Future of interfaces: AirPods

Apple AirPods (image © Apple).

I am a regular user of headphones of various kinds, both wired and wireless, closed and open, with noise cancellation, and without. The latest piece of this technology I invested in are the “AirPods” by Apple.

Externally, these things are almost comically similar to the standard “EarPods” they provide with, or as the upgrade option for their mobile devices. The classic white Apple design is there, just the cord has been cut, leaving the connector stems protruding from the user ears, like small antennas (which they probably also indeed are, as well as directional microphone arms).

There are wireless headphone-microphone sets that have slightly better sound quality (even if AirPods are perfectly decent as wireless earbuds), or even more neutral design. What is here interesting in one part is the “seamless” user experience which Apple has invested in – and the “artificial intelligence” Siri assistant which is another key part of the AirPod concept.

The user experience of AirPods is superior to any other headphones I have tested, which is related to the way the small and light AirPods immediatelly connect with the Apple iPhones, detect when they are placed into the ear, or or not, and work hours on one charge – and quickly recharge after a short session inside their stylishly designed, smart battery case. These things “just work”, in the spirit of original Apple philosophy. In order to achieve this, Apple has managed to create a seamless combination of tiny sensors, battery technology, and a dedicated “W1 chip” which manages the wireless functionalities of AirPods.

The integration with Siri assistant is the other key part of AirPod concept, and the one that probably divides user’s views more than any other feature. A double tap to the side of an AirPod activates Siri, which can indeed understand short commands in multiple languages, and respond to them, carrying out even simple conversations with the user. Talking to an invisible assistant is not, however, part of today’s mobile user cultures – even if Spike Jonze’s film “Her” (2013) shows that the idea is certainly floating around today. Still, mobile devices are often used while on the move, in public places, in buses, trains or in airplanes, and it is just not feasible nor socially acceptable that people carry out constant conversations with their invisible assistants in this kind of environments – not yet today, at least.

Regardless of this, Apple AirPods are actually to a certain degree designed to rely on such constant conversations, which both makes them futuristic and ambitious, but also a rather controversial piece of design and engineering. Most notably, there are no physical buttons or other ways for adjusting volume in these headphones: you just double tap to the side of AirPods, and verbally tell Siri to turn the volume up, or down. This mostly works just fine, Siri does the j0b, but a small touch control gesture would be just so much more user friendly.

There is something engaging in testing Siri with the AirPods, nevertheless. I did find myself walking around the neighborhood, talking to the air, and testing what Siri can do. There are already dozens of commands and actions that can be activated with the help of AirPods and Siri (there is no official listing, but examples are given in lists like this one: https://www.cnet.com/how-to/the-complete-list-of-siri-commands/). The abilities of Siri still fall short in many areas, it did not completely understand Finnish I used in my testing, and the integration of third party apps is often limited, which is a real bottleneck, as these apps are what most of us are using our mobile devices for, most of the time. Actually, Google and the assistant they have in Android is better than Siri in many areas relevant for daily life (maps, traffic information, for example), but the user experience of their assistant is not yet as seamless or integrated whole as that of Apple’s Siri is.

All this considered, using AirPods is certainly another step into the general developmental direction where pervasive computing, AI, conversational interfaces and augmented reality are taking us, in good or bad. Well worth checking out, at least – for more in Apple’s own pages, see: http://www.apple.com/airpods/.

10-year-update: my home pages

screenshot-2016-12-26-16-23-27Update: the new design is now live at: www.unet.fi. – My current university side home pages are from year 2006, so there is a decade of Internet and WWW evolution looming over them. Static HTML is not so bad in itself – it is actually fast and reliable, as compared to some more flaky ways of doing things. However, people access online content increasingly with mobile devices and getting a more “responsive” design (that is, web page design code that scales and adapts content into small or large screen devices differently) is clearly in order.

When one builds institutional home pages as part of the university or other organisation infrastructure, there are usually various technical limitations or other issues, so also in this case. While I have a small “personnel card” style, official contact page in our staff directory, I have wanted my personal home pages to include more content that would reflect my personal interests, publication activity, and to carry links to various resources that I find important or relevant. Our IT admin, however, has limited the WWW server technologies to a pretty minimal set, and there is not, for example “mod_rewrite” module loaded to the Apache that serves our home pages. That means that my original idea to go with a “flat file CMS” to create the new pages (e.g. Kirby: https://getkirby.com/) did not work. There was only one CMS that worked without mod_rewrite that I could find (CMSimple: https://www.cmsimple.org/), and testing that was pain (it was too clumsy and limited in terms of design templates and editing functions for my, non-coder tastes). The other main alternative was to set up a CMS that relies on an actual database (MySQL or similar), but that was forbidden from personal home pages in our university, too.

For a while I toyed with an idea that I would actually set up a development server of my own, and use it to generate static code that I would then publish on the university server. Jekyll (https://jekyllrb.com/) was most promising option in that area. I did indeed spend few hours (after kids have gone to bed) in setting up a development environment into my Surface Pro 4, building on top of the Bash/Ubuntu subsystem, adding Python, Ruby, etc., but there was some SSH public key signing bug that broke the connection to GitHub, which is pretty essential for running Jekyll. Debugging that road proved to be too much for me – the “Windows Subsystem for Linux” is still pretty much a work-in-progress thing. Then I also tried to set up an Oracle VM VirtualBox with WordPress built in, but that produced some other, interesting problems of its own. (It just also might be a good idea to use something a bit more powerful than Surface Pro for running multiple server, photo editing and other tools at the same time – but for many things, this tablet is actually surprisingly good.)

Currently, the plan is that I will develop my new home pages in WordPress, using a commercial “Premium” theme that comes with actual tutorials on how to use and adapt it for my needs (plus they promise support, when I’ll inevitably lose my way). In last couple of days, I have made decent progress using the Microsoft Webmatric package, which includes an IIS server, and pretty fully featured WordPress that runs on top of that (see: http://ivanblagojevic.com/how-to-install-wordpress-on-windows-10-localhost/). I have installed the theme of my choice, and plugins it requires, and started the selection and conversion of content for the new framework. Microsoft, however, has decided to discontinue Webmatrix, and the current setup seems bit buggy, which makes actual content production somewhat frustrating. The server can suddenly lose reading rights to some key graphics file, for example. Or a WordPress page with long and complex code starts breaking down at some point, so that it fails to render correctly. For example, when I had reached about the half way point in creating the code and design for my publications page, the new text and graphics started appearing again from the top of the page, on top of the text that was there already!

I will probably end up setting up the home pages into another server, where I can actually get a full Apache, with mod_rewrite, MySQL and other necessary functions for implementing WordPress pages. In UTA home pages there would then be a redirect code that would show the way to the new pages. This is not optimal, since the search engines will not find my publications and content any more under the UTA.fi domain, but this is perhaps the simplest solution in getting the functionalities I want to actually run as they should. Alternatively, there are some ways to turn a WordPress site into static HTML pages, which can then be uploaded to the UTA servers. But I do not hold my breath whether all WordPress plugins and other more advanced features would work that way.

Happy Geek Holidays!

The Expanse, and renaissance of space operas

The Expanse, poster
The Expanse, poster.

There is currently clear need for some escapism, the would help to overcome the lack of vision and hope in today’s political arenas, and provide energy to keep on doing something to keep this planet of ours as humane and sustainable living environment as possible. In domain of entertainment, space operas have held one specific place for visions of future, and for hope. Star Trek television series is a good reminder of this. I started recently watching a new, streaming video series The Expanse, that I knew nothing about beforehand. Soon, I found myself spellbound, and had to spend most of Finnish Father’s Day glued to binge watching the entire first season.

Without providing too many spoilers, this is a (semi-)hard science fiction television series (based on a book series of same name) that is taking place in the future of our Solar System, where humans have colonized Moon, Mars, and several major asteroids in the “Belt”. There is a mystery, and threat of interplanetary war, that sets events into motion, but most drama is taking place at the level of single individuals, representing different factions, sets of motivations, and life stories.

The Expanse could not be possible without many “adult” science fiction series that have come before it, Babylon 5 in particular comes to mind. There is gritty, even dystopian feel of unfair and unfinished world in The Expanse, and it is made clear that children and other innocents are always suffering from the fundamental struggle for power and wealth, that is not going away at least in those 200 years that this series takes place in the future. Yet, none of the people are completely evil nor totally good, rather depicting how certain idealism and self-sacrifice is also an inalienable strain of humanity. Saying that, the end of season one was rather heavy going, bringing up memories of holocaust and military-scientific evils of the worst kind of our history. I would very much welcome the season two as soon as possible, to see how all of this is going to evolve further. Or, I just need to get my hands to some of those books. It is great to see that there is again faith in science fiction that can take also political and existential questions into agenda, yet also firmly keep true to its entertainment roots.

Apple TV, 4th generation

Apple has been developing their television offerings in multiple fronts: in one sense, much television content and viewers have already moved into Apple (and Google) platforms, as online video and streaming media keeps on growing in popularity. According to one market research report, in 18-24 age group (in America), between 2011 and 2016, traditional television viewing has dropped by almost 40 %. At the same time, subscriptions to streaming video services (like Netflix) are growing. Particularly among the young people, some reports already suggest that they are spending more time watching streaming video as contrasted to watching live television programs. Just in the period from 2012 to 2014, mobile video views increased by 400 %.

Still, the television set remains as the centrepiece of most Western living rooms. Apple TV is designed to adapt games, music, photos and movies from the Apple ecosystem to the big screen. After some problems with the old, second generation Apple TV, I got today the new, 4th generation Apple TV. It has more powerful processor, more memory, a new remote control that has a small touch surface, and runs a new version of tvOS. The most important aspect regarding expansions into new services is the ability to download and install apps and games from thousands that are available in the App Store for tvOS.

After some quick testing, I think that I will prefer using the Remote app in my iPhone 6 Plus, rather than navigating with the small physical remote, which feels a bit finicky. Also, for games the dedicated video game controller (Steelseries Nimbus) would definitely provide a better sense of control. The Nimbus should also play nice with iPhone and iPad games, in addition to Apple TV ones.

Setup of the system was simple enough, and was most easily handled via another Apple device – iCloud was utilized to access Wi-Fi and other registered home settings automatically. Apart from the bit tricky touch controls, the user experience is excellent. Even the default screensavers of the new system are this time high-definition video clips, which are great to behold in themselves. This is not a 4k system, though, so if you have already upgraded the living room television into 4k version, the new Apple TV does not support that. Ours is still a Full HD Sony Bravia, so no problem for us. Compared to some other competing streaming media boxes (like Roku 4, Amazon Fire TV, Nvidia Shield Android TV), the feature set of Apple TV in comparison to its price might seem a bit lacklustre. The entire Apple ecosystem has its own benefits (as well as downsides) though.

Three movies

I had some movie tickets that were expiring in Sunday, so I went for it, watching in a row three recent movies in cinema. All of these were transmedia storytelling – two of these were movies based on digital games, one was based on a book. I have no time to write actual reviews but a couple of notes:

Angry Birds Movie: the starting point feels almost like the rumoured Tetris Movie Trilogy – not much narrative material exists in the game to start with, but what little there is, it will be liberally exploited and expanded upon. In this case, we will learn why the birds are angry. In the original games the different birds were colour coded game units that each enabled different slingshot trajectories or other abilities. The movie version does decent work in providing them with personality, and for developing (bit silly and comedy-oriented) backstory for the conflict between the birds and the pigs.

The BFG (Big Friendly Giant): this is probably the strongest of three, when evaluated in terms of its overall cinematic qualities. The combination of Roald Dahl’s innovative children’s book and Steven Spielberg’s skills in high production value adventure movies provides a balanced mixture of humour, sense of wonder and a touch of some darker themes. The most memorable element is the friendly, 24 feet (over 7 meter) giant himself, played by Mark Rylance, and translated into detailed digital version by advanced motion capture technologies and computer generated imagery. The eyes of this friedly figure are particularly lively, deep and expressive.

Warcraft: The Beginning: like the title says, this movie is set to the early stages in the history of Azeroth, the main world of Warcraft game series. Gul’dan, an orc warlock, uses fel magic (evil, vampiric style of magic) to open a portal from Draenor, homeworld of orcs (now destroyed by fel magic) to Azeroth, inhabited by humans, elves and dwarves, and a dramatic conflict ensues. The challenge in Warcraft movie appears to be the exact opposite from the Angry Birds one: here, an abundance of characters, plotlines, wars, races, mythical places etc. has to be reduced into something that resembles more or less coherent, classical movie storyline. The reviews have generally been negative, but I actually rather liked the movie – perhaps due to having spent considerable time in Ironforge, Stormwind etc. myself, as a player of Warcraft RTS and World of Warcraft games in the past. The movie does not get very far in itself: there is perhaps ten or more significant characters, some of them are killed, some plots unravelled and others set into motion, and in the end everything just stops, after this prologue having provided hints at important future developments. But landscapes are impressive, some characters relatable, and there is constant “epic tone” in all of it (that might feel ridiculous or appropriate, depending what one’s tastes in genre fantasy are).

All in all, this day of movies just pointed out how central fantasy as an element, impulse and setting has become for popular culture, and how various storyworld elements cross media boundaries with ever-increasing ease.

Angry Birds Movie © Columbia Pictures and Rovio.
The BFG © Disney.
Warcraft: The Beginning © NBCUniversal
Warcraft: The Beginning © NBCUniversal

On Bluetooth Headphones: The Case of Bose QC35

2016-06-28 11.45.18 (2)Enjoying music of all kinds home and on the road (and, at summertime, at the beach / in nature), I have been interested in mobile audio solutions (though not in any religious or “serious audiophile” manner, luckily for my wallet). At homes, my headphones are AKG K550, which are very analytical, crystal clean-sounding, closed-back German headphones, featuring 50 mm drivers and weight of 305 grams. I have attempted to travel with these things, but they are just not designed for travel, they are large and do not fold into any compact proportions. Also, long and thick cable is real hassle when you move from train to airport to bus, etc. Thus, to travel headphones.

In travel, everything is a compromise, in this case primarily between portability, size, weight, and features. Currently, I have settled into three-tier approach. In daily life, I always carry Apple EarPods with Remote and Mic: these are better than most light, in-ear headphones, but they do not isolate the user from the environment sounds, and they also play nicely with my iPhone 6 Plus apps for making phone calls and having those Skype meetings.

The second tier is currently occupied by Bose QuietComfort 20, which are a pair of in-ear noise cancelling headphones that are perfect for that short flight or other day-trip with only light hand luggage. It has well-designed “StayHear+” style silicone tips that happen to fit my ears perfectly (there are three sizes). These are the most efficient noise cancelling headphones I have tried. In everyday use they might even be a bit too efficient: the user is just enjoying blissful silence, even if directly addressed or discussed around you. You will not hear a thing. There is a specific “Aware Mode” button that you need to press, in order to get some ambient sounds through. Also, this is a wired system, so the cable will catch and occasionally tangle with the straps of your laptop bag and elsewhere.

And here comes the third tier, the more demanding mobile use and the solution provided by the new wireless, Bluetooth headphones by Bose: QuietComfort 35. These are bit on the larger size, so I would not probably always pack them with me on short trips, but on longer travels this is an excellent choice. The noise cancelling is very good, but not quite as efficient as that on QC20, since these are an on-ear model rather than a completely isolating in-ear ones – but in many situations that is even preferable. And the sound quality is excellent. There are probably some aspects that a real audiophile expect could criticize (there always are), but What Hifi? magazine reviewer for example gave them five stars. These have a rechargeable lithium ion battery that promises circa 20 hours of power, and after that it is possible to connect a cable and continue in wired mode, without noise cancellation. There is also the ability to connect to multiple (two simultaneously) Bluetooth devices, so that one can take that call from the work phone, while listing to music from the laptop or iPad (I have not tested this yet, I am currently on summer vacation). Pairing can be done with NFC, by touching, and there is a Bose Connect app for smartphones (iOS and Android) that can be used to managing paired devices, changing battery status, and setting sleep timer, for example. When power is turned on, the headphones use voice synthesis to speak aloud the battery level and device name they are currently connected with. Handy. The weight is 309 grams, so this is not the most light-weight option, but wearing QC35 feels comfortable. Testing with different music styles, I was particularly impressed how QC35 handled the “Silent Night” album by Tapani Rinne – with its mixture of deep-bass electronica and quiet, soft acoustic tunes, this is a very challenging recording, and the clear soundscape and powerful dynamics of QC35 really let this kind of music shine.