HL2 retrospective · Nov 17, 08:21 AM

Here’s a lovely retrospective on Half-Life 2 by Eurogamer, that if you like your video games on the story telling side, is worth a read. Covering why it’s long remembered and still borrowed from today, down to the smallest tricks:

One of the best uses of physics in the game is a minor but brilliant narrative trick – a Combine soldier hits a can to the floor and orders Freeman to pick it up. At once a powerful piece of world-building and an opportunity for the player to ‘take control’ of Freeman’s response, the sequence echoes throughout the genre to this day.

I generally found the linearity of HL2 very constraining compared to games like Halo, but as a mix of gameplay and immersive story telling, it definitely still holds its own ten years on.


New worlds · Oct 26, 10:31 PM

Off exploring

Somehow the release of Minecraft 1.8 slipped past me – I guess that’s what happens when you get sucked into the world of modpacks that are usually a couple of releases behind. Anyway, to celebrate, we’ve set up a new private server today for friends, and started exploring.

If you fancy joining us, drop me a missive via email or other such channels, and I can add you to the white list. If you’ve not played before, well joining whilst we’re all working out what’s new is as good a time as any.


The same old photo · Oct 26, 11:22 AM

Busted out my DSLR for the first time in a while yesterday. Took this photo, which is just muscle memory I suspect:

The same old photo

It was interesting to realise it’s not just myself that’s rusty when it comes to photographs, but also the way I process and distribute them is also quite rusty. Aperture, which Apple have already signalled isn’t long for this world, is already showing some obvious bugs when run under Yosemite, and Flickr, where I used to post photos, is in quite a sad state. The photo presentation formatting has changed considerably, which makes a mess of the framing on my old photos which was designed around Flickr’s old layout. Even worse, my attempt to log in was pretty much a full screen advert for some bank with a tiny login to one side, and given I pay for Flickr, I strongly object to this. I suspect I’ll be closing my Flickr account shortly, which is sad, as Flickr used to have a very good community.

Discussing with a friend, it looks like there’s no go to place for photos on the internet any more, at least for serious amateurs like ourselves. Flickr is now a mess, 500px never really seemed to take off, SmugMug’s layout never really suited trying to present photos such that they’re not surrounded by widgets. My friend has taken to just using his blog, and here I am doing the same, but then I miss the feedback from other photographers, which really helped me a lot during my 365.

This all ties back a bit to a common discussion at the Indie tech summit I went to earlier this year. A common theme there was trying to find a home for your content on the web, such that you could put it where others could access it (which mainly means with shared services), whilst at the same time you regain control over it (which mainly means with self owned services). There was some good ideas floating around, but it’ll be interesting to see if any of those make it to launch, and if they do, then whether they can succeed where services like identi.ca and diaspora failed.

Moving to Windows Phone · Sep 28, 01:28 PM

A couple of months ago I surprised both myself and quite a few of my friends by moving from iOS to Windows Phone running on a Nokia Lumia 930 for my daily device, and thought I’d write up some of my thoughts on it here.

Why change? Having consistently used iOS since the iPhone 3G (the oddly named second version of the iPhone), I decided it was time to try something different when I came around to replacing my iPhone 5. I’d held out until WWDC (Apple’s annual developer conference) to see what the next version of iOS held in store, but nothing from a user’s perspective seemed that new (at least for my typical usage). Don’t get me wrong, iOS is really good, and for the most part it just works, which as a user is fantastic, but as a technologist is a little bit dull. And it’s not just the phone OS that has stagnated, so have the applications I run on it. I’ve no idea if it’s me or the app store (or both), but I’ve found myself using the same ten or so apps for the last year, with nothing new to excite me about using my phone.

As an alternative I decided to go for something totally unknown – Windows Phone 8.1. I’d heard some good things about it, but had next to no experience of it (or indeed of Windows since I stopped working at Intel some eight years ago), so it seemed like a suitable technological adventure. And given that part of my aim was to compare it to my iPhone, I opted to buy the flagship Windows Phone phone at the time, the Lumia 930 (which, despite being their flagship phone, was actually cheaper than the equivalent iPhone, though still not cheap).

I’ve now lived with the phone for two months, and people keep asking my opinion on it, so here’s some thoughts on it to date: the good, the mixed, and the bad.

The good

Windows Phone generally seems quiet slick UI wise. It suffers from animation overdose a little (as does iOS these days) slowing down navigation a bit, but on the whole, I do like the start of day experience with the phone. I’ve been using the Live Lock Screen Beta app to have a nicely playful lock screen, and the live tiles on the home screen actually have grown on me quite a bit. Some of the tiles are a bit annoying, and thus I’m forced to minimise them to shut them up (e.g., Cortana wants to show news headlines which I’m not interested in). But having the weather, calendar, and so forth on the home screen is quite nice. It would be nice to be able to have some apps have big tiles and no animations, but overall I do like the live tiles, which I didn’t think I would.

There’s some lovely bits of joined up thinking in Windows Phone overall. I’m signed into Facebook on my phone, and it uses people’s profile pictures from Facebook for my address book, saving me from having no pictures for most people. I have Laura’s contact page as a tile on my phone screen, and it’ll display not just Laura’s profile picture, but show what she said today on Facebook too. It was just seamlessly pulled together, which is nice.

The build quality of the Lumia itself is great, and the screen size (4.7”) was a big hit with me instantly (this was before anyone knew that Apple would go this way with the iPhone 6). Even after a couple of days, going back to the iPhone 5 to fetch odd bits of data, I realised that I’d struggle to go back to a small screen size. The other bit of the hardware I like is the wireless charging. At the same time I got the phone I got a Wireless Charging Pillow, which is a bit gratuitous, but it’s a lovely convenience not having to fiddle with cables just to recharge it over night; when I go to bed, so does the Lumia.

The mixed

The obvious thing that puts people off moving to Windows Phone is that, given its overall lack of popularity, the low number of apps in the app store when compared to iOS and Android. However, I did my homework before I jumped, and knew that most the apps I used daily were on Windows Phone. Social media is well covered, with things like Instagram, FourSquare/Swarm, Facebook, Twitter all there. So is Spotify, which is how I listen to most my music these days. Runkeeper, which I used to track cycling on iOS, was not there, but the competing Runtastic service is, and I could easily migrate my data, so I did.

One of the things I used on my iPhone regularly was a wide range of photography applications. I don’t have the bandwidth currently to spend hours with my DSLR, Aperture, and Photoshop, so instead on the iPhone had built up an array of apps I used to try make my Instagram output unique. On Windows Phone there’s certainly less to chose from, but it’s not totally bereft of photo applications. At the moment I’m mostly relying on Photoshop Express, which is a solid basic editing tool, but I do miss apps for more advanced editing and modification. Still, was able to take, edit, and publish this photo on my phone, so it’s not too bad:

There’s only been one app where I’ve found no equivalent, and that’s an RSS reader that’ll work with my chosen RSS service, Feedbin. There’s quite a few that work with the more popular Feedly, but for now I’m using the built in browser to access Feedbin, but that’s not nearly as nice on a mobile device as Reeder on iOS.

The camera is another big draw to picking the Nokia device, as they’ve always had a very good reputation, and as I say, I use my mobile device as my primary camera these days. Unfortunately, here the iPhone does beat it. Although on paper the Nokia camera may be better, its just not as usable as the iPhone’s camera for everyday usage. The Nokia camera is slower to focus, and slower to start, so the iPhone is much better for that capturing a moment instantly use case. On the flip side you do tend to get a lot more detail with the Nokia camera, but the iPhone is good enough on that for the majority of people. The Nokia camera is far from bad, and I’ve take some pictures I’m really pleased with, but the iPhone camera is just much more usable overall.

The bad

My main gripe with Windows Phone to date is the email client. Out of the box it assumes that we’re living in 1998, and thus tries to use the network as little as possible, only caching the last seven days of email, and not downloading images. In 2014 this is not what I’d expect as the default on the top of the line smartphone. But even with those options set to something more sensible, the client is just a bit more rough that its iPhone equivalent. Apple have made it very easy to flick through your email at speed: reading this, deleting that, and so on. Getting through my email on Windows Phone is just much slower. To delete a single email requires a mode change, a select, and a confirm, with my fingers moving up and down the screen. on the iPhone it’s a simple swipe and tap in a single location. My hope is Maestro, which goes into Beta next week, will provide a nicer alternative.

With the app ecosystem it’s a similar complaint: it’s not the lack of apps that’s the problem, but the lack of quality in the apps that are there. Even some of the apps from famous names that have lovely iOS apps, their Windows Phone apps just feel like they just left it to the intern to knock up over the weekend. I’m hugely grateful that there’s anything from 1password on Windows Phone at all, but boy does their Windows Phone app aspire to be done by an intern. The only exception to this rule is the first party apps. For example, the Xbox Smart Glass app on Windows Phone is absolutely wonderful to use – and shows you that you can write awesome Windows Phone apps that will stand proud alongside apps on iOS in terms of features, ease of use, and aesthetics; it just seems other people aren’t willing to put in the effort.

A small thing: there’s no timer app built in, which to me is insane, and reduces the functionality of Cortana when compared to Siri by half (i.e., half the time I used Siri was to set a timer when cooking :).

Finally, there’s a few UI bits that just don’t sit right with me. Windows Phone phones have three hardware buttons below the screen, back, home, and search, and the functionality of the back button is context sensitive, thus at times confusing. Let’s use the mail application as an example. In normal use I’ll launch the mail app, see my inbox, and then drill down to a specific email, and press back to return to my inbox. That to me makes sense, and I’m happy. However, if I pick up my phone, see I have 8 mail notifications, and select the first email to read, back takes me to whatever I was doing before I looked at that notification, not as I anticipate to my inbox so I can see the other emails waiting for me.

Although the back button is simple to describe as a rule (takes you to the last screen you saw across all applications), because what it does is context sensitive it works against my muscle memory for how to navigate through applications. There is no alternative either: once in a mail via notification, I just simply can’t get to my other email without going out of mail and coming back in. I can see a certain design rational for this, but in practice it just is annoying, and now if I have mail notifications I tend to go and find the application to read them rather than clicking on the notification.


Overall, if you just want a phone that works all the time, I’m afraid I’d still recommend an iPhone over a Windows Phone; but I do enjoy using Windows Phone and am in no rush to give it up. As technologists it’s part of our job to understand all the alternatives, and this is a nice reminder of what life is like outside the iOS ecosystem (and I still have my iPad, which I’m in no rush to replace with a Surface :).

Window Phone is clearly still evolving as Microsoft try to up their game. Each update I get adds some great new bits and pieces to the underlying OS. I think the shame will be if Windows Phone never gets the app developers it deserves. I suspect there’s a small, but reasonable business out there for the first company that actually builds a suite of apps worthy of the platform underneath them.


When the future arrives · Sep 21, 05:52 PM

Back at the turn of the year, I had the good fortune to test drive a Brammo Empulse R, the first electric motorbike that I’ve ridden that can hold a candle up to its petrol driven counterparts. Now some ten months later, I’m very fortunate to have one of my own:

Getting here hasn’t been easy, mostly due to the unfortunate demise of the electric vehicle distribution company I was buying the bike through. Thankfully with lots of help from Laura, and help from Brammo’s main European sales rep, a bike is now in my position, and I’m delighted.

Unfortunately, no review on living with it for a while. We essentially have had to import the bike ourselves, so it needs to be registered with the DVLA etc., so it’ll be another couple of weeks before I can get it on the road. But at least from here, with the bike in my possession, it’s easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel.


Paperless airport · Jul 27, 10:56 AM

I was a little thrown in the early morning last week when I was dropped of at Terminal 2 for my flight to San Francisco, rather than at my usual Terminal 1. I try not to be a creature of habit, but when I’ve got up at insane-O-clock to catch a flight, routine is good. But one change to the routine was nice: I was able to use my phone from check-in to gate as my ticket at long last.

This may seem like a trivial thing to get excited about, but it means one less thing to worry about as you move your way through the airport. Modern paper boarding passes are a shadow of their cardboard-based former glory, being printed on the easiest to crumple bits of paper, and are easy to lose in amongst your reading material. Particularly annoying is if, like me, you stack them in your passport, which will leave half of them to be exposed and impossible to guarantee they’ll still be readable by the time you make it to the gate. It’s like some kind of cruel gameshow challenge.

I tend to fly United long haul (a habit ingrained on me by my time at Intel), and United have supported iOS’s passbook since day one, but it’s take two years for Heathrow to catch up. This minor change means I have one less thing to worry about on my way through the gate – all of us are now trained to remember to look after our phones and know where they are at all times. I’ve spent a bunch of time trying to change the things I can about my travel setup to reduce the stress of moving through airports, but there’s little I can do on certain things, so I’m pleased to see a dent in the set of things I have no control over.

On a related note, it’s also nice to see the restrictions on electronic device use for takeoff relaxed, though oddly enough not on landing. I assume this is because there’s some vague hope you’ll survive a crash on landing and they want you ready to leap into action, whereas a similar incident on takeoff you want your passengers to be as distracted as possible…


Past future · Jul 19, 02:29 AM

I get an unreasonable amount of joy sitting in the tiny, hectic Tomokazu sushi bar past security at San Francisco Airport; the tea is lovely, the sushi is wonderful (California puts UK sushi to shame), but mostly it just gives me the feeling I’m sitting in a William Gibson novel.


Where memories are made · May 26, 09:08 PM

One of the joys of online games, and in particular sandbox games, is that you get to spend time with a distributed set of friends/family, building a shared experience over many hours, days, and months. You end up creating things that, whilst they have no physical presence, have some meaning to you and your friends: loot that you’ve gained from dungeons in a raid you all spent hours on, the castle that you all constructed over many weeks, the suit of armour you built up over months getting to the top level of the game you’re in.

The problem with them all though is they’re virtual, and in that the same way it’s nice to occasionally take some of those digital pictures you snap and turn them into a physical rendering you hang on the wall, wouldn’t it also be nice to take those virtual mementos of all the hours you spent having a good time with your friends and render them into something physical you can treasure?

The first example of this that I remember seeing was at Playful a few years back, where Alice Taylor talked about getting her World of Warcraft avatar printed as a statue back in the late 00s, something that was a big thing back then (and how it inspired her to set up Makie Lab). That was then though, and you’d think that with 3D printers being post-fad, that we’d all be able to turn our memorable virtual online experiences and make them into something we can place on the mantle piece.

But sadly it’s not the case. I suspect mostly that’s because 3D design and production, despite within reach of much more people, is actually quite hard. If I wanted, for instance, to render my custom Spartan armour that I built up over many hours in Halo: Reach, well, tough. I don’t have access to the models from the game itself (all that data being proprietary and copyrighted to the nines), and I don’t have the learning and/or talent to recreate it myself.

Thankfully though, there are some more open games where this is possible. For example, Minetoys will let you type in your Minecraft avatar name (or that of a friend) and have them 3D printed and sent to you. Now, most Minecraft avatars aren’t much to look at admittedly, but they almost certainly mean something to the player themselves – this is the in game identity they have chosen for themselves for the many hours they’ve played this game. A couple of years ago I used this to make Minecraft versions of my and Laura as a valentines day gift.

But that’s just our avatars – what about the actual things we spend many hours constructing in Minecraft? This gets a little more nerdy, but can be done. Recently I had a little time to spare, so I thought I’d attempt to take a building I created on one of our Minecraft servers and get it 3D printed. I thought I’d share with you the process I went through, as it wasn’t straight forward, but it wasn’t too hard, and hopefully by explaining this it’ll encourage some others to give this a try.

Now, I didn’t make this easy on myself: I chose to experiment with a tower I built on our currently Minecraft server, which is full of non-standard modifications (it’s running the Direwolf20 mod pack from Feed the Beast), and I wanted to produce not just a 3D print out, but a high quality colour one. If you’re going to do these things, you might as well jump in at the deep end.

Let’s start with the tower:

This is my wizard’s tower, where I’ve been playing with various magical mods on and off for last six months. The first thing to note is it’s in a forest (a magical forest!), and as such you can’t see a lot of the tower, and I don’t have the budget to print out the entire forest (quality 3D printing gets expensive quickly, so you want to make your grams count), so my first task was to get the tower on its own, outside of forest.

To do this I used MCEdit, a Java program that lets you modify minecraft maps. MCEdit is both wonderful and hateful – it’s actually quite easy to understand (after watching a few YouTube videos of people explaining it), but it’s written in Java which leads to a non-native UI, and on OS X you can’t even resize the window. Still, despite the mild annoyances, I was able to load up the server map, find my tower, start to work with it.

To make things easier to work with, I first cut the area around my tower out, and placed it in an empty flat map. Although MCEdit copes quite will with large worlds, it’s a bit easier to whiz around when there’s less map to load and less other landscape to obscurer your view. Having done that, I then set about deleting all the trees and things around my tower that I didn’t want printed. This took a little while, and indeed was probably the slowest part of the process, but in the end I was left with something mostly clear:

One thing to note here is the purple and yellow blocks: these are non standard blocks added by the mod pack we’re using. The tool I used to turn the map into a 3D model doesn’t know what they are, thus they all need to be removed, otherwise they’ll get turned into bedrock, and I’ll have weird dark grey blocks in my print out where I don’t want them. Having removed the trees, I then removed or replaced any non-standard blocks. At this point I now have a Minecraft map with just the thing I want to print in it, so now we need to turn this into a 3D model that can be printed.

To do this we use another tool called Mineways, which is even more archaic in UX terms than MCEdit (it uses X11!), but gets the job done. Mineways will let you define a 3D cubic space from the map, and will then turn that into a 3D model suitable for sending to Shapeways, a 3D printing by mail company (it will do more, but this is what it defaults to, which is quite handy).

The first step is to define the volume you want to be printed, as you don’t want to print the entirety of you map. You do this by using two sliders to define the top and bottom height levels, and then you drag a rectangular region for the vertical edges of your volume. For the bottom I was careful to select a few layers below the start of my tower, so as to give me a base on which to stand my model. You can see my tower nicely defined here, though it takes some imagination to image the resultant 3D model:

After you have selected the volume you want, you can then try exporting it. Here there’s a large number of parameters you can play with, and I must confess, for my first time I just left most of them at the default. The thing you want to check for are the options to automatically hollow out your model, which will save you significantly when it comes to the cost of the printout. Mineways will give you a estimate to how much Shapeways will charge for your model, which I found to be quite handy at this stage. One issue I did hit on OS X was that it couldn’t find the custom texture file it wanted to use for the colours for the output model. The file was in the Mineways folder, but you needed to select it manually each time, so don’t worry if this happens.

Once you’ve exported from Mineways, all the difficult bits are done. Now you just take the exported .wrl file you’ve generated and upload it to Shapeways. Shapeways, as I’ve already mentioned, is a service where you can send 3D designs and have the fabricated design sent back to you. There’s a wide selection of materials you can choose from, depending on your budget and tastes; thankfully the colour sandstone I was printing in is quite cheap, but if I had six grand to spare I could have got my tower printed in sterling silver… Once uploaded you get a nice preview of what you’re going to get, which is handy, given Mineways doesn’t do this for you:

It took me a couple of goes to get the correct model I wanted based on selecting the right volume. Once I was happy, I clicked print, and then thirty euros and a week or so later, up turned this in the post:

Not a bad likeness?

I’m quite pleased with the result, but there’s a couple of things I’ll do differently when I next do this. Firstly, I’ll do a test print on a lower quality (i.e., cheaper) 3D printer to test the model I’ve made is actually going to come out how I expect it. At 30 euros a pop, had things gone wrong it’d have got quite expensive to keep tweaking it until I was happy. Thankfully I have access to such a printer in the form of a MakerBot at Cambridge Makespace. Although the quality of output from the MakerBot is nothing like what I’d get from Shapeways (and it’ll only do single colour), it’ll be enough to do a preview print and make sure the proportions etc. are what I want. In this instance I didn’t have time to do it, but I’ll definitely do this stage in future. Getting the data from Mineways into a format Makerbot understands is more tricky, but someone has documented it already, and I’ve had a little play and can confirm it works.

The second thing I’d do (and had I previewed my first model I’d have spotted this) is go around the internals and “fill” any seams where diagonal blocks have just one touching edge rather than a touching face. If you look closely at my picture of the printed tower, you can see some black lines on the roof and near the windows where the edges didn’t form up correctly and it exposes the hollow inside. Had I gone around the internal of my model in Minecraft or MCEdit and doubled the thickness on all such seams, so all outside cubes joined with a face rather than an edge, I could have avoided that. In Minecraft this works fine, but in Minecraft you don’t suffer shrinkage :)


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