Santa Tracker: A Glimpse of Chromecast’s Potential as a Peripheral

It’s Christmas time, and Google is in the business of Santa Tracking. The Santa tracking app has a few new features this year, but my favorite is Chromecast support. The feature is simple, hit the Chromecast button and see Santa’s progress on your TV.

I’ve already praised Chromecast as a YouTube and Netflix device. Since then, quite a few more apps have jumped on board. Among them is Plex, my preferred media server. But Google’s Santa Tracker serves as the best example of what Chromecast has to offer as a peripheral for every multimedia app.

Santa Tracker illustrates how easy it is to move to the television with Chromecast. Set-top box and Smart TV solutions are overwhelming. All require their own separate development and promotion efforts. Currently there’s no dominant platform, so gaining widespread exposure means supporting all of them. Chromecast allows you to forget all of that and leverage your existing mobile app. Simply add a little extra functionality. And with a price tag of $35, it’s an easy sell.

We’re having a Christmas Eve party with lots of kids at my house this year. I’ll have Santa Tracker casting to the television most of the night. I expect to see many more apps like this in 2014.

Posted in Media Server, Reviews, Tech Tip | 4 Comments

Deck The Halls: Creating Artwork With A Tablet

Ever since my short career as an art student, I’ve wanted a completely digital drawing environment as good as pencil and paper. While my 4×5 Wacom Art Pad II was fun at the time, it wasn’t the dream setup people like Bert Monroy use. I’ve revisited the concept with things like a Palm Pilot and a Nintendo DS. All were limited by screen resolution, or no screen at all. While not a perfect solution, a modern tablet with the right stylus and the right software comes pretty damn close.

The experiment was simple: Create some sort of holiday themed artwork using nothing but a tablet. I wanted to see how far I could go with the tablet, and how long it took me to bail to the desktop. I already had an image of my trademark Green Zeta with a fish-eye lens effect and thought about using it as a reflection in a Christmas ornament. I did some photographing of my tree with the tablet and was set with all my image assets.

The first key to drawing on a tablet is finding the right stylus. The finer the point the better. There are plenty of pro versions out there for $100 or more but, being Christmas time, I had to do this on a shoestring budget. I settled on a mini-stylus, around the width of a pencil eraser, that I found at a dollar store. It’s not as precise as a pencil point, but I was surprised to find that it worked really well.

The other key to drawing on a tablet is finding the right software. I had been eyeing Adobe Photoshop Touch for months now and I finally had an excuse to pay the $9.99 for it. For the price, PhotoShop Touch is amazing. You get a ton of features, very close to the functionality you’d find in PhotoShop Elements on the desktop. I was able to import my background and add the GreenZeta head reflection in the ornament.

I found PhotoShop Touch to be lacking when it came to freehand drawing. Switching between tools, like brush and eraser, is a multi-step process and the brush and color selection palettes are cumbersome. Fortunately I had a copy of Autodesk SketchBook I picked up as an Amazon Free App of the Day. SketchBook is a great drawing app with a full compliment of pencil and brush tools. I was able to export my background from PhotoShop Touch and import into Sketchbook to draw in the green hand.


The result is the image above. Just for the hell of it I added the animated snow using Google’s Auto-Awesome effect. Total time to create was about 2 hours.

As I said, tablets still aren’t a perfect solution. One of the biggest problems I had was learning to keep the side of my hand off the screen while using the stylus. One trick I learned was to constantly move canvas over to the edge of the screen and use the besel as a hand rest. PhotoShop Touch is also lacking a lot of minor features that make it difficult to use. For example, there are no layer masks so there’s no way to non-destructively remove part of an image. If you move a layer off the edge of the canvas, it gets cropped and you cannot choose to move it back later. This was very frustrating as I tried to get the positioning of the hand correct. You cannot lock layers and move them as a group. The selection tool is also missing a proportion lock making it next to impossible to select a perfect circle.

All of the major problems I found were software issues that will likely be fixed over time. If you have a tablet already it’s a very viable option for graphic art. Since there are some changes workflow, it’s worth becoming familiar with the medium. I’ll still use pad and pencil for quick sketching, but I’ve begun to reconsider the pencil as my starting point for final artwork. I may try going all-tablet in 2014 to see how far I can take it.

Posted in Reviews, Zeta Comics | 1 Comment

Firefox OS: First Impression

A couple of weeks ago I learned of the Mozilla “Apps for Phones” program. The idea behind the program is to get developers on board with their upcoming Firefox OS. Anyone with an existing web app can submit to the Mozilla team for review. If accepted, Mozilla sends the developer a free Firefox OS phone for testing. Just for the fun of it I submitted my app, The Prize Inside, for review. It was accepted. Last week the FedEx guy brought me a brand new bright orange phone.

On the surface, Firefox OS functions no differently than any other smartphone OS. In fact, much of it feels heavily influenced by Apple’s iOS. There is only a single static Home button on the phone. No back or menu buttons as Android users are accustomed. App icons and a global search function adorn the home screen. The system level search bar behaves somewhat differently in Firefox OS, which is where the OS separates itself from competitors.

At the core of Firefox OS is the browser. This has a few advantages. Native apps for the OS are essentially packaged web sites. This gives it the ability to leverage every existing mobile web app. Apps don’t have to be installed, some are copied over to improve performance, others are simply links to the mobile web. Since apps don’t have to be installed, they’re tied directly into the system wide search function. In Firefox OS, you don’t to go to the store to find an app. You simply search for what you need, whether it be a web site or an app, and Firefox returns whatever it finds most appropriate.

Firefox OS has a lot of potential for web developers. If you can make a mobile web app, you can make a Firefox OS app. There’s very little additional work involved. Naturally, there are drawbacks. Web browsers aren’t going to produce mind blowing 3D rendered video games. But what you do get is a level of consistency you have to work toward in iOS and Android. For products born of the web, there’s value in remaining web based.

I’ll begin my port of The Prize Inside soon. Since it was designed from the start to work in mobile browsers, I don’t anticipate much effort involved. I’ll post an update in coming months, detailing the work involved in supporting Firefox OS.

Posted in Reviews, Web Development | 1 Comment

War of the Worlds Broadcast

On the night of October 30th, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air presented a dramatization of the HG Wells Classic “The War of the Worlds”. Their play took the form of a series of news bulletins portraying a realistic-sounding fictional Martian invasion. Those who tuned in late missed the introduction of the play, taking them out of their fictitious context. Many mistook its realistic presentation for actual reports of an imminent invasion. Whether is was thought to be Martians, or humans disguised as Martians, people believed their homes were under attack by a foreign enemy. For forty minutes Welles’ broadcast horrified the minds of his growing audience, until an intermission revealed the reality of the drama.

War of the Worlds Broadcast is an experiment in HTML5 Audio and Animation. It presents a recording of the actual 1938 broadcast, accompanied by visual embellishment. There are several animated scenes depicting events from the play, with more to come. If you’re not already acquainted with the broadcast, it’s well worth your time to visit the site for the full hour-long presentation. Even if you’ve heard it already, prop up your tablet and let run in the background while you work.

The Martians are right outside your house! Relive the night of October 30, 1938 and listen to the War of the Worlds Broadcast!

Posted in Web Development | 1 Comment

Chromecast: A Parent’s Perspective

It all started when my daughter was watching James and the Giant Peach, on Netflix. I found her waiting in the next room. One of the scenes had frightened her and she was waiting for it to end. I had just set up my Chromecast the other day, and realized it was a perfect tool to empower her in this situation. I paused the movie with my phone and called her back into the room. We got her Kindle Fire and opened the netflix app. I showed her the Chromecast button and how her Kindle was now the TV control. Starting up the movie again, I showed her how she could scrub along the timeline and skip the scary part. She sat back down and continued to watch the movie, hugging her Kindle.

Moments later my son came into the room with his Droid 2, wanting to show me a youtube video he was laughing at. This brought into play the other aspect of the Chromecast which I love: sharing and cooperation. We asked my daughter for permission to pause her movie so that her brother could share a funny video. She obliged, and he pushed his video from the Droid to the television. We got to watch the youtube movie together, afterward my daughter continued her Netflix movie where she left off.

That simple merging of all our mobile devices with the television is the true power of Chromecast. It demonstrates that the best interface for television is no interface at all. Think about it, television never had an on-screen interface in the past. It was just you and your remote control. Then digital cable came along and we had menus and guides. Suddenly you’re using your 4-way directional control to navigate a labyrinth of icons and menus.

Right now, most of our television viewing is done with a Roku box. Imagine how my scenario may have played out were we using that instead. While it’s true that the Roku would have allowed my daughter to fast forward through the scary scene, it would have required her to seize the remote control from me. She wouldn’t have been able to do it with her Kindle, which is what she is comfortable using. When my son entered the room with his youtube video, we would have had to back out of the Netflix interface, enter the YouTube interface and find our way to the video. More likely, the two of us would have resigned to watching on the phone, leaving his sister out of the experience.

There are already solutions similar to Chromecast, but none have the same potential for range and diversity. You’re not limited to a single remote control, or a proprietary technology. An iPad controls Chromecast no differently than a Kindle, or an Android phone. If your household has a growing number of these devices, Chromecast gives all of them the power to share content on the big screen.

The only negative thing to say about Chromecast is that it was released a bit premature. The developer kit isn’t complete yet, due to be officially released at some unannounced date. Since app support is where Chromecast gets its strength, the wait for full developer support has the potential to destroy its momentum in the market. Right now, you’re limited to Netflix and Youtube.

Many have already pledged to support the device; including Plex, our preferred media center solution. Plex support would complete Chromecast, for us, as a replacement for Roku. Any other services would be an added benefit, and I expect there will be many. Considering its price of $35, there’s little to go wrong in purchasing one. It’s nice to forget about finding the remote and push-button navigating my way through menus. For now, we use it constantly with just Netflix and YouTube. I look forward to the day when Chromecast reaches its full potential.

Posted in Reviews | 5 Comments