi is of course seriously underpowered little plaything. On the other hand, when you compare it with to some other devices (like smartphones, embedded systems), it does not look so bad. The principal reason for its development should also be taken into account (promoting computer literacy, encouraging tinkering with hardware and software tools, helping kids learn to code). I have been looking for some time for an affordable and functional HTPC system for serving media in our living room, and thus my first test drive involved setting up RPi as a media center PC. The Raspian “wheezy” distro that they recommend on the Raspberry Pi Foundation website was too slow and unresponsive for my taste to do anything. I tried also Raspbmc version of XBMC media center, but I could not get it to install any addons at all. So finally I did find a place that instructed how to install OpenElec, an embedded operating system that has been built to run XBMC – from a Windows PC (http://www.squirrelhosting.co.uk/hosting-blog/hosting-blog-info.php?id=9). Now XBMC was getting online, updating itself and installing addons nicely. It also booted up decently in c. 20-40 seconds.
It turned out that the major issue for me finally was a network infrastructure related one: we did not have a LAN socket in the corner where our TV set is situated. I tried to learn about WiFi USB dongles that could run out of the box, plug-and-play style with the OpenElec/XBMC, but it would had been necessary to know the exact version of chipset and firmware to make sure whether the USB dongle in question would work, so I decided to stay with the wired Internet/Ethernet connection instead, and added another layer to the (rather instesting) network topology of our home by setting up a Powerline Ethernet bridge (using two Zyxel PLA4215 units). While I was at it, I also got a powered USB 2.0 hub (a basic Belkin thing) and wireless keyboard-touchpad combo for comfortable sofa-based media surfing. The latter was a Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard K400, which is a rattling, plastic thing, but has two important benefits for me: (a) it is cheap, (b) it has an inconspicuous power switch hidden on the side. Anyone with one or two (or, indeed, three) hyperactive toddlers in the house can witness why these are good things. I have already e.g. a broken Logitech diNovo Edge lying around somewhere. Surprisingly, everything seemed to work after a couple of system reboots.
As to the actual use of the OpenElec/XBMC/Raspberry Pi system, I have not yet much experience to share. I can say that the software is still buggy and occasionally rather slow. It is difficult to say what the system is doing when the playback or a menu does not open immediately, whether it is buffering data or whatever is going on. Attempting to stop the playback of a HD video file can suddenly jam the whole system to a complete halt. But yes, I can play music, videos and watch photos in a full HD screen from multiple sources, from both local network and from various online services in a more or less satisfactory manner. There seems to be much potential and room to explore further in this surprising little system. One can only hope that the energy of the community does not die out, but the development of software continues far beyond this early stage. It is, after all, really early in the evolution of Raspberry Pi ecosystem, as some developers have not yet even received the unit they are waiting for. Much of the OS distributions and applications are thus more at ‘alpha’ rather than even ‘beta’ stage at this point. But taken that, this is really entertaining little playground to experiment with, and to fool around.