Peter Molyneux is making a game called Curiosity: What’s Inside The Cube, in which players will be chipping away at a giant cube together in order to found out what’s inside; something “life-changing”, supposedly. Of course, you’ll be able to buy more expensive chisels and such to speed up how fast you can chip away, meaning that Molyneux may stand to make some decent cash from the game. Infamously, one of the chisels will cost $50,000.
I think it’s pretty obvious that the cube will contain some kind of charitable donation in the winner’s name, representing most or all of the profits made from the game. Or perhaps the winning player can make a choice to either take 50% of the cash for themselves, or give away 100% of the cash to charity; Molyneux loves his ridiculously binary moral choices, after all. Some kind of good vs. evil choice writ large, using real money.
a) I doubt his company really needs or cares about the profits they could make from this self-described ‘experiment’
b) It’d be awesome publicity to give away a lot of cash to charity
c) It’d really annoy all of his detractors
So I’m calling it: it’ll be a good vs. evil charity/greed choice. The man is a master manipulator.
What’s a retro game today? 8 bit pixellated graphics, chiptunes, simple platformer game mechanics, and charmingly traditional scoring and levelling? If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, that makes plenty of sense. I didn’t – I was born in 1982, so the most memorable games I played usually had at least EGA or VGA graphics with Soundblaster audio.
For an 18 year old growing up in a rich country, though, they’ve had a very different experience.
They were born in 1994; next year, the Playstation would be available worldwide. GoldenEye 007 was on sale on the Nintendo 64 when they were 3 years old, along with Final Fantasy 7 on the Playstation. By the time they were 4, Gran Turismo had sold 10 million copies. The following year, the Dreamcast had launched worldwide with Space Channel 5, Sonic Adventure, and Virtua Fighter 3.
At 6 years old, the Playstation 2 was released in 2000. It’s likely that this, or the cheaper PSOne, was probably their first console. They’ve always had 3D graphics. Grand Theft Auto 3 came out when they were 7 and GTA: San Andreas was out after their tenth birthday. They probably played it, even if they weren’t supposed to. Halo 2 came out in the same year.
The XBox 360 was out when they were 11 years old, along with World of Warcraft. They may not have an iPhone, but the iPod Touch came out in 2007, when they were 13. There’s a good chance they’ve owned one – but maybe they’re still hanging on to the Nintendo DS, which was released a couple of years earlier.
I’m sure they enjoy retro games – 18 year olds play Flash games like everyone else. But that’s not retro for them. Retro is Grand Theft Auto 3, it’s Halo 2, it’s Super Mario Sunshine. Not 8 bit graphics.
After reading Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, I was immediately compelled to figure out exactly what was going on in the story (similar to what I tried with Iain Banks’ Transition). Of course, The Islanders is even more deliberately ambiguous and dreamlike than Transition, and so I’m acutely aware that trying to unknot the plot is perhaps not the most sensible exercise; especially when I haven’t yet read Priest’s other stories set in the same world, i.e. The Dream Archipelago and The Affirmation.
That said, I really enjoy doing it, so: please look away, SPOILERS AHEAD!
Click to enlarge
In no particular order, here are some of the questions I had, with accompanying speculations:
So, what exactly happened with Commis?
The most straightforward answer is that Kerith Sington, after having been beaten up by Commis (in non-mime garb), really did drop the pane of glass on him; and that this was made possible by Chas Kammeston loosening its bindings and leaving the door open (not to mention putting it up there in the first place, although that wasn’t entirely his fault). Keep reading →
This month’s issue of Harper’s Bazaar magazine has an augmented reality feature in which you use a smartphone to ‘bring the cover to life’. It’s far from the first magazine to do it, and it’s hard to miss adverts on the tube or at bus stops that have some variation of ’scan this advert to see something cool’. I’ve never actually seen anyone do this, but in the spirit of inquiry I decided to test exactly how long it would take to make this happen.
Here are the steps required for Harper’s Bazaar:
Unlock my iPhone 4
Go to Home Screen
Open the App Store
Switch to the Search tab
Type in ‘Zappar’
Select ‘Zappar’ from the list of apps
Tap to download (3.1MB)
Type in my password
Wait for the download to complete
Skip the tutorial
Select ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ from the list of ‘zaps’
Tap to download this specific ‘zap’ (4.4MB)
Wait for the download to complete
Tap ‘Zap’ to start the AR feature
Watch the thing
That’s a lot of steps. Going at full speed and using a wifi connection, plus starting from step 2, it took me 90 seconds from start to finish. If I wasn’t in such a hurry I would imagine it’d take about 2 minutes, and if you actually bothered to swipe through the Zappar tutorial you’re looking at 3 minutes.
But at least with a magazine there’s a good chance you’ll be at home when you’re reading it and on a fast wifi connection; plus you might be more inclined to try it since you bought the thing – why anything imagines that someone would do this while walking around outside is beyond me.
It would be OK if what you got was the most awesome augmented reality experience ever, but with Harper’s Bazaar, it was just a video. To be precise, I watched a video superimposed onto a magazine cover that I’m looking at through the camera of my iPhone. My iPhone screen isn’t that huge, and when the video only covers part of the magazine, it’s really quite tiny. If it was a great video, then you’d probably want to watch it on a computer or tablet, or at the very least, full screen on the iPhone; but here it’s just a gimmick, and a bad one at that since it pales in comparison to superior gimmicks that show 3D objects or similar.
So basically my point here is that it’s a big waste of money. What’s new? Precisely nothing at all – we’re just seeing augmented reality go through the classic hype curve in which a new technology makes possible something that we’ve always wanted to have (i.e. Terminator-vision) but in a form that is manifestly unsuited to most applications. Consider:
There is no standard platform and it’s not built-in to phones. If you want to view any AR, you must download a special app, and people underestimate the public’s tolerances for downloading any old thing.
It’s not hands free, and usually you’re extending your hands right out in front of you. It severely limits interaction possibilities, plus it’s not comfortable to hold that position for more than a few minutes.
Most applications are desperately unimaginative, often involving advertising or some kind of navigation system that’s better executed in standard top-down maps.
It’s too small. How much useful information can you overlay onto a small screen that only displays a tiny slice of the world? I have no doubt that pictures like this will make kids of the future crack up with laughter and be featured in the Paleofuture blog of 2031:
None of these challenges are insurmountable, but it’s foolish at best and disingenuous at worst to suggest that smartphone-based AR is anything other than experimental and highly unlikely to provide any conventional return. So, hey, if you’ve got money to burn, by all means play around with AR, although it wouldn’t hurt to try something a bit more interesting; but if you don’t (as is the case for most of the publishing industry), save your cash. No-one wants AR yet because there has been no clear demonstration of its strengths above and beyond what we already have.
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.
When I first heard about Occupy Wall Street, I had two conflicting reactions: I was happy that the incredible rise in inequality and the pernicious influence of corporations and vested interests on democracy was finally getting the attention it deserved – but I found the sheer lack of organisation painful to see. In particular, the ‘total consensus’ decision-making process in some areas seemed like it was a definite roadblock to scaling things up. Only with scale, I thought, could the Occupy movement make a real impact.
We’ve treated ’scale’ like an unalloyed good for so long that it seems peculiar to question it. There are plenty of reasons for wanting to scale businesses and services up to make more things for more people in more areas; perhaps the strongest is that things usually get cheaper and quicker to provide.
The problem is that scale has a cost, and that’s being unable to respond to the wants and needs of unique individuals. Theoretically, that’s not a problem in a free market, but of course, we don’t have a free market, and we certainly don’t have a free market when it comes to politics and media.
Just look at how the Occupy movement have been covered – or not, as the case may be. National news organisations naturally want to cover the biggest movements that they think will be of the most interest to the most people, and crucially, can be explained in the least time possible; no wonder they were so adamant on getting a single demand or list of issues from Occupy Wall Street and the rest of the movement – it’d make their lives easier.
And that process of simplification has a feedback effect on politics, focusing attention on just a small number of actors who appear to have ’scale’ and an interesting story. Who cares about some little protest in some town when you can profile Michelle Bachmann, potential Republican presidential nominee (or indeed, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, etc.)? But there is one good reason behind focusing on them – it’s the ultimate instance of scale, one person representing over 300 million people.
I find that disturbing. I’ve made no secret of my belief that bad gatekeepers (like commissioners and editors) can waste money, favour their friends, and harm creativity. Some think that the solution to this is to have better gatekeepers. I think the solution is to have fewer gatekeepers – as few as we can manage with.
The system of politics in the US and UK has a similar problem, where you have a single person wielding a massive amount of power. When we see a bad leader in power, we think the solution is to elect a better leader. For some reason, we don’t think of having fewer leaders.
So, on second thoughts, I can see understand the strengths of the Occupy movement. By being a leaderless organisation, small groups that are loosely connected, it neatly eliminates the problem of abusive or ineffective leaders and devolves power to a much more local level – a level that can be more reflective and responsive to the people directly involved.
OccupyX is not perfect by any means but it demonstrates an alternative to the lure of scale. Just by itself, that’s a remarkable achievement.
A few months ago, I finally had what I’d been dreaming of for years – digital delivery of every single magazine and newspaper I read. No more stacks of New Yorkers and Economists lingering on tables waiting to be given away (or more likely, recycled); no more hunting for all the bits of subscription forms hiding in The Atlantic. I was free and the iPad did it all. Even better, I discovered that the New Yorker made far more sense as an actual reporting magazine when you received in on time rather than one week ‘late’ in the UK.
Of course, it hasn’t all been perfect. Each magazine has a completely different method of operation and user interface that conspires to frustrate me in big ways and small. Before a recent trip abroad I dutifully opened up every single content app and synced everything, but The Atlantic proved too wily and when I tried to read the magazine while offline, it sniffily informed me that another update was required. Thanks for nothing. It turns out that because the app delivers both web content and magazine content, it’s often confusing whether you’ve actually downloaded the whole magazine or not.
I shall refrain from going too much into The Atlantic app’s failings (powered by Rarewire) as a reading experience; the fact that it delivers magazine pages as images that are just-about-but-not-quite readable without zooming in; the practically non-existent navigation; the weird text-only mode that is missing images (at least when offline). The short story is that it has very little in common with other iPad reading experiences – apart from, presumably, other Rarewire apps – which is more than enough to cause irritation.
The Economist has been cited as one of the best magazine apps out there. I can’t disagree – it’s simple and it works well. I don’t understand why it isn’t on Newsstand yet, since auto-downloading would be nice, but otherwise I can’t complain. It’s worth noting that you have to swipe left to read the next page though, which sort-of makes sense given its two column layout but is nonetheless at odds with many other apps (other The Atlantic, which doesn’t count).
The New Yorker is an interesting one. It has the usual Conde Nast engine so the download takes forever and frequently hangs (although last week it downloaded itself automatically, which was great). Despite this, I personally think that the New Yorker has one of the best reading experiences out there. The font size and layout is very agreeable and I like the way in which you flick up and down to read through articles. There are plenty of adverts, but it’s easy to skip them and the multiple navigation options allow me to get to where I want to go quickly (i.e. skip the entire first half of the magazine). If only it were faster.
The problem with The New Yorker app, though, is that it has all sorts of weird UI quirks. Articles rarely have genuinely interactive elements, and when they do, they behave in all sorts of strange ways. I gather that red links to supplementary material require you to be online, but I wish they were downloaded at the start. I also only realised last month that you could actually tap the ‘buttons’ on the Cartoon Caption competition page to see the nominees and winners; the buttons just don’t look like buttons. I imagine that a lot of other readers have the same problem of just not knowing what the hell is going on. Keep reading →
I wrote the following piece for the Telegraph a few hours before Steve Jobs’ death was announced, so unsurprisingly, it didn’t go up. And since it’s all about Siri – which is now released – it’s a bit out of date. But I thought you might be interested in seeing it anyway:
This week, the iPhone 5 – sorry, the iPhone 4S – was announced by Apple to millions of anxious fans across the world. Despite containing a significantly faster processor, better antenna, longer battery, higher resolution camera, and more memory and storage space, many were disappointed because it didn’t look any different from the previous model, the iPhone 4 – specifically, because it didn’t have a bigger screen and a thinner body.
I can understand that this may have been a letdown. Over the past few years, we have been accustomed to constant improvements in performance and form-factor among all consumer electronics – not just from Apple, but from all manufacturers like HTC and Samsung and Sony. For better or worse, these devices have taken the same role as jewellery and watches in terms of being status symbols and signs of wealth and taste.
These outward changes, however, can blind us to the remarkable changes in software that are constantly making it easier for a wider number of people to use computing devices. It wasn’t so long ago that to use a computer, you had to master the instructions of a command line in UNIX or DOS; and even more recent versions of Windows and Mac OS have required an understanding of graphical user interfaces that can fox the more timid or cautious user. The touchscreen interfaces of iPhone and Androids, in comparison, are much more intuitive to use – not only do you not need to use a mouse, but the ’skeuomorphic’ designs they frequently employ which mimic existing physical interfaces (like calculators and address books) help ground us in the familiar.
It’s easy to deride these changes as being mere crutches for those who aren’t smart or quick enough to learn Windows or Mac OS. After all, the very notion of computers and the internet is tied up in most people’s minds as involving scrollbars and mouse pointers and menu items and so on. But the truth is that there are millions of people out there – from infants to the elderly – who are now able to use applications, browse the web, write email, and play games, in a much easier and less frightening way than before.
With its new voice recognition system and Siri, its ‘intelligent assistant’, the iPhone 4S takes matters even further. According to the demonstrations, iPhone 4S users will simply be able to speak “Tell my wife I’m running late” or “Remind me to call the vet” and the phone will be able to send the appropriate text message or to-do item.
Now, this is not the first phone to include voice recognition – the iPhone 3G and 4 have included it, along with numerous Android phones; indeed, Android phones also allow you to dictate text messages and find out what the weather is without any button presses. However, the big difference is that you have to be much more specific in how to speak to those older phones – you can’t be too conversational about it, you need to say something like “weather in London” or “indian restaurants near SW4″.
Any self-respecting geek will not find it at all difficult or unusual to phrase requests in that way; they’re used to writing commands and performing operations that suit the limitations of computers. Normal people, though, don’t actually speak in that way. We don’t say to each other “weather in London?”, we say “What was the weather like down there yesterday?” Yes, it takes longer, but it’s much more natural.
Ultimately it’s the ability of computers to adapt to human habits and limitations rather than vice versa that will determine how useful and widespread computers will be in the future. There’ll always be a place for the command line and the graphic user interface for programmers and scientists and engineers, for whom ambiguity can cost millions and kill lives, but for the rest of us, it will be much easier to be able to speak to computers as we speak to anyone else.
It has a Downton Abbey/Mad Men retro vibe, mixed with a go-getting drive to the future; we’re meant to admire these brave ‘young men’ (as they’re always called – not ‘young people’ and certainly not ‘young women’) as they venture forth to build ’superhighways in an unknown sky’.
For all the gorgeous visuals, the overwrought narration destroys any chance of nostalgia by continually reminding us what we should feel, eventually descending into a mish-mash of increasingly similar-looking shiny planes (including, amusingly, the Concorde, which conveniently zooms out of sight at the end lest we start thinking too hard). It could have been much more powerful if they had just a little bit more confidence in themselves.
It reminded me of two, better, time-travelling commercials that also try to impress viewers with their company’s longevity:
Hovis’ attempt is better simply because it’s more interesting and doesn’t have any godawful narration. However, the fact that it has practically nothing at all to do with bread is perhaps not the wisest of choices.
As an aside, these sorts of ‘historical vignette’ stories always make me wonder what would happen next, after the present day; might the little boy jump into a driverless car and then zoom off on a spaceplane to avoid the AI civil war in 2030? Speaking of vignettes, Hovis is clearly hitching its wagon to what it feels are all of Britain’s finest moments like suffragettes, wars, the 60s, miners’ strikes, and, bizarrely, the millennium fireworks celebration. One might have thought that a gay pride parade wouldn’t be amiss, but perhaps that’s too risque for such an old brand.
Then there’s the master:
I still remember watching Honda’s ‘The Impossible Dream’ commercial for the first time. Not only did I immediately go and download Andy Williams’ song, but I watched the video again at least a few times. Unlike Hovis, it’s actually about what Honda makes – cars, vehicles, and other transportation devices – and unlike British Airways, it has enough confidence in its message and audience that it doesn’t need to tell people what to think.
One can only imagine what British Airways’ advertising geniuses would have put on top of it:
Those first young men, the pioneers, the drivers, building superhighways across an unknown land … roaring across roads to go really fast … they didn’t have seatbelts or shit like that, they drove where they were no traffic lights … they drove motorbikes, small cars, big cars, fast cars, and hey, even a motorboat! We follow them to fulfill an unbreakable promise*, the same four words stitched into every uniform of every engineers who builds our stuff: The Power of Dreams.
Luckily, that didn’t happen and we got a good commercial instead. And while I’d be the first person to be cynical about what commercials are meant to do (often, to get us to buy things we don’t need), I’d rather watch a good commercial than a bad one.
(*Is it wise to make ‘unbreakable promise’ in a commercial? I suppose if it’s as vague or uninspiring as BA’s “To Fly. To Serve.” then it doesn’t really matter)
Sadly, someone at Honda decided to update ‘The Impossible Dream’ last year, adding on some boring scenes with robots and completely robbing the commercial of its dramatic, uplifting, and frankly inspired (since, after all, the song – and the video – is about Don Quixote) ending. Somehow, a guy slipping into a nice jacuzzi doesn’t elicit the same emotion:
I’ll leave you with a final commercial I discovered while trawling YouTube that proves that at least someone at British Airways once had a sense of humour, even if they presumably got fired five minutes after this aired:
Have I missed any good time-travelling story commercials? Let me know!
When I heard about Reamde’s premise of hackers, spies, and gold mining in a massive multiplayer online game called T’Rain, I had the same worried feeling that I had when I heard about Anathem’s monasteries – that Neal Stephenson was venturing away from the sort of adventure/SF capers I enjoyed best. However, I was pleasantly surprised at Anathem and I held out the same hope for Reamde.
The problem with Reamde is not that it’s trying to be more ‘accessible’, if by ‘accessible’ we mean it’s set during the present day and has no obviously futuristic elements that might put the ‘mainstream’ off. No, it’s problem is that it’s frequently boring and it doesn’t add up to much at all.
Sure, there are flashes of the classic Stephenson brilliance – the insightful observations of how technology is changing the world, the clever ideas about business and gaming, the tangents into the finer points of grammar and MMO economies. But these are buried in literally thousands of words describing stuff that I frankly couldn’t give a shit about. Every fight, every journey, every thought is explained in excruciating detail, often from multiple points of view, and a lot of the time, none of it is particularly relevant to the plot.
Even worse, the usual and excusable Stephenson vices seem to be on particular show in Reamde: the tendency of almost all the smart characters to speak in the same over-specific way, the cliched over-weaponed and sprawling family of hard-bitten survivalists, the revisiting of Manila and Trinity College in Cambridge, the baffling hookups. I accept these things as being integral to Stephenson’s soul and writing, just as Iain M Banks frequently lapses into forced-jokiness and gratuitously violent torture scenes in his novels, but usually there are more than enough good moments to balance them out. But not this time.
It’s upsetting because there are some fantastic moments in the book where Stephenson was clearly having a lot of fun. I was impressed by the man-hunt in Xiamen, and later on, a massive battle in T’Rain occurred simultaneously with real world shenanigans. Many reviews (such as the WSJ’s*) suggest that these moments, and others like them, are the meat of the book; in fact, they’re far outweighed by tiresome detailing of gun battles and people travelling from A to B. Perhaps if it was a mere 500 pages instead of 1000, I’d have enjoyed it more. Unfortunately, as it stands, I can’t see myself recommending this book to anyone.
Stephenson is still clearly capable of writing awesomely interesting and entertaining fiction. The question is, what happened with Reamde? I can see three possibilities: Keep reading →
There’d be three more if I weren’t going on holiday to Sudan for a couple of weeks in Oct/Nov. Plus I’m not including two workshops I’m doing with the British Museum about A History of the Future (for kids).
At the games/tech conferences, I’m going to be speaking about some of the new things we’ve been doing with mobiles and in particular, Zombies, Run! At the other conferences, I’m more interested in talking about some new thoughts I’ve had about the change shape of creative work (not terribly original, to be honest, but maybe I can give it a new spin).
So, things are very busy these days between Six to Start and all the extra-curricular stuff I’ve signed myself up to. I’m hoping to break the back of A History of the Future before the year is out (along with Balance of Powers) meaning that next year should be pretty different!
Finally, if you’re wondering why I’m not posting here as much, it’s partly down to the time I’m spending on A History of the Future (22,000 words and counting) and my blogging at the Telegraph. Sorry about that.