Sunday, 15 March 2015

Which Digital Overlord Do you Bow To?

I'm pretty handy when it comes to technology, but the past week has really underlined for me just how proprietary digital technology has become.  In the past seven days I've had to root my phone and I'm still struggling to free the magazines I have purchased from the clutches of Apple.

With content so closely tied to software delivery, and more and more of that software delivery being locked to specific hardware, you seemingly have to accept the fact that you don't own anything you legally download from the internet without also accepting that the only way to view it is through a multinational's proprietary ecosystem.

While the tech giants are holding each other off with proprietary technology, the humans run for cover.  Tech used to be all about user empowerment, its first duty now is to the multinational that created it, users are way down the priority list.
I'm just over two years into a three year contract with Telus.  Last year Samsung decided that my Galaxy Note2 wasn't allowed to update the Google Android operating system that runs on it.  I normally wouldn't care, but Google Play keeps updating the apps I have on the phone, eventually making a number of them incompatible with my stale version of Android.

Why would Samsung do this?  It's been two years, it's time to force me into an upgrade to a new phone.  This wouldn't be an issue in most markets where telecoms can't bully customers, but it's only recently that Canada decided to join the rest of the first world in limiting its cellular carriers in terms of abusive contracts.  Why would Telus shrug about my phone problems?  Because they are selling me a new phone early, even while I'm still on a contract that was deemed unfair to consumers.

What's left for the user?  The hacker community, thankfully.  After having a chat with my students (all of whom have hacked their phones), I found Jedi X and installed it on the Note2.  Suddenly the phone is faster than it's ever been, no stability issues at all, lots of extra features that I got to select, and best of all, I'm not forced to run any of the cruft that Telus and Samsung demand I run 'under contract'.

I'm suddenly no longer the owner of a phone that bricks itself every two hours and needs the battery pulled to restart it.  I'm also the owner of a Note2 that makes lightsaber noises whenever you take the stylus out (I can't express how happy this makes me). Without the modding community I'd be stuck with a useless phone and paying my way out of a contract that wouldn't be legal in most of the world, and isn't legal any more in Canada.

So, with the phone hacked and sorted, I turned to Apple's Newsstand.  I've been using an ipad mini to read, but some magazines on the newsstand are locked to aspect ratio and zoom.  Since they were designed for a regular ipad, they don't present well on the mini.  Fortunately, after much searching, I've found a tablet that I actually enjoy using.  The Microsoft Surface is a tablet that also lets me snap a keyboard on and do work as a full Intel i5 laptop.  I can even do photoshop and video editing on it!  Its high resolution screen is comfortable for reading too.

Like my Microsoft iPad?
It can also be a Microsoft
Android tablet, or a linux
PC, or, you know, a
Windows PC.
Should be no problem, right?  Just install itunes and I'll be able to access the content I paid for.  Um, no.  Apple locks that content to an i-device.  You don't own the magazine you paid for, it only exists when you're looking at it through an Apple iOS screen.  I don't save money buying electronic subscriptions, each magazine costs me $3.99 instead of $6.99 for a paper copy, plus the price of an ipad.

As you might imagine, Apple doesn't make an ipad emulator, but lots of other people have.  A couple of downloads later (and a second OS install) and I'm in business, reading the content I paid for on the device of my choice.  I can also boot the Surface into Android mode and view Google Apps on it.  I'm sure this is breaking all kinds of Apple, Microsoft and Google legalese, which is really the point of this whole piece.

There was a time when digital technology was designed to empower users at all costs; the user wasn't the first thing, they were the only thing.  Users weren't a data point to be mined, or consumer to be duped into committing to a closed ecosystem, they weren't buried in legalese and they could expect hardware to run software without worrying about the brand on it.

In the earlier days of digital technology, before these digital giants (who are now synonymous with high-technology) turned this into a vicious game of one-upmanship capitalism, we could depend on digital tech to offer real improvements over the way we used to do things.  Recently I've found myself instead wondering what the angle is every time I see a new digital delivery system.

The good news is most people aren't bothered to learn ways around it and just keep feeding the giants money.  For the few who are willing to learn and experiment, there are always work arounds.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

3d modelling for everyone!

Unboxing the Structure Sensor

This week, thanks to our forward thinking student council, we received a Structure 3d scanner.  Unboxing created a lot of curiosity.  In about five minutes we had the sensor mounted on the front of our ipad mini and we were off to the races.

3d modelling is a tricky business.  It typically takes a fairly comprehensive knowledge of software to get yourself a decent 3d model.  Thanks to the Structure sensor, anyone with an ipad (grade 3 and up?) could quickly and easily create a 3d model of pretty much anything they can walk around.

It takes a bit of practice, but once you see how the laser sensor paints the object (it looks like it's covering it with clay on the ipad display), you get the hang of it and you're producing remarkably accurate 3d models.
In about 15 minutes I had it figured out and took a detailed model of my partially dismantled Kawasaki Concours in the garage.

Our principal!
The files are obj format - an open source format that a lot of software can easily read.  I've found that is a handy way to share the models and offers a fair bit of customization in how the models present as well.

At school we've had a good time making busts, while at home I've tried modelling complex mechanical items.

I've been using Obj Viewer to see the 3d models on the desktop (they're all saved as model.obj, so very quickly you'll find yourself buried in model.obj files not knowing which one is which).  I quickly got into the habit of renaming them as I opened them.

As an avenue into more complex 3d modelling software (like Blender, which imports obj files with no problems), the Structure scanner is a great starting point.  You can quickly create 3d models and then clean them up or embellish them in something like Blender (also an open source, astonishingly good piece of freeware).

You can view your model once you've painted it on the ipad screen (the pictures here are screen captures from the ipad).  If you like the model you can email the obj file.  The largest (an attempt at scanning our computer lab) was about 4 megabytes.  A smaller object, like a head, is usually under two.

Being able to quickly and easily model 3d objects offers all sorts of interesting educational opportunities.  Because you're accurately measuring volume, the immediate uses as a measuring tool in mathematics and the sciences are obvious.  Using this scanner you could quickly and accurately measure the growth by volume of a very complex shape like a plant.  If you're creating clothing, you would be able to scan your prototype and then see what it looks like in a wide variety of textures from all angles.  As a prototyping and measurement tool, the Structure Scanner takes some beating.

Our focus is on creating 3d models for our software engineering project.  3d models are often too perfect, looking rather plastic.  The Structure sensor is going to allow us to model clothing and other complex textures and organic shapes much more realistically and quickly.

At less than the price of a game console, this little sensor opens up what used to be the inaccessible world of 3d modelling to everyone.