Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Windows Media Center sucks

The other day a friend came over with a divx movie of a live gig and his laptop. We got a few beers in, burned the movie to a DVD and settled in to watch the gig. Or at least, that was the plan.

I have my surround sound and TV hooked up to my xbox 360 and so placed the DVD into the 360's drive tray. However, it wouldn't play the DVD and said it was an unknown format. It was a standard data disc burned from Vista. So it was kind of surprising that the Microsoft console couldn't read a disc made by the latest Microsoft operating system. Still, not to worry, no problem, we thought. We can just use the 360 to stream the video right from Vista.

Only we couldn't seem to get his laptop onto my network. In fact, he'd never used his WIFI capabilities on his laptop before and had never successfully connected to any wireless network and he was unable to get onto mine, despite having all the right security credentials, the 360 being on it and my Macbook. Ah well, time to go grab an ethernet cable.

They connected with a cable fine and a few wizards later and windows media center was running on both platforms. Some confusing file dialogs later and we had got the divx video into the menu system, but alas, it wouldn't play it anyway, complaining about codecs. It even complained about codecs when selecting it on the Vista laptop - despite being able to play it fine in Windows Media Player. But that isn't the full story of why media center sucks. Oh no. While hunting around its (admittedly nice) user interface, we discovered some sample videos of things like a bear in a river. A quite strange selection, but they played fine, but my friend decided he didnt want the bear on his laptop, so deleted the file through the media center interface.

That was enough to totally confuse it on both platforms, giving us error messages about not being able to find and play the video. So get this. Deleting a file through the media center interface stuffs it up. How simple is it to program that kind of functionality? Answer - very simple. Microsoft, we found a bug in five minutes. Media center sucks.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Adobe has its finger on the pulse

For a while now, ever since I first bought a PVR, I realised that the way we consume live content will change. The PVR lets me record TV to a hard drive and watch it later at my leisure, by picking items from the electronic program guide. It's a really easy way to record things to watch later and a benefit of this is that you can fast forward the adverts. Then I discovered podcasts, and later video podcasts and I could see how TV would go from being broadcast live to a subscription "on demand" model. I think all TV will eventually end up being delivered in this way, where you might subscribe to a series and every episode is sent to you electronically as it is released. Very much like video pod casts are today.

For this vision to succeed, a good media player that supports this is needed. The obvious candidate is iTunes. iTunes tends to be more focussed around music libraries and digital players but definitely has this capability even today.

However, this article is about Adobe, who have just released a new media player that uses its Air technology. This media player's focus seems to be almost exclusively on subscribing to TV shows; they seem to have built this from the ground up to do this. So iTunes has a real competitor here and this could be the media player of the future - if it were built into set top boxes so you can watch all this stuff in your living room without having to load up hundreds of megs of code in a modern OS (i.e. windows, linux or mac OSX). I wonder if this will happen. If they are smart, they'll go down this route.

The other reason that this media player is noteworthy is that it is built using Actionscript. AS 3 is really powerful and in the next few years I think we'll start to see some proper heavy weight applications coming out that use it. Delivery using Air is interesting (use Actionscript to build desktop apps - it probably explains Silverlight as a response to this possible threat to Microsoft language dominance for desktop apps). Adobe eating its own dog food is interesting (see also the recently released Photoshop Express - another online application built using Actionscript 3 which the engineers who worked on Photoshop itself built).

Now, if only they would merge some of the best features of Director (Xtras, the 3D engine) into Flash, I'd be a happy developer ;)

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Beyond Turing

Clive Thompson recently wrote that we may be already beyond turing (see the article on Wired News here ). It is well worth a read, but for me he doesn't put forward a really convincing argument.

To summarise and paraphrase and generally miss the point, he is saying that playing computer games can lead you to care about some of the AI characters. I play a lot of games and this doesn't often happen. Well not to me anyway. The idea of caring about a computer game character can seem ridiculous, but I do remember feeling a little upset over one of the deaths in Final Fantasy seven (speaking of Final Fantasy, if you like those games, check out Lost Odyssey - it's great). That is very different from what Clive is talking about however, because the emotions essentially come from the story and not the game play.

Can game play illicit emotional responses in people such that they care for and treat AI characters as they would treat another person? I have yet to really experience this myself and put it down to a lack of depth in the artificial intelligence that is driving these agents in games, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong. Maybe the Sims can produce this kind of response and fool a person into treating a digital entity as though it were real?