Maybe Redesign Public Transportation Yourself?

When designers ride public transportation, they can’t help but notice the signage—especially if it’s confusing. Most of us just tsk-tsk to ourselves or complain vainly to uncomprehending companions. But New York-based designer Adam Fisher-Cox actually does something about it: he undertakes self-initiated projects to propose redesigns and shares them with the world.

Here’s one good example: several years ago, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which operates New York City’s subway, installed countdown clocks throughout the system. These LCD display boards let riders see at a glance just how much time remains before the next train arrives, finally remedying a perennial source of bewilderment and pain that has plagued generations of subway riders. Suddenly you could tell at a glance whether you’d be better off staying put and waiting, walking to another platform to catch an alternate route, or even exiting the station altogether and hailing a cab—and usually the information is actually even accurate. For those who live in cities where this kind of technology is already common, you have to understand: this subway system is over a hundred years old.

Still, despite providing long needed information to riders, the countdown clocks are hardly a paragon of information design. They provide only room enough to show two pending train arrivals at a time, which is too slow a pace in some stations where the train you’re actually waiting for may be third or even fourth behind the next one to arrive. Some countdown clocks also need to show countdowns for multiple trains arriving in two different directions at once, and so waiting for the information you need to be displayed can be tediously time consuming.

Fisher-Cox proposed a redesign that uses overlapping cards to indicate the next several trains arriving in two directions. It’s a whipsmart solution. You can read about the thinking that went into it in this blog post he wrote.

NYC Subway Countdown Clock Redesign by Adam Fisher-Cox

Fisher-Cox also did something similar for the wayfinding system for the AirTrain at JFK airport, this time with some real world impact.

This one immediately caught my attention not just because the work is very good, but because I happen to use that particular light rail system all the time. JFK is the closest airport to me, and I prefer to get there by taking the subway to Howard Beach, Queens, where I transfer to the AirTrain to get to my departure terminal. The whole journey takes not much longer than traveling by car and costs just US$7.75, but the real benefit is you’re not burning fossil fuels along the way.

The AirTrain itself is much more modern and reliable than the subway, but its wayfinding signage is plagued by mediocre typography, questionable aesthetic choices, and less than optimal labeling and directional instructions. I mean, take a look.

Original Wayfinding Map for AirTrain at JFK

After riding it himself for the first time, Fisher-Cox wrote this extensive critique and mocked up some possible solutions. This led to him actually getting hired by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency responsible for the airports and their attendant light railway lines, to create a pilot solution for the real thing.

Fisher-Cox’s resulting redesign is much less ornamental, much more legible, and significantly easier to understand, even at first glance. His case study lays it out in detail.

Proposed New AirTrain Signage by Adam Fisher-Cox

Additionally, Fisher-Cox wrote this revealing blog post in which he walks readers through the reasoning behind his solution. It’s an invaluable lesson in how to design wayfinding, but also in fundamental principles of usability. Read it at adamfishercox.com. Then maybe go out and redesign the public transportation signage in your city.

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My 2018 Movie Diary

Still from “Roma”

The story so far: a few years ago I decided to stop watching TV and watch only movies. Pretty much any movies. Tiny indies and Hollywood blockbusters. Recent popcorn flicks and classic arthouse fare. Critically lauded masterpieces and trashy schlock. More or less anything. It’s been great.

Every time I watch a movie, I log it in my Letterboxd film diary. Then, at the beginning of each month (ostensibly), I post a recap of what I watched the previous month. I’m going into my fourth year of doing this now. In my first year, 2016, I watched a total of 189 movies. In 2017, I watched 191 movies. And last year I watched 201. (You can see Letterboxd’s automatically generated overview of my year here.)

I’ve been trying to write this post since January 1st but here, finally, are some thoughts on what I saw. First off, my favorite new films from 2018.

Top Ten for 2018

See my full ranking here.

  1. Roma” Cuaron’s elaborate staging has never seemed so intimate. During the climactic scene, he demonstrates with powerful lucidity how private desperations can feel truly monumental. Amazing.
  2. The Favourite” Seldom has the phrase “An embarrassment of riches” seemed so apt in so many ways in front of and behind the camera.
  3. If Beale Street Could Talk” Teeming with beauty and suffused with dread in equal measure.
  4. First Reformed” A spiritual sequel to “Taxi Driver” that’s as startlingly raw as its predecessor in totally new ways.
  5. Mission: Impossible—Fallout” Belies the maxim that summer blockbusters can’t be smart.
  6. Widows” A genre film that somehow manages to be both completely faithful to genre conventions while also subverting them boldly.
  7. The Oath” Not completely successful, but goes for broke in a thoroughly refreshing, hilarious way.
  8. The Rider” Riveting, verité-style deep dive into another culture.
  9. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” Uncommonly successful translation of the short story format into cinema.
  10. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” The antithesis of nearly every other super-hero movie made in the past decade or so—in that it’s really good.

Indie Movies That Could

A few smaller films that could become classics over time: “Thoroughbreds,” the debut film from playwright John Doe, heralds what could be a major new talent. “Revenge,” a French-made vengeance fantasy that’s really a super-hero movie without the costumes; simple, brutal and incredibly memorable. “Bad Times at the El Royale” shouldn’t be seen if you have a low tolerance for Tarantino derivatives, but it’s thrilling nevertheless, and gives its actors plenty to chew on. And finally, I am usually fairly contemptuous when highly successful comedic actors undertake “serious” roles in naked attempts to score themselves Oscar recognition, but I have to say Melissa McCarthy’s unabashed turn as a down on her luck writer-turned-forger in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was excellent.

Asian Americans in Film

While there were great strides last year in Asian American representation both in front of and behind the camera, the movies themselves left much to be desired. As I wrote in September, I found both of the highest profile triumphs—“Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”—to be thoroughly dishonest. On the other hand, I thought “Searching,” a strange little indie thriller that happens to take place entirely on computer screens and starring John Cho, was a real triumph not just of form (its unconventional, screen life narrative actually worked) but also in representation.

Beats Me

People like all kinds of films. Some of them, I don’t know why. “Black Panther,” for instance, was, again, a victory for representation, but I thought it was pretty flimsy and a major letdown after director Ryan Coogler’s previous works. “You Were Never Really Here” was another critical darling, and while I was impressed by how methodically made it was, in the end its story of a merciless killer finding redemption in a young girl struck me as fatally clichéd.

Blasts from the Past

Some movies from previous years that I’d never seen before: “A Prophet” (2009) A prison movie unlike any other. “Breaker Morant” (1980) Historically unflinching version of “A Few Good Men” without the whole justice part. “Rififi” (1955) Nearly every detail has been copied countless times, but somehow it still feels entirely new. “Dragon Inn” (1967) and “A Touch of Zen” (1971), both by legendary Hong Kong director King Hu, both fantastic. “The Villainess” (2017) Completely nuts, hyper-violent romantic melodrama. “The Insult” (2015) No offense to Jordan Peele, but this is a social thriller. “Lady Bird” (2017) Very cute but very good too. “Random Harvest” (1940) An old time weepie that I’m way too savvy and smart to fall for, except I totally did.

And here is the complete list of everything I watched last year.

January 2018

  • The Post” It’s okay. But man, regular Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski might want to take it down a notch.
  • Molly’s Game” So very Sorkin, which is okay with me.
  • The Money Pit” I always heard that this was terrible. It was not.
  • The Founder” Dodgy but it nagged at me for days; I wrote about it in this blog post.
  • The Big Steal” Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in a film noir/road movie/romantic comedy.
  • Illegal” Edward G. Robinson in a weird and forgettable legal drama.
  • Paddington 2” This is a very, very good movie if you’re a kid and you need to keep your grownup busy for an afternoon.
  • Apollo 13” Has lost zero of its power; if anything it’s gotten better with time. Also, I guess I was kind of on a Tom Hanks marathon last month.
  • What We Do in the Shadows” Rewatched this and liked it even more.
  • Megan Leavey” Sweet story, boring movie.
  • Suicide Squad” Not horrific; just horrible.
  • Home Alone” My kids lost their minds with this!
  • Atomic Blonde” Severely underappreciated when it was released in 2017. Charlize Theron is reinventing action movies.
  • Frankenstein” First time I’ve ever seen this classic.
  • The Bad Sleep Well” Sometimes Kurosawa meandered.
  • The Fallen Idol” Delightfully proper and then unexpectedly terrifying.

February 2018

March 2018

April 2018

May 2018

  • Tully” A pretty big improvement over this creative team’s previous outings, even if you can see the central plot twist coming a mile away.
  • Molly’s Game” On re-watch, still flawed, but still very good.
  • The Incredibles” By a mile, the best super-hero film of this century. So far!
  • Maggie’s Plan” More or less a Woody Allen film not made by Woody Allen.
  • Sex and the Single Girl” Insipid historical artifact.
  • Steve Jobs” Most of us knew too much about the subject matter to recognize that this is a great movie.
  • Den of Thieves” The film equivalent of a trashy but really fun paperback thriller.
  • Thor: Ragnarok” Definitely fun, not so definitely good.
  • Journey to Italy” Doesn’t live up to expectations.
  • Castle in the Sky” Sometimes I feel utterly alone in my inability to get past Ghibli’s paper-thin characters.
  • Dragon Inn” Tarantino owes so much to this.
  • Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” Nice enough.
  • A Touch of Zen” Over-the-top wuxia majesty. Recommended!
  • Revenge” Sketchy feminism wrapped in a gripping thriller.
  • Deadpool 2” Breaking news: scientists have isolated the “meh” gene.

June 2018

July 2018

August 2018

September 2018

October 2018

November 2018

December 2018

If you want to keep up with what I watch this year, just follow me on letterboxd.com. Finally, below are all the posters from everything I watched last year.

Now go watch something you’ve never seen before.

Posters from Movies Watched in 2019
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Wireframe on Ice: Live at On Air Fest

Photo from On Air Fest

If you’ve been waiting for the second season of “Wireframe,” the podcast I host in which we tell deeply researched stories about the world of design, well stay tuned, it’s in the works. Meanwhile, in a crazy development that both excites and terrifies me, I can now confirm that we’ll be performing a special live episode of the show at the beginning of next month.

This will happen the weekend starting Fri 1 Mar at the amazing On Air Fest in Brooklyn, New York, an utterly unique kind of conference that explores “storytelling and creativity in sound.” The lineup is pretty amazing, including the creators of “Radiolab,” “Crimetown,” author Roxanne Gay in conversation with Debbie Millman, Tina Brown with a live episode of her podcast TBD, journalist Jenna Wortham, and plenty of discussion about the world of podcasts and audio.

Our live episode will be all about designing the user experience of sound. It’ll take a look at voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant, how we structure interactions for these kinds of products, and how sound and voice are emerging as a new kind of raw material for design. We’ll have recorded clips as well as a lively discussion amongst an in-person panel of designers who are working on the frontlines of this new territory.

The panel takes place on Sun, 3 Mar and you can read more about it at onairfest.com. Readers can get a 15% discount with the code “Subtraction19” when you buy your tickets here. You can also listen to all six episodes of “Wireframe” at gimletmedia.com, on iTunes or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

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Life without Google (Fonts)

Life without Google Illustration

Privacy and technology journalist Kashimir Hill is in the middle of publishing a fascinating series of articles called “Goodbye to the Big Five,” in which she reports on her experiences trying to function on the internet without the products or services of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. To do so, she uses a custom-built virtual private network created by activist and technologist Dhruv Mehrotra.

The VPN completely blocks her access to the millions of IP addresses controlled by these companies. This has a much more extensive impact on online life than simply abandoning their branded products. In the case of cutting off Google access, for example, ride hailing apps like Lyft and Uber become useless, because both apps depend on Google Maps. Spotify’s music is hosted in Google Cloud, so it too becomes inoperable. And even seemingly independent sites like The New York Times are affected; because each page on the site tries to download Google Analytics, Google Pay, Google News, Google ads, and Doubleclick, the experience is slowed down considerably.

Particularly notable for design audiences is the proliferation of Google Fonts use across the web.

Many of the sites I visit want to load Google fonts—a free, open-source resource the company released in 2010—which are downloaded from Google’s servers and then cached in the browser. Having quick access to a variety of fonts that would not otherwise be available on your computer generally helps sites load faster, but it has the opposite effect for me during the block.

Given that Google has so many ways to track people’s digital activity already, I’m disturbed to see how ubiquitous the use of Google fonts is on the web, but the company has promised that it won’t use them to track a site’s users. So there’s that.

To Google’s credit, they don’t seem to be exploiting this situation. Hill also writes:

‘Of all the shady shit Google does, this one doesn’t seem that shady,’ says Dhruv, when I consult him about it.

Shady or not, it’s eye-opening to realize how broadly influential Google is in the user experience of the internet. Google Fonts is hardly an insubstantial product, but relative to its other pursuits, it barely seems like it takes much effort from the company. And yet in less than a decade it has turned into one of the most important providers of type in the world. (Full disclosure: this site uses Libre Baskerville served from Google Fonts.) The fact that the company has operated the service with a relatively neutral hand is commendable, but who’s to say how long that will last? The implications for the design world are far reaching if Google ever decides to turn its Fonts service into a revenue bearing business.

Read the first several installments in Hill’s series at gizmodo.com.

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Travel Tips from a Guy Who Travels Kinda Often

Flight Delays

Plenty of folks are more prolific globetrotters than me but but according to Google Maps I logged over ninety thousand miles across twenty-three trips in 2018. That’s enough to circle the globe 3.6 times. In all that back and forth, I’ve come to rely on certain products and services to make all that travel much easier. If you’re not already familiar with them, you may find one or two that could prove useful.

Flight Selection

For personal travel, I like to track flight prices before buying with Google Flights. You need to be specific about days, times and airlines, but once you identify the exact journeys you like, the service will watch price fluctuations and send email alerts when a specific fare has dropped or risen. For years I used Yapta to do this but that site has since deprecated its consumer service to focus on business travel.

Seat Selection

I used to choose my seats more or less randomly, opting for a window seat when possible but otherwise not paying much attention to the layout of the plane. After getting stuck in windowless rows or uncomfortably close to lavatories a few too many times, I started paying more attention. Now every time I book a trip, I look up that exact model of airplane on SeatGuru, which has maps and advice for nearly every seat on every plane.

Wrangling Itineraries

It’s been more than a decade since I started using TripIt and I can’t imagine taking a journey without it. Every time I make a travel booking of any kind—flight, hotel, rental car, train, whatever—I just forward the confirmation email to my TripIt account and the service automagically assembles it into a coherent, easy to read itinerary. I can view that itinerary on the web or in TripIt’s mobile app, of course, but I can also subscribe to my account’s calendar feed so that all of those plans show up in my calendar app. TripIt has gotten a little long in the tooth over the years—editing itineraries is less elegant than it could be—but it’s still a brilliant way to alleviate trip friction.

Getting through Airport Security

If you haven’t already applied for TSA Precheck, which lets you avoid the invariably longer standard lines at airport security, you’re wasting your own time. Even if you only travel a few times a year, this makes your airport experience dramatically easier. And if you travel with kids, this is a no-brainer, because it means your kids get the same privileges as you—including not having to take off their shoes, which itself can consume valuable time before your gate closes.

There’s also Clear, the privately run alternative security procedure that’s ostensibly faster even than Precheck. It uses biometrics instead of identity documents, and because it requires a paid membership, the lines are usually vanishingly short, if not non-existent. That said, I’ve never seen the point. TSA Precheck might save you half an hour or more over regular security; Clear might save you two minutes over Precheck. What’s more, Clear is available only in select airports. Don’t fall for this.

Wi-fi

Even with as much travel as I do, I haven’t found it useful to subscribe to a wi-fi service like Boingo for on-the-ground hot spots. For in-flight wi-fi though, I usually just prepurchase a day pass via GoGo. But no matter how I get online while on the road, I always use a VPN service like iVPN for privacy—and for that matter so should you.

Luggage

If you hate showing up at a party where someone is wearing the same dress as you, don’t fly between New York and San Francisco, as I do regularly, with an Away suitcase. Everyone has one. I had to put some stickers on mine (I don’t put stickers on anything) so that it wouldn’t get mistaken for someone else’s. That said, this is the best suitcase I’ve ever owned. The included battery is a fine gimmick, but the thing that really works for me is its “compression” system—a set of not particularly fancy internal straps that help you pack more into the suitcase than you would think possible. Last year I took a ten-day trip to Paris, Lyon, Berlin and Amsterdam with only my Away carryon, and it worked great.

Toting Gear

This Mindshift zippered pouch is really intended for camera gear. But it’s so elegantly compact, with three compartments for accessories, that I’ve found it perfect for cables, power adapters and dongles (hat tip to my friend Matthew for the recommendation). It’s mostly transparent, so you can see exactly what you have and pull out just what you need. It also has room enough (and then some) for my Anker 40W 4-Port USB wall charger. Why carry several Apple wall chargers with you, as I did for years—like a dolt—when you could carry just one of these?

The cables I keep in that pouch are all secured with these basic Velcro cable ties. I’ve tried a lot of different cable management solutions over the years but these have worked out best for me. The eyelets allow you to securely wrap one end around your cable so that you don’t lose it while the cable is extended and in use. They’re also really cheap at about 16¢ each. Some Amazon reviewers complain about their quality but I’ve found mine have held up very well over time. Of course, as with all generic items for sale on Amazon, your mileage may vary.

One other item that’s come in handy many times is a mini power strip. They make these in really compact form now and they’re terrific when you find yourself low on power someplace where the one power outlet is already being used by someone else. Instead of fighting over that outlet, you can now share it, and the world becomes a tiny bit more peaceful. It’s also handy for hotel rooms where there may not be enough outlets for all your devices. The one I have isn’t quite small enough to throw into my Mindshift bag but it’s still useful enough that I throw it into my backpack.

Water Canister and Titanium Spork

If you’re mindful of avoiding disposable plastic—like one-time use water bottles and plastic cutlery—these are terrific companions to throw into your bag. I wrote about them in this blog post two years ago and I still carry them on every trip.

Getting Around

I think it’s pretty amazing that you can go to a new city for the first time and, armed with just a smartphone, make your way around town easily. As a public transportation fan, I like to take buses and trains to explore new cities. There’s no better app for that than Citymapper, which covers nearly forty cities. Like Apple Maps or Google Maps, you can punch in a destination and get routing directions, but Citymapper offers much more detailed options, especially for public transportation.

Airline Miles and Hotel Points

Aside from sticking to the same airline (Delta) and the same hotel chain (IHG), I don’t have any unique hacks for maximizing these rewards. I don’t even have a credit card that earns me points. When I started traveling as much as I do, it quickly dawned on me how distorting the game of miles and points can be—sometimes, when asked to take some unappealing trip to some location I don’t have much interest in, I will think to myself, “Hmm, but that would earn me a ton of miles.”

Having status at an airline or hotel is nice, but ultimately the personal, intangible cost is much higher than the benefit. I’d much rather be at home with my family than flying business class to the other side of the world. What I’ve come to believe is miles and points are just a metric for how much of your real life you’re missing. In fact, if you don’t travel that often and therefore don’t have much use for these products and services I’ve listed here then, well, in my opinion you’re doing it right.

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Movies Watched, December 2018

Still from “The Favorite”

So many great movies come out in December, so I went to the theaters five times—that’s easily my record for any month last year. The best of the films I saw was Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite,” which is set in the court of Queen Anne in 18th Century England. It’s a sumptuous feast of palace intrigue, baroque art direction and surprisingly apt off-kilter camerawork. This is Lanthimos’s first period film, but its vision of a bizarre, distorted reality that’s blithely accepted by its inhabitants will feel familiar to those who have seen his previous films. Like those, “The Favourite” features vaguely dystopian, science fiction-like qualities. And like all good sci-fi films, this movie is as much about the year it was made as it is about the year the events it depicts ostensibly took place. If there was a time for a movie about the tragicomic art of manipulating a feckless head of state, it’s right now.

Not quite as richly auteuristic but nevertheless terrific in its own right: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Super-hero movies are in a major glut right now (I couldn’t drum up much enthusiasm for any of Marvel’s own “cinematic universe” movies in 2018) but this one is a breath of fresh air. It’s the best Spider-Man movie by far, one of the best super-hero movies ever made, and probably one of the best computer-animated movies of all time. Kudos to the team who made it, and, credit where credit is due: kudos to the studio that somehow also made “Venom.”

Here are all eighteen movies I watched last month.

I’ll be posting a full round-up of what I watched last year soon, but in the meantime, if you’re interested, here are the monthly round-ups for November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January. You can also see my complete list of everything I watched in 2017 and follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com.

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What Everything Costs in a Hospital, Sort Of

As of January 1st a new price transparency law now requires U.S. hospitals to publish a list of their standard charges on the Internet, something they had not typically done before. Over at Quartz, reporter Anne Quito and visual journalist Amanda Shendruk took a look at the published prices of 115 of the largest hospitals. What they found is that this ostensibly revealing information is going to be of little use to most customers. First, the lists are usually hidden in obscure, difficult to find corners of the hospitals’ websites, and second, the data is rarely human-friendly.

After locating the list, there’s the matter of understanding it. To comply with the law, many hospitals published their entire chargemaster, a list that contains thousands of items—from a cotton ball to an organ transplant—written in terms and codes unintelligible to most consumers. A chargemaster is essentially an internal document that hospitals send insurance companies to negotiate the amount they’re going to receive. The prices listed are typically higher than what most patients actually see on their medical bills, unless they’re uninsured.

As an example of how inscrutable this can be, Quartz published a screen grab from Florida Hospital Orlando’s pricing list. It’s a wonder of illegibility.

Surprise—Hospital Pricing UX Is Horrible

Quito asked me to comment on how design might have helped make this information more relevant to consumers, and a few of my quotes are included in the article. There’s no question that more specific guidance in the law on how the information should be presented, alongside some actual consideration for user experience on the part of the hospitals, would have gone a long way to improving the effectiveness of this effort. Design could have helped enormously.

At a higher level though, the healthcare system is so daunting, its overall user experience needs so much more than good design. Quito closes the article with some of my thoughts on this:

‘It’s crazy that we have this enormous healthcare system, and it’s so complex and you’re expected to negotiate it on your own with no help,’ says Vinh.

If you think of the healthcare system as a civic institution not unlike the legal system, the proposition for mere mortals starts to look absurd. Few of us would feel comfortable representing ourselves in courts of law without a lawyer, and yet we’re all expected to make our way through the complexity of healthcare entirely on our own, without an experienced advocate to help us understand our options and ensure our safety, to say nothing of maximizing the value of what we pay for.

Read the full article at qz.com.

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How Google and Chromecast Won at Our House

Chromecast Audio

The bad news is that for some reason Google’s excellent Chromecast Audio adapter has been discontinued. The good news is that while supplies last, you can get one for just US$15—a steal.

For those unfamiliar, the Chromecast Audio plugs into any traditional speaker and lets you stream music to that speaker from Chromecast enabled phones, tablets and other devices. You can network one or more Chromecast Audios with a Google Home device and you’ve built yourself a Sonos-like, voice-enabled, whole-house sound system for a fraction of Sonos’s healthy premium. This also allows you to set up groups of speakers, e.g., one group just for certain rooms, another for the entire house, etc. And the groups are all voice-enabled, so we can say, “Okay Google, play Halsey on the first floor speakers” (Halsey is a popular musical artist, right?).

On top of that, you’ll have a smart speaker-enabled household (provided you’re comfortable with the inherent privacy concerns) that lets you control smart bulbs, plugs, thermostats, etc. It generally works really well and in many ways, it’s the kind of seamless experience that I once would have expected out of a connected home experience from Apple.

We were a committed AirPlay household for a long time, actually, but Apple neglected that standard so much—kept it proprietary and under-delivered with the Home Pod—that the Google alternative became too tempting to resist. Now we’re a Google household with a Google Home in the kitchen and a series of Google Home Minis spread all over the house. Our favorite feature is the broadcast functionality which lets us use the devices like an intercom system, saving us the trouble of hollering between floors for everyone to come to the table for dinner, etc.

I’m actually surprised that Google is discontinuing the Chromecast Audio in the face of Apple’s recent renewed interest in AirPlay—it was announced last week that AirPlay is coming to smart TVs for the first time. In fact, I’d gladly switch back to AirPlay if Apple were to bring Alexa- or Google Assistant-quality services to Siri underpinned by Apple’s much more appealing privacy approach. In the meantime though, Google Home is the solution for us. In fact, I took took advantage of the clearance pricing and bought two more Chromecast Audios, just for good measure.

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The Perfect iPad Keyboard (Has Not Been Invented Yet)

Brydge for iPad Pro 2018

Brydge, longtime makers of laptop-like keyboards for tablets, has stirred up a lot of excitement (at least among those who care about this kind of thing, and I count myself among them) with its latest product: the new Brydge for iPad Pro 2018 is a MacBook-like, backlit keyboard available for both the 11-inch and 12-inch models. It’s also impressively styled with an aluminum housing, if the product shots are a reliable indicator.

The Brydge Pro attaches to the iPad at its corners via two reasonably elegant, padded hinges. This allows the tablet itself to be positioned at any angle, or at least many more angles than the two allowed by Apple’s own Smart Keyboard Folio for iPad. You can see it in action in this video:

Presumably, attaching and detaching the iPad via those hinges is straightforward, because Brydge touts the ability to flip the tablet around so that it faces away from the keyboard. This lets you prop the iPad up in touch-only mode, like a kiosk.

Brydge for iPad Pro 2018 with Tablet Reversed

This also allows you to fold the iPad and keyboard together flat, in what Brydge advertises as “tablet mode.”

Brydge for iPad Pro 2018 in Tablet Mode

The irony of attaching a tablet to a keyboard that promises you a “tablet mode” seems lost on Brydge, but it highlights the central tension of any keyboard made for the iPad: is the goal to augment the iPad with optional keyboard functionality, or to turn it fully into a laptop? The challenge of balancing these two impulses is the reason why, in my estimation, the perfect iPad keyboard has yet to be invented.

While I have my reservations about Apple’s own Smart Connector line of iPad keyboards, they evince a better understanding of this quandary than most. Part of the beauty of the iPad is that it can be either a pure tablet or an incredibly mobile laptop. Because Smart Connector keyboards attach and detach with terrific ease, they don’t force you to choose between the two modes.

For my money though, the iPad keyboard that came closest to this ideal was the Belkin Qode line, which I used to use with my iPad Air 2 several years ago.

iPad Air 2 with Belkin Qode Keyboard

The Qode was actually made of two pieces: the first was a keyboard that was not dissimilar from the Smart Keyboard Folio in that you could position the iPad at two angles, secured by two magnetic strips just north of the keys. The second was a quite sturdy case for the tablet itself, which was a real boon. I find tablet cases essential because I carry my iPad with me much more often and in far more real world situations than any laptop, and also because I’m generally clumsy. The Qode’s case and the keyboard worked together perfectly, snapping together easily and, when detached, actually powering down the keyboard so as to save power. This let me use my iPad as both as a tablet or a laptop at any time, but it also did not force me to choose between having a keyboard and a case, a choice that is implicit with many tablet keyboards.

To be fair, the Brydge Pro does offer some protection for the iPad with an optional snap-on magnetic cover, but it doesn’t protect the corners. It also emblazons the company brand across the back which, well.

Brydge for iPad Pro 2018 with Magnetic Cover

Unfortunately the Brydge Pro, like the Belkin Qode before it, connects to the iPad via Bluetooth. (You can also connect via USB-C cable but then you’re using a cable.) My Qode had to be manually re-paired with my iPad every week or two, an annoyance that I would be surprised if the Brydge Pro can avoid. Apple’s proprietary Smart Connector technology is far superior, of course, but even that is not without its drawbacks: the Smart Connector on the new iPads has been reconfigured such that it doesn’t allow for a fully protective case to work with the Smart Keyboard Folio.

At the risk of repeating myself: we’re still waiting for the perfect iPad keyboard. But if you’re intrigued by the Brydge Pro, you can pre-order yours at brydge.com.

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Wine, Spirits and AR Inevitability

Wine, Spirits and AR Inevitability

Over the holiday break, I had what I’m pretty sure was my first “civilian” encounter with augmented reality. At a New Year’s Eve party, a friend of the family showed me a bottle of wine from Rabble Wine Company which, when viewed with the company’s smartphone app, reveals an AR-powered animation that’s three-dimensionally mapped onto its label. You can see it in action in this video.

Not too bad, right? For a clearer view, this video clip displays the same animation, flat.

To my somewhat mild surprise, Rabble’s bottles are hardly unique. A number of wine and spirits companies have employed AR technology to bring their labels to life. Here’s another attractive (if more salesy) example, this time for Gentlemen’s Collection Wines.

In fact, both of these AR designs are among several projects for alcohol brands created by Tactic, a San Francisco-based studio that specializes in immersive media experiences for brands. And of course, neither Tactic nor the beverage industry are unique in deploying AR in this way: Ikea, Tesco and Kate Spade are just a few of the brands experimenting with this medium.

What I found notable though was that it wasn’t until the very last day of 2018 that I had any kind of a real world conversation about augmented reality with someone who is not a technologist or designer or somehow directly involved in the tech industry. Given the relentless drumbeat around augmented reality, this is surprising. If it’s inevitable, as futurists and technology pundits have claimed for some years, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect more “organic” conversation about augmented reality outside of tech circles by now?

Muted genuine enthusiasm for AR is less surprising when you consider the friction involved in accessing this kind of content. I looked over that bottle of Rabble Wine and couldn’t find a single hint on the label that the “experience” of it could be complemented by a smartphone app. Even if you go to the Rabble website and follow the link to buy a bottle, there’s no mention of AR there at all either. So a customer would need to not only know, somehow, that the app was available, but he or she would also have to have the wherewithal to actually download and install the app.

In our app-friendly society, that probably doesn’t sound like a tremendous hurdle, but it’s already too many steps for the average person to bother with. To some extent I’m impressed that my friend went through the trouble of acquiring the app and then showing it to me at all. Still, I doubt many people would bother to do the same. If decades of tech product development have shown us anything, it’s that with each step that a user is required to undertake in order to use something, the potential audience is diminished exponentially.

What’s more, the Rabble app and others like it are essentially single-purpose pieces of software—there’s nothing else you can really do with them if you’re not pointing them at very specific bottles—and even then, the value they offer is extremely narrow. A technology with few purposes and few opportunities to take advantage of those purposes makes for pretty limited “virality,” as they say.

All of which suggests that the use case for augmented reality, at least in these examples, still seems poorly imagined at best. This kind of implementation frankly has no answer to what the media theorist Neil Postman described as one of the most important questions that should be posed of any new technological innovation: “What problem does this solve?” It’s clear that augmented reality, which I happen to personally believe is rife with potential, is still waiting for its iPhone moment: the debut of a product innovation that makes it not just technologically possible but useful, easy to access—and worth talking about.

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