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.

Games Based Learning: Alice Taylor

Alice Taylor, Commissioning Editor for Channel 4 (and Wonderland blog) talked recently at Game Based Learning, looking at how gaming enables Channel 4 to engage with their target audience of 14 to 19 year old. But also looks at how gaming mechanisms can be used to engage large numbers with an educational agenda.

Video of Alice Taylor

To see the full selection of videos go the the Games Based Learning forum. I’d also recommend Matt Mason’s talk on pirating and how it adds value to the original, touching on how game modding evolved.

Ada Lovelace Day: Robin Hunicke

This year I was really sad to see that the Women in Gaming conference has been cancelled due to low delegate numbers. I am an avid gamer and I think the games industry is sometimes behind other areas of technology, where it could really benefit from getting more women involved in games development. Often women go for the human focused areas of development, such as user experience or copyright, which are often sadly overlooked in games development. Instead there are a steady stream of churned out games like Imagine Babies and its ilk, lacking original gameplay and creativity. While I am glad that the games industry is finally realising gamers are girls and women too and I value a diverse set of games to choose from, I don’t think it all needs to be Barbie dolls and toy soldiers in electronic form. Obviously this isn’t just due to a lack of women, but by cultural stereotypes and an industry that has increasingly large budgets and monolithic development houses. Independant games development however still have a wealth of opportunity.

There are however some amazing women involved in games development, one of whom is Robin Hunicke who is a games designer and producer. While at EA she worked on My Sims and Boom Blocks and their sequels before recently moving to ThatGameCompany, who developed the truly awesome Flower. She combines this with academic study on Artificial Intelligence and Video Games, building bridges between the theory and the application. Her research on dynamic difficulty examines different techniques for representing and reasoning about uncertainty, to see how these approaches can be extended and combined to create flexible interactive experiences that adjust on the fly.

Robin Huckine and her cat Mika

I was lucky enough to see Robin talk at Gamecity last year and she spoke about how in order to be a better game designer you need to do much more than play games that you need to look outwards and experience as much of life a possible, reading and travelling. I think this is great advice no matter what your role, especially where you want to explore creativity. She also spoke passionately about using sketchbooks to capture ideas, to allow you to externalise ideas, and as creative people to capture ideas and work through some concepts, something which has definitely been true in my experience.

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One of the things I’d like to thank Robin for is her focus on making games accessible to a wider audience in creative ways that doesn’t just mean making games easy (and boring). Games like Boom Blocks use complicated physics engines and while it is really easy to get to grips with the gameplay, through the intuitive wii remote and game responsiveness. It doesn’t isolate gamers by being easy or hard, but very cleverly has levels which can be played at a diverse set of skill levels, providing enough of a challenge to keep the most hardcore gamer engaged. It is highly sociable, being a game that begs to be played with friends and one I always get out to play with the non-gamers who come to visit. In addition it allows me to share levels I’ve created online with my friends. All of this adds up to a very accessible and sociable experience that is quite different from most games on the market. I think this a real reflection of the kind of gameplay that should be encouraged in game development when they are looking to widen their appeal.

She said in her letter to Kotaku about her move to ThatGameCompany:

“All my work is united by a single thread. I want to reach new people, with new experiences, via the medium of games and the language of game design.”

Robin’s second area of research also reinforces this, by examining how to evolve game narratives to the next level. Something that I think is essential to help broaden the appeal of gaming and for games to engage their users and to really find its feet as an art form in its own right. She says on her website:

“I’m also interested in how notions of fate, meaning and consequence can be communicated via video games. I believe that consequence is the key to expanding their narrative repertoire – for without consequence, actions have no weight and choices can do little more than satisfy our basest instincts and curiosities.”

I think a great example of this is seeing how Robin moved the Sims franchise along with the MySims release. If you look at the original Sims games you spent your time trying to manage your time between needing a wee and going to work to allow you to buy more stuff for your house. MySims made it less about this sort of capitalist aspiration and more sociable, focusing on developing relationships and creating things to give away, to support a mayor who needs to attract more people to his town. I think one of the things we can learn from the success of Facebook is that if you want to engage a female audience in your games that to make it sociable is a really great way to do it.

Let’s hope we see more people like Robin in the games industry, working as advocates for the indie games industry, as well as growing appreciation for the more user focused aspects such as writers and user experience designers. I highly recommend her UX2009 presentation which really shows how she has exposed the UX role within games development. Thanks Robin.

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.

Stella Im Hultberg

Stella Im Hultberg is a New York based, Korean born artist who creates amazing feminine artworks of raven haired skeletal women. Created using mixed media, particullarly oil and ink, often on tea stained paper. Emotive and striking, the images explore the fluidity of the media used and with subtle use of colour create a flowing and evocative and feminine images. In particular I love how she paints hair, exploring and accentuating the organic forms that the media offers, to create striking contrast and movement within her images.

Nuri. Oil and ink on tea-stained paper

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You can buy Stella’s work from her website and she quite often has shows on in the US. If you like her art you might also want to look at the work of Amy Sol and Audrey Kawasaki with whom she has frequently collaborated and held several shows. Please be aware that some of her work may be considered NSFW.

GameCity Squared

I’ve been attending GameCity since its creation, and before that the Broadway’s Screenplay games festival that which ran from 2000. Each year it gets bigger and raises the bar. This year was no exception, with some amazing and large scale events.

This year saw the event take place mostly in the Council House and a large tent pitched outside in Market Square, so the event had its highest public presence to date, which can only be good for the festivals future.

Highlights

The best part of a games festival for me is in exploring new games and new ways of playing, which is evident in my selection of festival highlights.

Sandpit

This was my first experience of pervasive gaming, and I’m totally hooked. I only managed to register for two games due to demand, but this wasn’t really an issue because there were lots of other people waiting too so we were able to start an impromptu game of Werewolf (http://www.eblong.com/zarf/werewolf.html) which needs 7+ players. One of the things I loved was that the people had an open attitude towards play.

I played two games, Hipsync and Moveyhouse, which were great fun and interesting experiences. There is something elevating about reclaiming a space with play and people not taking themselves too seriously. http://sandpit.hideandseekfest.co.uk/events/

Gambling Lambs

Gambling Lambs is a monthly gaming event in Nottingham, which held a special event as part of the festival. There was a great atmosphere and in the same way as Sandpit having a group of friendly strangers willing to play games together is a great experience. It takes place the first Thu of the month and I highly recommend it. http://www.gamblinglambs.com/

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Indiecade

Each year Indiecade offers a selection of new games to play and explore. Each year usually holds a gem or two, last year I played the recently released http://machinarium.net/demo/ The indiecade was set up in the tent in the city centre, which means loads of lovely exposure for those games, but unfortunately there was no sound which is a big part of the experience.

This year a couple of games stood out; Papermint which is a colourful MMO had lovely art inspired by Parapa the Rapper. A surreal game based on Little Red Riding Hood called The Path that had a nice ethereal feeling about, with a dark twist. Moon Stories had some nice narrative based game play. Finally, Classic Night had a beautiful childish gothic art style, a bit like Invader Zim. To find out more any of the games from Indiecade check out their website: http://www.indiecade.com/index.php?/games

Night Blooms

Robin Hunicke played through the whole of the game Flower, to an audience in the arcade behind the council house, while the screen was projected on muslin hung from the ceiling and rose petals occasionally fell from above.

The experience was as close as I’ve seen video gaming come an art installation, and it was an amazing experience. It started off with everyone stood around, but as the performance progressed the audience became increasingly horizontal. The game is very relaxing and hypnotic, while the audio is amazing and the architecture made it all the more dramatic. It was really interesting to experience a game in a totally different context.

World of Wordcraft

This was a panel of (ex)games reviewers trying to create the perfect games review with musical interludes by Rebecca Mayes. I have to agree with one panellist who kept saying reviews were dead, although I suspect we were coming from different positions. He was looking at aggregated scoring, while I’ve replaced games reviewers with my social network. Rebecca Mayes was fun and I really hope she does play some video games too, but for niche marketing she gets bonus points.

Brickfactor

Playing Lego Rock Band in the centre of Nottingham on a Saturday afternoon in front of a crowd and murdering Katrina and Waves will be a lasting memory. Hehe.

15 Pixels

A pleasant surprise of an event, a lunchtime curry session with Alaskan Military, the guys that made the viral for GameCity and the Lego animation guys Spite Your Face – you know the ones that did Camelot , yup them. Entertaining talks about how they do what they do and their inspiration. Great fun and really creative, art and geekery combined is a sure fire win for me.

Masaya Matsuura’s Marching Band

Margaret Robertson held a brilliant interview with Masaya Matsuura, creator of Parrapa the Rapper, where we got to see some of his games that never got a UK release. This was followed by him conducting an audience rendition of Hey Jude on the Kazoo. Priceless.

The End

So when choosing how to spend Halloween, getting zombie make up complete with latex peeling skin courtesy of local make up students and trying to scare the hell out of people seemed like an excellent way to spend it. I was right and was delighted when my friend came as Zoe from L4D and kicked the hell out of the zombies.

GameCity

GamesCity festival happens every year and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with a playful soul.

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.

Alphonse Mucha

The Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (24 July 1860 – 14 July 1939) is commonly recognised as the instigator of the Art Nouveau movement, characterized by organic, especially floral and other plant-inspired motifs, as well as highly-stylized, flowing curvilinear forms. His work typically has women as his subject matter and his fame grew when he created posters for the Parisian star of the time Sarah Bernhardt.

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The colours and lines remind a lot of the more contemporary artist Audrey Kawasaki. Mucha’s work has a strong element of fantasy and almost feel like they were plucked out from a fairytale. I particularly like his handling of fabric and hair.

While the colours of Mucha’s work are often more muted, I particularly like the colours in the much more vibrant stained glass he designed for Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral.

Interestingly I can also see some parallels between another Art Nouveau artist, Aubrey Beardsley and another of my favourite contemporary artists, Lucy McLauchlan.

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.