If survival horror is one of the game genres that I tend to rate poorly because of my internal bias against them then real time strategy is the genre that I find myself rating consistently higher for the same reasons. This could be some kind of survivor bias that led me to drop many RTS style games early on in their lives before I could make it to the end to review them (Company of Heroes comes to mind in this regard) but it’s probably more due to my gaming roots being firmly planted in this space having whiled away many hours on the RTS classic, Dune 2. You can then imagine my intrigue when Auralux, a game from independent developer E.B. McNeill, claimed to be the very essence of RTS, cutting away all the peripheral elements until the game was refined to its core.
Auralux, like many independently developed games, has had to make choices as to what needed to be included in the game and what should be excluded. For Auralux this means that there is no story to speak of, you are simply a sun orbited by little dots who needs to take over all the other suns in the area whilst competing with 2 NPC suns who are doing the same thing. The introduction to the game is also quite thin on the ground as well but considering that there really isn’t that much to explain it actually suffices quite well. Your missions start out easy but as time goes on they get increasingly more difficult but you’re also blessed with some additional options to make your time with Auralux much more enjoyable.
The graphics of Auralux are incredibly simple with the most complex item on the whole screen being the suns that dot the landscape. It’s akin to many other ambient titles where the minimalistic graphics combined with the soothing background music make for a very pleasing game experience. The simple graphics are also due in part to the fact that Auralux is also available on Android and whilst many handsets are capable of producing much more elaborate visuals than what Auralux has that narrows the potential market for this game significantly. All that being said it’d probably look a whole lot better on a smaller screen so I’m probably being a bit harsh in that regard.
As I alluded to earlier the core game of Auralux is incredibly simple. You start off with a sun that produces little dots that you can use to take over other, unoccupied suns or to upgrade your own if its capable of doing so. Those same little dots are also your battle units and you can use them to take over other suns owned by the other players. That’s essentially it and the rest of the game is played inside your head as you work out the best strategy to overcome your foes and inevitably take over the entire board with your glowy blue goodness.
Initially the odds are heavily stacked in your favour with you usually starting from a position of power strategically. This serves as the tutorial of sorts as whilst the game play is refined down to the absolute basics its still very easy for you to get into a position that you can’t recover from. The games are also slow and methodical at the start, encouraging you to take your time with each move and consider the best path of action before committing all your available units to it. It’s a good introduction to the idea but it eventually starts to wear thin as you sometimes have to wait for a significant amount of time to pass before you’re able to progress to the next stage.
Thankfully the developer behind Auralux realised this and after a few levels you’re able to unlock “speed mode” which allows you to play the exact same game sped up significantly. This turns matches that would last 10~20 minutes into 5 minute affairs something that is definitely required considering how long it can take to build up and move your army around the map. Once I unlocked the mode I didn’t play it any other way and still managed to eek out a couple hours worth of game time and I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything by doing so.
The bulk of the game stays in either the stacked in your favour or equal footing level of difficulty where you can get by with relatively unimaginative strategies. The last quarter or so puts you in situations where the odds are clearly stacked against you, usually either starving you of resources compared to your competitors or putting you in a really non-strategic position. These maps are the ones that require an incredible amount of strategy to conquer and I can say that these maps took up the vast majority of my total game time.
Something that I feel is key to understanding this game (that is only made clear to you in one of the tips that’s quite easy to miss) is that whilst the AI appears to work differently on different levels it is in fact identical across the board. Now it’s not strict as far as I can tell, it will make different decisions when two options are basically equal, but the way it operates stays the same no matter the map you’re on. Considering the matches are essentially a free for all (or more realistically a 2v1) the game then is usually to get the 2 computers to fight each other so you can quietly build up an army and devastate them before they can retaliate.
Indeed the only advantage you have as a human in this game is the fact that you’re able to think non-linearly. The screenshot below is an example of this as the AI has the terrible habit of putting all of its available units on the front lines leaving its production at the rear incredibly exposed, letting me swoop in to get it. Now if you play like the AI does you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose as the AI is very aware of when 2 of its opponents are duking it out and will take advantage of this so the way to win most games is to wait for an opportunity like the one below and make yourself an unattractive target for the other AI. There may be other ways to win but this was the only way I found to win consistently and even then I’d sometimes lose because both the AIs figured out I was an easier target then the other AI, devastating me in a short time.
Whilst the metagame might not be as rich as other RTS titles it’s still thoroughly enjoyable when you manage to pull off an incredibly risky maneuver that gives you the game winning advantage. It’s true that this is probably the simplest game that you could still reasonably call a RTS and whilst that’s an achievement in itself it also means that the variety of game play possible is also limited. The replayability of Auralux isn’t particularly high if you approach it like a traditional game but for a timewaster on a phone I can see it having quite a long life.
Auralux then is one of those curious indie games that, by necessity, strips back all extravagances in favour of a solid core game mechanic. Auralux does it well and I’d struggle to find anything simpler that could still be realistically called a RTS, even from 2 decades when games had to be simple. Whilst I might’ve cursed its name for the apparent randomness and the AIs ganging up on me I came to realise that it’s all part of the higher order strategy required to conquer your opponents. For RTS fans and casual gamers alike there’s much to love in Auralux and I’d heartily recommend a play through.
Auralux is available on PC and Android for $4.99 and free respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with about 3 hours of total play time.
I’ve seen so many consoles come and during my years as a gamer. I remember the old rivalries back in the day between the stalwart Nintendo fans and the just as dedicated Sega followers. As time went on Nintendo’s dominance became hard to push back against and Sega struggled to face up to the competition. Sony however made quite a splash with their original Playstation and was arguably the reason behind the transition away from game cartridges to the disc based systems we have today. For the last 5 years or so though there really hasn’t been much of a shake up in the console market, save for the rise of the motion controllers (which didn’t really shake anything up other than causing a giant fit of mee-tooism from all the major players).
I think the reasons for this are quite simple: consoles became powerful enough to be somewhat comparable to PCs, the old school king of gaming. The old business models of having to release a new console every 3 years or so didn’t make sense when your current generation was more than capable of modern games at a generally acceptable level. There was also the fact that Microsoft got burned slightly by releasing the Xbox360 so soon after the original Xbox and I’m sure Sony and Nintendo weren’t keen on making the same mistake. All we’ve got now are rumours about the next generation of consoles but by and large they’re not shaping up to be anything revolutionary like their current gen brethren were when they were released.
What’s really been shaking up the gaming market recently though is the mobile/tablet gaming sector. Whilst I’ll hesitate to put these in the same category as consoles (they are, by and large, not a platform with a primary purpose of gaming in mind) they have definitely had an impact in the portable sector. At the same time though the quality of games available on the mobile platform has increased significantly and developers now look to develop titles on the mobile platform wouldn’t have been reasonable or feasible only a few short years ago. This is arguably due to the marked increase in computing power that has been made available to even the most rudimentary of smart phones which spurred developers on to be far more ambitious with the kinds of titles they develop for the platform.
What I never considered though was a crossover between the traditional console market and the now flourishing mobile sector. That’s were OUYA, an Android based game console, comes into play.
OUYA is at its heart a smartphone without a screen or a cellular chipset in it. At its core it boasts a NVIDIA Tegra 3 coupled with 1GB of RAM, 8GB of flash storage, Bluetooth and a USB 2 port for connectivity. For a console the specifications aren’t particularly amazing, in fact they’re down right pitiful, but it’s clear that their idea for a system isn’t something that can play the latest Call of Duty. Instead the OUYA’s aim is to lurethat same core of developers, the ones who have been developing games for mobile platforms, over to their platform by making the console cheap, license free and entirely open. They’ve also got the potential to get a lot of momentum from current Android developers who will just need a few code modifications to support the controller, giving them access to potentially thousands of launch titles.
I’ll be honest at the start I was somewhat sceptical about what the OUYA’s rapid funding success meant. When I first looked at the console specifications and intended market I got the feeling that the majority of people ordering it weren’t doing it for the OUYA as a console, no the were more looking at it as a cracking piece of hardware for a bargain basement price. Much like the Raspberry Pi the OUYA gives you some bits of tech that are incredibly expensive to acquire otherwise like a Tegra 3 coupled with 1GB RAM and a Bluetooth controller. However that was back when there were only 8,000 backers but as of this morning there’s almost 30,000 orders in for this unreleased console. Additionally the hype surrounding around the console doesn’t appear to be centred on the juicy bits of hardware underneath it, people seem to be genuinely excited by the possibilities that could be unlocked by such a console.
I have to admit that I am too. Whilst I don’t expect the OUYA to become the dominant platform or see big name developers rushing towards releasing torrents of titles on it the OUYA represents something that the console market has been lacking: a cheap, low cost player that’s open to anyone. It’s much like the presence of an extremely cut-rate airline (think Tiger Airlines in Australia) sure you might not catch them all the time because of the ridiculous conditions attached to the ticket but their mere presence keeps the other players on their best behaviour. The OUYA represents a free, no holds barred arena where big and small companies alike can duke it out and whilst there might not be many multi-million dollar titles made for the platform you can bet that the big developers won’t be able to ignore it for long.
I’m genuinely excited about what the OUYA represents for the console games industry. With innovation seemingly at a stand still for the next year or two it will be very interesting to see how the OUYA fairs, especially considering its release date for the first production run in slated for early next year. I’m also very keen to see what kinds of titles will be available for it at launch and, hacker community willing, what kinds of crazy, non-standard uses for the device come out. I gladly plonked down $149 for the privilege of getting 1 with 2 controllers and even if you have only a casual interest in game consoles I’d urge you to do much the same.
It wasn’t long ago that I got nerd chills from the speculative specifications of Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S3. I think that was mostly due to the micro arc oxidation video that someone had linked to when it was speculated that the case would be some form of ceramic. The specifications were also none too shabby either although I was curious as to how Samsung was going to squeeze in such a massive display yet still keep the trim and taught design philosophy that has been a signature of the Galaxy series. After a torrent of leaks, rabid speculation and uncertainty about the actual announcement date Samsung has finally announced the Galaxy S3 at the Mobile Unpacked event in London.
I’ll have to be honest at first glance I wasn’t really thrilled with the design of the new Galaxy S3. I mean it’s not exactly ugly, the minimalistic front panel is in essence the same as nearly all its predecessors, but the softer, more rounded edges are a step away from the much sharper corners of its predecessor. The glossy back plate is also something I’m not entirely in love with either as the textured back of the S2 is something I’ve come to appreciate after using it for an extended period of time. Apart from those two complaints though I’ve got a feeling it will be a very nice handset to use, being only slightly thicker than the S2 (8.6mm vs 8.49mm) with another half an inch of screen size that boasts a much higher resolution.
Spec wise the Galaxy S3 is a pretty large jump up from the S2 in nearly every aspect. The dual core 1.2GHz Exynos processor has been replaced with a quad core 1.4GHz giving the S3 an incredible amount of computing power. The graphics card stays the same in name only as whilst Samsung isn’t releasing anything official on it yet some early benchmarks show that its easily beating out its predecessor by a wide margin and even takes the top spot in a number of tests. The most noticeable improvement though is of course the giant Super AMOLED screen that’s 4.8 inches across and is packing a resolution of 1280 x 720 (720p). Strangely though the RAM and cameras both remain the same as the predecessor so I’m guessing both of them classified as good enough and weren’t in need of any physical improvements.
Whilst the hardware is impressive it’s quite obvious that it was not the major focus of Samsung’s announcement; that honor belongs to the software.
The Galaxy S3 comes loaded with Android 4.0.4 that’s been modified with Samsung’s usual TouchWiz interface. Now I was a fan of that in the beginning, it definitely eased my transition into the Android world coming from an iPhone, but the stock ICS experience is very good so Samsung has their work cut out for them when it comes to improving on that. From what I’ve seen so far they’ve deviated heavily from the stock interface I assume mostly to enable the additional features they’ve integrated but I’ll guess I should wait and see them for myself before I pass judgement on them.
From a usability perspective Samsung has added in a few features that will make the phone much more user friendly. “Smart Stay” will recognize when you’re looking at the phone and adjust the brightness accordingly. This is similar to the auto-dimming feature on other phones but this goes a step further by looking for your face so it knows when you’ve put the phone down. Samsung has also duplicated Apple’s Siri in what they’re calling “S Voice” but has gone deeper with the platform integration, enabling you to do things like say “snooze” to delay an alarm. Finally “Smart Alert” (everything of theirs is smart apparently) will recognize when you’ve missed a call and have picked up the phone since, vibrating and putting the alerts front and center.
Samsung is also trying to make sharing between S3′s and other devices easier through their S Beam app which builds on the Android Beam present in ICS. In essence its a high speed data transfer program that works between Galaxy S3 handsets, utilizing both WiFi and NFC to get some pretty decent speeds (5MB/s from what Samsung tells us). Their AllShare Cast and AllShare Play features are also quite interesting allowing S3 owners to share video simultaneously between them or even wirelessly transmit their screen (usually a game) to say the lounge room TV. Whether those two features will prove useful however is something I’m not entirely sure about, but it is a rather novel little feature to include with the new handset.
Is this handset enough to tempt current S2 owners to pony up for the latest handset? Hard to say, I’m still only 9 months into owning mine and whilst I do have a serious amount of nerd lust for the specs of the S3 I’m not 100% sold on it yet. The heavy focus on the software is probably what is making me hesitant as whilst I found TouchWiz to be great for an iPhone user coming across to Android land I’ve since fallen in love with the stock ICS experience. I have no doubt that the people over xda-developers will eventually make a ROM that contains the best of both worlds so I can have my cake and eat it too but then again I’m not your typical Samsung user. In that regard then I think that the S3 will have more than enough to tempt current owners across, and I’m probably just talking tough right now in order to keep up some blog cred
I’m always surprised at how many people I know use Dropbox. It’s not just because I have a lot of tech minded friends either, no a whole bunch of regular people I know use it for backup and to share large files that would be cumbersome otherwise. I personally use it (well used to) to back up my phone’s apps and configuration using Titanium Backup Pro. I don’t have as much use for it now since the integrated sync options from Google do 90% of the work without me having to think about it. Still every so often I’ll find myself needing use of some accessible-from-anywhere type storage and I’ll always come back to Dropbox.
That might all be about to change, however.
Rumors have been circulating for eons that Google would eventually launch some kind of cloud storage service, going head to head with industry heavyweight Dropbox. In fact I can remember hearing rumors about it not too long after they released Gmail all those years ago after someone figured out how to create a bastardized version of it using said service. After all that time it appears that Google is finally about to pull the trigger on providing such a service, giving all new comers to the service 5GB worth of free cloud storage with the option to purchase more should you need it. It seems even the app has made its way into some of the more enthusiastic tech writer’s hands, taking the GDrive right out of the rumor mill.
Anyone who knows something about Dropbox’s story you’ll probably find this announcement both awesome and completely hilarious. Drew Houston, the man behind Dropbox, said when applying to startup incubator YCombinator that it was a very real possibility that Google would announce GDrive early on in his product’s life and that would basically mean the end of it. However for the past 4 years as Dropbox has gained significant market share and momentum Google has been very mum on the subject, not leaking any details of whether or not they’d pursue the idea. Now Google is launching into a market that has extremely heavy competition as Dropbox isn’t the only cloud storage provider out there.
For what its worth I really think that Google has launched 4 years too late here. Back when Dropbox was just taking off Google had a real chance to either launching a competing product and grabbing the market early or simply attempting to buy out Dropbox and re-branding it as their own service. Rumor has it that Apple tried to do just that some time last year but Dropbox turned down the offer and its very possible that Google attempted the same thing only to get the same response. This could be why we’re now seeing a GDrive product finally coming to fruition as they’ve been left with no choice but to compete with Dropbox on their home turf.
So does this mean that the GDrive is a fool’s gambit? Not entirely as whilst Dropbox is the market leader in this space there’s something to be said for Google services. It’s quite possible that GDrive will now become heavily integrated with all of Google’s other products and that’s where they’ll be able to garner a large user base from. If their current Android integration is anything to go by adding in a cloud storage platform that’s natively integrated with the OS will provide some pretty spectacular benefits, much like the ones Microsoft is touting with Azure and Windows 8. Whether their service will be profitable is something we’ll just have to wait to see, however.
It was just over a decade ago now but I can still vividly remember walking around the streets of Akihabara in Tokyo. It’s a technical wonderland and back then when Internet shopping was something only crazy people did (for fear of losing your credit card details) it was filled with the kind of technology you couldn’t find anywhere else. I was there on a mission looking for a pocket translator similar to the one my Japanese teacher had lent me. While my quest went unfulfilled I did manage to see all sorts of technology there that wouldn’t make it to Australia shores for years to come, and one piece in particular stuck in my mind.
There was a row of these chunky looking head sets, each hooked up to what looked like a portable CD player. I remember picking one up and looking at the headset I saw two tiny displays in it, one for each eye. Putting on the headset I was greeted to a picture that seemed massive in comparison to the actual size of the device playing some kind of demo on a loop. It wasn’t perfect but it was enough to make me fascinated with the concept and I thought it wouldn’t be long before everyone had some kind of wearable display. Here we are just over a decade later and the future I envisioned hasn’t yet come to pass but it seems we’re not far off.
Today Google announced Project Glass, one of their brain childs of the secretive Google[x] lab. There’s been rumours floating around for quite a while now that they were working on something of this nature but no one could give much above the general idea that it would be a head mounted display and Android would be powering it. Looking over what Google’s released today as well as the comments from other news outlets makes it clear that Google is quite serious about this idea and it could be something quite revolutionary.
The initial headset designs I saw back when I heard the original rumours were the kind of of clunky, overly large glasses we’ve come to expect when anyone mentions a wearable display. Google’s current design (pictured above) seems rather elegant in comparison. It’ll still draw a lot of attention thanks to the chunky white bar at the side but it’s a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from wearable displays. What’s even more impressive is the concept demo they included alongside it, showcasing what the headset is capable of:
The possibilities for something like this are huge. Just imagine extending the capabilities to recognise faces of people you’ve met before, neatly side stepping that awkward moment when you forget someone’s name. You could even work a barcode scanner into it, allowing you to scan food to see the nutritional value (and then see if it fits in with your diet) before you purchase it. I could go on forever about the possibilities of a device like the Project Glass but suffice to say it’s quite an exciting prospect.
What will be really interesting to see is how these kind of devices blend in to every day social interactions. The smart phone and tablet managed to work their way into social norms rather quickly but a device like this is a whole other ball game. The sleek and unobtrusive design will help ease its transition in some what but I can still see a long adaptation period where people will wonder why the heck you’re wearing it. That won’t deter me from doing so though as it’s this kind of device that makes me feel like I’m living in the future. That’s all it takes for me to overcome any social anxiety that I might have about wearing one of these
7 months down the line and I’m still a big fan of my Samsung Galaxy S2. It’s been a great phone, combining large screen size with a slim, lightweight shell that I sometimes have to check for to remind myself that its still in my pocket. It’s surprisingly resilient as well, having taken more than a couple drops from pretty decent heights and coming out the other end with only minor scuffs and nary a scratch on the screen. Sadly I can’t say much more for the battery life as it seems that the more apps I pile on there the worse it gets, but I can’t really blame the phone for my app hoarding ways.
However I always knew that this relationship would be temporary, I mean how could it not? It started with geek wunderlust and as it is with all relationships that start like that it’s inevitable that my eyes would begin to wander, and so they have with this announcement:
…Ladies and gentlemen, here is the Samsung Galaxy S III:
- 1.5GHz quad-core Samsung Exynos processor
- 4.8-inch “full HD” 1080p resolution with 16:9 aspect ratio display
- A 2-megapixel front-facing camera and an 8-megapixel rear camera
- Ceramic case
- 4G LTE
- Android 4.0
I’ll spare you the photoshopped Galaxy S2 images that are doing the rounds but suffice to say those specs are pretty darn amazing. They’re also fairly plausible as well given Samsung’s research into the component technologies and current trends for both carriers and the Android platform. The detail that caught my eye however was the ceramic case as that’s not a material that you’d usually expect to see on a mobile phone with plastic and glass being the only 2 real choices. There could be reasoning behind it though and if my suspicions are correct its due to the crazy amount of tech they’ve stuffed under the hood.
Traditionally ceramics are pretty poor heat conductors which is why they make for good mugs and insulation materials. However there are quite a few advanced ceramics that are very capable of moving heat just as efficiently as most metals are, some even better. Now anyone who has a dual core smart phone knows how hot the buggers get when you’re using them for an extended period and since most phones are plastic that heat tends to stick around rather than dissipate. The ceramic case could then be an attempt to mitigate the heat problems that will come with the quad core processor and larger screen. This also has the potential to make the phones somewhat more brittle however (ceramics don’t flex, they shatter) so it will be interesting to see how Samsung compensates for that.
With just those few details though I’m already excited for Samsung’s next instalment in their flagship line of smart phones. Their last 2 iterations of the Galaxy S line have gone from strength to strength, firmly cementing themselves as the number one Android handset manufacturer. The Galaxy S3 looks to continue this trend with specifications that are sure to tempt even the most recent purchasers of the S2. I know I’ll find it hard to resist and I’m thankful that it probably won’t be out for a little while longer.
I don’t think my wallet would appreciate buying 2 phones within 7 months of each other
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of my Samsung Galaxy S2, mostly because the specifications are enough to make any geek weak at the knees. It’s not just geeks that are obsessed with the phone either as Samsung has moved an impressive 10 million of them in the 5 months that its been available. Samsung has made something of a name for itself in being the phone manufacturer to have if you’re looking for an Android handset, especially when you consider Google used their original Galaxy S as the basis for their flagship phone the Nexus S. Rumours have been circulating for a while that Samsung would once again be the manufacturer of choice, a surprising rumour considering they had just sunk a few billion into acquiring Motorola.
Yesterday however saw the announcement of Google’s new flagship phone the Galaxy Nexus and sure enough it’s Samsung hardware that’s under the hood.
The stand out feature of the Galaxy Nexus is the gigantic screen, coming in at an incredible 4.65 inches and a resolution of 1280 x 720 (the industry standard for 720p). That gives you a PPI of 315 which is slightly below the iPhone 4/4S’ retina screen which comes in at 326 PPI which is amazing when you consider it’s well over an inch bigger. As far as I can tell it’s the highest resolution on a smart phone in the market currently and there’s only a handful of handsets that boast a similar sized screen. Whether this monster of a screen will be a draw card though is up for debate as not all of us are blessed with the giant hands to take full advantage of it.
Under the hood it’s a bit of a strange beast, especially when compared to its predecessors. It uses a Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 processor (dual core, 1.2GHz) instead of the usual ARM A9 or Samsung’s own Exynos SOC coupled with a whopping 1GB of RAM. The accompanying hardware includes a 5MP camera capable of 1080p video, all the usual connectivity options with the addition of NFC and wireless N and, strangely enough, a barometer. The Galaxy Nexus does not feature expandable storage like most of its predecessors did, instead coming in 16GB and 32GB variants. All up it makes for a phone that’s definitely a step up from the Galaxy S2 but not in every regard with some features on par or below that of the S2.
Looking at the design of the Galaxy Nexus I couldn’t help but notice that it had sort of regressed back to the previous design style, being more like the Galaxy S rather than the S2. As it turns out this is quite deliberate as Samsung designed the Galaxy Nexus in such a way as to avoid more lawsuits from Apple. It’s rather unfortunate as the design of the Galaxy S2 is really quite nice and I’m not particularly partial to the rounded look at all. Still I can understand why they want to avoid more problems with Apple, it’s a costly exercise and neither of them are going to come out the other side smelling of roses.
Hand in hand with the Galaxy Nexus announcement Google has also debuted Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of the Android OS. There’s a myriad of improvements that I won’t go through here (follow the link for a full run down) but notable features are the ability to unlock your phone by it recognizing your face, integrated screen capture (yes, that hasn’t been a default feature for this long), a NFC sharing app called Android Beam and a better interface for seeing how much data you’re using that includes the ability to kill data hogging apps. Like the Galaxy Nexus itself Ice Cream Sandwich is more of an evolutionary step rather than being revolutionary but it looks like a worthy compliment to Google’s new flagship phone.
The Galaxy Nexus shows that Samsung is very capable of delivering impressive smart phones over and over again. The hardware, for the most part, is quite incredible bringing features to the table that haven’t yet been seen before. Ice Cream Sandwich looks to be a good upgrade to the Android operating system and coupled with the Galaxy Nexus the pair will make one very desirable smart phone. Will I be getting one of them? Probably not as my S2 is more than enough to last me until next year when I’ll be looking to upgrade again, but I can’t say I’m not tempted
Voice controlled computers and electronics have always been a staple science fiction, flaunting with the idea that we could simply issue commands to our silicone based underlings and have them do our bidding. Even though technology has come an incredibly long way in the past couple decades understanding natural language is still a challenge that remains unconquered. Modern day speech recognition systems often rely on key words in order to perform the required commands, usually forcing the user to use unnatural language in order to get what they want. Apple’s latest innovation, Siri, seems to be a step forward in this regard and could potentially signal in a shift in the way people use their smartphones and other devices.
On the surface Siri appears to understand quite a bit of natural language, being able to understand that a single task can be said in several different ways. Siri also appears to have a basic conversational engine in it as well so that it can interpret commands in the context of what you’ve said to it before. The scope of what Siri can do however is quite limited but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as being able to nail a handful of actions from natural language is still leaps and bounds above what other voice recognition systems are currently capable of.
Siri also has a sense of humour, often replying to out of left field questions with little quips or amusing shut downs. I was however disappointed with the response for a classic nerd line of “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” which recieved the following response:
This screen shot also shows that Siri’s speech recognition isn’t always 100% either, especially when it’s trying to guess what you were saying.
Many are quick to draw the comparison between Android’s voice command system and apps available on the platform like Vlingo. The big difference there though is that these services are much more like search engines than Siri, performing the required actions only if you utter the commands and key words in the right order. That’s the way nearly all voice operated systems have worked in the past (like those automated call centres that everyone hates) and are usually the reason why most people are disappointed in them. Siri has the one up here as people are being encouraged to speak to it in a natural way, rather than changing the way they speak in order to be able to use it.
For all the good that Siri is capable of accomplishing it’s still at it’s heart a voice recognition system and with that comes some severe limitations. Ambient noise, including others talking around you, will confuse Siri completely making it unusable unless you’re in relatively quite area. I’m not just saying this as a general thing either, friends with Siri have mentioned this as one of its short comings. Of course this isn’t unique to Siri and is unlikely to be a problem that can be overcome by technology alone (unless you could speak to Siri via a brain implant, say).
Like many other voice recognition systems Siri is geared more toward the accent of the country it was developed in, I.E. American. This isn’t just limited to the different spellings between say the Queen’s English and American English but also for the inflections and nuances that different accents introduce. Siri will also fall in a crying heap if the pronunciation and spelling are different as well, again limiting its usefulness. This is a problem that can and has been overcome in the past by other speech recognition systems and I would expect that with additional languages for Siri already on the way that these kinds of problems will eventually be solved.
A fun little fact that I came across in my research for this post was that Apple still considered Siri to be a beta product (right at the bottom, in small text that’s easy to miss). That’s unusual for Apple as they’re not one to release a product unfinished, even if that comes at the cost of features not making it in. In a global sense Siri really is still beta with some of her services, like Yelp and location based stuff, not being available to people outside of the USA (like the above screenshot shows). Apple is of course working to make them all available but it’s quite unusual for them to do something in this fashion.
So is Siri the next step in user interfaces? I don’t think so. It’s a great step forward for sure and there will be people who make heavy use of it in their daily activities. However once the novelty wears off and the witty responses run out I don’t see a compelling reason for people to continue using Siri. The lack of a developer API as well (and no mention of whether one will be available) means that the services that can be hooked into Siri are limited to those that Apple will develop, meaning some really useful services might never be integrated forcing users to go back to native apps. Depending on how many services are excluded people may just find it easier to not use Siri at all, opting for the already (usually quite good) native app experience. I could be proven wrong on this, especially with technology like Watson on the horizon, but for now Siri’s more of a curiosity than anything else.
Whilst Android has been making solid inroads to the tablet market, snapping up a respectable 26.8%, it’s still really Apple’s market with them holding a commanding lead that no one’s been able to come close to touching. It’s not for a lack of trying though with many big name companies attempting to break into the market only to pull out shortly afterwards, sometimes in blaze of fire sale glory. It doesn’t help matters much that every new tablet will be compared to the iPad thus ensuring every new tablet attempts to one up it in some way, usually keeping a price parity with the iPad but without the massive catalogue of apps that people have come to expect from Apple products.
Apple’s got a great game going here. All of their iDevice range essentially made the market that they’re in, grabbing enough fans and early adopters to ensure their market dominance for years to come. Competitors then attempt to mimic Apple’s success by copying the essential ideas and then attempting to innovate, fighting an uphill battle. Whilst they might eventually lose ground to the massive onslaught of competitors (like they have to Android) they’ll still be one of the top individual companies, if they’re not number 1. It’s this kind of market leading that makes Apple products so desirable to John Q. Public and the reason why so many companies are failing to steal their market share away.
Rumours have been circulating for a while now over Amazon releasing a low cost tablet of some description and of course everyone was wondering whether it would shape up to be the next “iPad killer”. Today we saw the announcement of the Kindle Fire: a 7-inch multi-touch tablet that’s heavily integrated with Amazon’s services and comes at the low low price of only $199.
As a tablet it’s something of an outsider. Foregoing the traditional 9 to 10 inch screen size for a smaller 7 inch display. The processor in it isn’t anything fantastic, being just a step up from the one that powers the Nook Color, but history has shown it’s quite a capable system so the Kindle Fire shouldn’t be a slouch when it comes to performance. There’s also a distinct lack of cameras, 3G and Bluetooth connectivity meaning that the sole connection this tablet has to the outside world will be via your local wifi connection. It comes with an internal 8GB of storage that’s not upgradeable, favouring to store everything on the cloud and download it as required. You can see why this thing wouldn’t work with WhisperNet.
Also absent is any indication that the Kindle Fire is actually an Android device with the operating system being given a total overhaul. The Google App store has been outright replaced by Amazon’s Android app store and the familiar tile interface has been replaced by a custom UI designed by Amazon. All of Amazon services: music, books and movies to name a few, are heavily integrated with the device. Indeed they are so heavily integrated that the tablet also comes with a free month of Amazon Prime, Amazon’s premium service that offers unlimited free 2 day shipping plus access to their entire catalogue of media. At this point calling this thing a tablet seems like a misnomer, it’s much more of a media consumption device.
What’s really intriguing about the Kindle Fire though is the browser that Amazon has developed for it called Silk. Like Opera Mini and Skyfire before it Silk offloads some of the heavy lifting to external servers, namely Amazon’s massive AWS infrastructure. There’s some smarts in the delineation between what should be processed on device and what should be done on the servers so hopefully dynamic pages, which suffered heavily in this kind of configuration, will run a lot better under Silk. Overall it sounds like a massive step up for the usability of the browser on devices like these which is sure to be a great selling point for the Kindle Fire.
The more I read about the Kindle Fire the more I get the feeling that Amazon has seen the game that Apple has been playing and decided to not get caught up in it like their competitors have. Instead of competing directly with the iPad et. al. they’ve created a device that’s heavily integrated with their own services and have put themselves at arms length with Android. John Q. Public then won’t see the Kindle Fire as an Android Tablet nor an iPad competitor, more it’s a cheap media consumption device that’s capable at doing other tasks from a large and reputable company. The price alone is enough to draw people in and whilst the margins on the device are probably razor thin they’ll more than likely make it up in media sales for the device. All those together make the Kindle Fire a force to be reckoned with, but I don’t think current tablet manufacturers have much to worry about.
The Kindle Fire, much like the iPad before it, carves out its own little niche that’s so far be unsuccessfully filled. It’s not a feature laden object of every geek’s affection, more it’s a tablet designed for the masses with a price that competitors will find hard to beat. The deep integration with Amazon’s services will be the feature that ensures the Kindle Fire’s success as that’s what every other iPad competitor has lacked. However there’ll still be a market for the larger, more capable tablets as they’re more appropriate for people seeking a replacement for their laptop rather than a beefed up media player. I probably won’t be buying one for myself, but I could easily see my parents using one of these.
And I’m sure that’s what Amazon is banking on too.
It was just under 2 years ago when I wrote my first (and only) post on smartphone virtualization approaching it with the enthusiasm that I do with most cool new technologies. At the time I guessed that VMware would eventually look to integrate this idea with some of their other products, in essence turning user’s phones into dumb terminals so that IT administrators could have more control over them. However the exact usefulness was still not clear as at the time most smartphones were only just capable of running a single instance, let alone another one with all the virtualization trimmings that’d inevitably slow it down. Android was also somewhat of a small time player back then as well having only 5% of the market (similar to Windows Phone 7 at the same stage in its life, funnily enough) making this a curiosity more than anything else.
Of course a lot has changed in the time between that post and now. Then market leader, RIM, is now struggling with single digit market share when it used to make up almost half the market. Android has succeeded in becoming the most popular platform surpassing Apple who maintained the crown for many years prior. Smartphones have also become wildly more powerful as well, with many of them touting dual cores, oodles of RAM and screen resolutions that would make my teenage self green with envy. With this all in mind then the idea of running some kind of virtualized environment on a smartphone doesn’t seem all that ludicrous any more.
Increasingly IT departments are dealing with users who want to integrate their mobile devices with their work space in lieu of using a separate, work specific device. Much of this pressure came initially from the iPhone with higher ups wondering why they couldn’t use their devices to access work related data. For us admin types the reasons were obvious: it’s an unapproved, untested device which by rights has no business being on the network. However the pressure to capitulate to their demands was usually quite high and work arounds were sought. Over the years these have taken many various forms, but the best answer would appear to lie within the world of smartphone virtualization.
VMware have been hard at work creating full blown virtualization systems for Android that allow a user to have a single device that contains both their personal handset as well as a secure, work approved environment. In essence they have an application that allows them to switch between the two of them, allowing the user to have whatever handset they want whilst still allowing IT administrators to create a standard, secure work environment. Android is currently the only platform that seems to support this wholly thanks to its open source status, although there are rumours of it coming to the iOS line of devices as well.
It doesn’t stop there either. I predicted that VMware would eventually integrate their smartphone virtualization technology into their View product, mostly so that the phones would just end up being dumb terminals. This hasn’t happened exactly, but VMware did go ahead and imbue their View product with the ability to present full blown workstations to tablet and smartphones through a secure virtual machine running on said devices. This means that you could potentially have your entire workforce running off smartphones with docking stations, enabling users to take their work environment with them wherever they want to go. It’s shockingly close to Microsoft’s Three Screens idea and with Google announcing that Android apps are now portable to Google TV devices you’d be forgiven for thinking that they outright copied the idea.
For most regular users though these kinds of developments don’t mean a whole lot, but it is signalling the beginning of the convergence of many disparate experiences into a single unified one. Whilst I’m not going to say that anyone one platform will eventually kill off the other (each one of the three screens has a distinct purpose) we will see a convergence in the capabilities of each platform, enabling users to do all the same tasks no matter what platform they are using. Microsoft and VMware are approaching this idea from two very different directions with the former unifying the development platform and the latter abstracting it away so it will be interesting to see which approach wins out or if they too eventually converge.