Posted tagged ‘app’

Good gear

14 June 2016

I was in the market for a new smartphone recently, so I took up Samsung’s offer of a free Gear VR headset with a purchase of the new S7.

As readers of Paper cuts will know, I’ve been toying with virtual reality via the Google Cardboard headset. Now I had the opportunity to compare my experience with another headset one step higher up in the food chain.

Here I share with you my observations…

Gear VR

Headset

There’s no doubt about it, Cardboard’s ace in the pack is its price. For about $20 you obtain your very own portal into virtual reality.

Having said that, the Gear VR is only around $150, which I find surprisingly cheap and dare I suggest affordable. Whether it’s worth the greater investment will depend on your needs, but the following advantages that it holds over Cardboard may influence your opinion:

  • The Gear VR headset is sturdier than its Cardboard counterpart, provides a snugger fit, and is more comfortable to wear.

  • My S7 snaps perfectly into place on the Gear VR, whereas it sometimes goes a little off-kilter in the Cardboard.

  • Gear VR’s tracking wheel allows me to focus my lenses, whereas Cardboard’s one-size-fits-all approach can result in blurry vision.

  • Gear VR’s sensor responds to a simple tap of the finger, whereas the push button on Cardboard feels clunky.

Gear VR’s sensor also has scrolling functionality, but I find this tricky to use. I never seem to put my finger in the right spot, and I find the act of scrolling imprecise. I suggest an Xbox-like control stick (or perhaps a ball) would be a superior mechanism for both scrolling and selecting.

Screen shot of The Night Cafe

Apps

To use Cardboard, you need the Cardboard app. To use Gear VR, you need the Oculus app.

Third-party apps are searchable in Google Play, but as I mentioned in Paper cuts the results can not be filtered out by Cardboard compatibility. In contrast, the Oculus app has its own store that I can access via the headset, and while all the apps I see are compatible with Gear VR, there’s no search facility. That means I must scroll through the apps, which is tedious to say the least.

Then I worked out I can access the Oculus Store on my phone via the app without using the headset, which affords a much better user experience – complete with search facility.

As for the Oculus apps, I’ve found their quality to be a notch above the Cardboard offerings. So far I’ve tried Smash Hit VR, The Body VR, Speech Center, and The Night Cafe – all are excellent.

While some of the apps that I know via Cardboard – such as Vrse and Inmind – are also available via Oculus, not all are. I wonder if one day VR apps will be standardised so they work across all the major platforms. A pipe dream… I know.

360° photos

In Paper cuts I reported a drop-out problem when taking VR photos with my S4. I’m glad to say this is no longer an issue on my S7.

I must point out that VR photos taken via Cardboard Camera are not 360° photos; they are simply panoramic shots that are stitched together at their ends. While these are impressive, the black spots above and below the photo fall short of the definition of “virtual reality”.

Again in Paper cuts I expressed my surprise at the absence of multi-directional photo-stitching as per Photosynth, and it appears the boffins at Samsung read my blog. The S7 has a “surround shot” mode that enables you to take multiple photos in all directions, which are then stitched together to produce a true 360° photo. Mind you, this mode is not available on the phone by default – you must download it!

Here’s my effort with a surround shot at a wharf on Sydney Harbour. As you can see, the stitching is by no means perfect. I think the differences between the light and shade caused problems, not to mention the skills of the operator. However I’m pleased to report that adding my photo to Google Maps via Street View worked perfectly and immediately. The app still doesn’t say something to the effect of “Thank you for publishing your photo”, but I’ve grown to expect this kind of UX from Google.

I’m pleased to report that Flickr also recognises my photo as a photo sphere and automatically enables user manipulation, though I found it unreliable in Edge so try Chrome instead. Flickr also provides embed code that you can insert into your website – with user manipulation similarly enabled.

A photo sphere of Kirribilli Wharf taken in Surround Shot mode on the Samsung S7

Back to Cardboard Camera, its VR photos can be viewed via the Cardboard headset – as you would expect. However a problem arises when you try to import a photo (such as a panorama) that wasn’t taken by Cardboard Camera. No matter whether I change the file name to PANO_date_x.jpg or run it through the Photosphere XMP Tagger, as user forums suggest, I’m invariably confronted by “This is not a VR photo”.

In contrast, all you need to do with Gear VR is create a subfolder called “360Photos” in the Oculus folder on your phone – though why it’s not already there is a another head scratcher – then transfer your photo into it. When you choose to see all photos in the Oculus app, you can go to “My Photos” and select yours. In fact, your photo need not be a true 360° photo; the app will stretch it into place (with mixed results).

A gripe I have with Oculus’s 360° viewing functionality, though, is that the slideshow mode is on by default. Just as you’re immersing yourself into the glorious coastline of Budva, you’re teleported somewhere else. Uber annoying!!

360° videos

Whereas Gear VR has the wood over Cardboard in relation to 360° photos, I maintain the reverse is true in relation to 360° videos.

On YouTube, all you need to do is click the little goggles icon in a 360° video to render it Cardboard compatible. It would be marvellous if we could similarly click a little oval icon to render it Gear VR compatible, but there I go again with another pipe dream…

A workaround for Gear VR is to use the Samsung Internet app to get to YouTube, play a video, toggle full screen, then change the mode to 360. Yet while this works, it’s inelegant.

A man wearing a Gear VR headset

Implications for business

Whether you intend on using virtual reality for e-learning, digital marketing, or some other business-related activity, I suggest Gear VR and Cardboard both have pro’s and cons.

In my opinion, Gear VR provides the better overall experience and looks more professional to boot. It’s handling of 360° photos is superior to Cardboard’s, and the S7’s compatibility with Flickr is useful for presenting them to the public. However, while $150 per headset is arguably affordable for an individual, you might think twice before buying 100 of them for your sales force.

Furthermore, Cardboard retains the upper hand with 360° videos. While Gear VR has a work around, it’s not really workable in a business setting. Until Oculus gets up to speed with third-party video, it might be worth having a Cardboard or two handy.

The joy of UX

8 September 2015

One of the funniest tweets I have ever seen was brought to my attention by Vala Afshar…

Seeing this little animation was one of those serendipitous moments, as I had that very day experienced something eerily similar.

I’ve written previously about how I’ve been toying around with the augmented reality app Aurasma. In A way with the fairies I described how I used this app to replicate Disney’s fairy trail in my local botanic garden.

Impressed with what the app can do, I turned my attention to using it in the workplace. I decided to start small by using it to promote a new online course that my team was launching. I took a screenshot of the main characters in the course’s scenario and provided 3-step instructions for the target audience outlining how to: (1) Install the app onto their mobile device; (2) Visit the relevant URL in their browser; and (3) Point their device at the picture. When they did so, the names of the characters would magically appear above their heads.

This wasn’t just a gimmick; it was a proof of concept. By starting small, I wanted to test it cheaply and fail quickly. And fail I did.

Deflated sports mascot

When I asked several of my tech-savvy colleagues to test it, every one of them reported back saying it didn’t work. Huh? It worked for me! So what could be the problem?

After much tinkering and re-testing in vain, I decided to ask a friend of mine to test it. Bang, it worked for her first go. As it turns out, my colleagues simply weren’t following the second instruction to go to the URL. In their excitement to scan the image, they did so immediately after installing the app – but of course without the link, the app had nothing to connect the image to my augmentation. So when I pointed out their skipping of Step 2 and they re-tried it, voila it worked.

Despite this rough start, another colleague of mine cottoned on to my trial and was keen to use the idea to jazz up a desk-drop he was creating. Upon scanning the trigger image, he wanted a video to play. Aurasma can indeed do this, but I was trepidatious because my experiment had failed with tech-savvy colleagues – let alone regular folks. But I decided to look on the bright side and consider this an opportunity to expand my sample size.

Learning from my mistakes, I re-worded the 3-step instructions to make them clearer, and this time I asked a colleague to test it in front of me. But again we ran into trouble. This fellow did follow Step 2, but when the URL opened the app, it immediately required him to scroll through a tutorial. Then it asked him to sign up. Argh… these steps were confusing… and I was oblivious to it because I had installed Aurasma ages ago and had long since done the tutorial and signed up.

But that wasn’t all. After I grandfathered my colleague to Step 3, he held out his smartphone and pointed it at the image like a lightsaber. WTF? He read the instruction to “point” his device literally.

Another lesson learned.

Facepalm

Steve Jobs famously obsessed over making his products insanely simple. Apple goodies don’t come with a user manual because they don’t need them.

My experience is certainly a testament to that philosophy.

Three steps were evidently too many for my target audience to handle. The first step appeared simple enough: millions of people go to the App Store or Google Play to install millions of apps. And indeed, no one in my test balked at that. (Although convincing IT to tolerate a 3rd-party app would have been my next challenge.)

Similarly, the third step was easy enough when re-worded to point your device’s camera at the image.

The second step was the logjam. Not only is it unintuitive to open your browser after you have just installed a new app, but dutifully following this instruction mires you into yet more complexity. Sure, there is an alternative: search for the specific channel within the Aurasma app and then follow it – but that too is problematic as the user has to click a tab to filter the channel-specific results, which is academic anyway if you don’t want the channel to be public.

I understand why Aurasma links images to augmentations via specific channels. Imagine how the public would augment certain corporate logos, for example; those corporations wouldn’t want anything derogatory propagated across the general Aurasmasphere. Yet they hold the rights over their IP, so I would’ve thought that cutting off Joe Public’s inappropriate augmentation would be a matter of sending a simple email request to the Aurasma folks. Not to mention it would be in the corporation’s best interest to augment its own logo.

Anyway, that’s all a bit over my head. All I know is that requiring the user to follow a particular channel complicates the UX.

So that has caused me to wind down my plans for augmented domination. I am still thinking of using Aurasma: we might use it in our corporate museum to bring our old photos and artefacts to life. But if we go down this road, I’ll recommend that we provide a loan device with everything already set-up on it and ready to go – like MONA does.

In the meantime, I’ll investigate other AR apps.

A way with the fairies

20 April 2015

One of the greatest hoaxes to be perpetrated last century was that of the Cottingley Fairies.

In 1917, 9-year-old Frances Griffiths and her 16-year-old cousin, Elsie Wright, borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera to take a photograph of the fairies they claimed lived down by the creek. Sure enough, when he developed the plate, Elsie’s father saw several fairies frolicking in front of Frances’s face.

The first of the five photographs, taken by Elsie Wright in 1917, shows Frances Griffiths with the alleged fairies.

A couple of months later the girls took another photograph, this time showing Elsie playing with a gnome. While her father immediately suspected a prank, her mother wasn’t so sure and she took the photos to a local spiritualist meet-up. From there the photos, and three others taken subsequently by the girls, eventually hit the press and became a worldwide sensation.

Although the photos were quite real, the fairies of course were fake. In 1983, the cousins (by now old ladies) finally confessed they were cardboard cut-outs.

Not everyone – it must be said – had been fooled. In fact, most probably weren’t. However one who took the bait hook, line and sinker was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose involvement helped catapult the photographs to public attention in the first place.

It must also be said that as a devout spiritualist, Sir Arthur wanted to believe.

Disney Fairies Trail screenshot of Tinker Bell flying in front of a garden bed.

I was reminded of the Cottingley affair when I stumbled upon the Disney Fairies Trail app.

Developed in association with the Botanic Gardens Trust, the app promised to bring to life Tinker Bell and her flighty friends using our beautiful public spaces as the back drop.

Despite not being a member of the app’s target audience, I am an augmented reality advocate, so I downloaded the app and installed it on my iPad.

Its instructions were simple:

  • Choose a botanic garden.
  • Start the trail.
  • Use the map to help find all the fairy locations.
  • Your device will vibrate when there is a fairy nearby.
  • Use your device to find the fairy.
  • Tap the fairy to reveal their [sic] secrets.

I wanted to believe, so I hotfooted my way to the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney to give it a go. Unfortunately the experience was less than optimal.

Disney Fairies Trail map

From the get-go, the map was so high level it was effectively useless.

After wandering semi-randomly around the park, I stumbled upon a tiny sign with an arrow promising that fairies live over there. Yet after crisscrossing my way all over the vicinity, my device never vibrated.

So I moved on. After a while I stumbled upon another tiny sign promising that the fairy trail continued this way, but after a short distance the path split out into multiple alternatives, none of which were sign posted.

After some more rambling, I finally stumbled upon a nice big sign declaring that fairies live here. Alas, still no vibrating – but I had a thought… perhaps the app doesn’t like my iPad? So I whipped out my Android smartphone and downloaded the app to it. It wouldn’t be as fun on the smaller screen, but I was determined to see a friggin fairy.

But it didn’t work on my smartphone either.

Deflated sports mascot

I should have read the customer reviews on the App Store before going to so much trouble. I clearly wasn’t the only one who had trouble with the app. And this bewilders me.

Unfortunately it was no surprise in retrospect when the real-life aspect of the experience didn’t work. To put my opinion into context, the Botanic Gardens Trust is the organisation that allows hordes of boot campers to bully tourists and locals alike off the park’s footpaths; and whose own staff choose the peak CBD lunch hour to drive their trucks and trailers along said paths.

But Disney! How could Disney fail to bring Tinker Bell & Co to life? The makers of masterpieces such as Toy Story and The Lion King evidently couldn’t engineer a dinky little augmented reality app that would work on my device of choice – or even on my device of second choice.

It just goes to show, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. So I did.

Green fairy

I discovered the Aurasma app a while ago, and I’ve been toying around with it to get a sense of how it works.

The app allows you to upload an image or a video, which appears or plays when you scan a real-world trigger with your device’s camera, hence augmenting reality.

I haven’t yet encountered a burning need to use it for an educational purpose at my workplace, but when I had trouble with the Fairies Trail app, I decided to see if I could replicate the intended experience.

So I downloaded Green Fairy 3 by TexelGirl, uploaded her to Aurasma, and associated her with a rose in the garden. When I scanned my iPad’s camera over the rose… Voila! She appeared.

Green fairy appearing in the garden

As you can see via my screenshot, Aurasma supports the binary transparency of PNG files; with the background of the fairy image invisible, the real background shines through. The app also supports the partial transparency of PNG files; if I were to make the fairy 50% transparent, the real background would be partially visible through her.

My fairy was a static image, so she wasn’t moving. While Aurasma doesn’t seem to support animated gifs, it does support video. However there appears to be a conspicuous problem. My understanding is that MP4 format does not support transparency, and while FLV does, it won’t run on the iPad. I tweeted the Aurasma folks asking them to clarify this, but they are yet to respond.

Nevertheless, I discovered a work-around which is to duplicate the real background in the background of your video clip. That way when the video launches, it appears that its background is the real background. (I suspect this is how Dewars brought Robert Burns to life.)

Of course, this means the experience is no longer augmented reality, but rather an illusion of it. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a hoax. Fauxmented reality, perhaps?

Which won’t be a problem, if we want to believe.

When augmented reality isn’t

29 August 2011

I’m a big fan of the Powerhouse Museum.

In a world in which everyone loves to bang on about emerging technology, relatively few ever do anything about it. The PhM, however, has the guts to give it a go.

So I was excited to stumble upon their Augmented Reality browsing of Powerhouse Museum around Sydney app for Apple and Android.

Website of Augmented Reality browsing of Powerhouse Museum around Sydney

I love history, I love augmented reality, and I own an iPhone – so a combination of all three proved irresistible.

Unfortunately, though, I was a little bit disappointed.

Here’s why…

1. The title is meh

Exciting initiatives should have a catchy yet self-evident title to attract users like bears to a honey pot. However, Augmented Reality browsing of Powerhouse Museum around Sydney is boring and clunky.

I’d prefer something like Pocket Time Machine: An augmented reality tour of Old Sydney. A bit cheesy, I know, but a lot more interesting.

2. The app focuses on south CBD and the inner west

As the first European settlement on the continent – with a rich indigenous history – Sydney is teeming with sites of historical significance. However the app conspicuously misses the most obvious ones (eg Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House and the AMP Building).

Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction

Of course you have to start somewhere and the PhM website does promise a new version, but it refers to contemporary photography and gamification. I’d rather they expand their range into The Rocks and Circular Quay.

3. The app barely augments reality

Since the app is built on the Layar platform, it connects to Google Maps. Select the “i” icon at the relevant location and a photo pops up from the museum’s collection showing you what it looked like 100 years ago. This functionality is excellent, and frankly it could stand alone.

Screenshots of Augmented Reality browsing of Powerhouse Museum around Sydney

The augmented reality component comprises those floating “i” icons, which you’re supposed to select as you hold your device in front of you. Plainly speaking, they’re annoying:King Street on Augmented Reality browsing of Powerhouse Museum around Sydney

There are too many of them – which is confusing;

They are difficult to select – which is frustrating; and,

They have a tendency to get in the way – which defeats the purpose!

In short, the augmented reality component is redundant.

All is not lost

Of course, there is an alternative to abandoning augmented reality.

I suggest PhM follows the lead of the Museum of London and leverages the technology more fully. How? By laying the old photos over the real background.

Screenshot of Streetmuseum

This is what edtech is all about: transforming the educational experience.

Put a map on a smartphone? A crumpled tourist map is just as good; Plug in some photos? Nice touch, but those can be printed too; Lay century-old photos over the modern world in real time? Now that’s novel.

Even better, why not complement the visual with narration to provide a richer multimedia experience?

Who dares wins

As you would have gathered earlier, it is not my intention to pick on PhM. On the contrary, I salute them for having a red-hot go at something new.

Having taken the first step, they have earned the right to sit back and evaluate their app, with a view to making it even better the next time around.