Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Undergrad Students Predict Technology Trends

I have been working as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate e-business class for the Communication, Culture, Information and Technology program at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus , which gives me the chance to talk about some cool tech, trends, and their possible ramifications for business.

Last week the students presented on four different technologies that they anticipate becoming increasingly applicable for businesses: drones, m-Payments, wearable technology, and holograms & virtual reality.

Below are my notes from the presentations, with a few points thrown in from the course instructor and some polishing and links by me. I thought the class did a great job in the short time they had to prepare. For those new to these areas, this is a good brief primer with some key considerations.

DRONES
- drones can be used for various consumer uses beyond its military roots
- Amazon experimented with delivery drones,  but wasn't yet viable for full-scale deployment [I think this was actually a publicity stunt]
- "selfie drones" available to photo-document your life
- can be used for emergency medical response, e.g. sending a defibrillator
- drones are useful for investigations into environments where people
can't easily go (e.g. hydro towers, hostile places)
- various socio-political concerns limit uptake such as: privacy, spying, possible terrorist use, airspace regulations (i.e. flight paths and height and restricted zones)
- technological issues also remain, such as: weight they can carry (limits quality of cameras they can carry), poor battery life (but this may soon be solved)

M-PAYMENTS
-mobile commerce (m-Commerce) definition was given as "efficient, on-the-go
interacting with commerce through one's mobile device"
- anticipate m-Commerce will be huge and grow in tandem with e-Commerce
- for higher adoption rates would be a triggered by a killer app, which hasn't yet appeared (a killer app for gunpowder was not original use for fireworks, but rather for guns/canons or email for the Internet)
- a single, unified payment and loyalty system could be this killer app (for instance people wouldn't need a special Starbucks app for payment and loyalty privileges and similar apps for the other businesses as this could be offerred in one app)
- for m-Payments to flourish there needs to be a critical mass of businesses offerring the option and no barriers to use between the merchant and mobile user - Bluetooth or Near Field Communications (NFC) already installed on many mobiles can enable frictionless payments
- security concerns are still limiting uptake - but this could be mitigated by adding a biometric verification (e.g. fingerprint) with payments and fraud protection
- facilitating peer-to-peer mobile payments could penetrate new markets based on socio-religious barriers limiting existing electronic payment methods as credit cards are not suitable for Muslims due to usury prohibitions or people unable to get credit cards such as youth
- could be used in conjunction with digital currencies such as Bitcoin

WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY
- brand names dominant in this sector at present (e.g. Google Glass
and Sony SmartWatch), yet this area has lots of current development by less high-profile companies that is not widely known
- wearable tech used in health sector, e.g. diabetes RFID tests,
Alzheimer guard tech, etc.
- also used for entertainment, communications, and sports and fitness
- security and reliability are a big concern limiting uptake, particularly applicable for health sector and fitness, e.g. Nike SportWatch calories burned functionality is not very accurate (particularly considering its cost, which sets up expectation
of good accuracy)
- may soon have embedded tech, e.g. chips in our body
- wearable tech is still a new market so it is anticipated that new developments and refinements will come and accuracy will improve
- customization of product offerings needed to help differentiate similar products

VIRTUAL REALITY AND HOLOGRAMS
- recently this sector has become more notable due to Microsoft's
much-hyped launch of Microsoft HoloLens
- HoloLens uses glasses to combine real world images with augmented
reality (i.e. information/representations overlaid of real world
imagery) and virtual reality (i.e. fanciful or other types of imagery
such as images of Mars)
- holographic computing and virtual reality has been hyped for many years as the
next big new thing, but fails to catch on
- technology still needs to improve - needs to be lighter, less bulky, and faster processing speeds for wider adoption
- current viable use for this tech would be for consumers to aid in-store shopping

The students raised some of the key potential features of these technologies and the barriers to widescale adoption. My take is that technology never progresses as fast as visionaries or young people think it will. But that doesn't mean we won't continue to see some really interesting developments in these sectors over the next few months/years.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

e-Postards Archives

In addition to this blog on digital media, I also write a blog on my postcard collection @ The Deltiology Deity. Although both blogs are about media, it's rare that topics are applicable to both blogs (but it has happened). This post was lead to my thoughts lately of the need to archive various digital media content and that lead to this post below, which I ran first on Deltiology Deity...

A few weeks ago, I was thinking about the efforts to archive various Internet communication. With this and postcards in mind, I remembered a trend in the late 1990s of e-Postcards. They are like print postcards but in digital format - instead of people visiting a physical destination and mailing back a print card with a visual and textual message, visitors to websites would be given online forms to fill out to send an email to someone with a digital image and brief message.

e-Postcards are rare today, but many websites (from retailers, multinational corporations, tourist sites, cultural centres, etc.) used to offer the ability to send them.

A similar form, e-Cards, has persisted longer through such websites such as Blue Mountain and card companies such as Hallmark; although they are also dying out. e-Postcards differ from e-Cards in that they are thematically focused on a destination (in this case websites) rather than focused on special occasions, they tend to arrive straight in one's email box rather than being emailed a link to click through to see the card, and are not interactive, animated, or multimedia.

I used to get and send e-Postcards occasionally up until the past decade. As with most people, I never thought to save these e-Postcards (unlike my constant dedicated preservation of print postcards). Much of our digital heritage will just pass us by and never be saved. Admirable organizations such as the Internet Archive can only do so much. If we want our digital records to survive for future generations, as the print postcards I display here have, then it's up to us.

So I sought out websites still offering e-Postcards. Despite extensive searching, I couldn't find many websites offering them. I did, however, find a few - and a surprising variety. Here are my favourites, now preserved for posterity:
mit_epostcard
from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology

loki_epostcard
Loki, from a poster e-tailer

momo_rebecca_epostcard
from New York's Museum of Modern Art

tpl_epostcard
Self-made e-Postcard from Toronto Public Library

washington_epostcard
from Mount Washington Resort, New Hampshire

wwf_epostcard
from the World Wildlife Fund
If you know of websites still offering cool e-Postcards, then send one here for history's sake.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Aquarium Interactions

We went to Toronto's aquarium last weekend to celebrate my birthday. It's been open a few months, but we heard the crowds were so bad we've been waiting for the crowds to thin out (they haven't). It was expensive and the line-up to get in was daunting, but in the end we had a great time!

There is a lot more to see then what I ever imagined in what from the outside seems like a small space beside the CN Tower.  They manage to pack a lot of cool stuff into their space. Our highlights were the jellyfish ("Planet Jellies"), the Canadian exhibits (which managed to make Great Lake fish interesting), and the an extensive tube for viewers to submerge themselves in a tank of sharks and rays ("Dangerous Lagoon").

As a parent and digital media aficionado, what I like best about it the aquarium is how interactive they made the experience for kids. I've blogged before about how traditional attractions, cultural sites, and museums are using digital media and interactivity as it's something I think can really entice people into a collection or site and make for a memorable, let alone enjoyable, experience. (Sadly, Toronto's sites actually seems to be getting worse at this, such as  the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum dismal track record.)

Ripley's Aquarium of Canada doesn't use a lot of digital media and doesn't have a mobile app.  I think people are excited enough to explore the novelty of our new aquarium that we don't yet need a mobile app - but it would be a great way to add more interactivity, engagement, and learning opportunities (and I'd be happy to help design such as app, by the way).

There are, however, ample forms of physical interactions in the forms of play structures, tubes to crawl through shark tanks, water tables (of Ontario's locks), buttons to press for sound & light effects, touching ponds, and a shark to put one's hand in to guess what they ate.

But there are so quite good digital experiences to be had to. In relation to the West Coast kelp forest, they had a fun video game.  I didn't notice any accompanying educational components, but I'm not one of those parents that thinks everything has to have an overt "educational" component to have value. Just engaging kids while at these types of places is enough - let alone avoiding the tedium that comes with row upon row of "glass boxes" (as my young daughter called them) such as found extensively now at the ROM.

There was a cool screen that allowed people to have their motions move and play with jellyfish (at least realistic looking digital representations). They also had a mini-program that allowed kids to put together their own jellyfish character. Usually with such programs, they give one the option to have the final creations emailed to you. In a stroke of marketing genius, this only gave kids the option to post to Facebook - or rather, since children aren't allowed to have Facebook accounts, to post to a parent's Facebook page (and free advertising will be achieved.)  Still my daughter really enjoyed doing this and it gave her a cheap souvenir.

But as much fun as the various interactivity was, when one goes to an aquarium there is one overriding expectation: cool sharks! In the end, it is all about the sharks and they delivered Discovery Channel style!




Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reading Into the So-Called Decline of eBooks

I was reading the 2015 technology predictions from global consulting firm Deloitte released today. Of Deloitte's various and sensible predictions, one stood out for seeming counter intuitive to prevailing trends:
A decade on from the launch of the eReader, print still dominates book sales even in markets with high digital device penetration – and print will likely generate the majority of books sales for the foreseeable future. Sales of eBooks have hit a plateau, or seen decelerating growth, in major markets including the US, UK and Canada. (source)
Particularly surprising in their report is that digital natives are not widely adopting eBooks, instead preferring print books, as Deloitte explains:
Nearly half of 16-34 year-olds agreed that 'eBooks will never take the place of real books for me'. Why do millennials show a preference for print books? One UK study found that 62 percent of 16-24s prefer buying print books over eBooks because they like to collect, ‘like the smell’ and ‘want full bookshelves’. (source)
In the Words of Digital Natives
I was working today at an eBusiness class with digital natives, so I couldn't resist posing this enigma to them. If there was any group that would be most apt to vouch for eBooks you'd think it would be students aged 19-25 in an Internet program. But it was not the case. None of the students appeared surprised by this prediction. One student put it quite simply "It's because eReaders suck!"

Although not a representative sample, none of the students spoke out in support of eBooks, yet they appeared to be quite familiar with eReaders. Various students identified problems with eReaders compared to print books, such as:
  • battery life is a pain and goes out too quickly
  • usability generally poor
  • doesn't facilitate taking notes in the margin
  • hate eBooks that have expiry dates
  • creates eye strain
  • want the ability to give books to friends or resell them
About the Author
This topic has been particularly timely for me as we just got our first eReader this Christmas and began reading our first eBook a couple weeks ago. We got a Kobo device and love it - and coincidentally it is made by a Canadian company. I've been very happy with it, but I thought that I'd let my wife and daughter share their thoughts.

They both loved how easy it is to get books from the library. My wife loved how small and light it is and that it stores multiple books at the same time, "so if you are going on a trip you can take a bunch of books with you very easily". My wife loved the ability of being able to increase the font size and have the book still be easily readable:
Being able to make the font really big is great for my bad eyes. Large-print books are too big, heavy, and hard to find and not all books are readily available in this format. I like that it lights up as I like to have a lot of light when I read. I have used it for over two hours and I didn't get a headache - it's the font size plus the lack of glare.
My young daughter quickly was able to use the various features of the eReader, such as increasing the brightness, search, bookmarks, etc. Here is what she has to say:
I love the eReader. It is easy to use and to read with it. I also like that they have other things that you can do on it like draw. I like how you can get free books from [Project] Gutenberg.
Both agreed, however, that despite these benefits they still preferred print books more. As my wife noted:
I'm of two minds with eBooks compared to print books. I like the tangible qualities of a book. I like seeing books on my shelf and go back to old books. I also like to make notes on my book in my own handwriting.
Counter Points
I was still curious, so I investigated the matter more. First of all, the stats indicating the decline in eBook sales is not quite certain. The Guardian reported a study today from Nielsen that eBooks in the U.K. are cannibalizing print books and are expected to grow:
We think consumer eBooks this year will be worth £350m, with most big publishers reporting eBook growth of double digits – and almost all of that will be in fiction.
Also, Deloitte's findings appear to be focused on eBook sales from book retailers - and likely do not include sales from self-published eBooks or indie publishers or readership of free eBooks and from public libraries. An article also published today in Information Today discusses this issue as well, but notes the high use of eResources from public libraries (my hometown of Toronto was one of two public libraries to have over 2 million such checkouts last year) indicates "e-reading is becoming a staple in libraries across North America".

The Last Word
As it turns out, such a prediction for eBooks is not new as Metro news wrote last April that the reported decline of the eBook has been greatly exaggerated.

Afterword
The video from Ikea hilariously addresses these points and the return to old tech.


Saturday, January 03, 2015

My Favourite Webslinger Posts of 2014

2014 was a big year for me blogging here. I have been busy blogging for my Deltiology Deity blog. But I my posts for Webslinger have been decreasing steadily.

I even opened the year lamenting my lack of interest in blogging here (which still stands). Despite this, I do enjoy blogging still and had some posts I'm particularly fond of from last year.

Since I started this blog 9 years ago, I have done an annual recap of my favourite posts by month. This year, I'll break with my tradition and use the traditional format of the Top Ten.

  1. Putting Toronto on the Locative Map - I had a great time at the Mobile HCI conference in Toronto last fall, particularly at a workshop on using locative and mobile media to tell stories
  2. There Were Trolls and Anonymous Bullies Long Before the Internet - combining my two blogs into a shared post that examines how postcards from the turn of the last century reflect similar digital media behaviours we see today.
  3. A Webslinger Holiday - recounting all the great digital and mobile media I encountered on my family vacation to Disney World and Universal Studios (including RFID bracelets, virtual reality fun, & smartphones saving the day.)
  4. Social Georeferencing - Bring Content Into the Field - I presented at a conference on social georeferencing, a term I coined for online, collaborative adding of geographic metadata to digital content. This post recounts my main points from my presentation on this trend.
  5. Kid Reviews Mobile Game Tunnel Town - I love writing blog posts with my young daughter and together we reviewed one of her favourite tablet games.
  6. Spam Poetry - Those ubiquitous and generally annoying spam emails can actually be fun sometimes. I encountered one that, oddly enough, made a very evocative poem.
  7. Foursquare Loses Me - this was a sad post to write as I have loved the mobile locative media app Foursquare since it launched in Canada. But when they split the app in two to launch their new app Swarm, they result was less than the sum of its former parts.
  8. Finding and Getting Our Way With Google Maps - I uncovered Google Maps dubious and murky review process for making changes to their mapped points-of-interest. It's not very open, logical, or accurate I found.
  9. Homer Simpson Uses Locative Media - I was delighted when one of my favourite tv shows satirized the topics I've been researching!
  10. Most Frustrating App Ever! - We've all had a horrible experience with an app made even worse when it was one we paid for. But having a blog provides an outlet to vent my resulting frustration!
So in compiling this list, I found that although 2014 didn't have much quantity, it did have some quality. This is reflected by some of my posts getting some always-appreciated attention from some prominent sources. 

I'm not sure how 2015 will shape up in regards to my posting habits or trends in digital media. Despite being interviewed yesterday by the CBC about future technology (30 years down the road), I can't foresee what this year will bring.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Ho and Hum of Online Shopping

The holidays are almost over and I pretty much survived Christmas shopping - the worst part of the endless, obligatory traditions.

I finished my Christmas shopping by early December thanks to online shopping. I did have to pick up a few stocking stuffers at a local store - but if there was a website that sold candies, trinkets, and lip-balm at reasonable prices I'd use it gleefully - such is my hatred for shopping.

I particularly hate shopping at malls and big-box stores any time of the years, but especially during the holiday season. In addition to my hatred of physical shopping, we don't have a car and we live in a city with an inadequate public transit system. And, like most people nowadays, I have very little free time. So getting the time and to the location of physical shopping is a real challenge. Even if I can get there, one has to deal with the hordes of hell at the stores.

Such is my hatred for physical shopping - made a horrendous hell at this time of year - that the protracted pain of Christmas shopping can just completely kill me. So I love online shopping as it has saved me endless grief and given me a semblance of a life during the onslaught of required holiday preparations and traditions. I have done the bulk of my Christmas shopping online for the past 15 years.

Well, I should have had not online shopping let me down this year.

We have bought almost every type of thing online: computers, books, toys, clothes, collectibles, shoes, groceries, electronics, postcards, etc.

We got some good stuff this year via online shopping. I got a great price on a Canon Selphie photo printer for my daughter at a price cheaper than any store had it. Our only computer died on Cyber Monday, I could not go physical shopping as, but we got a great deal online (if a computer has to die Cyber Monday is the best day to do it, but just a bit too convenient).

We got a book not available in physical stores (I know as the bookstore's website has a handy feature to see their physical store's inventory).

We have had a few problems with online shopping. Shoes that weren't really the size they said they were (that's why you always have to try shoes on first).  Shirts that looked great online but were a bizarre colour or odd cut. The laptop I recently got had great online reviews, particularly for its keyboard - but it turns out the keyboard isn't anywhere near as good as it was hyped.

I was going to buy clothes as gifts online, but I learned from my mistakes. Unless the price is so good that one can afford to get something shipped that is potentially unwearable or can be returned at a nearby physical store, then it isn't worth getting.  The return process for items is just too painful and usually too expensive for that to be an option.

Then there are stores that charge just way too much for shipping.  I wanted to get my mother some stuff from Crabtree and Evelyn, but their shipping cost was too expensive. Online stores have such a lower overhead that they can easily afford to offer reasonable or cheap shipping. But at least, I was able to browse their products online and figure out what I wanted so that when I went to the store I was in and out in a flash (I still don't think websites get the credit for motivating in-store shoppers that they deserve.)

The worst this year was trying to find a gift for people that have everything on my student budget. So I saw some cookies on a national retailer's website that seemed unique and cool for $15.

When I got the cookies they were the tiniest pack of cookies I had ever seen. I'm talking the same weight as a chocolate bar.  It was so small that the package was almost the same size as the photo on the website - seriously I held it up to it and it was within millimetres!

It is so expensive that per gram these cookies are about the price of gold, or crack, or elephant "processed" coffee.

Okay, I have to assume some responsibility for not specifically checking the weight of the cookies and figuring out how truly infinitesimal the product is. But then, this store is not known for selling gourmet items and I think they have some responsibility to offer products for sale that are consistent with the overall market in terms of size and to fairly present their products. It didn't help that the size described on the website and the product didn't match either - being off by 25%.

So I was convinced that online shopping had let me down. But then I remember that another great thing about the Internet is how easy it is to complain via email! So I drafted off a complaint about both the inaccurate product description and overall misleading size.

Within a day, I heard back from a customer service agent who apologized, rebated me $10, and escalated the problem of inaccurate product description to her managers.  This awesome response restored my faith, enlarged my Grinch heart, and convinced me to continue my shopping online ways!

Happy holidays!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Webslinger Holiday

I spent a few days in Orlando Florida at their amusement parks and have come to two conclusions:
  1. Mobile devices are invaluable for park visits
         and
  2. I'm sick of simulated/3D rides
I blogged about these topics before, such as Disney World's increasing use of digital media and Canada's Wonderland's poor mobile app.

Although, I have been to a few theme parks, when it came to Orlando my family always went to Disney World and nowhere else. So this trip I decided to try Universal as well as Disney World. I heard the rides are more wild at Universal (partially true) and I was eager to see their Marvel Super Hero Island (awesome!).

So now that I have been to Universal, Disney's main competitor, and also recently at Canada's Wonderland (North America's most visited seasonal amusement park), I am able to compare North America's top amusement parks on their use of digital media and mobile technology. Disney is definitely a leader in this area (although they have inferior postcards, see my other blog's post, Universal Postcards Best in Universe).

Universal Studios Islands of Adventure with pictures of Marvel superheroes
Since I was last at Disney World a few years ago, they made huge changes in their use of user tech. So here's my recap of the cool things the parks are doing...

RFID Bracelets for Visitors
One of the most noticeable changes is that Disney has replaced park tickets and cards with RFID-enabled wrist bands called MagicBands. These bracelets not only provide entry to one's hotel room and park (with fingerprint scan needed as well), but can also be used for food and gift purchases (with pass code provided as well), claiming photos from rides or Disney photographers, using FastPasses, or for a new interactive game.

I liked the bracelets as they are quick and easy to use and worked flawlessly. I like that I didn't have to whip out my wallet all the time, as I have habit of losing it. I also like that the bracelets are waterproof, so I can wear it in the pool and don't have to worry about someone stealing my room key or wallet.

I don't believe the privacy concerns raised are a worry - seeDisney's privacy policy.My only complaints about the RFID bracelets are that I did find it uncomfortable to wear on hot days. Unlike other parks and resorts that make guests wear a wrist band, MagicBands can be easily removed. Also, Disney sells accessories for them, "Band Its", but they always kept breaking or falling off, much to my daughter's upset (and wasting $20).

Planning Online - Gaining Efficiency, Losing Spontaneity
Disney has made increasing use of the Internet to allow people to pre-plan their trip for booking dining reservations and passes to rides and shows.

My favourite example of the technology combining masterfully was for our lunch at Be Our Guest restaurant at Magic Kingdom. We had pre-ordered our meal online months in advance. Within moments of sitting down at a table, a server brought our meal to us, without us having talked any waiters first. The RFID bracelets alerted the kitchen of our order and provided our location for the server to locate us.

Disney allows guests purchasing park tickets in advance to book three passes a day to rides, shows, or character greetings. These FastPasses allow one to skip the queue. I find Disney's system to be much more fair than other parks (Canada's Wonderland and Universal Studios charge people almost double park admission to get such passes). It's also better than Disney's prior system, which required people to physically go to the ride every day to claim a ticket - you had to be there early before the day's allotment of passes ran out.

Having had a miserable time at Canada's Wonderland recently where we had to wait in line at least 30 minutes for every single ride and up to 1-2 hours for top rides, I won't go back to a park in-season without such a pass. I hate waiting in line in the full sun (as Wonderland makes guests do) for the bulk of my day and paying about a $100 to do so. The only down side to such passes is they instill a forced rigidity to one's schedule that doesn't facilitate unstructured fun or serendipitous surprises. But it does free up 3-5 hours of each day that would otherwise be spent in queue hell, so that more than makes up for a loss of spontaneity.

Mobile Devices a Must
All of the trip planning done online gels beautifully with Disney's mobile app My Disney Experience.

Disney provides free wifi at the parks and hotel rooms and grounds - as does Universal. For all parks, we found coverage is not great and there are many places where no coverage is available. We were only able to connect to wifi in about half to two thirds of any of the parks. As one is frequently moving around at the parks, it wasn't a huge problem, but it really should be improved.

When we were able to connect to the Internet, having a mobile device was invaluable.

We loved Disney's mobile app. It's effectively displays one's plans (restaurant reservations, FastPasses, parades, etc.)day-by-day at a glance. The app makes it easy to see restaurant availability and book reservations (we were able to get a character dinner that surprisingly came available for a few minutes). It also makes it easy to change one's FastPasses too - up to the day of the pass. Supposedly, after one has booked their three allotted FastPasses of the day, the app should allow one to book new FastPasses - but this feature never worked for us.

I loved Disney's GPS-enabled map feature. I have never been to any theme park where I was able to find my way around - or find a washroom - without great difficulty. I usually refer to a park's printed map at least 2-3 times every hour at least. And I still had to as it often was the case that when I needed directions, I couldn't access Disney's wifi.

Disney's app shows wait times for all rides, which is great for planning one's park visit to maximize ride time and minimize queue time. Disney didn't use to provide this info beforehand, and we had to go to a third party website to get it. So I'm glad they have it now. We were asked twice while entering a line to carry a device that tracked our wait time, so I know the info was valid. And it was highly-accurate - always within 5-10 minutes and usually over-estimating the waits.

Disney's app also shows upcoming parades, shows and character greetings. I don't like that the app shows only the one next character appearance and not the full schedule. The character schedule was inaccurate occassionally too. The biggest Disney disaster was when we waited for 30 minutes for a character greeting and the character didn't shouw up, causing my daughter to burst into tears. Character greetings for her (and many other children and adults) is as important as rides, so this is something Disney needs to do correctly.

I didn't use Universal's mobile app as we had almost no wait times for rides (YES!) and the park are well laid-out so it was easy to find my way around. My wife used it and it has similar features to Disney's.

This is the first trip to an amusement park where I brought my mobile device. It was invaluable to be able to email my partner when we split up. But it does have the down side of also getting work emails at the park (but then addressing work problems while at the "Happiest Place on Earth" is better than coming home to the dreaded email avalanche the first day back).

This is also the first trip that we didn't bring a separate camera. It made things much lighter and generally our mobiles provided satisfactory quality (except for night photos).

One thing I hated is that both Disney and Universal had services or interactions that relied on text messages and don't allow emails as well. This is really stupid as many visitors are from out-of-town. Roaming charges being what they are, we had our voice and data plan turned off. You'd think the companies would know this and allow email which works on wifi.

Augmented Reality App - Potential but Problems
My daughter, like most young girls, loves the movie Frozen. So while she was playing at Wandering Oaken's Trading Post, I noticed they offerred an augmented reality experience there. It required the app Aurasma. Aurasma claims to be the world's leading augmented reality app, but I had to download it for this.

Apparently, this Aurasma installation is notoriously buggy. In general, I have had dismal track record with a.r. apps, see my past post on this (do they ever work well?). My wife has a newer mobile device, so I first tried it on her Android device, but even I and two Disney employees couldn't get it to work on her mobile. It worked, if inconsistently, on my old Nexus oddly enough.

Disney only has configured the app to work on two spots at Oaken's. When working, trolls or reindeer appear on your camera screen, do a brief action and then pose for photos. The final picture quality wasn't that good though.
It was a lot of trouble to get working, so I was disappointed Disney only used it so seldom. I read they have an installation for Star Wars weekends - but why only then?

If Disney made more use of installations throughout the parks and could make the tech work on more devices and more reliably, it would be an amazing experience! Who wouldn't like finding, seeing, and posing with Disney characters throughout the park and without long lines! It could also be used to help one find hidden Mickeys (I had to search mobile websites for this info).
Simulated Thrills
I have liked wild rides since I was a kid, but didn't have any friends or family that shared this passion. Until recently - my daughter just recently passed the height and courage requirements for wild rides. This has opened up a world of possibilities for me. I got to go on some great rides at Canada's Wonderland and I was expecting Universal to top this.

It seems, however, that Disney and Universal are focusing all development in rides on simulated and hybrid rides (a.k.a. motion-based 3D dark rides).

In short, some of them are great, but these parks have too many of them and after a few days of them they get boring.

Simulator rides are stationary rides that use 3D or large-screen projections and move the audience to correspond with on-screen motion to achieve the sense one is on a dynamic, moving experience. I didn't know until today that the world's first such ride was my hometown of Toronto's Tour of the Universe.

Most rides use a combination of physical movement, actual sets and animatronics, and "4D" techniques (vibrating chairs, scents, bubbles, lighting effects, fire, etc.).

First off, I like many others, hate wearing 3D glasses. In many cases, the glasses don't work well enough to justify their existence. They make everything darker and less sharp and they introduce a barrier between me and my immersion in a world. 3D is so common nowadays in entertainment and rides that it isn't a draw for me or my kid. At the worst they don't work - as happened for both me and my daughter at Disney Quest's Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold where problems with the 3D tech resulted in us both having double and blurred vision and ruining what would otherwise be a very fun and immersive game-ride.

Simulated rides also often don't deliver the same physical feeling as real rides and they don't offer the same perceptual level of experience. They are the only rides that have ever made me feel motion sick.

I did like Disney's Star Tours: The Adventure Continues - but probably only because it was themed as Star Wars and being in a rocket pilotted by a real C-3P0 while encountering Darth Vader is a fanboy's dream come true. Universal's The Simpsons Ride was similarly fun to be able to enter another world that would otherwise be impossible, but the actual ride part, as with other simulators, was lacklustre.

I also liked Disney Quest's personal simulated roller coaster, CyberSpace Mountain. I enjoyed this because it was the first personal simulator ride I've ever been on and I loved that the simulation was designed by my daughter and I.

Simulator rides would be better if there were less of them. But I found the best experiences were ones that were a hybrid between simulator and actual ride, such as Universal's& Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. But I don't like it when the ride stops for a long time as most of them do to display a short theme-related scene - interrupting the motion of the ride ruins the momentum of the ride experiences.

After many days of 3D shows and simulated rides, I was impressed by Universal's The Revenge of the Mummy ride. It makes engaging use of real sets, special effects, and projected imagery and a real roller coaster. It and Disney's Space Mountain are my favourite Orlando rides as they deliver unique, themed and wild ride experiences.

Real Interactions

Disney World has three interactive games that allow players to travel around the park and solve clues and play with the park environment.

  1. A Pirate's Adventure ~ Treasures of the Seven Seas @ Magic Kingdom
  2. Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom @ Magic Kingdom
  3. Phineas & Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure @ Epcot
We did all of them - except that we did the Phineas & Ferb one when it was themed as Kim Possible. Interestingly enough, each game used a different input method - the RFID bracelets for the first, cards for the second, mobile devices, and magic wands (that cost about $50). Disney provides the mobile devices for the Phineas & Ferb game - which I was dismayed as I'd much prefer to be able to use my own device (although I realize that ensuring compatibility and performance would impossible).

All the games have a similar structure. Players are given maps or instructions to travel around a park area and solve clues to find specific spots for their next interaction. Each interaction spot requires a player to confirm their presence by activating a site sensor through their input device. Then either a short video or audio clip will play that advances the narrative and leads a player to the next clue. This step may also involve the world responding in some way, e.g. a statue moves, a painting comes to life, a canon fires, or a treasure box opens, etc. Game play takes about 30 minutes and can be played at the player's own pace.

Universal Studios had just one interactive experience, and it isn't a game so much as just playing:
Universal is getting a lot of hype for the magic wand experiences which they launched earlier this year. But Great Wolf Lodge has had a very similar, and I'd say better, game, MagiQuest. We played years ago and it also allows players to interact and move objects in the real world.

The problem with both MagiQuest and Harry Potter wands is that the motions required are too complicated and the sensors are not sufficient. First, it is pretty much impossible to get them to work on the first try without having someone showing you. Neither Universal or Great Wolf Lodge have staff readily available for assistance, which results in lots of frustration. Fortunately, other park visitors noticed our problems and helped us out (as we did with others once we knew what we were doing).

So the only way to get these things to work is to find the sensor - which looks like a little camera - and do your "spell" pointed right at it. This totally ruins the illusion and immersion of the experience. Ideally, the sensors should not be visible, but people should definitely not have to perform for the technology.

Blogger Kristin Ford has excellent reviews of Disney's games (see review of #1#2 and #3). She points out the main problem with these is that if there is a queue for the spots the players ahead of you will spoil the surprise for you. We got our Harry Potter wand an hour before the park closed and the place was almost deserted. So it really was magically when we got to make the Harry Potter world come to life and were surprised by what happened. It is quite the opposite, when you are the fifth person in line to do the exact same thing.

My daughter loved the interactive experiences. Her favourite was Disney's Sorcerer's of the Magic Kingdom. She liked that there was more of a story than the other ones and that the cards worked seamlessly with the sensors. She also loved using and collecting the cards - and I like how Disney gives the cards for free (a pack a day) compared to the over-priced wands. She liked the Harry Potter wands, but wanted there to be a story element to the play.

Post Trip
We purchased the Memory Maker package for our Disney World visit. This gave us access to unlimited photos taken by Disney's ubiquitous photographers and automated ride photos. They also have two videos one for Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Tower of Terror but the latter's video broke down the day we were there.

Once we had our picture taken by a photographer, we had them scan our card or bracelet. The photos are automatically uploaded to our Disney online account. From their website sharing photos, downloading, or posting to social media sites is easy.

What I most liked about the Memory Maker photos was access to some special Disney stuff. They give some stock photos of Mickey and some characters we met (my daughter would have liked more of these). They also give access to Disney themed borders and clip art, that users can add to their pictures.

I wanted to be able to upload my own photos to get access to the borders and clip art, but Disney doesn't allow this. This is my biggest complaint - that and that purchasing any of their photo products (e.g. albums, mugs) are insanely expensive - about twice as much or more as equivalent photo providers.

Disney photographs offer some cool treats too. They have you pose a certain way and then Disney characters are automatically added in. My favourite is when my daughter was photobombed by the reindeer Sven.

Disney is really leading the way with amusement parks in using digital and mobile media to deliver fun and useful guest experiences. There are still some areas to improve, but they provide a great example of what can be done with this technology.