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Xbox One: PC in Disguise

Wednesday, December 4, 2013 0


The new Xbox Onecontinues to intrigue me as both a device and as a concept in where the future lies for Microsoft.  The humble ‘games console’ from 2001 has morphed into a full on “Entertainment PC” (and I use the term “PC” entirely on purpose), combining movies, music, apps and communication in the form of Skype messaging.
Despite a lot of the ‘futuristic’, forward thinking items being stripped from the device due early feedback from those who like to make a lot of noise and fuss – my initial reaction was to cancel my pre-order (which I did), but more recently, now that the device has actually landed, albeit momentarily, in stores I have place a new order and can’t wait to see what it can do.
The reasoning behind this post however, is more around the crossover of services that appear within the Xbox One and the rest of the Microsoft ecosystem.
SkyDrive
Just like the Xbox 360, the Xbox One has a SkyDrive application which allows users to display their cloud stored photo and video content – which is great, as it totally complies with the vision of being able to access all of your data, everywhere, with whatever device you happen to be using at that time.
SmartGlass
SmartGlass technology continues to play an important part in the Xbox experience; already movies, games and music content are tightly integrated together into a full media eco-system that spans across PC, Tablets and phones.
This tech has recently made its way into the Office application through a new feature that allows Windows Phone to “RemoteOffice” and control documents on screen.  This is a powerful feature that should extend to other Microsoft services and be refined further over time.
Hyper-V
As I already talked about in a previous post, the under lying operating system of the Xbox One fascinates me as it really pushes the Hyper-V hypervisor, virtualisation software into new territory.  I can already envisage desktop PCs with similar multi-OS, fast switching layers – combined with “snap” functionality.
Live Television
The live television interaction is clearly something that is going to be ‘work-in-progress’ over the next few years as Microsoft refine their system and find their way in the myriad of different television protocols and systems from country to country. 
Kinect
Recently, Apple acquired the company that developed the prototype Kinect (or should that be Natal), movement controller, which suggests that others are increasingly becoming more interested in the movement and augmented reality worlds that Kinect is able to manage in today’s version of the device.
All of these services are great in their own right and they go some way to demonstrate Microsoft’s reach across devices and services.  But the one element that I particularly wanted to focus on today was Skype.
Skype
With the acquisition of Skype and the introduction of the Xbox One it emerged on the Skype blog that the whole integration was re-worked for the console version to allow some unique features such as person tracking which permits the camera to zoom and follow the user(s), around the room.
The example on the demonstration shows two developers in an office/meeting room conversing with the presenter in another room.  The camera pans, tracks and tilts accordingly and the demo is a huge success.



What got me thinking more though was if this is the power of the Kinect and Skype coming together on Xbox One, what would stop companies buying an Xbox One and using it as a fancy presentation device?  They’d be able to use the Kinect camera and Skype for presentations, SmartGlass/RemoteOffice combined with Skype and an Office Viewer to display content and use the “snap” features of the virtualised Hyper-V OS to split the screen between the ‘apps’ required.
The more I thought about this, the more it seemed to make sense to create a Xbox-like device that strips out the gaming element to create a high-end presentation room device that fits seamlessly into the Microsoft ecosystem and is controllable from multiple devices (Microsoft/Android/Apple tablets/phones/other devices).
Other Devices
The example I gave above, is obviously very focused on a particular presentation room scenario and would attract a very limited market in my opinion – which is why I ponder the question of businesses buying into the Xbox One rather than a separate, stand-alone device. 
With this though in mind, the Xbox One isn’t a games console any more, it really does become another “PC Device” in a supposedly “post-PC” world that could be applied to other locations and purposes outside of the living room.
I’ve been reading recently forums that ponder the question of Microsoft building TVs with Xbox One type elements built directly into them.  Whilst I think that is some way off just yet, it could become a reality – especially if they are able to build the Kinect directly into the screen.  Another element worth considering here is the acquisition of PixelSense by Redmond; 50-inch plus touch screen technology combined with the possibilities described above may well just be what business are missing from their board rooms, reception areas, lobbies, factories or elsewhere.
Testing the Waters
Make no mistake about it, Microsoft are becoming that “Services and Devices” company that they claim to be and the Xbox One is not only a tactical device to sneak Microsoft into your living room as your entertainment PC, but it is also a device that sits under your TV in disguise as platform for devices in the future. 
Much like the iPad targeted the home consumer and those devices transitioned (albeit unofficially in most cases, starting the BYOD movement), into business and enterprise arenas, the Xbox One similarly tests the waters within the home consumer of this multi-layered approach to its own services that will come full circle back into Enterprise Technology.
Like the Surface tablets, there is clearly more than meets the eye of the Xbox One - a PC device working in a “post-PC” world.

Hugh Laurie: Didn't the Passion Rain

Monday, June 24, 2013 0


Being the ‘House M.D.’ fan I am, I have a tendency to admire the acting talents belonging to the leading man Mr Hugh Laurie.  But it’s not only his skills in pretending to be someone else that I have been envious of in the past though – it’s also his work within the  music scene that grabs my attention in a big way.

Throughout his career Laurie has been able to show flashes of his musical talents in his previous comedy shows (“A Bit of Fry and Laurie”), in “House” itself and even with his former band made up of acting celebrities, who go by the hilariously named “Banned from TV”.

After the final series of House wrapped though, Laurie’s attention turned to his love of American Jazz and Blues music and released his first album “Let Them Talk” to huge success.  The story of how his love of this New Orleans’ inspired music was accompanied with a documentary charting the history behind the music and his progress in producing the album.

This year Hugh has returned with a new album entitled “Didn’t It Rain”, along with another documentary, briefly featuring a sarcastic Stephen Fry, showing how he travelled back to America’s south to explain how his love of this music came to be and to track down his new band “The Copper Bottom Blues” in order to play gig on the “Queen Mary”.

After a long wait, last night I finally got the opportunity to see Hugh and his band play live.  Sat right on the front row, the gig was outstanding and the music certainly flowed with ease; every track sounding key perfect and full of life.  But whilst Hugh Laurie was the big name to attract the audiences to the show, make no mistake, this show was all about a big band playing together rather than one man’s obsession with “old music” as he referred to it throughout the night.

Performances by gospel and soul singer Sister Jean McClain (who really took a shine to pointing and waving to me and few others in the audience throughout the night), and the pitch perfect Gaby Moreno (who performed an outstanding version of “The Weed Smoker’s Dream” that I could listen to forever), were weaved throughout the show, interspersed by Laurie himself who played piano throughout. 

Despite the singers taking front of stage though, it was clear that this was a band performance; the singers taking every opportunity to throw the limelight onto the superb band, who played just about every instrument you could possibly think of through the show.  It was clear to all that this was all about entertainment through song and music than it was about Laurie or the characters in the band itself.

The celebration of the music was enjoyed by all in the audience for sure, but watching Hugh as the band played and the singers did their thing, his eyes clamped shut as he played, intensely listening to every last note, you simply knew that this was his moment and he was loving every last minute of it.  The passion for the music, from the band, flowing through him and directly into the pores of the audience members who clapped, danced and sang along, feeding from that positive energy.

It was a show that I hope I will forever remember and I one day hope to have the same level of passion for the music that Hugh clearly possesses….and if I never really achieve that, I will claim I did anyway, because, after all – everybody lies.

 






 

How I Use my Surface

Friday, June 21, 2013 0

One year ago I sat in complete and utter awe as a then-unknown to me Panos Panay graced my television screen, along with Steven Sinofsky and Steve Ballmer, to reveal a tablet device designed around productivity and having fun; that device I fell in love with that day was, of course, was the Microsoft Surface.
 
A Productivity Device for the Modern Day
 
The Surface was designed primarily as a productivity device, hence the inclusion of a keyboard with the device to allow users to work and create when the need to just ‘get stuff done’ is essential and unclip or fold back when the time for work is over and the play can begin.
 
Microsoft were obviously very aware of this “productivity paradigm” they were creating; so much so that they have started to produce videos of everyday Surface tablet users explaining to the audience exactly how they use their devices to create and produce.
 
My favourite of these videos thus far has been this one;
 


 
My Computer
 
So, in homage to these videos, let me quickly explain why I love my Surface device and exactly how I use it. 
 
My Surface Pro is my primary device, demoting my Sony Vaio laptop to my second choice, and I take it just about everywhere I go – to my work place, to my local Starbucks, to my parents’ house when I visit.  It is the device I can use for just about everything, where ever I am.
 
I use the device to keep up with current affairs via the Bing News application included with Windows 8 and when I feel like unwinding I can fire up the Fresh Paint app and colour in using the digitiser pen (it’s surprising just how relaxing and how much of a regression that app can cause when just colouring in digitally between the lines!)
 
But by far the main use for my Surface device is the combination use of both OneNote and SkyDrive.
 
Taking my Surface into meetings with me to draw and take notes directly on the screen and have those notes follow me across devices thanks to the SkyDrive synchronisation is simply a magical experience.  Being able to search through my notes and bring my own information straight to the front of mind, directly from my fingertips.
 
But what I really love about my Surface Pro and One Note most of all is being able to sit down with my boss and my associates in the work canteen, sit around a table with the Surface in the centre, talk through some ideas whilst scribbling and drawing directly onto the screen to create plans and refine designs of our latest IT projects and infrastructures.
 
 
 
It’s truly a collaborative and social device, as well as one that allows so much productivity.  I really do love my Surface.  Thank you Microsoft!

Why I Cancelled my Xbox One Pre-Order

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Before finally entering my credit card details into the order page on Microsoft’s ordering page, I’d read all of the reviews, even tried it for myself and was convinced that it was the right thing to do.  I’d perused the negative comments and pondered the view points of the faceless names who had let their views be known on the subject – but I was determined, it seemed right, was a new dawn and the only way is forward…..so I ordered…..two!
 
Fast forward six months and the detractors have made their views heard and Redmond have listened, adapted…..the ‘Start’ button is back in Windows 8.1! 
 
The One        
 
After watching the launch event for the Xbox One, I was fired up – enough so to write a whole blog post all about its virtues and how this new console was a step in the right direction towards the modern and ‘one’ home entertainment system you would ever want to put under your television.  Even in my non-gaming life style, it had registered on my Richter and rocked my world.
 
Although I never drilled into the details in my previous post (although I did note the DRM checks and second hand games markets would blow over), I was quite enthralled by the prospect of finally completing the removal of my physical media (just like I have with CDs, DVDs and even books), in favour of downloaded content.
 
My pre-order was placed on Amazon for the “day one release” edition.  The very next day, Microsoft announced that they would be reversing their policies and that the DRM online, disc-less console was to return the PlayStation 4/Xbox 360 previous console generation practices of requiring game discs to be inserted into the drive.
 
I cancelled my order.
 
Why
 
The question you’ll no doubt be asking now is, if I’m not a gamer then why would a change in policy regarding DRM downloaded games bother me so much?  The answer is simple and it was answered by Xboxes very own Don Mattricks when he said the following;
"Fortunately we have a product for people who aren't able to get some form of connectivity; it's called Xbox 360, if you have zero access to the Internet, that is an offline device."
I already own an Xbox 360, that I can get up from my sofa, dig through green boxes that clutter up my living room and insert the shiny disc into the drive, so what is the benefit of the One right now?  Improved graphics?  Live TV integration?  Skype?  I have a slim line PC, running Windows 8 and a webcam sat under my TV for those things.
 
The one thing that the Xbox One really had with downloaded games content was that it had the potential to flash up games in front of my face that I could purchase on a whim and enjoy playing straight away, dragging me into these storybook games and potentially holding my attention long enough to hooking me back onto gaming within the next generation.
 
Taking these things away by reverting back to the old methods doesn’t enhance the experience for me and it doesn’t draw me in for a ‘day one’ purchase.  I can now sit back and wait until next year before decided whether to purchase an upgraded console or not based on a draw to a future game release (read: Halo 5), and who knows by that time, perhaps the console will be offered in a more competitive bundle or at a slightly reduced rate.
 
It took me eight years to buy an Xbox 360, it could take another eight – or another console release – before I’m tempted to buy again.  Or perhaps, just perhaps, Microsoft will reverse their decision again, refine their product and just like Windows 8.1 bring back thing we want most of all.

I Want (Xbox) One!

Monday, May 27, 2013 1

It took me ages from release date for me to buy the Xbox 360; I simply couldn’t find a use for it in my life – I didn’t play console games and my original Xbox was hardly used as a result, why would I want to pay for a newer, updated version of something I never used?  The draw of Halo 3 wasn’t even enough to sway me
It was only two years ago that I finally caught up with Xbox 360 and I did so because it had Media Center built right into it!  The perfect, cheap media streamer for the bedroom and as a bonus, I could play games casually whenever I had the time.  It was a clear purchase; it just took me six years to realise it.
Reveal
May 21st had been etched in my diary for some time, after enjoying the Surface and Office 365 keynotes, I had a great feeling that the new Xbox Reveal would be something special to watch.  So at 6pm on that Tuesday, I fired up the 360 and watched in awe…..and awe it was.
The Xbox One really appears to live up to its name as the ‘One’ device you need for all of your home entertainment needs; it will play all of the latest console games (which as you would expect look absolutely stunning), Kinect brings movement, gestures and voice to the mix, a messaging and communications hub in Skype, a way to stream the best the Internet has to offer and it will also play live, interactive TV!  One device indeed!
The reveal made one thing very clear, I won’t be waiting six years before I buy – I want one.
Games
As an almost non-existent gamer – I never find the time to play – it is not the games that attract me to the Xbox One and I can offer no real, valuable comment on the state of the gameplay or how it compares against the PlayStation 4 or the latest offerings of Steam’s PC streaming.
I also don’t have a strong opinion on the ‘Always On’ or ‘Always Connected’ design that seems to be present in the device; I think the whole thing has been blown out of proportion by a few and in a world where everyone claims to be ‘always connected’ through their mobile phones, tablets and computers, I really don’t see what the big deal is with having your console, something which Microsoft are re-positioning as the “central hub” in your life, also enjoying those same privileges of Internet connectivity.
That aside, from the Reveal Keynote though, you can clearly see that Microsoft and their partners have really put a lot of working into creating these online, changing virtual worlds with intelligence and ability to reflect real-life events.  This is going to be, excuse the pun, game-changing for those who enjoy sports games or flight simulations; the ability to play the league as your favourite team and have player transfers, injuries and other real-world factors will have real-fans excited and flight simulators that are able to generate weather details and real-world maps will really bring the simulation to life.  These are just two examples.
Undoubtedly, as you would expect from a next generation console, progress has been made.
Before I move on from games, one additional thing I’d like to address is the second-hand games market, again there are undoubtedly a million people who are able to better comment on this than I, as I don’t really see it as a major problem.  Piracy of games and software has long been something that Microsoft has been clamping down on and this new licensing scheme for games is similar to how they offer the ability to transfer your Windows and other software licenses between machines and owners of said software. 
I don’t see Microsoft charging a significant fee for this transfer of ownership, so most users probably won’t even see it as a problem by the time it comes to fruition, but I can understand some of the frustrations of those gamers who have long traded and sold games as they’ve finished or grown tired of them.  Games aren’t cheap and the market is busy with trade, but I believe the market will simply adapt to these changes once they are in place and the issue will soon fade to the back of people minds.
But that is just my feeling.
Kinect
What really brings the new Xbox to life, just like the last, is the new Kinect camera to bring those movements and gestures right into the interface and more importantly, in my view, the voice commands that complement the system perfectly.
Voice commands really do play and important role in perfecting the living room experience, especially when it comes to the television elements as nothing is more important than a great ‘remote control’; what could be better than simply yelling at your TV to turn over?
The new camera though has some deep improvements though; the ability to follow your fingers individually brings it on par with technologies by Leap Motion, the face recognition and the ability to read the smile on your face is really impressive, but the real game-changer in the Kinect camera has to be its party-trick that allows it to monitor your heartbeat!
Whilst being able to monitor your heartbeat doesn’t sound like a very impressive feat for a home entertainment console, you’re probably right.  But this tech will really be amazing for those who develop using Kinect; imagine being able to turn this into a medical device in hospitals or health clinics, it really brings the device to a new level.  Combine this with your Xbox One home console and it could allow patients to gain a diagnosis either remotely or from new Internet health services.  I’m going to be fascinated to watch how this space develops further.
Back from the dreaming, the one thing that really seems to let the new Kinect camera down in my view is the fact that the device does look fairly bulky and boxy.  I really don’t see how these boxy devices are going to sit as nicely as one might envision when mounted on, or next to, peoples super slim, modern television sets.
Skype
From the new Kinect, the next game-changing tech has to be the inclusion of Skype right there on the console.  Now, bundling Skype into home console is a bit of a brave move and has its problems when it comes to how those pesky Internet video calls will interrupt your favourite game, movie or live TV, but Skype is an in-demand technology for Xbox users and now it is finally here.
The ‘Snap’ technology, lifted directly from Windows 8, to snap the app to the right hand side of the screen just seems to make sense and goes a long way towards addressing how video conferencing is going to work without taking you away from whatever you were doing.  It has real potential to open up social communication between people and allow calls to take place without having to boot up a laptop or pick up a tablet (unless you really need to leave the room for a bit of privacy). 
Skype is one of my favourite technologies at the moment and I really want to start to use it more and more; hopefully the Xbox One will help streamline this transition.
TV
The final ‘wow’ factor left from the reveal that really peaked my interest was the built-right-in ability to bring live TV directly into the console!  As a Windows Media Center user on Windows 8, before the reveal I was really hoping for a console device that could finally mean that I could ditch the living room PC and replace it with ‘thee’ device designed around bringing home entertainment to the home’s big screen.
The execution of live TV, combined with those voice commands from the Kinect mentioned earlier really make seem to have hit all of the right notes with me; it just seems to work and quickly and flawlessly at that.
Watching the demo, this feature alone I was reaching for my Surface ready to start tracking down anywhere I could pre-order from. 
Then, it started to fall apart unfortunately.  There isn’t a built in DVR, meaning I can’t record television to watch later like I can with Media Center, which also means that I doubt the Xbox will handle two channels at the same time – again, like my Media Centre can right now.
Those hoping to ditch their Sky or TiVo boxes in their living rooms also may have an issue; it appears that those devices still need to remain and the Xbox is simply a middle-ware device that sits between your cable/Sky device and your TV, which puts its own overlay onto top of it.  The voice and quick channel switching seems to be the only reason why anyone would watch TV this way rather than just watching it directly from the cable or Sky TV set-top box.
It’s early days yet though and Microsoft may still have some tricks up their sleeves to bring this tech to life; the DVR element could easily be added with a software update and they have already stated that they’ll work with the many TV providers around the world to help integration. 
Right now though, as impressive and slick the whole setup was, it’s not a Windows Media Center replacement just yet and there are some things yet to be revealed here I feel.  Let’s wait and see.
What’s Under the Hood
For me, being the geek that I am, as impressive as the demo was and how great the hardware looks (that bulky Kinect aside), as great as the games and Skype and Live TV is, what really pushes my buttons is how incredibly clever the device’s execution has been delivered.
Microsoft have built three operating systems for the Xbox One; the first handled the games and makes them look absolutely brilliant, the second handles the Skype, Bing, Internet Explorer and apps components that are able to utilise the ‘snap’ functionality and the third is a fast switcher to move seamlessly between the two.  It’s really quite something and a testament to the work that has come before it in Microsoft’s other divisions.
The Hypervisor that Microsoft built for their virtualisation projects has really pushed these three operating systems together and its really peaked my interest in their hypervisor technology and Hyper-V and VDI tech; all of which I hope to start testing and using at work and possibly at home soon.
Summary
Console owners and hardcore gamers are really making their feelings known on this console; they don’t like the closure of the second-hand games market and they dislike the ‘always-on’ connectivity.  The Xbox One clearly is no longer just a games-station and now games now sit alongside live TV, Internet Explorer, Skype connectivity, Netflix (etc), and Live TV, all on the same device.
It’s not the arcade, game, home console that we’ve all thought of previously; but it is the first proper interpretation of Microsoft’s vision of a “Home Entertainment System”, something they have really tried to morph the Xbox 360 into fitting (the original Xbox, while aiming for this very goal clearly missed it by a long margin).
The Xbox One really could be that “ONE” device people want to sit underneath their TVs, safe in the knowledge that it will meet every one of the demands users and buyers of this system will expect of it.  Microsoft still have some work to do here, but I’m really ready to buy one right now.

An Adventure in White Chocolate

Monday, May 20, 2013 0

Yesterday, if you read my blog, was of course World Baking Day and I have to tell you that after blogging (and confessing), about my obsession with glass cylindrical storage containers, I did get around to some serious and enjoyable baking to live up to the spirit of the day.
 
What made the day even more of an occasion, after buying “John Whaite Bakes” (winner of “The Great British Bakeoff” 2012), book just last weekend, I decided to pick out a recipe to try out.  I wish I could confess to having picked exacly which recipe on the spare of the moment on the day, but since buying and flicking through the pages, I’d already had this recipe picked out for at least five days in advanced and had sought out the ingredients when completing my weekly grocery shop.
 
White Chocolate and Raspberry Cake
 
First up for World Baking Day and the first recipe from my new inspiration was a raspberry sponge cake with a white chocolate ganache.  The amateur baker I am, I’ve never really created my own ganache before, so was a bit apprehensive about what I was doing with this creamy chocolatey centre for my cake, but always ready to try out something new and learn.
 
I have to admit that I thought I knew exactly what I was doing, only to find that I couldn’t get my ganache to thicken quite as much as I’d hoped.  Chocolate can be a tricky thing and having seen chocolatier Paul Young at the Durham Food Festival last year, there is a lot more skill than first meets the eye. 
 
Fortunately, the Internet is a wonderful place to find answers and a quick search instantly revealed what I was doing wrong; not enough whipping!  My first instinct of wanting to simply add more chocolate being completely wrong, but a quick whizz of the mixture in my Magimix soon thickened up the ganache ready for the cake.
 
The Proof is in the Eating
 
After having tasted the cake, my initial first bite without the ganache, I thought the bitterness of the raspberries was ultimately going to disappoint my whole baking adventure, but on the second bite, this time with the white chocolate ganache, the bitterness was instantly taken away with the smooth and silky white chocolate taste.
 
A perfectly balanced taste and now a firm favourite recipe that I’m sure to repeat again and again.  The John Whaite book is full of great ideas and I can thoroughtly recommend that you seek it out and give some of them a try – I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

World Baking Day

Sunday, May 19, 2013 0

Today, much to my surprise, is ‘World Baking Day’ – presumably a day for amateur bakers everywhere to rejoice and celebrate with a few cakes, biscuits, breads and the like, what better way to celebrate?  Home baking is undoubtedly on the rise thanks in part to the success of “The Great British Bake Off”, Paul Hollywood and the legendary Mary Berry.

As an amateur baker myself – purely as a way to de-stress, relax and escape from the crazy world of IT - what better day is there though for me to start blogging about my own baking and cooking exploits than this very day?  It will certainly make a change from writing about technology and Microsoft!

So without further ado, here is my first baking post, hope you enjoy!

Jars, Jars, Jars

Whenever I watch any sort of food or cooking show on TV, the one thing that I always notice is just how many of the chefs have all of their ingredients stored in glass jars, seemingly making it incredibly easy to store, air tight and make pouring and measuring the ingredients look rather easy when in front of the TV cameras.

Of course, having seen so many jars on TV I, of course, had to replicate this set up in my own kitchen.  Kilner seems to be the brand to buy, so off I went to locate and purchase them for storage of all my flours and sugars.

Having used them for a few months now, I have to admit that I have developed a little bit of a fondness for my jars.  They look so much better than storing ingredients in the paper containers that flour and sugars are bought in, but more than that I find that the glass jars have a great tactile feel to them that just bring a smile to my face every time I get to grab one out of the cupboard and measure out its contents.

There is a downside to my jars though; I seem to have developed a bit of an obsession with them and seem to look at them in the various cook shop stores, having to tear myself away from buying another – there is always something that can be stored within a glass jar!

Despite managing to resist buying another thus far, I do want one more as I’m hoping to create a sourdough starter for my next bready projects I hope to attempt at some point.

I blame ‘The Great British Bake Off’ for my obsession with jars (although they aren’t solely responsible), and am already pining for a freestanding mixer having seen them in just about every baking challenge.  My research has already been complete, I know exactly which one I want, I just have to persuade myself into treating myself to one now – and justifying buying one rather than continuing to use my Maximix food processor.

Undoubtedly I will succumb to my desires and buy one – but it all started with the jars.  Oh the simple, glass storage jar!

Envisioning Interactivity

Monday, March 25, 2013 0


Touch screens have become common place in consumer technology – tablets, laptops and smart phones all have them built right in.  Voice controls are now sophisticated enough to allow you to talk directly to your devices and have them carry out a multitude of tasks without having to pick up or touch a single device.  And technologies such as Google Glass, Bing Vision and Kinect are all allowing us to interact with our devices by gesturing at rather sophisticated cameras.
Envisioning Centre
A few weeks back Microsoft unveiled their new and updated ‘Envisioning Centre’ featuring all of their latest technology thinking of what is just around the corner for us all.  It’s a real showcase of Microsoft technology and of what-could-be. 
It’s not the first time Microsoft have showed off its visions of the future – a few videos a couple of years back showed how we will interact with future devices yet to be invented and the world around us.  But these were concept videos; the envisioning centre is something a bit more real and closer to today’s realities.


What is most striking about the video of the Envisioning Centre is the amount of rather large touch screens that are scattered around the place, allowing the ‘family’ to simply touch, talk and show them various items to make the computer(s) work in a friendly and straight forward way.
Microsoft bought big touch screen specialists “Perceptive Pixel” to allow them to gain a foothold in this business, so it’s no real surprise that they see the big screen as part of future tech, but with some of the other emerging technologies coming up, will touch screens ever become cheap enough, fast enough?
Touch Screens
Whilst the price of touch screens are coming down all the time thanks to the rise of tablets and all-in-one PCs, if you search for a large touch screen display you’ll see that the prices are still rather expensive compared to the non-touch screen versions of the same displays.
Undoubtedly the price of large touch screens will come down in price to more affordable levels; but I’m still left unsure that they are the future of organisations for those users working at traditional office desks where space is still a limiting factor – but the traditional office is changing constantly and the office is heading in a direction of enabling ‘work from anywhere’ and is a whole different blog post for perhaps another day.
But is the touch screen really all that with some of the other up-and-coming technologies?
Leap Motion
Leap Motion technology is something that I’m extremely excited about and can’t wait to get my hands (or not), on it.  It’s basically a small camera based system that plugs into the USB port of your computer that then allows Kinect-like interactions with your computer by waving your fingers or a pencil at the screen without ever having to physically touch anything.
 


The technology is extremely impressive and has a wide ranging number of applications, but what impresses me even more about this tiny device is the price.  On release in May of this year, it will go on sale for around only $60!  For that price you can enable any screen or projected display to be fully interactive without breaking the bank.
What’s more Leap has already started working on integrating their technology directly into laptop computers.  This could change the way users interact with their devices in a big, big way and could lead to a paradigm shift away from the mouse and track pad tech.
It should come as no surprise that Microsoft has also been working on changing their Kinect technology to work in similar ways, but it’s important to remember that Kinect is a very different technology for tracking the whole moment of a person and its environment rather that the subset movements of hand, fingers and close range objects.
In order for Microsoft to compete with Leap however, they will have to make their Kinect sensors much smaller than what it is today; I’m sure they’ve already started work on this a long time ago and have something in the pipeline that would fit into a laptop or tablet bezel, but this change would be worth doing overall.
MYO
About a year ago I watched a Microsoft Research conference online featuring a couple of young engineers who claimed to have Jedi powers and were able to demonstrate their skills to switch lights on and off simply by waving their hand.
Amazed at the online video, I watched the full interview to see how it actually worked.  It turns out that these engineers hadn’t been trained by a Jedi Master, but instead had developed a band that wrapped around the arm of the wear that measured their muscle movements and in doing so, translated those movements into the tangible action of switching the lights on and off.
The technology in the video was rather bulky, however they promised that future iterations would be much more refined.  Fast forward to today and another company – Myo - (not affiliated with Microsoft from what I can tell), have developed their own interactive armband that can be used to control computers and other enabled technologies simply by moving their arm, hand and fingers in an appropriate way.
 

The way the band works is simply revolutionary and fascinating for an outsider – or at least for me, to know that we (humans) have the knowledge and know-how of how muscle groups work together and translate them into movements that are then transposed into interactions on the screen.
What’s more, the price of the Myo band is set to retail for only $150, which makes the device affordable as a technology for further development.  This is the type of technology that would be worthy enough to be built directly into a smart watch.
Interaction Technology is in our Hands
Whilst the touch screen will play a part in future devices and interactions, as these two technologies demonstrate that it won’t be along in how we interact with our computers and peripherals.  Interaction technologies are developing at a rapid pace and at a cost that makes the affordable to put into the hands (or at least close to the hands), of the average user.
The future is coming.

A Smart Gimmick?

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It turns out that I need to be cautious with this post because, it turns out, that I have been wrong before; when Apple launched their now infamous iPad, I predicted that people would buy them and then tire of them and they’d all end up stashed away in some drawer never to be seen again.  How very wrong; and to make me even more wrong, I’ve recently purchased (at long last) a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet.
 
Being wrong about the popularity of touch screen tablet devices is one thing, but it seems that the ‘next big thing’ is coming and I am once again being sceptical on its arrival and overall usage.  It seems every tech company has one in their pipeline though for imminent launch – what is it?  A smart watch.
 
A Gimmick Device?
 
Way back in August oflast year I marvelled at the prospect of the Martian smart watch, so I totally understand the appeal for tech companies to produce a smart watch that becomes part of their line-up of gadgets, but the more I think about it the less interested I am in actually buying one as something more than just a gimmick device.
 
Let me explain why;
 
My phone (a Windows Phone 8, Nokia Lumia 920), has a great feature called “TellMe”, which is similar to features found on Apple and Android phones in the form of Siri.  It allows me to talk to my phone to call people, send messages, search the internet and the like.  It works really well (and will only ever improve as voice technologies mature and digital assistants become better at predicting our actions and ever more helpful).
 
I only ever seem to really use these voice features though when I’m in the car, which makes sense because at any other time I can simply take my phone with its rather elegant and beautiful display out of my pocket and do whatever I need to do with it.  In the car, my hands are firmly on the wheel and my eyes are on the road – so I use a Bluetooth headset instead, which works remarkably well allowing me to talk and interact with my phone and contacts whilst I drive.
 
Yes I need to remember to wear my headset whenever I drive, where a watch that you wear every day will be always on your wrist.  But the headset works because it allows my interactions with my device to remain private or at least semi-private because only I can hear my text messages being read to me or only I can hear the caller on the other end of the phone; where a speaker based system broadcasts to all of those in range – perhaps this isn’t a big problem for most people, given most in-car systems pair up your phone with the in-car stereo, but using your watch to have conversations outside of the car in more public places could become a bigger concern for some people.
 
My bigger issue over a smart watch though is battery life.  When you get home from work, or arrive back at your home after a busy day, it’s likely that you put your phone on charge – taking off your watch and charging that every couple of days isn’t common practice and will take wearers a bit of time to adjust, I can especially see problems for those who forget to charge up their wrist wear and then have to go without a time piece for the rest of their day or until the next opportunity to charge up.
 
Nothing New
 
Like tablet computers, before Apple launched the iPad, the smart watch is nothing new.  Others have ventured into this type of wearable computer device before, only to reverse their feels around such a product and remove it from the market due to poor sales.
 
Times have changed though and so has the technology that we carry around in our pockets.  Voice controlled technology without doubt  has its place and I’m sure anyone who releases a smart watch will undoubtedly sell a bunch of units to those who need one.  But as an overall concept, can Apple or Google sell smart watches to the masses?
 
As I’m being cautious on the issue, I’m going to say that I don’t know.  Perhaps existing high end watch makers such as Tag Heuer, Hublot, Sekio, etc, could produce some fantastic and very attractive watches with some built in tech that connects to open-platform software with the watch, perhaps using dual batteries to power the watch mechanics and the smart elements independently, but can Apple, Google and the like do the same?
 
Whilst I don’t doubt their design prowess in some of their tech, watches are precision instruments that sell for high prices and are not all the same.  They say more about a person than their phones do and I’m just not sure that it’s right.
 
Conclusion
 
Without doubt the smart watch is coming and it’s going to be an interesting few months after the first big company release their wares before it can be determined if the concept is strong enough for people to continue to use their smart watch beyond the period of time where the gimmick has ran out.
 
I’ll remain unconvinced until this time.  That’s not to say that I don’t think the devices won’t be cool though, I’ve no doubt that at launch I’ll ‘want’ and be amazed at just what the little device is capable of doing and how the more clever folk amongst us will develop and push a new breed of applications and make it do things that many of us have never even thought of.
 
But until Tag produce one in partnership with Microsoft, I doubt I’ll be trading in my dumb, but elegant, precision, reliable, battery powered analogue watch.

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