Microsoft, the HoloLens and the Word ‘Hologram’

Last week Microsoft revealed one of its exciting new projects, the HoloLens. The headset gives the illusion of virtual images being projected on top of the real world. I really like what Microsoft’s vision is here. There are so many useful applications of this device whether at home, in the workplace, in education or in science. I particularly love the 3D modelling aspects of the tool. It’s putting design into context and removing the potential barrier of screen and input devices.


Fair play to Microsoft for attempting to take the VR and AR worlds to the next level. That’s what this is, a whole of new level of interactive Augmented Reality.

The Hologram Rules

What is really interesting, however, is the product name and the language that Microsoft is using. They have not just added ‘Holo’ in the title to make it sound cool. They are using the words ‘hologram’ and ‘holographic’ a lot in their brand messaging. Their landing page has no fewer than 28 mentions of the word ‘hologram’ or ‘holographic’. I don’t think this is a decision Microsoft took lightly. Because, let’s be clear, these are not holograms. And I would like to think that Microsoft knows this.

I have followed holography since the mid-80s when I was child staring in awe at the holographic images in the Camera Obscura in Edinburgh. I’ve followed the technology through the years, hoping that one day we will be able to watch physical 3D holograms like the famous Princess Leia hologram in Star Wars.

Hologram is a term which is often misused. It generally refers to images recorded using a laser which look 3D when viewed. Initially holograms were generally 2D images which looked 3D when you moved your viewpoint around it. The term has also been used in sci-fi to describe the physical 3D images such as the aforementioned Princess Leia one. The general rule is that it needs to appear 3D and not involve any apparatus on your eyes.

Just an Illusion

Lazer BlazerThe term, however, has been hijacked for various means over the years. Do you remember Lazer Blazer ‘3D holographic stickers’ you used to get back in the 80s and 90s? They were called holograms but they were really just shiny coloured metallic images. Some bank cards did have holograms in their little square security picture but others just had shiny metal images. Both were called holograms. The recent projections of Tupac and Michael Jackson on stage, which were really just 3D computer animations projected using the Pepper’s Ghost trick, were both billed as being ‘holograms’.

Are the companies who specialise in true holography tearing out their hair whenever someone uses the term holography incorrectly? I used to do it and now I’m bald. Perhaps I can get some holographic hair one day. Now there’s an idea.

I could happily sit here and get all pedantic about the use of the word hologram and how it has lost its meaning. I really could happily do that. It’s a bug bear of mine. The HoloLens gives you the illusion of a hologram, not a true hologram. And sometimes you need to tell the people what they want to see instead of just telling them what they are actually seeing. If this product puts us one step further on the path to getting actual 3D holograms like Princess Leia then it’s ok with me.

For anyone interested in learning more about true holography then I recommended watching this great video about a man keeping the traditional techniques of holography alive.

Do I Really Need A Smart Watch?

This is the question many people will be asking themselves after Apple revealed their long awaited Apple Watch a few days ago in Cupertino.

Sony SmartWatch 2It’s also the question I asked a few months ago when I was given a Sony SmartWatch 2 for my birthday. I was very excited to receive it and was curious as to just how useful the device would be. I decided to wear it every day for two months to find out for sure. So here are my thoughts about my experience. I’m not focussing on the Sony model here but rather looking at the whole genre of wearable smart watches. And not only do I love my gadgets but I love my watches too. It will require something very special to stop me wearing my classic retro 80s Casio Databank I can tell you.

Let’s start with some of the negatives.

Charging – This was a biggie for me. It’s another device to have to charge. We are programmed by now to charge our phones daily but we’re going to have to develop new habits of charging our smart watches however regularly they need it (about every 3 days for the Sony model). This was a major issue for me as I often forget to charge my smart watch and then that left me without a watch to tell the time. Battery life was also something that wasn’t really covered by Apple in today’s Apple Watch presentation although they did show a rather cool wireless charging unit.

Privacy – The next biggest issue for me was that other people can read your text messages if you choose to have them appear on the watch. If you have a nosey person next to you, you need to be quick to turn your wrist or discard the message before they might be able to see it. And what if you fall asleep on public transport? The person next to you might be able to see all those personal messages from your partner as they appear. There are ways round some of these issues but it’s still something you have to be aware of.

Politeness – You need to keep looking at your watch whenever you get a notification. When you’re with other people this can appear rude and as if you’d rather be somewhere else. Again this probably can be bypassed with user habits and ‘smartwatchiquette’. Perhaps you should think about switching the notifications off when you’re with company.

Bluetooth – Currently most smart watches are tied to a paired phone. Obviously this means you always have to have the Bluetooth on your phone switched on, which will drain your battery life a bit more, but to be honest I didn’t notice this being too bad. The other problem with Bluetooth, however, is that you always need your phone on or near you for it to stay connected. If you leave your phone in the other room then you will just end up wearing a boring old ‘dumb watch’.

Aeroplanes – This might not be the case with all models but some smart watches are yet another device you have to remember to switch off on aeroplanes, so you can’t even have a watch to tell the time with during a flight.

Fashion – Some smart watches just don’t look very nice. This is changing, however. The Sony SmartWatch 2 is slightly bulky but I’m still very comfortable with wearing it out. The Apple Watch looks very nice too albeit still fairly rectangular and we are getting some very nice round models now as well such as the LG G Watch R.

Now onto the positives…

Control – In the past, every time we heard the beep or felt the vibration we had to check our phone which was often in our pocket, or across the room in our bag, and then the screen would have to be unlocked, only to find that it was a spam message or just some non-urgent text that could be looked at later. Smart watches put you back in the driving seat. I found myself in many, many situations where it was incredibly useful having the watch on to know whether or not the message I received was an important one that had to be replied to immediately or whether it could wait. I wasn’t left wondering what it was, itching to get my phone out of my pocket. I wasn’t wasting time getting the phone out before I could look. In a mindfulness zen like state I could just glance at my watch quickly and then carry on what I was doing. Situations like being in a meeting at work, sitting in a conference or lecture, driving a car, ironing, in a cinema, holding a baby, wearing a big long heavy coat when your phone is in your jeans pocket, on a cold night when you don’t want to have to take your gloves off to get your phone out. I’ve had my smart watch in all those situations and I’ve been really glad that I did.

Quantified Self – Health and fitness is huge with wearables. They are on your body and therefore they can measure your body. Heart rate, blood pressure, motion, sleep patterns etc. Many watches have some or all of these built into the watch and this is really where smart watches become not just a ‘nice to have’ or a ’too lazy to put my hand in my pocket’ but they actually add something to your life. This is a huge, new area that wearable tech is opening up and it is a game changer.

Adjustable faces – It sounds small but it’s really cool to adjust the watch face whenever you want. You can have a digital face for when you’re being active and then change it to an old fashioned analogue face for evening wear.

Apps – The convenience factor of having some of your favourite apps always attached to your body is a perfect combination of laziness and productivity. It removes the frustration of wondering where you left your phone and it gives you immediate access to the news or communication channel of your choice. It’s early days in terms of developers making apps work well with Android Wear or with the new WatchKit tools for the Apple Watch but I’m sure we will see some very slickly designed apps soon with great ‘wrist UX’.

Apple Watch - Image from

In summary, the main Pro point for me is the Control one. It alone has made me a wearable tech convert. It gives you more convenience, more choice, more freedom instead of being a slave to the vibrations in your pocket. Wearable tech is the future, there’s no question. Convenience + Added lifestyle and health benefits = Win.

So, to answer my own titular question. Yes, personally I think I do really need a smart watch.

(this blog post first appeared on the LEWIS 360 blog –

Contextual Interfaces – what level of privacy do you want

This post was inspired by watching the movie trailer for ‘Her’ starring Joaquin Phoenix and reading a recent blog post by Robert Scoble this week.

Our fears about lack of privacy in a post-Snowden world seem to be increasing as devices seemingly start watching and listening to our every move. That’s the perception by many anyway.

The recently revealed Xbox One games console and Moto X smartphone are utilising ‘always on’ features where they have the ability to be always watching or listening so that you can use a voice activation feature anytime you want. You can speak to them as if they are a person that is always with you, rather than manually having to activate a function on your phone. They also offer other contextual features so that they remember information about you, your daily routine and what you recently asked them. If you ask them how long it will take to drive home they will interpret ‘home’ as your registered address. If you ask it to order a pizza it will know where you are, what local pizza company you like and what your favourite toppings are. If you ask them “When did Barack Obama become President?” and then ask “How old is he?” they will remember that you were asking about Barack Obama. They understand you more and they make your life easier.

In order to do this, however, they need to have more information about you and they need to be always on. The more you give them the more they can help you out. The first stage of this is that it can be incredibly useful and is an example of smart technology actually making our lives easier at last. Perhaps a future ‘danger’ of this going too far is portrayed in the upcoming movie ‘Her’. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man who tries out a brand new futuristic artificial intelligence user interface. The female voice knows everything about him and what he needs and desires. In essence it becomes his ideal partner, albeit virtually. He ends up getting slightly too Siri-ious about this virtual partner (see what I did there? – I’m sure I’m not the first) and it raises the question about what is love, what is dependency and what is real in this digital age. Certainly looks like a fascinating movie.

Conspiracy theorists may also have a heart attack about all of the ‘always on’ and contextual features of these new devices, but in all honesty do you really think that these big organisations will actually always be listening, recording and monitoring every single thing that all of its users around the world are doing every minute of every day? Personally, I don’t think so. Or if they were they really aren’t going to be interested in what everyday punters like me or you are doing, apart from in ways that can help serve us info, features or ads. And it can get most of these things from the way we use the phone, not from our idle conversation. As long as you’re not breaking the law or doing something wrong then you should be alright. And if you are then you can’t really complain. If I was a paranoid conspiracy theorist who was also a celebrity or a politician in the public eye then I would perhaps be more aware and switch off the feature if I was ever doing anything that I didn’t want to get out to the public. But that is extreme paranoia.

New generations will adapt to this fully. They are growing up with social media and online sharing. They will be more savvy as it will be in their blood. They may say “Who cares who is listening to me. There is so much noise in the internet anyway”. It will be the norm for them to be part of a wider global platform where you are less shy about your activities because you’re not being scrutinised by a close village community but you’re getting lost in the herd of an online global network (obviously not including the environments where trolls rule – that’s a whole other argument and a major hate of mine).

Will there be a backlash of people, however, who ‘go dark’ and spend more time offline or on more manual devices and interfaces? Probably. In many countries there is a ‘slow movement’ where people are trying to slow down and not be forced to live at the fast pace of social media and urgent emails as described by Carl Honoré on TED. There are many things about that slow movement that I like and that I think can benefit health, relationships and communities. And more and more people are having holidays in internet blackspots to get away from the online stress. There will be many debates about the pros and cons of this contextual digital evolution too. For me it’s about working out just how it can help you in your daily life and also choosing what level of privacy you actually want.

I’m a private guy. I don’t choose to put lots of family photos on Facebook or Twitter. I keep them private to friends and family. I’m very specific about where I publicly check-in to on FourSquare. But if I think that Google or a similar company having a little bit more info on my daily habits can then serve me better with the features on their devices then I think I’m up for that. It’s a different kind of privacy. We can’t expect everything in our lives to be completely private. We’ve lost that complete freedom now. But we can be smart about our privacy. We can keep important things private whilst still allowing ourselves to benefit from features and services from this new technology.

I think we are entering a very interesting stage in the digital age and as Robert Scoble says, it could lead to the biggest digital divide we’ve seen yet. The ‘freaky line’ as he calls it. Companies like Google have to tread very carefully in order to be open and transparent about what they can and can’t see or use, in order to get as many people as possible embracing this new way of thinking. I’ll be walking into it with my eyes wide open and perhaps one eye over my shoulder just to be on the safe side, but I’m still going to give it a go. Google probably knows that. And so does my phone.

My automated life with NFC and IFTTT


If you’re either lazy, highly organised or interested in new technologies then this post is for you. I’m currently experimenting with three very cool technologies which work with my smartphone and other devices. The three areas I’m looking at are…

  • Wireless charging
  • NFC tags
  • IFTTT automation

Basically at the end of the process I should be able to do things like simply placing my phone on my bedside unit and it will do the following: charge wirelessly, set my alarm, reduce the volume of the phone, dim the screen, switch off Bluetooth and do pretty much anything else I want it to do. No wires or clicks required. If this sounds like witchcraft to you, read on.

Wireless charging
I recently read an article on Pocket-lint on wireless charging and there was a video by someone who had integrated a wireless charger into his bedside unit so that at bedtime he just had to place his mobile phone on the unit and it would start charging. No fumbling around for a cable. And to top it off, the beside unit he used is the exact same one that I have. I will have to buy a wireless charger but I’m up for getting one and trying it out.

NFC tags
NFC tags have been around for a while, in things like Oyster travel cards in London. They are now, however, really cheap and easy to use and can be used with more and more smartphones. A colleague of mine at LEWIS PR bought some from Amazon and I think they were only about £1 each. They came as a simple sticker and look quite cool (see image at the top of this post). They’re about the size of a 50p coin. I downloaded an app called NFC Task Launcher (no longer available at this link but I believe it is now called Trigger) which lets you make a Task. This can be anything such as switching WiFi or Bluetooth on, changing the volume, setting an alarm or checking into FourSquare. Anything you can do on your phone you can create a task for. You can also create multiple actions in a Task. When you then simply place your phone next to that NFC chip these tasks are performed automatically. For example if you had one in your car you could set it to automatically change your phone settings to increase the volume and switch on Bluetooth whenever you placed your phone on the dashboard or wherever. No wires or buttons. You just need to place your phone near the NFC tag.

IFTTT automation
IFTTT has been around for a few years. If This Then That. A simple programming concept to create chain tasks that automate when you do stuff online. For example when you favourite a picture on Instagram it can update your Facebook status and also save a copy of the photo to your DropBox. Or if someone mentions you on Twitter you can add it to a spreadsheet on Google Drive. You can mix and match actions to create your own ‘recipes’. But this month they have taken this to the next level and entered the physical world. You can buy real world devices which work with IFTTT such as switches and motion sensors. You can sync a weather website to automatically work out when the sun sets and this then switches on your lights at home. Or set an alarm to automatically switch on your main bedroom light at a certain time each morning. Or if someone walks into your child’s bedroom it could automatically send you a text. I could go on. And on.

The combinations of all the above are endless, and they aren’t just gimmicky. This is actual helpfulness to make our lives easier. You could combine the above to have a unit in the hall of your house that when you come home from work you place your phone on the unit and it starts charging, checks you in on FourSquare, switches on WiFi, turns your lights on in the house, sends your wife a text that you’re home and starts playing music on your Bluetooth speakers.

The possibilities are endless. If you can think of a mundane electronic task you have to do it can probably be automated in some way. The problem is that the time I save will probably be spent thinking of more cool ways to use this tech. Time well spent I reckon.

Got any other cool ideas for using this tech? Let me know in the comments.

My Nexus 4 Review

Nexus 4 phone

Just over a week ago I got my new Nexus 4. I thought I’d give it at least a week before I wrote a blog post about it so that I could really get to use it properly and get over the ‘new phone’ excitement. Well to be honest I’m still not quite over it. It’s easily the best phone I’ve had and there’s only a very few things I’m not totally happy with.

Good – First thing that hit me was the size of the screen. Much larger than my  previous Nexus S and my work iPhone. Great for watching videos but occasionally a menu button is a bit of a stretch away when holding it in one hand. I am, however, already totally used to it. In fact it’s really strange now to go back to a smaller phone. The weight and build of it is also very nice. Sturdy and classy. Nice glass most of the way round.
Bad – It looks slick and unfortunately it actually is a bit slick. Slippy, that is. The edges are a bit too smooth and it can be quite easy to drop if you’re not careful. It can also be quite hard to pick up from a desk actually when it’s lying flat. I didn’t want to have use a skin or case on this phone, as it’s so beautiful without one and I was going to put my faith in the Gorilla Glass, but I actually have bought a case for it now just to give me better grip on it. The biggest problem I have with the handset is that the main power button is very inset. It hardly sticks out at all. This can actually become a problem when, for example, it’s night time and you reach over and want to press the power button to wake it up and see what time it is or if you have any missed calls. It can actually be hard to feel which way round the phone is and where the button is.

Good – Everything is good with video. Any format of video played, especially with VLC or MX Player. Easy to transfer videos to your phone or to download them from the great Google Play library. Beautiful streaming on Netflix, TVCatchup, YouTube, TED, BBC iPlayer etc. All looking great on the 4″ screen. Maybe it’s not officially called a retina screen but its certainly good enough for me.
Bad – erm, it’s not 3D?

Good – Well this is the main draw of Android, and it doesn’t disappoint. So much control over your app organisation, your home page and your lock screen all as standard. Then you can also install third party menu ‘launchers’. And I’m not going to even get into the things you can do if you root the phone.
Bad – Doesn’t seem to have things like Do Not Disturb features or pre-written text replies but I’m still looking. I could be wrong. If not then I’m sure there are apps for that.

Good – Android apps really have come on in leaps and bounds in the last two years. In some cases they can be better than iOS apps it seems (Spotify I’m looking at you). Just smoother or more settings etc. Maybe there’s a technical reason for this. The apps just pop. So quick and smooth. Probably due to the quad-core Snapdragon processor. They never use to work so well on my previous Nexus S. All the main apps that you could name are all available on Android now of course and are all really well supported. Android is no longer just the immature wee brother of iOS. It’s all grown up and is fighting for the crown. And the Google Play store is awesome now. Way more intuitive than the latest version of the App Store in my opinion. Also, I am a pretty heavy Google user: Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Bookmarks, Google Reader. I use all these many times a day and Android obviously links in natively to these platforms and the apps all work seamlessly.
Bad – There are a few popular newer apps which are still iOS only (such as Vine) but there’s not too many and the number is coming down all the time.

gReader Pro
Google Drive
Google Calendar
Google Maps

And I need to give an honourable mention to all the retro gaming emulators out there. So much more choice on Android. Excellent ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, NES, SNES, Mega Drive and MAME emulators available.

All-in-all, pound for pound the best phone out there and the first iPhone beater in my opinion. Android finally done right.

This Gizmodo user review about the Nexus 4 helped me make my decision to get it and is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the phone.

My Thoughts on The Hobbit in High Frame Rate 48fps

I’m writing this having just finished watching The Hobbit HFR 3D and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. 48fps instead of the usual 24fps. I’d heard lots of negative comments about the high frame rate and so I was eager to see it for myself.

I have to say, my first reaction was the same as a lot of the comments I had heard. It looked cheap. It looked too real. It looked like a rehearsal or like watching a ‘making of’ documentary where it just looks normal and then you see the ‘afters’ where it looks like a film. This looked like the ‘befores’.

I remember Peter Jackson saying that it can be jarring when you first watch it but that you get used to it after about 8mins and after that you feel more immersed. All I know is that it totally pulled me out of the film initially. Possibly for the first hour. I was too aware. It looked in places like a low budget recreation about the Middle Ages. It looked like an old episode of Doctor Who.

The audio for some reason also didn’t sound great. I struggled to hear some actors. I was very aware of the score, or lack of score in some places. Perhaps this was due to the HFR pulling me out and just making me hyper aware of everything. And in film-making its about immersing the audiences and guiding their senses and emotions. But in HFR 3D it’s hard to hide anything. No more smoke and mirrors or distraction techniques. Everything is sharp and if it’s not spot on it looks fake.

But then a funny thing happened. I started to get more immersed in the second half of the film but I’m not quite sure why.

  • Perhaps I was more gripped by the story and that distracted me, as a good story should
  • Perhaps it was because there were a lot more visual effects in the second half of the film. They have more control over the lighting etc in the visual effects shots and therefore had a better chance of getting it right.
  • Maybe it was because there were more bits in slow motion. Ironic that but it makes sense that the slower motion bits looked more smooth, although its also a bit strange having slow motion without any motion blur. It’s like the actors were just acting slow, like on ‘Who’s Line Is It Anyway’ or something. But it looked good

One thing I certainly noticed was that the lighting was very important. The bits that were mostly CGI looked stunning in HFR. The bits that looked most jarring were when they filmed against what were obviously sets (particular in the night scenes, interestingly). The lighting somehow just made it look too real and fake, (funny how in the movie business ‘real and fake’ isn’t always a contradiction in terms). When done well it was akin to the difference between standard definition and well shot hi definition. Stunning. But by the same token, and in the same way the early HD often looked very fake, it means you have to be very careful in how you light, apply make up and move the camera. Obviously this will mean that many people will do it badly. Even Peter Jackson didn’t get it right in every scene. And if a badly lit or badly shot scene is so easy to pull you out of the movie then I’m not sure it is something that everyone should try. I certainly wouldn’t want to see a drama or rom-com in HFR. Keep it to the fantasy and sci-fi adventures please. Or even better, nature documentaries and IMAX specials.

Like 3D, HFR has its dos and its dont’s. 3D has become overused and when used with too many fast cuts, like in most action films, it needs to be really dialled back or else it is jarring on the brain as the stereoscopic parallax keeps changing. HFR when used badly can be jarring as things look too sharp and you are pulled out. But I don’t think you can dial back HFR like you can with 3D. A film is either HFR or it isn’t.

But the bottom line is that it is great technology and personally I take my hat off to Mr Jackson for giving it a go. I do think it has a future but it just has to be used carefully and film makers have to know they are doing. It won’t become standard. Perhaps it’s best used for things like fully CGI sequences or longer shots like in nature documentaries. It should not be automatically used for every film. Exactly the same guidelines that 3D should have.

Sometimes 24fps is better. It adds that right amount of motion blur to give it a dreamlike quality and yet still hold persistence of vision. I read that when frame rate drops below 40fps we subconsciously know its not real and this lets us suspend disbelief. This is why 48fps can pull us out more easily and make us more aware of it being actors on a set. I would love to see The Hobbit side by side in both frame rates to do a direct comparison.

Now the big question. Would I opt to watch the next Hobbit movie in HFR or 24fps? To be honest I’m not 100% sure but I think I’d probably give HFR another go. When it’s done right it’s breathtaking.

Oh and by the way, Martin Freeman is fantastic in it.

Image source -

Pros and Cons of Geotagging

[ˈdʒiːəʊ-tæg‐ɪŋ]- noun, verb

1. The addition of geographical location data to mixed media such as photos, video, tweets or social media status updates.
2. The last surrender of privacy by telling the whole world where you are and where you are not at any given time. Particularly loved by stalkers and robbers.

Before the days of mobile phones we were always struggling to tell people where we were or trying to arrange to meet up. This is now easy thanks to technology and mobile phones. It’s even now reached ridiculous levels thanks to geotagging, the act of adding location data to everything you do. As if it wasn’t enough telling everyone around the world via Facebook and Twitter what you are having for lunch you can now tell them where you are having it too.

  • Giving out live information of your whereabouts is like broadcasting to burglars that you’re not at home
  • You have to be careful about checking in to places if you have told little white lies to other people about not feeling well enough to go out
  • Unbeknownst to many people, geotagging info is automatically hidden inside photos taken with devices such as the iPhone camera
  • Sadly we all know that paeodophiles are very internet-savvy and geotagged photos of children can help them build up maps of children’s movements
  • Celebrities taking geotagged photos at home have unwittingly given away their home addresses

It’s not all bad news though. Far from it. The technology is great, but is just being misused and misunderstood by many people. Geotagging can be switched off or customised. Arguably it should be opt-in in the first place. Sites like are trying to raise awareness about inadvertent information sharing and helping educate people about how to gain control of their personal location info. On an iPhone it’s easy to switch geotagging off on the camera. You just need to know how to do it. And if you are aware of your location data and are using it wisely there are many advantages of geotagging.

  • Sharing locations with specific friends (such as with Path) to help meet up at concerts or festivals for example
  • Documenting holidays by having your holiday photos arranged by location or uploaded to Google Maps automatically
  • Aiding disaster recovery teams
  • Sophisticated augmented reality apps

One of the biggest ways in which geotagging is currently being pushed is for location based marketing. This started off with companies such as Starbucks offering free coffee to people who became Mayor of their coffee shop on FourSquare or Gowalla. Now you can get push notifications from high street stores when you check-in somewhere nearby. With the advent of Facebook Places, and all the personal data that Facebook stores about individuals, you can bet that soon you will be receiving more and more accurately targeted marketing notifications. If you list photography as your main hobby on Facebook then you will probably be told of camera offers whenever you are near a photography shop. And because they will have access to your trends over time it will help the adverts be more refined to your movements and habits and also provide ads over mixed media depending on your tastes.

I feel that the marketing aspect of geotagging is on the cusp of either becoming very efficient in terms of only giving us adverts we want to see, or becoming very annoying and bombarding us everywhere we go with personalised ads like in Minority Report. We shall see which way it goes.

Oh, and where did I write this blog? I’m not telling you.

[Via LEWIS 360]

iPad: first reaction

We were lucky enough to get our hands on an iPad in our London office today. And I can tell you it’s been hard to get our hands off it.  And yet some people are still saying it’s just a big iPhone. So what’s the fuss all about?

Is it just a big iPhone?
I don’t think so. For one thing you’re not able to make calls on it, and so you shouldn’t be. It’s not supposed to be a replacement for your phone. Replacement versions of things normally get smaller and more compact, not bigger. This is something else. It doesn’t replace anything.

So what is it?
The iPad is something new. It’s a portable viewer. It’s not going to replace your laptop and it’s not going to replace your TV. What it does do, however, is blur the lines between some of the functionality of both of those mainstay devices. You can do some laptop things on it. You can do some TV things on it. And you can do some book things on it too. And the key thing is that you can do these things whilst lounging back on the sofa. You can show your partner. You can pass it round your friends. It’s a portable, sociable, media viewer. It enhances the experience of things you already do and lets you do them in a different way and on one device.

Do we need that?
Maybe not, but how often do you have to call everyone round your laptop to show them something cool and they all complain about having to get up. Or your laptop rocks unsteadily on your knees on the sofa and when you pass it on to show your friend they have to sit upright in order to hold it correctly. And mice just don’t work on the sofa.

What can you do on it?
Here in the UK we can’t yet download apps from the AppStore. That comes later this month. But even the native apps on the iPad are gorgeous. Email. Calendar. Maps. Web. Notes. Mags. Video. Photos. The experience of using all of these apps is much better than using them on your iPhone or your laptop. I am particularly excited, however, about reading books, magazines and comics on it. That alone is 100 times better than a Kindle because it’s colour and has video. Other features it has are a pure bonus. Using StreetView together with a friend sitting next to you is just a joy and so intuitive.

What else could come in the future?
Board games, children’s learning apps, augmented reality apps. You name it.

Is it a game-changer?
Not really, because people don’t actually need it. It’s providing a great solution for a problem that wasn’t huge. But it’s pushing forward an area which definitely will be game-changing. It’s a kick-starter.

Is it essential?
No. It’s a luxury. But I still want one.

Don’t judge an eReader by its cover

When I ‘designed’ an eReader 14 years ago in my first year of Product Design Engineering at University it was part of a ‘blue sky products of the future’ project. I had no idea when something like that would actually become reality. Well, that time is now. The past 12 months have seen the launch of several products such as the Sony Reader, Barnes & Noble Nook and the industry-leading Amazon Kindle. The next 12 months is going to see an extensive range of new and improved eReaders, many of which were showcased at the recent CES.

New eReaders include the Que, the Edge, the Alex and the not-so-interestingly-named Asus DR-750.

This new range of eReaders will offer us a completely revolutionary reading experience.

  • colour screens
  • video
  • shatter proof screens
  • flexible screens
  • easily downloadable books, newspapers and magazines
  • interactive reading
  • sharing facilities
  • annotations
  • downloading attachments from smartphones
  • one-hand navigation
  • text-to-speech

What about Apple?
Good question. There have been rumours about the Apple Tablet or iSlate for about a year now and we should know what their plan is when they announce ‘something’ on Jan 27th. Many people are saying that the rumoured iSlate will be the killer eReader. I’m not so sure, as many people will just want a lightweight simple eReader to read their books on rather than a fully functional tablet computer. According to this latest Wall Street Journal article though, it looks like Apple is certainly going to be entering into the eBook battle as they have been in discussion with the publisher HarperCollins.

Pros and Cons of eReaders
Having so much information, books, magazines in the palm of your hand on one device will certainly save on storage costs, paper usage and travel weight. But what else? Will we all start carrying one of these devices in our bags everywhere we go? When you go to the dentist will they have a pile of eReaders for you to browse through? Will we swat flies with rolled up flexible eReaders? I think it will certainly change how newspapers and magazine deliver content. Already some eBook software apps like Blio and Copia are changing the way they present eBooks to utilise the functionality of these new eReaders. This will only continue until soon it will evolve naturally into something that we didn’t envisage. One area I am particularly excited about is the evolution of comic books and graphic novels as they make their way onto eReaders and tablets. This is set to become a huge market.

Will they replace books?
Personally, as a gadget lover, I am very excited about being able to have so many books and magazines on one device. I will, however, miss certain things about the physical objects they are trying to replace.

  • folding over a page that I like
  • bookmarks (yes that word actually used to mean something else before the web browser)
  • writing notes down the side of a page and then reading them years later
  • the smell of a new book (maybe they will synthesize that smell one day)
  • knowing at a glance who many pages you have left before the end of the chapter, or the satisfaction of seeing your progress as your bookmark is more than half way through the book
  • the collection of attractive spines growing along your bookshelf and showing them off when your friends come round and browse your library
  • being able to pick up and look at books in a book shop
  • browsing racks of magazines

And how will students make up mood boards for university projects now if they can’t cut up magazines? To be honest they will probably do eMoodboards using new smart screens in college or something like that. The reality is that I don’t think that eReaders will fully replace these forms of media. They are offering a slightly different experience and there will always be a need for physical books.

So what next?
This fantastic video below, which has been doing the rounds for a few weeks, highlights Bonnier’s concept for a possible future of digital magazines.

eReaders are no longer trying to reproduce books or magazines. They are becoming something new all of their own.

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

3DTV in your face

You can’t get away from it. 2010 has been billed as being the year of 3D. This certainly seems to continue to be the case at the CES show in Las Vegas this week with lots of blog posts about 3DTV already popping up. Obviously there have been many more 3D films in the cinema recently, in particular the major blockbuster Avatar, and consumers are eager to get this technology into their living room.

But what exactly are we talking about when we say 3D? It’s not to be confused with computer generated models such as in the original Toy Story animation. These are often referred to as 3D models or CGI, but when you view them on a screen you still see a flat image, because it’s a flat screen. Both of your eyes are seeing the same image and therefore there is no difference in depth. What we are talking about now is officially known as Stereoscopic 3D.

Stereoscopics, or Stereo 3D, has been around for many many years, starting with people creating stereo 3D photographs taken with two cameras a few inches apart and then placing the photos in a special viewer box like binoculars which forces each eye to look at it’s respective photo. The brain does the rest. Things have moved on from there though and we now have about 4 main viewing styles. A quick synopsis…

Anaglyph glasses (red and blue)
This is what many people still think of when they think of 3D video. Not really very impressive and a bit cheap. Channel 4 in the UK got people excited when they announced a 3D week on their channel recently, only for people to then discover it was just going to be with those annoying red/blue images again. This technology has been around for a while and was very popular in the 50s and 60s. Cheap glasses but you lose a lot of the colour information of the image. This is only used on current monitors as it is the only method most of them can handle.

Polarised glasses (passive viewing)
This is what you get when you go to the cinema these days. Two projectors project an image each onto the screen but the light from each is polarised in a different way. The glasses are lightweight and inexpensive. Each lens blocks out one of the polarised lightwaves and therefore each eye gets the correct image. One slight drawback with this method is that the image is in essence ‘interlaced’ which means that each eye only gets half the number of lines in the image. HD will not be ‘full’ HD therefore. The quality difference, however, is negligible.

Shutter glasses (active viewing)
This method has no quality loss at all. Each eye’s full res image is played alternately at very quick succession. The glasses, however, are bulkier and more expensive as they need to synchronise with the projector/monitor so that it blocks off each eye at the same rate as the images are being displayed. This method can be used with current monitors that have a high enough refresh rate of 120hz (only a small number of expensive computer monitors). A synch unit is also required to make them work.

No glasses (autostereoscopic / lenticular)
This is the latest breakthrough technology and there are already a few models available which use tiny lenses on the monitor itself to split the image before it hits your eyes. It’s very complicated to make and in terms of viewing it’s great not having to wear glasses but you do have to be in a sweet spot to view it correctly and not move too much. This is definitely the future though and as the technology improves and the price comes down I think we’ll see these models become mainstream within 5 years.

  • I have used anaglyph since I was a young child and never really been that impressed with it
  • I made stereo 3D videos and computer game levels with the shutter glasses at University about 9 years ago and while it was good quality I still found the glasses gave me headaches. There was also often hardware issues with the glasses not synching up correctly
  • I recently went to Inition in London and received a demo of the Autostereoscopic lenticular method which I had never seen before. It is a very strange sensation to see 3D images without wearing glasses
  • The polarised glasses are great and don’t induce nausea. For me these are the winners right now

So how do I view 3D?
If you have a great computer monitor and are happy installing new software and drivers then you can use something like Nvidia’s GeForce 3D Stereo kit. Otherwise, and if you want to view it in the luxury of your living room the bottom line is that you will have to buy a new TV.

A new TV?
Yes. I’m afraid so. You probably just bought a new HDTV too didn’t you? The good news is that after CES there should be a larger number of manufacturers bringing out 3DTVs so hopefully a price war might begin. Further good news is that existing set top boxes (such as the Sky+HD box) will be able to handle the 3D signal. Playstation3s will also be able to show them after downloading a firmware update. TV manufacturers are, however, split over which technology to go with. Some are launching shutter glasses systems while others favour the polarised glasses. The good news is that content which is produced in 3D will be compatible with all the hardware.

But is there any content to watch?
Not a huge amount yet but there has been some great news recently about organisations working on new content. Sky in Europe will be launching a 3D channel this year, primarily filming live events in 3D such as sport and concerts. ESPN has followed suit by announcing their 3D plans. The big news at CES yesterday was that IMAX will be linking up with Sony and Discovery to produce 3D content later this year.

Will everything be produced in 3D?
This is debatable. My recent review of Avatar highlighted how action movies maybe aren’t the best exponents of the 3D technique. The fast cuts and changes in camera angles don’t go well with 3D as the brain can struggle to keep working out the new depths on screen. Better content is things like sport, live events and science documentaries. This also seems to be the way things are going with the recent Sky, ESPN and IMAX/Discovery announcements.

Will it become mainstream?
Everywhere we look just now we are seeing 3D. YouTube has also just recently launched a 3D element to its videos. As I said above I don’t think every form of video is suited to 3D. Others are perfectly suited. As directors and producers gain more experience in what shooting styles work, we should see a better and more focussed range of content.

What will be the killer use?
For me the killer app will be games. When you interact with a 3D image it makes it much more ‘believeable’ as your brain almost moves with it. It works. You control it as it moves and you feel a part of it. You also control the speed of the movement which is crucial. This will also link in with the recent swathe of Augmented Reality apps we are seeing and incredible games such as EyePet.

What’s next?
Viewing without glasses is the next big thing for 3DTVs but in terms of the user experience watch out for head-tracking and haptic interfaces. They let you move round an object and get a new perspective on it as well as touching it with force feedback. Industry and Medicine will lead the way with this but it’s only a matter of time until we see that in our living rooms too.