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PlayStation Vita Impressions – Interface

A number of years ago, Sony introduced an at-the-time revolutionary new interface. It was the XrossMediaBar (XMB) and its stated intention was to navigate a breadth of devices cohesively while supporting a wide variety of inputs. Touch, for example, was something the XMB was supposed to do down the road. PS3s, PSPs and Bravia TVs have all come and gone with this interface and it’s come to be a sort of Sony hallmark in vastly different sectors of consumer electronics. I like it.

Fast forward to today and we have the PS Vita and it’s ‘LiveArea’. I’ll say right now that I can’t stand it. It looks too childlike, is far too clunky to use and abandons too much of what Sony’s built in the past. I’m not sure what, if any, device this interface really suits but it’s certainly not a gaming handheld aimed at the hardcore. In fact, from the pull-down-to-unlock lock screen (which is entirely unnecessary) is seems like Sony’s designers have just pulled in whatever touch-based ideas from wherever they felt like with no regard for the product as whole.

First off the icons are too luminescent, too shiny and the backgrounds too vibrant. This is not just a taste thing- they push the otherwise impressive OLED beyond what it seems to be capable of. Colours side-by-side seem to have too much contrast and the reflections and shadows on the icons show far too much aliasing. Maybe this would have looked better on a higher-definition display, but even the Vita with 4x the effective number of pixels of a PSP (which had no problem showing off a smooth XMB) makes it look amateurish and unfinished. I can’t help but get the feeling this was done on a computer monitor and never tested much on the display that would go into production units.

A lot of interaction design talk of late has gone into visual paradigms and whether it is important to mimic real world gestures and textures for touch or whether that just obscures things. LiveArea, with all it’s page switching and dog-ear pulling combined with buttons and zooms is just horrifically inconsistent. At times, with regular menus and most of the stuff you find in-game, it seems like you’re going to pull out and find a clean, funtional XMB waiting for you. In actual fact you’re just going to be dumped where you started, a bunch of icons and a swathe of screen-wasting pages for active apps that not only takes up more space than it should, but is incredibly labourious to swipe through.

The problem with this really is clutter. Want to multitask? Well you first have to hit the physical home key, then swipe across pages to find what task you wanted to open. Or just go back to the panes on the left and find the icon for what you want to do. Isn’t that one step too many? Do you really have to go all the way out to the main interface to do anything? Couldn’t some sort of overlay be superimposed on the current application instead? An overlay would also solve the problem of showing all open apps on one screen, instead of having to sweep through page after page not really knowing what’s next (they’re ordered by recent activity… most of the time) or how many pages will need to be turned before you get to what you want.

As a real kick in the face none of these pages actually close on their own, even if the task or application is no longer running. It’s on the user to manually pull down each dog-ear to close an app’s page before the sheer number of them becomes unmanageable. What makes this even more ridiculous is that every other app requires closing off of others. Want to open a web page while playing a game? Gotta close the game. Want to reply to a message from a friend while doing something else? You have to come out of that, and flick your finger across any number of dead application pages before you get to the page where you left the messaging app open. Finally, as far as I can tell, there’s no option to skip all the way to the rightmost page, to quickly get back to the starting point or to close everything that’s open with one stroke. The result is inelegant and detracts a lot from the overall impression the PS Vita might give in other areas.

Do I think a touch-enabled and -optimised XMB would have been a smarter, cleaner and more impressive UI to have installed on the Vita? Absolutely and nothing would impress me more than a 2.0 choice which gave a choice between the two. Of course that’s never going to happen – LiveArea is here to stay. But so long as it is, it undermines the Vita’s hardcore, mature market positioning and smacks of a cheap kiddie-friendly interface that abandons generations of visual heritage and sets the Vita on its own, away from the rest of Sony’s CE family. That may well be intentional but I ask this; if you’re going hardcore first and casual later, what real sense is there putting something as Play School as the LiveArea front and centre on day 1?

I call this just the latest example of Sony’s right hand not knowing what the left is doing.


PlayStation Vita Impressions – Hardware

We now stand more or less a week from the international release of the PlayStation Vita via ‘first edition’ programs in the US and other pre-order initiatives in other territories. I’ve had my unit for a few weeks now and feel a few things need to be said before the internet takes a given position on this thing. In this post I’ll be looking at the hardware specifically. For better or worse and despite doing a number of things very exceptionally, I’m disappointed with the Vita overall. As to whether I think it will fail, I’d say no. I am far more convinced though that this will be Sony’s final gaming handheld, at least in a traditional sense.

Everyone who’s been in a position to play with a Vita has been in unanimous agreement that it’s a fantastic piece of technology. A quad-core processor, double the RAM of a PS3, front and rear touch pads, and OLED screen (but not a 720p one) seemed to tick all the boxes while remaining not much larger or any heavier than an original PSP.

In spite of all that it doesn’t strike me with the level of ‘wow’ that Sony consumer products such as the PS2 or PSP did when first releasedw. Maybe the capabilities – not just graphically, mind you – of the smartphones and tablets out there have raised expectations of what can reasonably be delivered. I realise it’s not fair to compare a $250~ Vita with a $500 Galaxy SII, but the fact is the screen on that device is better to look at during any practical application, it’s worlds away smaller and thinner and has a debatable lead in battery life in defiance of it’s small size. This doesn’t take much away from the Vita – the GSII is only a phone with touch controls after all – except to say that it’s ability to impress above and beyond is markedly diminished in light of such competition.

As someone with medium sized hands, not big or small, saying that doing a QCB motion on the d-pad is actually painful is however not a complement. Sure, a lot of people will play things using touch controls or the exceptional (given their size) analogue sticks, but the fact is I bought my Vita with Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with an intent to not kill myself rocket punching and plasma storming against the left hand side of the screen. Thank goodness there are double fireball motions in the upcoming Street Fighter X Tekken because that would quite frankly be a dealbreaker at this point.

Also overly small are the buttons. They have more in common with the Nintendo DS’  face buttons than those on the PSP or Dual Shock 3. This isn’t a massive issue in most games, but if I’m using the ‘Wipout’ style controls in Wipeout 2048, where X is accelerate, square is use and circle is absorb, all with the right analogue a bit close for comfort, I’m going to have serious problems hitting those things at the right times. The PSP didn’t have these control problems and if I had to pick a major point of regression on the Vita, it’s that it has shrunk everything on the face of the unit to the point of near un-usability.

Something that the mainstream of internet opinion has taken a strong dislike to is the use of yet more proprietary media on the part of Sony. Game cards, unlike the cartridge-based titles of Nintendo’s system, can save game data and DLC onto themselves without the need for additional storage. Not all games opt for this though and many have cried foul at Sony’s refusal to mandate it. It’s all the worse since their second proprietary formal of memory cards are priced into the stratosphere and ultimately necessary to fully using the device as it’s being marketed.

My complaint isn’t so much about these devious decisions so much as their poor implementation. Neither the game nor memory cards can be read by anything but the Vita and so I can’t write anything conclusively about data read & write speeds. Nonetheless I have no problem saying that loading times are pretty garbage across the board. UMVC3 takes at least 10 times longer to load 6 characters and a stage than its Xbox 360 cousin and Wipeout 2048‘s load times are just appalling at 50-60 seconds per event. Both of these anecdotes come from experiences with the game card version, which is, if reports are to be trusted, the faster of the two formats.

It seems even more obvious when you look at the UI and other interfaces of the Vita, but the hardware seems cobbled together from technologies and interests of multiple business units operating largely in silos with little regard for the cohesiveness of the finished product. As far as hardware goes the PS Vita has some serious grunt but is nowhere near as far ahead of the field as the PSP was in its time. And whether that raw horsepower is harnessed by software or not in the long run, the machine is hamstrung by capricious design decisions that let it down at almost every turn. The same is true of the rest of the elements that make up the Vita whole, but I’ll save that for the next few posts.

As a postscript I’d like to disclose that my experience has been with the Wifi only model. For a million reasons and one I don’t consider there to be any reason to buy the 3G version and as far as I know there are no exclusive capabilities unique to that model. Ergo, I didn’t think it was worth the time to say anything at length about it.


The Garbage on T3.com

I have finally had enough of T3. I’m used to tech blogs having a playful relationship with the news they report. The difference is that T3 states everything with an absolute journalistic fervour and yet still manages to publish sensationalist garbage like their current string of articles stating ‘iPad 2 SD Slot confirmed’ – most recently in their News@8PM. The scoop is that the iPad 2 has an SD card slot, something that is not only decidedly un-Apple, but would also disrupt the careful price tiering ecosystem of iPad models. Further, this whole rumour is being built on cases at CES from 3rd parties that, by T3’s own admission, are most likely based on those vendors’ best guesses as to what the next gen tablet does or doesn’t have. I know that Apple rumours are red hot for page views and the like, but come on.

This isn’t the only instance where T3 has outrightly stated things that are controversial, speculative or just plain rumours and presented them as fact in a headline and they aren’t the only ones guilty of doing so. This instance is really just the final straw. Far be it for me to ‘un-subscribe’ to an internet source of news but the outrageous writing at a place that purports to be more authoritative than most has pissed me off one too many times. And heaven knows there a million other feeds to take its place.


The Chrome Web Store and Me

On many occasions, in the middle of various different conversations, I’ve found myself extolling the virtues of Google’s web browser and ultimately declaring ‘Chrome is the best thing ever’. Two or so years ago that meant a lightning-fast
browser to replace the clunky and resource-hogging Firefox that opened so quickly it offered an almost ‘instant on’ to the internet. App shotcuts, syncing and so many other good things also came along for the ride. Today, with its new Web Store, Chrome is revolutionising things again but in a way that isn’t immediately apparent.

A cursory glance at the storefront will say the only two things that need to be said about the Chrome App Store; more than a few pages have been taken from Apple’s book and also that most of these ‘apps’ are merely shortcut-wrapped HTML5 apps. Detractors have always called Apple on its devices needing ‘apps’ to make the web usable. You shouldn’t have to compartmentalise the web, they say. However what Chrome highlights is the fact that so many online services are so robust that they may well have been bespoke native applications at one point in the computing past. That HTML5 now essentially enables them to run without Flash or, Heaven forbid, Air, just sweetens the deal. And so to have them app-ified is still useful, even in  full desktop environment. Further it allows integration into the desktop that a website on its own might now- right-clicking contextual menus and drag-and-drop file movement on services like Box.net.

However the reason this compartmentalisation works, at least for me, is in the syncing. I have a consistent user experience – through Chrome alone – across all the computers I use. Pinning tabs for Gmail, Reader, imo.im and the marvellous Tweetdeck HTML5 app keep these basic utilities always open in the browser and makes the experience self-sufficient. I can live out of a single Chrome window at home on Windows or at work on OSX and I love it. Sure, you could do this before and in other browsers, but the experience had never been so consistent or seamless. Most importantly, it had never been so easy.

Once the implications of it sink in you start to realise how Chrome OS seals the deal on all of it and just how significant Chrome’s offerings are. Techcrunch highlights how opening up Chrome OS for the first time and watching all your apps sync over is the future of computing. And it is. Apple’s Mac App Store might offer a similar proposition to OSX in a few months but half the value of Google’s version comes from it being platform-agnostic. Living out of a browser as I said sidesteps the OS and its specificities altogether.

That Google have been the first ones to really push this in a meaningful and accessible way is surprising. For the first time since their core search product, and with the debatable exception of YouTube, they have released something that has the potential to hit the mark bigtime. And for all the talk of ‘cloud’ computing, again, outside of webmail, they are the first to make the idea resonate with the consumer. That probably does come down to their vested interest being on the net while Microsoft and Apple have their OS product families to think about, but is an interesting point nonetheless. It will be exciting to see how this space pans out in the post-Web Store internet.


Experiments With A Dog’s Severed Head

 

This video has been around for ages. Since 1940, actually. Seems I’m late to the party. Apparently real, this clip is taken from a Russian film – possibly pure propaganda – showing various medical experiments, the highlight of which is the post-separation animation of a dog’s head.

If the film is to be believed, the poor canine’s head survived 15 minutes after its natural heart stopped supplying bloodflow and the artificial ‘autojecter’ was attached. The question here is, is it real? It’s easy to call ‘fake’ on something like this but you have to wonder…

Thanks to Gizmodo for bringing this well known internet meme to my attention.


Google, Facebook & Apple; Tech Giant News Roundup

Good news, everyone.

The last 48 or so hours in the tech world have been pretty interesting- 3 of the biggest companies have had pretty significant public showings of new products and services. While I pre-emptively wrote about Facebook’s mail announcements yesterday, here’s what Google and Apple had to reveal as well;

 

Facebook – A Modern Mail Service

Zuckerberg talking about Facebook, little else.

So Facebook didn’t quite announce a rival to Gmail and Hotmail as everyone predicted… or did they? You can now still register for a ‘@facebook.com’ address once your account receives an opt-in invitation, but this new service will focus on convergence of SMS, Email, IM and other current messaging platforms rather than going head to head with existing providers. The existing concerns remain about Facebook, privacy and email, but guess we know what FB poached that Google Wave dev for now, huh?

 

Google – The Nexus S, Gingerbread, NFC and Chrome OS

The Nexus S?

Although Facebook’s revelations largely overshadowed what was going on at the Web 2.0 summit, Google’s CEO had a few almost-groundbreaking things to share with the community. Firstly, he demonstrated Android 2.3 AKA Gingerbread on an unannounced phone many summise to be the elusive ‘Nexus S’ from Samsung. We can’t confirm either way since branding was concealed although a special hardware component was explicitly mentioned – a Near Field Communication (NFC) chip. This lead in to what will no doubt be a key feature of the new OS, set to release in the next few weeks, as it enables ‘bump-to-pay’ transactions. Seems like this will be another area where Google and Apple are racing to get a cutting edge technology into consumers’ hands first.

Chrome OS, that bastard topic largely relegated to the background by Google’s more prominent Android, was also given a clear purpose by an offhand comment by Eric Schmidt- it is for low cost keyboard devices. Which rules phones and tablets out.

 

Apple – iTunes News…?

Trendy old shit that no one cares about anymore... just what iTunes needs more of.

Apple threw its hat in the ring this week as well teasing an unforgettable iTunes-related reveal on Tuesday. However this hype sizzled out as soon as it was revealed that the Beatles catalogue would be coming to the popular e-store. The Beatles? Who cares. Everyone who gives a damn will have ripped their CDs, bought their audacious USB collection or pirated the stuff by now.

Luckily this was dispelled with the also predicted and highly anticipated iTunes Cloud, Streaming, iTunes Pass, 90sec previews and a redesigned client.

 

The war for the internet, ad revenue, market share, hearts and minds is very much underway and at this very exciting time in history I dare not call a winner. Especially since likelihood suggests that even if there is one, there won’t be for long. Microsoft is notably absent from this week’s festivities- no doubt working on getting all those missing features into Windows Phone 7.


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