blog year 2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 35,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Contextual apps

S4 with the Cover app lock screen
S4 with the Cover app lock screen

There are digirati who claim that the era of contextual apps and services is here and that it will transform our daily lives (the recent, app-cataloguing book Age of Context by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel is one example). Since the mobile media experimentation and development really took off in the late nineties, there has been much talk and few real breakthroughs in this area. However, some recent developments have brought the “contextual revolution” a bit closer to reality. Particularly all the information industry giants like Google and Apple are collecting is making it easier to use algorithms and sensor data to identify various locations and provide estimates on what the user would be interested in doing in that particular spot. I have been test driving e.g. Cover, the contextual lock screen app, and Aviate, the contextual home screen app (currently in beta) in my Android device (Samsung Galaxy S4). While there is obvious promise in making the mobile operating system and user experience more adaptive, providing the most used applications in my particular locations seems still a bit hit-and-miss affair for these apps, at least. I suppose they will get better by learning from what I am actually doing, but currently I end up manually configuring the app shortcuts in the various “Spaces” that Aviate serves me, for example. And that is not exactly making the life easier than having a static home screen where I can immediately find my most used apps, always reliably in the same place. Having this “lively interface” where things are dynamically moving around can be also confusing, so my mind is stil divided about the actual usefulness of this, first generation. But I can definitely see that this kind of functionalities could come built-in some of the next versions of Android, for example. When these services start to know you better than yourself, the holding power of such apps can obviously grow to remarkable (or frightening, depending on the perspective) degrees. A really insightful recommendation system can really affect your behaviour (think about all those recommendations, for example), and when something similar is always making suggestions to you while you are going around and deciding upon the directions and activities in your daily life, the effect is potentially vastly greater.


Smaug the Movie

I saw Hobbit 2 (Desolation of Smaug) yesterday. It was a bit perplexing experience, thereby worth a short note at least. On one hand, it was a decent fantasy action movie, filled with impressive landscapes and striking visualizations (I saw the 3D HFR version). As to this being part of Hobbit, there was a bit of a challenge to adapt the expectations. There was a hobbit, a wizard and thirteen dwarves ok. Smaug, the dragon itself was also impressive and parts of its dialogue with Bilbo were actually something that Tolkien had written – I think it pretty much steals the show. But most of what was going on was not familiar dialogue. An old, cranky Tolkien-fan could judge the movie just on the basis of its taking too many liberties with the source material. I actually appreciate the effort to explain, for example, why Gandalf and the dwarves set into the hazardous journey to the Lonely Mountain in the first place (hint: war against the rising Darkness, the Arkenstone). The ethically suspicious character of our “heroes” sneaking in to the mountain, waking the dragon, and then cowardly waiting while Smaug hits the mountainside, then flies to burn down Esgaroth, the Lake-town. In this version they actually put up a rather decent fight against the mighty dragon, which is entertaining to follow, but not exactly the most realistic battle in the film history. (I think that the brave handful would probably survived only a few minutes if Smaug would have been himself…) The character of elves is perhaps the most inconsistent element in this version. Thranduil, the Elvenking of Mirkwood is a made into a pretty nasty person, and this relates to Legolas, who is introduced into Hobbit (as we learned from Lord of the Rings that Legolas was king’s son). Then there is Tauriel, the new female warrior character who has to carry the burden of being the love-interest of not only Legolas, but also of Kili, the dwarf! The orcs are also made into much active party, and they actively pursue Thorin and his companions first into the gates of Elvenking (I wonder how they made it there unnoticed?) and then deep inside Esgaroth, where they attack the house of Bard, where Bard’s children are treating dying Kili (hit by an arrow with a Morgul blade, of all things). When Legolas and Tauriel arrive to recue at that very moment, the poor Tolkien fan has lost almost all track of where this story is heading.

There are stuff in the Appendices of LoTR that provide interesting materials to explore, and it is clear that Peter Jackson & co. have made good use of it, while filling in some of the most obvious gaps between the Hobbit and LoTR. The stylistic challenge nevertheless remains – this is a children’s book, after all, here adapted to become a much more somber tale of ambition, empathy, greed and hunger of power, and it only just about sticks together as a logical whole. Sometimes I wonder what Jackson would make out of Silmarillion, if he would get the filming rights to that, truly epic treasure trove of material. But watching Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug makes one suspect that such film would over-emphazise the action elements so much that the more philosophical and lyrical elements would be severely downplayed. And that would be a real shame. But, I must underline, Hobbit 2 is pretty ok as an action fantasy movie, one just perhaps needs to adapt one’s expectations a bit.

Blog comment spam

For a long time already, pretty much the only comments that my blog sites receive are coming from spammers. I have the setting that all new commenters’ comments go for moderation, and I manually delete them all, so they do not serve any purpose for a spammer, either. The original character of blogs as social sites of discussion have long been replaced by social network services, most notably by Facebook, Twitter and Google+. These days, the comments that a note like this one receives, take place in these various services, where original content is being linked to, “liked” and circulated. This is not a particularly good thing if you consider gathering together the various discussion threads, or would like to return to those comments at some point in the future. All those comments will be lost in the constant status update stream of social media, unfortunately. I am now seriously considering closing the comment function altogether from my blogs, and will most likely implement this change in the near future. It will be possible to send me comments via email, of course, and my preferred social network site for public discussion today is Google+ (there are links to my profile in this blog), but any comments, in any platform, are really welcome.

Tablets, the Next Generation

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, with S Pen
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, with S Pen

I have been testing two very good tablets recently: iPad Mini with Retina Display (Cellular) and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition, LTE). In principle I would say that if you already are using a large-screen, phablet-style smartphone (like the Samsung Galaxy S4 I am using daily), and also carry around a powerful and light-weight laptop for the serious work stuff, tablet has a rather tight spot to cover. It is mostly too large to fit into your pocket (maybe a 7″ model like Nexus 7 can do that, however) so it not always available in the same way your smartphone is. And since the tablet does not have a full, dedicated keyboard and multitasking-oriented OS like your laptop has, it is not as efficient in the actual work, either. What to think about the continuing success of tablets, then?

When Apple introduced the original iPad, there were many who were sceptical about the actual benefits of again introducing the third, “middle category”, and there had been previous attempts to implement and market tablet computers and those had not been particularly successful. Apple’s virtue has been in the combination of extremely polished user experience with straightforward access to the key contents that most people actually care about. iPad proved that music, movies, photos, web and email can be rather well be handled also with a responsive, nicely designed tablet device.

iPad Mini with Retina Display continues the tradition of design excellence in Apple products. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful products of industrial design I have ever beheld. The care to the detail is admirable, and it is pleasure to touch and study this mini marvel. I have also been testing the new iPad Air and the new Mini has all the bells and whistles like its bigger brother, and it also boasts the same display resolution, just squeezed into significantly smaller frame. (There are some rather minor differences in processor power and in colour accuracy, in addition to size, to iPad Air’s benefit.) The iOS app ecosystem is the best in the mobile universe, and this concerns particularly the quality of applications. Many of the best iOS apps are just pleasure to use, so most games, lifestyle and productivity apps work best in the iOS environment. The main limitations, however, are at the growingly clear lack of innovation: iOS7, the newest version of Apple’s mobile operating system is prettier and in some areas clearly better than older versions of iOS. But the live titles and more flexible control scheme of Windows Phone provide more information at a glance, and Android is much more flexible and comes in myriad variations, with tools that a power user in particular can appreciate.

Google’s Nexus line of “stock Android” tablets and phones is perhaps the best example of the benefits that a modern mobile OS can provide, but there were important reasons why I wanted to turn my attention to a Galaxy Note this time. Most important of them was the “S Pen” stylus and its associated operating system enhancements.

Samsung’s S Pen is equipped with the state-of-the-art technology by Wacom, long-time leader in stylus and digitizing solutions. It is fascinating to see the fast reaction of tablet to the approacing tip of the small stylus, and writing and controlling of the tablet is effortless with the S Pen. It feels nice to be able to scribble handwritten text into a search box or straight into a document, and see the software automatically recognise and transform it into text. With Galaxy Note 10.1, I can take a PDF contract document, sent my a publisher, for example, and simply sign it with the S Pen, and email it back. This kind of common task has involved frustratingly complex negotiations between the hybrid worlds of print and digital documents, and now, with the help of S Pen and the magic of Evernote Skitch (a premium, paid feature), annotating PDFs is finally made natural and easy.

The downsides of Android’s increased capabilities include that often there is higher threshold of learning all the various features that manufacturers have made available to the user. iPad and its apps usually do less, but do it better. When I want to play games or consume content, I definitely lean more towards iPad Mini or iPad Air than an Android device. But when I today consider which device to pack with me for that next work trip, the choice is much harder. There is much B-quality bloatware and superfluous stuff in Samsung’s tablet, but also some really unique and genuinely useful features that make the life of a power user much easier. It is difficult to say what will be the outcome of the mobile competition in the long run, but the latest generation of tablets provide delightful and great user experiences, making a compelling case for the continuous existence of tablets as a device category.

Ljubljana COST Meeting

COST Meeting, Ljubljana
COST Meeting, Ljubljana

This week, our “hybrid playfulness” research team is joining the COST FP1104 (“hybrid COST”) researchers around the Europe, and elsewhere to discuss the future of media, both printed and electronic, and particularly the in-between. The first day agenda was fully packed, including invited presentations on topics such as 2D codes, Augmented Reality, innovative printing, rich media mobile advertising, plus keynotes by professor Naomi Baron (American University) on reading in print and digital, and principal researcher Richard Harper (Microsoft Research Cambridge) on reading as writing and collaboration in the era of cloud computing. The Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, appears like a beautiful city, even while I have had little opportunity to look around so far.

Ljubljana, Slovenia
Ljubljana, Slovenia

Facebook ja pelitutkimus

[My presentation slides from today’s Facebook research seminar in Tampere] Pohdin tässä lyhyessä esityksessäni hieman sitä työtä, mitä Tampereen Gamelabin tiimi on vuosien varrella Facebook-pelien ja -pelaamisen sekä näihin liittyvien tutkimusteemojen parissa tehnyt, että toisaalta laajemmin sitä pelijulkaisemisen ja pelikulttuurin muutosta joka on edelleen käynnissä. Julkaisumallien, teknologiaympäristöjen ja mediaekosysteemien muutokset ovat merkittäviä, mutta niin on myös laajempi kulttuurinen muutos – ehkä aikuisenkin ihmisen on tänään hieman helpompaa olla avoimesti leikillinen kuin vain vuosikymmen sitten?

Hybridex and COST Action workshop, Lisbon

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.

Hybrid Touch

ASUS Vivobook X202E (with a Chai Latte)
ASUS Vivobook X202E (with a Chai Latte)

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:, 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.

%d bloggers like this: