Shifts Happen

September 19, 2007

sign.jpgCecropia’s web site has a new look. Because Cecropia has a new direction. After many fruitful years of experimenting in the fascinating laboratory of coin-operated video games, we have decided to leave the coin-op world behind us. It is a new millenium. We are focused on the Internet.

The Act taught us a lot about creating an emotional connection between game players and interactive characters. That connection can be a powerful force. We think the best place to apply it now is in interactive advertising.

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Bus Plan Backfires

May 26, 2007

bus.jpegThe saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” In the case of my plan to combat global warming by taking the bus, the saying applies more literally than usual.

I looked into the fuel efficiency of mass transit buses and found some surprising data. According to the U.S. government’s 2005 Transportation Energy Data Book, buses use more energy on average per passenger mile than cars—even more than SUVs! These are actual averages, based on the average car load of 1.57 persons, and the average bus load of 8.7 passengers. If you look at the bus vs. a person driving a car alone, buses are more energy efficient—but not much (only about 34%).

This led me to an interesting paradox: my own efforts to take the bus will make a difference. I can measure my CO2 savings in pounds. However, if everybody took the bus, it wouldn’t help so much. The MBTA would react to increased ridership by adding routes and frequencies until they hit their target average load (whatever that is).

The bright side of the bus, if there is one, is that mass transit does good for society in ways other than reducing carbon emissions: it reduces congestion, and it provides transportation for people who cannot afford cars. However, for the sake of fuel efficiency, I am currently tuning up my bicycle.

Adventures on the Bus

May 24, 2007

mbta_bus.jpgBecause of global warming, I have been taking the bus as much as possible instead of driving. This gives me plenty of time to think about…what’s wrong with MBTA buses!

The Charlie Card system works great—except for people who don’t have them. As people board the bus, it takes just 2 seconds to pay a fare with a Charlie Card. Those paying with cash hold up the bus for as much as a minute while they fumble with their bills and try to get the machine to accept them. It is really annoying!

Can’t someone invent a bill acceptor that will take a crumpled up bill?

Eye Contact

April 25, 2007

jetsons-videophone.jpgThe team of animators, engineers and other developers who created The Act was spread out among several locations in North America. We made heavy use of Apple’s iChat video conferencing software to keep in close contact. Despite iChat’s incredible convenience and low cost, it has one major drawback that diminishes its usefulness: the eye contact problem.

The problem is well documented in scholarly papers and blog posts. Normally, when videoconferencing, you want to look at the screen so you can see the person you are talking to. But when you look at the screen, you are not looking at the camera, so you appear to your partner to be looking away.

I can attest that this makes a huge difference. People’s faces just look different when you look them in the eye. There is a natural tendency to look engaged when someone is looking at you. If your partner looks away, your face relaxes and looks blank. With videoconferencing, there is a vicious cycle of blank stares that can easily be (and often was) interpreted as hostility. The absolute worst was meeting a new person for the first time via video. But even with colleagues whom I considered close friends, it was easy to misunderstand each other. Humor was difficult. I sometimes forced myself to smile or look straight into the camera for my partner’s sake. Video conversations felt less personal than the regular, audio-only telephone. Despite the constant video contact, we found it critically important to physically travel for frequent, real-life “face time.”

When the eye contact problem is solved, videoconferencing will be a completely different animal. It will be possible to look at a life-sized face on a screen, and have it look right back at you. It will be possible to read all kinds of meaning from a person’s gaze. It will be possible to say without words that you hear what they are saying and that you understand. Then, there should be a tipping point of effectiveness that will create a big drop in the need for business travel—and a corresponding surge in productivity.

Microsoft is working to solve the problem with software that modifies the eyes in a video image so that the eyes (falsely) appear to be looking straight at the camera. Others, including Apple, have solutions that place the camera in line with the screen. A year ago, Apple patented a new kind of video monitor with tiny cameras between all the pixels. The Apple fan-boy nation is waiting with bated breath for this to become a product.

While we are waiting, a small technology company has offered a stop-gap solution called “See Eye 2 Eye.” SE2E works like a teleprompter to place a camera in line with a display. Although it is affordable ($100 for a pair), it has limitations (bulkiness, small image size, image darkness) that will probably prevent it from creating the tipping point of my dreams.

Some day, true eye-contact video conferencing will change the world. If you want to glimpse that future, give See Eye 2 Eye a try.

MBTA Trip Planner

March 23, 2007

tsign.jpgBoston’s public transportation system just got an awesome new tool. It is a web-based trip planner that works just like MapQuest driving directions—only instead of driving directions, you get directions by bus, train, and foot. You input a departure time (sadly, no option for desired arrival time), and the trip planner uses official bus and train schedules to figure out the fastest way to go.

The system has gotten mostly lukewarm press since its initial buggy launch on December 15. But I found it to work extremely well. It inspired me enough to order a CharlieCard for the first time. We’ll see how much I actually use it.

If the MBTA does add wireless access, email alerts, and real-time GPS bus location data to the system as promised, Boston’s public transportation will become dramatically more convenient. Imagine if there were a button you could push on your cell phone that would tell you (using your phone’s GPS location) how long before the next bus would arrive at the nearest bus stop. What about an application that would send your cell phone a text message at the exact time when you should pick up and leave your office because the bus for your commute home is five minutes away up the street? There may come a time when we see a virtuous cycle of increased convenience leading to increased ridership leading to increased routes and schedules, etc.

The new web site was built by RDVO, a Massachusetts company, at a cost of $400,000. That is a lot of money for a web site, even for a $1.3 billion enterprise like the MBTA. But in this age of global warming, I feel strongly that the new site is a step in the right direction. Perhaps other cities that do not have a system like it can benefit from the investment Boston has made.

Flash Business

March 21, 2007

I have puzzled for many years over Macromedia’s (and now Adobe’s) Flash business model: They allow anyone to compete freely with the Flash authoring tool (which they sell for money), but one must pay for the right to compete with the Flash player (which they give away for free). Hindsight tells us that the model works, because it has helped make Flash the standard for rich Internet applications. But I have always marveled that Adobe makes enough money selling a paltry few authoring tools and that they don’t mind giving away hundreds of millions of copies of the player for free.

Many pundits (most recently Ted Leung and Anne Zelenka) worry that Adobe’s control of the Flash standard is bad for the web. They are hoping Adobe will hand control of the standard over to the open source community. The concern is that so much power should not rest in one company’s hands—the company will be tempted to abuse it.ring.jpeg

The response from Adobe’s evangelists (e.g. Andrew Shebanow, Duane Nickull) is essentially “we’re trustworty Hobbits—the One Ring of Power is not going to corrupt us.”

But companies must act in the best interests of their shareholders. Adobe should do and probably will do whatever will profit them the most. The question of what is best for the web community is only relevant as it affects Adobe’s bottom line.

Adobe’s own annual report says that they intend to “explore monetization opportunities” for the Flash Player and Adobe Reader (p. 21). My opinion: if they even hint at charging money for the player, that standard will be gone…well, in a flash.

Miyamoto Keynote

March 9, 2007

miyamoto.jpgYesterday, I saw Nintendo’s creative superstar, Shigeru Miyamoto, deliver the keynote address at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. His name is unknown to the masses of non-video game fans. But among gamers, he is revered almost to the point of worship.

The whole speech was great, but the best part was a fascinating glimpse into his personal life. Miyamoto spoke about his wife, who had long held an aversion to video games. His wife did not even care for the wholesome and broadly appealing games of his own design. He came to use his “wife-o-meter” as the ultimate test of broad appeal. Even Tetris, famous for its popularity with women, scored a zero on his wife-o-meter.

When their daughter began playing Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a turning point occurred. His wife put aside her distaste in order to observe and monitor. Later came Animal Crossing, and Mrs. Miyamoto first agreed to touch the controller. Then came Nintendogs (the Miyamotos have a family dog) and finally, Brain Age, and Mrs. Miyamoto became truly interested.

And then today, of course, we have a Wii in our house. So last month, on the 14th, Valentine’s Day (in Japan on Valentine’s Day, women give chocolates to men—it’s very nice). So as usual, I came home rather late from work, and I expected her to be asleep. But I opened the door, and I heard the sounds of the Wii. So of course I thought “Oh, she waited up! Just to give me chocolates! That’s so sweet!” But actually, she was just casting her votes on the Everybody Votes channel. But here’s the amazing thing: what this meant is that she herself used the Wii and downloaded the Everybody Votes channel all on her own. This is an incredible occurrence in my household. Like—it would be more normal for me to walk home and find Donkey Kong eating at my dinner table. So now, things have really changed at my house.

(Full video of the keynote available at Gamespot.com)

This American Life Unveiled

February 28, 2007

glass2.jpgI had a surreal experience last night: watching Ira Glass and company performing an episode of their radio show, This American Life, live at the Boston Opera House. This American Life is on tour to promote the upcoming television version of the show (premiering March 22 at 10:30 PM on ShowTime).

In a fascinating segment that won’t be heard on radio, Glass and his director, Chris Wilcha, showed some clips and outtakes from the TV show and recounted their struggle to translate the appeal of This American Life to video.

My vote: the TV show is just as brainy and hip as the radio show. The cinematography is way cool. However, it totally lacks the meditative, contemplative quality of radio. To me, the quintessential This American Life experience is catching it in the car on Saturday and ending up parked at my destination, sitting in a trance for 20 minutes to hear the show finish. The TV version is not like that.

There used to be a TV show that had a similar effect on me. It was CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. Sunday Morning had two things This American Life does not: long, silent nature shots and a Sunday morning (pajamas/bagels/coffee) time slot. Perhaps I will Tivo This American Life and watch it on Sunday.

Katz and Snyder Team Up Live

February 26, 2007

katz.jpgFriend and mentor, Tom Snyder, is directing “WORKING the ROOM: An Evening with Jonathan Katz and Friends” this Friday and Saturday at Jimmy Tingle’s OFF BROADWAY Theater in Somerville, Massachusetts. For fans of their hit Comedy Channel series, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, this is a must-see.

Catmull Likes Pencil and Paper

February 9, 2007

image_disneypixar7.jpgThe Hollywood Reporter has an article today with the headline, “Disney getting back to hand-drawn animation.” Unfortunately, it offers no specifics about The Frog Princess or anything else. Just that Ed Catmull, speaking at Disney’s annual Investors Conference in Orlando yesterday, said he and Lasseter intend to bring traditional animation back, “provided a worthy story is being told.”

Other news from the conference: Disney intends to build a few mini theme parks around the country, and the made-for-TV movie, High School Musical made a $100 million profit.