Friday, 26 February 2016

Immersive experiences roundup at MWC 2016

A quick look through my favourite virtual experiences at mobile world congress 2016.

So the single best thing for me at MWC 2016 was the fourth of Nokia’s OZO demos by a Finnish band called Husky Rescue.  Forget the GearVR chicken wire, and only 30fps capture, those things will get there in time (more of that later) this is one of the best things I’ve seen which showed what a virtual experience can be like.

It’s a very simple, short piece, the lead singer pulls you in on a rope through the musicians, hands you a balloon (yes, it's Scandinavian cinematic electro pop…) then sings to you with really evocative eye to eye contact. 

It delivers indications of how to do so many of things that are often missing in 3D360 content:  The tracking shot adds movement and helps you explore the space;  The singer utterly sells the experience and offers an otherwise impossible to get view inside of the track, within the band, the sound, and the space and a truly personal one-on-one experience.  The rendering and stitching doesn’t jar, and everyone is at a fairly similar focus distance so it’s really comfortable to look round in as well.  It’s a really great experience that makes that piece of music much more special than seeing it on TV or headphones on the tube.  Well worth 3 minutes of anyone's time.  Unfortunately you can’t download it yet though – I’d love to see the full thing in a Rift (Nokia please release!).  However it was explained that they want the first content news splashes to be from dedicated content producers who are starting to receive the first OZO units. 
  
The other content on the Nokia demo I was also not so keen on so this is probably a good thing.  The Husky Rescue video had the most time spent on and it showed.  The pirates suffer from looking fake and staged.  The band on the roof was OK but very static and felt a lot like being separated a TV experience, the stitch behind you and by feet wasn't great either.  The NASA control tower and space suit water testing area  was a good example of what sort of content could be cool, but not a lot happens, also there are a lot of near field and deep field objects and it’s not totally clear on what is interesting to look at. 

But thoroughly good work  Nokia, you had the camera there, and real stuff for people to see on the sort of Gear VR headset that people are likely to consume those sort of short, powerful experiences on.  Getting out there and getting it done.





Elsewhere there were so many things which were all converging on solving those frame and resolution rate issues to up that level of presence.

Qualcomm were showing their new 820 chip with a 1k x 1k per eye prototype phone and headset set up.  Content was a dragon flying around in a dungeon at a stated 60fps.  Screen door wasn’t bad and it was a convincing display of hardware acceleration.  But that really isn’t going to be enough for VR, pushing up towards 8k looks like the target, and everyone wants it without wires, so that means portable limited devices with batteries and power consumption issues.

8k really is awesome, I stood for quite a while outside SK Telecoms 8k live encoder on a giant Samsung screen showing nothing more interesting than basketball (not my game to watch).  I love the argument against headsets being able to give the impression of something the size of wall, just to make something the size of a wall!   But it’s so much energy, materials and cost – headsets will win but they’ll need to be lighter and more like glasses than goggle – which they will become.  However something that big certainly impresses.



Getting there is going to need software, hardware and fundamental improvements to render above that sort of 1k/eye res CV1 / Vive will bring and get the weight and energy down.  If Qualcomm were showing some of the hardware helping in that direction, companies like TheEyeTribe and Imagine were showing some of the rendering cleverness which will help us get there.

TheEyeTribe were showing 2 camera, 5 led rigs for eye tracking integrated into a GearVR and a Rift.  Eye tracking is very cool, allowing difficult to spoof authentication, user identification, and foveated rendering: putting in the most rendering effort where you are actually looking.  They have been specialising for a while in limited device formats, getting the power consumption right down and there is a lot of interest in the device manufactures.  I don’t know which eye tracking company will come out on top, but I see this getting built into the Gen2 headsets to offload some of that rendering workload, and I liked TheEyeTribe’s approach a lot.

Imagination were showing their PowerVR Wizard real-time ray tracing on smart phone power level applicable chips.  How about putting that with eye tracking and getting next gen localised rendering with ray tracing? That’s the sort of thing that will help take us to where the VR experience needs to go.

Today's wires will have to go – whilst I loved the Yellow Submarine display, and they integrated the look and feel of the umbilical cords well, SK Telecom’s display seemed to spent at least half of its time closed with a maintenance sign outside and the glued on leap motions to the front weren’t doing anything.  But full respect to SK Telecom, they had a really fun stand packing a lot of things into a sensible amount of space.

That sort of Leap Motion hand sensing technology will quickly have to become built in.  I absolutely loath the touchpad on the GearVR, it really breaks presence, fumbling for a control on your head with a motion you never do otherwise.   Eye tracking, voice control, contextual understanding, gestures – basically interacting naturally is the way forward for VR experiences.  

Games have control pads which have been well refined and gamers are used to them – they work well and don’t break the experience. But shopping, bands, events, a wider audience - you need something more natural.  

Intel was showing their ‘1.5’ version RealSense prototype with twin depth trackers and cameras on a smartphone prototype put into a headset.  It’s not there yet, you can only see you hands at more or less full reach, close to the headset the cameras can’t get a read, and collision detection was a bit slow, but it’s enough to give you your hands back in VR and I really like that.  Looking forward to v2.






Qualcomm’s depth sensing demos had also come a long way since last year, I was pretty impressed with the speed of creating this render of this gentleman.  Definitely something you can start bringing into the retail environment.

Samsung were doing a great job of selling GearVR in general.  There wasn’t a big Smartphone release this year and I don’t think it can be long before they are looking at depth sensing, stereoscopic cameras and hand detection as big differentiating features for their flagships assuming enough people with Galaxy notes buy (and use!) the GearVR. 

Even the Telcos were starting to realise the impact that content from VR was going to have on them, particularly in terms of the bandwidth the content requires and including that in their 5g demos, last year I just got blank looks trying to explain that.  


Anyhow, looping back to the start, Nokia were streaming live (near live?) content from their OZO at 15-20Mbits/s in their launch event via Wifi.   A bit tricky for 4G consumer speeds, but well within some of the capabilities of the test ultrafast 5G networks like the one near me in Bristol.


Fancy a go at a Telco live stream to many GearVRs Nokia?  I know a couple of UK Telcos that would be interested...

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Pact and Nespresso pods review

So I broke my espresso machine.  The baskets handle had already snapped off discouraging its use and the pump decided then to give up the ghost.  I looked how expensive a new one, well a new step up new one, was going to be and put it on the back burner, going back to some of the other coffee brewing methods in the back of the cupboard. 

The emerging hero from this has been a nice glass V60 (my plastic one was very unloved).  I’ve dialled back the fineness on the grinder, got patient with letting the coffee bloom before fully brewing it and been really enjoying it.  The smell during the bloom of the coffee of fresh, freshly ground coffee is absolutely great, very different to an espresso, but great.  The coffee black or white, smooth and easy going.  It’s also very quiet for those early morning starts. 

Around then Pact launched their kickstarter for coffee pods.  I’ve long been of the “coffee-pods-are-evil”. point of view because

  • Vendor lock in
  • Lots of additional waste
  • Small amounts of coffee in each pod
  • Small amounts of very expensive coffee in each pod
  • Small amounts of very expensive stale bad coffee in each pod


However I end up in hotel rooms often enough which have one and somehow I seem to go through all the pods.  Its mess free, operable regardless of how early it is or how bad you feel, and just so  convenient.

So when Pact launched their Kickstarter for Nespresso compatible pods and I read a bit about they were thinking of doing, and still being till without an espresso machine I thought it was worthwhile giving pods a proper try out.  So I backed. 

The pods turned up recently.  Shortly after I got a good deal on a nearly new Krups Pixie Nespresso machine and I’ve been giving it a go.  

How many of those five things were addressed?

Vendor lock in

Well the fact that there was a Kickstarter gave hope that there was innovation and change coming to this format.  Mainly enabled by Nestle in 2014 agreeing to “lift the barriers to entry and development” after losing a court battle in France.  1 down.


Additional waste

Nespresso official pods are made from coated aluminium material which is difficult to recycle, however they have launched a recycling scheme where you can drop them into 5 shops in the UK or book a collection when you order new ones.  

These new ones from Pact are a much stiffer all plastic (polypropylene) pods with an aluminium foil lid.  After letting the pod bin fill up it’s not very much hassle to go through five or six in short order using the handle of a handy teaspoon to excise the foil from the pod, scoop out the dead grinds for composting and stick the plastic in the recycling.  There are instructions for this in the box.  Peeling off the foil properly is a little fiddly.  Polypropylene is a recyclable material and several waste management companies near me deal with it.  I’m not entirely sure whether in the mixed green bag recycling it will get recycled or not, one of my things on the to-do list to find exactly what happens to that.  Pact don’t have a matching return to sender recycling scheme so its very much up to what your local council recycles.
But in either case then, both types of pods can be recycled with a little bit of effort.  Better recyclability was part of the brief originally for the Pact pods, I hope it is better, but can’t see definitively it is.  Either way you still get a lot of waste with pods, and this is the thing that still most puts me off.

Coffee Quantity

I weighed an Official Nespresso pods and Pact pods on a 0.01g scale and then carefully opened washed and dried it (avoiding losing any aluminium), and had a look at how much coffee was in there.
My measurements were
Nespresso          short, 5.1g    long 6.3g
Pact pods           short, 5.1g    long 5.4g

Pact also wrote kindly to confirm that they aim for 5.2g in a short and 5.4g in a long (constrained by the plastic casing).  I’ve read online Nespresso go for about 5.0 in a short and 7.0g in a long but couldn’t find a definitive reference.

That’s not a lot of coffee in a pod, when I hand grind espresso or for my V60 I’ll grind and tamp about 16g of coffee for a double espresso.



Expense

Pact pods are 14.95 for 40 shorts (single espresso) so 37p a pod

A Pact bag is 6.95 for about 30 single espressos, or about 23p a shot.  

So pods work out about 50% more expensive than bags.  

On the other hand the Pixie Nespresso machine was £65 second hand, the espresso machines I was looking at around 250-900 second hand. So that pays for quite a lot of pods.

Official Nespresso Single Origin pods are 33p a go, (there are cheaper ones but these seemed the best comparison) so Pact is working out a bit more expensive there as well.


Coffee QualityFreshness

So one of the things I was really interested in was getting fresh coffee in pods. Pact confirmed that like the bags “the pods are sealed within 7 days of roasting the beans at Pact HQ.  The coffee is then left to degas for 3 days (this helps reduce the acidity in the coffee) before being ground at the last moment and sealed in the casing.”  The pods are produced in small batches, and sold in 40 pod units.
Opening up some Nespresso and pact pods you could really tell the difference in the smell.   The coffee also has a nice grind and the usual not-too-dark roast from Pact.

 

Left to Right  Nespresso Dulsao Short Pod, Nespresso Vivalto Lungo, Pact Short Pod, Pact Long Pod.

Long pods or Lungo

So when using the ‘long’ extraction on my machine I didn’t think were up to much using the Pact or Nespresso long pods.  There was a very long extraction in not a lot of coffee. It still got a crema, but then I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted in that sort of coffee.  It certainly wasn’t a patch on a bit of time with the V60 or Chemex for a long black coffee, and definitely not for an espresso machine for a double espresso.

Pact, to be fair, do recommend for a double espresso using two single short pods into the same cup one after each other, this works Ok, but the bottom one has stood around for a while.  I tended just to have two shorts in quick succession, in fact this turned out to be generally the way I drank things from the pod machine.

Trying the longs as shorts and the shorts at longs didn’t seem to make a significant difference in either extraction mode. 



Short pods

In short, the Pact short pods were surprisingly good. 

As a baseline I cycled through a bunch of the Nespresso ones that came in the taster pack (the machine I bought was a customer return, it came with all of the trials unused).  They do definitely taste different from each other according to their labelled flavour but generally feel a bit artificial, a bit flat and with no way of telling how old they were.  The single origin (slightly more expensive) Nespressos were noticeable better, the Brazil and Columbian espresso tasting recognisably like I’d expect them to.  Some of the others I was really not keen on.

The pact ones are definitely better.  They made a coffee that smelt fresher brewing, a lot more individual, and had a very nice smooth finish. 

With either I found I tend to chain two, but then the machine made that very easy. 

So not a replacement for an espresso machine for me, but with the Pact pods still a coffee you could be pretty proud to serve anyone who came to the house. We had a play date with 4 parents, and a double short with water and milk went down to good compliments.  It was also really easy, which is the killer feature…


Convenience

Oh, this is too easy.  It’s almost impossible to make a mess. Compared, for instance, to the number of times I’ve forgotten to put the paper filter in an Aeropress and flooded the worktop.  The footprint is also tiny – so easy to fit in a kitchen.  I think a lot of these will go to small flats.  The clean-up is easy.  The repeatability and consistency is good, even if you are really bleary eyed your coffee isn’t going to be noticeably worse. In fact everyone of my (extended) family has long since refused to try and make me coffee (this is fine with me), but now with this, anyone can do it.  Even my 2 year old made me one (it was under supervision).    


Round up

So that’s about it.  I think that with the Pact pods it comes into an acceptable range of quality with a much cheaper machine entry.  I think they are going to be very successful.  I still think though it’s a lot of waste and not convinced how many will get recycled.

A couple of things I think would improve the Pact offer, these would be my suggested tweaks.


40 Pack is too big


Unlike the great packaging on the Pact bags, this is very long (40cm) and may well struggle to come through your door.  It is a nice thing to open, but if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit (it doesn’t fit through our door or parcel box).



It also means there are too many pods in there.  A normal pack of coffee is about 30 coffees, these are more like 40 and  last me more than 3 weeks.  Really I want coffee fresher and more often than that.  

If they came in 20s, these fit in the same size bag as previous, would cost approximately the same, and I’d be able to order about as regularly.  Here is an example of 20 pods put into the standard size bag.



Shorts and Longs

Currently the pods are identical externally, Pact are working on having printing on the foil to fix this.  Internally though they are very similar.  I can’t really tell much of a difference


In Summary

Really convenient, a fresh as the bags and generally a good cup of coffee
More difficult to get delivered than the bags, and still a really expensive way to buy and make coffee.
Still a worrying amount of waste.


(I am aslo now looking for the smallest footprint espresso high quality machine possible.  I really did love how small the Pixie was)