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.

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!

Chilli crops, preparing and dehydrating, greenhouse project

My chillies are producing chillies – of many varieties, and enough for any reasonable uses I can personally come up with. Here are again some photos, both of ripe and fresh chillies, and also about the preparation for preservation. I have decided to dry and make rough, spicy powders of two most high-yielding chilli varieties, Fire Flame and Thai Rawit. Those should be good for hot pots, curries and other similar uses. Those selected chillies that have provided only small number of fruit, I decided to freeze as whole. Dropping a thawed chilli into a meal is an optional use for those. My dehydrator is a cheap “House” model from local Prisma department store, but it has quiet operation, nice temperature controls and appears to do it job well enough. Slicing chillies for dryer takes its time, but has also somewhat meditative character.

Semi-autonomous cars in trouble?

There’s the recent piece of news making rounds Tesla Model S using Autopilot being involved in fatal crash in Florida. (See e.g. http://www.theverge.com/2016/6/30/12072408/tesla-autopilot-car-crash-death-autonomous-model-s ) There are multiple reactions, ranging from “autopilot killed the driver” to “fully autonomous cars are the answer”. Our VW Touran is also equipped with multiple “driver assist” systems, and my experience from using them is sort of mixed. There are clearly beneficial functions, like the adaptive cruise control (ACC) that appears pretty reliable in helping maintaining safe distance to other vehicles, reducing potential for accidents, and also reducing driver stress while being constantly forced to slow down or speed up in congested motorways.

On the other hand, VW Lane Assist system is being marketed as a “friendly co-driver” that can sense if car is “drifting out of your driving lane”, when it “gently counter-steers the car back on line”. In practice, using Lane Assist often feels like you are competing from control of the car with the system, as the exact driving line the system uses is not always the one I would choose as a driver. The system should learn about the preferences of the driver, but the fundamental issue with semi-autonomous, assisted cars remains: who is exactly in charge?

The semi-autonomous system feels like it knows best, in most situations. But in several situations it does not react, or cannot detect the obvious danger. The car companies emphasise that the driver is always responsible of the control of the vehicle, but as assistive systems are developing stronger, they are sending mixed signals. There is always the temptation to take feet off the pedals, or hands off the steering wheel. Yet, the driver should keep focused and alert, in order to react at the right moment when the robotic assistant fails or comes to the limits of its abilities. For a driver, this also means that one should not only know the limits of one’s own abilities, but learn to know the limits of the assistive systems, and learn new driving skills, that are half based on old-fashioned direct control of the car, and half on division of tasks to the artificial intelligence systems. And that is a new kind of skill set.

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.

iPeng repeat issue

I love iPeng, the plugin and versatile iPhone remote app for Squeezebox players – the extensive range of features comes with with the price, though. iPeng is not the most simple of players. It took me some time another day to debug a little problem, for example: iPeng appeared to be stuck on repeat. Songs I added were included in the playlist, but player would not move forward. A single song would only repeat. It took some time to find where the repeat setting was: you needed to tap once the play (cover view) screen, after which further settings would be revealed, including a symbol for controlling repeat settings. Repeat to off, and the problem was solved. – An example of more ‘expert’ style app/interface design than what I consider desirable today — great to have this level of control, on the other hand (after you have done your homework).