Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Google Glass Q & A

Note: updated 19 December 2013 to reflect changes with XE12: you can now wink to take photos.

Q: Are those Google Glasses?
A: For some reason, the plural sounds so much less cool. Unless you're making fun of me, it’s called Glass.

Q: Are those Google Goggles?
A: Goggles are a different Google product.

Q: What do you see right now?
A: Nothing. The display is usually off unless you're interacting with the device. The big activities that keep the display on are walking navigation and recording a video.

Q: Facial recognition blah blah blah?
A: Nope. Technically you could create a facial recognition app, but it certainly doesn't ship with one. I'm not aware of an app for it either. I’m guessing facial recognition apps would eat some serious battery power or bandwidth.

Q: Can the NSA see me?
A: Yes, it seems like the NSA is spying on a lot of people in the world, but probably not through Glass. I don't think I would have much battery life, storage, or data plan left if I were streaming audio or video to the NSA. I’m not sure how easy it is for the NSA to spy on the audio or video I intentionally record. Google is currently working to make NSA spying more difficult.

Q: Can you see through my clothes?
A: No I can’t. Not unless you're wearing a cling-wrap kilt.

Q: What does it look like?
A: When the display is on, it feels a lot like looking at the rear view mirror in a car. It’s not blocking much of your vision, and you glance up to see it. A few people who have tried on my Glass have been confused by the optics of the display because they expected to be focusing at something centimeters from your eye. Both the size of the display and it’s apparent focus distance make it seem like looking at a largish TV at 8 feet or so.

Q: So if you look at something about 6 to 8 feet away, the display on Glass will appear in focus?
A: That’s about right. I think this is a Good Thing because I believe there is a lot less eye strain at that focus distance.

Q: OK Glass, take a picture!
A: Sorry, that trick only works if Glass is active and I’m on the home screen. If that were the case, shouting commands might have worked. Nice try though.

Q: How does it feel? Is it comfortable?
A: I rarely notice Glass when I'm not using it. When I first got it, I tended to get headaches if I wore it for more than a few hours without a break. I’m told that folks who start wearing prescription lenses can experience the same thing if they don't ease into it. Now I'm used to Glass, and it doesn't bother me. I sometimes forget I'm wearing it, or not wearing it.

Q: Is it augmented reality?
A: That depends on the definition of Augmented reality. I think most folks associate AR with informational overlays on live video feeds. In that definition, AR involves looking through a device to see the world. You don’t look through Glass’s display to see the world. Glass feels a little bit more like closed captioning, or Picture-In-Picture for reality. Glass can provide information based on your location and other cues. I regularly use a Glass app called Field Trip, and it provides information about nearby landmarks as I travel.

Q: How long does the battery last?
A: In my experience, the battery life varies a lot depending on your usage. On my normal day, I have battery left when I get home. When I travel, I use it a lot, and I often have to charge it after 4 hours or so.

Q: How much do you wear it?
A: I wear it 80-90% of the time when I’m not home or at the office. Since I'm surrounded by computers and communications devices there, Glass seems redundant. I also don't wear Glass at Crossfit because I’m afraid of shorting it out with gallons of sweat, or smashing a kettlebell into it. I also don't wear it when I'm feeling extra introverted. Glass is a great way to meet strangers.

Q: What is the biggest change it has made in your life?
A: The biggest change is that a lot of strangers walk up and talk to me. The second biggest change is the ability to respond to text messages and email without touching anything. The ability to spontaneously take photos is a close third.

Q: When will it be released, how much will it cost, and will it do X?
A: I have no idea.

Q: Do you work for Google? Did they give it to you?
A: No, I work for Evernote. I paid for Glass out of my own pocket.

Q: Did you have to tweet to get it?
A: No, I'm part of a different group. I attended Google’s developer conference, Google IO 2012. Anyone who attended that conference had an opportunity to sign up to purchase Glass.

Q: I thought it had lenses.
A: That’s not a question. Also, it does have two sets of lenses that snap in: a clear shield, and a polarized sun shield. With the polarized shades, Glass looks like an especially intense pair of sunglasses. Fewer folks notice that it is Google Glass.

Q: How do you charge Glass?
A: Glass has a micro-USB port located a bit in front of your right ear, facing down.

Q: Has Glass gotten you in trouble anywhere.
A: Not really. A bouncer at a club in San Francisco was scandalized when I told him that it could take photos. He implied that photography in a nightclub was a huge breach of etiquette. I offered to wear Glass around my neck, and he was OK with that. Another time, a man walked up to me and said I couldn't wear Glass in a pub. When I asked him who he was, he admitted that he was just a patron and that he was messing with me. We both laughed and chatted about Glass.

Q: Do you wear Glass in the restroom?
A: I remove Glass from my face and wear it backwards around my neck in the restroom. Ever since Nick Bilton’s strange blog post and NYT article about Glass in the restroom, I've tried to avoid accusations of urinal photography. We live in strange times, but it seems like good etiquette.

Q: Oh, does Glass take photos when you wink?
A: As of XE12 (released 17 December 2013), it is possible to configure the second-generation Glass Explorer Editions to take photos when the user winks the right eye. You can read more about the feature in the wink help page. You'll note that they offer etiquette advice, and that it is considered an experimental feature. Not the way they arrive from Google! There is a piece of third-party software that uses the proximity sensor to detect a wink (I think) and trigger a photo. As convenient as this may be, I think it has a high creepy factor. I haven't installed it. I think this misconception around wink photograpny started with Nick Bilton's article. He implies that wink photography is a standard feature of Glass, even though it is a hack. I really wish he had asked someone first before writing about it in the New York Times.

Q: How do I know you aren't taking a photo or recording this now?
A: Out of the box, a photo or video will activate the display, which you can see from both sides of the prism. But I suppose you don't know for sure; I might have hacked Glass, or I might be wearing a wire or a hidden-camera bow tie.

Q: People standing in front of you can see what you're looking at?
A: Yes. The display looks quite small from the other side, but you can see it. If you were really close, you could probably read it. You would probably know if I was using Glass rather than paying attention to you.

Q: Tell me something ironic.
A: Many people with smart phones try to take covert photos of me wearing Glass. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

What is Glass?

Note: The last few paragraphs were scratched and replaced to discuss the new GDK on 4 December 2013

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, he called it a telephone, an iPod, and an internet communicator. One of the most common questions I get when I wear Google Glass is "What is it?" I wish I had an answer as concise as Steve's.

Glass isn't a phone, or an iPod. I think it qualifies as an internet communicator. But more than that, I claim that it is a tool for simplifying and speeding up the common interactions you might have with a smartphone or computer. Perhaps it will inspire computer interactions that don't yet exist. Like most devices with Apps, what it does depends a lot on the software you use.

The Pieces

If you tear open a Glass device like these folks, you will find a camera, a display, a bone conduction speaker, a touchpad, a shutter button, an accelerometer / gyroscope, WIFI and Bluetooth transceivers, and a CPU. It comes with a snap-in polarized sun shield too.

The display technology works by projecting an image into the prism which sits above the right eye. The images it creates are translucent; you can see right through them. The positioning of the display above the eye -- not in front of it -- means that you aren't trying to peer through it to see the world. The prism appears to have a photosensitive film on the side away from your eye to create a darker background for the display in bright light.

The bone conduction speaker is a tiny pill-shaped apparatus that touches the head near the right ear. It looks temptingly like a button. One of the curious properties of the bone conduction speaker is that in loud environments you can hear it better by plugging your ears. It also tickles just a little bit when it makes sound.

Using Glass

To begin interacting with Glass, you either need to tap the touchpad near your temple, or perform the Glass head flip. The head flip involves tilting your head up until the screen activates, a configurable behavior. With both the tap and the flip, the display shows the home screen and begins listening for the magic words: “OK Glass”.

If you say “OK Glass”, you can verbally select from a menu of commands: send a message, take a picture, record a video, get directions, make a call, start a video hangout, or take a note. Speak and Glass obeys. Some of the commands appear depending on what services you have connected, or how your phone is configured. The “Take a Note” command, for instance, can be handled by the Evernote Glass app, and it lets you dictate a note.

Using the touchpad, the same options are available, and you can also navigate the card-based interface of Glass. To the left of the home screen there are a collection of cards mostly related to the Google Now service. You might find a card with upcoming events on your Google Calendar, a card for the local weather, a card for stock prices, or a card offering driving times and directions to destinations recently searched for or for calendar events. These cards and their contents are contextually sensitive just like the Google Now cards on an Android Device, or in the Google Search app on iOS. They appear and vanish depending on what Google thinks is most useful. The card furthest to the left is the settings card, which shows the battery charge, and allows the user to configure Glass.

To the right of the home screen, there is a row of cards in reverse-chronological order, starting with the most recent. These are cards which come from your own interactions with the device, from communications, or from third party services. If you take a photo, you’ll find a card for it in the timeline. Did you search google? You'll find a card for that. Text messages and emails too. The interface feels like a long strip of film that you can click through one frame at a time, like an old-fashioned slide show.

Typically, each card responds to a tap on the touchpad. Depending on the card, it will either show a menu or another collection of cards that were metaphorically stacked. Text messages are a good example of stacked cards. In the timeline, only the most recent text is visible. Tapping on that message reveals a card for each message in the conversation. Tapping on any one of those cards offers a menu: reply, read aloud, call, delete.
You can see in the image above a diagram of the Glass interface stitched together from actual Glass screenshots. Click or tap on it to see a larger version. The home screen is where you usually start an interaction, and is one of the indications that Glass is ready for a verbal command. If you swipe forward on the touchpad, the next thing you would see is a text message, followed by a photo taken with glass, and finally a search for "will it rain today."

The triangular dog-ear in the top right corner of the message card is a clue that this is a stack of cards. If you tap on the touchpad while the text message is visible, if will dive into that stack of cards: a list of messages in that conversation. Follow the yellow arrows above. If you tap on any of those message cards, you are offered a menu.

The vertical stacking of the interface is a useful way to think about the UI. Swiping down on the touchpad will return the user to the next level up. From any of the menu cards, you can swipe back to the messages list, and from there you can swipe back to the top level timeline. From there, an additional swipe down will turn off the screen.

Incoming Communications

If you get a new message or interaction from an App, Glass will chime. If you respond immediately by tapping or performing a head flip, you will be shown the card associated with the notification. Depending on the notification, there will often be an “OK Glass” cue on the card indicating that you can address the notification verbally. When I get a new email or text message, I can say “OK Glass, read aloud”. Glass will then read the contents of the message to me. When it’s finished, I can say “OK Glass, reply,” and then dictate a response.

One useful UX trick that Glass uses is that it will display the text you dictate for a few seconds before performing an action. This gives you an opportunity to cancel a message in case there was a transcription error..

Photo and Video

In addition to the audio commands, you can take photos or a video by using a physical button on top of Glass. Photos and videos can be explicitly shared or pulled off of Glass using USB. In addition, once Glass is on a WIFI network and has a decent battery charge, it will automatically upload the media to a private Google+ album. You can choose to share or download the images from there.

The camera Glass has (at least the first generation Explorer Edition I have), is a wide-angle fixed-focus camera. I don’t really think that the camera compares to what you would find in an iPhone 5. However, Glass uses some computational photography techniques to create better photos that what the hardware normally would produce.

Navigation

I've only used Glass for walking navigation, but it works really well. Walking navigation seems like a killer app to me. The map is continuously projected in the display, and is oriented in real time with your head motion. Since the map spins so that it orients where your head is aimed, there is no need to look at street signs. Just line up the arrow with the path and walk.

You look like a normal, purposeful human being using walking navigation on Glass. Compare that to folks trying to navigate with their smart phone. They walk with their heads either down, or looking for street signs. They walk ten feet in a direction before making a u-turn to go the correct direction. Glass is a nice improvement.

Apps

Glass offers two main paths for developing apps. The first is the Mirror API. To use the Mirror API, the app developer doesn't write code for Glass. Instead she writes server code. Your server interacts with Google servers which then act as a proxy for a user’s Glass device. The server and the Mirror API interact with JSON and HTML representations of timeline items through RESTful endpoints.

Since the app runs on your server, you can use whatever technology you want to implement your side. Google has example code written in a variety of different technologies.

Users enable an app that uses the Mirror API by authorizing them with a familiar Google authentication flow. If Google has approved an app, it can be switched on through the MyGlass Android app, or the Glass dashboard.

The second path for creating Glassware is writing an Android app. You can load apps using the traditional Android development tools and load them with a USB cable. Developers will want to heavily customize their app for Glass since there is no touch screen and most apps aren't quite ready for a 640 x 360 display. At the moment there is no simple distribution method for apps created this way. Glass doesn't yet come with the equivalent of the Play Store.

Update: Google has released a preview of what they're calling the Glass Development Kit (GDK). The GDK is an Android library that gives developers direct access to the Glass-specific elements of the device: the timeline, the cards, menus, and so on. It also enables Glass apps with real-time interaction.

Apps developed using the GDK are installed the same way the Mirror API apps are: through the MyGlass web interface, or the MyGlass Android app. Flip the switch, and the package is pushed on to the device and installed. Glass requires an internet connection to retrieve the APK.

Along with the GDK, Google and several third-party companies released GDK based apps. Google released a compass app. Word Lens released an impressive translation app that replaces text in a live video feed from the camera. And there are several other apps in categories like sports.

The GDK opens up a lot of new possibilities for Glass development. It offers more challenges too, since it takes careful work to get smooth performance and low energy usage from code run on the device itself. That's just the sort of thing I enjoy. I've already started having fun with the GDK.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Sony NEX-6 Long Term Review

The time seems right for a long-term followup review to the Sony NEX-6*. Sony recently announced two new high end cameras using the same lens mount as the NEX-6, but featuring larger full-frame sensors. The new cameras are called the Sony Alpha a7 and the Sony Alpha a7r, and they appear to be targeting the professional photographer. These bodies both have large, high resolution sensors mounted in durable splash-proof bodies.
Colors of Burano
The Colors of Burano
I expect that the addition of these impressive-looking cameras on the high end of the spectrum will increase interest in the midrange E-Mount camera bodies. Why? I imagine that some folks will want to test out the NEX system with the expectation of later growing into the new full-frame cousins. Although the new a7 and a7r seem to have reasonable prices for their capabilities, they are still expensive, high end cameras.

The crop-frame NEX line of cameras also has a few minor advantages over the new a7 besides price. There are many more lenses on the market designed for the NEX than for the full-frame a7 and a7r. Sure, you can use a crop-frame E-mount lens (most of the lenses launched before the Alpha a7 and a7r qualify) with any E-mount camera, but those lens won't let you take advantage of the full sensor area of an a7 or a7r. Depending on what kind of photography you enjoy, you might discover that the most suitable lens isn't designed to fill an entire full-frame sensor.
Venetian Cafe
Cafe in Venice
On the other hand, there is no reason you can’t use a full-frame lens on a crop-sensor NEX camera. I personally never owned a full-frame Canon camera even though most of my lenses were designed for the full frame. I tell anyone who asks to spend more on great lenses rather than great camera bodies. You will probably find that you use a given lens much longer than a given body. The technologies in camera sensors change much more rapidly than the technology in the lens: just ask the folks who are using ancient Pentax, Leica, and other manual-focus lenses on modern cameras. You don't have to buy the best body to enjoy and get value from a fantastic lens.

Read on to see how the NEX-6 has treated me over the past ten months. All of the photos you'll see in this review were made with the NEX-6. Click on them to get a larger view.

Smart Phone Integration

In my first review of the Sony NEX-6, I noted how terrible the PlayMemories Android and iOS (iPhone / iPad) apps for the camera was. Maybe Sony heard my whining because several new revisions of the PlayMemories app have been released. Now I would say the apps are at least mediocre. That might sound bad, but it is a big upgrade over terrible. At least the apps work now. Now I can go to an event, take photos with my NEX, send them to my iPhone, iPad, or Android phone, edit them, and share them with just a few minutes of work. Like I mentioned in my last review, the camera makes fantastic photos. The extra steps involved in using the NEX instead of the iPhone 5’s built in camera is often worth it.
Big Shade
Big Shade
So how does the sharing to the Android work? In one method, you first go to the photo you want to share , hit the menu button, select “Playback”, select “View on smart phone,” and them select “This image”. At this point you can open the PlayMemories app, enter the password for your camera (for the first use only), and then wait a few seconds for the phone to connect to the Camera’s wifi network.

For the iPhone, you need to use the phone’s settings app to connect to the Camera’s wifi network before launching the PlayMemories app. For both platforms, the process takes maybe thirty seconds if it goes well. The Android app has crashed for me several times. I have also had issues when more than one of my devices connects to the same NEX-6. If more than one smart phone or tablet connects to the NEX-6, the sharing functionality seems to fail. It took me a while to realize what was happening. Bummer!

If all goes well, you will see a thumbnail of the image you were viewing on the camera. Tap the thumbnail to get a larger preview, tap it again to select it, and then hit the copy button to copy the photo to your phone's gallery. The app has a share button, but in my limited testing, it doesn’t seem reliable. Unless you can persuade the share button to work, you’ll have to go hunting in the gallery to find the photo you just copied over.

Lens Adapters

Another new development since my initial review is the RJ Camera "Electronic Aperture Canon EOS (EF, EF-S) mount lens adapter to Sony E mount", which allows me to attach my big beautiful Canon glass to the NEX. The adapter I ordered allows the camera to control the aperture, capture the EXIF data from the lens (focal length, and possibly some other data), and to perform autofocus. I purchased this adapter so I could use the variety of Canon EF mount lenses I already own. Note that there are several different competing adapters that allow you to connect a Canon lens to an E-mount body.
Harvest Tools
Harvester
Sadly, the autofocus using this adapter seems limited to the contrast based methods (the usual NEX-6 phase detection seems to be disabled), and feels really slow. Occasionally, the autofocus just gives up. The autofocus feature of the RJ Camera adapter doesn’t provide a great experience. It is useful in certain situations, but I mostly manually focus my Canon lenses, relying on the focus peaking and the ability to zoom in on the live view.

I mentioned in my initial review that the Sigma 30mm lens only focused using contrast detection. The Sigma feels reasonably fast to focus. Don't count on getting similar autofocus performance on the RJ Camera adapter. The focus behavior with the RJ Camera adapter attached jumps to what seems like a series of coarse focus points before dialing in at a finer level. Sometimes the camera gives up before the entire process completes. I've mostly been using this functionality with My Cannon 100mm IS L Macro lens. Different lenses seem likely to have different results. The camera has a very difficult time focusing with my Canon 8-15mm L fisheye lens.Your mileage may vary, but it seems unlikely you will get the kind of focus speeds needed for action photography.

Luckily, the NEX-6 has two nice innovations to assist with manual focus. First, it offers focus peaking. Focus peaking highlights areas in the viewfinder which are in focus with a colored fringe. It seems to work by highlighting high-contrast transitions at the pixel level. If you don't have an extremely fast aperture, it is an easy way to verify focus — as long as there is an area of high contrast for it to identify.
Troll Door
Troll Door
The other tool the NEX-6 offers is the ability to zoom in to the live view from the viewfinder or rear LCD display. Press a button, zoom in, focus. This takes more time than the focus peaking, but if does offer higher precision. Note that with the RJ Camera adapter, the in-lens image stabilization of my Canon lenses is disabled while using the zoomed in live preview. Unless you have a very wide lens, you’ll find this behavior disappointing. IS would really help keep things steady while focusing my Canon EF 100mm f2.8L IS Macro lens.

My one final comment is that the tripod collar which came with the RJ Camera adapter didn’t have a long enough screw to securely tighten it to the adapter. I purchased a pile of washers and a longer screw at Home Depot for a few bucks. Also, once you remove the body from the adapter, nothing but friction holds the collar on. That’s OK, unless you get confused and try to hold the adapter by the tripod collar. Do that without the body attached, and you might drop your lens. Be careful!

Durability

In my original review of the NEX-6, I complained about losing the viewfinder eyecup while walking around the Magic Kingdom. I’m still a bit disappointed in that experience, but since switching my carrying system away from the Black Rapid, I haven’t lost an eyecup again. If you plan to hang your camera upside-down from the tripod mount, you might start losing $12 eye cups too.
Speaker Food
Elegant Food
In case you’re curious, I now use a PeakDesign Leash and also a PeakDesign CapturePRO. The Leash is a very versatile shoulder strap that can be rapidly removed or reconfigured to become a tether to attach to your belt. The leash can be made quite long too, which allows you to hold the camera weight across the shoulders rather than just around the neck like a tourist.

The Capture is a system which securely holds a camera to a belt or strap using a specialized (but compatible with arcs-swiss tripod heads) plate. It’s a great way to completely remove the weight of a camera from the shoulders, and you can tighten it so that the camera doesn’t bounce around when you walk or run.

Like my Canons, my NEX-6 has had some rough treatment from me. It has been bumped around in bags with just a light neoprene padding. It has swung from my shoulders, and been bumped into people. The camera has been drizzled on, had various tasty sauces spilled on it. And it has pretty much survived without complaint. In fact, there is very little visible evidence that it has had a tough life at all. The only exception was the dang viewfinder eye cup that I lost about ten months ago.
Daily Driver
Daily Driver
Occasionally, the kit lens will fail to register on the camera. It’s always been an easy fix though: turn off the camera, remove the lens, re-attach the lens. The poor plastic lens housing has been abused enough to have a bit of an excuse.  The 16-50mm kit lens spends more time on my camera than any other lens I own. It isn’t the best glass in the world, but it sure is light and versatile. Adobe Lightroom does a fine job of correcting many of it’s flaws.

Battery Life

The battery life on the NEX-6 hasn’t improved, but I did buy an inexpensive set of two Wasabi batteries with a wall charger and even a cigarette lighter adapter. That means I have a total of three batteries for the NEX, and that I can charge them rapidly without worrying about the finicky USB charging on the camera body (see previous review). The three batteries have been more than plenty to get me through any day. When I travel for three or four day weekend, I sometimes leave the charger at home. I can always use USB to charge it in an emergency.

If you’re in a situation where you need the camera ready to take photos instantly, DSLR style, you will probably burn through batteries more quickly than I usually do. If you plan to use it extensively throughout a day, I suggest having at least one extra battery on hand. Luckily, the Wasabi batteries are not too expensive.

The Keeper Rate

I’m still convinced that my NEX-6 has a much higher keeper rate than my Canon 7D, or my Canon 40D. That is, I feel that more of the photos I take with the NEX-6 are sharp. With the Canon 7D, I seemed to capture a certain percentage of my photos slightly blurry, usually due to camera shake. I’m almost convinced that the dang swinging mirror in the Canon is what ruined so many photos for me. I suppose that it’s also possible that the additional weight of the dSLR somehow contributed to shaky photos too.
Sunday Exercise
Sunday Exercise
Either way, I worry less about motion blur in my photos on the NEX-6. It still can happen, but I don’t feel the need to take 3 photos of every beautiful scene.

Conclusions

For the most part, I really like the Sony NEX-6. Yes, the apps for Android and iPhone still make me weep. I develop iOS apps for a living, so I might be more picky than the average user. That said, I fell much better mentioning the feature than I did in January. The apps work much better now, even if they still frustrate me.

Also, I sometimes miss the lightning-quick focus of the Canon 7D, especially when I’m manually focusing my old Canon Glass on the NEX-6. The battery life of the Canon was far better too. And I can’t complain about the easy access to the most commonly used settings through buttons on the camera body. Every time I have to navigate a menu to change a basic setting, I miss my 7D.
Crossing Dark Waters
Crossing Dark Waters - the Bay Bridge in San Francisco
I don’t miss the size and weight of a dSLR though. The automatic modes on my NEX-6 are far more advanced and far more useful than on my Canon 7D. The NEX does a great job of picking shutter speed and aperture without my help in most situations (as long as I'm not using an adapter), and that’s great.

Likewise, auto-ISO is perfectly acceptable on the NEX-6. In my opinion the camera makes the correct tradeoff in terms of shutter speed and ISO. And I rarely feel like I need to disable automatic ISO to get a shot — something I can’t say about my Canon 7D.

I also love the electronic viewfinder, which is usable even in the dark and allows you to zoom in before taking a photo. When I use an optical viewfinder, I feel like I’m using an antique. How will I know what a photo will look like without knowing how the sensor sees the world? I can’t believe I was ever concerned about the lack of an optical viewfinder.

Over the next ten years, I see no reason for the traditional dSLR to stick around. At the moment, they have a few advantages, but think we will see the same capabilities in mirror less cameras in a few years. Cameras with moving mirrors will seem just as quaint as those antique cameras with bellows and flash powder do today.


[Article updated November 10th to include a link to the Wasabi batteries]

*Moving Average Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. Buying items through this link helps sustain my outrageous camera addiction and is much appreciated!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

You've Learned from Professors. Now Learn from Entrepreneurs.

Gail Goodman
If you want to get a software company off the ground, you need role models who have built software companies. Although there are tons of technology conferences out there, very few cater to the business side of technology. Even fewer events are tailored for software businesses that aim to make money from customers rather than from investors.

If you want customers you're just wasting your time attending an event that promotes the idea of taking investment funds in order to accumulate non-paying users. Developing customers who value your product so much that they pay requires a different set of tools. Equally, you won't get much out of a conference about selling software if you'd prefer to make money by selling ownership of your business.

One nice place where a room full of folks who make and sell software meet annually is the Business of Software Conference. You'll find an international mix of people who represent businesses from one-man software shops all the way to international operations that take huge sums of investor money in order to make even larger sums of customer revenue.

No matter where you are in your software business, you'll find someone here who has been in the same place. Among friends and off-the-record, you may be shocked by how much information and support your fellow software entrepreneurs are willing to offer you.

As a bonus, the organizers of BOS have thoughtfully arranged to have an array of amazing speakers present to the attendees on entrepreneurial topics. They tend to have a lot of value. I still think back to talks from my first BOS in 2009. How often do you think about a presentation even from last year?

If you're a student and you'd like to sell your software (or perhaps sell more of your software), consider applying to my Business of Software Student Grant. The grant winners get a ticket that is currently offered for $1895.00. If you spend ten minutes writing or recording your application and get in, that's a return of something like $11,370.00 an hour. Except you won't actually get richer unless you take what you learn at BOS and use it to improve your business. Software isn't quite alchemy, even if some of the folks I've met seem to turn everything they touch to gold.

It's really easy to apply, and the benefits of developing friendships among fellow entrepreneurs are unmeasurable. You can find the details here. Hurry, applications are closing soon!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Sony NEX-6 and the Future of Cameras


I rarely go anywhere without my Canon 7D* SLR camera. I take it to work, I take it to restaurants, I take it to conferences, I take it on vacations and I take it on hikes. My poor 7D has been washed by rain, fallen off a table, smacked into walls, showered in sauce, and showered with water off the back of a dog. It's a solid imaging device. The photos look great, the battery lasts forever, and it takes a beating without complaining.  I often have a handful of lenses with me too. I don't see the point of owning a nice camera and lens and then leaving them at home.

Mermaid's Castle
Look at that NEX-6 sky

So when it seemed time to upgrade, why wouldn't I want to replace it with a similar camera with improved specs? You can listen to my thinking on the Lean Decisions Podcast. The summary: I suspected that there were some new kinds of cameras out there which would improve my life and my shooting far more than some fundamental imaging improvements.

The Future of Cameras

At this moment, the best tools for photography are converging from two directions. On one side, smart phones and tablets featuring offering better and better small-sensor cameras, apps for editing the photos they take, and apps for uploading and sharing those photos quickly. The image quality doesn't compare technically with dSLRs or other devices with larger sensors, but they are incredibly convenient. The quality of photos from a nice smart phone is often more than good enough. I'm often caught taking photos with my third generation iPad, which produces impressive images for the tiny size of its camera.

Dolphin Resort
Shooting the NEX-6 outdoors at night

On the other side, technology from dSLRs is getting crammed into smaller and smaller cameras. Even lenses are getting smaller without sacrificing quality. On-camera editing and wireless transmission are more and more common on new devices. Some dSLRs like the Canon 6D even now can be remotely controlled by smart phones and tablets.

I think the Sony NEX-6 lies very close to the convergence of the smart phone cameras and the old-school dSLR. The NEX-6 has a dSLR-class sensor, interchangeable lenses, a viewfinder, and enables critical professional functionality like aperture-priority, shutter priority, manual exposure, and manual focus. Like a smart phone, the NEX-6 has WiFi and runs apps that enhance or change its functionality. Note that only Sony can write the apps for the camera.

Scallops
Handheld in candle light & difficult shadows?
Not hard to fix with the NEX-6 RAW files.

Cameras that makes it easier to get a photo from idea to published will make photographers significantly more productive. When a pro uses a dSLR, the camera works hard to minimize the difficulty of capturing an outstanding image. Expensive cameras are judged by how well they enable a user to capture the images they want in different situations.

Capturing the image is only half the job though. Photographers still generally need to review their photos, edit them, and get them published. In the future, I suspect that we'll judge expensive cameras by how easily and rapidly they enable photographers to get images through the entire pipeline. Photos that don't reach an audience don't help the photographer.

In my mind, the idea camera will cause folks to bug the photographer with questions about how they make so many beautiful photos so quickly. 

EVIL Cameras

There is a new class of cameras some have called EVIL: Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens. These are cameras which have no optical viewfinder, no mirror, and are typically much smaller than their SLR counterparts. Without a viewfinder prism and space for a swinging mirror, the size of a camera can be reduced significantly. Two of these EVIL cameras stood out to me as potential replacements and improvements on my Canon 7D.

Chatty Armor
Detail on a NEX-6 at ISO 3200

The first camera I considered was the Olympus OMD EM-5. This camera received lots of attention from prominent photographers I follow. +Scott Bourne has fallen in love with this Micro Four Thirds format camera. The OMD has an electronic viewfinder, an articulated touch-screen on the back, and is splash-proof when used with similarly weather-proofed lenses. It also has in-body image stabilization. I've leaned a lot by listening to Scott, so I listen to his opinion. 

The second camera that caught my eye was the Sony NEX-6, a camera which uses Sony's proprietary E-mount for lenses. The NEX-6 is a similar size to the Olympus OMD EM-5, but has a APS-C sized sensor that's actually just a tad bigger than the one in my Canon 7D. The NEX-6 is positioned in the Sony lineup just below the NEX-7 which +Trey Ratcliff has spoken highly of. The NEX-6 takes things one step further than the OMD by adding WiFi and support to download (Sony developed) apps which add capabilities to the camera. Unlike the OMD, the NEX-6 isn't ruggedized against water.

Comparing the NEX-6 and the OMD

Both the NEX-6 and OMD seem to be fine cameras. My friend +Peter Tsai has an OMD and loves it. I tried it for a few minutes and I was super-impressed with the low-light image quality and the image stabilization. The OMD is awesome.

Lamp Monster
The NEX-6 RAW file dynamic range - no HDR processing

The NEX-6 stacks up pretty poorly in some respects against the OMD. The OMD has several features that I covet:
  • In-body image stabilization that works with many lenses
  • A large library of lenses which are generally smaller in size than those for the NEX E-mount.
  • Weather sealing
  • A long-exposure bulb mode that lets you watch the image develop before the exposure completes
  • Touch to focus and shoot on the rear touch screen
I purchased the NEX-6 instead for a few reasons:
  • The functionality of the NEX-6 can be extended with apps
  • Smart phones can control the NEX-6 and retrieve images off of the camera
  • The NEX-6 offers focus peaking which helps with manually focusing a lens
  • The NEX-6 offers a wider field of view given the same focal-length lens
  • There are third-party adapters for the NEX that allow Canon and other third-party lenses to be used with it
  • The NEX-6 looks a shade less conspicuous than the OMD, which some folks might still call a "professional" camera because of the SLR-like styling
Of all those items, three were important for my personal consideration. First, I often like capturing a wide-angle view. Given a particular focal length, the sensor size of the OMD offers a view with about a 2X zoom factor compared to a full frame sensor. The NEX-6 crop sensor has a wider 1.5X zoom factor compared to a full frame sensor. I'm not aware of lenses for Micro Four-Thirds cameras that offer as wide of view as those available for crop-sensor cameras.

Secondly, the more wide availability of third-party lens adapters for the NEX-6 make it more attractive since I can make use of my tiny library of Canon EOS glass. Lenses are the most expensive part of any camera system, so the ability to continue using my old lenses helps a lot on cost.

Finally, the ability to add functionality to the camera through apps really interests me. I'm a mobile app developer, so I definitely believe in the power of apps to make devices better.

First Impressions of the NEX-6

I developed a good solid two weeks of use from my NEX-6 when I started writing this review. I received it right before the winter holidays, and it accompanied me to Tampa, Orlando, and New Orleans. During that time, it went to two theme parks, many restaurants, a few bars, a steam-powered river boat, on a night-time ghost tour, and on the beach.

A few aspects of the camera immediately stood out to me. First, the thing does an amazing job of capturing detail in the sky while still exposing the rest of a scene well. The dynamic range in it's photos really impresses me. A single RAW file can make a pretty striking HDR image with minimal processing. I made this photo of the Haunted Mansion below with one RAW file. I purposefully darkened the exposure for a ominous atmosphere, but I could have easily made it look bright as day despite the back-lit scene. I kept the default noise reduction settings from Lightroom 4 and Nik Color Efex Pro 2.

The Haunted Mansion
Single-exposure HDR with a back-lit subject

My second impression was that the camera feels incredibly light compared to my Canon 7D. The feeling was odd. The NEX-6 is so light and tiny (and cheaper) compared to the Canon 7D, yet the images it produces are in many ways superior to the Canon. Sure, the kit lens isn't quite in the same class as my Canon Macro 100 mm L IS, but the camera body nails the exposure, does a fantastic job of controlling noise, and at night it hoovers up every available photon.

I recently took both my 7D and the NEX-6 on a hike. The 7D spent most of the time in my camera bag, while my NEX-6 took about 80 photos. When I did take out the 7D with the 8-15mm fisheye lens, it felt like a cannonball in my hands. The additional weight of the dSLR over the NEX-6 really adds up on a long hike.

While maybe not as fast as the Canon 7D, the focus speed of the NEX-6 when using phase detection is quite quick. Note though that not all lenses support phase detection. The Sigma 30 mm f 2.8 E-mount lens does not support it. Focusing using contrast detection on the NEX-6 feels quicker than that offered by the 7D in live-view mode, but not nearly as quick as phase detection enables.

The 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 Power Zoom Lens which ships with the camera is an unusual beast. He collapses like an old pirate telescope when switched off, and takes a second or two to extend before he is usable for taking a photo. Since the camera seems to require the same amount of time to get ready, maybe this isn't a big deal. The size of the lens when collapsed is quite reasonable.

The lens has both a zoom ring and a zoom switch. Since the zooming of the lens is actuated by motors inside the lens, either solution works. The ring seems too offer better control and speed, but the switch sometimes comes in handy when I'm holding something in my hand. I can just move the switch with my left thumb. I think some folks have complained about the speed of zooming with this lens, but I find it to be quick enough.

This lens has no focus ring. Instead, the same ring used for zooming can provide focus input when the shutter release is held half way down.

The image quality of this lens is unusual. The Sony NEX-6 has built-in correction of vignetting, distortion, and I believe chromatic aberration. If you shoot RAW, Adobe Lightroom 4 can correct the same defects automatically with the touch of a button. This feature has allowed Sony to ship this lens with what would otherwise be crippling vignetting. You can see it in the corners of the photo below.

Hill country - No Correction
Hill country without correcting for lens defects

Correcting the defects using Lightrooms profiles also means throwing a few pixels away along the edges. See the corrected photo below.

Hill country - Automatic Profile Correction
Hill Country correcting for lens defects

The corrected images look pretty good. I imagine that most folks will just use the corrected version and not worry about it. Note that the images above were edited with slightly different settings in Silver Efx Pro

On the User Experience of dSLRs

After spending a few days with the NEX-6, I've noticed some areas where it compares unfavorably to most dSLRs. For those unfamiliar with modern dSLRs, even when they're on, they pretty much do nothing until you push a button. You can put the view finder to your face, zoom the lens, and usually even manually focus without the camera even really noticing. As soon as you touch the shutter button, the device instantly springs to life. Image stabilization activates, the exposure is metered, and the lens focuses in a fraction of a second. Unless the lens cap is on, or the batteries run dry, a dSLR user is pretty much always ready to capture an image. 

Bluezoo
Shooting the NEX-6 in a dark restaurant handheld

The Sony NEX-6, especially with the power zoom kit lens, takes time to turn on and to extend the lens. If a UFO lands in your back yard, counts to two-mississippi and flies away, you won't get any photos with your NEX-6 unless it was awake before the aliens taunted you. Even with a prime lens, like the E-Mount Sigma 30 mm f 2.8 lens I purchased with the camera, it still takes precious seconds for the camera to wake up.

This means that you may wish to keep the camera out of power-saving mode. Except, unlike a dSLR, the camera uses the battery to keep it ready to shoot. The battery level drops noticeably as you use the NEX-6 throughout a day. I have heard that the electronic viewfinder hogs more power than the rear display, so how you use the camera might impact the battery usage.

The batteries on a dSLR last an amazingly long time. Perhaps my perception is a bit inflated because the 7D displays the battery level in 25% increments while you feel the pain as the NEX-6 visibly sheds each percentage point of charge.

I haven't used the camera enough to know if a full battery charge is enough to get though a very active day or not. I can tell you that the battery got dangerously close to 0% in New Orleans, but I made 480 exposures and had not charged it much that trip.

One very convenient feature of the NEX-6 is that it charges with a micro USB cable. When I travel, my laptop becomes a charging hub for my phone and now it can do the same for my camera. Nice!

Unfortunately, the charging system has a major flaw. The camera won't charge if the camera is too warm. Despite the cold weather, I have noticed more than one occasion where I though the camera was charging, but instead the camera was flashing a tiny light to let me know that it was too warm to charge. Sadly, the camera doesn't seem to monitor the temperature situation to see if it improves. More than once I have plugged the camera in for an hour and then later discovered that the light was blinking. It didn't appear that the battery had charged at all. When I unplugged the camera in this state and immediately plugged it back in, the camera began charging. This behavior implies that it doesn't automatically take advantage of a drop in temperature after it was initially plugged in.

Another difference between the NEX-6 and SLRs is durability. In all my years of not-so-gently using Canon SLRs, I don't believe I've ever had a piece of the camera fall off in normal use. For the NEX-6, I lost the rubber eye cup for the viewfinder while walking around the Magic Kingdom. I think I owned the camera 3 or 4 days. Perhaps Sony hadn't designed the camera to be carried upside-down on a Black Rapid strap, but I still felt pretty disappointed. The eye cup for the NEX-6 snaps on, while the eye cups for Canon dSLRs slides onto a track and locks. It requires a decent squeeze to slide the eye cup off a 7D. The replacement NEX-6 eye cup cost me $9.99 on Amazon.

Not to dwell on the eyecup, but I find that it adds a significant amount of depth to the NEX-6's dimensions. It really sticks out, and it works with the lens to add another obstruction to slipping the camera into a case. I hope that Sony will improve the design to be a bit more rounded in future cameras. On the bright side, the smaller NEX-6 still is far easier to stow than any dSLR. 

I don't believe that the NEX-6 has any weather sealing like the Canon 7D does. I will avoid carrying the NEX-6 in the harsher environments my 7D joined me in. That said, the NEX-6 is far easier to stuff into a waterproof pocket than the bulky 7D. 

The physical buttons on the NEX-6 disappoint compared to my 7D. The shutter release button on the 7D has long travel and very distinct tactile feedback when the button goes from focus mode to shutter release. The shutter release on the NEX-6 feels like mush all the way. I sometimes take photos when I mean to start the autofocus. I wish I could make one of the rear buttons on the NEX act as a autofocus button, like I could for the 7D.

A photo of the NEX-6 viewfinder with focus peaking
visible as the red outline on the right side of the frog

The one major spot where the NEX-6 smashes my 7D is in the area of predicting the outcome of a shot. Looking through the optical viewfinder, you can't tell if parts of the image will be over or underexposed for a particular shot; they're really only good for framing and focusing. Similarly, you won't have a great idea of how the colors and contrast will convey. You can guess, but you won't know. The relatively high resolution electronic viewfinder of the NEX-6 offers an excellent preview of the image you'll see when you hit the shutter.

Even better, you can configure the NEX-6 to zoom in to a particular region of the viewfinder image when manually focusing. I love the focus zoom. As long as the focus spot is configured where you'd like it, the feature makes focusing quick and confidence-inspiring. If you need to move the focus spot for manual or automatic focus, the process seems a lot faster on the 7D: push one button, move to one of the limited focus spots, and shoot.

The NEX-6 also offers focus peaking. Focus peaking colors the borders of things which are in focus (see the red borders in the photo through the viewfinder above). I initially thought this was a huge selling point for the camera, but in practice, I'm not sure I use it very much. Perhaps I would if I used a manual focus lens or shot video. The peaking seems to rely on high-contrast image areas, so certain scenes might be in focus but show little or no peaking.

When you're shooting RAW, the image you see in the view finder matches the image you'll see when you review the photo, which matches what you see in Lightroom. And those images generally look good out of the camera. I still edit them, but they don't look flat and lifeless without editing like they do for some dSLRs.

As you can see in the photo of the NEX-6 viewfinder, there are lots of nice overlays you can add. Here you can see framing guides, the green auto-focus lock rectangles, and the digital level which helps me avoid unintentionally slanty photos.

One final note about the 7D, and dSLRs in general. Although the 7D has tons of menus and complicated configuration screens, in general touching the shutter button will return the camera instantly to shooting mode.  The intimidating number of buttons that cover the 7D act as dedicated controls to configure the exposure, the focus points, the iso, the white balance, the continuous shooting, and so on. The NEX-6 will sometimes have a corresponding button, but it will also sometimes disable the corresponding functionality depending on what mode the camera is in. For instance, I'm not sure why the "intelligent" modes won't let the user manually specify a focus point, if even for only one exposure. These sorts of issues and complexities can waste precious moments and might cost you a shot. 

My advice for professional shooters who live and die by capturing a moment with their photography is to keep shooting dSLRs. The NEX-6 is amazing, but the reliability, durability, and ready-to-shoot nature of dSLRs will help keep you from missing shots. That said, you might find a NEX-6 useful as a third camera for making social-media-ready photos with minimal editing.

Apps

The app side of the NEX-6 fascinates me. Sony runs an app store for the NEX-6 and NEX-5R cameras. Some of the apps are free, some of them are paid. The most expensive app is the $9.99 Time-lapse app.

Illustrated Cinderella's Castle
The Illustration effect applied to Cinderella's Castle

One of the more interesting apps is the free Picture Effect+ app. Picture Effect+ lets the user choose an effect to be applied after a photo is taken (it doesn't seem to let you process an existing photo, which is a shame). Some of the Effects give a real-time view of the effect, like the Partial Color+ effect which lets you select one or two colors to keep while rendering the rest of the image in Black & White. Others, like the charming Illustration effect (click on the image above) are only applied after the image is captured.

The apps do change the functionality of the camera while they are active. While the Picture Effect+ app lets you change the mode (e.g., aperture priority, shutter priority), many other settings are not available. The use of the camera can also shift in unexpected ways. For instance, the DMF mode (which changes the zoom ring to a focus ring when the shutter is partially held down) no longer zooms into the focus area when that app is loaded. Also, the menu moves to the lower button next to the display rather than the upper button (which becomes an exit button).

The changes the apps make to the interface don't ruin the functionality, but they can slow you down. I wish Sony would standardize the uses of the soft buttons a bit more. As you might expect, RAW output is disabled for this app.

Some of the apps have questionable utility. The Bracket Pro app sounds like it would be useful for HDR, but it only seems to support the same three exposures that the camera has as built in capability. It does offer features which might not be built in, like focus bracketing (changing the focus for three exposures), and taking a photo with and without flash enabled. Perhaps it also allows more than there stops of bracketing? This app costs $4.99. 

I think Sony has lots of room to improve here. I would definitely like to see an SDK so that third parties could develop apps (what a shame the OS isn't Android based!). I would also like to see more clarity of exactly what the capabilities of the apps are and how they differ from the camera's built-in functionality. I would also like to see comments and reviews from users so I can get some idea of how useful an app is before I buy it.

Still, especially for quickly making an interesting image for social media, apps seem promising. I hope to see more apps in the future.

Smart Phone Integration

Sony offers PlayMemories Mobile apps for the Android and iOS which promise to allow the user to send photos from the NEX-6 to a smart phone or tablet. I really love this idea, but I hate the PlayMemories Mobile app.

To send a photo from the NEX-6 to an Android phone wouldn't be bad if the Android app worked. The user simply needs to find the photo of interest, hit the menu button, select Playback, and then select View on Smartphone. The camera will wait while you run the PlayMemories Mobile app on the Android device. The app will see the NEX-6 on WiFi, let you select it and (with some initial configuration for password and so on), and then you'll see a preview of the image you selected on the NEX-6.

Launching a Kite
Outdoors on a sunny afternoon with the NEX-6

From there, you can try to "Copy" or "Upload" the photo. If the author or translator of those descriptions was familiar with using Android in English, they probably would have labeled the buttons "Save to Gallery" and "Share". 

Unfortunately, you will feel frustrated if you try either of those button. Every time I've tried to transfer the photo, I see a progress bar that reaches the end but the process never finishes. The app just hangs indefinitely while the batteries of your phone and camera slowly drain. If you exit the sharing mode on the NEX-6 and are lucky, you may discover that the photo did transfer to your Gallery in a dedicated PlayMemories Mobile folder. The poor design and execution of the android app makes me want to tear my hair out.

The same android app can also act as a remote control if you run the Smart Remote Control app on the NEX-6. If you can get the Android app to connect (sometimes it takes a second or third try), it offers a live view of what the camera sees, a shutter release button, and in some camera modes (like aperture priority) it allows the user to change the exposure compensation by going through an inconvenient menu. Users can slowly adjust the exposure by moving in 1/3 stop increments and waiting while the camera updates. After the user hits OK, the shutter release button returns to the screen.

Sadly, the Smart Remote Control app doesn't seem to support certain shooting modes, like the i+ mode. The PlayMemories MobileAndroid app doesn't communicate what the problem is, but the back of the camera offers users a poorly worded clue. If the user rotates the mode dial to a supported mode, the remote app will start working. Hopefully you haven't mounted your camera to a hang glider and jumped from a cliff before you discover this problem.

Flying Over Six
10 FPS bursts help you capture the moment
this man jumps over six people

Hitting the shutter release button on the Android app will trigger the camera to shoot a photo about a second later. Sports photographers won't find the app very useful with such a long shutter lag.

It isn't clear to me if the remote control app allows the user to change the focus. Sometimes focus seemed to change in response to my taps, but I think that was just coincidence. The camera seems to be periodically auto-focusing itself. There are no controls to change zoom from the app.

I tried the iOS version of the PlayMemories Mobile app on my third generation iPad. In some ways it was better and others worse than the Android app. Unlike the Android app, even after setting up the WiFi password of the NEX-6, the iOS PlayMemories App won't automatically connect to the camera. Instead, the user is told (with nearly indecipherable instructions) to go to the iOS Settings app and connect the device manually to the NEX-6's WiFi network. Yes, the user has to disconnect from a WiFi network that might be providing internet access, and connect to the camera's ad-hoc wifi network. Once the connection completes (which takes several seconds), the user can return to the app and it will communicate with the camera. The interface looks very similar to the Android app: bare bones.

Unlike the Android app, an image sent from the NEX-6 will rapidly transfer off the device and it doesn't hang indefinitely. Like the Android app, the user can change the settings (from the iOS Settings app in this case) to download either 2 megapixel or full-resolution images to the iOS device. 

Using the Smart Remote Control app with iOS again requires that the user connects to the NEX-6's WiFi network. It's behavior otherwise is very similar to the Android app: the view updates fairly rapidly, but the lag from pushing the shutter button until the photo is taken is an unimpressive 1 second or so.

To sum up, the iOS and Android apps both pain me to use. I can hardly believe how frustrating and ugly the apps are on the two largest smartphone platforms! They provide useful functionality if you can persuade them to work and guess your way through the interface, but you probably won't like them. My dream of sending lots of NEX-6 photos to Instagram while I'm on the road has not come true.

Sony should be embarrassed, but I'm not sure they care. I know several mobile developers who could make a much better app from scratch in mere weeks, so I'm pretty sure that fixing the product is possible. It seems as if Sony doesn't believe that software or user experience matters. They must have put so much work into the camera's amazing image processing and scene detection software. How could they have given up when it came time to build a fantastic user experience around it?

Can you imagine if Ferrari shipped a high performance coupe with a plastic tiller for steering? Nobody would believe that even the most stripped-down economy car could ship with a steering system adopted from a small sailboat. And yet Sony expects me to use an app that feels like junk-ware from a 1990s PC to get photos on to my phone. A small child could tell you that you put steering wheels in cars. The same small child could probably tell you that the PlayMemories Mobile app needs to successfully download photos and quickly react  to touches.

I really hope that Sony puts some serious development and design effort into improving the Android and iOS experience. The vision behind the NEX-6 is fantastic, but the execution stinks. If Sony wants to take a leadership position in the camera market, it needs to hire some serious interface designers, user experience experts, and software developers. And then Sony needs to make a cultural shift to put user experience ahead of dorky feature checkboxes.

I bet some VP in the camera division of Sony must still be using a candy bar phone with a touch-tone keypad on it. If you're that guy, you better run to a store right now and buy a state-of-the-art smart phone. Take it home and install twenty or thirty of the top photography apps on it. Make flickr, Instagram, Facebook, and twitter accounts. Take photos, edit, and share them. Now try to do the same from a NEX-6. Do that a few times, and you'll see exactly why the NEX-6 experience doesn't even meet the most basic expectations of social media users. You can fix this; you just need to understand the problem and get help.

Conclusions

The NEX-6 makes beautiful photos, is incredibly portable compared to a dSLR, and has a wonderful intelligent shooting mode which usually does a great job recognizing a scene and picking good settings. The large sensor and focus peaking allows users to reasonably use third party lenses that have E-mount adapters. I love it! The photos from this camera look wonderful.

Unfortunately, there is a lot to improve in the realm of user interface on this camera, especially its native apps, and on the Android and iOS PlayMemories Mobile apps. Actually, the out-of-the-box software on the NEX-6 is OK to use. It doesn't quite match the user experience of a 7D, but it works. But the apps need to be a little more user friendly, and the smart phone integration needs a lot of work.

Right now, the camera market is still focused on the imaging side of the equation. Maybe Sony still has time to get to an experience that will satisfy the App Generation. Right now there probably isn't some competitor out there that is doing any of this software stuff right yet. But soon there will be.

I really hope that Sony puts in some effort to improving the software, because I think the potential for EVIL cameras with smart phone integration is huge. The first company to really do this well should dominate the market for high-end consumer cameras, and perhaps the professional market too.

Despite my disappointment with the current state of the software, I plan to use this camera a lot. Sometimes my Canon 7D will be my primary shooter because I'll want the speed and reliability and user experience. Frequently I expect that my Canon will stay at home and the NEX-6 will be my camera of choice on the road. Who wants to carry around the weight of the 7D unless they have to?

I'll be keeping my eyes out for a similar camera that has better integration with smart phones and better software. 

What I love about the NEX-6

  • Captures blue skies while still exposing rest of image properly
  • Intelligent mode detects the type of scene and does a great job picking settings more often than not
  • Images from the kit lens look really nice after Lightroom automatically corrects distortion and vignetting 
  • The body has an understated look that does not call attention to itself as a "professional" camera
  • Zooming responds quickly on the kit lens even though it is electronic, and not a direct physical connection in this lens
  • Manual focus is easy with the automatic 100% view
  • Phase detect autofocus is generally fast, and works in fairly low light
  • Articulated screen is quite useful for getting interesting camera angles
  • There are third party lenses available, and adapters for lenses on other systems
  • Even in low light, the camera still captures great detail and good dynamic range
  • The bottom of the articulated rear screen is slightly recessed so it is possible to use it on a tripod

What I disliked about the NEX-6

  • Eyecup may fall off if bumped
  • Android and iOS apps disappoint
  • On-camera apps are sometimes slow to load, and confusing to operate
  • Some on-camera apps don't seem to allow you to apply effects to an existing photo
  • Can't use some on-camera functions or apps and save RAW files
  • Latency when turning the camera on and waking seems slow
  • Battery life could be an issue for heavy shooting
  • The camera won't charge the battery if it thinks it's too hot when you plug it in
  • UI can be slow or confusing to use
  • No secondary button can be assigned to autofocus
  • Camera may not go to sleep if something (like your shirt) near the electronic view finder triggers the eye detection
  • The phase-detection auto focus only works with certain lenses (my Sigma 30 mm does not seem to be one)
  • The camera sometimes autofocuses even if the shutter button isn't held down. This is usually helpful, but it can also confound your ability to reframe a shot with the same focus
  • The articulating screen isn't quite recessed enough to keep from rubbing against the pad on my +Peak Design ARCAplate (the screen still can be adjusted with a little force; I should probably get a MICROplate)


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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Hotel Checkin Scam

My hotel room phone rang Friday night at 11:34pm. The man with the Texas accent on the other end patiently explained that he was the hotel manager, there had been a problem with my registration with the hotel, that he was sorry, and that they would give me a 25% discount on my stay. But first, for insurance reasons, they needed to put my check-in information back into the computer. I could do this over the phone, or down at the front desk.

Immediately, tiny alarm bells went off in my head. First, we had recently checked in, and I had made my initial reservation online.  How could it be that they lost my information?

Second, the man who checked me in at the front desk was of Indian decent. He spoke with a mild Indian accent. I stay at Best Westerns quite frequently (I like them), and they often seem to be run as family operations. A manager with a strong Texan accent seemed possible, but just different enough from my expectation that I was put on guard.

I asked what information was needed, and the Texan thief replied, "Oh, I need all the checkin information you would have given the front desk."

"Like what?"

"Oh, well, did you pay with cash or credit card?"

"Credit card. Why does that matter for insurance purposes?"

"Oh, well, we need that information to make the record complete. You can come down to the front desk and give us the information there if you prefer."

"Ok, I'll be right down."

"OK, bye."

I rode the elevator to the lobby where the (still Indian) manager at the front desk offered me this enthusiastic wisdom: "Oh, it's a scam that's going around. Never give out your personal information!"

I laughed, thanked him, and returned to my room.

Clearly the Texan thief was playing a couple of tricks to get my information. He called my room late at night (not long after checking in either), which might catch folks in a vulnerable frame of mind. Most guests would be in bed, sleepy, and not inclined to do much more than get rid of the man on the phone as quickly as possible.

The thief offered a dumb story about insurance, which fits with most people's idea of the industry: dumb and inconvenient. "Wow, gosh, it figures that those insurance guys want to ruin my vacation too! If there is one thing that this thief and I can agree on, it's that insurance companies make life difficult. I remember my second cousin Alfred, his house got flooded by a hurricane, but the insurance company said that the wind blew the water into the house, and he didn't have enough wind insurance!" And so on.

The identity thief also offered money (25% off my room), and he offered the less convenient (but useless to his scam) choice to visit the front desk. Why would a thief offer the option to go to the front desk? Plausibility. Except that a 25% discount sounded a bit too good to be true. Although $25 for a 5 minute conversation sounds like a OK consulting rate, it is rare that businesses value their customers time at even close to $300/hour.

I also felt like I was being railroaded into two courses of action by the thief. If you can pull it off, multiple choice has lovely negotiating results: "you can give us money this way, or you can give us money that way!" If you don't pull it off, then I might come up with imaginative alternatives to your railroad tracks:

  • I could demand that you come up to my room, show an ID, and take my personal information through the little gap the security chain allows for
  • I could hang up and dial the front desk and ask about the call
  • I could pack up, throw the TV through the hotel window in a fit of anger, and drive to another hotel
  • I could tell the caller that it's not my problem that they lost my information

Encounters like these are another reason why learning about negotiation has a lot of value. When I recognize gambits, I immediately go into a more problem-solving, cautious frame of mind. If you're interested in an entertaining and educational read on the subject, I suggest Secrets of Power Negotiating*, by Roger Dawson.

Like the Manager at the Best Western says: Never give out your personal information. Such wisdom. I'm glad I didn't defenestrate the television.


*Moving Average Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. Buying items through this link is much appreciated!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Spirit of BoS 2012: a Scholar's Account

Tower building at a #bos2012 workshop. Yes, the Business of Software Conference + Marshmallows.When I returned to work after this year's Business of Software Conference, I was unable to give a very good summary of the proceedings. Yes, I had learned a lot, I had met hundreds of wonderful, generous, successful entrepreneurs and developers. I even had a notebook stuffed with ideas and insights. But when my co-worker asked me how the conference went, the word "awesome" was really the best I could do. My slow brain is still processing the events of last week.

Lucky for me, Andrei Pop has done a lovely job of summarizing the spirit of BoS2012. Andrei was one of three recipients of my 2012 Business of Software Student & Recent Grad Scholarships (through my company Moving Average Inc.)

Read what Andrei has to say. You'll understand why the Business of Software Conference is my favorite conference.

*Updated 2013 March 25 to fix broken links to Andrei's posts.