Archive for the ‘Software’ Category (feed)

Artificial Intelligence, Siri, Voice Actions

Artificial Intelligence. Or just a wanna-be service. It doesn’t matter really, Siri and Voice Actions are running the show today when it comes to “intelligent” assistants. But Siri is bound to be left behind, eventually.

Of course I had the suspicion for a while now, but after checking out the WWDC keynote today, it becomes clear to me that Apple does not aggregate the Internet to present information in a tight manner, but it rather bonds deals with big web sites. Then, they have to provide Apple with an API that provides access to specific data, and present that information in a beautiful UI.

As cool as this looks, it doesn’t scale. Sure, for year 2012 it might be good-enough (since we’re coming from an era that had nothing like that before), but by year 2020 this would be the wrong way to do AI. Apple can not possibly hard-code support for this decades’ 500 new major web sites. It’s too much work, error-prone, and “500” is still a small number of the web sites that people would be interested in. Apple will hit a wall with this type of engineering.

Even the opposite doesn’t work (every web site adding API hooks specifically for Siri, on a special URL with an API key). Do you remember, Mac OS’ Sherlock (and its third party equivalent “Watson”)? Old Mac OS users should remember this app! This would be the same thing! But also remember how often these APIs were broken on the various plugins consisting these apps, eventually leading to their demise. They didn’t scale because people running the various sites didn’t care to keep compatibility!

The only way to go forward with an AI that scales, is for the AI itself to aggregate the internet by hooking itself into a search engine in a more specialized way, find the right info, and present it to you. And because Google already owns and operates a “smart” search engine, is in the unique position to prove a much more useful service later on. Sure, it looks bad now UI-wise, and it’s way less attractive or interesting (it doesn’t make me wanna use Voice Actions), but it’s got more potential than Siri in the long run.

If any of the two reach the Singularity, it would be Google’s solution. I called it. Unless Apple acquires a bunch of startups, plus acquiring or licensing Bing. Then it can get interesting.

MAGIX Movie Edit Pro MX Premium 18

I tested the new version of MAGIX Movie Edit Pro MX Premium recently, version 18, and I was positively surprised. The application has played a good catch-up with Vegas Platinum and Premiere Elements.

The biggest new features in the new version are its stereo 3D support, full 24p support, and it has accelerated nVidia/AMD support for h.264 decoding & plugins. Three major third party video app developers added support for MAGIX too, proDAD VitaScene 2 (special effects), NewBlueFX Light Blends (transitions), and Red Giant Magic Bullet Quick Looks (color grading).

Other features include screen capturing, DVD/BD burning with various templates, multi-track, multi-cam, fast image stabilization, primary & secondary color correction, masks, good advanced modes in its exporting dialogs, and even Twixtor-like slow motion.

The app is not perfect though. Non-accelerated h.264 is not as fast as Sony Vegas’ plain decoding is, so you better start saving for an nVidia card. Then, the color correction plugins are not very versatile. Finally, the project properties dialog is missing some important setup options, compared to Vegas’.

On the other hand though, this app can do other things that Vegas can’t do, including 64bit support. Stability and overall speed were good while testing the app, although usability could use some touch-up.

Overall, I’d say that this version puts MAGIX on the top-3 of the consumer video editor market. It just needs more setup options in terms of flexibility, rather than more brand new advanced features (e.g. I’d like to tell my editor that my footage is interlaced, etc). But it seems to be getting there!

Rating: 8/10

A Look at Premiere Elements 10

Adobe sent a free copy of their brand new Premiere Elements 10 video editor for a review, and I took up on the challenge to see what’s new. Premiere Elements and Vegas Platinum are undoubtedly the best two sub-$100 consumer-based video editing suites that could actually deliver Pro features when someone uses them to their full extend. They both can do 24p, time stretching, burn DVDs and AVCHDs, deal with color correction etc.

For the 10th version, Adobe added some additional color correction plugins: Auto Tone and Vibrance, and a three-way color corrector. You can independently adjust color in highlights, shadows, and midtones, while the “auto tone” plugin is actually pretty accurate, even if fully automatic.

Another major feature is 64bit support, but this only works on Windows 7 (Vista/XP won’t work with the 64bit version). There’s also “AVCHD exporting” now, which lets you export M2T or MP4 files with customization support. That’s the only exporting option I found that had acceptable parameters to tweak (e.g. VBR support), and use for personal viewing/YouTube/Vimeo. I put together an exporting tutorial here.

Other new features include AVCHD burning (burned on DVD discs) in addition to plain DVD and Blu-Ray burning, automatic Facebook and Youtube exporting (which unfortunately exports in the wrong frame rate and doesn’t let you edit it), you can tag photos using your Facebook Friends list, turn photos into movies, and photo tagging. And of course, even more kits DVD templates & multimedia files for use in your video.

The app seemed more stable than the previous version, but it took a good while to load. The “auto-analyzer” feature Adobe added supposedly for photos-only is super-slow though even when no pictures exist on the project bin, and it’s best to be turned off. Also, the app is not particularly “smart”. It loads effects on clips all by itself by default (e.g. motion, opacity etc), and this has a speed repercussion. On a slower PC for example, this was the difference between super-smooth and dropping-frames on 1080/60i HDV footage. The playback speed also dropped to the floor even if I changed no options on an active plugin (e.g. leave Three-Way Color Corrector loaded as-is without changes, but active). There’s definitely room for improvement on that front.

Additionally, Adobe added DV PF24 pulldown removal support, but not HDV one. I tried to enable the “DV 24p pulldown removal” option on a PF24 Canon HF11 clip, but the checkbox wouldn’t become enabled. Honestly, adding DV pulldown removal but not HDV/AVCHD one, is pretty lame in this day and age. Not to mention that in some dialogs, the app would change my typed 23.976 to 23.98, which could force resample, and enable ghosting.

Features missing is the Mercury Engine, as found on CS5.5, that could make h.264 playback even faster. There’s also no way to tweak the project settings as you can do with Vegas. For example, there is no AVCHD 1080/24p option with 5.1 audio setting. The user is forced to use the dSLR 1080/24p preset, and lose his 5.1 sound settings! Adobe is trying to make everything in the UI be a pre-selectable option, but some of these options simply need to be editable rather than just pre-selections. See, not all use cases are covered by pre-selections. Let the user decide how to mash-up the project properties to suit the myriad formats of camera footage that exist in the world.

And that’s the biggest pitfall of Premiere Elements, and I don’t personally see any way out of this unless its product manager really changes direction. Premiere Elements is more of a “here are 30 choices, select one” kind of app, while Vegas is more like “here are 10 choices, or customize it yourself” kind of app. It’s that difference that makes Vegas more suitable for both home & serious projects on a low budget, while PE remains suitable for home projects but not so much for more complex projects.

Between the two, Vegas is less clunky and confusing after the initial shock, while Premiere remains painful to use even after you learned its tricks. Then again PE now has a 64bit version and a Mac version. On the other hand, Vegas can do 3D editing and has more flexibility. At the very end, for family users it might just be a question of price at the very end. Checking prices today, Vegas Platinum 11 costs $63 on Amazon, while Premiere Elements costs $91.

The Revolution of Skype

One of the top-3 features I check when I buy new laptops or smartphones is the availability and quality of their webcam. Every time I comment about it people keep telling me that they never really use their webcam and that I overreact about them.

Not so. I actually use the feature extensively. When I’m in the US, I Skype with my mom, and cousins in Greece & Germany extensively. Now that I’m in Greece, we actually still use this small Ubuntu netbook I had given my mom to video-chat with my cousins and their small kids who live on the other side of Greece. My uncle and aunt, who live close to us, visit us a few times a week, and then we call them in order for them to see their grand kids and chat.

Each session takes from 30 mins to 45 mins, and while they have a free call to each other via Vodafone, they much prefer the video chat, by far. It’s so nice to see them happy, and embrace the wonders of technology (especially since my cousins’ webcam is of higher quality and they’re crystal clear in our screen). My aunt is now considering of learning to use a computer and install an internet connection, just for the video chat (just like my mom did last year at the age of 55). I suggested the iPad 2. When my mom’s Linux netbook goes kaput, I will get her an iPad too. It’s a much more suitable option for her kind of usage (light browsing, email, facebook, video-chat).

I was considering myself the new Macbook Air, to replace my DELL ultra-portable laptop which has touchpad driver problems, but while all new Apple products got an HD webcam this year, the new Macbook Air didn’t (the quality difference between 720p HD and VGA Apple webcams was demonstrated on youtube and was significant). Since a webcam is a vital feature for me, I won’t get a Macbook Air. At least not this year’s model.

The need for a 3D lighting plugin

On my color grading adventures on Sony Vegas I often felt limited by the lack of a re-lighting plugin. Of course, the rule of thumb is that we should always have near-perfect lighting while we’re shooting, but in real life this is almost not possible, especially for most of us DIY enthusiasts who have no major clue about lighting, or we’re using cheap $100 equipment.

I would love to have a plugin that let’s you add virtual lights on your scene, in the 3D space (like Vegas’ 3D track support). We should be able to adjust the number of lights, their strength, the focus, the distance, and with the help of masking, even adding lights behind a subject. Similarly to lights, we should be able to add shadows, to darken parts of the screen.

Of course I don’t expect this to be as good as real lighting, but I’m willing to use it if needed. Right now I’m Vegas’ “soft spotlight” method via the Bump Map plugin, which is not ideal, but some of my footage required it.

Now that the rumor has it that Red Giant Software won’t be supporting Magic Bullet for Vegas anymore, another plugin I’d like to see in Vegas is a AAV ColorLab clone. Unfortunately this freeware plugin is too buggy and not developed anymore, so in order to easier emulate lots of movie looks, Sony themselves must recreate it. That plugin allows you to change saturation, hue and lightness on specific colors only (without the pain in the ass UI that’s called “Secondary Color Corrector”). One added feature I’d like to see in it is the shrinking of the range of these colors. For example, anything that’s around the blue/cyan values should be able to crash towards the ultimate blue (kind of like removing the number of blueish colors and replacing them with the same true blue). This can help to easily recreate old cameras. It’s a stylistic thing, as color grading really is.

News tickers suck as widgets

The latest thing I strongly feel that I have to pick on is Android widgets. News-related widgets to be more precise. Like the Facebook, Twitter, and NYTimes widgets. They all suck. They’re completely and utterly useless.

Instead of showing actual text of updates/headlines/news, all there should have been there were pretty icons & numbers. For example:
– Facebook: A 1×1 widget showing the number of unread notifications & messages.
– Twitter: A 1×1 widget showing the number of unread replies and messages. I wrote about it last year, nothing came out of it.
– NYTimes: A 4×1 widget showing 10 “news category” icons (5×2 small icons at the same style as Android’s “power control” widget), with each having a number on them if there are unread articles under the said category. NYTimes has over 10 categories, so these can be customized by the user to fit in the matrix.

See, in their current incarnations, these widgets just fit ONE single news item to show each time. Who in their right mind turns ON their device just to read a single item? And then the user must hit a very thin “next” arrow icon to get to the next item. Difficult to hit properly, and honestly, why bother? If all you want is to read all news items, just open the freaking app! It will be MUCH FASTER to just gaze through a vertical screen full of info, rather than having a 2-3 line overview of a single item each time.

Having icons and numbers instead (the way NewsRob does it), it is more visual, and so it’s way faster for the brain to find the right information. For example, by knowing that there are 6 unread “sports” news items at NYTimes, the user immediately can make a calculated decision as to if he must read them now, gaze through them now or later, or he should let more of these articles accumulate before he sits down and goes through them. In this situation, the widget helps him make decisions about how to use the main app, and when, and how much work that would be to do so approximately. The way things are now, we just click “next”, “next” “next”, often spending time reading headlines we don’t always care about. The information coming from Facebook or NYTimes is so much, that trying to fit it on a 4×1 or 4×2 widget is utterly ridiculous. Heck, there’s a reason why these kinds of apps are even more successful on a tablet than on a phone: too much information that requires more resolution. So their current widgets use a broken widget design. Instead, in this case, the widget must simply help us decide if it’s time to open the main app or not.

Is all this really too difficult to comprehend? Where are the usability designers in this day and age? Are they hiding somewhere? Or are the managers don’t listen to anyone anymore?

iOS Apps: CamLock & AutoPainter


My friend Alastair (of Glidetrack fame) yesterday introduced me to CamLock, an interesting iOS camera app that lets you control various aspects of the camera when shooting video.

Of course, the most important feature for me, is exposure lock. It’s the only way to shoot a video, under a somewhat controlled lighting, where brightness doesn’t jump left and right — making it look very unprofessional. But apart this basic feature (that all phone should support by default), the app comes with other features too, like locking white balance, locking focus, setting exposure by tapping somewhere in the scene, and using a grid and a bubble indicator to keep things straight while shooting.

Unfortunately, there is a bug with iOS 4.3.x and exposure doesn’t stay locked if you try to lock it before you start recording. Thankfully, it can be locked after you start recording, so the problem is not really that huge.

On the iPod Touch 4th Gen that I tested the app, the focus lock does not work. I’m thinking that the camera model on the iPod and iPad might not support that. Here’s a video I shot showing the exposure lock:


The other app I got across today was AutoPainter. You can make any of your pictures look like Aquarell, Benson, Cezanne or Van Gogh. It’s fully automatic, and it works surprisingly well. There is also a way to direct the program to pay extra attention to some objects in the picture, but this is only optional — depends on the look you’re after. I used this on my iPod Touch, but I bet its “AutoPainter HD” version looks great on the iPad. There’s a more full-featured version for the PC & Mac too (samples).

Amazon’s Cloud Player

Tonight Amazon announced its Cloud Player for Web & Android. They give 5 GB for free, upgraded to 20 GB for one year, if you buy any MP3 album. Any new album you buy and you add it to the Cloud service won’t eat out your storage allowance. All this is not a bad idea, I’m myself a supporter of streaming, when this is done right. The problem is that Amazon doesn’t do this right. RDIO, MOG, ThumbPlay, Real, Napster, Spotify, do. The problems I have with the Amazon deal are:

1. When you purchase a new album you can only add it EITHER on your cloud drive, or download it on your PC. If you must download to your PC (as I do), and later want to have it on your cloud drive as well, you have to manually upload it! This is stupid. Sure it makes sense from legal point of view (so Amazon doesn’t go on record selling you two copies), but it sucks from the user’s point of view. There is no other reason, apart the legalities, why Amazon couldn’t automatically link your purchase to your cloud account. It already does not use your storage to store new purchases, so the technical part of just “linking” music with accounts is obviously in place.

2. I have to upload manually my previously-bought Amazon music. I don’t see why Amazon shouldn’t automatically link my account with these past purchases too — apart the legal shite again.

3. There is no “offline” mode. If someone uses wifi or 3G to listen to music from the cloud he will find his smartphone’s battery go down within 2-3 hours. RDIO/MOG/etc offer the ability to sync up to about ~4 GB of your collection, and access it “offline”. Their servers create an encrypted blob of data that only their player can playback. This way you can listen everything from the cloud when you’re using a wall socket, and the checked items directly from the flash drive when you’re mobile. Perfect for travelers.

4. Ultimately, this service is not good enough. RDIO/MOG is a better deal at $10 per month with an ~unlimited music selection (not just your own library). Given that I spend about $80 a month on music (mostly from Amazon these days, since they’re considerably cheaper than iTunes), if I wanted to go subscription I’d just go with MOG or RDIO.

Sitting down and manually uploading gigabytes of files to Amazon’s servers is one thing I won’t do though. No way.

From the HD digicam to HDTV, losslessly

For most people, the way they watch their snapped HD video is with either these ways:
– Copy files to the computer, edit as a single video, export to a DVD or MOV/MP4. This is the most popular method, and the one I’d recommend to most people.
– Buy a mini-HDMI adapter, connect the camera to the TV directly.
– Wirelessly transmit the video via DLNA/UPnP/Airplay to a playback device.

Each of these ways has its advantages and disadvantages. In the first case, exporting to a delivery codec for general viewing, is “lossy”, for example. Using the camera via an HDMI adapter doesn’t scale financially, since these files are huge and new SD cards would need to be purchased regularly once they’re filled up. As for the third option, it’s technically complex and few can figure it out, or have a solid-enough WiFi network to send up to 50 mbps of data over the air (few people have their living room wired), or often the formats don’t work on the targeted device.

So here’s a fourth, alternative way, for those who want lossless HD video, from their camera to TV, using a playback device, like the Sony PS3, XBOX360, Roku, GoogleTV. Some cameras that already record in MP4 (h.264/AAC), or playback devices that support many formats, do not require any additional processing on the video files, but often, this combo is not possible (e.g. files from a Canon HD digicam and Roku XD|S’ “USB Channel” playback app don’t work together). This article is trying to tackle such cases. The video will remain untouched, only the audio would be re-encoded in high bitrate, and only if that’s needed.

So, for this tutorial, you will need an h.264 (not MJPEG) HD digital camera or digirecorder, and some rudimentary knowledge of how to use the command line. If you have a Canon camera, you should use its built-in editing function to cut out the parts of videos that are not worth keeping (e.g. shaky scenes etc). Don’t keep footage that is not presentable. Other cameras might have the same in-camera ability, check with your camera’s manual.

Install this ffmpeg build from here, and the faac encoder archive from here. Create a folder called “ffmpeg” in your user’s folder, it would look something like this: C:\Users\YOUR-USERNAME\ffmpeg\ (the exact path depends on the version of the Windows OS you’re using). From inside these two compressed archives you downloaded, drag in the ffmpeg folder the ffmpeg.exe file, and the libfaac-0.dll file (note: you will need the 7-Zip utility to uncompress these archives). Then rename libfaac-0.dll to libfaac.dll (if you don’t see file suffixes, e.g. .dll, .7z, etc, you can enable that feature on your Windows Explorer’s “Options” dialog). Finally, inside that ffmpeg folder create two new folders, named “original”, and “rewrapped”. Using an SD reader (it’s faster than connecting your camera via USB), copy your camera files inside the “original” folder.

If your files’ suffix is .mov or .mp4, open Quicktime, load any one of your camera files, and click “Window”, and then “Show Movie Inspector”. Check the format, and depending what kind of audio it says it’s got, you’d need to follow a different ffmpeg script, as shown below. If your files are .mts use case #4 (change .mts to .m2ts or .avi if your h.264 camera shoots as such, e.g. older AVCHD cams, older Flip cams). So, open the “Command Prompt” Windows application, navigate to the ffmpeg folder (that’s where the rudimentary command-line knowledge I mentioned above is required), then copy/paste the right script that matches your case, and run it.

1. MOV (h.264/PCM) to MP4 (h.264/AAC) // Canon, new Nikon cams

ffmpeg -i original\ -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\movie.mp4

2. MOV (h.264/AAC) to MP4 (h.264/AAC) // Flip, Kodak, iPhone/iPod/iPad

ffmpeg -i original\ -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec copy rewrapped\movie.mp4

3. MP4 (h.264/PCM/AC3/mono AAC) to MP4 (h.264/AAC) // Optional for Samsung cams with AAC mono audio

ffmpeg -i original\movie.mp4 -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\movie.mp4

4. MTS (h.264/AC3) to MP4 (h.264/AAC) // AVCHD-Lite Sony & Panasonic digicams

ffmpeg -i original\movie.mts -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\movie.mp4

Obviously, manually change the two filenames “” each time you move to a different file (e.g. an original file would become 2011-03-14-343.mp4). If you have lots of camera files, and changing the filename manually is way too much work, you can create a “batch” script. Open notepad or another text editor, and depending which of the cases above you need, copy/paste the appropriate script (not the “Case ##:” line).

Case #1:
for %%a in ("original\*.mov") do ffmpeg -i %%a -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\%%~na.mp4

Case #2:
for %%a in ("original\*.mov") do ffmpeg -i %%a -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec copy "rewrapped\%%~na.mp4"

Case #3:
for %%a in ("original\*.mp4") do ffmpeg -i %%a -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\%%~na.mp4

Case #4 (change .mts to .m2ts or .avi if your h.264 camera shoots as such, e.g. older AVCHD cams, older Flip cams):
for %%a in ("original\*.mts") do ffmpeg -i %%a -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\%%~na.mp4

Save the script for your case as rewrap.bat on the same folder as your ffmpeg.exe file, and run it. It will only take a few moments to losslessly rewrap your video to the more standard MP4 format that can be played with most TV devices. The only device that needs its video re-encoded is the original AppleTV, which has a limitation of 720/24p at 5 mbps (Simple Profile). Every other modern TV device should be able to playback these rewrapped files without a problem. Once you have confirmed that your device can play these files, you can delete the original camera files to make space in your PC (these new MP4 files are as good for future editing, since the video was not re-encoded, and the audio was not always re-encoded — and if it was, it was with high-enough bitrate).

If you would like to join all these created MP4 files under a single MP4 file for easier viewing, you can use MP4box. Unzip mp4box.exe and any DLL file it comes with on your \ffmpeg\rewrapped\ folder. Navigate there with a Command Prompt window and run:
MP4Box -cat 1.mp4 -cat 2.mp4 -cat 3.mp4 output.mp4
Add as many mp4 files you want (preferably in the order they were shot as), and of course use the right mp4 filenames. If it complains about it, you also need to hunt for the MSVCR100.dll file at Microsoft’s site, and when you find it, you can copy it on the same folder as mp4box.exe. At the end, to fix some mp4box container bugs, run:
..\ffmpeg -i output.mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec copy -y final.mp4
This final.mp4 file is the one you can use to watch all your clips as one. If you’re copying it into a FAT32 system to view, then make sure the file is not bigger than 4 GB, or it will fail (FAT32 limitation).

If you’re porting these scripts to a Linux/Unix OS, you must either compile your own ffmpeg with libfaac support, or download a binary package compiled as such, or you will need a pre-built libfaac library for an existing ffmpeg version (that must itself be built with dynamic loading). Finally, make sure the script’s backward slashes are changed to forward.

Apple’s in-app subscription rules are anti-competitive

And now Apple wants 30% cut of every subscription carried out through an iOS app. And apps are not allowed anymore to include a simple link to load a web browser page and let a new user subscribe through it either. In other words, if you need to sign-up new users, and your service is not free, you either have to have existing customers that don’t need to sign up, or pay Apple a 30% cut.

At first, this doesn’t sound that bad. I mean, apps can increase their prices so they can afford to pay up Apple. But there is a specific kind of app that it’s simply impractical to do that. See, there are some companies that serve their own content, and these can compensate. But there are other companies, who license the serving content, that can’t.

I’m talking about the music streaming subscription services, like MOG, RDIO, Rhapsody, Napster 2.0, Thumbplay, Spotify etc. And then there’s Netflix, Kindle too. These apps already pay a heavy price to RIAA or studios, so their margins are very small, in the already competitive market of entertainment. It’s very possible that these companies don’t make more than 10% per song streamed, maybe much less! And now Apple wants 30% off of a $10 subscription? How could these companies survive?

Increase prices from $10 to $15, you say? How are they gonna stay competitive when iTunes Streaming is coming this year for possibly no more than $10? Yes, it IS coming, it’s the natural evolution of the music market and gadgetry/networks. This is clearly anti-competitive, because Apple will be able to offer the same service for less, by squeezing the other guys out with mafia tricks. There are anti-trust issues, as WSJ noted.

AAPL, just like RIAA and MPAA (all the AAs, it seems), are dictators. And they all take decisions that only benefit their shareholders in the very short term. Because, I can tell you right here right now, that developers will be forced to give Apple the finger, and move to Android — even if they might not like Android as much as iOS.

Talk about Apple shooting its own foot. I think this great documentary, on Netflix Instant, asks the right question to corporations: “how much is enough money, where would you stop?” A highly recommended documentary.

Sometimes I keep thinking of Apple, particularly of Steve Jobs, and how he keeps making the same mistakes over and over. Mistake in the ’80s with the Mac clones and an open ecosystem, and exact same mistakes now. Some people never learn. Either that, or he finds the eventual minuscule market share, “cozy”.