Monday, October 08, 2012

Bringing YouTube one step closer to replacing traditional TV - Announcing VideoMirchi.com


I had subscribed to Indian programming on Dish Network, mainly to get the latest updates on bollywood movies and music. YouTube always had all the content, but never had a good way to discover it in a easy way.
This is fixed now. I am super-excited to announce Video Mirchi. You can access it at http://www.videomirchi.com. 

Video Mirchi looks up the top charts every day and creates a continuously playing video channel powered by youtube. There is no login or signup - its just like a TV channel playing the latest bollywood videos. 
It works on both computer and mobile. Connect it with your TV directly or via Airplay.
Enjoy!



Sunday, March 04, 2012

A personal review of Lytro Camera

I just received my Lytro camera on Friday.  I played with it for 2 days, carrying it almost everywhere I went. There were a lot of 'pro' reviews on the camera, but very few consumer ones, so I thought I will write down my thoughts on it.




Quick summary on Lytro as a camera:


What I liked:
  • It is a very well built camera. It feels great in the hands, and its construction is high quality.
  • Its fast. There is no shutter lag. The touch interface works great and is easy to use.
  • It charges via USB when connected to the computer.
  • Software is minimal but decent. Lytro uses its own image format, so you need the software to view the photos. There are tons of other things I wished it did, but it does the job for now.
  • Image quality (besides the resolution) is pretty decent. 
What I didn't like:
  • The screen is horrible. I can't believe they put such a poor quality screen on this camera.
    • The demos that they have on their site are definitely not with a real camera.. the screen in their demos is crystal clear.
    • It has almost no viewing angle other than 'straight'. Makes it difficult to take pictures, specially because you have to rely on looking at it so much.
    • Its almost non-functional in sunlight.
Direct view -  you can see the highly pixelated image
View when tilted by about 15 degrees. The image almost looks like a 'negative'.
  • The final resolution of pictures (when exported as jpeg) is 1080 × 1080, which is ok for sharing on facebook but too low for most other uses.
  • The camera actually requires you to take pictures that are out of focus, which can be corrected using the software. So you can't be 100% sure while taking a photo if you will get the focus you want.

Taking Photos


Lytro only has 2 buttons - Click and Power. It also has a touch-slider to zoom which is pretty responsive. This makes it easy to capture photos.


It took me a few hours to get used to the camera, especially because of the lack of a good display and mediocre preview quality. It also takes a bit of work to get used to how to pick the right focus range.


According to their tutorial, you have to take the photos so that the main subject is slightly blurred, which can then be brought into focus later using the software. I had a lot of shots where it went out of the focus range - like this sample photo from gizmodo's review so I could not get it as sharp as I wanted. I guess this is something that will improve by practice, but its a bit tricky to take an 'imperfect' photo and trust the camera to make it 'perfect' later.

Overall speaking, I got used to most of the stuff and was able to take acceptable photos within a day. The camera literally has no 'settings', which is nice.



Living Pictures


Lytro touts this camera as 'click now, focus later'. This is cool for marketing, but is just a way to bridge the gap with existing cameras. Current SLR cameras are quite fast, and I can see exactly what the picture looks like while taking it, so the 'focus later' part of lytro doesn't seem very useful to me personally.


However, the whole concept of 'living pictures' has added another dimension to the photographs. You can craft the picture so that the user discovers something new when he clicks on the blurred part, which really makes the photos feel 'alive'.

For example, the picture below looks like a standard rope with blurred background. Any camera with a decent lens can do this. There is nothing that stands out. However, clicking on the background reveals a new detail that makes the photo more interesting.



This is a whole new paradigm in photography, beyond just 'decide the focus later'. It adds a new meaning to the photo which has been historically lost with traditional photos.







Focus Range


Lytro does not have an infinite focusing (or refocusing) range. While taking pictures, you have control over this 'range'. As far as you are within this range, you can focus on any object inside it. 







There are also some interesting tricks. For example, in the picture below, the frame of the mirror is on its own focus plane, but what you see inside the mirror and what's in front of the scene is on a separate plane. Clicking inside the mirror or on the house in front of the car focuses both the regions. 





Until now, we have always been dealing with Aperture, Shutter speed, etc. but the Lytro adds a new dimension which is fun to play with. 


The software currently does not allow you to create a photo with infinite depth of field, but I believe that a future update will make it possible.


Low Light Performance


The camera does OK in low light, definitely not as good as my 40D at f1.8, but better than my compact powershot camera. Here is a sample:









Conclusion


Lytro a pretty solid camera as version 1.0 of a brand new technology. With the amount of data that the camera captures, it might be able to do amazing things like 3D and HDR. However, they have started with a simple use case - excited to see where it goes from here.


After using it for 2 days straight, I have already started missing the ability to click anywhere in the photos I took using regular cameras.. wondering 'what was hidden there'.


As for now, it does not replace a regular camera, but is something fun to have and make photography more interesting.


If you are interested in photography, already own a bunch of lenses and a nice SLR, and have  $400 to spare, this is going to be a very fun ride.


Here is  my public stream on Lytro, have fun! 


--
Btw, if you want your significant other to get you one, let them know by adding it to your wishlist at theicebreak.com.
















Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Smart TV FAIL. Let's go back to the Idiot Box.




Having observed the whole 'connected tv' phenomenon first hand since my early days at YouTube, contributing to XBMC since its inception and being really interested in this space personally, I am very upset with the direction where Smart TV is going.

I think that the future should not include 'Apps on TV', 'Browser on TV', and its also not 'Read Facebook or Check Email on the TV'.  They are terrible to use and there are some fundamental reasons why they will never be good:
  • TV is a consumption device for media (photos, videos and music).
  • An average TV is a few feet away from the user. This makes it difficult to read any text that is not blown up to the size of subtitles.
  • It is also a shared device, so anything that is relatively personal (like email) is not practical to use on the TV.
  • The interface on TV is simple: Big menu items and Big boxes. Anything beyond this gets cluttered up because of its size restrictions.
  • It is really awesome at what it does: Play media. It sucks at almost everything else.
Now, if you look at the trends that are happening (for TV space):
  • Facebook / Email  / Twitter / Browser on TV
  • Big fancy keyboards connected to TV
  • Reading news on TV
  • Searching for content on TV
  • Different apps on TV
All these are enabled by connecting the TV to the internet. TVs have become more smarter in the last 5  years than they have ever been, and everyone is itching to get on board with these new capabilities.

However, I think that loading TV with all these features is going to fail.

An ideal TV experience should be:
  • Use TV as a dumb device to play content from any source - brodcast, internet or somewhere in between.
  • Give it a minimal interface so its easy to play this content, like play / pause / next.
  • Use an additional device (Laptop, Phone, Tablet, etc) to control the programming.
This way, next time you want to watch Netflix or listen to Pandora, you can go Netflix.com (or open its app on your smartphone) and select 'Play on TV'. No dealing with confusing interfaces, no app crashes on the TV.

However, this is not happening due to a variety of reasons:
  • There are no 'standards' around this. I cannot build a TV that supports standard X, which will enable it to play content from different sources directly without writing native apps.
  • A TV without interface doesn't look 'sexy'. You can't show-off that it has 'no interface'. Except if you are apple :).
  • The TV will need a companion device which actually has the interface. It can be a tablet, laptop, phone or even the source / website itself.
Imagine if we had to have apps for every channel that we have subscribed to on your Cable or Dish network, all with a different UI. This is where Smart TV is going right now.

Apple is the only company that has done at-least *something* on these lines, via AirTunes and now AirPlay that is directly integrated in iOS. Its still a bit clunky to use, but definitely a step in the right direction.

In the end, the primary role of a TV is to play content, and trying to make them 'Smart' is like putting lipstick on a pig.

Hopefully we will see a TV that has no interface, can be fully controlled via my tablet, and can play just about anything from everywhere.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Smarter Email

I love Email.

It just works. It works because it is flexible, open, and anyone can use it. It works very well in heterogeneous environments as the email standard is well documented, accepted and implemented.

I have looked at a ton of 'solutions' that try to replace emails, but nothing really works as seamlessly as good-old email.

The goal of email is to enable communication and think that it can be improved. It will be stupid to completely replace this amazing means of communication, when it fundamentally works well. What needs to be done is to make it 'smarter'.

What's broken is not the ability of emails to enable communication, but that the forms of communication have now become more complicated whereas email is still at its original design built for person-to-person messaging. Because email worked for everything, everything piled onto it making it complicated.

What needs to happen is that a standard should be created on top of email, that can handle 'special' use cases which can then be implemented by clients in a cross-platform way.

A few examples of this are:
  • Messages from discussion groups can be similar to RSS feeds. They are usually read-only and rarely need to be responded to.
  • Special handlers to 'automatic' messages, like calendar invites, flight alerts, shipping confirmation, etc. They don't need to be shown like a 'message', just need to get to my mailbox so that I can access them if I need to.
  • Notification emails should show up as, well, notifications.
  • A good way to handle things like groupons, which, even though come in as email, aren't really messages. 
There is no one company that can 'fix' this, as any change to email needs to be standardized. However, small steps can definitely be taken to create email formats that are 'machine readable' by the client so they can be organized properly.

A first step in this direction is to have a major email provider (eg. gmail) to start supporting 'smart email' formats. This will make the services to send emails compatible with this format, which can then grow and expand to more and more services.

I would love to see some work done here, and see someone solve this problem.  May be its time for someone to start a new email company :)