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/.

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.

Keynote on Pervasive Play & Social Media

This Friday I have been invited to present the keynote in the Social Media in Education seminar, organised by TAOKK & TAMK in Tampere. My title is “Mobile and Pervasive Play – the New Potentials for Communication, Information Seeking and Learning” (Mobiili ja kaikkialle levittäytyvä pelillisyys – viestinnän, tiedonhankinnan ja oppimisen uudet mahdollisuudet). You can find the seminar program from here: http://www.tamk.fi/cms/tamk.nsf/($All)/B33A81D7444E0FA7C2257D46001F9A05?OpenDocument .

Video streaming: it is a jungle out there

Tinkernut: The Basics of Video Encoding
Tinkernut: The Basics of Video Encoding

Today’s video playback world is in an “interesting” state. Some examples from our own home and life:

  • We have video content (ranging over a decade in age) that has been recorded using variety of mobile phones, compact digital cameras, webcams, digital SLRs, and dedicated video cameras, at least
  • All of these seem to have produced file formats using different video codecs, encapsulation containers, different resolutions, etc.
  • Some of our video content has been converted and uploaded into cloud services, such as YouTube, Flickr, Dropbox, etc.
  • There are multiple storage and server devices in the house: PC workstations (Windows, Mac, Linux), one PC server (Windows 2008 Server Web Edition), and one NAS (Buffalo LS-WXL)
  • The servers claim to be DNLA compatible (there has been several different software tools set up to the Windows Server; in NAS there is a Twonky Media Server)
  • The typical video streaming use situations include, but are not limited to:
    • Using Apple TV device to access local network disk share
    • Using Apple TV device to access YouTube or other cloud service
    • Using iPad or iPhone to stream local or cloud video content via AirPlay to Apple TV
    • Using PlayStation 3 to access local network disk share
    • Using PlayStation 3 to access cloud service
    • Using a laptop (PC, Mac, Linux) to access local disk share or a cloud service, possibly streaming the video to the big screen with the help of AirPlay (Mac), or Chromecast (Windows)
    • Using an Android phone or tablet to access local disk shares or cloud services, often streaming the video to the big screen via Google Chromecast stick
    • There are also a “smart” tv and a blu-ray player with embedded DNLA playback functionalities, but those work even worse than the above options
    • It should be noted that there are multiple, differently featured software tools in both iOS and Android devices, and Chromecast support particularly appears to be “work in progress”, AirPlay has more solid support.

When I try to play a video file e.g. from 2007 (recorded using some obscure codec that some antique compact camera then supported), the situation is more likely to fail than to succeed. I have found that the best chance to actually see the video is by copying the file to a PC and opening it in some well-supported video player. The streaming will most likely not work. Apart from the PCs, PlayStation 3 appears to support most of our video files. iPad and Android phones and tablets do not really work well with most of local video file contents, even while the support has been getting better over the years. Most recent content, created with the new Androids or iPhones, for example, is more likely to perform well also in the complex home media streaming environment. The old video files will most probably always remain tricky. One solution would be to convert (and possibly upload to an online cloud service) all videos, since e.g. YouTube is rather well supported in different device environments. In reality, the hundreds of files will never be processed in this manner, and many people will probably also prefer to keep their most private, personal videos only in local storage rather than in some cloud service.

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