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Xbox One: First Impressions

This week I had my first go on an Xbox One. At a secret London location a bunch of journalists and techie types like me got introduced to the new system and had a chance to play some of the games under development. Here’s what I thought.

Each new generation of consoles to date has brought an order of magnitude greater gaming performance. I remember my first experience of a Sega MegaDrive after the Master System, and the SNES after the NES. These were big leaps forward with pixels shrinking and realism growing by great bounds. More recently the Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 brought what had been top-end PC gaming to the everyday console world, wowing millions.

With the Xbox One such a great leap forward was not so apparent. The demonstrations I saw didn’t all wow me with their graphical fidelity. Sure there were some spectacular moments (hello Ryse: Son of Rome) and the visuals were full and rich. If I had a really keen eye for these things, they were probably measurably better than the current generation. But not eye-poppingly so.

However, to take this as a criticism would be measuring the Xbox One by the wrong benchmarks. As endless flops have proved, great graphics does not equal great gaming. The innovations the Xbox One brings offer much potential to improve gaming, just not in purely visual ways.

For a start there is the user interface. Kinect is no longer a bolt-on. With four times the fidelity, 3D and infra-red imaging, the new sensor seems immensely capable whether you’re standing or seated, in light or dark. Its new wide angle view means you can operate it much closer to the TV, ideal for smaller rooms.

The expectation is clearly that voice and motion will be your first choice control options, not a novel extra. This represents the proper start of what is potentially a very big shift in our relationship with technology.

Next is the cloud. Microsoft has invested in 300,000 new servers to support the Xbox One. These are designed to augment the processing power of the unit itself, but also to enable a much more consistent multi-platform experience for games. Take Project Spark for example. Though not using the Xbox cloud (I don’t believe) it is illustrative of the potential. This is a game about making games. You can design on the Xbox itself, or on a Windows tablet or PC. The game scales to the available platform, making maximum use of the Xbox’s capabilities when you play there, but enabling a good enough experience on a less powerful tablet.

This type of (cliché alert) Martini gaming — any time, any place, any device — is potentially very addictive. Watch your colleagues closely: that may not be a Powerpoint they are working on.

Then there is the store and particularly the pricing options. Killer Instinct is a resurrected game brand much in the style of Street Fighter II, that amped up the concept of combo moves and had some influence on future games of the one on one fighting genre. The new version isn’t hugely sophisticated but it’s great fun to play (although I’m biased: I still play Streetfighter 2 occasionally). It’s the pricing that’s really interesting. You can play for free but only one character will be available at a time. You can play the whole game as a single character of your choice for $5 but there are a bunch of upgrades you can unlock by spending a bit more. You can unlock all the characters for $20, or all the characters and all the upgrades for around $40. This is about the price of a normal game, but the point is that there is much more scope for casual or pocket money entry points.

When you combine these factors with the Xbox One’s entertainment credentials — and let’s be clear, the if the battle is about gaming prowess, then the war is for entertainment — I think you have a fairly compelling proposition that will attract both the hardcore traditional gamers, but also the more casual gamers who have been sucked in by Angry Birds, Cut the Rope and FarmVille.

In summary, the Xbox One looks to me to be a competent competitor for the power gaming crown. But that’s not what will secure its victory. The range of ways that it has to engage different members of the family at different points throughout the day is its real strength. And if Microsoft nails the execution of those different touch points, the Xbox could be a living room fixture for a very long time to come.

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Smart eBike

There are three things that stop me commuting via bike. The first is that my commute stretches from the bedroom to the cellar, and bikes aren’t particularly practical on stairs.

The second is the weather, and glorious as it has been recently, Manchester is never going to be the driest place in the world.

The third is another moisture issue: sweat. I am a sweater. And not a very fashionable one. Even applying minimal effort on the ride from my house to the city centre on a normal bike, I reach the other end needing a shower. And these days I can’t even lay that at the door of outright unfitness. I’m no athlete but after a year’s effort I’m reasonably trim. Yet sweat remains a problem.

Or does it?

I’ve just cycled from Farringdon to Finsbury Park at a fair clip on a hot day. Up and down hills, starting and stopping. And — sorry for this mental image — but my normally sweaty pits are dry.

Why? The trip was made on a Smart eBike. This £2500 engineering marvel is an electrically assisted bike. It has a range of 100km, integrated charging for your smartphone, regenerative braking and a bunch of other tech you’d normally find in a very expensive Mercedes or even an F1 car.

Using the eBike is simple: set the level of assistance you need and then ride it like a normal bike. There are four levels of assistance and if you’re feeling brave, four levels of resistance that the regenerative brakes can apply to recharge the batteries. This can be used like engine braking on your way down hills, keeping you at a sedate speed and topping up the charge for the next hill climb.

You still need to pedal while riding the eBike. But it’s like there’s a magic force helping you along. You don’t notice it after a while — its just like cycling is suddenly very easy. But come to a halt at traffic lights and you really notice: the moment you set off its like you have the thighs of Sir Chris Hoy. With very little effort you accelerate smoothly and very quickly away. Hills are no problem at all: I never had to leave the saddle.

Now £2500 might seem a lot for a bike. And certainly I would think very hard about parking it up anywhere even slightly dodgy. But Smart offers an interest-free finance option at just £59 per month. If you spend any serious money on commuting then that starts to look very attractive.

The Smart eBike isn’t for everyone. If you need to travel with lots of gear, drop multiple kids off at school on the way, or arrive at work untouched by the weather, then other modes of transport will still win out. But if lack of fitness, or in my case, a propensity to sweat at the first sign of exercise, are your only reasons for not cycling? Well those reasons are well and truly gone.

There are three things that stop me commuting via bike. The first is that my commute stretches from the bedroom to the cellar, and bikes aren’t particularly practical on stairs.

The second is the weather, and glorious as it has been recently, Manchester is never going to be the driest place in the world.

The third is another moisture issue: sweat. I am a sweater. And not a very fashionable one. Even applying minimal effort on the ride from my house to the city centre on a normal bike, I reach the other end needing a shower. And these days I can’t even lay that at the door of outright unfitness. I’m no athlete but after a year’s effort I’m reasonably trim. Yet sweat remains a problem.

Or does it?

I’ve just cycled from Farringdon to Finsbury Park at a fair clip on a hot day. Up and down hills, starting and stopping. And — sorry for this mental image — but my normally sweaty pits are dry.

Why? The trip was made on a Smart eBike. This £2500 engineering marvel is an electrically assisted bike. It has a range of 100km, integrated charging for your smartphone, regenerative braking and a bunch of other tech you’d normally find in a very expensive Mercedes or even an F1 car.

Using the eBike is simple: set the level of assistance you need and then ride it like a normal bike. There are four levels of assistance and if you’re feeling brave, four levels of resistance that the regenerative brakes can apply to recharge the batteries. This can be used like engine braking on your way down hills, keeping you at a sedate speed and topping up the charge for the next hill climb.

You still need to pedal while riding the eBike. But it’s like there’s a magic force helping you along. You don’t notice it after a while — its just like cycling is suddenly very easy. But come to a halt at traffic lights and you really notice: the moment you set off its like you have the thighs of Sir Chris Hoy. With very little effort you accelerate smoothly and very quickly away. Hills are no problem at all: I never had to leave the saddle.

Now £2500 might seem a lot for a bike. And certainly I would think very hard about parking it up anywhere even slightly dodgy. But Smart offers an interest-free finance option at just £59 per month. If you spend any serious money on commuting then that starts to look very attractive.

The Smart eBike isn’t for everyone. If you need to travel with lots of gear, drop multiple kids off at school on the way, or arrive at work untouched by the weather, then other modes of transport will still win out. But if lack of fitness, or in my case, a propensity to sweat at the first sign of exercise, are your only reasons for not cycling? Well those reasons are well and truly gone.

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Video Conferencing, Hollywood Style

I’ve been speaking to a lot of people about the broken state of business communications tools recently. In fact it’s the subject for my next piece for the Institute of Leadership and Management.

The topic it brought to mind a conversation I had with Musion Systemsrecently, the company behind the incredible holographic stage performances of people like the Gorillaz and Tupac. If you haven’t seen them, where have you been?

Anyway, I wondered what it would be like if you could apply Musion’s technology to video conferencing to interact with a full-sized, three dimensional virtual person.

To help me illustrate this idea they’ve let me show some exclusive footage of work they’re doing with Audiomotion Studios on live motion capture. This shows how an artist on stage could interact live with a virtual performer — very, very cool.

Though it’s not quite as sexy — unless your colleagues are rockstars — imagine if you could chat to your remote colleagues as full size virtual humans instead of poorly captured faces through a webcam. For start it would feel like you’re living in a sci-fi film. But I think it would also help to bridge a lot of the gap that remains in modern videoconferencing.

Take a look and tell me what you think.

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Future of Management: Why Time Isn’t Money

In my latest post for the Institute of Leadership and Management I look at the problem of measuring value in a business.

Measuring real outputs is hard so we often resort to measuring inputs, like time. That leads to stupid problems, like presenteeism — valuing employees because they’re at their desk, not because they are delivering. Bad habits like this are a barrier to the successful shift we need to make to more flexible, open working arrangements.

Read the full post on the ILM website here: https://www.i-l-m.com/Insight/Inspire/2013/August/blog-future-presenteeism

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Nanny State: Why Apple Needs to Protect Parents from their Children

Put a five year old in the middle of the high street with a credit card and the PIN number. The best thing that is going to happen is that he or she will buy the contents of the nearest toy shop. It could be an awful lot worse.

A point I have made many times is that the web is an analogue of the real world. All human life is here. Give a child an internet-connected tablet or smartphone and you give them access to every corner of human life. I would argue that doing so does not constitute responsible parenting.

And yet when children are reported to have run up huge bills on one or other App Store — usually Apple’s — it seems to be the companies that come in for criticism. For allowing developers to promote free games with integrated shops for buying upgrades. For those upgrades being too expensive. For shopping being too easy on these devices.

Often Apple ends up refunding the parents. But let’s be clear here about what has happened. The child has been given an internet connected tablet. They have been left for long enough to make these purchases. And the parents have either entered the password for them (at least once for the game itself and again for the first in-app purchase), or given them the password to authorise the purchases themselves. High street, credit card, PIN number.

I readily accept that parents need help keeping up with the fast pace of technology change to which their children are usually so much better adapted. But the child wouldn’t be able to make purchases unless the parents had already entered their credit card details into the App Store, so there’s a limit to how much ignorance can be used as a defence.

The response to this problem, and to new legislation on privacy from the US, is a dedicated kids section of the App Store. Apps inside this section will have new restrictions placed on them.

First there will be greater privacy controls, with a clear privacy policy and a ban on behavioural advertising that profiles the user.

Second there will be clear age categories for games, showing which ranges they are suitable for.

And third, there will be an extra parental gateway, to give parents another opportunity to realise they are handing over cash to their small children if they keep on entering the password.

If I were a parent whose child had run up a multi-thousand pound bill on iTunes then I’m sure I would be seeking to get the money back. And I’d feel like an absolute idiot (even more so given my position on this subject), But I’d also recognise that the failing was fundamentally mine, not the service provider’s.

Apple has had to take steps to protect us from ourselves and from our tech-savvy tots. It’s a welcome move, but it’s not the answer. Just like state-sponsored censorship of the web is no solution.

Parents need to remain educated about the world their child is growing up in, however hard that may be. It’s part of being responsible and it is the only way to protect our children in a connected age. I will say it again: give your child unrestricted, unsupervised access to the web and a big credit card bill is far from the worst thing that might happen.

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Why Smart Watches Only Make Sense as Fashion Accessories

Accessorise darling. Any fashionista will tell you that accessories can make or break a look. But step out the door or onto the catwalk wearing only the accessories? You’ll be big on the high street for all the wrong reasons.

The accessory getting all the attention at the moment is the smart watch, the latest great shiny hope of the tech industry looking for the next trend to exploit. There is a fair degree of scepticism in the media about whether the smart watch can succeed, limited as it is by screen technology, battery life and frankly, a lack of clear applications. These are all concerns but they are amplified by the treatment of the smart watch as standalone item, when really it only makes sense as part of an ensemble — an outfit.

The capabilities of a smart watch today sound pretty trivial. It will effectively act as a second screen for your phone, albeit one with lower graphical capabilities. You’ll get a compass readout, Facebook notifications, track listings and player controls, and oh yes, the time. You don’t NEED any of that — you could whip your phone out of your pocket. But that’s also true of the time and yet people still wear watches.

The added convenience of having the time on your wrist is only marginal when we’re surrounded by clocks and connected devices. Yet we continue to wear them and buy them, spending over £1bn a year on luxury watches and jewellery according to Euromonitor International.

Why? Because that marginal convenience when combined with their value as a fashion accessory is enough. Stick your face to the window of any decent jewellers and you’ll realise that for all the limited utility of a watch, there’s little to limit their price.

Smart watches need to be considered in the same fashion as any other accessory. That means they have to look good because utility is only part of the story. They don’t make sense on their own, they have to be considered as part of an outfit. And, they are optional and can be replaced or complemented with a range of other accessories.

This last point is important and it is the reason that smart watches are not the new smart phones. A phone is nearly a requirement for modern life, just like wearing appropriate clothing. You wouldn’t go out undressed. But accessories are optional and if people do want to wear them, then they have a wide range to choose from.

What we need is not just smart watches but smart accessories in general. Brooches, necklaces and rings; shoes and bags. Combined these will form a market in which the majority of us might participate.

But before we do, manufacturers need to learn that with this new category of consumer tech more than any other before, beauty comes before utility.

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The Evolution of Domesticity-From Labour-Saving to Life-Enhancing

Over the last three generations housework has changed from a full time job to an occasional chore. The 63 hours we used to spend each week on cleaning and washing is now just two hours per week for the average Brit.

These figures come from research conducted on behalf of LG Electronics for a campaign on the ‘Evolution of Domesticity’. As well as looking backwards the research looked to the future, asking people what technology they want to see in the home. I participated in the campaign, explaining to the media which of people’s desires were practical and which might remain science fiction.

For me those remaining hours of housework look pretty intractable. Barring the introduction of robot vacuum cleaners — number four on people’s wish list and something I think will be increasingly commonplace in the next few years — it is going to be hard to automate the remaining tasks. We will still need to load and unload the dishwasher and washing machine for example, however good those devices get.

Instead the next few years of evolution will be about reducing waste and improving quality of life in other ways.

Take for example the number item on the public’s wishlist: a fridge that can keep food fresh for longer. This sounds a little mundane but given that we waste around 20% of the food we buy, pretty sensible. Modern fridges have already advanced a long way, becoming quieter and lower maintenance; when did you last have to defrost a freezer compartment? But now companies like LG are adding features like vacuum compartments, minimising oxidisation and contaminants to enable foods to last even longer. Combine this with high efficiency pumps, more eco-friendly materials and improved insulation and you can see how new appliances can be shaped to save us money — and reduce environmental impact — in a number of ways.

In addition to this focus on efficiency, there will be one major addition to appliances in the next few years. Or more precisely three:

  • Awareness: Devices will be equipped with more and more sensors so that can collect information about their environment.
  • Intelligence: Devices will be increasingly smart so that they can make better decisions based on the data they collect.
  • Connectivity: Devices will be able to communicate with us and each other in a number of ways.

The classic example of these features is the ‘internet fridge’ — a bit of a running cliché in technology circles when discussing the home of the future, but one that has become a reality in other parts of the world.

Sensors tell the fridge about the food it contains. Intelligence allows it to track when things are due to run out or go off. And an internet connection allows it to order replacements, alert you or add things to your shopping list.

This type of aware, connected intelligence could help you to use up food before it goes off, or make sure you never again have that moment where you make a brew only to find the milk has turned lumpy.

Vint Cerf, one of the contributors to the creation of the internet, has estimated that it now costs less than one pound to put a connected computer into an appliance. Expect to see more smart, aware and connected devices in your home over the next 20 years.

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Is Social Media Good Or Bad?

Ah those wonderful binary choices born of radio phone-ins. I spent this morning defending social media following its shocking abuse in the Criado-Perez affair.

Is social media bad? Of course it isn’t. Normally I’d say something along the lines of “It’s technology. It has no agency. It can’t be inherently good or bad. It’s how it is used.” But I’m not sure that’s entirely true in this case.

For a start the platforms themselves may be all bits and bytes. But they are operated by companies that do most definitely have an agenda, encapsulated in everything from their user interface design to their usage policies. These policies for a long time led Facebook to justify removing images of breastfeeding while leaving untouched images of domestic abuse. Clearly while there is no agency in the technology, there is in the people behind it.

There are many examples of the powers of social media being abused, beyond the Criado-Perez threats. There is the daily trolling, the torrent of threats and abuse that regularly seem to arrive at the accounts of prominent women, and also the bullying that takes place on more closed social networks like Facebook. As a teenager being victimised there are few places to hide these days.

But you have to balance all of this against the good that social media does. And not all of this can be put down to people doing good using social media. Some of it is intrinsic in the technology’s very concept.

This comes down to democratised, disintermediated, decentralised, distributed publishing and communications. The ability to communicate with one person or many without limitations of cost, state or editorial control. These things are a fundamental part of the architecture of social media. There are weaknesses in this model — the lack of verification for example, or the power put into the hands of those wanting to abuse — but these for me are far outweighed by the good.

The power for communities, political and protest groups to self-organise faster, across greater geographies and without restrictions. The ability for people with shared niche interests to connect across the globe. The chance for families and friends distributed by the nature of our globalised world to stay in close contact. These things are almost immeasurably valuable and in 99% of cases are not abused.

Positive use of social media dramatically outweighs the negative. That’s why stories like the threats to Caroline Criado-Perez make the news. Change needs to happen to protect people in her position and prosecute the criminals abusing those threats. But we have to make sure that the great things about social media are protected when we make those changes.

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Family Gathering Around the Telly? Not Likely

Couple of trips to the Beeb today to talk about the latest Ofcom annual review. It makes some slightly rose-tinted claims about a return to the family gathering around the telly like we apparently did back in the 1950s.

That’s not what the stats suggest to me. In fact, based on the press release that seems to be pure conjecture based on the frequency with which adults retire to the living room to watch the main set.

What the stats actually show is that instead of a shared experience, television is increasingly a solitary one. Even our attention is divided. Because while we may all gather in the living room, we do so with an arsenal of different devices at our disposal: smartphones, tablets, laptops and portable consoles. Instead of sharing the TV experience with the people to whom we are geographically close, we share it with groups of people with common interests online. Or we ignore the big screen altogether and shop, socialise, work or watch something completely different.

Baroness Susan Greenfield probably thinks this is melting our brains or something, but I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing. So we don’t sit together and passively enjoy the same programme? I don’t think that’s necessarily a major loss. We’ll still come together for the big events: the Olympics, Wimbledon, and yes, sadly, X-Factor. On those occasions we can all scream and shout, laugh and cry together. But most of the time we will be consuming the content that we as individuals enjoy and more importantly, sharing this enjoyment with other people around the country and the world who share our passions.

It’s this, more active and participatory consumption of content that is the real positive message for me from today’s report. Not some false ideal of the family once again gathering around the gogglebox.

Tom Cheesewright