Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 08 2021

Clubhouse talks

I’ve been using the (for now) Apple-device only application called Clubhouse recently, mainly for photography-related talks, but also sessions on other topics as well. It’s part podcast, part radio show, part voice chat, and the moderation system allows it to flow relatively seamlessly without most of the usual trolling that occurs in places like Facebook and Twitter. Though such talks I’ve been able to listen to some fascinating views and discover some very interesting work from people whom I’ve never heard of before. Celebrities from several fields have been involved in conversations, allowing access to verbal interactions with them that has hitherto been unthinkable.
So I’ve found it both useful, educational and entertaining. But is it the game-changer people are making it out to be? Some have claimed that direct voice communication creates greater empathy and is more able to actually change people’s minds. Earlier this morning I was listening to a Clubhouse session headed by podcasting luminaries Chenjerai Kumanyika and Ira Glass; the topic was stories about people changing their minds based on a specific CH conversation, and I could actually hear them wincing as person after person was brought up on stage specifically to share such stories, when nearly none of them actually had such a story, or indeed any story at all. As we know, Ira’s podcast work centers around stories, and he seemed particularly exasperated at the apparent and continued lack of stories despite constant and clear instruction that this was meant to be a conversation about such stories. This isn’t to say that the people themselves were not interesting or didn’t have anything to say, of course. But in general they were more interested in what they had to say than addressing the topic.
It was an interesting experiment, but though I had been quite interested to hear such stories as well, they clearly were not coming, so Ira fairly quickly suggested that they were done. Perhaps if they had waited longer, or if they had promoted it even more strongly things would have been different, but it’s disappointing that, even when two of the most renowned and brilliant podcasters in the world put out a call for stories about people having their minds changed by CH sessions, virtually nobody could bring up concrete examples.
What does this say about the nature of Clubhouse conversations? The difference is supposed to be that personal voices elicit closer connections than such conversations can have on text-based social media such as Facebook and Twitter, et al.
But people insist on being people, no matter the medium. I’ve attended several conversations that were supposed to be about street photography, but where the conversations were nearly always centered around non-SP matters such as portraiture, wedding photography, models, clients, etc. I’ve tried to take part in conversations that couldn’t proceed because the moderators of the room didn’t respect ideas different from their own. To be fair, I’ve also been surprised at how welcoming other rooms centered on things like photojournalism have been towards the practice and theories of SP. But if I’m being shouted down in a conversation or if I feel nothing interesting is being said, I will simply hit the “Leave quietly” button and probably not be inclined to join that particular club’s rooms going forward.
So there is a limit to how effective these conversations can be in terms of influence, especially when rooms are not welcoming of reasonable views that might differ from those moderating the space. Personally, I’ve found that even with VR apps such as Altspace, which has been the most effective media in that respect, only so much can be conveyed. And the cynic in me can’t help but note that Clubhouse has made monetization a greater priority than making it cross-platform, which shows me where their priorities lie. My hope is that it turns out to be more than just be another path to hell, just with witty banter along the way.
Clubhouse and its inevitable ilk definitely have a future, especially once they bring Android users into the fold. What kind of future I can’t say, but the risk is that once user numbers reach critical mass, the conversations will Balkanize even further into mere echo chambers, and at best we’ll be right back where we started. No matter what form our communication takes, it seems that with sufficient numbers the specter of tribalism that has governed human interaction for so many millennia inevitably works to direct our conversation, sometimes for the better, but too often, if we let it, for the worse.
posted by Poagao at 12:10 pm  
Sep 26 2019

This world and that

Everyone at the campfire last night was talking about the upcoming Oculus Connect 6 announcements. People were speculating about new gear, new capabilities, doubting Facebook’s intentions, etc. I’ve met some interesting people there at times…other times there’s not much going on. On occasion, there are idiots. And sometimes shouty kids who have slipped past the cordon, but they are usually kicked out.

None of us were really there, of course. And there’s not even any real “there” there; it’s a virtual reality social space called Altspace. We’re all in our individual locations, living rooms, offices, cars, truck cabs at rest stops…wherever. The portability and ease of the Quest has made it easily the favorite gear to use to access these spaces. I’d been using the Sideload app to gain access a month or so before the official release, but now it seems like just about everyone there is using the Quest; you can tell because they move their hands and heads and walk around in sync with their actual physical selves.

This adds another dimension to communication beyond speech: Headnods, fistbumps, daps and other gestures are now all part of the mix…just seeing someone look away or put their hand behind their head when they say something tells you more than mere speech would. And, generally, just “being” there, with full motion, in the 3D environment that you move about in freely. Even the audio is spatial; you can pretty much tell who around you is talking even without looking to see which Lego figure (which is what most of the avatars resemble at this point; a new system is in the works, however…Altspace people say they’re rebuilding it from the ground up) or robot figure is speaking. Why some people chose more human avatars and others choose robots is a fascinating topic by itself.

I’ve witnessed roast sessions and rap battles, and yes, they were most entertaining. There’s even an amateur improv show every week, stage and all. By early next year, supposedly, our hands will be mapped directly from the headset, rather than using controllers. These are people in all corners of the world, yet somehow standing next to each other, just talking, as if you bumped into them on the street. And since the streets these days are filled with people texting on their phones, it actually feels refreshing to just talk with strangers from literally anywhere, as if you were together. The armor of the keyboard warrior is somewhat thinner; these are your actual words, not text to impress and be impressed by; you hear them as does everyone else in the vicinity. It’s…different. You can still be a jerk, of course, but when doing so, you feel more like a jerk than you would just typing impersonal letters on a keyboard.

It should of course be noted that Facebook itself is launching Horizon, its version of a virtual social environment, though after seeing how Facebook censors certain voices and allows others to voice BS, I can’t say I’m not concerned that that space could end up being similarly toxic.

But it’s strange, the feeling of presence in these places that don’t exist. After greatly enjoying the first episode of Vader Immortal, a canon Star Wars story produced by LucasFilm, I’m looking forward to going back into that world for the newly announced Episode II. And it does feel like actually going back there; the detail and atmosphere of these worlds can be jaw-dropping. When a door opened in front of me in a corridor and a stormtrooper charged out, I literally jumped back and said, “Oh shit!” while my virtual companions actually dealt with the situation. Not the most heroic of actions (I suspect I’d be rather useless in a real Star Wars environment), but honest at least. And at another point when we were edging along a shelf high above Mustafar, I just sat down on the ledge for a minute to enjoy the view of the lava and occasional TIE fighter flying by, even though my droid kept reminding that we were, uh, like, kind of in a hurry, you know? Being chased, threat of imminent capture…any of that ring a bell? The dialog is actually well written, I have to say. And the view was nice (again, I would suck at actual Star-warring).

But the point is that I was there.

Some friends have expressed concern that these virtual environments will cut off our connection with the real world, but, perhaps ironically, I find myself with a renewed appreciation for the details and subtleties of said world, sometimes just letting go and looking around me at all the wonderful things that, if they were part of a simulation (as some argue this world actually is), are so intricate and beautiful. Could it be that virtual reality’s greatest gift is an appreciation for actual reality? That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to meeting up with Monsieur Vader once again. Dude is downright intimidating when he’s standing in front of you, threats in his voice as well as his stance and movements. It’s a good thing there’s no real way to “lose” the game (that I know of), because I suspect one of the smart-ass remarks I make to him would earn me a force-choking.

Whenever I see VR being discussed on “traditional” media such as Facebook or tech sites, many people seem to have long-since dismissed it, especially after Spielberg’s dismal rendition of it in Ready Player One. It’s mostly tech people who are dissatisfied with the specs of the gear involved. “Deal killer” is an oft-mentioned term (then again it’s the same for camera gearheads). But there seems to be a general gulf of awareness between that world and the Internet As We Know It, like using radio to convince people to try television (which eventually worked? I assume?). Will it become impassible, or will it eventually disappear? Time will tell, I guess. When I started this blog in early 2001, even such things as smartphones weren’t even around yet, but after a few first-iteration clunkers, they’re now so commonplace that hardly anyone would entertain the thought of leaving the house without one. Will it be the same with VR? Noted photography critic A.D. Coleman wrote in 2014, “Much of the incunabula in any new medium tends to rely on mere novelty — look, I can do this! I can do that! — because its pioneer practitioners have to concentrate on mastering the toolkit, and the technology is unfamiliar and cumbersome…Once they learn how to control the tools, and the tools become more sophisticated and easier to handle, creative attention gets turned to what the artist has to say.” So it would seem that we are in this first, vital stage of the medium’s development.

What happens next? Maybe we can talk about it at the campfire.

posted by Poagao at 12:44 pm  
Jun 02 2016

Enter Player Here

I went over to the SynTrend Building to attend a VR/AR “Show-n-tell” gathering hosted by the Taiwan Start-up Stadium. I’d been told about it by Holly Harrington, who works there, and she has been very busy lately. It was on the 11th floor, welcomely air-conditioned after a long hot day. Stylish people were milling around the snack bar and a few headset setups. I met a co-worker of mine who is soon being sent to New York; she didn’t know anything about VR/AR, but her future boss had told her to study up on it, which is interesting.

The conference room where the show-n-tell presentations were held was packed, standing-room only, though the adjacent room where the meeting was being broadcast on a large screen was empty. I stood for a while at the back of the room being bumped by the photographer, who was none too subtle about changing lenses and using flash, before retiring to the other room to sit down.

One of the VR teams had an idea about creating and manipulating music in VR, which was interesting. The other seven teams seemed to only be shoehorning VR into existing procedures such as interior design and online shopping. Also, the videos nearly never worked at first, which was troubling. Someone introduced a 360-degree camera. But these things have never interested me that much. Is it 3D? How could it be with only one lens? It’s all just wallpaper, not a world.

Afterwards I chatted a bit with Justin Hendrix, who heads up the NYC Media Lab, and he seemed to agree with my conjecture that we’re currently in a similar phase with VR that movies were when they were new, and all anyone did was plop a camera in front of a stage play and call it a movie. They didn’t realize the potential of the new technology yet, “movies” didn’t really come into their own until they decided to throw out all of their stage-play constrictions and work in the new medium. Justin then told me that he’d heard of people in the nascent VR world referring to traditional movies as “flatties”, which I find fascinating, in that they’re already ready to move on…but to what? He hinted that the next generation of VR devices would most likely not only improve on resolution, refresh rate and viewing angle, but they’d become untethered as well, which would be huge. “2018 is the year everything will come together,” he predicted.

As far as Taiwan’s participation goes, however, I have my doubts about the content side. It’s wonderful that we’re trying to grow a start-up culture, something that is sorely lacking in this Confucian nightmare of Office Politics, but we have a long way to go before a truly innovative employee can easily gain the attention he or she deserves. Valve made a wise choice in choosing HTC for their hardware, but I haven’t really seen anything on the software side that could be termed revolutionary.

Then again, what do I know? Mssr. Hendrix is immersed in this stuff 24/7, and has been for years. I’ve only sampled a few VR experiences, and everyone’s different. That said, I still think that the trick to immersion will be making the player feel like a part of the world, not just physically, but also mentally and interactively, which means strong predictive AI. As much as I’d just gush over being able to wander around Hogwarts castle or the Enterprise, it’s going to be the interaction with other people and the characters that will being people into the world. No forced framing or close-ups; the environment will have to accomodate an almost-infinite number of paths. Forcing film-like narratives into a VR experience seems counterintuitive, and Jason got me thinking when he suggested that perhaps going back to the idea of stage plays, where every performance was live and therefore different, could be one way of thinking about it.

posted by Poagao at 11:21 pm  
Dec 14 2015


I’ve been interested in the prospect of virtual reality for some time now, but only recently have I been able to actually experience it for myself. The first opportunity I had to try it out was at one of the stores on the ground floor of the new tech shopping mall next to the Guanghua electronics market. They had an Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 rig set up there, where one could experience a roller coaster ride as well as a solar system demo. As it was my first experience with VR, it was bound to be impressive. I gripped the stool with one hand and tried to right myself as well as I could while the roller coaster tossed and turned, climbed and dove. I could look around, which was novel. I’ve always been interested in the little corners of video game environments that nobody else paid any attention to, and VR provides the potential for people like me to explore those corners better than any previous system has been able to so far. I like the exploring part of these environments far better than the shooting part. I’d turn on the god mode of FPS games just so I wouldn’t be distracted by all the killing and playovers, letting me just walk around and look at things. That was one of the main reasons I preferred PC gaming to console units back in the day.

The solar system demo was also impressive, sitting in a little cart jetting around based on eye movements, but somehow too abstract to convey the real experience. I found myself thinking, if I could just see some more detail in these massive things, I’d have a better idea of their size.

But what the Oculus DK2 set provided was just a glimpse of what VR could offer. The main feature was the low latency; at no point did I feel sick or dizzy, though I’d think providing chairs with actual backs wouldn’t be a bad idea for people trying out VR for the first time. What it didn’t provide, what it was sorely lacking in fact, was sufficient resolution to really make the view believe that they are seeing these things for real. Also, it felt limiting to be constricted to sitting in one spot and be led around by the program. It’s not the way we operate in reality, so it feels somewhat at odds with the concept of virtual reality. There’s movement, but you don’t feel it with your body; there’s no inertia to be overcome, no real sense of the movement involved. Also (and this is not an inherent fault of the Oculus), after being tried by so many people, the DK2 headset was kind of ratty and smudged. It felt very much like wearing dirty goggles.

My next opportunity with this technology came at a recent Taipei tech show, where I was able to try out HTC’s Vive setup. This meant waiting in line for a period of time before being ushered into a black room with a solitary chair. I put on the headset and found myself in a large white space. The controllers on the virtual floor matched their actual position at my feet so exactly that bending over and picking them up was completely natural. “Ok, we’re going to start the first demo,” the HTC people told me through the headset’s speaker.

And immediately I was on the deck of a sunken ship. Yeah, I’ve read about this demo, but it really can’t be described. The Youtube videos of it don’t come close to matching the experience. It’s really…almost…like you’re there. Unlike with the Oculus, I could walk around, to a limited extent. I walked over to peer over the side of the ship, down to the bottom, and the handlers said, “Be careful, you’re about to run into a wall.” The detail was far better than that of the Oculus DK2, as was the field of view.

This! I thought. This, I’ve got to have. But maybe not; in the first quarter of 2016, not only will the Vive arrive on shelves, but the new Oculus, which has better resolution, etc. as well as Sony’s Morpheus, which plays with an updated version of the PS4 called the Playstation VR, and Samsung’s Gear VR, which can be used with your phone (Your phone, not mine. I’m still using an old iPhone 4, which is pathetically unable to handle such things).

I don’t have a powerful PC set up, but I have been thinking of getting a console, so it might be that the Morpheus and a PS4 would work better for me. If the Vive plays well with my iMac, I might go that way. If the Oculus lets me move around, maybe that. Who knows? Nobody knows, at least for the moment; it’s a free-for-all, and it might not go anywhere if the developers don’t over the problem of integrating physical motion in games. Many, if not most of the proposed game demos feel like ordinary games forced into a VR medium, and don’t really take advantage of anything VR has to offer. Who wants to be in a cart the whole time? I’ve seen rigs with a guy standing on a movable plate and harnessed into a ring around their waists, but that seems half-assed to me. What would be better? I  have no idea, but I have to admit the idea of making my living room into a VR space just for games, where I am free to move about in a roughly five-square-meter area, appeals to me. The games would have to be specially designed to fit these limitations, though. How would that work? Would all of the rooms be of that size or smaller? Would you have to turn around at each door? Will longer distances necessarily be done on little hoverboards, etc.? Could a special chair be made to simulate motions in the game? Shouldn’t the controllers be more like gloves and have force feedback inside? For now, it seems they’ve got the head motion tracking part down, including binaural audio feeds. Improvements from here on out will be in resolution and field of view, as well as the mechanics of physical motion in the games.

How well will MMORPGs work with VR? Who wouldn’t love to simply wander about the Enterprise, or Mos Eisley spaceport, or the bath house from Spirited Away, or Hogwarts? Even if there were nobody to fight, no challenges or anything, just spending time in those worlds would be fascinating.

Interesting times lie ahead. But I can’t help but wonder how much of their lives people will invest in these environments. Surely within a few short years they will become perceptibly indistinguishable from reality, and if we can choose to inhabit crafted worlds, what happens to our ability to deal with the actual physical world? What happens if the populations of more affluent nations are mostly immersed in these worlds, while everyone else has to deal with reality? What happens if there’s a point where everyone is in these worlds, and not in this one? Will it be mandatory? Will reality become unpopular, or even illegal to experience, or both? Will there be a backlash? If so, will anyone care? I suspect we’re going to find out.

posted by Poagao at 1:05 pm  
Sep 04 2009

The middle camera

WARNING: Gear talk ahead.

Hard to believe that it’s September already. With most of my weekends gone to playing in clubs, time has really flown. Fall, however, has brought with it a plethora of new camera releases, which in turn represent a conundrum for me.

A while ago I wrote about my photography being divided into three levels of cameras, i.e. my big, heavy DSLR I take with me for dedicated photography trips, the compact camera I keep in my backpack all the time when I don’t feel like carrying the big camera and lenses with me, and the tiny camera on my mobile phone that I use when I don’t have the time or inclination to fetch either of my “real” cameras.

While my DSLR option is pretty much set in stone, as I am happy with the Invincible Rabbit, the compromises represented by the other level cameras make my wallet hand twitch when I see something that could improve the situation hit the market. A few cameras recently announced have had this effect:

The first one, of course, is Olympus’ EP1, a micro four-thirds camera somewhere between a compact point-and-shoot and a DSLR in both size and image quality. The stylin’ retro EP1 has no flash, which doesn’t bother me particularly, but the LCD is not particularly detailed, and since you have to rely on it for focusing, this is an important point to consider. Last week I attended a class on the EP1 just to check it out. It feels great in the hand, and the sound and feel of the shutter are wonderful. The EP1 also has in-body image stabilization, which is good for the low-light shots I love. For some reason, however, it kept focusing about a foot behind where it should have. The speed of the contrast-detect AF was about the same as my LX3, not bad, but not instantaneous.

Many of the percieved deficiencies of the EP1 might be fixable with new firmware, of course, but the focusing issues give me pause. The new Panasonic GF1, however, seems to have much quicker focusing, as well as a properly resolutioned LCD. The Panny, however, lacks in-body image stabilization and relies on lens-based systems. But with higher ISO shooting made possible by the larger sensors, it should still be better than the LX3 (theoretically).

One problem with the micr0-four-thirds format is that, if you want any kind of range, you have to use a bulky zoom lens like Oly’s 14-42 (which collapses) or Panny’s 14-45 (not sure if it collapses). In order for them to be truly compact, you have to use one of the pancake lenses with a single focal length. Is it worth giving up a decent range of focal lengths or portability for the extra image quality? This is the problem of the middle camera: exactly where in the middle should it be?

This brings me to the Canon S90, which would theoretically replace my Panasonic LX3. I have to admit I’ve always had a soft spot for Canon powershots, as one of the early models was my first digital camera, the SD100 back in 2001. Although the Lx3 is a fine camera for its size and does its job with more efficiency than any other compact I’ve had, it just isn’t as pocketable as my old powershots, and I have a hard time loving the output, especially after the brilliant images I got from the Sigma DP1. The DP1’s handling was heartbreakingly slow, however, and I was simply missing too many shots with it. The ones I did get, however, were wonderful. I’m under no illusion that the S90 would be much of an improvement over the LX3 as it has a similarly tiny sensor, adding only some useful telephoto range and a much slimmer, pocketable profile, and hopefully nicer colors.

Obviously, the easiest, cheapest option would to be to not buy anything new and keep the setup I have. Or I could replace the LX3 with either a GF1 or EP1 for better image quality, or with an S90 simply for better portability and range. I am also tempted to upgrade my phone to the iPhone 3GS just for the better camera, but I am tempted by the extra speed and compass functions as well. In that case the phone camera’s portability would make an S90 a little redundant.

I’m not forgetting that Leica is scheduled to unveil some new cameras on the 9th, aka 9/9/09 (full-frame M9 anyone?), but I’m sure that any digital camera they make that I could conceivably afford, I could also get for a third of the price from Panasonic, minus the little red dot.

None of the above cameras will be on shelves here for a matter of months, however, and a lot can happen in that time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this business, it’s that there is always a better camera just around the corner, and if you keep waiting for the “perfect” model, you’ll just be missing out on the pictures you could be taking in the here and now.

posted by Poagao at 5:45 pm  
Jul 26 2008

The Two Worlds

A while ago I wrote about how the Internet could eventually be combined with our physical reality in some fashion, overlaid so that our surroundings would basically gain all of the features of the Internet, including searchability and physical context-related information. At that point, a few mobile devices had GPS, but now that the new iPhone 3G is out and apparently selling like hotcakes, there are a slew of applications being made available these days that take advantage of the phone’s GPS to bring the virtual world of the Internet closer to our physical world. Basically, these devices know where you are (yes, I know it’s a scary thought, but I wonder if people might not be as frightened of this as it becomes more common), so information about everything around you is available through the device, a real-world Wikipedia: That interesting building across the street was built in 1903 and was the scene of a political assassination. There’s a tea house up this alley, but people say the Oolong is bit dodgy. Some got a really good picture of this empty house. There’s a squall moving in, we’d better get inside. That kind of thing.

Another aspect of this is that your phone not only knows about the physical world around you and your place in it, it will, through such (still rather sub-par) programs as Fire Eagle, Buddy Beacon, MyLoki, Britekite and the like, know where other people are, where they’ve been, even where they’re headed. This is a cool application, but I’m pretty sure I would lose a few friends when they see how I turn off my location beacon or hop on a bus as soon as they approach. Another strike against this will be not being able to send a text message I often send to people I’ve got appointments saying, “I’m almost there, just a few minutes!” when they can plainly see I’m still at home, in the bathtub, and I haven’t even scrubbed behind my ears.

Those little pixelated badges I’ve seen in the corners of a few websites recently confused me for a while. It turns out that they’re scannable QR codes that point your mobile device to a certain place on the Internet. Apparently they’re often used in Japan, and you can even make a badge to wear with such codes on it. If this kind of technology takes off, and it seems that businesses are designing these things into graphics, it will be another way the physical world is connected to the virtual.

Most of this interaction, so far, has been one-way, of the physical world being described and adjusted to by the virtual, but with the advent of 3D scanners, touch screens, interactive displays and even shape-shifting buildings, I wonder when and if the balance will tilt the other way, making the physical world “programmable” to a certain extent.

Every square foot of this planet has a history, whether people figure into it or not. Choose any street corner in your city and try to imagine all of the things that happened to all of the people standing in that very spot over the years. Now that we’re in a position to actually record these things and make them known, sooner or later a filter will be needed to deal with all of the massive amount of information that piles up. A good example of this is Panoramio on Google Earth: Eventually maps will be so covered in blue dots that you won’t be able to see the actual places unless you turn them off. Who will become the arbiter of such information? Who will decide what gets seen and what doesn’t? Now that’s the scary part, especially given the frightening, ongoing crackdown on personal photography in places like the US and UK, even as more and more CCTV cameras are put in place for the “official” version of the world. Give it 20 years, and the virtual world people have come to rely on overlaid onto and even able to change the physical world will be completely manipulable by those in control of the resources to do it. When that point comes, which reality will you believe?

posted by Poagao at 6:40 am  
Jan 17 2008

The iPod Numb

ipodnumbFrom a 2005 report: “Despite reaping great profits from iPod sales, Apple is still hesitant to bring its iTunes Music Store to Taiwan, because local consumers are still downloading songs via peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing Web sites instead of using online music stores.”

I’m bringing this up because Apple has lately seen fit to include some very useful applications to the iPod Touch. The only problem is that, while the new apps are free for new purchases and free if you have an iPhone, they are charging a bit of money, US$20, to unlock these abilities for the iPod Touch. They might as well be charging a million dollars, because if you don’t happen to be in an iTunes-approved country, you won’t be able to get that or anything else from iTunes or Apple, even if the country you’re in actually makes the iPods you’re not allowed to upgrade.

But is it me, or is this logic backwards? Apple is “hesitant” to bring iTunes to Taiwan because local consumers are downloading music from P2P sources? Hello, McFly? If there’s no other viable alternative, of course people will download songs that way. Just like by keeping the iPhone out of Taiwan, you’re ensuring that people will have no choice except to Jailbreak phones bought abroad. I’m considering jailbreaking my iPod Touch, though I really, really don’t want to. I’d much rather keep it unjailbroken and use iTunes to update it with the latest apps. I don’t have that big a problem with paying 20 bucks for the extra features. But Apple won’t let me do any of that because I’m in the wrong country.

The only thing that is even more hilarious is the fact that only foreigners from iTunes-approved countries are able to use the new maps application on their iPod Touches. Most Chinese-speaking people won’t be allowed access to this application. The maps it displays, however, are in Chinese.

posted by Poagao at 4:03 am  
Dec 31 2007

Losing our place

Reading this story on one user’s discovery of what she felt was a critical flaw in a new e-book reader -mainly that she felt vaguely troubled by the fact that she didn’t know where she was in the book, how close to the end, etc.- reminded me how bound most of us are to the traditional construction and ensuing emotional needs involved in storytelling. When stories come in standard formats like a 250-page paperback novel, a half-hour TV show or a 90-minute movie, we base our expectations of what’s happening and what’s going to happen on where we are within the story. When I was watching American Gangster last Wednesday, there’s a scene involving a raid on a warehouse. I found myself looking at my watch to ascertain whether it would be successful; if we were at one point in the movie it would work, whereas if it were earlier than I thought, it probably wouldn’t. It turned out I was right. When I was watching Ratatouille, the winning of the restaurant felt like it came too soon, but it turned out that it was not the major obstacle in the plot, which differed from most Hollywood story-telling conventions in interesting ways. If this doesn’t make sense to you, surely you’ve encountered watching a TV show you know for a fact to last only a half-hour, minus commercials, and at some point it becomes plain that the plot cannot be resolved in time. Sure enough, it’s a two-parter. Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion!

It seems that a measure of our enjoyment of a story in any form is the reassurance of knowing where we are in the dramatic arc. This knowledge may remain on the subconscious level for the most part, but it’s definitely a part of the experience, perhaps a part we’ve come to take for granted. But as the e-book phenomenon shows, things are changing. With the advent of such technologies as well as more downloadable, variable-construct media being made available, it may seem like we’re in danger of losing our place in the story.

My guess, however, is that although the next generation will see things differently as a result of different constructs, the power of good storytelling will prove more resilient than the medium that conveys it. My hope is that, with the breakdown of set formats for our stories, as well as the inevitable fierce competition resulting from the ability of just about anyone to produce content, will result in even stronger, more dramatically engaging stories that pull us in and give us a sense of where we are without the need to for surreptitious glances at watches or the folded corners of tattered paperbacks.

posted by Poagao at 4:11 am  
Dec 30 2007

While supplies last

The Muddy Basin Rambler's CD album for sale on CD BabyFor all of you Muddy Basin Rambler afficianados not fortunate enough to actually live in the Muddy Basin itself or with family members exiled from our fair island, our self-titled album chock full of foot-stomping jug band goodness is now available online for purchase at CD Baby. Yeah, I know, I should have put this up earlier so you could all send MBR CDs to each other for Christmas. Sorry. Go buy some anyway; you won’t regret it.

In other news, after a growing sense of unease created by the indecisiveness of various media industries and their continuing suicidal inability to decide on a single format for high-definition content, coupled with the fact that there is simply no other way for me to access HD content in Taiwan, I purchased a TViX HD4100 media box and stuck a 500Gb hard drive inside. It’s basically a media player with HDMI and other AV connections that plays just about anything I can throw at it, HD or otherwise, on my TV, all the way up to my Sharp Aquos’s 1080i resolution limit. I plug it into my computer’s USB2 port and shuttle stuff over, then hook it up to the TV, though it has an Ethernet port. With the remote control, it feels just like a DVD player and works just fine with both HD-DVD, Blu-Ray, AVI, XVID, DVIX, MP3, MP4 or whatever format. The video looks gorgeous and the sound is great. So, all of the rest of you, go on clawing at each other over whether Blu-ray or HD-DVD is better as long as you like, but try to keep it down, ok? I’m watching a movie.

posted by Poagao at 7:59 am  
Sep 06 2007

Too many choices

Apple’s announcement of its new line of iPods hasn’t made my quest for the perfect device any easier. Instead, it’s become more convoluted, as no single version of the iPod really meets all the criteria I have for a decent all-around device. Many people were looking forward to a multi-touch iPod, but the one Apple came up with has only 16Gb of space on it. My first thought was that 16Gb would hardly do, with the iPod Classic having ten times that amount in space. But then I thought, exactly how much music do I have on my ailing iRiver? I connected it only to find that after years of adding to it, I have a mere 7Gb of music on it’s 20Gb drive. And that’s my entire mp3 collection (how would cover flow work with no cover art? I wonder). But as that gorgeous widescreen demands videos, that only leave 9Gb for videos, which amounts to around 10 hours of video. So much for having entire runs of ones favorite TV shows on hand.

But then again, realistically, how much time would I spend watching videos? I tend to read books when I’m out and need a diversion. This may be because videos have never been available in such a format to me before, of course. But I certainly wouldn’t be watching them when I’m walking around, 0nly when I was trapped someplace like the subway or…well, the subway. Even on a real train I tend to spend my time looking out the window rather than wishing I had that one episode of “Seinfeld” where George does that thing.

I suppose I could wait for the iPhone to reach our golden shores, preferably in 16Gb or even (gasp) 32Gb form, but there’s no word on that, and the thing still lacks GPS and 3G connectivity.

When it comes down to it, there still just isn’t one device that covers all the bases. The iPod Touch has the web, music, some video, a (so I hear) semi-usable keyboard and great screen, but lacks a camera, GPS, HDD and phone capabilities. The iPod Classic has the space and does music and video, albeit on a smaller screen (do you really want to spend all that time peering at a 2.5-inch screen? Can’t be good for your eyes), but lacks everything else. The iPhone, with only 8Gb of memory, would be hard-pressed just to hold my music collection. Similarly the 8Gb Nokia N95, which has GPS and Internet, but no touchscreen or keyboard. I’m not listing devices like the Archos video player, the Creative Zen Vision and the HTC Shift that won’t fit in my pocket, btw.

So maybe my question should instead be: Which two devices offer the most complementary and comprehensive range of features? I’d say either the TyTN II and the iPod Classic, though this would mean sacrificing the widescreen videos, or the TyTN and the iPod Touch, which would mean going without all that HDD space. There’s also the issue of mixing and matching between the Windows OS and the Apple OS systems, which sounds complicated at best. And there’s the issue of the traditionally poor iPod sound quality, as well as having to deal with iTunes, which I’d rather not have to do. I far prefer the drag-and-drop simplicity of the iRiver. And frankly, the iRiver’s sound quality rocks. I’ve heard good things about Creative’s sound quality, but I’d have to hear it for myself to make sure. Creative’s offerings seem more like the last-generation of iPods, though. If I go that route, I might as well go for the 160Gb of iPod Classic goodness.

So phone-wise, the HTC TyTN II still has my vote for the phone side of things. On the media side, iRiver, which isn’t offering any equivalent player at the moment, is fresh out of new batteries for my discontinued H320, but I still might be able to find a resupplier if I want to pay for it and wait for other choices to become available. When the actual new iPods make it here, I’ll mosey on down to the store to cop a feel and see if I can’t come to some kind of conclusion on the matter.

posted by Poagao at 11:46 am  
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