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Last Nail in the Coffin?

Apple under the Shower With the release of Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, Apple is the last major operating system maker to jump on the 64-bit train. Apple’s marketers shamelessly hype as a “next generation technology” what has been available to Windows users since 2005 and to Linux users since 2001.

Another technology that is hyped with the release of Snow Leopard is QuickTime X: “another leap forward”. Actually it is a significant step backward: support for QuickTimeVR has been dropped.

QuickTimeVR, introduced by Apple in 1994, was a ground-breaking technology to display and interact with 360° panoramas. Apple stopped development years ago and QTVR has lingered within QuickTime. In the meantime other technologies surpassed it, but it is still important because of the sheer quantity of unique legacy content entrusted to this format.

Now Apple is dropping QTVR. There are instructions to install an older version of QuickTime 7 on Snow Leopard, but by default content that has been entrusted by thousands of authors to Apple’s format for virtual reality panoramas is doomed to become obsolete. How long will the legacy last?

Apple is leaving in the rain thousands of media makers and millions of users. It is condemning to oblivion a lot of original and unique content. Multimedia CDs and DVDs; online content such as the Sydney Opera House Virtual Tour, anno 2002 one of the pioneering examples of this back then nascent art.

Content that has been authored for QuickTime VR will get lost and forgotten. But is it really Apple’s fault? I don’t think so. While it is inconvenient, authors and publishers who have kept their source images can re-author them for modern and supported technologies. And archiving is the author’s and publisher’s responsibility. Even better: don’t entrust your documents and media to proprietary format. Even if QTVR is very well documented, it is closed and there are no incentives to keep it alive, even if authors need it.

Free, open formats don’t suffer this risk. They will always be readable and playable as long as the code is available and there are users interested. A migration path to future format is likely to be available. I am sure plenty of authors who have their media in QTVR format would be interested. The right thing for Apple to do now is to release QTVR under an Open Source license and let the users community do the rest, instead of taking so much irreplaceable content into the QTVR grave.

This is a prime example that shows the risk of entrusting your content to a proprietary format. It’s like keeping betamax tapes and waiting for the player to break.

The Ergonomics Of Panoramic Interactions Continued

TouchShield SlideBruno’s comment about touch-screens got me thinking. While most users still interface with the computer via mouse, keyboard and a one-way display, things are going to change fast in the coming years. The old KVM (Keyboard/Video/Mouse) user interface is being replaced by more powerful and natural tools. The point&click / drag&drop metaphors popularized by Apple’s Macintosh since 1984 after the invention of the ball mouse at the Xerox Parc are due for an update. Ever smaller and powerful mobile devices, accelerometers, touch screens, 3D screens. How will they interface between the user and the VR Panorama?

The solutions I have observed so far simply hard wire the behavior of these new devices to the mouse. This is no different than my 1998 Wacom Tablet (which still works!). The simulation of the mouse limits the interaction designer to define the device in relationship to mouse behavior and either mimic it or its inverse.  After half a century it is time to break those limits; to look at the interactions anew and to design device/context specific metaphores; to mold the intearction around the human. I see a combination of relevant factors, including the device’s physical characteristics and the context in which it is used. A touch-screen on a desktop requires a different metaphore than one on a smartphone. And what to do when two competing input devices with conflicting metaphores are attached, such as an accelerometer (3D mouse) and a touch-screen?

For the desktop touch-screen and for the laptop touch-screen I tend to agree with Bruno that the Google StreetView metaphore is the way to go, at least until the computer can discern if the index finger is at a nearly perpendicular angle and fully straightened as in a pointing; or it has a smaller angle and a slightly more curved posture as in a natural dragging movement.

Things become more touchy (pun intended) with mobile devices which typically have an accelerometer and a touch-screen. Which one should drive the VR panorama interaction and how? To me the most natural would be to use the accelerometer and point the iPhone in the direction I want to see, but in some situation such explicit movements are embarassing, unconvenient, inappropriate, or all of the above; and the more discreet dragging by finger on the touch-screen is the right way to go.

Whichever it is, I think modern panoramic viewer should make provisions to accommodate both behaviors – dragging and pointing. Ideally the system would tell the VR player in what context it is playing and the VR player would adapt, using an appropriate metaphores. Currently the browser only let the VR player assume the presence of a pointing device, and the devices all interface by mimicking the mouse. In the current situation making the mouse behavior a parameter, as implemented in the KRpano viewer, is the best thing to do. When a reliable detection mechanism can tell the player what device is attached, the choice may be automated.

I look forward to see the results of León’s Google Summer of Code project adding QTVR playback and Wiimote interaction capabilities to the VLC media player. In the meantime I got help from the Liquidware guys in my still unsuccessful attempts to make their Antipasto Arduino IDE work on my Ubuntu notebook. The TouchShield Slide touch-screen rocks and I am keen to toy on new interfaces with it.

The Ergonomics Of Panoramic Interactions

Apple under the ShowerGoogle StreetView has contributed immensly to the popularity of virtual reality (VR). Kudos to them. They keep adding smart and complex navigation improvements. When will they realize that the single most effective and easy to implement improvement to StreetView’s navigation would be to invert the movement of the mouse? To the vast majority of humans it is more intuitive to move the mouse to the point of interest. With StreetView today it is the other way around: to look up you have to drag the mouse down and to look right you have to drag it to the left. In the past decade Apple understood the ergonomics very well and established the best practice with QuickTimeVR, the ancestor technology underlying VR interaction. The vast majority of panorama viewers use this intuitive way of navigating the panorama. Why not StreetView?

Chilling Effects

Frozen Planet

The latest World Wide Panorama (WWP) went online. I’ve been a regular contributor to the WWP ever since I found about it four years ago, but this is likely to be the last event I will participate to. Click on the above image to interact with the VR I entered, or click here to see it in its WWP-context. My entry’s text is replicated below.

Chilling Effects

The weather is quite a roller-coaster in Québec in December. This year we had a White Christmas, with temperature swings from -21°C to +9°C within a few hours. Snow and rain alternate, with icing rain building a beautiful though sometimes lethal coating on branches and roads.

Sunday morning, during a break between icing rain and rain, I went out to take this panorama. The atmosphere was surreal. The ground was freezing cold, but the air was warm and there was fog and low clouds. The ice was melting and dripping. I found some ice leftovers on the viburnum trilobum with its red berries at the border of the wood next to the little pond.

I just did not feel like reviewing my panorama productions of the year. Not that I did not have any worth publishing, like this that I also used for the nadir tutorial; or the pano meetings I attended this year in New York and Toronto.

Like last year I participated again to the Google-sponsored development of free panorama software, and blogged about it with panos. And this year others stepped into the tradition I started of a pano at the Google Summer of Code Mentors Summit.

And then there was the most beautiful panorama I ever made. Too beautiful for a “best of the year”.

Actually the weather conditions, with the preceding roller-coaster, reflected pretty well how I feel about my participation to the WWP throughout this year.

In the past, participating to the WWP energized and motivated me. It was fun to be part of the community; it was stimulating to interpret creatively Don’s essays; it was challenging to push my techniques to the limits with the help, feedback and guidance of experienced masters of the art met in the community. There was a sense of purpose, accomplishment and connection after every event. I was proud to have my little contribution up there, next to some of the VR-artists I admire most.

But in the year coming to an end my motivation faded gradually away under the chilling effects:

  • of the copyright infringement / abuse that my sometimes very personal entries have been subjected to along the entries of many other artists contributing to the WWP;
  • of the indifference of some to that abuse;
  • and worse of it all of the hypocrisy of some others when I tried to rally support for a negotiated solution of the abuse.

I spent a large part of my free time this year trying to organize a collective response to a major copyright infringement of which many of us WWP-contributors have been victims. And I felt lonely, particularly when I found out the hard way that some members of the “community” joined my effort with the sole purpose of seeing it fail, putting personal interest ahead of community interest.

Participation to the WWP no longer feels like a joy. I can no longer relate to the concept which in my opinion has been watered down and now looks a lot like the many flickr-like pano publishing sites which have sprouted like mushrooms and for which I have no particular attraction.

I no longer feel the bond of the past. I am still in touch with many talented artists I have met over the years and am thankful to the WWP for being the fertile ground for those contacts. But quantity over quality and conservatism over bold experimentalism have watered down the visionary concept to which I subscribed, for which I could motivate myself to spend two nights without sleep out in the freezing cold.

My interest has shifted. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just evolution, natural change. The quest for the next frontier. This panorama is actually the first time I have mounted the fisheye lens this month. I’m now doing more video than photo, and more portrait than landscape. And it is likely to stay so for a while.

I surely will do some panoramas here and there, and contribute to the hugin-ptx community that is developing the free software to make panoramas, but I can no longer guarantee the time and motivation to contribute regularly to the WWP as I have done over the past four years.

Four years are a very long time in technology. QTVR is being replaced by Flash, flat panel displays of ever growing size and resolution are hitting the market and the next medium for panoramas will be, no doubt, dome projection. Already now they can be set up for a five digits dollar amount.

I hope to continue the dialog started here on the WWP, with fellow artists, technologists and enthusiasts. You can always find me here on my blog and on my photo website. And if I was lucky enough to meet you, you also have my personal contact details.

A heartfelt farewell, World Wide Panorama.

Built To Last

We all build (or rent or buy) a dwelling at some points in life. And we all have different standards for our dwelling depending on its purpose. We choose with greater care the family home for the next few years than the camping spot for the next week. And we are more tolerant of little annoyances such as a water leak in a camping tent that will be disbanded in a day or two, than in a house that is intended to stay solid for decades.

Similar rules apply to software. Building a Windows binary of Hugin is a matter of less than an hour once the toolchain is set up. And if that was it, I could simply put it online and satisfy these calls. But what if it starts to leak? Guess who will take the heat and comments of disappointed users?

Ideally, there is a whole quality assurance process between a build and a distributed package. Commercial companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on quality assurance for small incremental releases and still mess them up sometimes.

So if I want to release a new installer, after building, I take some time to do quality assurance as described here. It’s not perfect, but it is what is reasonable for such a volunteer effort, and it is time that comes at a cost to my other free time activities. It’s a trade-off.

Facing the trade-off between packaging for distribution a release candidate that will change, or building the Google Summer of Code projects of the students that we so carefully selected and that we are grooming to become the next generation of Hugin contributors, what would you do?

I made my choice. I am committed to our students and I owe it to them. If you want something specific from me, contact me and we can discuss your requirements. Often this boils down to an hourly rate and a deadline that fits with my prior commitments.

Apple’s QuickTime Update Breaks Detection

Recently Apple updated QuickTime. I received the update on my Windows box via Apple Software Update and I agree with John Lilly, Mozilla CEO, when he blasts Apple. It undermines the trust relationship great companies have with their customers, and that’s bad – not just for Apple, but for the security of the whole Web”. Indeed, it tried to sneak once again iTunes on my machine, despite me repeatedly checking the “ignore this upgrade” box.

The latest QuickTime update also undermines some of the plug-in detection code used to find out if a visitor has QuickTime in the browser, including in Apple’s own Safari. I found out about it the hard way last weekend at the first Toronto Panoheads Meeting. Lucky me I could divert my talk and talk about the World Wide Panorama instead.

Plug-in detection is critical to the proper display of plug-in dependent content such as VR. Trying to display a VR using a plug-in that is not available on the client results in awful degradation.

Detecting the availability of the plug-in is the first step in graceful degradation: if the plug-in is detected, chances are that the content will display properly. If it is not detected, the website can degrade gracefully and show the visitor a static image or a link to download the relevant plug-in.

There are two ways to detect the plug-ins: ActiveX probing (for Internet Explorer) and parsing the navigator.plugins array (for all other browsers). In Firefox, it is possible to display the content of the navigator.plugins array in a user readable format by typing about:plugins in the address bar:

Until recently, QuickTime’s version was listed in the form of Major.Minor.Revision. Now they seem to have moved to Major.Minor (Revision) – and some parsers will choke on that. Mine did.

I not only detect QuickTime, I also try to discern the real QuickTime from the many third party plugins that set their name so to fool the detectors and return positive to detection, like Totem or VLC. Hence, I check with a strict syntax, and when Apple breaks the syntax, my detection returns a false negative.

False negatives are IMHO better than false positives. The reason why third-party plug-ins want to fool the detector is because they think they can play QuickTime content. It may be true for audio/video and other linear content. Unfortunately it is not (yet) true for VR, objects or panoramas. Discerning whether the original QuickTime is installed or a copycat, makes the difference between a gracefully degraded website or one showing a broken movie.

Fixing my detection code was quick and all websites using it have been updated automatically. Of course it would be nicer if Apple would stick to its own conventions in the first place.

World Wide Panorama

The latest World Wide Panorama event is online. I did not have much time to process my entry, an objectVR movie.

Unfortunately the above site requires QuickTime, and that QuickTime is not available for Linux. There are plenty of media players that play linear QuickTime content, but support for QTVR – cylindrical and cubic panoramas as well as object VR movies – often falls short.

Last year the FreePV viewer was a Google Summer of Code project. This year I hope that we can take it further with the help of the team at VideoLAN. The plan is to integrate it in VLC, one of the most popular free media players out there, and my favorite on both Windows and Linux.