Two Weeks in New York

How’s everyone doing? I recently went to New York for the first time ever, and did a bunch of touristy things. It was also my first time in the U.S. in over a decade, and maybe overestimated how bad the TSA and airport immigration situation would be. It’s the last thing you want after 20 hours of flying: to be stuck in an hour-long line with people barking at you to take your clothes off. But we got in and out of JFK without much hassle.

Having an Uber account is fast becoming the most important thing to a traveler after having maps on your smartphone and watch. It lets you integrate with any city with no more difficulty or delay than if it were your own. There’s no need to plan an airport transfer in advance, find out if tipping’s expected, or get flustered if you’re late for a show downtown.

We got into a performance of Hamilton literally against all odds. The show is sold out for the next year, and resale tickets are pretty much unaffordable, but there’s a daily online lottery where you can get front row seats for $10. I heard somewhere that tens of thousands of people enter each day, and it can take months of trying. Kim somehow managed to win tickets a day into our second week. It was the first day of Javier Muñoz’s permanent run as Hamilton after Lin-Manuel Miranda stepped down, and he killed it. I was sick and shivering with a fever, and it was still incredible and unforgettable.

You can’t take any photos during the show, so I don’t have any. And despite bringing my Fujifilm X100T on the trip, I didn’t even use it once. Not one frame. Maybe it was the summer heat and not wanting to be encumbered or precious about one more thing to avoid banging about/losing/getting stolen, or maybe I just wanted to keep it casual, but my iPhone did everything. Fusion HDR and ProCamera’s LowLight+ mode helped in extreme lighting conditions. For shooting distant subjects in good light, I think it’s really close to what the X100T would have got. As holiday snapshots go, I’m happy with what I got. This fall’s iPhone 6SE/X/whatever will close the gap even more.

The one thing photos can’t do is capture other aspects of the experience, but Live Photos and 360º panoramas can be better at it than the usual 2D stills. We recently got a Ricoh Theta S at work, and now I want to take something like it on my next vacation. Being able to grab everything in a scene with a single button, and re-enter that environment later with a VR headset… why wouldn’t you? I’ll hold out for the next model with better image quality, but it’s one thing your smartphone camera won’t compete with for awhile. If you have the time to stand in one spot for a few minutes though, you can use Google’s oddly branded Street View app to capture spherical photos.

Real talk: I didn’t get to see that much of the city, relatively, but it was pretty cool to visit. In terms of livability, though, it’s not topping Tokyo for me in any of the categories. I’m probably the worst person when it comes to dealing with loud crowds, germs, heat, public transport breakdowns, the threat of impending personal harm — basically i’m a paranoid baby. Living in New York probably wouldn’t play to any of my strengths. But between Ktown and David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam, I think they’re doing a great job with Korean food! It was far from my favorite cuisine before, but now I’m a convert.

Okay, photos.

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The line on the street for Hamilton *after* we got out
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Couple making out in a hotel had an audience below
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Freakily realistic statue on the Highline
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Saw this the day after Philando Castile was shot
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A Starry Night at MoMA
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Nintendo World
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Apple Store in Grand Central Terminal
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Okay this was HK, during the stopover

“Onions” Breaks One of Apple’s Oldest Advertising Rules

Apple’s new iPhone ad departs from some of their oldest and most inspiring advertising by making fun of what customers do.

I’m curious what people make of the new iPhone 6S ad from Apple, the comedy one called “Onions”. On the surface, it looks like another one of the fun, irreverent ads that have been made for the 6S series so far — the previous ones leaned heavily on their sassy, self-reflexive voiceovers by the actress Lake Bell. It only has a brief product demo lasting about 3 seconds, followed by nearly a minute of story; it has a celebrity appearance; some humor; and a quirky sign-off that says “Onions on iPhone 6S” before “Onions” becomes “4K Video”.

While I enjoyed it, I think it perverts one of the unspoken rules that have made past Apple ads great. The people in those ads were always more creative, more talented, doing better work, and living fuller lives than the average viewer. But the ads seemed to believe that you were that person, and always spoke up to you. In other words, they assumed the best of their customers.

That’s just a company that knows how to utilize aspiration. You see it in fashion advertising, but you’re either model material or you’re not. When it comes to products that let anyone create, the dream is ever alive!

The Apple Pencil lets an artist draw beautiful lines, an app on the Mac lets a young musician record a touching song for her mom, photographers take billboard-worthy photos on their iPhones, an architect edits blueprints on his iPad Pro at the coffee shop, a misunderstood teenager cuts a family film over Christmas. These are scenes you’ve probably seen, and I’ll bet they inspired you to make more stuff more often, or convinced you that upgrading to the new one would upgrade the quality of your work, or both. The examples were aspirational, but completely relatable.

“Onions” takes a different tone. It’s a somewhat sarcastic, belittling parody that pokes fun at what its protagonist shoots, pretending to have a bit of fun with exaggeration. It says, “this is what YOU will probably make with the power of a 4K movie camera in your pocket, and this is what you probably think it’s worth: an award presented by Neil Patrick Harris. So, please enjoy your comical fantasy!”. Instead of showing an example of great accomplishment, as was the tradition, it goes for the cheap laugh. It fails at showing us something we should aspire to achieve with an iPhone 6S of our own. It’s an odd departure from a winning formula that has long defined the brand’s outlook on technology enabling creativity, and I hope not to see many more like it.


I also watched Samsung’s new celebrity-laden ads for the Galaxy S7 phone, and some of them were really entertaining, well-written, and funny. A couple fell flat.

In comparison with Apple’s style, about 3 of them featured Lil’ Wayne absurdly pouring bottles of expensive champagne all over his waterproof S7, which made the existence of that feature absolutely clear, but didn’t do anything to make me want one. I’m not in the habit of intentionally drowning my phone.

The waterproofing ad that worked better? A script that meanders about how water is everywhere on earth, making up 72% of our bodies, etc. etc. before ending on a scene where a phone gets dropped into a fountain while taking a photo. The owner picks it back up, and continues getting the shot, no beats missed. Anecdotally, lots of phones have been dropped into water by people I know, and I think this crucial point would resonate with them. A relatable real life moment, real people, and a real problem we’d love to suddenly go away overnight.

Mobile or Console, the Name of the Game is the Same

Playing Oceanhorn on the new Apple TV, with a Bluetooth game controller like the SteelSeries Nimbus, feels distinctly like a traditional console gaming experience. It’s been compared to a modern Zelda title, and if you’re in the mood to explore, its large world lends itself to leaning back on the couch for a good hour or more.

What’s interesting is that you can pick up your iPhone later and continue your savegame synced over iCloud, at which point its modified-for-touch controls and mini quest structure actually turn it into a modern mobile gaming experience.

What might be undersold by a simple bullet point — “Cloud Saves” — is really significant: one game that can be played in very different contexts, made possible by having the same OS in your pocket and living room (and car, one day). It’s probably the future of gaming.

Much like how we now commonly design for the web, going mobile-first in gaming makes sense for companies looking to the players to come. That means not making the mobile bit just a simplified companion app with minigames connecting back to the “proper” console version. The level of control complexity and engagement can and should scale to the device, all within the same game.

Geometry Wars 3

Many of the guidelines for apps on the new Apple TV force developers to adapt the experience to the available controller. Geometry Wars goes from a dual-analog stick shooter on a regular gamepad to an auto-shooter when on Siri Remote, where the player only has to steer. You get what fits, but never less than the whole story.

The experience of seamlessly jumping from a phone to a 60” TV reminds me of how it felt to play the first iPhone games. I remember Crash Bandicoot, in particular, as a sign of things to come. You could get games like it on the Nintendo DS, but they weren’t downloaded over Wi-Fi in seconds, for mere dollars, or paid for electronically. It made the portable gaming systems of 2008 feel dated. And as Apple added more power, multitasking, social features, and cloud saves to iOS, the iPhone overtook them completely.

Games on the new Apple TV have more than a whiff of that to them. Even if the platform doesn’t come to dominate gaming a decade from now, I believe the winner will work and feel like it.

In a sea of diminished companies out-innovated from changes they didn’t see coming, it’s gratifying to think that Nintendo may have played their cards right with the upcoming NX. It’s rumored to be a home console with a detachable mobile device, playing games that also work with smartphones and networks from its rivals. God knows how they’ll do it, but that describes the right shape to survive: experiences designed to shift context, open to different forms of interaction (hey, even VR), ready to fill varied slices of time, long or short, in a busy user’s day.

Unboxing: Moment Case for iPhone 6S Plus

Today I received my new Moment Case (Dark Walnut Kickstarter edition) for iPhone 6 Plus after a long wait following the Kickstarter campaign. They hit a snag with manufacturing, and the release of the slightly thicker 6S series of phones necessitated holding back to make sure the original designs fit.

It works as advertised and is very easy to hold; slips into my jeans pocket comfortably enough too. Here’s a quick unboxing and look at the startup photo taking workflow. Note that you must use the Moment Camera app if you want to use the shutter button. It does NOT function as a regular Bluetooth remote shutter like the kind you use with a selfie stick.

Really Nice Images (RNI) Photo App for iOS

   
 

I came across this app a couple of weeks ago but can’t remember how, and since then it’s struck me as somewhat criminal that more people aren’t talking about it. So this is just a quick post to help you, my reader, discover a new app that brings realistic analog film simulation to your iPhone photos.

Sure, we already have VSCO, Rebelsauce, Faded, Afterlight, Litely, Priime… but there’s always room for one more if it does the job really well; the job being accurate reproduction of film characteristics. Then it’s a much shorter list. Mattebox (when it was for sale and updated) did a marvellous job of handling exposure adjustments in a very film-like way, VSCO Film in their desktop products are designed to emulate certain classic stocks, and a couple others like PicTapGo come from companies that also produce pro-grade Lightroom presets for a day job.

RNI Films falls into this general category easily. Their Lightroom presets are based on close study of classic films, they use real film grain scans and simulate old lenses with blurring, individual packs retail for $49 each (there are 5?), and online chatter from professionals indicate that their work is well-regarded as being competitive with and maybe even better than VSCO Film, now the biggest player thanks to the profile of their iOS app.

Unlike VSCOcam, which intentionally avoids naming its iPhone filters to match/cannibalize their more expensive Lightroom presets, RNI’s new app offers the same film simulations by name: Kodak Gold 200, Fuji Velvia 100, etc. I haven’t compared them, but I’ll guess that the iOS app produces results very close to the desktop product, at a fraction of the cost. Perhaps they have been tuned to the qualities of the iPhone’s camera for best results. At about $3 per in-app purchase pack, they are more expensive than those in most other filter apps on smartphones, but come on. In comparison to $49, we’re talking about a near giveaway.

I’ve been very pleased with the presets, and they look the way I expect them to. The app could use a few more features and a streamlined editing UX that allows for people who’d want to save versions, for example, but as of right now it gets the basics done about as well as the earlier generations of iPhone filter apps. Load > Stage 1 Edits > Stage 2 Edits > Save as new copy. It’s still faster at this workflow than VSCOcam! Hopefully the team at RNI are still iterating on it right now, although I sort of doubt it.

   
    
    
 

RNI Films by RNI (Free, with IAP)

https://appsto.re/sg/Wg7N8.i

Darkroom Photo App Shows Why UX Details Are Everything

A new photo editor for iOS launched today, and it’s called Darkroom (free, with a $2.99 in-app purchase to unlock Curves).

“Another photo editing app? What does this one bring to the table?” I’ve seen a few early reviews of Darkroom begin along those lines. It seems a sense of fatigue has set in amongst people watching this space, and it interests me to find that I don’t feel the same way. I’ve dived into every new release with optimism, because there are still so many ways to improve upon what we can currently do on our mobile devices.

The Verge mentions Darkroom in the same breath as VSCO Cam, suggesting that the latter has a new challenger. That’s somewhat wrong-headed; they aren’t anymore alike than, say, how Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are as ways of passing time. Both apps allow you to tune the look of a photo, and apply presets, but it’s how they’ve been engineered to do it that counts.

Darkroom’s most exciting development, if you listen to what people are saying, is that it allows you to edit photos by adjusting RGB curves. Except that’s not especially new in the iPhone app space — Photoforge did it years ago, Filterstorm has that and much more in the way of professional tools, and there are others. The next feature to get attention is that you can save any of your adjustments as a custom preset, ready for future photos, and it’s like making your own filters. Again, this is territory that Mattebox, PicTapGo, Mextures, et al pioneered awhile ago.

The reason Darkroom is exciting, is that it seems to have absolutely nailed the UX of these features, and made them feel manageable, comfortable, and pleasurable to use as a whole. I want to emphasize that this is hard, and that their solutions are so subtle and executional, they might not have convinced anyone of their worth if presented as bullet points on a slide at some early point in the process.

Using other apps with curves and pro adjustments can feel claustrophobic and stressful on a small screen. I’ve hated almost every single one (Adobe’s own Photoshop Touch is so awful at it) and keep them on my phone as last resorts. If I’m on holiday and take a problematic photo with potential, I’m more likely to wait till I get home just so I can do it on a Mac than try to fiddle with it on the go. Snapseed is one powerful exception, but that uses its own control metaphors, not curves.

Darkroom’s UI is blissfully open in design. It will likely get more complicated as they add more promised features, but I’m hopeful the team finds a way to keep this incredible simplicity. As you page through its 5 key sections (composition, filters, adjustments, curves, history), you never lose your place in the mental model. Nothing is buried in a submenu or out of sight.

You don’t have to click a checkmark to save an adjustment before tapping another, because everything can be undone to an infinite degree, and one can undo hundreds of minute actions back to the beginning of an edit if necessary. Because that step (so annoying in apps like Afterlight, Faded, and VSCO Cam) has been eliminated, using Darkroom’s tools feels close to direct manipulation of the colors and pixels on your screen. One more nice touch: you can tap to the left or right of a slider knob to nudge it in that direction. Simple, but I can’t remember the last time a photo app let me do that.

Loading up a photo is seamless. The app starts with a view of your entire photo library. Tapping a photo pulls it forward, straight into editing mode. At this point, you can swipe to either side to start editing adjacent photos in your library. Flicking a photo down tosses it back into the pile, and you’re looking at all your photos again. In use, it feels gloriously fast and uncomplicated. As that bullet point on a slide, “Seamless browsing and editing flow” wouldn’t have done it justice. This is the kind of feature that needs to be designed, prototyped, tweaked, and tuned over and over to create something subtle, but innovative. A team rushing their project out would have missed the opportunity.

The difference between Darkroom and apps that require stepping in and out of different editing modes, especially when the placement of those modes is obscured, is like Apple’s own (now discontinued) iPhoto for iOS and the new built-in photo editing options in Photos.app. The former was a confusing mess with plenty of user-undiscoverable gestures and submenus, while the latter gives most users all the power they need in a more approachable UI.

iPhoto Photos

I’ve stopped using half of the other apps I’ve listed above as problematic, and forgotten the names of twice as many more. The ones I remember tend to be the ones I really wanted to succeed; I’ll unfairly single out Mattebox as an app with great technology and features, but suffered from confounding UX design. Countless times, I actually got lost inside the mess of buttons and menus that were hidden at the “back” of its camera mode. Thinking about the Darkroom icon sitting on my homescreen now doesn’t fill me with the same dread. I’m dreaming about using it later tonight, and tomorrow, and anticipating what will be new in the first update. Although its name is generic, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it soon. I imagine it’s the beginning of a new phase of using my iPhone as a camera, one in which I can send better photos home while still on holiday.