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Why I Recommend the Fire Stick 2

Amazon currently has the 2nd generation Fire TV Stick on sale for $29.99, that’s $10 off the normal price, and an unbeatable bargain. That’s wacky-arm-flailing-inflatable-tube-man pricing. I’ll risk recommending something that some people might hate, because at $30, it’s basically the cost of a bad dinner, and a drink, at a restaurant.

However, I did recommend someone buy a particular brand of saltine crackers once, and they’re still giving me crap about it, so I suppose anything’s possible when it comes to recommendations.

I bought the 2nd generation stick when it was first available for preorder in October, and have been very pleased with it’s performance over the 1st generation device. Since the previous model I had also came with a voice remote, there’s no difference in features, but if you had purchased the model without a voice remote it’s absolutely a different experience. (You could also use the Fire TV app on your iOS, Android, or Fire OS device and it would grant you a microphone, but it’s less convenient, and they did a weird thing with the swiping for navigation that irks me ever so much.) The new device is much snappier than the previous model and I consider it a worthy upgrade for that alone. Also, if you haven’t used a 1st generation model in a while, you might be surprised by some of the software features that have appeared, or have been improved.

I generally find that most people have a Fire TV Stick in a drawer somewhere because they didn’t find it useful at one point or another. However, Amazon slowly rolls out features over time, without any fanfare, and thus those drawer-stick owners aren’t up to date on software fiddly stuff. Amazon doesn’t do a particularly good job of synthesizing a complete sales-pitch for the device, or even a product page that makes a lot of sense.

The Home screen isn’t just Amazon Prime recommendations, it’s a mixture of recommendations based on which apps you have installed. They have to participate in the system, of course, but there are notable ones like HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and others. This rolled out in September before the new model came out.

There are also improvements to Alexa’s voice search, and more services provide data for Alexa. This includes Netflix, which was absent from this search feature before. The search also includes buttons to launch the app and play it. (In my time with this feature on both models, I have noticed that sometimes it takes you to the Netflix user profile screen instead of playing the video, it seems like the app doesn’t like to play nicely if it wasn’t recently active.) In cases where the media is available on multiple services, you’ll see the options presented to you, like watching old Star Trek episodes on Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Unfortunately, there are some wrinkles, since not all services participate, you can’t use Alexa to look up a PBS show in the PBS app. Similar drawbacks exist for Siri on the 4th generation Apple TV. I do find that Alexa’s results are more often in tune with my expectations than Siri’s results. If you search for “The Thing”, which is admittedly generic, you will get several Fantastic Four movies, and other properties with various names, but not 1982’s “The Thing” by John Carpenter. Alexa shows that as the first result, and no Fantastic Four movies in sight.

Alexa does get confused when there are conflicting names for things, one of those conflicts my friend Dan Sturm uncovered when he instructed Alexa to “Play The Grand Tour” which provides an error message that the Alexa Skill for “The Grand Tour” is not installed. This is an unfortunate marketing clash because their effort to get the word out about the show (the Alexa app is a weekly teaser with clues and B.S.) actually makes it more difficult to watch the show they are trying to promote on the Fire TV. I did have a funny moment where the Fire TV read off the instructions for how to install the Alexa Skill and the Echo Dot accepted that as a command and installed the Alexa Skill. I’m not sure that was intentional on Amazon’s part, but it was funny. Long story short: If you say “The Grand Tour” you get the search results you want, but “Play The Grand Tour” will clash with the Alexa Skill for “The Grand Tour”.

All this Alexa stuff also works for music through Amazon’s music options, which I’ll explain, but I should mention that the Music section of the app is different from telling Alexa to play something. They draw from the same Amazon sources, but an Alexa query shows you a dialog with the song title and album art, and there’s no way to navigate on screen while it’s playing, or to pull up the lyrics (which are available to with some songs inside the Music app). So if you had been annoyed by that in the past, it’s still there. I also worry about burn-in on my plasma TV so I don’t love leaving that search result screen up, and instead prefer to play music on my Echo Dot. (Curiously, Amazon has introduced a feature that displays what’s currently playing on any Fire tablet you own, but it’s similarly useless. The Alexa app itself offers actual media controls.)

Music’s available through the Prime library, any music you’ve purchased through Amazon’s MP3 store, if you pay a fee you can upload your own music, or you can subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited for a large streaming library comparable to Apple Music. Spotify makes a TV app, but they also have the ability to use Spotify with Alexa as the default music source. Other skills are also available for other music services. This is different from Siri, which offers no audio integrations at all.

The new device features significantly improved performance over the previous model, but I still do not recommend anyone play a game on it. The first model stuttered with Crossy Road, and the new model plays it perfectly well, but it still stutters in Alto’s Adventure.

The new voice remote is, like I said, almost identical to the old one. That being said, It still has the same negatives as the previous iteration: Requires batteries, and there’s no IR or HDMI-CEC control for audio which means you need to keep at least two remotes near you. Because the stick has no IR, and has a microphone, you can’t replace it with a run-of-the-mill universal remote. This is pretty disappointing because audio can vary widely. Also hitting Home powers on the stick, the TV, and sets the input to the port the stick is in — but if you put the Fire TV to sleep the TV stays on, it doesn’t go into standby mode like when you put a 4th generation Apple TV to sleep. (Or at least this is my experience with my TV.) This is the same experience as the 1st generation Fire TV Stick with voice remote.

There’s also a new UI that’s on the way, but I don’t ever suggest that anyone get something because of unreleased software. I’ll leave reviewing unreleased hardware and software to real technology writers. I do expect it to be beneficial when it appears, but the current device is worth the $30 on sale, or even the $40 when it’s not on sale.

A lot of people get hung up on how aesthetically unappealing the current interface is, but I’ll take unappealing over pretty, but frustrating.

How the Stick Stacks Up

Google

The Chromecast has always seemed incomplete, because it’s design moves all the control to other, disparate places. I’m also 5,000 years old, because I like to have a remote. I do understand the appeal if you spend most of your time on your phone or tablet and only want

Roku

Roku makes a streaming stick in this price point, and I picked it up last week for comparison’s sake. I would also say that it’s snappy, but I found it incredibly frustrating to use. People often complain about Amazon pushing Amazon content, but Roku pushes different apps and services for seemingly no particular reason, so I can only assume there’s money changing hands. In the setup process they want you to install a few apps to get started, and they pre-select a few services, to be helpful. Even after disabling them, and not signing up for any trials, or other offers, I got an email today again, encouraging me to sign up for trial periods of Hulu, CBS All Access, and Showtime. I find this creepy and weird since I literally unchecked these boxes and showed no interest in their offering at all. I also don’t enjoy the remote (which only paired with the stick after I restarted the stick by unplugging it). There’s no voice search offered for this model, and typing in a search produces a list of places where I can watch something, but there’s no indication of whether or not the app or service in the result requires a new subscription, a cable subscription, or a direct payment. This is unlike what Apple and Amazon do with their Universal search which indicate when something’s free to watch right away. I’m considering holding on to it for future testing, but I can’t imagine any circumstances under which I would recommend this product. Also, I loathe their version of the Netflix client, which is a big strike against it.

The Roku does offer Amazon Video though, but I find it to be pretty lackluster. I would compare it to the experience you get out of many integrated Amazon Video apps on various TVs. (Which is kind of funny because Roku is providing their Roku interface for TCL.)

This Space Intentionally Left Blank

Apple doesn’t offer anything remotely in this price range. The 3rd generation Apple TV was discounted to $70, and then discontinued this September without any replacement, leaving the $150 4th generation Apple TV as the least expensive streaming device Apple makes. It’s also not as portable as an HDMI stick device. They’ve never made anything in that form factor. Apple doesn’t compete on price though, they rely on a premium experience to sell products. Since they don’t offer a premium experience I can only talk about the price.

What Do You Value?

I’m fortunate (?) in that I can easily justify purchasing multiple streaming units to have around, and can switch between them as needed, but most people probably want to stick to one thing, and they probably want that one thing to do everything they find important. No one has made that product, so pick and choose based on what seems the most important to you. I certainly think that if you’ve been frustrated by trying to AirPlay Amazon Video that you should purchase this, because I don’t think hell is going to freeze over any time soon.

If someone isn’t an Amazon Prime member, or they want to exclusively use iTunes media, then this isn’t a good option. If you want HBO, Netflix, and Prime video with voice search at a relatively inexpensive price-point, then this is the best option, and I would encourage you to consider it before the sale ends.

2016-11-27 17:10:00

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Last Time On Apple TV…

The previous post on the Apple TV announcements at the October Apple event circulated a little more widely than I had originally anticipated. I’ve received some feedback on what was written, and more details have surfaced in the past week, so it’s worth revisiting.

There’s a section that compared certain features and prices in a very rough way to illustrate that Apple is positioned at a premium price point that isn’t justified. Apple, of course, does not compete on price, but there are typically ways of justifying the price difference against competing products. The streaming hardware is behind the competition, and the software that is run on the Apple TV is mostly just a way to get at media streams, so similar experiences are available on competing devices. Even compelling features like Siri search, which reduces the friction of using a remote to find something, have competition in Amazon’s Alexa or Roku’s Voice Search. Even TV the app will mostly resemble the interface of the Fire TV Home screen. That’s why the premium price lacks justification in either hardware or software. There’s the more abstract notion of a “premium experience” which could be used to justify the price, except I’d argue that I’ve experienced too much frustration with the using the Apple TV to say that it’s superior to anything but older generation hardware and software from competing companies.

Single Sign-On will be a big differentiating factor when it ships, if you are on one of the supported providers. It’s still late, and the list of providers is still very small. In the previous post, I had pointed to a line in Apple’s press release on Single Sign-On after the event to highlight the only two providers that were mentioned were both satellite TV providers.

In addition to the new TV app, customers in the U.S. will have a simplified way of enjoying their pay-TV video apps by using single sign-on. Starting in December, subscribers to DIRECTV, DISH Network and more will just sign in once on Apple TV, iPhone and iPad to enjoy immediate access to apps that are part of their pay-TV subscription.

Last night, Apple turned on Single Sign-On for developers on the tvOS beta, and the list was slightly different. As first reported by MacRumors the networks that are available are:

  • Dish
  • GVTC Communications
  • Hotwire
  • Sling TV

Absent from the current list is DirecTV, but since Apple named them in the press release I fully expect that to be available when Single Sign-On is in it’s final, shipping state. As for the other three providers: two are small, regional operators, and the third, Sling TV, is owned by Dish. It’s good to know that Sling TV is available because that wasn’t guaranteed from the way the press release was originally phrased. Sling TV is entirely provided over the internet, or over-the-top as the kids say, and it’s the most widely available way to access channels that are only available through traditional cable or satellite packages. Another notable one is Sony’s PlayStation Vue service.

There’s been criticism of Sling TV’s apps on all of the platforms that Sling TV is available on (including Apple TV, Fire TV, and Roku) so this is pretty good if you don’t want to use the Sling TV app to access on demand content that is available directly from a studio’s own app with authentication. Also, as I learned from listening to Susie Ochs on the Macworld podcast, the content of the official Sling TV app is opaque to Siri, so that’s another reason to authenticate directly with a provider — assuming they participate in Universal Search or Siri Live Tune-In. Apple offers a full list of participating Universal Search apps by region on their site, and a full list of Siri Live Tune-In. Someone with more free time should probably make a spreadsheet of which apps work with which Siri features, and we can all print it out like an old-timey channel guide for our living rooms. Well, in the U.S. anyway.

Serenity Caldwell at iMore has taken the beta version of Single Sign-On for a spin, but there’s not much to report at the moment. I am curious about why they chose to make the provider-selection a list of buttons, as that doesn’t seem like it will scale tremendously well if they continue to add providers. Also it handles Single Sign-On per-device, and needs to be authorized per-app, which is … (pinches bridge of nose) … it’s not great for people with multiple tvOS and iOS devices. It’s better than going to a website to enter a code presented on your TV, of course, but I still don’t understand why these subscription credentials, and authorizations, can’t be stored in iCloud Keychain, or a different iCloud service. Apple stores my credit card information and address in iCloud so let’s not pretend like this is for privacy reasons. It’s in beta, but it seems unlikely that would change before it launches in about a month, month and a half. That just goes back to my criticism of the Apple TV feeling like it was designed for use in a lab, where there aren’t multiple units, or family members.

Just to reinforce the idea of multiple devices, I had mentioned in the previous post skepticism of how well TV the app on the Apple TV will work with TV the app on iOS assuming a single-user experience of me, in my living room. I perhaps should have leaned more heavily on what happens in multi-user households where the Apple TV sits signed in to one account. There are FOUR fields where a person’s Apple ID should be entered on an Apple TV:

  • iCloud
  • iTunes and App Store
  • Game Center
  • Home Sharing

That’s the data stored in the cloud, your purchase history, and the ability to make purchases, the ability to log gameplay, and the ability to stream from your local iTunes library. There’s no single sign-on for all of these things together, which means there’s no easy way to switch who’s using the Apple TV, and what the Apple TV has access to, and tracks.

That means that in a household with two people using an Apple TV, and both of those people have iPhones, that TV the app is going to have recomendations based off of the viewing experience of one person in the house, or worse, one person gets their viewing experience contaminated by the other. This gets even worse if you scale up for children, and the programming children watch, vs. the programming that the parents watch. HBO, which will participate in TV the app has Sesame Street and Westworld, so good luck explaining why the Guests are so mean to the Hosts to little Jimmy.

Also in the news yesterday, is a rumor that Amazon is considering multi-user profiles, possibly for the Fire OS refresh anticipated before the end of the year. Very similar to Netflix’s profile switching, but for the whole TV experience.

Speaking of Netflix, there was some pushback that Apple could add Netflix before it launches, or that everyone loses their minds and Apple buys Netflix (which I would argue against). My criticism stems from what was presented, which is that Netflix is absent, and it is present for competing platforms that surface Netflix’s content. I’m not going to wishcast that Netflix will be there. If it materializes, then that is a great thing, but I wouldn’t change a word of what I wrote about the way TV the app was presented.

There’s no singular acquisition, service launch, app, price slashing, hardware feature, or deal that will tidy up what’s happening with Apple’s entertainment strategy for devices and services. It’s not a matter of a single piece out of place. That’s why I rhetorically asked who the device is for, because it’s not obvious to me, and that’s coming from someone who wants to see them succeed in this area.

2016-11-04 09:00:00

Category: text


Apple's October TV Surprise

The accessibility video at the start of Apple’s October 27th event was the best thing in the event. That demonstrates Apple at its very best, improving lives in ways that other technology companies are not always conscious of.

My feelings about the remainder of the presentation are less rosy, and I will highlight my feelings about the Apple TV, because I simply do not have the time to discuss the MacBook Pro right now.

Great Expectations

I had suspected that the Apple TV would receive some kind of update at this event since Apple had done nothing for it so far this fall. However, it’s worth framing it with the expectations that I had.

Hardware

  1. I don’t like UHD “4K” because it is generally more of a marketing buzzword than a strictly defined set of rules. Sure, there are specs on resolution, but a lot of movies that feature effects (which accounts for hundreds, if not thousands, of shots in most films) are created in a realm that’s around 2048 pixels wide with whatever crop is applied for a particular aspect ratio. More modern films have started mastering effects in higher resolutions, but there’s a lot of “legacy” effects shots that are not the size you might expect.
  2. HDR - High Dynamic Range - a virtually meaningless term to most consumers. This means brighter brights, darker darks, and better color. There isn’t a single standard for HDR. The two main ones are HDR10, and DolbyVision. HDR10 is based on Samsung’s early HDR efforts and adopted by the UHD Alliance (no, I did not make that up). DolbyVision was around first, but only recently started making it out to consumers. Both of these competing standards exist as metadata passed along with the image data. That metadata tells the device how to display the image data that is provided. HDR versions of movies are relatively easy for movie studios to generate because that data is available in the range of the original, cinema releases. It’s stuff they already had, that they were leaving behind for home video.
  3. Many new TV shows are being shot in UHD, and with HDR mastering in mind. This is especially true for internet-based providers like Netflix and Amazon Studios which want to fill out a library with that content so they can market that feature. Some shows, like Netflix’s House of Cards, are even mastered in “6K” in the event that they might need it in the future.
  4. TVs have been on the market with UHD support for several years, and HDR support has been rolling out through TV lines over the past year as Blu-Ray players that can play HDR content have become available.
  5. The market for plain HD TVs has shriveled up as the cost of UHD TVs has fallen, so more people are likely to buy a UHD TV just because they aren’t choosing between HD and UHD at some price points.
  6. Chromecast Ultra ships in November with a library of UHD HDR content available through the Google Play store, as well as YouTube.

This means that if my plasma HD TV were to die today, I would replace it with a UHD HDR TV of some description if it was the right price. In spite of all of my cynicism surrounding the marketing of UHD, I know that HDR would be worthwhile, and that there are some TVs that support both HDR standards. I know that as TVs die, and get replaced, all over the globe that the trend will be toward UHD HDR. This isn’t like the adoption of 3D TVs where even if you didn’t want a 3D TV, you would wind up with one and just never turn on the 3D. There are no special glasses, it’s just on when it’s available.

Last year I argued that Apple was in no rush, and it wasn’t logical to lambast them for not including the feature. This year, however, as devices push more toward UHD, and HDR, the lack of any model in their lineup that supports it is slightly less excusable at the price point they’re in.

  • $30: Roku Express
  • $35: Chromecast
  • $40: Amazon Fire TV Stick 2nd Gen. (Alexa, universal search)
  • $40: Roku Express+
  • $50: Roku Streaming Stick
  • $70: Chromecast Ultra (UHD)
  • $80: Roku Premiere (UHD)
  • $90: Amazon Fire TV 2nd Gen. (Alexa, universal search, UHD)
  • $100: Roku Premiere+ (UHD, HDR)
  • $130: Roku Ultra (UHD, HDR, Voice Search)
  • $150: Apple TV 32 GB (Siri, universal search)
  • $200: Apple TV 64 GB (Siri, universal search)

That lists the major players in the market, and demonstrates where Apple sits in the price list. The only company selling an HD-only streaming media device above $50 is Apple. The only company selling a steaming media device without HDR above $90 is Apple.

There is no way to justify spending $150 to enter Apple’s TV ecosystem in the fall of 2016 on hardware alone. When Google is making a streaming UHD HDR player that costs LESS than a replacement Siri Remote, there is a problem with the hardware Apple is selling.

Taking all of this into account, I had assumed that Apple would unveil a higher-priced UHD HDR box to occupy the current price point, and discount the previous model to compete against the far less expensive HD solutions available. Last year, Jason Snell had conjectured that Apple might even introduce a less expensive model to replace the $69 3rd-generation, that he jokingly referred to as an AirPlay Express. Instead, Apple quietly killed the 3rd generation Apple TV in September, and only sells the $150 and $200 4th generation Apple TV models from last year.

The storage situation is still incomprehensible to me because Apple never made a solid case for gaming on the device, having waffled on input methods, and having introduced strict requirements about the size of assets on the device. It would be newsworthy if anyone had ever filled up their 32 GB Apple TV under normal usage conditions.

Software

Apple announced tvOS 10 this summer, at WWDC and Eddy Cue made a big deal out of Single Sign On. Single Sign On would do away with one of the biggest pain points for cable-subscribers using Apple TVs by providing a one-time authorization. It was billed as part of tvOS 10, and tvOS 10 was billed as coming in September. It never shipped, but it remained at the top of Apple’s product page for the Apple TV until yesterday with a “Coming soon” button under it. No timeline whatsoever.

Oh, do you know what bumped Single Sign On down to the number two position on the product page? TV. The app, called TV, not the device called TV. You can plug your TV into your TV and watch TV. If you can’t tell, I think the naming is ludicrous and I feel like I’m in some kind of sketch where the whole joke is that the words are the same.

So what is TV the app? It’s a row of what you were watching, called Up Next, and then a series of recommendations based on the apps you have installed on your device. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because you might have used an Amazon Fire TV in the last few months when Amazon rolled out the ability to see content from Netflix and HBO listed in recommendations. So Apple made the Fire TV home screen, as an app, except they couldn’t get Netflix onboard, while Amazon could. I’ve seen a lot of handwringing about the absence of Netflix and guesses as to why that might be, but you need to ask yourself how Amazon was able to broker a deal to display Netflix recommendations and while Apple wasn’t.

Apple knows that the largest video subscription service in the US is Netflix, and they shrugged them off.

Going back to the mechanics of this app: It also reproduces the TV Show and Movie storefronts inside of TV the app. It doesn’t move them in here, it just makes another place to access the store. If that wasn’t confusing enough, I’m not sure if it will show you the same recommendations in both places or not because no one mentioned how they work, or work differently.

Apps that require subscriptions, like Starz, can also be added based on recommendations — again, why is this duplicating functionality of the App Store on the TV’s home screen.

The function of the Home button, which confusingly had the icon of a 16:9 flatscreen TV, has been remapped to take you back to the TV app, since hitting the Menu button will take you into the app you’re currently streaming from, and not TV the app that sent you there. There was no mention of what would happen if you pushed the Home button if you had not launched something to stream from TV the app.

Why is TV the app an app and not the Home screen on the device? It’s obviously modeled after the same ideas that go into other streaming devices that expose content rather than app icons, so why is this a siloed launcher I have to navigate into and out of? Why is this bolted on to the bizarre springboard-like interface of tvOS when it reproduces so much of it?

You could argue that people want to have access to apps that are not for movies or TV shows, but I would suggest that that probably occurs less often and would be satisfied by a button in the TV app that showed you the inane grid of application tiles if you wanted to get at something else.

TV the app is also available on iOS. Given the way Apple’s other cloud services sync, or don’t sync in the case of Apple Music, I would be interested to see how well this experience works if you’re going between devices, and WiFi networks. Also the underlying apps TV the app kicks you to on tvOS and iOS are different, so there’s also another complicated area that will be interesting to watch for. Some services only work on your “home” WiFi network to combat password-sharing. Would you still see those recommendations in TV the app on your iPhone if you step off your property, or would the app know to hide those recommendations it had previously surfaced? What if you deleted an app on your iPhone, but had it on your iPad and your Apple TV? How will these things stay in sync?

We’re not going to know until “before the end of the year” and only in the US. Just in time for the holiday shopping seas— oh wait.

Single Sign On was also mentioned in this presentation on TV the app, even though it hasn’t materialized. Tunneling through the press releases after the event reveals it will be available, coinciding with the release of TV the app, presumably, but the only providers that signed on were DirecTV and Dish Networks, the two satellite providers in the US. They also say, “and more” in the press release, but if they had more they would have written them out. It’s not like the list was so long they had to omit them!

So that means that the top two reasons on Apple’s product page for tvOS are features that are listed as “Coming soon”, and when they do materialize they will only be for the United States, and one of them will only be for people that have TV programming packages from DirecTV or Dish.

There was no mention of gaming, or improvements for people who would be interested in gaming. That’s probably for the best since they still don’t make a first-party remote, and even though they rolled out the ability for games to require a third-party remote, no game that I’m aware of requires it. The only things they feature for games are things that launched for the Apple TV a year ago, or iOS-type games which are all much better to play on iOS.

Live TV

Apple was in dire need of some ability to surface live broadcasts, because it was completely opaque. You could open the Twitter app to watch football, if you knew that was something you could do, but you’d have no idea when something was on, and there’s no time shifting for live TV. I hate the Twitter app, I don’t want to see any of the commentary on my television that Twitter thinks I want to see, so prolonged demos of this do not stir up good feelings in me, but I understand that Watching The Game matters to a lot of people. Even putting that aside…

There’s still no timeshifting for live TV, but I don’t expect it at this point. At least including the ability to pause and fast forward cached material when an app is in the foreground would be a welcome thing.

There’s no “channel surfing” still. Not something I expect on streaming either because the streams have to cache. There are ways to mitigate that if Picture-in-Picture were a TV concept that Apple could include on their TV platform. I do however expect a guide to compensate for the lack of speed when switching between live broadcasts.

Instead Siri can be queried about sports events, or asked to turn on the news. I’m somewhat underwhelmed by this because it doesn’t satisfy channel surfers who want to browse a guide and see if something being broadcast appeals to them. I had put this on my wishlist for tvOS 10 before WWDC and that wishlist item remains. Not all television can be consumed on demand, and not everyone wants to figure out what words to say to Siri to conjure television browsing.

Give the TV Back to the Shareholders

Apple’s incoherent strategy on the Apple TV, and tvOS as a platform, needs a dire revamp. Even the revamping they are trying to graft on to the products in the form of TV the app is so poorly integrated, and partnered, that it raises questions about why people would even open the software feature that they bill as a primary reason to get an Apple TV in their very own marketing materials.

There’s a total lack of understanding about TV in homes, which has plagued the product since it shipped last year, and seems guaranteed to persist another year. Filling homes with $150-$200 black boxes that can’t integrate with the most popular on-demand streaming service in the market TV the app is available in? That can’t integrate with cable providers, only satellite (not for any technical, terrestrial reason)? Still making $80 glass sticks? No model that can meet the picture specs of devices that cost a third, or half the price?

Who is this product for?

2016-10-28 07:00:05

Category: text


iPhone 7 Plus Depth Effect is Legit ►

Stu Maschwitz is a filmmaker (and VFX guy) who did his own testing with the iPhone 7 Plus and really loves it. It’s worth reading just for his technical breakdown of the defocus effect, something I mentioned in my previous post, but which is not as fully fleshed out as his examples. I am still not in love with many of the Portrait Mode photos I’ve seen, but Stu explains why he doesn’t think that’s such a bad thing.

I didn’t think the results would be this good. Apple, uncharacteristically, undersold them. And this created room for a delightful surprise when Portrait Mode turned out to be something I will most certainly use.

I don’t entirely agree as I feel like there’s still some low-hanging fruit for improvement in the area of the defocus effect itself, and noise-matching. It is still better than not having it, since this effect is not baked in to the only image that is produced when you take a photo.

2016-10-03 07:17:17

Category: text


Full On Monet

The one thing I’ve repeated over and over again since Phil Schiller previewed the “Portrait Mode” feature at the iPhone 7 event is that I have no philosophical issue with it. I don’t care that it is the phoniest of phony bolognas. That is absolutely fine with me because I work in visual effects and I do phony bologna things all day long. I don’t even care that it’s computer-driven, and not artist-driven. I feel I need to repeatedly stress this because there are people that do take issue with it because they need to protect Photography from those that would inflict harm upon it.

Having said all that, there are still some drawbacks about the current implementation of “Portrait Mode” (or fauxkeh) that should be discussed. It isn’t magic, but it is the intersection of art and science which produces fascinating work. Here’s a device that’s in the household budget for many (but not all) people that can fit in a pocket, and use software to generate a depth map, and use sophisticated image recognition, to do a realtime effect that simulates an element of photography that most people enjoy seeing but have difficulty producing themselves. It also works much better than I had expected in some areas, and about what I had expected in others. Last week, my cohost Dan Sturm and I discussed the iPhone 7 on our film and VFX podcast because he deals with shooting things on set with a camera, and I deal with measuring depth, and phony bologna stuff, in VFX.

“Portrait Mode” seems to work best when you are using it to shoot portraits — shocking, I know. Specifically, shots of people that frame the shoulders and head have behaved the most like they ought to. This is good news for the department in charge of naming things at Apple. Nailed it.

It starts to unravel a bit when shots are framed for most of the body (and the subject is farther away from the camera). Then it seems slightly more prone to error. This is just conjecture, but I assume this is because there’s better stereo separation when the iPhone is closer to the subject, and there’s less the further away you get from the subject. The iPhone 7 Plus does not have a tremendously large interaxial distance (distance between camera lenses), and the lenses themselves are different so even if the software is taking the differences between the two lenses into account (perspective and lens warp, it’s not just a crop), it’s not like it’s identical. I’m also assuming that luminance plays a large role just because I’ve also used luminance for fake-depth effects before. How that gets taken in to account, I couldn’t say, but it does seem that some of the artifacts in images that I have seen seem to be related to brighter pixels being sent to the far BG, but that could also be an issue with the detail of the generated depth map. It would seem natural to me to filter the depth map to remove small, sharp spikes in depth as they would likely be errors, so that could be why some white dog whiskers are on the background in some dog photos.

Dog photos! Cat photos! Dog photos and cat photos living together. Mass hysteria. No matter which pet species you follow on Instagram, you’re going to see a large number of shots with shallow depth of field. Thanks in no small part to Apple. The shots of animals are more error-prone than shots of humans though. DJ Jenkins, who follows me on Twitter, sent me this shot of his dog:

A close up view on the dog’s head shows a lot of smearing, and pinching around the edge of the pooch. Apple’s system prioritized the detail of the dog over the BG holding up. I’m guessing the system is trying to fill in for pixels that would be behind the dog, so you don’t see a blurry dog edge with a sharp dog inside of it. The highlight on the dog’s nose seems to have fallen between the BG and the FG too.

If anyone’s grumbling that animal portraiture is not what the feature was intended for, I have some bad news about the fact that people are going to shoot a lot of non-human, non-portrait shots with “Portrait Mode”.

Sharp Foregrounds

Some images have a touch of defocus effect applied to the foreground, but usually I only see that when there is an error. The images almost universally seem to favor a sharp foreground. This breaks the illusion right away. An image with a sharp foreground, subject, and totally out of focus background can still look pleasant, but I would prefer it if that was a conscious choice, rather than a shortcoming of the process.

Reflections and Refractions

Right after I saw, and read, Matthew Panzarino’s piece on TechCrunch about “Portrait Mode” in the beta, I wanted to see all the cases where it did not work. I had speculated that reflections on surfaces, and light refracted through water, or glass, would really mess it up, since those are things that are issues in stereoscopic VFX work. Sure enough, Matt sent me this image of a wine glass on Twitter:

Borked. Interesting, but borked.

Then Myke Hurley from Relay FM started posting shots he was taking in less than ideal lighting conditions, and of non-portrait subject matter. He was very happy with how the photos turned out and they were pleasing to his eye. They are quite helpful in illustrating issues with the Portrait Mode beta.

I scribbled around some of the obvious problems with the reflection of the light through the door on the coasters and table. The edge of the coasters is going in and out of focus based on how much of the bright reflection is on the coaster. That’s why there’s a very sharp increase in the defocus of the coaster edge. Not because the coaster is far away, but because it’s being defocused as if it was at the depth of the door reflection, which is the depth of the door. Here’s the difference between what Myke uploaded to Twitter as the original, and the “Portrait Mode” one (Twitter compression could cause slight variances on top of whatever was originally in the shots, but that’s not the point).

This illustrates the regions being altered by Apple between the composite image they produce, and the image that is exclusively from their “56mm” lens. The width of the altered regions on the coasters is the same as that of the width of the door. The system is also trying to blur out some of the coaster details that are immediately in front of BB8 but part of the reflection.

Jason Snell tweeted an image of his cat that has blurred out reflections on the floor as well. These stick out because they’re totally feature-less holes in an otherwise textured floor. (Also the floor in the foreground would be out of focus anyway, but my issue is with the holes.)

Make Some Noise

There’s also another thing that Myke’s photos were very helpful with and that was in illustrating how Apple was going to handle sensor noise.

In addition to some edge smearing and pinching in this hand shot Myke took, you can see a very visible difference in the sensor noise in the image between the “in focus” and “out of focus” regions. There is some noise in the “out of focus” area, but it seems as if it was designed for use only in more desirable lighting conditions. It doesn’t emulate the sensor noise present here at all. You could argue that no one should be taking photos under those lighting conditions, but so what? People are going to do it anyway.

Some folks might be confused about why you would want to add noise to something, but it is essential for making it look like it’s a cohesive image. The alternative — more aggressive noise reduction than Apple already does (and it is quite aggressive) would be undesirable because then you’re going to further mush what should be the sharp, foreground object.

I hope that as Apple progresses with their beta, they can fine tune the noise they’re adding to the blurred regions to produce a more integrated image under all lighting conditions.

Defocus

When Matthew Panzarino’s TechCrunch article went up, he had been told by Apple that the blur was a “gaussian blur”. That ruffled a lot of feathers because gaussian blur has nothing to do with simulating how light focuses, but it’s faster than any defocus method. Indeed, there’s a pervasive mushiness where everything softly blends together with very few exceptions. There isn’t the texture I would expect to see. Panzarino received clarification from Apple that the images in the Camera Roll are not using gaussian blur, but rather a “custom disc blur”. Using a disc means they’re convolving the pixels – the simplest way to describe it is that each pixel expands out into a circle. Really hot pixels produce very clearly defined circular patterns with sharp edges. If you’ve ever seen out-of-focus christmas lights at night, the sharp circles over a dark background are very pronounced. You can still perceive these details in situations with less contrast though. I don’t see anything approaching that in the images I’ve seen Portrait Mode produce. The closest are some highlights that seem to be convolving to cotton-ball shapes.

The iPhone’s camera, without assistance from Portrait Mode, even has some more texture in highlights so it doesn’t seem they are modeling their treatment of the image off of any specific characteristics, but rather attempting to create an inoffensive, soft effect.

It could also be that they’re applying their focus effects to clamped pixel values. For example: If you use a defocus treatment on a JPEG, vs. a RAW file, you’ll see that the JPEG doesn’t have high-high pixel values in the highlights because that data was cut off at a certain point after it hit “white”. However, that’s pretty unlikely because I’m sure Apple’s engineers are also aware of that, and that the softness in the highlights is an intentional choice they’re making.

Another Tool

I’m still where I was at the start of this post. I have no problem with the feature existing, or people loving the images they are producing with the feature right now in the beta. You do you. I do hope that Apple can improve some aspects of Portrait Mode to make it even better for people who are happy with the current results, and to make me less twitchy when I scroll through Twitter and see gapping holes and pinched edges.

2016-09-27 09:00:00

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WWDC Wish List: tvOS

As we get closer to WWDC, I notice that there’s a dearth of excitement, interest, or rumors in anything involving the Apple TV. It’s hard to blame anyone for the disinterest since the platform hasn’t really wowed anyone since its premiere and no major rumors have circulated in advance of Monday’s event. I’ll run through a list of things I would like to see, though I myself am skeptical any of them will materialize in a few days.

Darker Interface

The team that designed tvOS valued light, open, bright designs. Unfortunately, in a dark living room, this is rather harsh on your eyes. This is something that the previous generations of the Apple TV had right, and I’d like to steer back toward it.

Picture in Picture

PiP is a fairly old concept, and not necessarily an exciting one. A video plays in a little box and other videos, or graphics, are available elsewhere in screen space. I don’t really wish for arbitrary video boxes to float around the interface, but there are many cases where the user experience could be improved by allowing a video to float while you navigate some menu hierarchy for another video to watch. The Apple TV is not really a snappy-multitasker, so offering that foothold into what you were watching while you look for something else would be very handy. As Jason Snell points out in a piece for Macworld, some apps even implement their own PiP to display multiple things, like the Major League Baseball app displaying multiple baseball games.

After all, PiP is a feature that came to iOS before tvOS, and tvOS is built on iOS … and iOS borrowed the idea from TVs … so it’s not the worst idea. It also happens to be a building block for more complex interactions like…

Interactive Programming Guide

I know you think I’m abusing an addictive substance, but let me assure it’s just pinot noir. Interactive programing guides are a familiar sight to anyone that’s used a TV in the last 20 years. An interface is presented to the user that’s like a spreadsheet, with a table of times, and channels, and what is currently playing on them. Most of these programming guides also embed the video that is currently being viewed so that people can browse the list of channels while still watching their show (either with the intent to switch channels, or to merely check information).

I’ve been trying to pitch this to people since last fall and no one is biting, but here me out, and bite away. The Apple TV actually does have “live” TV programming in some apps, but it’s totally invisible to the system, and to the user, unless that feed for that particular app is open and playing. This is ridiculous in 2016 because it makes channel surfing into some kind of investigative reporting simulation. You have to pop open each app that offers a live stream, then navigate to it, then open it and wait for it to load whatever might be playing. It’s hardly like hitting channel up, and channel down. This is a problem that TV solved decades ago, and it wasn’t even this slow for a TV to change channels.

Before the wave of skepticism pulls me out to sea let me assure readers that human beings do watch live, and “live”, video on TV by the millions. Live video is so important that YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are all trying to get in on it. Just because “live TV” conjures images of CBS crime procedurals for you doesn’t mean that’s the case for everyone.

Apple could offer a mechanism for an installed app to register that it offers live video, and to detail what the programming for that live video is. Only the applications that are installed would be present, and their programming viewable while watching another video stream. Potentially you could even ask Siri “What’s on?” to pull up the guide. Or ask “When are the Oscars on?” and get that familiar, linear bar of what’s available.

Let’s not forget that “live TV” isn’t typically live, it’s just an linear stream of shows and ads set to play at given times. That linear stream is a useful way (but not the only way) for people to find new shows thanks to the serendipity of turning on a TV during a certain time slot. Techies might scoff at such notions, but … like it’s a thing.

AirPlay(3)

There’s an incredibly irritating and very persistent bug (series of bugs?) with AirPlay where playback is interrupted and the stream is kicked back to the device it was streaming from. This occurs with a great deal of regularity, but AirPlay is still the best way to get audio and video to play in my living room in spite of it.

I hope that Apple has a more robust solution for AirPlay going forward that doesn’t flake on an all-Apple-device network.

A New Multitasking View

The original multitasking view for tvOS was a flat series of cards with excessive gaps between them. It presented a thumbnail view of what the app had last displayed. In the updates since launch, Apple revised the multitasking view to appear more like the iOS view. This is unfortunate because I have an enormous screen dedicated to showing me one card and the edges of two other cards, with a very blurry card in the background.

If the apps I’m switching between are TVML apps, then they look almost visually identical so you’re really looking at the name, and icon, which are in the top of the screen and take up the least amount of space. The multitasker only displays a single app title at a time as well, so all the blue and purple gradients really stick out. If the system has been restarted (either by the owner, or by the system just doing its thing) then the thumbnails for the apps are also medium-gray rectangles.

This is not suitable for me and I almost always switch apps by going back to the homescreen because it seems faster to mentally sort it.

I hope that there’s a new multitasking view that takes advantage of the screen real estate, and PiP, to allow me to move fluidly between applications and not between individually displayed, static rectangles.

Turn Folders Into Page Breaks

When I heard the rumor that folders would be added I laughed pretty hard. When I saw folders were added I let out a big sigh. Whatever is going on with the management, and development, of tvOS post-launch seems to be heavily skewed towards metaphors that work on iOS. Folders are implemented almost the same way where you hold down the touchpad until the parallax-icon wiggles, then you drag it over another icon and let go. It opens up a vast, white void where those two icons now live. This is… un-TV-like, and an inefficient use of screen space, and my tapping.

What I wish for is the ability to add a dividing line in the homescreen. Category dividers that section off the way apps are organized but leave the icons at the same size and don’t require “opening” and “closing”.

Amazon uses a category system in their Fire TV interface, which is not flexible for the user, but doesn’t burry things. The Amazon way of doing thing relies on the system to populate the app across multiple categories too, even in “recommendation” sections. This seems very, un-Apple-like, so I’d settle for a series of dividing lines and apps inside of them.

Take advantage of that ridiculous remote and let me exert extra swiping-force to move from line to line. News to Movies, etc.

Aliases for Content

The system doesn’t provide a way for people to directly access a favorite show in Netflix right from the home screen. There’s no way to bookmark something you’re interested in, and pin it right to the homescreen as if it were an app. Amazon treats content like apps on the Fire platform so they can mix movies, apps, music, games, and TV shows all in the same interface. Apple only presents the top-level of every app and nothing else.

Overhaul the TV Shows App and the Movies App

These apps are strongly geared toward someone buying/renting a video that is advertised to them as soon as possible. They are pretty unfriendly toward people that want to watch something that isn’t new. In the Purchased tab of the TV app, there’s a grid of shows, displaying a tile of artwork for the current season of that show. There aren’t any visual indications of what you’ve watched already, or what you were last watching when you used the app. Each show also arranges episodes as a series of narrow, horizontal tiles that needed to be scrolled through to get to what you want. I wish they overhaul this navigation.

The Movies app offers some sorting options by genre, but not by when you watched something. Also the genres are from the iTunes store and each movie gets a single genre designation. This is a problem if the designation isn’t right. The first six Star Wars movies are listed under “Action & Adventure” but “The Force Awakens” is listed under “Sci-Fi & Fantasy”.

These apps exist under the Videos app on iOS, and the iTunes App’s TV and Film sections on the Mac and PC. None of it is consistent.

Non-tvOS App Store Purchases

I want a unified storefront where I can buy an app on any of Apple’s platforms, even if it isn’t for the one I’m currently on, and push the app to any, or all, of my devices. Google and Amazon have solved this problem years ago. Apple currently bounces you around between several redirects before you land on some rather unhelpful pages. Then you can take that result, remember it until you get home, and ask Siri to find it in the App Store for the TV. It’s like sharing apps with semaphore.

Initial App Setup

When you fire up the device there is a very minimal homescreen. Opening the App Store initially shows a bunch of suggested apps. There’s also the “Purchased” tab which displays apps that the iTunes store backend knows that you’ve purchased, or “got”, on other devices and can sort the information by “Recent Purchases”, “Recently Updated”, “Not on This Apple TV” and by the App Store category the app is listed under.

This is very helpful, except there’s no “Download All” feature, and each app icon must be individually clicked on to bring up the info for the app and then download it. Then back to the menu. It would be nice to very quickly populate an Apple TV.

Unified Credentials with iCloud Keychain

I don’t want to sign in, or verify, every app that I download. Especially not if the TV version of the app has a companion app on my iPhone, or a website I logged into with Safari. Frustratingly, Apple already has a tool for this with iCloud Keychain, but it’s not used to unify this. Instead you’re entering codes from your TV into URLs on your computer — like an animal.

I’ve also seen a lot of Apple fans say that Apple doesn’t do this BECAUSE SECURITY but if that were the case than iCloud Keychain wouldn’t store my credit card info across devices on Apple’s severs, let alone what kind of video subscription services I have access to.

What to Watch

In the tvOS App Store, the “What to Watch” section features video steaming apps. Those apps are almost exclusively apps that require a cable, or satellite TV subscription only. I wish this section was devoted to apps for people that did not have cable and satellite subscriptions. That might make the area look pretty sad, but it would reduce the amount of investigative work I have to do.

Remote

The remote is still a frustrating instrument that should be outlawed, but it’s not going to go anywhere at WWDC.

Drag and Hold to Continue Movement

One of the more annoying aspects about using the remote with the interface is that the remote’s touch area is very narrow, but the swipe required to move between interface elements requires dragging from the center of the pad out toward the edge of the pad, then lifting your thumb back to the center of the pad and starting over.

Back when Marko Savic and I used to regularly podcast about the Apple TV this issue was discussed, and Marko (I think?) suggested a persistent drag, just like when you’re moving the playhead in the timeline in a video view on the Siri Remote. Siri would keep going in the direction your thumb moved, while you held your thumb on the edge of the touchpad you had hit. To stop, lift the thumb, or move the thumb back to center like an analog stick on a game controller.

I speculated that Apple probably didn’t want to do this because then no one would appreciate the Parallax Icons — I would gladly burn the Parallax Icons to the ground in exchange for non-repetitive thumb movement.

iOS Remote App

Apple was rightfully lambasted for completely skipping support for anything other than the Siri Remote. iPhones, especially ones released around the time of the 4th generation Apple TV, are far more sophisticated than the $80 glass and metal remote. Only the old, crappy app is supported right now, but Eddy Cue has announced a revised Remote App will be available this summer.

Games

Release a controller. Apple knows that they should. Every Apple Store I’ve been in has Nimbus controllers (plural) next to the Apple TV demo unit. The Siri Remote is better suited to stirring fondue than it is playing games. Perhaps the new iOS Remote App will be a decent controller, but there’s no real excuse for Apple to support the Steel Series Nimbus so heavily and abdicate any first-party responsibility for making a game controller, or insisting that games be playable on the Siri Remote.

The crappiness of the gameplay is a large reason I abandoned even trying to play games. If Apple would like to acknowledge that games are a traditional revenue source for them, then it would benefit them to make games something that people want to play.

A Message for the 64 GB Model

Right now, Apple’s stance is that you should buy the 64 GB model if you’re going to play a lot of games. That’s … not enticing. On tvOS, the app storage is capped so the storage seems like bizarre overkill. There really should be a narrative for why this model exists. If they’re going to allow record of live broadcasts, or preemptively buffering movies you’re watching, or buying, on other devices, than this starts to make a little more sense.

Streamlined Apple ID and Apple ID Switching

There’s an “Accounts” subsection of the “Settings” app in tvOS which details the 4 places where the same, exact account is signed in. Why? iCloud, uTunes and App Store, Game Center, and Home Sharing all have separate Apple ID logins. Clicking on iCloud gets you three different photo-oriented toggles: iCloud Photo Library, iCloud Photo Sharing, and My Photo Stream.

There’s also an option to “Manage Subscriptions” which will bring up the reviled horizontal keyboard and ask you to sign in to see what you’re subscribed to (something that might be given away by what apps are installed???). If you decline, that brings up an endless spinner (hit the menu button if you do this), because that’s not an expected behavior. Every time a login screen pops up, you should enter passwords and login info.

This is a TV let’s get a grip. There should be a single sign in, sign out, and switch user system. If holding a iPhone near a TV can let me set up my TV, why can’t I authorize it to jump to my account, or a guest authorize it to jump to their account? I wish this was a single profile that followed me, and not a series of separate wires that needed to be defused in the correct order.

Backup and Restore

I’ve been bothered by the lack of a backup and restore system since the launch of the platform. Not because I do that regularly, but because I know that I will eventually need it. Why can’t I setup a second Apple TV (other than I’m sane) that restores the same state as my first Apple TV? What happens if I need to replace this device because of a defect, or theft? What happens when I go to upgrade this Apple TV to the next model in X years? I have to setup everything from scratch again. I wish it weren’t the case.

Siri

There are several rumors about a major update to Siri, and a Siri API. I would hope that Apple plans on rolling out a consistent experience across all their devices, including the TV, and that Siri commands given to one device can affect your other devices you’re logged into. Like if I tell my phone I want to watch something on my TV, it should be able to show it on my TV. Google showed a concept video where their Assistant understood the context of questions and the devices it had available to it.

Due to the importance of Siri on the device, and Siri on all Apple’s devices, I feel pretty confident we’ll at least see improvements there, and it only makes sense for those improvements to be across the various Apple platforms.

I’m looking forward to WWDC because I imagine it will be a jam-packed update-stravaganza. I do hope that there’s something exciting in there to make my $150 Netflix box fell like a delightful component in my living room.

2016-06-09 07:45:10

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Defocused and The Incomparable Memberships

The Incomparable is a podcast, which spun off a variety of other podcasts into a network of shows. Other podcasts have also joined, like Defocused. Jason Snell, who owns, operates, edits, and social-media-manages The Incomparable Network put a membership system in place last night. The membership is optional (we’re still making the shows regardless of membership sales), but it does offer some perks to listeners and generates some revenue for shows. There’s a blog post from Jason Snell which explains the details.

Dan and I haven’t run ads on our show – well, except for fake ones – not because ads are evil, we just didn’t want to for a variety of boring reasons. It’s a passion project (-$) which we love to do, and we’re both very grateful to our listeners that enjoy the show. If you don’t enjoy the show, then I don’t know why you’re reading the second paragraph of a blog post about the show, but you do you.

There’s no obligation to commit to the show financially, even positive iTunes reviews, and passing around links mean a lot to us. Whether or not you sign up, I’d also appreciate it if you would send me some links on Twitter to episodes of Defocused which you think new listeners might enjoy. (Please keep the, “start at episode one” tweets to a minimum.) I honestly struggle with how to pitch a 99 episode show to new people. In episode 100 (recorded before Dan’s wedding) we ran through our memories of all 99 of the shows and it took 2 hours.

If you do choose to sign up as a member of The Incomparable Network there are different tiers, but for all tiers you can select the shows on the network you wish to support and the money is divided up equally between those. It’s a network membership, not a membership Dan and I manage. (Good grief, could you even imagine?)

There are 16 shows on the network right now covering various topics, and sometimes the same topics with different hosts or panelists. There’s something for everyone. It’s like the Cheesecake Factory menu.

Thank you, listeners (and people who don’t listen to the podcast but kept reading this anyway for mysterious reasons).

2016-06-02 13:25:00

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That Time Straight Men Got Upset About an Elsa Hashtag

There was a scattered piece from Devin Faraci that circulated rather widely the other day. It started with the premise that fandom is broken because fans demand things from the people creating the comics, movies, and games they love. He emphasized demand, but he conflates it with online petitions and requests (that seem absolutely benign), with harassment and death threats. A comparison (which he picks up from Jesse Hassenger at the AV Club) is drawn between fans on Twitter wanting Elsa to have a girlfriend in Frozen 2 with the negative reactions to Ghostbusters and GamerGate. He muddles through a bunch of stuff about how the internet makes it easier to demand things, and behave poorly, but he paints with a broad brush. After all, he wouldn’t have a job if he was a nice guy on the internet.

I’ve been fuming about this since I read it the other night. There is no place for death threats, at all. No one objects to that. Rolling that in with every other form of criticism, feedback, fan fiction, and conversation is entirely objectionable. A Disney princess hashtag that a teenage girl started! Don’t bully creators, go bully teens into silence? What?!

While I don’t personally want to see Elsa presented this way, or for Steve Rogers’ to be gay, people are allowed to say these things. People have been saying these things about fictional characters for a very, very, very long time. And honestly, retroactively making a character gay is a thing that happens in fictionalized entertainment, even if I think it’s generally handled poorly. Coming down hard on fans like this reinforces a negative view that people seeking representation in media are the same as those seeking to push change out of comics, and out of their lives. I don’t think these particular things are the best ways to address representation, but so what? Who does it hurt? Entertainment Tonight asked Idina Menzel about the campaign and she gave a supportive response, but clearly stated that she has no authority over that, and fans should pursue things with Disney. So far, the only “important” people freaking out about the fans are Jesse and Devin. The fragility of straight white guys never ceases to amaze me.

Later, after his post was circulated widely, Devin wrote a separate, thoroughly-confused piece about how people read his writing wrong, and they should definitely be demanding a “queer princess” from “decision makers” but they shouldn’t petition “creators” of Frozen 2. You see that he separates creation from decision. Work-for-hire writing, and directing, from intellectual property. Then he says that the filmmakers have power and it’s not just Disney, also he says he was really tired when he wrote it and didn’t think it would be a big deal, so… There we go with people not understanding his writing.

Why bother asking for people of color, and women, to rally around him if he’s just going to make insulting comparisons to GamerGate that demonstrate he doesn’t understand any of these issues? Why write a follow-up piece about how the pressure needs to be applied to get the representation he’s fighting for? He also thinks everyone should be nice to creators – but still critique things like he does and presumably get in internet-fights with screenwriters? Perhaps the real issue is that he wants to be a gatekeeper controlling what constitutes an appropriate reaction to media.

Unfortunately, the cord for the mic Devin tried to drop got all knotted up around him.

As I wrote earlier, I was fuming all day about this because it basically gives a bunch of assholes free reign to be jerks. Go look at the winning comments on Devin’s posts, and the responses to his tweets.

105 votes in agreement with ‘Samcvb’ over his comment that he can’t wait for “the death of Nerd Culture” because people feel too entitled. He then goes on to lay out the reasons why “The Force Awakens” wasn’t really that good because it appealed to entitled fans, and wasn’t like “Old School George Lucas”. Cognitive dissonance is aaaaaaaamazing! Devin, and the people that support him, betray that they really object to people who don’t agree with them, and those are the entitled ones.

Here the Elsa fans are, lumped in with that. And the Star Trek fan fic writers, and even me.

I wrote about how disappointed I was to see Midnighter get cancelled because he was the only gay man leading a comic book from DC or Marvel, and it lasted 12 issues. He is not included in the slate for the DC Rebirth event, but all the safe, comfortable choices are. “Please come back, straight white men, we love you.” My negative reaction to this can be easily categorized as entitlement. I demand to see my interests reflected in the work of these artists. Only that’s not the whole truth. I want to see a diverse world that we are all part of represented in these works. Part of that is ego – wanting to see someone you sympathize with represented – part of that isn’t – wanting to see other characters as fully developed people so I can empathize with experiences that are not my own. What gay men are straight readers, and movie-goers, empathizing with in Star Wars, DC, Marvel, Star Trek? (Good luck with this question!) Also if a reader doesn’t think that they can empathize with a gay character because they’re not gay, then they should double-check the meaning of the word empathy.

The free market is also brought up often when rallying against inclusion. According to some, stories are written a certain way because it will sell. Then it sells, and it reinforces that the story sells. No one ever got fired for writing about a straight white male lead. You’ll see lots of these writers talking about the importance of diversity, and how they shouldn’t be criticized because they support the idea of diversity. You know, if someone else can make it work. Blowing up planets and multiverses is hard enough without having two dudes express, “I love you, bro” to each other. No one should have the temerity to campaign for diversity because that’s up to the creators who are making sacred art.

What about creator-owned works? Indie film? People that don’t see themselves in the world, and aren’t employed by these massive companies can certainly take matters into their own hands. Those works can provide an outlet but not a lot of satisfying watercooler talk. They also usually lack the polish of corporate works so it’s a trade-off.

We collectively want to share experiences, which is one of many reasons why corporate-owned characters are so appealing (another big one is capital to pay for high-quality product, and the almost mythic longevity of the product). Is it so surprising that desires are unmet? That people connect on the internet to talk about their wishes with others? It shouldn’t be so shocking that the yearning is bounced back at the product, and the creators. “Wouldn’t it be perfect if this was the way I imagine it?” (Not always! Really! But that’s fine!)

It’s ridiculous to meet every request and expectation – of course it is. Artists have been managing feedback since art was paid for so I guess it’s a thing artists can live with.

“Hey, can you do this thing? I want this thing.”

“No, that’s not what I’m doing.” Or “I didn’t have that in mind, but there’s something else I’m working on.”

That’s a little idealized, of course, but is that so terrible? Would it be so terrible? Are things really so broken that the unwashed masses should be shouted down because we’re all the same as those who go to reprehensible extremes? I certainly don’t feel any kinship with those that would speak about harming others, and I deplore Devin misusing his position to lash out at a Disney princess campaign.

2016-06-01 09:00:00

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Intelligent Assistants and Restaurant Web Pages

Recently there has been a great deal of discussion about software that can converse with people and then present information or accomplish tasks in a natural way. Even in an advanced demo, when Google Assistant was demonstrated on stage at Google I/O 2016, it’s not like talking to a person. It is pretty similar to talking to the Enterprise Computer in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and subsequent shows. That’s also what Amazon’s Lab 126 strives for with Alexa. One of the programmed responses to, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is” I want to be the computer from Star Trek!”

Google Assistant has the added advantage of working in demos, and not as a real-world product yet. I don’t doubt their technical prowess but it’s pretty easy to put an intelligent assistant in front of someone and find all the flaws.

How well these assistants will work for each individual will also depend on the context they are being used in, and the contexts that are covered by devices around them. Google demonstrated an understanding of this by talking about the different contexts that Google Assistant will operate in, including the home, car, and on the phone. Amazon hasn’t integrated their Alexa products in the way Google has outlined. It’s pretty strange that owners of an Amazon Echo (or any other Alexa enabled device, including the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick) can buy the Amazon Echo Dot as another Alexa device in the home, but the devices have no understanding that there is any relationship between them. When Dan Moren got his Dot, I asked him on Twitter how it dealt with being in the same room as his Echo. The answer is that they both take queries and respond. That’s not very intelligent.

A key part of Google Assistant’s demo was that it could order things for you through services Google has partnered with, like GrubHub or Instacart. Since this is a platform that permits third party developers, competitors like Postmates or Amazon Prime Now could theoretically integrate the same way and users could select the integration they want from the available options. (Amazon Prime Now seems like a stretch!)

Recently, on an episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast, host John Siracusa criticized Amazon for sticking you (and Casey) with Dominos, and said it all had to do with paid partnerships. That’s not the case. Alexa can’t order pizza. If you ask her to, she will look through your Amazon order history for pizza, and if she doesn’t find anything, she will inform you that she’s added “pizza” to your shopping list.

Alexa added pizza to my shopping list.

There’s no integration with Domino’s or suggestion of Domino’s. You get that when you add the Alexa Skill for Domino’s. A third party skill (like an app) that is added and configured through the Alexa app. When you add the skill you are prompted to login with a Domino’s “EasyOrder” account. Alexa is a thin layer between you and Domino’s, like grease, or dignity. The commands are “Domino’s” and not “Pizza” because no one owns the word pizza on the platform, Domino’s simply makes the only Skill for ordering pizza. Any Domino’s competitor can make an equivalent skill and they wouldn’t be impaired by Amazon any more or less than Domino’s. Domino’s just does weird tech stuff.

If these assistants take off, then having a Skill — or whatever the Google Assistant equivalent is — could be as valuable as a restaurant having a web site. And not just any web site, a modern, up-to-date website that loads. Perhaps we’ll see SquareSpace add these Skills to their plans? Or there might be some horrible Wix variant that offers the same? Viv, a Silicon Valley startup from the people that brought us Siri, seems determined to use a paid development platform which is, at best, nebulous.

Amazon makes a big deal out of making an Alexa Skill in 15 minutes with Node.js so maybe there will be a small market for web developers to add this to the list of services they provide when making websites? Certainly seems less cumbersome than an iOS or Android app.

However, users need to add these integrations ahead of time, not in a moment of pepperoni-pineapple-pizza pique. That can be as discouraging as saying you need to download an iOS, or Andorid, app for every restaurant. (A problem Google wants to solve with Instant Apps.) Viv seems to solve this by not really giving you any options.

Not all restaurants bother with online ordering infrastructure and instead rely on an intermediary company, like GrubHub or Postmates, filling that role. That can be beneficial for consumers because they can rely on a handful of Skills instead of one-off Skills. It will leave consumers wondering which Skill they use to order their pizza. Is that restaurant on GrubHub or Postmates? Are they on Uber Eats? Amazon has no universal search across their Skills to allow for comparison shopping for delivery. Google Assistant doesn’t appear to either. I say “appear” because Sundar told the “car” to order “curry” and that’s so abstract that it simply seems unlikely that it operates in that way.

What about Siri? It has no third party integrations aside from companies Apple selectively partners with. Yelp is a partner and handles almost all food-related queries. If you tell Siri, “Order Pizza” she provides a list of nearby restaurants with pizza on the menu and their Yelp star ratings. That’s it. Tap them to go through a maze of ordering things. Even if you have a favorite restaurant, and a usual order that you want to trigger, she’ll never understand any of it. Food is just a list of Yelp results. I would argue that Apple’s approach here is the worst. I hope that WWDC in June will bring some news about Siri integrations being offered so we can at least elevate Siri to the same level as the other assistants, as imperfect as they are.

And at that imperfect level we can start to wonder where it was we last ordered pizza from, and what it even was that we liked so very much. If we even have to consider the context, the hardware for the order, then this brave new world has so far to go.

2016-05-26 08:07:00

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Sony Settles in Suit

Yesterday, news broke on Deadline Hollywood’s site that Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks have settled for $13 million. This is not an admission of guilt on Sony’s part.

In September of 2014, a class action lawsuit was filed by Robert Nitsch against DreamWorks Animation, Pixar, Lucasfilm Ltd., The Walt Disney Company, Digital Domain 3.0, ImageMovers, ImageMovers Digital, Sony Pictures Animation, and Sony Pictures Imageworks. The lawsuit was based on things turned up during the DOJ anti-poaching case that affected other Silicon Valley companies like Adobe and Apple.

Here’s the 27 page filing from September of 2014 about the alleged general level of involvement of each company.

On March 31st of this year, BlueSky was the first to break ranks and settle for $5,950,000. This is also not an admission of guilt.

Deadline’s Dominic Patten guesses that DreamWorks Animation will likely be the next to settle, if only to move along it’s acquisition by NBC/Universal. I agree, but it’s also likely they’ll settle next because I don’t see Disney settling soon. Disney managed to acquire most of the conspiring companies (Pixar, Lucasfilm), or found them (the defunct ImageMovers). While Digital Domain 3.0 is sued, it might be protected by the various legal shell-games that transpired to found it. If they do settle, they’d also likely settle before Disney.

I’ve previously discussed my feelings on Ed Catmull, and on Tim Cook defending Steve Jobs – They were not warm feelings.

Ed Catmull and George Lucas have statements on record that this was essentially for the greater good. That with the low margins of the industry, this was the way things needed to be done to keep costs from getting it of control. Ironically, almost all of the studios in the suit have suffered, not blossomed, with the exception of these ringleaders’ own enterprises. Perhaps the real cheat was getting all the other studios to stop competing by enticing them to hamstring themselves? Where would Sony Pictures be if they hadn’t joined with Ed?

2016-05-02 08:50:00

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