Category Archives: mobile

Newly Glassed: Wearables, GPS, and Ambient Data

(Shameless plug: interested in the intersection of GPS, GIS, wearables, and data? You should attend the MapCamp hackathon at ISITE Design — January 10-12, 2014. Register here!)

I’ve been Glassed for the better part of a month now, and I must say I feel fortunate to have an advance look at what the future of interface will no doubt look like. For all the slagging it takes in the press and blog-land for being a needless distraction and encourager of Ugly Tech Behavior, I’ve found Glass to be remarkably unobtrusive and subtle. If anything, Google may have erred too far on the side of demureness, sacrificing some utility in order to keep the interface from being a persistent annoyance. Oddly, the mere act of wearing “glasses” constantly has been the most jarring aspect of the experience for me — I’m lucky to be blessed with perfect vision, and live in 9-months-overcast Portland, where sunglasses are rarely required. So, it feels a little weird to have something on my face all the time. But I’m getting used to it.

Hardware awkwardness aside, the software experience in Glass is quite subtle and pleasant. The interface relies heavily on voice commands, which feels socially awkward in public, but I expect those commands to be replaced by gesture-based controls over time. I’ve been in a number of contexts recently where voice commands were either awkward (public) or impractical (while cycling, when Glass had a hard time hearing me over the wind noise), and this really diminishes the utility of the device. More discreet and reliable gesture-based controls would help close this considerable experience gap.

When unhindered by UX awkwardness, I’ve found the Glass experience to be absolutely magical. One of the biggest drawbacks to the mobile phone as center of the personal-data universe is that, for a typical plugged-in 21st century citizen, the sheer mass of alerts, updates, and bits of communication can be daunting, and can prompt the sort of antisocial, constant-phone-checking behavior that, ironically, many commenters seem wary of experiencing with Glass.

However, the Glass experience does a great job of staying out of the way, only popping up alerts periodically, and only, as far as I’ve seen, ones that are relevant for one reason or another. The screen also sits above the field of vision, not in the way of it, which effectively keeps it out of the way until you’re ready to glance up. This does make looking at anything in particular for more than a few seconds a little straining, but the best use of this kind of technology isn’t really the kind of immersive, attention-absorbing experience you’d get from a game or long-form text — it’s really designed for small bites of information, not whole meals.

And this, I think, is where Glass (and the many, many competitive follow-on products sure to come to market soon) will shine — in the intersection between personal relevance, tiny bits of useful data, and location-awareness. Already, I’ve seen Glass pop up historical points of interest periodically as I pass by them — which is interesting from a casual-observer-of-geographic-history perspective, but pales in comparison to the utility that will be unleashed when this kind of serendipitous, location-based info-popup is tuned and shaped by our interests, needs, social connections, and most importantly, our tolerance for being interrupted as we transit our environment. Imagine shoppers armed with real-time sale information, music lovers alerted to nearby last-minute ticket releases, and car-share users able to scan the horizon for available vehicles. Eventually, this really will feel like having superpowers.

And eventually, it will just feel normal, right? I’ve seen the future, and I say bring it on.

 

Branching out into Palm WebOS development

Palm Pixi PlusAmong the many inconveniences that plague those among us cursed to be generalists — Shiny Object Syndrome, Incomplete-project-disease — perhaps the most troubling (or at least the most costly) is the sheer amount of gear necessary to delve into all of the areas that interest us. As a parent, I’ve all but left behind the halcyon days of multiple guitars, bicycles and pairs of skis — one of each, two tops, will have to do for now.

But as a developer, particularly a developer of mobile applications, a growing collection of smaller-than-a-computer internet-connected devices is a much more justifiable luxury. Having spent a good amount of time over the last couple of years learning to write iPhone apps, I had more or less ignored other platforms until I attended Joshua Marinacci’s excellent presentation on Palm’s WebOS at July’s Mobile Portland meetup.

Since their acquisition by HP, Palm’s developer stock has understandably risen, as we can apparently look forward to seeing WebOS grace devices of a variety of shapes and sizes in the not-too-distant future (Josh was careful not to spill any beans, but made some coy allusions to forthcoming tablet-like products from HP). So, WebOS has gone, in my book, from a niche player to a platform that deserves exploration.

I was impressed with my first real look at WebOS, but also, in particular, with the relatively free rein Palm has given to developers (compared to the somewhat more restrictive and ceremony-wrapped Apple development and deployment process). Enough so that I’ve decided to take the plunge and try writing some WebOS apps. Apparently the learning curve isn’t nearly as steep as it is with iOS, so we’ll see how quickly that translates into results of which I can be proud.

In the meantime, the gearhead in me rejoices that a new platform means an opportunity for a new toy… er… test device. I picked up a used Palm Pixi Plus, their entry-level smartphone, on eBay, and have been putting it through its paces. Not bad so far. The UI is pretty slick — and if I wasn’t so used to and enamored by iOS, I could certainly see using it day-to-day.

Bonus: I’ll offer one tip to those of you who happen to use an iPhone as your main device, but want the ability to hop your SIM around from phone to phone in order to test your apps on different devices without having to pay for more than one mobile plan. This was considerably easier before Apple started using micro-SIMs in the iPhone 4 — you could simply pop the SIM out of your iPhone, and into any other device you wanted to use to test your apps. With the form factor change, this is more difficult, but not impossible.

Pick up one of these: http://microsim-shop.com/ — about six bucks (depending on the exchange rate with the Euro on any given day), and it works like a dream. Just pop your micro-SIM into the tray, an it’ll load into a phone that takes a standard-sized SIM. It works fine in the Palm. I’ll let you know how it works in an Android phone once I get there. I don’t know how AT&T feels about the practice of SIM-hopping, but it seems to work, so there you go.

And now, to write some Palm apps… gotta come up with something more user-friendly than the earth-destroying “Death Ray” app that Josh demo’d at the Palm event…