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Windows Phone 8.1 ‘Cortana’ meets My O2 Live Tiles

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Last week Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8.1, the newest version of its phone OS at the Build 2014 conference in San Francisco. One of the big new features for this release was the addition of a new ‘Personal Assistant’ feature called Cortana. Cortana is essentially Microsoft’s version of Apple’s Siri or Google Now. Cortana is currently labelled as a Beta product and officially only available to US based users, although it’s still possible to configure a phone running the the Windows 8.1 Developer Preview to run Cortana as a user in the UK ..which I obviously did as soon as the word was out on how to achieve this.

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Cortana can do all of the typical things you’d expect from seeing previous Siri demos but for me one of the most interesting and important differences from Siri is that Microsoft have thought about how developers might want to integrate their own apps with Cortana and provided the necessary hooks and information on how to do this. Therefore, armed with a decent Microsoft sample project I went about adding Cortana integration into my existing My O2 Live Tiles proof of concept app. The app could already retrieve a customers O2 allowances for minutes, data and text so after a few relatively simply updates and I had the app responding to some basic voice commands initiated through Cortana. The experiment only really touched on what could be achieved given more time. The level of integration demonstrated in the video below only took around a hour or so to complete – I probably spent longer trying to record a reasonable video demonstrating it in action.

There is plenty of room for improvement. Currently the Cortana to 3rd party app integration requires Cortana to kick off the app in question into the foreground. A useful addition, which I’m expecting is already on the Cortana development team roadmap, would allow a background agent to respond and return results that would be displayed directly within the Cortana interface. Also, the speech recognition was a bit flaky but that could simply be put down to the necessity of configuring ‘US English’ on the phone in order to get access to Cortana in the first place. When Cortana is officially available in the UK in the coming months I’m expecting that side of things to be much better.

Quick Thoughts on Google Glass

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Well, I’ve had Google Glass for all of 30 minutes – so I thought I’d give you my first impressions. No, I haven’t read the manual.

The first thing to note is that it is really well packaged. Everything from the USB cable to the bundled sunglasses are held together beautifully.

As someone who doesn’t wear glasses, I found them fairly light and not too intrusive. The screen sits slightly above my line of site but – even when it’s off – it is a distraction. It has a tendency to display light refracted from screens and lightbulbs. I almost wish it was larger so the edges were less noticeable.

When the screen is displaying white text on a transparent background, there is a noticeable “rainbow effect”. As my eye darts around, there are little spectrum trails ghosting behind the text. I’ve previously experienced this on cheap DLP projectors – I’ve no idea why it’s present on the Glass.

Compared to something like the Oculus Rift, the screen is great. There’s no noticeable “screen door” effect (where you can see the gap between the pixels). That said, it’s quite hard to get the focus of the screen perfect – either one side of the other seems permanently…. it’s hard to describe… smeary?

The interface is a mixture of simple and maddening. Swiping forward moves you right – which just feel wrong to me. I get that it’s moving right through a stack of cards – but it feels like it should be moving me right. Hard to describe – but certainly something which should be user customisable.

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Everything is heavily tied into Google’s ecosystem. I get that – but it’s annoying to find yet another product which forces the beleaguered Google+ upon users. For example it seems to be impossible to share stuff with contacts unless they’re on G+.
I’ve got hundreds of contacts in my phone – which is paired via Bluetooth – yet Glass will only send to the half-dozen people who use G+. There just didn’t seem to be any obvious way to send a picture to a work contact.

This also causes a problem with Caller ID. My mother called me and all Glass displayed was her number! My Android phone (in my pocket) was displaying her name and photo – and it was paired via BlueTooth – but nothing like that came up on glass.

Call quality was mixed. In an absolutely silent environment, the bone conduction technology works really well with voice calls. As soon as there’s a bit of background noise, the quality drops and I had to stick a finger in my ear (literally!) in order to hear anything. Callers weren’t overly impressed with the microphone quality from my end.

The various beeps and boops of the operating system work very well – even in a loud environment. I guess the pure tones work better than a human voice.

Finally, the voice interface. There’s no doubt about it – you look like a muppet when you suddenly blurt out “OK Glass …. …. OK Glass …. Read aloud …. Read aloud…. cancel.”

Voice interfaces haven’t become socially acceptable yet. They’re loud, crass, and rarely work first time. It’s well supplemented by the wink gesture (takes a photo after a 3 second delay – which is just long enough to be irritatingly slow) and swiping at the arm. Tipping one’s head to wake the unit looks like you’re having a minor tic.

Overall, is this the future? Yeah, probably. But it’s easy to see why these aren’t on sale to the general public yet. The cost’ll come down with mass production – but the user interface is far too alien. The mixture of swipes, dodgy vocal recognition, winking, violently swinging your head, and then sticking your finger in your ear make you look like an idiot. Mind you, I’m sure that people looked weird when the first walkman came out!

The real problem with Glass (after a few hours of playing with it) is that it is intentional crippled by Google. Everything goes via the moribund Google+. There doesn’t seem to be any way to get it to integrate with your phone’s contacts – or send videos and images to non-Google services.

Google have taken a brave step by releasing this as a technology preview to the wider community. It shows their strengths and the technology’s extreme weaknesses.

O2 Matchday wins ‘Best Use of Technology by a Sponsor’ award

Last week we received some fantastic news related to the O2 Matchday app, developed and supported by The Lab in conjunction with our friends in the O2 Brand team and VCCP.

The app won the top award for the ‘Best Use of Technology by a Sponsor‘ at the inaugural Telegraph ‘Sports Technology Awards‘. We were in the same category as some significant names so it’s a big achievement and a great reward for a lot of hard work and dedication by everyone involved.

SportsTechnologyAwardTrophyWe are now owners of an impressively heavy trophy that will sit proudly in The Lab office.

Just How Bright Are Our Neighbours?

Whilst The Lab spends most of it’s time here in Slough, we occasionally work from Telefonica’s office just behind the world famous Piccadilly Circus. Last year we noticed that the iconic screens had all been upgraded to new LED displays, which from the ground look fantastic.

But during a recent night flight back into Heathrow, we couldn’t help notice just how bright they are from 10,000ft, so we snapped this photo.

Piccadilly Circus from above

While the photo isn’t to clear, even from the plane you can easily make out the advertisements with the human eye which is pretty impressive.