Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ouya and Kickstarter

Within 24 hours of initiating their funding campaign via Kickstarter, Ouja has already made $3 million dollars - more than triple their original funding goal.

They are selling a box - a game console that runs Android - in a way an answer to mobile gaming, but really it is piggybacking on the success of mobile gaming.

The problem developing games has been expense and access. Developing for the Wii, for instance, requires you to buy special magic development hardware, and use Nintendo's tools. This costs a significant amount of money. In addition, games have to be vetted through Nintendo Q+A - not just for whether the game is good or not - but whether is is appropriate for Nintendo's image of itself as family friendly. Nintendo has made it clear that it has no interest in courting the independent developer, which in my opinion has unnecessarily crippled it's handheld game system, the 3DS. The dearth of new titles can be traced to many things - but one of them is the cost of entry, and Nintendo's tight control over distribution.

Contrasting with Ouja - you buy one of their $99.00 boxes, you now have a development platform. You are free to use whatever development tools you want (such as Unity, a 3D game development system) to make your game. You can easily have your existing Android game running on this new console - particularly since the game controller has a touch pad build in for games that use one (think Angry Birds).

The company makes it money from a cut of sales - games are free to try, but through in-app purchases companies can make money - or through a subscription service (think WOW or other games) - and Ouya gets their 30% cut.

This seems to fly in the face of logic - why another console - but clearly there is a market here that hasn't been tapped. Console manufacturers (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo) all have online stores, but they have nothing on the scale of Apple's App store.

And that is what is brilliant about the Ouya game system. This is the only way to get games for the system. There is no pain of retail shelf space, inventory etc. 

As I watched the numbers climb for Ouya on Kickstarter - the thought I had was what a missed opportunity this had/has been for Apple. They already have a $99.00 device that could have been what Ouya is going to be. They have an app store. They have a developer friendly distribution and development system.

I have been mystified why Apple hasn't made the leap into an App store for television. They have all the pieces - and clearly people are ready - cash in hand - but Apple has simply chosen not to do it.

I gave Ouya my $100 for a box. Given the openness of the platform, I figure that at least for my money I will get a fairly powerful media box that is hackable - so that in itself means there will be some use for it - think Netflix Hulu etc.

What will have to happen next is Ouya will have to - ironically perhaps - get the big name developers on board. Game systems live and die by their titles. John Madden Football will have to run on it. People will feel much more comfortable when they see new titles alongside their established favorites. This will keep them from repeating history - the 3DO being a casebook example of a system that was capable - but too expensive and not enough brand name titles. I think things are different now, and Ouya has a chance. We will see.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Breaking Bauhaus

I think it started with me about 5 years ago, when I read an article assigned to me in class on the importance of ornamentation. It used the term "making it special", and wound out a narrative of how ornamentation is important to religion and culture.

The next point of inflection came a few month ago. Like many, I read a number of blogs, and one of my guilty pleasures is the gadget heavy blogs like Gizmodo and Engadget. The writing is typically breathless and severely ADD. There is always the underlying tension of Apple's products and the benchmark they provide for good design.

At least one writer has decided as an arbiter of good taste to parrot what they perceive to be Bauhaus virtues, which boils down to the use of shiny white plastic and brushed metal (okay, I am simplifying). There is little discussion on all the ways Bauhaus had impact; the focus is primarily on products. This is to be expected, for it is easier to critique things that we use every day, without really digging deeper into why something works or it doesn't.

I am not here to criticize Bauhaus, despite my title - for anyone in design would be silly to not acknowledge it's importance to 20th and 21st Century design. But people in design know there are many schools of design, some influenced directly by the clean aesthetic, some not. All have their place.

Consider typography, and all the permutations of how it is used - more so than ever due to the facile nature of digital copy. Anyone with a copy of Photoshop can wield lettering, for better or worse (I consistently argue for the better).

Those that "know what they like", and celebrate Bauhaus, without ever going through the painful process of designing something that people will use, will assume that it is all about "stripping away what is not important". How obvious is that! Let's design an iPod this morning, and then take the rest of the day off!

The problem is that - again - using the example of typography - is that Bauhaus at it's worst becomes bland, blank and cold. It doesn't move you. Glass-sided buildings with no ornamentation - the materials are pretty much it, not much more. Contrast this with buildings that do make a statement, where ornamentation is part of the necessary aesthetic of "making them special".

I think it is time for those who celebrate consumer goods to get a better grasp of what good design really is. It is much more than materials and placement. It is more than "just leaving out what is not important". It is a much harder thing than this. It is making something that will be valued, something that makes an impression, something that can bring a smile to someone's face. Ornamentation is crucial here - these are design elements that are not there for simply pure functionality - they are there because it appeals to us in a way that is uniquely human. Bad Bauhaus denies our humanity.

This is why there are no truly Bauhaus automobiles. Automotive design hooks into both sides of our brain. I love automotive design for this very reason. It is not purely about functionality and efficient use of materials and structures, it is about how it makes us feel. Zagato's designs in the 60's were waaay out there at times, but their best work defined styling elements that others would pick up in their own cars. Virgil Exner's designs for Chrysler in the 50's where designed to be over the top; floating pieces of automotive sculpture that appropriated design elements from such sources as jet fighters. The cars at their best looked like they could actually fly.

And this is why it hurts my brain now to hear evocations of Bauhaus in everything consumer. Those who consider it the last word in design (real designers do not) are not paying attention. They are simply echoing stuff they read somewhere. Design is more than materials and efficiency - it is about form, time and motion. This is more than the curve in the back of an iPad. It is more than making something banal but clean - it is - about making it special.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Hybrid Tablets.....back to the future

As Apple continues to surge, Microsoft is betting that hybrid tablet/computers will be the next big thing. Just like they were before the iPad came along, which pretty much killed hybrid laptops off. But this time it will be different, but really it won't.

There is pretty much a market for just about anything, but it still begs to question whether it is worth the effort. Samsung's Galaxy Note is an unwieldy combination of cell phone and tablet, with a stylus as one of it's selling points. I was amused at Samsung's extra long Super Bowl ad poking fun at the folks in line waiting to buy the latest unnamed competitor that Samsung wishes they were.

Why they never will be Apple, or anything close, is for another time. Now, I want to ponder why would ordinarily smart people recognize that something that didn't sell that great before will magically be so much better now. Hybrid tablet computers were heavy, clunky, and eventually would become just another laptop in the hands of the user. They were too heavy to cradle in an arm like the iPad.

Now, the solution is to have......a docking keyboard. It is a dead out of the gate idea. Developers have to make assumptions about basic functionality of products. This has allowed Apple to leverage both software and hardware experience to offer a coherent device platform for developers. I have talked to developers who relate what a pain in the neck it is to write for Android phones because you can't count on a physical keyboard, and even then - the keyboard interfaces are not standard.

This won't be the case for Microsoft's Windows 8 to be sure. But from a software designers standpoint, does it make sense to rely on physical keyboard and point device interfaces when it is just as likely not to be there? Can there even be a cohesive user experience centered around tablet computing, or will be be another no-even-half-baked "Windows Tablet" thingie?

Apple succeeds here because they see it all as one thing. Microsoft is cursed because they can't own the whole eco system - they are reliant on hardware manufacturers that have their own ideas as how stuff should work - just like the mess that is android user interfaces on cell phones (admittedly, it has improved a lot since a year ago).

I saw one design that Intel is showing that features a tablet with a dock. That is their idea for this new "hybrid tablet". It is so bad it makes me ill just thinking about it. It is simply more back to the future. It didn't work last time, won't work this time as well, for the same reasons. Witness how many people who buy keyboard cases for their iPad - some, but not all. That is a problem. It kind of illustrates my earlier point - sure - there is a market there - but is it enough to stake an entire platform initiative on? No.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I'm sad for Kodak

What happened? Why chapter 11?

Wait too late to pare the company down to profitable units?
Abandoned the high end digital photography market at a time where cell phones are eating up the cheap, consumer camera market?
Went into the printer business at a time where most people won't have a home printer in the next 10 years? (I am guessing it will happen sooner than that - heads up HP).
Didn't buy/build a photosharing business to compete with Flicker/Picasa (Just buy photobucket, for instance).

I don't know what happened, but I am sad all the same. I have my granddad's Brownie camera, which I love for what it represented - photography for the masses - real innovation.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The impending revolution in digital cameras

Poor Kodak! What has happened to you? Why did you go into the printer business!?!

Their impending bankruptcy (everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop) is a milestone of sorts, as the pioneer of photography succumbs to the world of cell phone cameras. Kodak all but abandoned the high end camera market years back when they were still a player. Getting beat up in the cutthroat low end market may have finally done them in.

So - beyond the historic significance, there is the issue that what a camera is, and what it will become, and the context that it is used in. We are indeed taking a lot more pictures due to the availability of a camera in a cell combined with inherent connectivity - in turn connected to social networking.

So what to do? Given this dilemma there is the pressure to innovate.

Lytro thinks they have the answer with their "light field" camera. I will spare the explanation of the technology and instead focus on experience. No more focusing - images can actually be refocused while they are being displayed. A neat trick to be sure.

However, I  question that (in it's current state) that it is the innovation that some tout it to be.

The camera is hopelessly tethered to Lytro's photo service. It is an intrinsic part of the experience. Images can be loaded on their servers and then shared, but because of the back end processing that has to be done, and also because there isn't native support in browsers for their images (nor do I believe there ever will be). In essence, you are buying a device that lives in a walled garden - which will work as long as Lytro stays in business. It seems to me that this is a big limiting feature of the camera, unlike any other camera on the market - which will work with pretty much anything as it they use standard image formats.

The camera's resolution is a big step backwards. It is the antithesis of the multi-megapixel images that cameras can generate today. It is really no better than a point and shoot digital camera from a few years back.

Finally - the neat parlor trick of being able to refocus the image from foreground to background - it wears thin after a while, because frame composition when shooting dictates what is important and not as important in the frame. In other words, the photographer makes a compositional decision concerning what they want the audience to see. Lytro takes this away from the photographer - in giving the option to refocus - it defeats the decision the photographer made when composing their image. Would being able to refocus on background/foreground make the Mona Lisa a better picture? Of course not.

I think the real innovation is happening in much more subtle ways. We see cameras now that look and feel like they were designed by software/hardware engineers - not photographers - with interesting results. Sony's NEX line of cameras illustrates this idea. Some complained about the odd ergonomics of the camera, and it's reliance on a touch screen - but on the other hand - this line of cameras represents a rethinking of how a camera can work - and how the user can interact with it. The ultimate expression of this is their new NEX-7, which contains several controls that can be reconfigured by the photographer - they can create their own preferred way of setting exposure etc. This is what software control gets you - flexibility of user interface design.

Another expression of this just came out of left field, Polaroid's SC1630, a camera powered by android. In a similar way to the NEX - it is an interesting take on the camera experience, where it is an android device that can use the Android store to purchase apps. Depending on how much Poloroid gives access to the camera for developers - it could presage the idea of user driven interfaces and apps that can unlock capabilities in the camera. Want to use it for infrared photography? Want a dedicated, programmable intervalometer for stop motion photography? Having a camera that can be upgraded through new software is a pretty compelling idea.

The other aspect of this camera, and others that feature connectivity through wifi is the idea of sharing. Even Lytro gets this - that it is not just about taking the photograph anymore  - it must also be able to instantaneous share. I think there is much more here that I could write about - the shifting of time, space, memory and emotional impact. But clearly, at least in consumer cameras - this will rapidly become a common feature in mid-line cameras ($100 to $400 retail).

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Stunning New Year Predictions

Quick and to the point!

- Blackberry will continue to lose market share due to many reasons - catastrophic service outages that illustrate a fundamental flaw with their intrastructure and conceptualization of how messaging should work in 2011. Plus their devices are not sexy.

- Android will continue to make gains. Look for focus on better, uniform user experiences across devices. Also - it will begin to show up on things other than phones and tablets. There are already two Android based handheld game systems out there - more to come. How can Google capitalize on this?

- The fight for free cloud storage mindshare will hit a fever pitch with Google landing in the middle of it all.

- There will be more interest in fully on-line high schools for under served areas, but also to alleviate class crowding and shrinking funds.

- Google will continue to plug away at Google TV. It may show up on more new sets this summer, but it will be this extra thing that consumers ignore until there is a compelling reason for it to exist; ie content and a really sexy way to discover content, and merge that seamlessly with the current "real-time/time-shift" broadcast TV experience, blurring the line between the two.

- 3D video cameras will dramatically drop in price, but it will be a while before 3D TV's will as well. Nintendo has it right with the 3DS - the experience needs to happen without glasses before it goes from novelty to something that we would use all the time.

- Apple may or may not come out with a TV set. If they do, re-read that last paragraph. They will successfully integrate their iTunes storefront with the ability to timeshift Television - all through a consistent interface - which will support Siri for program searching with intelligence. And Apple will have the App store for the AppleTV, which can include advertising supported content, just like it does with Apps for the iPad and iPhone.

- Apple will introduce a new tablet in the spring. There will still be only one basic model as before - with more ram, wifi or wifi and celluar. It will be a little thinner and lighter, but will also have a higher resolution and slightly larger screen.

- Amazon will sell a lot of Fire's. A lot. Books, Magazines, Video - ie content. What Google doesn't have.