GHC Reflections: Augmented Reality and Streaming Media

The Augmented Reality segment focused on getting user attention when they view the world through the lens of a device, and then providing them with relevant information – for instance, in an unfamiliar place seeing info labels pop up about the location. A problem however with labels is the contextual linking to the described object – and ensuring that the size relative to the screen size is still large enough to be helpful, without clustering too greatly and causing clutter. Conversely, solving this problem will definitely help users navigate the scenes – which of course, would be real-world scenes, by having optimal placement for aid.

Eye tracking was a highlighted topic for the Augmented Reality – and when discussing label placement, this is definitely understandable. Knowing where a user is going to look can ensure labels contextual to that appear – and decreases the amount of labels one would need to populate at a time, causing the clutter problem to all but disappear. Eye tracking methods include infrared light detecting the pupil, and heat maps of vision. The latter is good for studying eye movements, but the former could be a technology integrated into devices that could actually be utilized in real software for users.

A follow up to the idea of contextually populating based on eye
tracking does however, raise a few issues of its own. For instance, how can one ensure that label transitions after the eye moves are not too distracting?
Sudden or jerking movements would bring the users gaze back to the label, which could definitely throw off eye tracking software. “Subtle Gaze
Modulation” is the concept of using the right movement to draw the eye,
but terminating the stimuli before the gaze reaches its destination. Think of a blinking or glowing-then-dim light, drawing you toward it but disappearing before your eye lands on the spot that was radiating. Photography “tricks” like dodge and burn or blur, can heighten contrast and create the same sort of gaze-catching effect. And for anyone interested: the mathematical formula used in the presentation for gaze modulation

theta = arc cas ([v * w] / [|vector v| * |vector w|]).

Where v is the line of vision from the
focus and w is the desired line of focus to find the angle between the two.

The Streaming Media presentation was fairly standard pertaining to
connection quality versus video quality. Adaptive Streaming, or the
“Auto” default on YouTube for example, is the concept of the request
for stream quality changing relative to signal strength. The ideal of Adaptive Streaming is to ensure the user’s stream is not interrupted – quality may flux, but there should be no buffer waits and video/media should always be visible.
The encoding can also play a huge factor in video: compression reduces file
size, but at the obvious consequence of quality. The quality available for a
video to choose from when attempting adaptive streaming is dependent upon the file size – factors such as Resolution (HD/SD), bitrate, or frames per second (fps). Reducing frames per second can speed a file with potentially minimal consequences: video files contain a lot of redundancy (think of all the frames – many are repeated), and there is no way the human eye is able to see them all. Codex are compression and decompression algorithms that can minimize the impact of video file reduction to humans by taking into account these redundancies humans cannot notice anyway.

As a budding UX professional, the eye tracking points were of
intrigue to me. I would love to play with techniques similar to these in
digital designs in an attempt to help my users follow the path, without over-correcting or pushing them as they themselves adapt and explore. It would be interesting to see how this could be refined to be more subtle but assistive as needed.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clark

All research copyright their respective owners

Veronica Mars and the Crowdsourced “Long Tail”

Alright, I’ll admit it: I’m a marshmallow and I believe in LoVe. Regardless of how much Kristen Bell can get me to fangirl about her misadventures into private eye work, the story of “The Veronica Mars Movie” is an interesting case study in marketing, specifically, marketing to the long tail.

As most familiar with marketing are already aware, the long tail is the section of the market that does not cater to the most common buyers. These are your specialty items, your underwater basket weavers or fans who need a figurine of that one character in that one episode of that one show that -one- time. The beauty of the long tail is that, while you won’t hit many buyers, those you do hit will invest almost unrivaled amounts because they really, /really/ want that product and have few places to get it.

Veronica Mars, for those who (sadly, sadly, sadly) haven’t heard of it, debuted in 2004 and featured a young Kristen Bell working on various whodunit cases using the skills she learned from her father’s Private Eye business. Cases range from the mundane (who’s rigging the school ballots?) to larger overarching cases (who killed Veronica’s best friend?). The show ended in 2007, after seeing Veronica through one year of college. The show, while never a huge success in ratings, received critical acclaim for its well-written noir presence, epic female lead, and intriguing blend of humor, wit, and drama. Much like Firefly and many other shows with a highly engaged and supportive fanbase, when Veronica Mars was cancelled, there was a huge hole that left them wanting more.

Why hello long tail, there you are. (read in Veronica’s internal monologue voice for added ‘tude)

Seven years after the cancellation, Rob Thomas appeared on KickStarter encouraging fans of the series to fund a Veronica Mars movie. The response? Astounding. Even if you weren’t a marshmallow, anyone following news of successful KickStarter’s surely heard of Veronica Mars utterly smashing almost every KickStarter record ever: Two million dollars were raised in less than ten hours, breaking the fastest grossed one million and two million dollar records. It also broke highest minimal pledging goal achieved, largest successful film project, and on its final day most backers of any KickStarter project. (Note: this has only been beaten thus far by the Reading Rainbow project – which seems to have been an obvious take from the success of this project!)

For those who think the long tail isn’t a worthwhile investment: let Mars Investigation show you it depends on the long tail you’re trying to cater to.

The film itself, nine years after the final season in terms of timeline, received overall good reviews from critics, coming out at 77% and 6.4/10 on RottenTomatoes and 61/100 on Metacritic. Tabulating box office earnings was a bit difficult for the Mars movie, considering its fund source and due to the fact that prizes for some tiers of backing were copies of or tickets to the film – meaning quite a large portion of watchers would be absorbed in the funding. Despite this, Veronica Mars still grossed $1.988 million opening weekend, coming in at #11 on the box office charts, and had a worldwide total of $3.485 million – again, not including those backer-watchers, who already ensured the costs of film production were covered with their $5.702 million given to the KickStarter. This means most if not all of the total box office revenue should ideally have been profit for the film, and if one wants to argue semantics, the true total is more like $9.187 million, if the funds the KickStarter received are counted toward the film’s grossing.

What do all of these numbers mean? Even if this film wasn’t a box office smash, it created huge ripples, and at very low cost to Warner Bros, who facilitated the Digital Distribution and ensured screening of the movie in 291 theaters across the nation.

While the movie might not have hit record-breaking numbers at the box office, it did pave the way for a new generation of entertainment catered to a willing long tail, and it certainly shocked the system as a reminder that if you build it – no matter how niche, the diehards will most certainly come in their small, but desiring droves.

“Do you not instinctively fear me? Maybe you should make yourself a note.” – Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars (c) Warner Bros. Entertainment

Google Pokemon MAPster: On Nintendo and Mobile

If you have any aspiring Pokemon masters as friends, or happened to open Google Maps up today, chances are you found out about Google’s April Fools prank this year:

Granted, there actually ARE Pokemon in Google maps today: just in sprite form and no traveling required. (Unless you count hopping from Harajuku to Old Faithful via the Maps app travel)

While a collaboration between Google, the Pokemon Company, and Nintendo was a rather ingenious prank to tug on any kid-at-heart’s nostalgia and gain some excellent publicity for all parties, what might not have been expected of the prank was the conversations it brought about to the future of Pokemon, and well – Nintendo games in general.

Nintendo franchises are some of the most beloved and memorable games: Mario, Donkey Kong, Pikachu, and Link (Legend of Zelda) easily spring to mind among others when one is asked to think of a video game. One of Nintendo’s best selling points for its games is the exclusivity of its characters: typically confined to Nintendo only titles with rare cameos to outside titles, and exclusively playable on Nintendo console systems.

Does that exclusivity exclude Nintendo from some successful business ventures? Any console junkie will tell you that when it comes to hardware, Nintendo may have innovative ideas (a controller with a screen? Some of the first motion detection titles?), but their processing power can lag years behind Sony PlayStation or Microsoft XBox. Some mobile devices may even have better processing capabilities and features than current generation Nintendo devices.

Would it be better business for Nintendo to farm out their franchise characters? Or start developing and selling for mobile? Maybe opening up a retro games section of the Play store filled with mobile formatted nostalgia-inducers?
Think of the possibilities mobile could offer: the augmented reality type game described in the Google Maps trailer isn’t so far off – granted it might have to be scaled down a bit since it’s unlikely one will hop a plane to Egypt to finish a game.
Mobile could hit a base of users Nintendo is missing too. Users who love Mario and Pikachu, but can’t bring themselves to shell out the money for a console just to play one or two titles, but would gladly pay the money for those titles on their mobile device. Or even users who would play more classic mobile games a la CandySwipe, Cut the Rope, etc. that would buy extra levels or make a micropurchase for a small game with their favorite characters starring. There’s a potential market left untapped.

Yet for all the possibilities, and all the frustrated Nintendo lovers but non-console buyers who would clamor for mobile Nintendo love, there’s some sound strategy to what Nintendo has done so far. As stated at the beginning, Nintendo built its characters partially on their exclusivity. Only seeing Mario in his Nintendo environment gives an expectation and a context, and it gives a level of quality expectation for the product. Letting Mario run around just anywhere willing to shell out the cash for him could dampen the iconic-ness of him and other Nintendo franchise.

Plus, just like Sony and Microsoft, part of Nintendo’s profits come from console sales. While PlayStation and Microsoft have plenty of great third party developers to contract out games to and are known for a vast array of different games being available to them, Nintendo again breeds its consoles in part for the exclusiveness of their franchise titles – third party developers are almost akin to just gravy. Take the franchise titles and put them anywhere, and when stacked against the competitors with better horsepower, who is going to buy the Nintendo console anymore? They may have novel hardware innovations, but given console sales for Nintendo already are less than their competitors, who can say how much more the scales would tip?

None of these conversations are to say Nintendo needs any advice. Their brands speak for themselves: the company has amassed quite spectacular revenue and while their current consoles may seem in trouble, the company itself is far from likely in the same waters. These are what ifs, and exploring the whys.

The bottom line seems to be that for all the excitement and potential new markets Nintendo could open up by expanding its horizons, it could also become a fatal blow to the company. Dwindled to a halt console sales could potentially rip open any gaming company,  and beyond that the iconic nature of Nintendo franchise characters could get lost in the mix as they jump from game to game, console to console. While it might seem backwards to those looking at the potential innovations ahead of us, Nintendo sticking to what they know may be exactly what they need to continue on their path of household gaming entity.

Plus, if the technology already exists, that means it can always become a part of the next big Nintendo thing. The 3DS already HAS augmented reality features, for example: they’ve just never been that strongly used in a franchise game to my knowledge. Maybe this Google Maps trailer is opening doors to something right in their backyard?

Regardless of what they choose to do in the future, Nintendo is a savvy company who chose to opt out of the console horsepower war and opt into developing further what was already working for them: their characters. I’m interested to see how their business plan continues to unfold, and I’m actually doing a marketing course research survey project on Nintendo and mobile devices, so you may see more blog posts about this from me.

But until then, I’m going to go back to searching for all these Pokemon in….where am I now, Kyoto? And hoping against hope if I find them all Google sends me a lovely little Pokemon master card to hang on my wall, right next to my pile of Pokemon plushies.

“Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock-n-roll” – Shigeru Miyamoto

Pokemon and respective characters (c) Nintendo, Game Freak, and the Pokemon Company International; Mario, Luigi, and other characters (c) Nintendo

GHC Reflections: “Why Are We Still Geeks?” Panel – Part 3

(Trying to work toward graduation AND remember to blog is hard – sorry for the delay!!)
My favorite segment of the “Why Are We Still Geeks?” panel at Grace Hopper, part three featured professor Kim Surkan of Humanities & Gender Studies. Her discussion revolved around the current issues surrounding women in technology today, and steps being made toward remedying them.

Very early in the speech she made a memorable statement: “You have to remember, I am humanities, trying to step into your world – and let me tell you, your world is troubled”. With that statement alone, despite her not being a woman in the CS field today, you could tell how deeply she understood the problems plaguing women in technology today and hoped to remedy them.

She went on to discuss several distinct points hindering the cause of women in CS. For instance, both genders have a habit of correlating gender with ability in STEM fields, which regardless of actual skill causes a decrease in interest and  hinders abilities, which continues to increase our gender gap. In  simpler terms, both women and men perceive men as better at programming, thus women lose interest, stifle or hinder their own skills, and create an even wider divide to perpetuate this stigma.

She then cycled this concept into another called “symbolic annihilation”. She argues that the struggle there is for young women to see other women in computer science makes it difficult to protest the fact that they are underrepresented. It’s a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around at first: the best phrase for it is “It’s hard to protest an image that does not exist”. If we’ve never seen it, we have trouble conceptualizing it as a real problem.How can we address the problem of women entering STEM fields, if we have barely any women at all to turn to in the field for a frame of reference? Out of sight, out of mind as they might say.

One fact Dr.Surkan shared that I found startling was that Computer Science is the only STEM field that has seen a decrease in women joining in recent years. As a woman in the Computer Science field, I know we are few and far between – but to hear that trend is only becoming worse is something that makes me very sad. Any woman can be good at whatever she so chooses, but there is nothing about Computer Science as a field that makes it strictly male. I can think of plenty of areas that women can actually have an easier time conceptualizing than men due to how we process information. For instance, concurrency and object-oriented relations/definitions are things that I’ve seen women grasp more quickly. And for those who enjoy a human element – data analysis, human/computer interaction, usability, and user experience are all realms where a craving for “social” work can manifest in Computer Science – and are areas that sorely need workers, yet few Computer Science majors are as interested in. Not to put the genders in stereotypical boxes of course – I mean Grace Hopper developed the compiler – that says just how much women can contribute to the field in any area they choose!

Surkan continues by discussing subtle differencing in the language of Computer Science that one could also say contributes in part to the lack of women. The term hardware did not originate until 1958 – prior to that, computers were operated almost entirely by women! The word hardware versus software brings about a play on masculine versus feminine roles (men are “hard” and women are “softer”), and defined women solely as switchboard operators rather than “able to build computers”. This language change may have helped solidify the gender divide within Computer Science – where women are thought to be able to use the computers, but not build them or program on any level of real depth.

She follows this up with a case study of several events in the Computer Science world that have alienated women – and for me, these case studies were a turning point in how I viewed the CS world for women. I had known things can be bad, that we were few and far between – but some of these stories were beyond me. There was the 9-year-old girl at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon: who when other apps were inappropriate for someone of her age to have to see (and at least a touch objectifying to women) during demonstration, was blamed for being there – despite having built her app herself at the event. There was Anita Sarkeesian, receiving death threats for an attempt to kickstart a YouTube channel about female representation in video games. Adria Richards, who was harassed and then fired from her job for tweeting about some men making sexual jokes at a Python conference. And the more I Googled after the panel, the longer the list of stories became.

The above tied in with what she calls “brogrammer” culture – more and more startups and popular tech companies are modeling themselves in a fashion to attract young and thrill-seeking twenty-something males – to the point where the office culture resembles a fraternity house party more than corporate.<br />
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a fraternity house party, and there’s nothing wrong with a woman wanting to be a ninja or a wizard or a Jedi (as advertisements for these job may question if you are when it comes to coding), but there are elements of those environments and words that can cause women to automatically feel excluded. Perhaps when promoting jobs companies should use a second, more general, or even women-targeted ad set in addition (calling for code queens, Python princesses, and scripting sirens) if they wish to correct these images – and let their house party style be more like game&amp;study night on the co-ed dorm floor.

When I discuss the issues of women in Computer Science today, I am constantly brought back to referencing something I learned or heard in Surkan’s panel segment and branch out my discussion from there. No one has all the answers to these issues – but she definitely helped to raise some of the problems and questions, which is always a necessary first step. More than likely I will revisit some of these issues and pose some thoughts for the future in the future – but this blog has become long enough just revisiting Surkan’s panel points.

Is there a current problem with getting women into Computer Science, and the environment for women in the field at certain locations? Certainly.
Can we fix it for the future? Definitely.
Will it happen overnight? Probably not – but if we persevere, we will overcome.

“Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes” – Edsger Dijkstra

GHC Reflections: “Why Are We Still Geeks?” Panel – Part 2

In the second portion of the “Why are We Still Geeks?” panel at GHC, Brenda Laurel took center stage of the discussion, speaking out passionately about our portrayal of women as “professionals” – and what this decided imagery can do for our perceptions. She used the Grace Hopper poster as her example, commenting on details such as polished nails and suits – this serialized ideal of the business professional.

While at times her discussion seemed a bit out of left field or reaching, I felt she did have a very valid point in that we should be allowed to look “ourselves” and still be perceived as competent and professional. Of course we should dress workplace appropriate – but why must workplace appropriate for women include makeup? Why do so many images portraying business professionals show women in the 3-piece suit while men are able to wear khakis and polos in an ever-increasing amount of media? Why is pulled back hair considered professional – but pigtails (still pulled back) are not? When did these rather archaic lines become drawn between “appropriate” and “not” when some are rather silly when given a second glance?

Women should be allowed to dress in a way that is workplace appropriate but still expresses their sense of style and self – as for women, we often garner quite a bit of confidence from our dress. She stressed the importance of doing great work, being yourself, and allowing that to be noticed by those who will appreciate it – a valid point, even in a world with a need for a level of base professionalism. Who would want to work somewhere where their sense of individuality isn’t – on some level – appreciated at all?

Of course, Laurel’s discussion for those in the panel was a bit further seeming that we should be able to dress “any which way” that so suits us – to quote, we should&nbsp; “deny power to the spectacle “status quo” image of success” and “put our own self representations out”.

This is where I feel she loses me a bit. I agree, as I’ve stated above, that we should be allowed some semblance of freedom within the boundary of professionalism to express ourselves – and that often the media portrayal of that image is far too streamlined to a specific cut-and-dry image (the “power suit” woman – when so often many women where a nice dress or blouse to their jobs and are equally as successful). However, I do believe that there is a right for a company to have a dress code – again, some may be considered outdated or even bordering on archaic, but a business has a right to have an image they wish to convey. I don’t believe, however, that image should be allowed to fully mask the individual inside (whom they hired!). Even students in schools with dress codes often have some way to express – be it buttons their backpack, funny socks, hairstyle/color, or fun jewelery. If the overall “look” is being adhered to, why can’t someone be trusted with some freedom to express themselves?

While I wasn’t entirely sure how this discussion itself circled back to being geeks, I can see some correlation with perhaps our dress constructing an archetype?
Regardless, and even accounting for my disagreeing on certain levels with Laurel’s message, this section of the panel provided a good platform to consider the woman in the workforce dress code, and to hope we can continue to find and gain new ways of expressing ourselves in our dress while adhering to levels of professionalism.

“Don’t be into trends. Don’t make fashion own you, but you decide what you are, what you want to express by the way you dress and the way to live” – Gianni Versace