My fortnight affair with Nokia – a review of the N8

Nokia N8 handset

For the last two weeks, my HTC Desire has been off for repair, and Nokia very kindly sent me an N8 to try for two weeks, so I wasn’t stuck with the terrible handset T-Mobile gave me. The only condition…. this review.

So here it is the highs and lows of my first Nokia handset, from a user experience designer’s perspective.

I was impressed at first, the N8 offers some haptic feedback, which I think is very valuable when dealing with touchscreen interfaces, but in my opinion it’s too indiscriminate, as you get feedback for any action you perform, including scrolling. However the button feedback is very subtle and effective, with a down and up feedback, much better than other touch screen devices I’ve used.

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The handset itself ok, about the same size and weight as my HTC Desire, complete with audio jack, USB, camera and MicroSD expansion in a sealed unit like an iPhone. In addition it has a HDMI output, which makes more sense when you look at the camera on this handset.

The camera is pretty outstanding, it’s 12 megapixels and has a Carl Zeiss lense and includes a flash. The handset has a dedicated photo button, making it very easy to switch into camera mode. Although the case doesn’t offer a way to protect the lense cover, which is a shame, but would add bulk. The camera is so good that if that features heavily into your phone choice you should definitely consider this handset.

The problem for me came with the operating system, it does do a bunch of cool stuff, but Symbian is still feature rich at the cost of usability. Holding down call, allows you to open apps by voice, but you have to know what to call it, e.g. Internet got me nowhere, while it recognised Contacts and Calendar.

The biggest failing for me was the difficulty with which to get to applications. The desktop space, has multiple screens and is easy to customise, but you can only add widgets, not shortcuts to applications; an option called “shortcuts” just offering four pre-populated shortcuts and if these could be customised I couldn’t work out how. Instead accessing the apps requires I press the home button and navigate through a screen that looks like a slightly improved version of the old ‘mystery meat’ Symbian menu, to an application menu, where all the good stuff sits. It’s only saving grace is that it highlights which applications are open with a little green ‘o’ next to the icon in this menu, and that it is easier to close applications than in either IOS or Android.

It seems fair at this point to talk about the application ecosystem, Nokia has its own ecosystem called Ovi, in the same way Android has Google and the iPhone has iTunes and Mobile Me. You can buy apps and backup your contacts in the same way you can on any smartphone . The problem here is that with any smartphone the apps have a really important part to play. The usual suspects do make an appearance, so you can still play Angry Birds on your N8, but there will be less applications available for general consumption. The Ovi store works smoothly and is not unlike using Android’s marketplace, so it works well, but doesn’t offer anything new. A shame as I think the app stores are the areas that now really need reconsidering in terms of usability.

I did get frustrated when I couldn’t find the handset MAC address, so was unable to add it to my wireless network. Information like this can be well hidden, but it should be available somewhere, after a google I found out you need to put a code into the call screen, which for me is beyond obtuse.

The compact charger is a delight, much lighter and smaller than most, although why it isn’t a USB charger I don’t know.

Overall I did struggle with this handset a bit, but this may be largely because I’m already heavily invested into the Google ecosystem, so once I sync my phone with my Google account everything else comes to life. But I have no investment in Ovi and despite creating an account for this review, it’s unlikely I would ever use it in the same way – seamlessly across multiple platforms. I think that the hardware is pretty good, the camera especially is outstanding, but it needs an operating system that has been built from the ground up as a smartphone OS and Symbian still fails on that front.

Thanks to the great guys at WOMWorld Nokia for the loan of the phone, and credit should be given to Nokia for supporting a venture that engages with social media in a smart way. I expect this will be the first and last review I ever get to do thanks to Twitter, but it has been a great experience.

GameCity 5

I have just about recovered from the annual whirlwind event that is GameCity. I’d like to cover the highlights of this year’s games culture festival.

Guardian Breakfasts

Keith Stuart from the Guardian kicked off each morning with a discussion around video games, looking at the new technology, the most important games so far, emotional impact of games and the possible future of gaming. Despite my sleep deprived state these were so good that I still managed to get into Nottingham city centre bright and early and a big thanks to Broadway cinema for putting on a slap up breakfast to help me get started for the day ahead. Unlike me Keith however was lucid and spoke intelligently about each subject, and had a changing panel of guests from speakers at the festival to give their two pence worth.

Limbo

Limbo screenshot

The eerie world of Limbo

Often in games that move me the audio will affect me, even if I’m often unaware of the impact that it is having as it adds to the game without distracting from the game-play. Limbo is just such a game, and Martin Stig Anderson did an amazing job of the audio for the game. His discussion and demonstration of the audio work for Limbo was really enlightening. He detailed how he had created the sounds, rerecording them through wire in order to distort them until the source was no longer decipherable. As Anderson spoke about how the transitions were handled in the platform game, in order to give areas of the game an identity and atmosphere, it really opened my mind to the complex possibilities of audio in games as the usually linear nature of music is turned on it’s head if placed in the context of a nonlinear game where the user controls the journey both in time and space. In Limbo Anderson used the environment of the game to create the soundtrack, rather than overlaying the game with a piece of music.

He also spoke about how audio offers us the most “temporal nuances” compared to our other senses, which tied Jonathan Blow’s earlier talk in the day about Braid and learning the rhythm of platform games, such as Super Meat Boy in order to be able to play them. We can learn to play some games by ear.

James Hannigan

Photo of St Mary's church with choir for GameCity

Photo of the James Hannigan event at GameCity kindly permitted by zo-ii

This event was astounding and a fine example of what GameCity do amazingly well and you experience no where else; the convergence of cultures in a way that is both theatrical and emotive. Last year we saw Robin Hunicke perform Flower in a shopping centre complete with falling petals. This year we had Pinewood Choir in St Mary’s, the oldest church in Nottingham, performing soundtracks from games such as and Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, Warhammer and Harry Potter the Deathly Hallows, complete with live owls. There is something profound about hearing an talented choir perform in the reverberating acoustics of an old gothic church, but when the music they are singing takes to back to a moment in a game they combine in a way that gives a sense of grandeur to an often underrated part of the gaming experience.

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Android and HTC: The mobile power couple

I recently acquired a HTC Desire running Android 2.1 and it has significantly changed the way I use my mobile phone. The primary reason for this can easily be attributed to Android. I knew when selecting a new phone that the apps would make or break it.

So why not go with iPhone? Because HTC make the best hardware on the market.

HTC Desire

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Hardware vs Software

I have been a fan of HTC handsets for several years now, as they regularly push the hardware limits of mobile devices, squeezing in just that bit more functionality than their competitors; however more often than not the software was a letdown, not living up to the potential of the hardware, even in things as crucial using it as a phone.

Apple blew the market away; the hardware is not as groundbreaking, but it made sure that the OS fully supported the hardware functionality, concentrating on the usability of the product in a market that was saturated with terrible UI design.

Windows Mobile

A few months later Android launched.

Apps

The reason my mobile usage has changed is largely because of Marketplace. My old HTC Diamond, has amazing hardware, but runs Windows Mobile and the apps are sold in a more traditional software business model (as you might expect on a Microsoft platform) with a price tag to match. Apple created the AppStore, as a single point for all apps, accepting micropayments through iTunes.

Android has easy access via their Marketplace and also utilises a lot of the other successful Google applications like Gmail and Google Calendar, meaning for me it is taking the tools I’m already using and seamlessly putting them in my pocket. I could check my Gmail on my old Diamond, but it was pull not push and didn’t support HTML; now it is easier to use my phone than it is my PC.

Apps are purchased through Google Checkout with a 24 hour refund policy, so rather than enforcing heavy restrictions on the apps available as with iTunes, users can try and review apps without cost for 24 hours.

Widgets

Android has a desktop like space which you can customise with widgets, which means you don’t need to launch applications to get to useful information, such as your appointments, photos or if your train is on time.

HTC and Android

HTC have a history of taking off the rough edges of the OS interface with HTC Sense. This made my old HTC Diamond very usable and it hid a myriad of Microsoft’s sins behind smooth animation and gradient interface menus. With Android this work isn’t needed, allowing them to concentrate of creating some great looking apps and widgets; that means your phone is ready to run straight from the box, no need to go hunting through the Marketplace for Facebook or Twitter apps, just sync and go.

Development

Fragmentation has always made mobile development difficult and while neither platform is particularly easy to develop for, Apple have recently taken the step of excluding apps that have been compiled from Flash, which could reduce the number of developers with the necessary skills to create apps. Android is Open Source and Java based as opposed to Apple’s Objective C, and there is an increasing market of tools to help compile for your desired OS. Apple no longer has the largest market share, although the expected release in June of a new handset will most likely boost iPhone sales again.

The cost of submitting an app is considerably cheaper for Marketplace than it is any other platform, and the volume of apps is increasing as the Android adoption grows.

Handsets and Networks

Apple has at last allowed networks other than O2 sell the iPhone, but the hardware doesn’t change until Apple release new version. Android is available on many different handsets, so you can pick one that best suits your specific needs. HTC are constantly developing new handsets so you can always get the most cutting edge technology on the market.

Pivot – interesting data navigation from Microsoft Labs.

Pivot is a tool for browsing large collections of data, such as Wikipedia, and really shows the value of a good API and semantic data.

It contains a filtering system on the left to help you dig into and out of the data, combined with a smooth zoom interface as we’ve seen implemented before in Seadragon and Photosynth and some very familiar browser elements such as tabs, most visited history on your homepage and bookmarking. It offers a very visual way of interacting with large data catalogues, such as movie databases or games catalogues, through film posters and game covers, something that I really love.

You can see Gary Flake demonstrating Pivot at the TED conference in Feburary here:

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The interface is lovely and it does open up new ways of interacting with these large data sets, but there does seem like some work has been done to prepare the data for use in Pivot, to make it more visual, such as the very way the different endangered species are shown, or the Wikipedia categories are visualised. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean if the data isn’t already visual as with films or games then there is an interesting piece of design work to be done to take full advantage of this browser. I’d love IMDB to get an API as this would be an amazing way to navigate their site.

While I instantly enjoy the visual navigation style, this is still far from replacing my usual browser, because while it allows me to interrogate the data in new ways, I am not sure I would use this new way of examining data for the current sets available, after all I tend to dip into these data heavy sites only when I have a specific query on something, where searching is much more appropriate than browsing. While I do think that the way we search and find data will change dramatically I think this sort of interface could really come into it’s own on the sites I tend to browse, such as Amazon or Facebook and I think it could offer a really interesting dimension to Twitter.

Project Natal

Project Natal was announced by Microsoft at E3 as new interface peripheral for the Xbox 360, which removes the need for a joypad, instead body movement, facial recognition and voice are used for interaction.

We have seen similar innovations with the EyeToy for the PS2 and the notion detection in the Wii, but both have severe limitations. The EyeToy is a single lens camera, so it is easily affected by lighting and background, while the motion detection in the Wii is built into the joypad and has limited capabilities by default.

The demo shown at E3 is jaw dropping, showing seemingly natural interaction with a character called Milo, but anyone with any experience of Microsoft demos treats them with appropriate levels of scepticism. Since they haven’t beaten the Turing test there is certainly some smoke and mirrors going on, in the words of Milo’s creator Peter Molyneux “If we had, then applying it to a computer game would be the last of the solutions we’d use it for.”

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Other demos include a painting application and a dodgeball style game. They are relatively low tech examples but the dodgeball game has been demonstrated with journalists and celebrities, and has appeared to withstand their scrutiny. Interestingly Endgadget’s demo turned the lights down to see if it can cope with different lighting, and it had no problems.

Although shy on the details Microsoft have said it contains an RBG camera, an infrared camera, a multi-array microphone and a depth map. New Scientist among others suggested it is using the infrared camera technology by 3DV, an Israeli company that Microsoft purchased. This heat detection allows it to maintain a level of functionality regardless of light sources or obstacles.

Project Natal claims to have facial recognition and voice recognition, but we’ve only really seen this in the Milo demonstration, which could have been entirely scripted. So the extent of this capability is still not fully understood, although the voice recognition is based on Windows 7 functionality.

While Natal does recognise actions sitting down, a notable thing from the demos is the space of the room they were demoing in. When you use your whole body as a controller you need enough space to do so. A bit like Wii Fit, removing the traditional controller can pose logistical problems for the smaller household; for me my living room becomes more like an obstacle course.

Paradoxically playing a game with your body rather than your thumbs can be both more intuitive and harder work. I am old enough that can still remember my initial awkwardness interacting with a computer mouse or a console joypad, even though it seems like second nature now. However this hurdle is removed by Natal, making gaming and potentially all human-computer interaction much more accessible and intuitively responsive to an even wider audience, although it lacks the feedback a physical peripheral affords.

If I sat playing Burnout as it has been demonstrated with Natal my arms would ache after a while. But one thing I do know from marathon Guitar Hero sessions is that I will play through most aches for the right game. Interestingly a great many of the games we play allow us to explore far beyond our own physical limitations, so I wonder where the disparity is between simulation and escapism and what we desire from our gaming experience.

I don’t think we will be getting rid of the joystick anytime soon, but this definitely opens the door to new kinds of games and game play that we haven’t seen before. Its greatest potential is in the creative and imaginative hands of games and software designers everywhere.

Sharing media on your network with your Xbox 360

Ok I have had some real fun with getting my XBox to see my XP desktop. It was easy enough to get it to see my Vista laptop after I set up Windows Media Centre (WMC), and although WMC sees everything on my network it has no supports for DivX, so doesn’t really meet my needs.

Diagram of wireless network sharing media with XBox 360

Diagram of XBox on wireless network, but media sharing can be on wired or wireless network.

However playing video through the XBox dashboard does have DivX support, but this way it only finds files that are local to my laptop and I wanted it to see my whole network. It wasn’t as straight forward as it should have been so here is my quick guide on how I managed to get it working. It’s not the only way, there are 3rd party tools out there.

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Sharing media

Firstly you need to share the media from your XP machine. To do this you need Windows Media Player 11 (WMP11). WMP11 adds a bit of Vistas functionality into XP, so under Library>Media Sharing… click the checkbox and allow access to the XBox 360.

Problem 1
This didn’t work straight off for me, it just hung for ages and then nothing happened, no sharing and no error.

Solution 1
Check which services are running. Start>Admin tools>Services. You need to make sure UPnP and SSDP are both started and set to Manual, also check Windows Media Player Network Sharing Service is started and set to Automatic.

Problem 2
Once I’d done this I was able to share my media and allow my XBox. However my XBox still refused to see my XP machine on the network. So my PC could see the XBox but the XBox wasn’t seeing the PC. After a bit of reading around online and trying loads of stuff it became clear DRM was the issue. WMP11 DRM doesn’t work properly, it makes sense then that the XBox which is DRM’d up to it’s eyeballs would start having issues.

Solution 2
Clear out the existing DRM data. You need to set your Folder Views to include System files. Then navigate to Documents and Settings>All Users> DRM and delete all files.

Then go this link in Internet Explorer:
http://drmlicense.one.microsoft.com/Indivsite/en/indivit.asp?force=1

If ActiveX blocked you’ll need to allow it, once that’s done the greyed out Upgrade button should become clickable. Click it and what for the process to run then close the box. Reboot PC (definately) and XBox (possibly). After this the XBox detected the PC and media sharing was enabled.

All credit goes to @DocJelly and his amazing blog post for this solution.

Problem 3
This was a fairly simple problem to solve. The XBox doesn’t see folders that are shared on the networking the same way and WMC does, it only see the folders that are part of your shared WMP11 Library.

Solution 3
In WMP11 go to Library>Add to Library…

Add any folders with media that you want to share and click OK, it can take a while for your PC to catalogue the new folders and files.

Ongoing Issues
The Windows Media Player Network Sharing Service is a memory hog, so it may be worth disabling sharing if you aren’t using it frequently.

Even with WMP11 Library I’ve found it a little unpredictable about what the XBox will and won’t see. This might be because files are still being catalogued, so I’ll give it a bit longer before I investigate further.

Google Wave

I loved the Google Wave demo, but probably for all the wrong reasons. I loved the fact that it was an honest demo, ok so that means it breaks, but I prefer to forgive a few bumps in the demo than see canned demos that are so slick I'm left wondering if it was all faked up.

Google Wave made a lot of noise when the demo video was released, and understandably, anyone with an ounce of geek in them keeps an eye on what the big guys are up to. I love how Chrome has changed the way I browse the web and I'm interested to see how Wave might change behaviours too.

For the most part Google Wave, while technically a huge accomplishment, is really the next generation of the web (whatever we might call it), it is a natural evolution from where we are now.

I like the concept of simultaneous conversations; I’ll often have at least two concurrent conversations with an individual via instant messaging, and being able to thread that could be really useful. However I can imagine not wanting to share everything I type straight away. I find the thinking time typing allows me to be really useful. Interestingly I might not turn off the functionality – and give the game away – but rather think more before I type. Typing becomes more transparent like talking, but still lacks the other sensory cues we use in communication.

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I’m interested in the concept of collaborative working, with multiple people working on the same document at the same time. I can’t think of another example where people could work so dynamically together in a virtual space. However this level of collaborative working raises its own issues. The goal of any collaboration needs to be clear for it to be effective, but this is even more so when working in the context of Google Wave.

Enabling sharing of photos, media and information is a fundamental part of how we interact online. Wave seemed to offer some some nice tweaks to improve this experience. But the demo didn’t really explore for me the relationships between the people that are interacting. Are they all already established contacts that are part of your network? How to you grow your network? It maybe that you don’t, that you just use existing networks such as Facebook and Twitter and consolidate them in Wave, but for such an application that is fundamentally social it would be odd to not support a means of growing your network in a more direct fashion.

Overall Google Wave looks very impressive; it has certainly broken some technical barriers and shown us what the next step for the internet holds for us. But for the most part it is an evolution, rather than a paradigm shift. Although I imagine it will change the way we collaborate online and our expectation around web interactivity and responsiveness.

Girl Geek Dinners is relaunched in Nottingham

At last the ball is rolling…

I'm really excited that at last I have managed to get the ball rolling and Girl Geek Dinners are back up and running in Nottingham. I have to say a massive and huge thank you to everyone who has been really supportive. I've never run an event like this before, but what I lack in experience I make up for in enthusiasm and a willingness to ask questions.

If you want to be kept up to date about these events then either email me or follow @NottsGirlGeeks on Twitter.

Create your own Photosynth

Microsoft have released a demo of Photosynth that allows you to create your own experiences. It still only works in Internet Explorer and requires a plugin to view. But I've been waiting for ages to have a play with this technology. It is amazingly simple to use, you just add a selection of photos of your subject and you are away, there is no labourious stitching of photographs required, it works out where they all fit in the scene.

I decided for my subject I'd take the popular Flickr topic of photographing your workspace. I've always felt my desk is a bit of an adventure (mess) and one simple photograph could never allow you explore its landscape in the same way I do. So I've made a photosynth of my desk here:

Photos are so much easier to take and store, they are on almost all mobile phones and services such as TwitterPic and Flickr show how taking photographs has become a normal way to document any event. When there is such a rich source of information, new ways of using and exploring this data is really interesting. If we think about how Google have recently had cars driving around the UK to map the streets for Google Maps, this effort and expense could be made redundant through the power of crowd-sourcing the photographs/data and applying a technology such as Photosynth. While Google just captures that street at that single point in time, this technology could also allow you to manipulate the time you are viewing that moment at. For instance if we take a popular tourist spot like St Paul's Cathedral, this has been photographed millions of times, so you could choose to not only experience it from a contemporary set of photographs but also using historic data, to experience the view in the 1920's for example.