Living your life through a lens and missing being in the moment

My latest piece for Stuff.tv is Your smartphone can capture experiences to watch forever, but they shouldn’t be the experience. It was inspired in part by hearing my unborn child’s heartbeat on a hospital visit, being totally in that moment, and then being fortunate enough to record the sound for posterity.

Too often, though, I see people documenting their own lives without actually living them. People spend gigs watching their device screens rather than the event in front of them. Elsewhere, countless photographs end up in digital archives that are never again visited, while the original moment was compromised by the very act of recording it.

Naturally, I’m not suggesting we all stop using smartphones to record things, as I make clear in the article; but as technology becomes increasingly interwoven in our lives, I do hope people will start to question exactly when they should record something—and also whether it really needs recording at all.

June 25, 2014. Read more in: Technology

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Apple, motion sickness triggers and OS X Yosemite — Why Apple should bring Reduce Motion ‘back to the Mac’

I’m not a developer, but I know enough about development to realise what a big deal WWDC 2014 was. Apple outlined the future of its two operating systems, with some major upgrades that will ensure iOS and OS X both mature and seamlessly integrate. There were also some ‘Back to the Mac’ moments, notably in terms of interface: although OS X isn’t yet as flat as iOS, Yosemite is simpler and cleaner than Mavericks.

Although all the new technology and interfaces are exciting, I’m hoping that it will be fourth time lucky regarding motion sickness and balance accessibility. I’ve been writing for over two years now about such issues as relating to Apple’s operating systems, including an open letter to Apple on this site, and then articles for Stuff magazine and The Guardian, specifically about iOS 7, which had become unusable to me and many others.

Apple listened. Within a month, major animations could be switched for a subtle cross-fade; as of iOS 7.1, the vast majority of other issues were dealt with too, as I reported on in a follow-up piece for The Guardian. Individual third-party apps are now the most common triggers (through developers getting a bit animation-happy), and those can be avoided.

I was truly thrilled at Apple’s response to the iOS 7 problems, and it meant I could use my iPad again, without fear of accidentally triggering the app-switcher and having to take a 15-minute break while trying not to throw up. (And I’m fortunate: many people with similar issues can be knocked out for days after being triggered.) But I’m also disappointed that Apple has fundamentally ignored this issue in three major versions of its desktop-based operating system.

With OS X Lion, perhaps, this is forgivable. Motion/balance accessibility is not well known, and Apple to its credit offers a huge range of accessibility controls and add-ons for people that require assistance for vision, hearing or motor. But then Mountain Lion arrived, followed a year later by Mavericks. Still the full-screen animation remained; still you transitioned between apps with a full-screen slide; still certain apps persisted in utilising similar animations.

As per iOS 7, I’m not hoping for any change in default behaviour. Apple’s existing animations provide a sense of space and location for people using them, and that’s great. What I am hoping for is that Apple brings one more thing ‘Back to the Mac’ for OS X Yosemite: Reduce Motion. Put a checkbox in accessibility that switches out these animations for something less jarring. Better: add more granular controls, and place them in context, rather than hiding them away. Given that TotalSpaces2 can override the app transition animation in full screen, offering six alternatives and an off switch, there’s no reason Apple can’t do the same. More to the point, Apple should do the same, unless it’s a company that believes, for some reason, there’s a cut-off point when it comes to accessibility and user inclusivity on the desktop.

June 9, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Design

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UKIP reminds me of an election fought by schoolchildren—literally

As a child, I went to a well-meaning but mostly awful primary school. It was very modern, with a huge conservatory, fish pond and aviary, but the teaching staff and methods didn’t exactly set you up for a strong shot at success in secondary school. Our final year largely involved us spending an awful lot of time learning about the Hebrews from our ageing and ferociously religious battle-axe teacher, the net result being that most of us subsequently aced Religious Studies the following year, but had no idea how to properly punctuate in English.

The school was also very big on assemblies, having 200 or so kids sit on a hard dining room floor, mumbling some hymn or other while a teacher almost exploded with joy, hammering away at a piano. Occasionally, though, teachers would try something a bit different, and one day we were told we would be having an election.

Our class was split into groups, to form political parties. We were told we’d have to campaign, win over the electorate, and then the winners would be announced in a subsequent assembly.

My memory’s fuzzy on precisely what we were taught regarding the basics of politics, but my guess is not a lot. Instead, our ten- and eleven-year-old brains fired up, figuring out the best way to win. Each team’s tactics, it seemed, were very similar: make a load of promises and attempt to bribe the electorate. Breaktimes became a flurry of snacks (and, unless I’m misremembering, small amounts of money) being foisted on younger voters, while the promises became ever more elaborate. Post-PE showers (which, depressingly, the school didn’t offer)! A special pupils-only telephone (this was, note, 1986)! Longer break-times!

On election day, everyone got their chance to spell out their manifesto one final time, and sing a catchy election song, further ramming home the promises. Then it was time for the vote. Our party won, largely on the basis of making the most outlandish promises (although we were, it has to be said, not the best bribers—our baking skills didn’t match those of our rivals). Boom! Victory!

But any period of joy was short-lived when it suddenly became very clear we couldn’t fulfil anything we’d promised. Not only did we have no power, but the school didn’t have any extra money nor any interest in putting such promises into place. Time in the playground for a while involved attempting to placate angry voters, while our smug teacher helpfully noted that we were getting precisely what we deserved. We’d had a lesson in politics after all, and were learning the hard way.

In today’s British political landscape, I can’t help thinking that Nigel Farage and his UKIP chums were somehow taking notes the day of our election, but didn’t stick around for the aftermath. His party appears to simply suck up every policy the electorate responds negatively to, spin it and spit it out again. It’s the common-sense party, despite having no substance; and every attack on said lack of substance is waved away as some kind of coordinated smear campaign by a ‘LibLabCon’ cartel.

At tomorrow’s European elections, the party’s predicted to perform very well, despite frequent alarmingly racist comments from its members, outbursts that border on fascism, questionable activities regarding expenses, and the party leader disowning his own 2010 manifesto as “drivel”. I hope enough people vote for politicians who want to do better—and who can do better—but I’m fully expecting to be disappointed with a bunch of MEPs being elected who, if anything, have less political promise than children had that day at my old school.

May 21, 2014. Read more in: Politics

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Number crunching iPhone 6 screen resolution rumours

So 9to5 Mac’s going with the argument Apple’s next iPhone will have a 1704-by-960 display. The report might well turn out to be right, but there are some curious arguments within the text.

Apple claims that a display density over 300 PPI is considered “Retina” quality

Apple’s played fast and loose with what it deems a Retina display, and as Richard Gaywood pointed out long ago, high-res displays are reliant on context. Larger screens tend to be used further away, meaning they need a lower ppi to be considered Retina. The iPad Air, for example, clocks in at 264 ppi, but Apple’s hardly shied away from saying that device has a Retina display, despite the screen’s pixel density being lower than an iPhone’s. On that basis, there’s no reason Apple couldn’t keep much the same resolution as on the current iPhone, but just make the screen bigger.

9to5Mac, however, argues that we’re going to see 1704-by-960, and it rationalises this on the basis that it’s akin to a 3x mode; the logic is iOS has a base resolution (568-by-320), and existing Retina devices are 2x (1136-by-640). The suggestion is that in merely adding another ‘x’, things will be relatively easy for developers:

According to sources familiar with the new iPhone displays in testing, if an unoptimized iPhone 5 app is run on the iPhone 6, the app will fill the entire screen but the non-3X images within the app will be blurrier. Troughton-Smith’s applications scale well because they were built with vector graphics. This transition from 2X to 3X will be reminiscent to the transition from 1X to 2X when the first iPhones with Retina displays launched in 2010.

This seems hugely optimistic. The shift from 1x to 2x was relatively simple, in that apps could simply be doubled and still look reasonably OK. Today, however, all apps must be Retina, or they’re likely to be rejected from the App Store. Support for 1x is therefore now pretty ropey.

When it comes to 3x, then, we’d not see sharp but jagged upscaling from 1x, but a blurred mess as apps designed for existing Retina screens are upscaled to 150 per cent. Perhaps this is what Apple has in mind, but if so, countless games and apps are going to look like absolute crap on such a display. And even with iOS 7′s design dialling down reliance on texture-heavy raster-graphics, adding yet another resolution and, potentially, another scaling factor is something likely to have developers headdesking until their foreheads bleed.

May 14, 2014. Read more in: Apple

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Amazon’s Fire TV shows it’s time for the Apple TV to embrace gaming

My latest piece for Stuff explores why it’s now time for Apple to get serious about gaming on the Apple TV. Amazon’s Fire TV is a bold play for the living room, and although everyone won’t be lobbing their consoles out of the window to embrace a cheap-looking controller and ported 99-cent mobile titles, the market is wide. Amazon with its latest black box could grab that sector of the market looking to extend their telly, access digital content, and play the odd game here and there.

Apple had mobile gaming sewn up a couple of years ago. At the time, it seemed like it would never be caught. Now, the store is mired in clones, Apple’s gaming direction is messy and unclear, and the Apple TV barely plays a part, with even AirPlay to the device having perceptible lag. Perhaps the company genuinely doesn’t care, but it probably should. Gaming drives a lot of purchasing decisions, and Apple could soon find itself losing ground to rivals in spaces it should be dominating.

April 24, 2014. Read more in: Apple

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