Future of interfaces: AirPods

apple-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/.

Pokémon GO Plus: The challenge of casual pervasive gaming?

Pokémon GO Plus package contents.
Pokémon GO Plus package contents.

Our research projects have explored the directions of pervasive gaming and more general ludification trends in culture and society. One of the success stories of last year was Pokémon GO, the location-based mobile game by Niantic (a Google spin-off) and Pokémon Company. When winter came, the player numbers dropped: at least in Finnish winter is became practically impossible to play a smartphone outdoors game in below-freezing temperatures. Considering that, I have been interested in trying the Pokémon GO Plus accessory – it is a small bluetooth device with one button that you can wear, so that constant handling of smartphone is no longer needed.

Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.

Based on a couple of hours quick testing, this kind of add-on certainly has certain potential. It reduces (an already rather simple) game into its most basic elements: the buzz and colourful led signals when there is a familiar (green) or new (yellow) Pokémon creature nearby, ready for catching. Pressing the button will automatically try to capture the virtual critter: easy ones usually register as “captured” in a few seconds (rainbow-style multi-coloured led signal), more challenging ones might “flee” (red light). When one arrives next to a Pokéstop, there will be a blue light & buzz signal, and with a press of button one can quickly interact with the stop, and get all available items registered into ones inventory. This is actually much more convenient than the usual routine of clicking and swiping at stops, Pokémons and balls. When the “Plus” is active, the game app itself also keeps running in the background, registering walking distances also when the phone is locked. This is how the game should function in the first place, of course. It seems that it is also much easier to capture Pokémons with the “Plus” than without it (how fair this is to other gamers, is a subject of discussion, too).

Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.

The larger question that remains is, what “casual pervasive gaming” will become, in the long run. If this kind of devices show the direction, it might be that a casual, always-on game will be more like a “zero player game”: an automated simulated of gaming, where game server and game client keep on making steady progress in the game, while the human player is free to concentrate on other things. Maybe it is enough just to check the game progress at the end of the day, getting some kind of summary of what the automated, “surrogate player” had experienced, during the day?

Playing Pokémon GO with the “Plus” add-on is not quite there, though. There were moments today when the device was buzzing every few second, asking for its button to be pressed. I quickly collected a nice selection of random, low level Pokémon, but I also ran out of Poke Balls in a minute. Maybe the device is made for “Pokémon GO whales”: those players who use real money to buy an endless suppy of poke-balls, and who are happy to have this semi-automatic collecting practice going on, whole day, in order to grind their way towards higher levels?

The strategic element of choice is mostly missing while using the “Plus”. I have no specific knowledge which Pokémon I am trying to capture, and as the game is configured to use only the basic sort of Poke Ball automatically, any “Great”, or “Ultra” balls, for example, are not used, which means that any more challenging, high-level Pokémon will most likely be missed and flee. At the same time, the occasionall buzz of the device taps evokes the “play frame” of Pokémon GO – which relates to the “playful mindset” that we also have been researching – so it is easier to keep on having a contact with a pervasive gaming reality, while mostly concentrating on mundane, everyday things, like doing grocery shopping. Some of us are better at multitasking, but experiments like Pokémon GO Plus provide us with a better understanding on how to scale both the game-related information, as well as the in-game tasks and functionalities, so that they do not seriously interfere with the other daily activities, but rather support them in the manner we see preferable. At least for me, wearing the “Plus” made those winter walking trips a bit more interesting and motivating again today.

Hydroponic chilies, pt. 2

My experiment with the Ikea hydroponics system has now produced a nice selection of small chili seedlings. The next step is moving them from the nursery box into the cultivation kit. Below are some photos: the idea is to completely bury the stone wool “starter plug” (now penetrated by chili roots) into coarse pumice stone pieces, within perforated cultivation pots. After those are placed into the cultivation kit, one just needs to fix the kit with a mix of fertilizer and water in suitable ratio (half capful into 4 liters of water is Ikea’s own Växer recommendated ratio, I did put in a bit more).  Those pots which are not in use should be covered with provided lids, as this prevents algae growth in the kit. The pumice stone gravel absorbs the liquid, providing chili seedlings with both water, nutritients, and access to air. Let’s see how this goes on from this…

New chili season, 2017

In January, it is again time to sow the seeds for 2017 chili crops. This time, I have a theme: colour ‘yellow’. Well, almost all my chilies this season are yellow, but not quite, as you can notice from below.

Another new concept this year for me is hydroponics. The idea of hydroponic gardening is to use no soil, but rather just expose plants to water, nutrients and sunlight. The plants’ roots will be circulated by a mineral solution, and there is some supportive, non-organic material used to keep the plants growing up in firm position.

I will most likely not develop a full hydroponic system when these chilies move to our greenhouse, but I will try it out in the germinating and seedling growing phases. To make things as easy (and as cost-effective) as possible, I got the entire system from IKEA. They have also some videos about the hydroponic indoor gardening and the techniques and materials they had chosen in their website at: http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/products/indoor-gardening/.

IKEA shopping
IKEA shopping…

The germination process is handled with a simple tray with holes, some plugs made of stone wool (a fibrous mineral material), a water box below, and protective plastic cover with some air ventilation holes.

IKEA nursery box
IKEA nursery box.

As not all seeds germinate, it is a good idea to put 2-3 seeds per plug.

Chili seeds on stone wool plugs
Chili seeds on stone wool plugs.

The optimal temperature for most chili varieties’ germination is around 27-29 Celsius degrees, so I use an electric warming mat below the nursery to keep the temperature even. There is also a LED light with plants’ wavelengths in the IKEA system, the cultivation insert set for seedling phase is intended to be combined with the pumice stone (volcanic rock from Iceland), which allows roots support and access to hydroponic growing solution, while also allowing airflow to the plant roots.

IKEA cultivation insert set for hydroponics
IKEA cultivation insert set for hydroponics.

This time, the chili varieties I chose for growing are: Pequin Firecracker (c. annuum), a hybrid Tepin x Lemon Drop (c. annuum x baccatum), 7 Pot Brain Strain Yellow (c. chinense), Lemon Drop (c. baccatum), Goat’s Weed (c. annuum), Peito de Moca (c. chinense), Bhut Jolokia (which is now classified as a c. chinense x frutescens hybrid from India?), Aji Cristal (c. baccatum), Aji Fantasy (a commercial Finnish c. baccatum hybrid of Lemon Drop x PI 441551), a non-specified ‘Thai’ chili variety (c. annuum), Habanero Hot Lemon (c. chinense), Fatalii (c. chinense), and my old favourite, yellow Madame Jeanette (c. chinense, a habanero chili from Suriname). Old familiar ones, and new acquaintances. Happy new chili season, all fellow chili-heads!

Chili growing is a multi-form hobby
Chili growing is a multi-form hobby.

PS. Here is also a cheerful video by IKEA about the joys of hydroponics:

Retrospect, 2016, 2006, 1996, and beyond

I am not particularly good in remembering things, which makes annually returning cycles of breaks and opportunities for reflection challenging, yet also very useful.

Year 2016 was exceptionally burdersome year for many reasons, but among much sadness and strain, there were also many happy things, and quiet progress that is important, but that will most likely surface only later. If I’d have to name one thing, I would say that 2016 was the “Year of Pokémon GO”, as both in personal life as well as professionally, that single location based, social experience coloured much of the latter part of the year in particular.

Randomly sampling the past, in ten year intervals, in 2006, I notice from my records that I was making several public talks about ludic literacy. For example, in one publication I sketched six dimensions of skill sets that each build on top of each other: 1) fundamental ludic understanding (“this is play, game has rules”), 2) functional gaming skills (“this game works this way”), 3) strategic and meta levels of game skills (“this way of playing is interesting / makes sense for me”), 4) social ludic skills (“this is what makes playing fun for other, this is why these people want to play”), 5) creative and productive game play skills (“this game can be extended, or reimagined in these ways”), and 6) literacy related to media in general (“this game is produced to make money this way, its marketing and business strategies rely on this kinds of principles”. (I seem to have worked on a longer article on the topic, but the last draft of that was marked “version 0.5”, so I guess other worked ran over that one.)

In 1996, I was working on the manuscript of Koneihminen article anthology (The Man-Machine), which was a wide-ranging exploration into the multiple cultural roles that technology holds in our lives – as a living environment, as an integral element that extends as well as shapes, and limits our individual and social subjectivy and agency, as well as an evolving and chancing source of various aesthetic experiences. It is interesting to read about the reflections of technological ambivalence, and critiques of 1990s techno-romanticism today, when two decades have changed the landscape of technology into something considerably more pervasive, but also into something more banal. It is certainly true that in 1990s we were considerably more naive regarding the pace of cultural change, and what was really important and what not so, but looking around at turn of 2016/2017, much of both the utopian and dystopian elements of technological imagination are now reality. The more philosophical dimensions of technologically informed subjectivity would clearly benefit from a revisit, or two.

In 1986, I was early in my studies of comparative literature in the University of Tampere. Sadly, it seems that I do not have any digital notes saved from the time before 1991, due to the multiple changes in those years, one of the most important technical ones being the move from Commodore 64 to some early 286 PC that caused me losing my records. Only some backups coming from my Unix account from early 1990s has survived. The C64 floppy disks still just might be somewhere, but I have neither hardware or software to access them, any more. Digital amnesia? But I still remember for example typing rather long essays and seminar works on C64 “Sanatar” word processing software (AmerSoft, 1984) – and then using the same home computer at nights to play AD&D adventure “Pool of Radiance” (SSI, 1988), slowly, sometimes with painful failure rate, but endlessly fascinated. Long Finnish summer nights were filled with light and bird song, also in 3 or 4 am, when I remember holding a break in my upstairs student apartment, stepping outside of the Forgotten Realms for a while.

Remembering is good for us. I link below the slides that I prepared for “Personal gaming histories” course this fall – no commentary this time, but maybe the pictures also tell some stories. Times, they are a-changing.

(PS – these exercises remind us, how our lives do not equal to “life stories”, consistent, logical, progressive wholes. They just present us these constant challenges for sense making, always more or less retrospective.)

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!

Using Surface Pro

Surface Pro 4, Logitech K811, M570 trackball.
Surface Pro 4, Logitech K811, M570 trackball.

Short note on what I have found to be the most useful way of using MS Surface Pro 4 in my daily workflow: firstly, I have mostly learned to ignore the dedicated “Windows 10 app” versions of services that I am using. The user experience in those, stripped down versions are generally rather bad. It is much better idea to use the full, desktop version (if available – and Surface Pro 4 is powerful enough to run the desktop one in 99 % of cases). The second option is to try using the “web app” version of the service – even those are generally much better than the “app” you might find from the Windows Store. Chrome is really helpful here, as you can save almost any web page into a Web App to the Windows desktop (go to: Settings [three dots up right], then ‘More Tools’, then ‘Add to Desktop’). The web versions are versatile and powerful these days, and you can e.g. easily enlarge elements in the web interface by simple ‘pinch zoom’ finger gestures – in contrary to the Windows apps, whose interfaces mostly do not scale at all.

I have also tried to learn my own user interface technique, which is a combination of scrolling and pinching with my fingers, precise pointing, underlining, drawing and writing with the Surface Pen, and more exact mouse work, where I currently mostly use Logitech M570 Wireless Trackball. I have never really learned to enjoy the official Type Cover, even while it is great improvement over previous generations of thin-and-light keyboard covers (there is still bit too much flex, and the shallow and imprecise key movement sometimes really irritates a touch typist). So I use a high quality external wireless keyboard, currently either a Logitech K810 or a K811, which I have several.

The downside of this system is that there is a real patchwork to move around and set up: Surface tablet, Pen, trackball mouse, external keyboard, plus of course the power brick. When contrasted to a regular laptop, the benefits are in flexibility: in tablet mode, I can go some time without any other items, or just work with the Surface and the Surface Pen (e.g. when marking drafts and grading student work). But when writing and productivity tasks take priority, then a regular laptop would indeed make things a bit simpler. Maybe the next version of Surface Book might bring these things together? Currently there are some nice compromise efforts (e.g. Lenovo Yoga 900S), but there are multiple compromises in e.g. processing power, storage, pen integration and keyboard quality that this kind of “convertible ultrabooks” take, as contrasted to having separate devices that are all excellent in what they do.

Thus, my current patchwork seems to work best, for me, at least.