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Friday night in virtual worlds

It’s been a rough week: I haven’t felt well, the news has been lousy, and I’ve been frustrated and lonely in my online worlds. I’m bored in ArcheAge, though I’m finding some amusement in traveling the oceans, killing sea monsters for drops to upgrade my clipper. Other than that? Blah.

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Second Life hasn’t been much better. SL is a huge space and new users have always complained that it’s hard to find and meet people in it. Well, let me assure newcomers that it’s not much easier for someone shy who has been there a decade! I jumped around the Destination Guide, often finding myself alone in a sim. The biggest crowds were at sexually oriented sims; I don’t shy away from those and I’ve met some great friends at venues with names that would instantly stop my mother’s heart, but I’m not ready for that sort of interaction. I visited a couple of the formal dance venues but I’m a lag snob and a room full of flexi gowns is a disaster. Standing at the side of the dance floor in my light(render)weight mesh gown, I felt like a prissy wallflower. Hmmph. I’m open to meeting people but also wary, as my heartache about Jakob comes to the surface easily when I’m in SL. Someone who meets me now might get a tough facade or thin ice over raging sadness instead of my normal personality.

So, I was delighted tonight when I got a group notice from Hesperia Templemore announcing an imminent performance by Red Heaven featuring Joel Eilde. I hadn’t heard Joel perform in the past but Templemore has never disappointed me and I headed right over. The crowd averaged 50 avatars, which is a considerable number for one space, but his stream was clear and the music was enjoyable. I tipped liberally — the artist, GM/host Bee, and the house — and I hope to go to another show there soon. (Related real world anecdote: I met my husband for lunch at a sandwich shop on Thursday and as we left, I wanted to tip the young woman who had been playing the guitar and singing in the corner, “if she has someplace I can put it,” I said. My husband said that she did, described the white can to me, and added, “After being in SL this long, I can find a tip jar!”)

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I grooved to the music and had a couple of conversations, and all in all, that’s a pretty good night in SL.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2015 in Art in SL, Gaming

 

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Monday music: Mr. Roboto

I got the Kilroy Was Here LP for my 13th birthday and I have to give my parents credit: they somehow survived hearing a teenaged soprano screeching prog rock while doing her chores until I got Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger for Christmas. Ah, the ’80s were fun!

So, when I stumbled across a YouTube video of Paul Rudd Jimmy Fallon lipsynching to “Mr. Roboto” over the weekend, I had to share. Need this to fit my blog theme better? Ok then. Dennis DeYoung sings, “The problem’s plain to see: too much technology. Machines to save our lives. Machines dehumanize.” True or false? Discuss among yourselves.



Bonus video of the Paul Rudd lip synch sing-off I confused with the one above!

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2015 in Our Robot Overlords, Side Topics

 

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Review: Amazon Echo (updated)

My Echo arrived on Christmas Eve and I’m happy with her as what I expected her to be: a music player with some bonus features. As a digital assistant, she’s woefully incomplete. For the sake of not twisting my brain too much, I’ll refer to the Echo as “Alexa” and with feminine pronouns, since Alexa is the device wake phrase and she has a feminine voice. It’s also important to say, for review purposes, that I am an English-speaking Amazon Prime member in the US and I’m blind to the experience for someone who isn’t. (I made some updates to this post on Dec 31 based on questions I’ve received.)

If you submitted your name to Amazon to be invited to purchase an Echo, pay attention to your email. The invitation that I received had an expiration date a week after it was sent, and since it was buried deep in my Gmail Promotions tab, I didn’t see it. I was on the Amazon site for something else and went to the Echo page out of curiosity, which is when I saw that I could add it to my cart. Later I searched Gmail and found the invitation email dated 4 days earlier. If you’re getting impatient, consider that I asked to buy the Echo on the first morning it was available, I’m a long-time Amazon Prime member, and my invitation didn’t arrive until mid-December.

Setup in our household was simple. Plug her in, download an app, enter the WiFi password, and done. I think it took longer to get her out of the packaging. The device herself is black and a bit taller than a bottle of beer (or hard cider, in the photo below). She needs to be plugged in for power, which limits her location somewhat. I’ve already started to feel annoyed because I’d like one upstairs and downstairs, but I’m not about to pay for two when I have JIBO arriving next year, so Alexa gets unplugged and hauled around. She reconnects to the network and says “Hello” within a minute after I move her.

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The microphone is very sensitive. There’s no need to shout or stand right next to the device.  I can give commands in a conversational tone from across the room, even when music is playing, and there is also a remote for more distant use. If the idea of having a sensitive, Internet-connected mic enabled in your house creeps you out (it should, frankly), it is easy to mute. I haven’t had big problems with getting Alexa to understand me. “Alexa, play something by Bastille” got a response like, “I heard you say you want me to play something by best deal, is that right?”  “No, Bastille.” “Shuffling music by Bastille.”  “Alexa, play music by Thievery Corporation.” “You’d like to hear music by Hal Leonard Corporation, is that right?” “No.” “Ok. What would you like to hear?” “Theee-verrr-eeeee Corporation.” “Shuffling music by Thievery Corporation.” Ok then.

How’s the sound quality? Well, I grew up listening to cassette tapes in crappy players, so I’d say it’s brilliant. Audiophiles would disagree, but it’s a hell of a lot better than my previous speaker solution: propping my smartphone inside a metal bowl. Volume control is good and can be done either by turning a ring at the top of the device or giving voice commands. “Alexa, volume down.” “Alexa, turn it up!”

I’ve been listening to more music since Alexa entered the house, which is nice. “Alexa, play something by Kate Bush.” “Shuffling music by Kate Bush,” replies Alexa, and starts to play whatever she can find on Prime Music. Alexa will also pull from iHeartRadio and TuneIn radio, and I could upload 250 of my own tracks to Amazon’s cloud storage for streaming (or up to 250,000 files for an additional fee). The music available to stream on Prime Music is fairly substantial — I have about 10,000 songs in my library there and have only purchased 4 of those tracks. (It did take some time going through the listings and adding albums to my library, but each add is a one-click process.) I can also connect my laptop or phone via Bluetooth to use Alexa as a speaker. “Alexa, play NPR” makes her play Detroit Public Radio on TuneIn.  “Alexa, play program Radiolab” makes her find the latest podcast. “Alexa, play Jingle Bells” made her find that track on some children’s album. However, “Alexa, play something by Mozart” leads to “Shuffling music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart… You don’t have songs by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” Actually, I have dozens of Mozart tracks in my Prime library, but they are listed by the performer’s name or “Various Artists”. I would have to give the name of a specific album or track. Annoying.  Of course, you can purchase digital music through Alexa. One Click ordering is enabled, but it can be turned off or you can add a 4-digit pin that is required before a One-Click order will be executed.

Alexa will also maintain a To Do list and a Shopping List, but the functionality is limited.  You can add items verbally, but then the list is only accessible in the Echo app. You can’t delete items verbally or have the list read back to you. This can lead to exchanges like this:

Me: Alexa, read my To Do list.

Alexa: What can I add for you?

Me (silence)

Alexa: What can I add for you?

Me: Nothing.

Alexa: I added nothing to your To Do list.

At least it will be an easy task to complete.

If I ask Alexa for the weather, she will give me local conditions and the forecast for the next 24 hours. “Alexa, what is the temperature in Celsius?” was a fail; she told me today’s weather, in Fahrenheit, and then I had to ask a second question to have her do the conversion. I can ask her for my “Flash Briefing”, which currently gives me the top-of-the-hour news from NPR and the BBC (you can also have her read top stories in a variety of categories via text-to-speech, but I find that painful). I’ll admit, it’s nice to roll over drowsily in the morning, mutter “Alexa, flash briefing”, and listen to the news while my eyes open.

As far as answering questions, Alexa is like Google Now’s stupid cousin. Emphasis on stupid. Things that Google Now would answer easily trigger Alexa to reply (paraphrased), “Hmm, I can’t answer what I think you asked me, but I have sent a Bing search to the Echo app.” If I wanted to search Bing on my phone or laptop, I would have, so I consider every one of those a significant fail. There is also a learning curve for me to understand the limits of her natural language comprehension. “Alexa, when did Austin Powers come out?” was not understood, but “Alexa, when was the movie Austin Powers released?” got me a quick answer.  Sure, she’s programmed with some cutesy answers like other digital assistants, but I’m not looking for her to impersonate Scotty; I want her to tell me what hours my favorite local Thai restaurant is open today. Fail.

Alexa has Timer and Alarm functions, but they are very basic. I’m used to being able to tell Google Now to remind me to do something at a particular time or place, “Remind me to get potstickers at Trader Joe’s” or “Remind me to call my mother at 8:00 Tuesday morning.” Those are both perfectly executed by Google Now. With the Amazon Echo, I’m limited to “Set timer for 30 minutes” or “Set alarm for 4:15 pm.”  Handy, but not impressive. It’s also impossible to leave a note for myself or someone else, which I consider very basic functionality for a standalone digital assistant.

As far as family friendliness, Alexa does not have a parental control setting that can be enabled or disabled. I find it frustrating that she warns me about explicit content before playing songs that have that tag. I’m an adult woman. If I want to listen to Lords of Acid, I don’t need a warning that they’re going to be obscene. On the Echo forums, people have complained that while Alexa will not swear, she will define swear words. It seems that Amazon has already changed some of the Echo’s programmed responses based on forum feedback, leaning toward G-rated responses and “Ask your parents.” Ugh!  Note to Amazon: many households do not have delicate snowflake children in them, and it is a mistake to hobble an electronic device because of the Disney crowd. Add a parental control or obscenity filter that can be turned-on by choice, if you must, but please make the default suitable for adult purchasers. At least, let me turn off the explicit content warning!

Bottom line? I really, really like the Echo as a voice-controlled music player. Until she’s smarter — and that could be hard to do with the databases she is given — she’s not much use as a digital assistant.

Update, New Year’s Eve: Having lived with Alexa for a week now, the novelty is gone but I’m working her into my daily routine. I ask her to play my Flash Briefing each morning when I first come downstairs and am puttering around, feeding the dog and starting coffee. Surprisingly, having a voice-controlled timer/alarm has turned out to be a usability win. I have lots of timer options in the house, built into the oven and microwave or on my smartphone, yet when I had to check baking in 12 minutes, I almost always relied on the clock and my memory. Telling Alexa to set a timer for 12 minutes is something I can do while my hands are full and I’m busy. It feels like no extra effort and adds a lot of benefit.

My 21 year old stepson came over for dinner on the weekend and he was really impressed with the Echo. Alexa kept a stream of Foo Fighters music going in the background while we ate, told us the weather and some bad jokes, and by the end of the night he was asking me how much a Prime membership costs.

I still use Google Now as my primary digital assistant, but Alexa has her role too. For me, part of the point of having an Echo is training my own behavior: I think voice controls are the home automation UI solution for the next decade or so — supplementing and often replacing smartphone/tablet controls — but it takes time to develop a habit of speaking a command instead of using a screen.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2014 in Digital Devices

 

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Musical interlude: Gough by The Whitlams

WordPress has been up and down all day and I’m left without time to post, so enjoy a brief musical interlude in honor of former Australian PM Gough Whitlam, who just died at age 98. Who was Gough Whitlam? It’s ok — you’re not the only one who doesn’t know.  The Sydney Morning Herald has a pretty nice summary of what he accomplished.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2014 in In the News, Side Topics

 

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Sharing simultaneous experiences around the globe

The spread of technology allows people around the world to participate in events simultaneously. It’s remarkable to me how little this utilized. Why are we locked in our geographical containers for so many things? Time zones play a role, and language, but too often the barriers are broadcast rights and access restrictions. I think humanity is stronger and more tolerant when we share experiences and interact across boundaries. I seize the chances I get.

I had one on Sunday morning, when I went to my local art film theatre to watch a live simulcast of a play from the National Theatre in London. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is due to open on Broadway later this year, so it felt like an American sneak peak of a play that won 7 Olivier awards last year.

The next one I’m excited about is a production of Medea (with music by the duo otherwise known as Goldfrapp), to be simulcast on September 4th. Even if it’s not the same as an in-person experience, for $12.50 I can sit in a theatre near Detroit and watch a live show from London. The feeling is immersive enough that several people burst into applause at the end of Sunday’s performance.

Multinational sports also give us an opportunity to share experiences beyond borders. Americans are tuning in to the World Cup games in record numbers, to the dismay of some small-minded folks. Watching games while chatting with a friend in Germany, I’ve noticed a US broadcast delay that gives me psychic powers: he cheers the goal, giving me time to focus on the TV and see the entire play leading to the goal, though the surprise is ruined. We also share Formula 1 broadcasts. These seem to be shown without a delay, perhaps because fewer fans bother to flash their breasts at drivers speeding by at 200 mph. The Olympics don’t work out well because US networks time-shift and rebroadcast the events.

Video games and virtual worlds provide shared experiences, though not always without controversy. I’m not aware of international conflict in Second Life, where I can visit virtual Norway with my German partner, then go to a salon where the participants are signed in from the US, England, the Netherlands, Greece, and beyond. MMORPGs are another story. In Perfect World there were conflicts that involved Pinoy vs American groups, and in TERA and other games there is continual Brazilian/American fighting. Cultural differences combined with online history and being in approximately the same time zone don’t always work out well. Check out the Know Your Meme entry for Huehuehuehue (spelled “Huahuehuahue” there, but I’ve never seen that elsewhere) for more details.

Other forms of entertainment can be tricky. Numerous websites will teach you how to convince Netflix that you are in a different country, so you can see the same video list as a foreign friend. I’ve seen attempts at web-based movie theatres but none that were successful. I used to watch movies with a friend on Arkansas by using a video chat program on one monitor and Netflix on another. We’d do a countdown so we both pressed “Play” at the same time, but differences in buffering, processors, and network speed often got us out of sync in the first half of a film. Legally shared music and video can run into problems with broadcast restrictions; to share a YouTube music video, I sometimes have to link to a user-uploaded version rather than the official copy which is blocked in my friend’s country. One fun experiment I’ve seen in online music was turntable.fm, where themed rooms would allow people to DJ by playing music from their own machines, while listeners could chat and vote on how much they liked the tune. The mashup.fm room there was fantastic. Unfortunately, they changed their business model and shut down the service, in favor of hosting large concert experiences someday.

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As we think about the future of virtual worlds, perhaps these shared experiences are something to keep in mind. Virtual worlds are not just the content that originates there (though there are many fun things to do with friends in-world), but can also provide a shared space for presenting or discussing outside content. I’ve seen notes about World Cup watching parties in SL where the game itself is not necessarily streamed in-world, but people gather to discuss the game while watching it in another medium. Movie theaters and dance clubs with DJs exist in Second Life; video or music can be shared with others (location restrictions can still interfere for video), while sitting or dancing as an avatar makes it more immersive. Some conferences take place simultaneously in SL and the offline world, occasionally taking questions from avatars during the Q&A sessions. Those might be more mainstream applications for a virtual space.

Speaking as an American, we’ve gotten used to our culture — though rarely the best parts —  being exported to other countries. Ages ago when I was an exchange student in Spain, my host family relaxed after lunch by watching El gran héroe americano (The Greatest American Hero), which was mind-blowing to me. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten a reputation as idiots who can’t read subtitles, tolerate dubbing, or understand even the slightest cultural differences. Foreign TV shows, movies, and non-English speaking movies aren’t very available here and are often re-edited or remade for us. The truth is, we’re a lot smarter than we look. We can handle exposure to other cultures and it might even help us understand them, especially if there are opportunites for discussion with others who share our interests. These shared spaces and experiences make the world connected, informed, and more tolerant, a little at a time.

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2014 in Culture

 

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