Pokémon Go and the Evolution of a Video Gamer

I’ve always been a video gamer. When I was a kid my parents refused to buy me a video game console. Had they done so, I may never have played outside. They probably made the right decision. Luckily my friends weren’t so unfortunate. In the summer time when school was out, I would hang out with a friend from down the street nearly every day. Needless to say, we ran out of new things to do in short order. Nearly every day we would descend into a “I want to do whatever you want to do” battle. My trick to win was suggest we play Mario Kart on his N64, which apparently he didn’t like as much as I did. In hindsight I’m not sure why he ever turned me down.

Fast forward a few years to the era of 56K modems and dial-up computer gaming (because I was still console-deprived). These were the days of ICQ and MSN Messenger, where it was cool to chat online with your friends about what had happened since you got home from school (read: nothing substantial). My game of choice was Starcraft, which I would play online with my friends after school for an hour or so. That’s all I got since the internet blocked the phone line and my dad didn’t share my love for “killing aliens”.

When I was old enough to get a job and break free from the financial confines of my parents unspoken ban on console video games, I started saving my money. I ended up camping out with a good friend of mine so we could both get the Xbox 360 when it was first available. And by “first available” I mean many months later, because I live in Canada… We braved the Canadian winter to nab a couple of Xbox 360s at the local Best Buy as early on as we could. I doubt I would have been so inclined if I had to stand in line on my own.

super_smash_bros_nintendo_64_1024x768_wallpaper_wallpaper_1440x900_www-wallpaperswa-comThat Xbox got a lot of mileage. Over the years it had to be warranty repaired 3 times, which incidentally led to me learning the guitar in my “downtime”. Now those failures were most certainly because of Microsoft’s engineering shortcomings; but I like to think its partly because of the 1000s of hours of playtime it got over the years. During undergrad my Xbox was the unofficial designated gaming station for the dorm floor and later, my crazy house of 8 guys. It was on nearly all hours of the day and only got a respite when Super Smash Bros. lured us away for a retro battle. Halo 2 and Halo 3 were our games of choice. I have over 44 days of continuous playtime in Halo 3 with over 10,000 games played between the two. I can’t (and probably shouldn’t) comment on how much I can claim personal responsibility for.

I wouldn’t classify myself as a stereotypical gamer. I don’t live in a basement or fear the sun. Although at my wedding, it became quite apparent that a gamer is how many people see me (at least in part). Without any planning or collaboration, the theme of the wedding speeches revolved around video games. I wouldn’t call my wife a gamer, but she grew up playing Nintendo with her Dad. She introduced me to retro classics as we made our way through the various Zelda games on N64 and Gamecube, and we spent many hours together tackling Skyward Sword, Super Mario Galaxy, and Donkey Kong on Wii. I’ve played a lot of different games: sports, shooters, action, adventure. I have my leanings, but I’ve come to realize that the games I enjoy most are those that can be played with others. As a kid, those experiences were in my friend’s basement. As I grew and technology advanced, those experiences migrated to battle.net and Xbox Live (/college dorm rooms). Later, my wife would share with me a part of her childhood while showing me what I had missed in my own (kidding, Mom and Dad!). Many different types of games drew my attention over the years, but communal experience was always the component that kept me coming back.

Mobile is one area of gaming that has lacked much of this communal draw for me, at least until recently. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve played a lot of mobile games. Angry Birds is, by far, the best and most number of hours you can get with a 99¢ app (I picked it up before the Loonie went for a dive and forgot to resurface). And I’ve sunk my fair share of time into Words with Friends over the years. But nothing on mobile has had that multiplayer experience that I crave. Turn based 1-on-1 experiences are as close as things have come. I always wondered if there were games out there that you could play over Bluetooth or on a local network that blended the virtual world of video games with the real world and people around you. If a Facebook friend isn’t available to play I would rather play with someone who’s around the corner than I would with some random person in Idaho. I guess what I was looking for was a sort of… “augmented” video game experience. I think you know where I’m going with this…

pokemon-go-likitungYou’ve probably been living under a rock if you haven’t heard of Pokémon Go. Or at least you are as oblivious as its players walking down the street. Pokémon Go is a pretty amazing game. You have to walk around the real world to find digital Pokémon, and then you catch and train them . You battle other players at local “Gyms”, which are tied to real world locations. The augmented reality part is mostly a gimmick if you ask me, although it is fun to see a Pidgey dancing on the sidewalk next to an oblivious passerby. The really interesting part for me is how they’ve brought together people in the real world. You have to physically be in certain places to interact with and unlock certain aspects of the game and you can actually engage with someone who may be right beside you on their phone. The game itself is fun, although its hard to say how long it will last. I was never a huge fan of Pokémon, so I’m not sure how much staying power it will have for me, but I am excited to see how it transforms mobile gaming moving forward. Its the sort of communal experience that I love in my video games, and with the proliferation of mobile devices, it’s the sort that I think more and more games will need to capture their audiences in the future. I, for one, am hoping for more compelling communal experiences like Pokémon Go on mobile. It’s what keeps me coming back.

Commuting

by Nathan 0 Comments

go train(small)
Time is a valuable thing; but just how valuable depends on your perspective.

When my wife and I first moved back to the Greater Toronto Area, we were faced with a decision: where to live. My wife got a job in the downtown core, but I was still looking and opportunity in the GTA is pretty widespread. Not to mention, prices increase the closer you get to downtown, so you basically trade off space for convenience. So we initially decided on living in the suburbs. She would commute in on the train, and I would have more flexibility with my job hunt, being able to commute into the city or even reverse commute further away. Turns out I found a job quite near where we settled, so it seemed to work out well.

It wasn’t long before I found a better job opportunity in the downtown core, and began the commute myself. Commuting into Toronto is pretty easy with the GO Train. We initially did the math comparing driving to taking the train. The train isn’t cheap, and driving came out a little less expensive, but anyone who has sat through rush hour traffic in Toronto knows why the train is so appealing. Time is a valuable thing after all. With express trains, the commute can actually be just about an hour door-to-door if you time things right. Those are the key words though: if you time things right. If your life fits perfectly into time-boxes, you are probably spending too much time planning it and not enough time living it.

Early on, the train didn’t seem so bad. Assuming you get a seat, you can relax, read a book, catch up on some work, or even have a nap. Compared to driving, you don’t need to pay any active attention; so long as you don’t miss your stop. Again: perspective.

Slowly but surely my perspective began to shift. I came to realize the that cost of commuting wasn’t just the dollar value of the train trips. I was telling myself that an hour and a quarter commute wasn’t “that bad”. But that’s only one way. In reality, I was spending 2.5 hours a day in transit. And as much as I would like to think so, that time was not spent productively. A nap is not equivalent to extra sleep and train-work is not equivalent to in-the-zone work. In basketball, a turnover that leads to a basket is not a 2-point swing; its a 4-point swing. You have to take into account the opportunity cost.

The tipping point came when my wife and I learned we were pregnant. Ironically, as our family was about to grow we realized the space we had prioritized would not be worth the time and convenience we would spend commuting. With a newborn on the way, we need to be close to home and untied from train timetables. Now I can take 5 extra minutes to finish what I was doing and save an hour later without needing to get back up to speed.

I’ve only been downtown for a week or so now, and am already loving it. Perhaps my perspective is biased by the fact Toronto is great in the summer. If we have moved in the dead of winter, my outlook may not have been so rosy. But I can sleep nearly 2 hours longer, go for a 30 minute run, and still make it in to work before anyone else. I’m not ruling out commuting from my future quite yet. I’m not sure what the needs of my family will look like in 1, 5, or 10 years from now. I’m also pretty stoked to see what augmented/virtual reality can do for telecommuting, although that’s a story for another time. For now, I’ll enjoy my 5 minute walk to work and rest in the knowledge that if Skype still has trouble streaming video conferencing, then 3D telepresence isn’t quite ready for primetime.

Technology in Canada

I live in Canada. Being Canadian is mostly great. I have free access to healthcare, I get to feel like an underdog every time our hockey team beats our Goliath-like neighbours to the south, and I don’t have to worry about getting lost – in Canada, you can ask anyone for directions and rest assured that they genuinely will want to get you to your destination. Just ask Patrick Patterson of the Toronto Raptors. http://www.theplayerstribune.com/patrick-patterson-raptors-toronto-playoffs/ In Canada, we have a strong sense of Nationalism. We are united as Canadians and yet maintain our cultural heritage. Whenever I see that red maple leaf I smile to myself. In Canada, our beer commercials don’t even really talk about the beer. They just pull on our Nationalist heart-strings. And apparently they work.

But for all the great things about being Canadian, there are a few short comings. Namely that when it comes to new technology, we always seem to get the short end of the stick (pun intended). I remember when the iPhone first came out. A friend of mine managed to get his hands on one, and my first experience was with Tap Tap Revolution. I remember thinking to myself, “This sure beats my flip phone with its T9 keyboard…”. But getting your hands on the first iPhone was no small task. In fact, the first iPhone was never available in Canada. It wasn’t until the iPhone 3G came out that I was able to finally get myself one. I don’t want to go as far as to say it changed my life, but it sure was a huge upgrade.

Ever since then I’ve become more and more acutely aware of lagging release dates for technology in Canada. Apple Pay, which lets you pay for things with your iPhone was released in late 2014 in the USA. It only came to Canada (for my bank) a few weeks ago. I can’t say I was holding my breath for Apple Pay, but I will say its pretty cool. Ironically, it seems to me that contactless payments (the technology built into credit cards these days) are much more prevalent in Canada than the USA. A few weeks ago, I was in the US and I had to sign for most of my payments. North of the border, a tap or PIN will do. Tapping with a phone or a credit card is essentially equivalent in terms of convenience, so until I can leave my entire wallet at home, Apple Pay will remain a novelty for me. I guess I’m not too bent out of shape about having to wait for it after all.

Technology in CanadaOne technology that I couldn’t wait any longer for was Amazon Echo (Alexa). The Amazon Echo is a Bluetooth/Wifi speaker system that hooks into Amazon’s voice assistant software known as “Alexa”. It’s a pretty amazing little piece of tech that lets you play music from online services like Spotify, ask questions like “how many tablespoons in a 1/4 cup”, set timers, and control your smart home. The Echo has been available in the States since late 2014. Its still not available here in Canada. I had to have a guy smuggle one in from New York before I could partake in simple voice assistant tech that didn’t need me to pull out my phone and hold a button to activate. The Echo was initially written off as an overpriced Bluetooth speaker, but 3 million units later, and Google has just announced their competitor with Apple rumoured to announce theirs at the upcoming WWDC conference.

I’ve had the Echo for a few weeks now and I’m pretty impressed with it. The developer ecosystem Amazon has created is open, so the sky is the limit for how developers think voice tech can be used in the home and beyond. Part of the reason I’m so excited by this type of technology is because of my work (I work in the smart home), but the other part is just my personal interest in new (useful) technology. I see Alexa, and similar voice technologies, becoming as important to computing user interfaces as the mouse and keyboard have been in the past. Granted, things are still early, and some of Amazon’s advertised (!) use-cases still include things like “Alexa, tell me a joke.” But with big partners like Ford and Pebble, there’s a lot of room for growth. Don’t forget that the Apple App Store used to be filled with apps whose sole purpose was to simulate fart noises. Look how far we’ve come.

In the mean time, Amazon really needs to get their act together any bring this (officially) north of the border. From what I can tell, the only thing holding them back is swapping out a postal code for a zip code so Alexa can tell me the weather here in Toronto rather than in Buffalo…

 

Moving On

There’s something about moving that’s liberating. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of packing up my entire life, boxing it up, and lugging it on and off a truck. I woke up this morning and didn’t feel like moving at all after moving out of our home yesterday – and I didn’t even do most of the heavy lifting. I hired movers for that. No, moving is liberating because it forces you to evaluate each and every item you own. You have to decide which items to pack away (and by extension, unpack and put somewhere else), and which items really aren’t worth owning anymore.

It’s interesting. We’re moving into our new place in a month from now, so we had to store our things. Rather than have higher anxiety around what might happen to our stuff during that month, I actually feel more liberated. I tried to take only what I need for the next month, and as a result I feel so much more mobile. In fact, I probably should have sent more to storage.

chaosorderSorting through my things and deciding what to keep and what to donate was freeing. Its the same sort of feeling I get when I finally get around to tidying a room that over time has come to look like a bomb went off. There’s satisfaction in putting everything in its place. Getting rid of things means there are fewer things that need to be put in their place. We did a first pass on items for donation some weeks back and we finally got rid of a stereo that’s been largely unused for years. On our last pass, I donated an old computer monitor. One of the other people donating textbooks noticed and joked I should let him know if I had any stereos. I told him, “Sorry, that was last week.” He thought I was joking back.

Old electronics are an interesting thing. There’s a certain attachment I have to my electronics. I still have my first computer I bought close to 12 years ago, and I keep my old phones “just in case”. I’m not sure if its just because I worked hard to save for them when I was younger, or perhaps I cling to a (likely) false notion that they will be useful once more. My computer that started on Windows XP, has been upgraded to Vista, then to 7, and then to 8. Unfortunately, I was stymied by Windows 10, but that really doesn’t matter because over the past 5 years, I’ve only really turned that computer to see if it still works on latest software. The transition to mobile computing (at least in consumer electronics) is also pretty amazing. I have a relatively new Nexus 6P on loan, and its more powerful than my laptop. Granted, my laptop is pushing 6 years, but its impressive how far technology has come.

As our “old” electronics get smaller and smaller, its certainly easier to lug them around place to place or throw them in storage somewhere, but perhaps its time for me to move on from them as well. For the time being, I will rest in my sense of liberation for the next month, after which I will return to chaos as the rest of my stuff joins me on the other end.

An Evolution of Speed Typing

Keyboards are pretty amazing things. Information technology is all based around written language in some form or another, whether they be the emails or text messages that fly day by day or every single line of code written (even binary is a language of sorts, and I’m pretty sure anyone who writes it without a keyboard is wasting their time).

Keyboards have been pretty central in my life from a very young age. I still remember learning how to type on a QWERTY keyboard using a 5 1/2 floppy disk program on an Apple IIc back when I was in grade school. Who knows if I learned to do things “the proper way”, but I like to think my fingers can fly across the keys with the best of them. The history of the QWERTY keyboard is actually quite interesting. Somewhere along the way I remember being taught that the QWERTY keyboard was invented to slow typists down on typewriters that always used to jam. They would type so quickly that the hammers would hit all at once and get stuck together. I suppose the QWERTY keyboard helped mitigate this but when I was a child, my father had a newer typewriter, and I was still able to jam it up – not that it had anything to do with the key arrangements. Now the truth of the matter is that the design wasn’t actually meant to slow things down, the design was meant to speed things up: avoid jams, and you avoid having to stop typing to fix the machine. The new design meant lower efficiency as typists had to relearn, but it came with a much higher ceiling for speed. This is what Clayton Christensen refers to as a disruptive innovation. It’s a concept that’s central to how technology has progressed – and what’s determined the winners and losers along the way.

Keyboards have come quite a long way since those first QWERTY versions. Typewriters have become computers, and computers have given birth to smartphones. I won’t spend much time talking about the evolution of keyboards on standard computers, although I will say I absolutely love the chiclet style keyboard that is pretty standard on all laptop computers these days. If you really want to see a fascinating evolution of keyboards, look no further than the smartphone. I actually want to take a step back and start with the evolution of the mobile phone first. Before smartphones were a thing, the vast majority of us were using cellphones with a number pad only. With the advent of text messaging, that number pad was pretty inadequate. Each number had 3 letters and you could tap a key multiple times to get the letter you needed. It amazes me that cordless phone handsets still use this approach (I recently had to program a VoIP phone using this approach). It’s a good thing that T9 technology was invented otherwise I probably would have actually opted to talk to people on the phone in high school. T9 was amazing. All you had to do was type the number key with your letter once, and the algorithm would take over and figure out the words you were typing. I haven’t used T9 in quite some time, but I’m sure it wouldn’t take long to return to my former T9 speed-typing glory.

If you know anything about how mobile technology has progressed, you know there really isn’t any reason to still be typing on a T9 keyboard. Smartphones with full keyboards have been around for decades, and touchscreen smartphones have become the de facto standard over the past 10 years. Blackberry is (or at least was) a household name largely thanks to their keyboard, which has long been considered the best hard keyboard in mobile; to be honest, it’s likely the main reason the company is still around at least on the hardware side of things. The speed at which business people and teens alike are able to type on a Blackberry can rival that of a full fledged computer typist. But as much I would love to support the local economy (I studied at Waterloo where Blackberry was founded and live in Toronto, just an hour away), buying a Blackberry in 2016 is like sticking with a pre-QWERTY keyboard. There’s no question the virtualized keyboards that came with initial smartphones were inferior to the hardware-based ones coming out of RIM. The trade-off was that with a virtualized keyboard, you can use that screen space for so much more, and with all that a modern smartphone can do, that was certainly enough to convince me to switch to an iPhone once I could afford it.

Don’t worry, the iPhone’s virtual keyboard is not the same as it was back in 2007. Touch interfaces afford the mobile keyboard an evolutionary path that wouldn’t be possible on a hardware equivalent. The main advantage is that the interface can shift contextually. Third party keyboards have exploded over the past couple years. Swype introduced the concept of typing a whole word without lifting your finger from the screen, essentially using a swipe gesture for each word. Along the same vein of T9 word-prediction, Swiftkey used artificial intelligence to extend the concept to phrases, predicting your next word and allowing you to input it with a single tap. Both of these concepts have been added to many other keyboards to varying success, and even Apple added phrase prediction to their stock keyboard back in 2014. There are also a whole host of third party keyboards on iOS that achieve various things. Fleksy adds gestures for adding spaces, punctuation, and alternating autocorrected words. Slash adds a “slash” button for sharing everything from a youtube video to a funny cat GIF. Google has just released GBoard, which adds the ability to search Google and do various other Google’y tasks straight from your keyboard. Microsoft has Word Flow, which takes the Swype idea and optimizes it for single hand typing by shifting the keyboard to the right or left hand corner. Regrettably, I haven’t been able to try out the latter two keyboards, as Canada’s App Store is apparently always late to the party for new software.

All these keyboards are pretty cool, but none of them hold a candle to my current mobile keyboard of choice: Nintype. This keyboard is amazing. The number of features and options it has is just mind boggling, but its biggest claim to fame is it marries the concepts of swiping and tapping. Where Swype and other swiping keyboards require a single gesture per word, Nintype allows you to switch back and forth between swiping and tapping mid-word, which makes two hand typing incredibly fast. It also has great gestures for deleting words, moving your cursor around, and accessing various punctuation and special characters. The only drawback is that with fast typing comes laziness and sloppiness (on my part). More than a few times I have swiped across the wrong letters and the algorithm comes up with something that isn’t quite right. Sometimes I type so quickly, I hit send before reading back over. Other times, I find the autocorrected phrase too comical to go back and change. In either case, it’s led to some interesting text message conversations. I think it adds flavour to my digital communications. Others disagree. Anyway, If you’re interested in checking out how fast typing on a touchscreen can be, you can pick it up on the App Store for $4.99, or there is a free Android beta. I will warn you that the learning curve is reasonably steep. But hey, if learning curves scared us off from innovation, we might never have had the QWERTY keyboard in the first place, and I would probably be finishing this article by unjamming my typewriter… in the meantime, I leave you with this crazy GIF of Nintype in action (don’t worry, you can disable the colours)

Crazy Fast Nintype GIF

Crazy Fast Nintype

Cooking up a Storm

by Nathan 0 Comments

I like eating. Generally speaking, I’m quite frugal, but food is the one area where I’m willing to spend a little more. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not eating at 5-star restaurants weekly. I’m more of a hidden-gem-hole-in-the-wall kind of guy. I’m highly analytical, and with “expensive” restaurant food, I have a very low bar for diminishing return on investment.

Being frugal and enjoying eating means that cooking is almost a requirement. Luckily I quite enjoy it. A few years back my wife bought me a knife skills course. You know the type, where you learn how to dice an onion in 5-seconds-flat without dicing your hand 5-fingers-flat. Its actually one of the best birthday gifts I’ve received. The kitchen has become one of our main considerations as we’ve moved around. When we moved from Montreal to the GTA, a dishwasher became a required feature for me, and a workable kitchen was one of the main differentiators that helped us decide on our newest apartment as we make the move to downtown Toronto. I’m not sure if you’ve been in the market for an apartment rental recently in a metropolitan area, but the size of newer “kitchens” is just ridiculous. I think one ad tried to brand it a “european style” kitchen. Perhaps there is something to be said about the efficiency of europeans, but I’m pretty sure millennials don’t like cooking as much as previous generations. (Side note, if this apartment had been up for rent, I would have totally been on it)

There’s no end to the number of kitchen gadgets you can buy, but there are really only two things needed to make cooking enjoyable: a great knife (like the one I got from my course) and a great recipe. Sure, if you’re an experienced chef (or even home cook for that matter) a recipe may not be needed, but for the rest of us, recipes are indispensable. Technology has changed how recipes are stored and shared. You can find just about any recipe you could ever desire in just a few taps. My mother and my grandmother used to keep boxes of index cards in the cupboard that contained all their recipes. As technology has progressed over the past 10 years or so, I’ve cycled through a number of different ways of storing recipes. Between emails, photos, hand written copies, browser bookmarks, and text messages, there hasn’t been a centralized location for them all. At least not until I found an app called Paprika. This app is great. It has easy scanning of recipes directly from websites, a built-in grocery list, built-in timers, and the simplest feature is the best of them all: it keeps the screen on and fully lit while you’re cooking. At $4.99 its not a no-brainer, but I hands down recommend it to anyone (even my mom loves it now).

All these digitized forms of recipe storage have gotten me thinking though. My recipes are currently stored in the cloud on some random company-du-jour’s servers. What happens 5, 10 years down the road? Will that company still be around? How will I be able to pass my recipes on to my daughter when she’s old enough to realize ramen noodles are not sufficient for her needs? When I think of my mom’s recipes, I think of those index cards in the cupboard. What will my daughter think of when she thinks of my recipes? Of course for those of you who are thinking “Who cares, they’re just recipes”, I’ll point out that recipes are just symbolic here of the digitization of everything. Photographs, mementos, and diaries, they are all digital now (see what I did there?). The question is does this improve or hurt their longevity. I have photos of my parents’ vacations when they were kids that my cousin digitized, but the only reason I have them is because they were physically in the crawl space in my grandparents’ home. Will my grandkids pull out my external hard drive in 50 years and check out my old digital photos? Will the drive still even function? Will they log in to my Dropbox?

I’m not sure. But for now, I will happily activate Paprika via Siri and enjoy my centralized recipe repository. I don’t imagine it will be much longer before this isn’t a joke:

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a blog for some time now. I’m not exactly sure what I want to achieve through this site or where it might go. I’m not even sure I’ll have more readers than my wife, but I’m interested to see. I want this to be a place for my musings. We live during an amazing time in the world, where science and technology are changing things quite rapidly. I’m also at a place in my life where a lot of things are changing or are about to change. In a few months I’ll be a new father to a little baby girl. The world she’s about to be born into is quite different from the one I was, and even more so than my parents. Science and technology are a big reason the world is so different, but they are far from the only players.

Delta is a word with a few meanings. The 4th character of the Greek alphabet is delta, or ∆. While I’ve never studied Greek, it feels as if I got a crash course in its alphabet through my engineering training. See, Greek letters are used often in engineering to represent various things. Delta refers to the “change in” something. It seems appropriate that this blog be named The River Delta as I plan for it to be largely about how changes in technology impact our lives. A delta can also refer to the land formations that occur when a small river meets the ocean. If I am the small river, I see this blog as much like my intersection with the rest of the world.

I have a passion for science and technology – it’s why I studied it in school and why I chose to work where I do – so my posts will centre on that. I want to share my passion with you, and hopefully learn a little about you in the process. Thanks for reading and I welcome your feedback and thoughts in the comments.