Geekamama


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So smart, and shiny too!

Just before Christmas I got a new phone, the HTC HD7.  Every cell phone I’ve had before now has been a tool for making phone calls, sending and receiving text messages, and occasionally taking pictures.  I’d been content with this for years, and my iPod Touch filled the gap for when I needed a quick Sudoku game or email check.  But sometime last summer I started thinking that when my current phone wore out, it might be time to join the era of the smartphone.

I chose the HD7 for two reasons: my service provider (T-Mobile) carried it, and my workplace reimbursed its purchase.  I didn’t comparison-shop for the best plan or try out lots of different models, so I’m not the person to say whether this particular smartphone is definitively better than any other.  What I am is a brand new smartphone user, one who often doesn’t have both hands free to do things on the phone because I’m carrying multiple bags, or managing a small child, or driving to work.  (PSA: Washington State law prohibits driving while texting on a cell phone or talking without the use of a hands-free system.  So, y’know, don’t do that.)  I am merely someone switching from a “dumb” phone to a device that has the fancy bells and ringtones and requires a data plan.

So far? I’m loving it.

For the first couple of days I simply enjoyed the new-toy aspect of it.  But during our Christmas travels, I had a few “wow” moments that really drove home for me how a smartphone can make my life easier.

The first was just after we’d left the driveway.  My husband and I realized that we’d forgotten to call our hotel to reserve a crib reserved for that night.  We’d also forgotten to write down their phone number.  I launched Bing on my phone and typed in the hotel name.  I expected that I’d get a standard page of links, and that I’d have to scroll and click to find the phone number.  Instead, Bing popped up a contact card for the hotel, including a one-touch hotlink to dial the number directly from the contact page!  I was delighted.

Another neat moment happened on our return trip.  Kiddo was cranky after two days of car riding, and ripe for a diaper change.  I knew there was a rest area not too far ahead, but couldn’t remember whether it was twenty miles or forty.  With the Maps app I was able to pinpoint our position, search for “rest area” (it found three close by, including the one I was looking for) and check the distance from our current location.  Sure, our Garmin probably could have told us the same thing… if we could have remembered how to pull up that information on it without losing our current route data.

The ads for the Windows Phone 7 talk about how this OS was designed to make it easier to “glance and go,” so that you spend less time interacting with the device and more time interacting with the real world. While I can’t compare to the other smartphones they’re positioning themselves against, I have found that it’s much faster for me to triage new text messages and missed calls with this phone than it was with my old phone.  Dialing my frequent calls feels a little slower–I think it takes one click more than I’d like it to.  And I kept hanging up on people accidentally when I press the phone against my cheek, but that would be a hazard of any touchscreen phone.  Reviews and commentators have mentioned a few of the items this phone is missing, like the ability to view Flash websites (which I’m told is coming sometime this year) and basic cut-copy-paste functionality.  But in spite of those holes, I’ve found the HD7 to be extremely easy to use.  I don’t think I’ve looked at the manual or any how-to website since the day I bought it.

There’s plenty that I like about my new phone, but what I really love are the ways in which it brings useful things together like electronic chocolate and peanut butter.  Web search plus one-touch dialing.  GPS location plus directions lookup.  And my current favorite?  Well, that would be the one I had to use the other night.  We’d been out doing some evening errands, and on our way to pick up Kiddo from the babysitter I realized I’d misplaced my phone.  Crisis!  I revisited our stops after we collected the boy, but no one had seen it.  It might have been a miserable night, except that I’d added a Windows Live ID to the phone when I was setting up email accounts.  Once I got home I logged on to the Windows Phone website with that LiveID.  And sure enough…

Screenshot of Map it: See your phone's approximate location on a map

If only the rest of my life came with such guidance!

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Intersect: a fresh way to say you’ve been where and done what

Last month a friend of mine pointed me to Intersect, a new web site for sharing stories.  After I spent a little time surfing around the site, reading stories and FAQs and getting a feel for the general vibe, I posted my first story.  And just like that, I was hooked.

The idea behind Intersect is straightforward: wouldn’t it be neat to share what happened at a specific time and/or location, without needing to know who else was there or make arrangements in advance?  Stories posted are tagged with a date and time.  The ones you post are added to your storyline; if you find someone else’s story about an event that you attended, like a concert or sporting event, you can borrow that story with a click of a button and incorporate it in your own timeline.  The site makes it easy to search for stories from an intersection of place and time, as well as to create your own from text, photos, videos, or any combination of the above.

I love Intersect CEO Peter Rinearson’s description of how the concept came about:

The idea for Intersect came to me while watching my daughter play lacrosse. I was among several parents shooting photos on the sidelines, and it struck me that other parents were getting shots of my daughter that I’d never see and I was capturing images that other parents might want. Wouldn’t it be great if we could trade photos in some really easy way, even with strangers, and without prearrangement?

It was May 10, 2007 at 4 p.m. The location was Mercer Lid Park, built above Interstate 90 on Mercer Island, a suburb of Seattle. Shouldn’t that be enough information to let me share with other people who were at that same intersection of time and place?

Intersect was born that day.

Stories can be shared with the general public, restricted to circles of Intersect members that you define, or kept private.  While they do require a place, you can be as specific or as vague as you are comfortable with sharing.  As they are posted, they are added to your storyline in correct chronological order, so you don’t need to go back later and juggle dates to make them all line up correctly.  Unlike Foursquare or Facebook Places, which tell people where you are right now, Intersect lets you say that you were somewhere last week, or last year; you don’t need to reveal your current location to people who might take advantage of the fact that you’re away from home.  The Intersect staff offer some tips for walking the line between keeping personal information private and sharing stories with an interested public.  On the other hand, if you don’t mind sharing events simultaneously as they unfold, there’s an app for that too.

With an abundance of websites where we can share media and personal news, why choose Intersect?  There are a number of features that I find really appealing.

I like how it’s easy to upload photos to your photo pool and create a story from them.  I also like the flexibility around how long a story can be.  Sometimes you want to write a longer story to accompany a photo; sometimes a sentence or two will suffice.  Facebook is pretty strong in the photo sharing department, but writing anything longer than a short caption feels clunky, and most of it ends up hidden.  Intersect provides a cleaner-feeling combination of story and exposition.  You can even assign different profile pictures to different points in time, and then see how you’ve changed over the years.

The way stories can connect across time and place is a neat concept to me, and Intersect makes this happen transparently.  No need to hope your Twitter hashtag catches on, or to set up a shared folder and rely on word of mouth to get everyone invited to it.

Scanning back through a friend’s storyline is easy to do.  One thing I enjoy doing when I start following a new blog or Twitter feed is skimming back over the past several dozen entries to get some background for what’s been going on in that person’s world.  With Twitter it’s hard to get to a specific point in time.  With Intersect, it’s trivial.

Initial view of a storyline's time selector

Time selector set to a specific range

The Intersect community so far has a welcoming, friendly feel, which is also a big draw for me.  People have commented on stories I’ve posted, sharing memories of their own about the event or place.  This really helps to foster a feeling of connection, underlining the core idea behind Intersect: we are connected to many people in many ways.

Here’s a fun video by cartoonist David Horsey summarizing what Intersect is all about:


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Kinected

Our son is going to grow up in a world where sitting on your butt to play a video game is no longer the default.  The Kinect controller is literally a game-changer.

For the past couple months, my husband and I have been part of the beta test program for Kinect and some of the new games for it.  It only took us one or two play sessions to agree that this was one gadget that was going on the Christmas list.  Except we knew there was no way we were going to wait until Christmas.  Our Kinect is now downstairs by the TV, and I’m pretty sure I know how we’ll be spending the weekend.

The two games I played during the beta test were Dance Central and Kinect Adventures.  Dance Central is the Kinect version of Dance Dance Revolution.  Rather than hopping on a floor pad trying to hit combinations of foot buttons, you’re replicate specific dance moves using your whole body.  The bad news is that you’ll probably look pretty dorky at first.  The good news is that you won’t look any dorkier than everyone else!  One nice advantage Dance Central has over Dance Dance Revolution is that you never have to worry about the pad slipping around underfoot.  I’ve lost many a round of DDR due to shifting or rotating my body without realizing it, and I would end up stomping on the corner pad when I want the side one.  There are no buttons to hit with the Kinect, so there’s nothing to slip off.  I thought it was a lot more fun getting arms and hips and everything else involved.

However, the one I kept coming back to was Kinect Adventures.  It’s got half a dozen mini-games you can play–my two favorites are Rally Ball (you’re playing virtual handball) and 20,000 Leaks (you’re in a glass cube underwater, blocking leaks with yours hands, feet, and whatever other body parts are available).  All the games can be played by one or two players, sometimes in co-op mode and sometimes competitively.  You can pull out the minigames to play individually, or you can move through the adventure, earning living statues as you go.  I found all the games to be pretty intuitive and very easy to pick up. 

There were a couple things during the Kinect beta test that I wasn’t thrilled about.  It took me a little while to get the hang of the “back” pose that takes you back to the previous menu.  When selecting a tile in the dash, I had to hold my hand palm-forward over my selection for several seconds; maybe I’m just naturally jittery, but for some reason this pose was difficult for me.  I haven’t checked out yet whether that has improved with the shipped version.  But the amount of time spent doing either of those is small relative to the amount of time spent jumping, swerving, dancing, and ducking, and I think I’ll get used to it with plenty of practice.

The games and the moves are intuitive, but more importantly, they’re just plain fun!  Even if you’re a little shy about getting up and looking silly in front of others, like I was, it doesn’t take long to get into the spirit of the game.  You simply can’t be blasé about it when you’re balanced on one foot using your forehead to block cracked glass in 20,000 Leaks, or flapping your arms to levitate your avatar high enough to pop the last couple bubbles in Space Pop.  It’s almost impossible to not get into the music when you’re swinging your hips and shaking your shoulders.  You can’t help but laugh at yourself, and that’s what will draw people back again and again.

There is a downside to the Kinect, and that is that it’s not for those nights when you want to veg out on the couch with some mindless button-mashing.  Some nights, I just want to put my feet up and plow through LEGO Indiana Jones without moving much more than my thumbs.  But I don’t think hand-controller-driven games are ever going to fade completely out of the picture.  It’s like how the DVR changed television watching; even though you can now watch your shows whenever it’s convenient and skip all the ads, there are still going to be times when you want to watch TV live, commercials and all.  The Kinect isn’t going to entirely replace the handheld controller, but it is going to radically change how we play many of our games.  I’m excited to watch it happening, and even more excited to jump up and be a part of it.