Posted tagged ‘apps’

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.

Paper cuts

1 March 2016

I’m late to the party, but finally I’ve gotten my hands onto Google Cardboard.

I’ve been tinkering with it and, in the spirit of Virtual Reality Working Out Loud Week, I’ve decided to share with you what I’ve learned so far.

I’ll also share my problems – and there are plenty of them – so if you can solve any for me I’d be grateful!

An assembled Google Cardboard VR mount

The device

The ROI for Google Cardboard is through the roof. For about $20, you gain access to a world of wonder.

While high-end virtual reality hardware is available – and more will become available this year – the folded paper option is the perfect gateway for exploring this emerging technology.

InMind VR screenshot

Apps

Some brilliant Cardboard apps are available at Google Play.

Vrse showcases the 360° nature of VR, while Inmind VR is a somewhat childish game that nonetheless demonstrates the order of magnitude that immersive 3D animation offers over 2D. I foresee biotech companies leading the way on this.

Evidently, though, VR apps are still very much in their infancy. While a sizeable number are currently available, they are accompanied by reams of poor reviews. Many are free, but an astronomy app I tried stopped part way and wanted me to buy the premium version to continue.

I also found it tricky to identify the apps that were compatible with Cardboard. Most that are have the little goggles icon integrated into their artwork, but it would be preferable if the Play Store simply let us filter the results.

MythBusters: Sharks Everywhere! screenshot

360° videos

These are great! A couple of my favourites are Red Bull F1 360° Experience and MythBusters: Sharks Everywhere!

On your PC, you can use the navigation arrows or your mouse to shift your point of view; on your smartphone, you can physically move your device; and if you watch it through Google Cardboard, you get the full immersive experience.

Strangely, 360° videos don’t work on my iPad. I either get the Cardboard-oriented double vision, or else the regular pov stuck in one direction.

I also find the videos a little blurry. This may have something to do with the age of my S4, but I recently read that Facebook is getting serious about resolution.

The good news is you can record your own 360° videos using special cameras that are reasonably priced IMHO. A virtual tour, perhaps?

Panoramic phot of an Italian piazza

360° photos

These are just like 360° videos, but they’re static. Don’t let that put you off – they’re surprisingly immersive.

Google calls them “photo spheres” and they remind me of Microsoft’s Photosynth. Whereas Photosynth stitched together discrete photos, you record your photo sphere in a continuous circular motion.

Here’s my effort from a friend’s rooftop. (Note: This link is not supported in the mobile web version of Google Maps. Oh the irony.)

All you need to record your own photo sphere is the Cardboard Camera app. Having said that, I found it highly temperamental. The app is not very forgiving of human shaking, so a tripod would be helpful. It also drops out frustratingly easily. Clearing the app’s cache and my phone’s RAM appears to help, as does keeping a super-tight turning circle and moving painfully slowly.

Any kind of movement in the scene is a no-no; I tried it at Circular Quay and had no chance. Again, this could be due to the age of my phone, but still I’m surprised there is no photo-stitching option as per Photosynth.

Yet I struck more problems. My photo sphere works perfectly within my Cardboard Camera app; I wear my papery goggles and it’s like I really am surveying Sydney Harbour. Alas, that’s where it stayed.

I tried to upload my photo sphere to SphereShare (not a Google site) but it doesn’t play nice with IE11. Even in Chrome I received the following error: Please provide valid Photo Sphere JPEG image. Umm…?

Then I found out Google had a site called Views, but not any more. It appears they now want photo spheres uploaded to Google Street View. There’s an app for that, but I couldn’t open it – and I’m not the only one. (It appears I need Android 5. My phone only goes up to 4.4.2.)

Google has a slick Street View website, complete with PUBLISH subsite, which inexplicably fails to explain how to publish photo spheres. Thankfully I stumbled on this article by Phil Nickinson and learned that instead of starting at the map and uploading your photo sphere, you start at the photo sphere in your phone’s image gallery and share it to Maps. Then nothing happens, which is disconcerting, but Phil warns that Google must approve your photo sphere which takes about a day or so. It would have been nice for Google to have explained that. A week later, I’m still waiting.

However a more pressing problem was that my photo sphere was rendering in Maps as a photo. This I could not understand, given the file was being transferred from one Google application to another Google application via Google’s operating system. I even tried uploading it via PC, but again it rendered as a regular photo. I posted this conundrum to Reddit’s Google Cardboard subreddit and to one of LinkedIn’s virtual reality discussion groups, both in vain.

Thankfully I stumbled upon this discussion thread in the Google Photos Forum about a different problem, for which Russ Buchmann refers to the Photosphere XMP Tagger app (not a Google app). Hurrah! After using this app to tag my file, it rendered in Maps as a photo sphere.

A final tip: Populate your tagged file’s property details (eg title) in Windows Explorer prior to uploading it to Maps.

Google Cardboard icon

Milestones and millstones

My VR learning journey thus far may be described as joy punctuated by disappointment.

I applaud Google for giving Average Joe the gift of virtual reality – not only to consume, but also to produce.

Yet I am astonished by the lack of interoperability between Google’s own platforms, our reliance on third party products to perform seemingly simple tasks, and the tech giant’s customer uncentricity.

No doubt the boffins at Mountain View know exactly what they’re doing… but how about the rest of us?

They’d probably tell us to Google it.

Out of the shadows

24 February 2014

“What apps do you recommend?”

With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets in the workplace, this is a question I am being asked with increasing frequency.

And I don’t really like answering it. I mean, I have my faves, but they are my faves. What I find useful might prove useless for you. It all depends on the nature of your role and what you are endeavouring to do with your device.

So to better inform my answer to this question, I am crowdsourcing a list of favorite business apps. I can now point to a dynamically curated selection of apps that a range of other people find useful. The weight of numbers lends credibility to my recommendations.

Businessman with information and resources streaming out of his smartphone

While it’s early days yet, I’m not surprised to see Evernote streaking ahead. In just about every conversation I have with my peers about apps, the peppermint pachyderm rates a mention. It seems everyone is talking about the elephant in the room!

However, I am surprised by the listing currently in second place: Dropbox. I’m not surprised by the fact it’s listed as a favourite app – Dropbox is excellent! – but rather that it’s listed as a favourite business app.

You see, while Dropbox offers wonderful affordances in terms of cloud-based storage and retrieval, it’s (apparently?) not very secure. Despite its Help Center’s claim to the contrary, the internet is littered with warnings such as this one and IT departments tend to frown upon its use.

Nonetheless, people use it. A lot. For business.

I see this as a sign of the times. Employees are circumventing their company’s restrictive and frustrating IT policies with their own technology.

Now I must stress that I am neither an IT manager nor a security expert. I am not arguing one way or the other on whether this is right or wrong. What I am saying is that this is happening. Shadow IT is casting itself over the corporate landscape.

Consider the implications for the e-learning professional:

  • Your employees expect to access information and resources on their own device – whatever make, model or operating system it may be.
  • Your employees are watching YouTube videos and engaging in social media, even if those sites are blocked by the company.
  • Your employees are participating in MOOCs, even if you disagree with their pedagogy.
  • Your employees are playing games when they get bored or they need a break.
  • Your employees are familiar with apps and they are using them.

The list goes on… You can try to suppress it – or embrace it.

Isn’t it time for your organisation’s e-learning to come out of the shadows?

The 3 mindsets of m-learning

28 January 2014

One of my most popular posts of last year was M-Learning’s dirty little secrets.

By “popular” I mean quantitatively: it attracted a relatively large number of hits and comments. Qualitatively, however, the situation was somewhat different: while many of the comments were concordant, others were not. For the record, I don’t believe those discordant comments were wrong – they just represented different points of view in different contexts.

Nonetheless, while I stand by what I wrote back then, there was always something niggling at the back of my mind. I felt that I had missed something. Those discordant comments prompted me to think about it deeper, and I’m glad they did because now I feel I can improve my position.

Businessman pointing towards viewer

Mindset #1 – Push

Given the increasingly mobile workforce and the emergence of BYOD, increasing pressure is being placed on the organisation to distribute its content to multiple devices. In corporate e-learning, the most obvious example of such content is the online modules that the company distributes via its Learning Management System.

In M-Learning’s dirty little secrets I advocated the creation of “one course to rule them all”. I argued that if you must push out training, forget about smartphones. No one wants to use them for that, so they are an unnecessary complication.

Instead, concentrate your efforts on the one course that will fit onto desktops and laptops and tablets – ie what your target audience will use to consume it. If you base it on HTML so it will run across operating systems, you can make the course device agnostic.

Responsive web design may render my argument moot – but only when rapid authoring tools adopt the protocol, enabling Average Joe to implement it.

IT technician with network equipment and cables

Mindset #2 – Pull

Having said that, in M-Learning’s dirty little secrets I also advocated pull learning.

Instead of pushing out yet another course, I’m more inclined to host content on a mobile-friendly platform like an intranet or a wiki that the learner can access, browse and search via their device of choice – including a smartphone.

This approach empowers the learner to pull the content at their discretion, wherever they are, at the time of need. It replaces the notion of training “in case” it will be required with performance support “when” it is required.

For many, this is the essence of m-learning: on demand, in the moment, in context, just in time, in the workflow.

And yet, while this deceptively simple mindset represents a tectonic shift in corporate pedagogy, it does not on its own fulfil the potential of m-learning. For that, we need a third mindset…

Augmented reality layers over buildings in the background

Mindset #3 – Experience

Experiential m-learning leverages the environment in which the learner exists.

This approach need not be hi-tech. For example, a tourist following the walking tour in a Lonely Planet is undertaking experiential m-learning. The book points out the specifics of the environment, and the tourist subsequently experiences them.

Of course, electronic technology facilitates experiential m-learning like never before. Handheld devices combined with the Internet, geolocation, and the likes of augmented reality make the learning experience engaging, timely and real.

It’s also important to note that this mindset applies to both push and pull learning. For example, an LMS-based architecture course may step the learner along a particular route through the city. Alternatively, an interactive map may empower the learner to select the points of interest at their discretion and convenience.

Which leads me to one of the commenters who took umbrage at M-Learning’s dirty little secrets. This fellow was developing a smartphone app for his students enrolled in a Diploma of Community Services. While I suspect his polemic stemmed from a misinterpretation of my argument (which no doubt related to my inability to articulate it sufficiently), he did indeed cause me to ask myself:

Why can’t an app push training on a smartphone?

And the answer, of course, is it can. But then I would add:

Why would you want to?

Given the speed and cost effectiveness of producing online courses in-house these days, combined with the availability of content repositories in most organisations, I would be inclined to save the time and expense of building an app – unless it exploited the mobility of the device.

So part of my lengthy response to this fellow was:

…I would suggest that the app enables the student to interact with the content *in the field*. Perhaps it encourages them to walk around the Cross (to be Sydney-centric, but you know what I mean) and prompts the student to describe their surroundings. If the app then simulates an interaction with a homeless person or with someone who is drug-affected, then it’s done in the context of the work and thus becomes infinitely more meaningful. And if the student could select the scenarios at their discretion rather than have to wade through them in a pre-defined linear manner, then that hands over to them some of the control that you want them to have.

In other words, I would bother with an app only if it offered something that “regular” push or pull content doesn’t. And that something is an authentic experience.

It is this mindset which urges us to realise the full potential of m-learning.

Would you like an education with that?

4 December 2013

Last night I attended the official launch of the Tiny Shops Burgers app by Sydney-based startup, hawt.

The app is an educational game in which you are the manager of a busy little burger shop. The customers line up and place their orders – say, a burger, small fries and a drink – while you ring up their bill on the cash register, accept their payment and return their change.

If you keep the customers waiting too long, over-charge them or short-change them, they’ll become unhappy and you’ll lose them.

Screenshots from Tiny Shops Burgers

The time sensitivity of the game reminds me of Diner Dash in that it demands increasingly proficient priority management and faster performance as you work your way up the levels.

Beyond pure speed however, Tiny Shops Burgers also demands accuracy. Your success in the game is dependent on your getting the mathematics right, which must be done mentally (Heaven forbid!) while under pressure.

More screenshots from Tiny Shops Burgers

I recommend Tiny Shops Burgers because it gamifies a subject that plenty of school children dread. Not only can it develop their arithmetic skills, but also their financial literacy, awareness of foreign currencies, and (arguably) an appreciation of customer service.

But does it work?

I’ll answer that with a quote from a Year 5 student from Hurstville South Public School:

“I don’t like maths but I love this game!”