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13 Aug 2015, 14:04

Amazon Echo Review

echo in hand

The Echo has definitely grown on me a lot, I have been surprised at how much use I’ve gotten out of it. I’m using it more than I expected to be, and now find myself frustrated with Google’s limited voice actions on other platforms. I’ve had mine since January 2015, and I use it throughout the day. It lives in the kitchen, and it’s primary uses are as follows:

  1. Listening to NPR while I cook
  2. Adding things to the shopping list as I run out of them
  3. Setting timers for cooking and other things
  4. Listening to other podcasts and audiobooks
  5. Listening to Pandora

I do periodically do other things with it as well, but the above represents probably 90% of my usage.

One killer feature for me is that I can play NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered every day. I really love those shows, but don’t have much of a commute to listen to them, so listening while I’m cooking.

echo in box

Voice

Outside of the difficult to pronounce or spell names, the voice recognition is really great. The voice controls are the best that I’ve seen for any product (I regularly use several other voice control devices). This was actually the reason that I bought it, because I wanted to see how it would be to interact with a computer without any input outside of voice. I wanted to know how they would handle the user experience, and I’ve learned a lot. When I’m giving feedback on other voice driven products, my number one advice is usually, “try out the Amazon Echo, they really nail this”.

That said, the voice input isn’t perfect, so the app does get used once in a while. I’ll use the app if I want to listen to a podcast episode that is not the latest, or if I want to play a playlist or pandora station that I can’t remember the name of.

Echo App

The app sucks. It’s an HTML5 web app dumped onto the phone, and I’ve had updates to the Amazon app that have broken the Echo app. The performance is terrible, and it doesn’t seem to remember anything locally. This is particularly frustrating when attempting to use the shopping list at the grocery store where I don’t have a mobile connection. There have been times where the page tried to refresh, and couldn’t load, which meant that I lost access to my shopping list. The searching for podcasts and other media is clunky, and again, does not remember anything.

The app is functional, but poorly done.

Audiobooks

I was thrilled when they added support for Audible. No complaints here.

Podcasts

Podcast support is OK. Attempting to play a podcast by voice will allow you to listen to only the latest episode. It has no notion of podcast episodes listened to, and what’s not been heard yet. It also does not remember the podcasts that you listen to in general. It doesn’t autoplay the next in the series. This means that you need to go to the app and search and dig every time, for each episode. I would also appreciate if they opened this up to other providers, or provided some way of keeping in sync with PocketCasts.

Music

As for music, I wish that Spotify were an option. Amazon’s music service is kind of awful, and I’m annoyed that I now have yet another place that I need to spend time managing my music. I’ve already got iTunes, Google Music, and Spotify. Amazon Music is kind of like Google Play Music, but worse in every respect (and I’m not much of a Google Music fan).

Shopping and Todo Lists

The shopping list is a really great feature, and the voice recognition works better than expected. It is incredibly useful, especially since mine is in the kitchen, which is where I typically realize that we’re running out of something that we need to buy more of. And, since it’s always there, when I use the last onion, or the last battery, I can just tell Alexa, and not need to try to remember all at once when I’m making a list.

That said, the app is a limiting factor on the usefulness of this feature. With IFTTT support, it helps things a bit, since you can get your data out to another service like Evernote, but it’s not a great solution. I’ve turned this on, and now have a list in Evernote that needs to be managed in addition to the list on the Echo.

There are basically two features that would make shopping lists/todo lists perfect for me. First, is storing the list information locally on my phone, or allowing me to use a different app as the default list store. Second, is support for showing the list on Android Wear, since when I’m shopping, it would is way easier to check things off from my watch than my phone.

Interoperability and Ecosystem

The ecosystem is very limited and tightly controlled right now. I think that there’s a ton of potential if they open this up. If they don’t, I have a feeling that the more interesting features will be quickly eclipsed by Android and iOS offerings, while my Echo will be relegated to being a smart radio (or replaced altogether with an audio-only Chromecast setup). I would also love to see native apps running on the Echo.

Final Thoughts

While I do have some gripes, overall, I am very happy with the Echo. It’s a great showcase for how to do voice interaction really well, and I have found it quite useful. I expect that most of my issues will be resolved as the user base for this product grows, and the team has resources to put some effort into polishing up the experience. They’ve been steadily improving things thus far, IFTTT and Audible support are two important examples of major improvements that have come recently.

Update

As an experiment, I’m going to add an Amazon affiliate link here, if you’re interested in checking out the product (since I conveniently forgot to include a link before).

05 Aug 2015, 14:56

Chained to Notifications

priority phone notifications

Priority mode on stock Android

A while back, there were a few months where I was wearing multiple smart wearables. The wearables were nice, but both of them subscribed to my phone’s notifications. Whenever I got an email, or a text, I would have three things on my body vibrating and making noise. Phone calls were the worst, because they would continuously vibrate and ring until I did something, and I was a little disoriented as to which one to interact with. Texts and emails were probably the worst, especially being subscribed to a couple chatty groups.

I was getting more and more stressed, and anxious. The notifications were not helping me to feel more on top of things, instead they made me feel trapped and forced to be constantly interacting with my devices. I also noticed that I would check my device every 5 minutes anyways, even if I didn’t notice anything coming in, that had just become a habit.

So, I decided to try something, I set my device on “Priority” mode for notifications, where phone calls, alarms, and calendar events were still allowed to make noise and vibrate, but nothing else was.

I figured that since I was checking my phone frequently enough anyways, the extra audio and haptic feedback wasn’t particularly important or useful. That day, I felt a lot better. Not nearly as much stress and anxiety, at least not that my devices were causing me. I could still use the wearables to check my notifications quickly, and they worked great for that. The big difference was that I was in control of when I wanted to interact. I continued the practice through the week, and continued to notice the benefits.

At this point, it’s been almost a year since I started the experiment, and my behavior has shifted a little. I pay even less attention to all the little notifications that are there. I don’t check my phone as frequently when I’m busy, either focused on work, or outside of work socializing with other people. This has turned out to be a really great trick to put me in control of my device usage. I also feel less pressure to respond immediately. If it’s something important, I’m not unreachable, people can always call. I’ve gotten calls from the boss when stuff’s broken, not a huge deal. But all those other little things? They can probably wait.

If you’re habitually checking your phone, I would suggest trying this out, chances are you won’t miss much, and you’ll feel better about it.

04 Aug 2015, 23:36

Chrome Tab Suspension

For those of you who are like me, and typically have 30-50+ tabs open in Chrome at a time, The Great Suspender might be a very useful extension for you. It allows you to suspend tabs to be reloaded when you actually visit them again.

chrome suspended tab

I get into a lot of situations where I’ll have a browser window dedicated to researching a specific topic, or poking around the docs of a project, or whatever. When I switch tasks to do other things, I like to keep those sessions around, but don’t necessarily want them in memory. This helps with that, to drastically reduce the amount of RAM that Chrome needs to run. I went from being nearly pegged at 14-15GB down to 10GB just by suspending a couple windows’ worth of tabs.

I also use TabCloud for saving off windows of tabs when I think that I’m pretty much done with something, but may want to come back later.

There was an announcement last week that Chrome may be getting this functionality built-in. I’m certainly looking forward to a release of Chrome that won’t require an extension to get this feature! Until then, The Great Suspender works reasonably well.

04 Aug 2015, 20:30

The Year of Hoverboards

The past year seems to be the year of hoverboards. Last Spring, we had Tony Hawk, and Doc Brown screaming about HUVr, a real hoverboard that was even better than the one shown in Back to the Future.

I was skeptical, the video looked fake, and I sort of figured that a real live hoverboard, at least the first generation, would not be so amazingly mind-blowing as the one in the video. I was, of course, right. It was a CGI stunt made by some Hollywood people. Doc Brown lied to us.

In December of 2014, there was this video of someone who built a hoverboard out of four leaf-blowers, and called it a Mr Hoverboard.

The Mr Hoverboard is unique in that it can actually work on cement, as opposed to metal, as the others I will discuss below.

In October of last year that Hendo Hoverboards launched their KickStarter, for a real hoverboard. People were more incredulous this time around, but Hendo’s product looked more realistic to me. I decided to back their campaign for a sticker and a refrigerator magnet. One of the things that sold me on it being real was that there was a pretty major compromise that they had to make, which was that the surface that they were riding on needed to be metal. This made sense.

Tony Hawk even comes back to do the real thing.

Well, with Hendo, I got my sticker, and I just read that they appear to be making good progress towards shipping the beta boards. They’ve got an office in Sunnyvale or Mountain View, but even though I’m a backer, I’m not sure that would be enough to be able to drop in and try it out. (Since that was its own reward level.)

Then, this summer, Lexus has been teasing us with their own hoverboard announcement. Here’s the teaser:

Today, they released this video of someone actually riding it around a skate park.

What they don’t say in the video is that there’s metal under everything that they are taking this board over. It looks like a normal concrete skate park, but it’s not. I appreciate Hendo’s being up front with this detail, because this detail is one of those things that would indicate a leap forward in physics in one case, and in the other, it’s a new application of an existing technology. Again, it’s the latter. With that said, Hendo appears to have some new technology in there as well, but I’m a little fuzzy on the details.

They did make a little documentary that explains some of this.

There appears to be a major difference in the mechanisms that the two boards use to achieve their magnetic effect. The Lexus uses a supercooled superconductor, which requires liquid nitrogen to cool. The Hendo board uses what the manufacturer calls “hover engines”. They discuss the hover engine in this Engadget article.

In the video, I don’t see any steam coming off of the Hendo boards as I do the Lexus. The Lexus hoverboard is going to require recharging the liquid nitrogen, which probably won’t be terribly cheap or easy. If the Hendo board can recharge itself on electricity alone, that would be a big win. I haven’t seen either one state how long they can stay afloat before needing some sort of intervention.

One other note is the design factor. I think that the Lexus hoverboard wins here, but all we’ve seen of Hendo boards so far have been prototypes. That said, the Lexus board seems to take into account things that skaters will care about, which are surfaces for grinding. I’m not sure that the Hendo board will be so sturdy.

Either way, one cool thing is that we may see metal hoverboard parks in the near future where people with different kinds of hoverboards can all come and enjoy. And, given that they will all likely be rediculously expensive, hopefully we’ll be able to rent them as well.

03 Aug 2015, 23:34

Google+ is Dead

On the “Google+ is Dead” Meme

There seems to be renewed interest in the “Google+ is dead” meme from both media outlets and users. I’m not sure, but I would say that from my perspective, it doesn’t look great. At best, it seems like we’re going to find out if the core offering of Google+ is going to succeed or fail on its own, without the support of all the other Google services propping up its numbers.

I’d like to state at the start, that I do hope that it succeeds, because this is the social network that I spend the most time on. It’s the one that I like the best, for a number of reasons. I really don’t want to need to actually learn how to effectively use Twitter, or clog up Facebook with interest-based stuff. Google+ is the ideal social network for me for following my interests and interacting with people who have similar interests.

It seems already that Google is deprioritizing Plus. There was a pretty bad outage the other day, where the service was unavailable for about an hour for myself and a lot of others. I was more than a little surprised when it happened. Now, I understand that mistakes happen, and people screw up, in fact, I’ve caused a service-wide outage for millions of people before when I was doing a live database update (whoops).

However, I do expect that at a company with lots of resources, touching an important product, maybe they have their shit figured out before messing with production?

As far as the product, they’ve been removing more features than they’ve been adding recently. Photos, and the forced integration with the rest of Google. Posting photos to G+ is now a considerably worse experience, since depending on how, exactly, I share something, I may or may not be able to re-order photos, or force an album cover. The split from the other Google products is also not great. OAuth log-in was one feature that’s going to be more strange without a G+ login button, not sure what they’ll do with that. Removing YouTube from the G+ feed makes a lot of sense, that was its own, separate community, that was very different from the G+ community.

That said, I wonder what percentage of Google+’s active user numbers were coming through for one of these ancillary services? I remembered seeing a few infographs that pegged Google+’s usage as similar to Twitter and Instagram’s (i.e. in the ballpark of social platforms that are not Facebook). However, with Photos and all other Google services separated out from G+, what will the usage look like? If it dips too far, then the platform will look less compelling to a lot of people. Will it become the de facto Google message board, where people basically just come to talk about Googley stuff?

Again, I like the service, and will continue to use it until Google pulls the plug, or until the interesting people like yourselves migrate away. I’m not saying they will, but it seems like a possibility. Another possibility is that they do another serious iteration on G+ to focus on its core strengths. Collections and Communities seem like pretty core experience pieces for G+.

I like the Communities here more than Facebook Groups, because the communities here aren’t as full of junk and spam. They are much more focused and on-topic. That’s awesome, and exactly what I want out of an interest-based community.

Collections are another great feature. I really enjoy being able to post things with added context, that allows people to follow only certain things that I post, because it’s interesting to them. For example, someone might really love coffee, but have little interest in tech. They can follow my Coffee collection, and ignore the rest of the stuff that I post. Great! I’ve recently started cooking with an immersion cooker, and am posting to a collection on Sous Vide cooking, which is something that I probably wouldn’t have done before, but makes sense to me to do within the context of a collection.

All that said, Google+ is my favorite social network. I hope it stays alive, and grows into a strong product in its own right, such that it makes sense for Google to continue investing in it.

23 Jul 2015, 13:20

Rick and Morty Game

Wow, Rick and Morty have a game on… Instagram. I’m sure others have done this before, but it’s the first of its kind that I’ve seen, and is really slick.

If you visit the profile page, it’s got a large mosaic image. Go into one of the images, and see if there’s a tag to another profile. Click on the other profile, and go to a new profile with a new mosaic, with something new to explore.

Check it out here!

super widescreen

A photo posted by Rickstaverse Instructions (@rickstaverseinstructions) on

27 Apr 2015, 09:50

Smashed Apple Watch

smashed apple watch

Image from Weibo

Some people have been reporting that their Apple Watch screens are breaking easily.

I cannot imagine that Apple didn’t both test this, and know that this was likely to happen. This is the sort of thing that will very quickly put a damper on enthusiasm for a new form factor. Apple has not been handling this particularly well either. I saw one guy quote Apple saying that it would cost him over $200 to repair.

I’ve knocked my Moto 360 more times than I can count, and not a scratch. I actually could not find any images of a 360 with a cracked screen.

I’m not bringing up the 360 to say that it’s better, so don’t buy the Apple Watch, rather that it’s possible to have a smartwatch that isn’t likely to have issues with the screen breaking. What’s more, traditional watches have been handling this case just fine for generations.

Anyways, if you are going to buy an Apple Watch, be careful with it!

13 Mar 2015, 15:19

Project Nautilus VR — what are they thinking?

Yesterday, a post showed up in my Google+ feed from a friend talking about Project Nautilus VR. Project Nautilus VR is a Cardboard clone that adds a full face-mask and snorkel to be used underwater. That’s right, underwater VR. And no, this is not a joke, as far as I can tell.

That’s right, underwater VR.

nautilus vr

Nautilus VR in its natural habitat While Project Nautilus VR is an interesting application of VR, I really can’t believe that they’re actually launching this. I usually try not to talk publicly about products that I think are misguided, mainly because it’s so hard to figure out what’s going to do well despite my cynicism (Snapchat, I’m looking at you). However, this seems like an incredibly bad, and even dangerous idea. Namely, because people are going to be put into an extremely immersive VR environment, in a situation with real danger — that of drowning.

There are an average of 3,868 accidental drowning deaths each year — without people being tricked into believing that they’re in a different environment. If I were on that team, and this idea was being pitched, this would have been my immediate first question, “how are we going to prevent people from drowning while using this thing?” Given that there is no mention of safety on the Kickstarter page (aside from the one about being safe from sharks), I have to wonder if anyone on the team asked this question.

“no mention of safety”

One thing that you can see from using Cardboard, Oculus, or even watching videos of people using Oculus with certain demos, is that you become completely disoriented from your surroundings — and that’s when you’re on foot. Using Cardboard, I’ll typically end up across the room or facing in a weird direction without noticing. Project Nautilus is placing you in a less familiar situation, in the water, with a snorkel, and then removing one of your main senses. What happens when someone becomes disoriented in the water? What if they happen to drop the snorkel below the water line? Are people going to think fast enough to rip the VR unit off their head and go to the top?

Some VR experiences are immersive than others, all you have to do is watch some of the videos of people wearing the Oculus and completely freaking out when there’s some external stimuli applied at the right time during a demo. What happens to someone who gets startled, just as the big shark is swimming at them?

This is also being pitched as a consumer product, not one to be used for specific training. They’re positioning it as an educational product, and have lots of kids in the images on their Kickstarter page. I cannot fathom encouraging handing one of these things to a child without literally standing in the water next to them, to make sure that they don’t drown. While this may seem like common sense, I can see the safety issues falling through the cracks, and some unfortunate child potentially paying the price.

To be fair, I could see some very specialized uses for this, in certain training scenarios, or experiences that could be provided. They could give units to water parks with various experiences around swimming, flying, or weightlessness. However, they would have to be in supervised environments.

This is also aside from one practical issue of potentially getting your phone ruined due to a failed seal, or incorrect installation.

I really wonder why anyone would want to bring this to market? It seems like a massive liability to me. I wonder if their insurance company will end up killing it?

UPDATE: They ended up pulling the Kickstarter before it completed.