Monthly Archives: January 2008

Using iGlasses to fix your iSight

Apparently a bunch of my readers are getting a little bored with the Mac bias around here, so I’ll try to dilute it. But not right now 🙂
iGlasses-1.png
Here’s a Seesmic post I made this morning about iGlasses, a small piece of software that can improve your experience with the iSight cameras that ship in Macs. The problem is basically that although the iSight is a really neat tool and handy to have built-in, it does have some trouble with white balance and brightness in some circumstances.

I’d previously followed a useful guide to improving a webcam’s picture quality. That is definitely a useful read, but there are settings that can be tweaked in the iSight which can help too. For instance, it is possible to zoom the picture, change the white balance, brightness, contrast etc. – and have those settings applied right in the video application that is currently being used. You can create your own presets too. It works with Flash (which sites like Seesmic use to capture video) as well as all the obvious applications that would have a video input like Chat and Photo Booth.

It only costs a few dollars / pounds and frankly it’s just a great little app, so if you use the iSight then it is worth a look. One of the people who responded to my Seesmic post also pointed out that the makers eCamm Network make a nice selection of other products too – I think the little Huckleberry mirror for letting your iSight face outwards looks pretty clever 🙂

Social bridgebuilding is about real world connections

It’s all about the groundwork

It was James Governor who coined the term “social bridgebuilder”, in response to my musings about what it is I do with all this social media. Here’s a good example of what I like to do: I enjoy connecting people.

One of the things about blogging is that good bloggers take the time to engage in conversations, explore the blogosphere, and make new connections. Read widely, read outside of your “subject area”, comment and establish new acquaintances. Sometimes, just click through to that linked article for the sake of broadening your interest. If it does strike a chord, comment and let the author know you liked it.

Probably about 18 months ago I randomly connected with Heidi Hansen… I’m fairly sure it was via Plazes, now I think about it, but I can’t really remember the reason… I started reading her blog, commenting on posts that I found interesting, and we’ve subsequently become friends through a multitude of different connections in social networks. We’re in very different spheres, both professionally and geographically, but it is one of those connections that I’m glad I’ve been able to make.

The scenario

A couple of weeks ago, Heidi contacted me to ask whether I had any ideas about areas of possible research into social networking and social software. As it happens, I have been involved in a number of research studies over the past couple of years, both inside and outside of IBM, so we got to talking about things that might be worth exploring. I was also able to recommend a number of good folks that I thought it would be worth her following, such as my colleagues Jasmin Tragas and Sacha Chua (sidenote: if I ever get around to updating my blogroll, I’m sure Heidi would find a bunch of others!).

At the same time, I realised that Sacha and Heidi would probably have a whole lot in common. I know Sacha through blogs, both internally and externally at IBM… Sacha is one of those people who is impossible to ignore, and a lot of IBMers will have encountered her infectious enthusiasm, particularly inside our firewall 🙂 I also knew she had recently finished studying herself, so it seemed like a natural connection to make. I pinged Sacha on Sametime and dropped her an email to follow-up.

Without realising it, I’d pointed Heidi at Sacha only days before she was due to travel to Toronto, where Sacha is based.

Result? I was able to connect two friends I’ve never met, for a real-world meeting in Toronto last week… and it sounds like it was a successful encounter. With a couple of emails, Twitters and IMs, a new connection was made.

Why is social software valuable?

This isn’t about the “dollar value of a transaction”. A lot of folks seem to want to know what financial benefit they can gain from engaging in these new social media.

Forget that.

I’ve no idea whether Heidi will buy IBM software in the future as a result of knowing me (actually, I’m pretty certain she won’t, but who knows where the world will take her!). The point is that I’m enriching my own network by knowing her, and by knowing Sacha, and tapping into their skills and expertise; and of course my own network and knowledge is completely open to either of them. I don’t know what dollar value to place on that; but I know that to me, the personal connections and friendships I build using these social tools are invaluable.

Review: disgo Video Plus

A new video device

Video PlusA couple of weeks ago I saw a short news item on Tech Digest, which mentioned a new handheld USB camcorder called the disgo Video Plus (also mentioned on Shiny Shiny and Slashgear). Something similar has been available in the US since last year – the Pure Digital Flip Video – but that product is not available in the UK. The disgo camera has a flip-out screen which the Flip Video does not have, but in other respects they seem very similar.

I’ve been experimenting a little bit recently with video. This device seemed neat – it plugs in directly via USB and is aimed at YouTube-quality, quick video capture. The only thing I was concerned about was that according to the specifications, it didn’t support the Mac… unlike the Flip Video, which has full Mac and Windows support, the disgo product is only listed as compatible with Windows. I contacted disgo’s support team and had an excellent conversation via email where we established that it should just be a USB Mass Storage device, and I might have to do some fiddling to get the AVIs to play on the Mac, but I was willing to give that a try.

Impressions of the Video Plus itself

The camera is extremely neat. It takes 2 x AA batteries (a pair are supplied), comes with a soft carry case, and apart from that… it’s ready to go. The height is less than the size of my hand from the base of the palm to my fingertips, and it is about the same width as a classic iPod. It’s light, too.

ScreenThere’s a 1.5 inch screen (which, incidentally, is really nice and clear) that flips out sideways to enable you to see yourself if the camera is pointing at you – it doesn’t rotate on the axis, though. On the back there are a few buttons: on/off; play/pause; delete (which enables individual clips to be deleted on the device itself); a four way next/zoom/volume button; and a big red button to start or stop a recording. And that’s about it – this is simple stuff.

On one side there is the battery compartment, an SD/MMC card slot which will take up to a 2Gb SD card, and a slider which when pressed causes the USB connector to slide out of the top of the camera to the right of the lens. On the other side there’s a switch to choose between high quality or long play recording, and an A/V connector for hooking up to a TV. There’s a tripod screw connector on the base, and a mystery port on the top with a rubber cover, that I’ve not identified just yet.

It was dead simple to get going – switch on, hit record, and start making video clips. The onboard memory will store 30 minutes of video at high quality, or 60 minutes at lower quality; beyond that, you can obviously add an SD card to expand the capacity.

Using the disgo Video Plus with OS X

There was no CD in the box, and I’ve not plugged the camera into a Windows PC. When I plugged it into my MacBook, it appeared as a USB drive called ‘disgo’ on the desktop.

disgoVideo-1.jpg

Interestingly, although the disgo website does not say that the device is supported on OS X, the ReadMe.txt file included on the disgo’s internal memory does give information about how to access the video files (i.e. you can get them from the DCIM/100VIDEO folder you can see in the screenshot). It is not clear whether files on an SD card plugged into the camera will be able to be read in the same manner – I suspect possibly not, and that I might have to use an external SD card reader, but I’ve yet to try it.

The AVI files played without problems in Quicktime on Leopard. Thinking about it, I did have all kinds of codecs installed already – the camera appears to record an XVID video track at 640×480 resolution, with an mpga audio track – so I may just have been lucky, and it might be necessary to find the right codecs before this will work for anyone else. The files would not, of course, load into iMovie, since that application does not recognise AVI files.

The solution is very simple – transcode to a more Mac-friendly format like a .MOV file or MPEG. The free option for doing this is ffmpegX, but you can also use VisualHub, which I’d previously bought for other purposes and is rather more user-friendly than ffmpegX. Once I’d done that, I was able to use iMovie ’08 to quickly edit together a movie. iMovie ’08 is quirky, and possibly less functional than the previous version, but actually it was ideal for this kind of rapid editing.

Availability

The disgo Video Plus is available via Currys in the UK or direct from disgo.

More photos on Flickr.

Final thoughts

There’s only one way to do this, really…

(I’ve also put this on YouTube)

Update: rebranding, and Windows software

My friend Heidi notes in the comments below that the camera is available in the US as the RCA Small Wonder EZ201. According to this ZDNet review, the original Small Wonder was based on the same technology as the Flip Video, but now RCA have tried to differentiate more (which they seem to have done, in adding the flip screen etc.). However, as we established above, although the ZDNet article claims that this is not Mac-compatible, and the manufacturer doesn’t supply software for the Mac, it seems to work.

The Windows software is on the device itself (remember, I said there was no CD in the box). Inserting the camera into the USB slot on an XP machine, it appeared in My Computer as a USB device called disgo, and when I right-clicked there was an option “Manage your videos” which started the software. It has a few simple features – a grid or list view to access the AVIs and play them; the ability to grab a single frame as a .bmp or .jpg; a section for “editing” i.e. using just part of a clip, or splicing clips together; and a section to email your video to a friend. I’ve added a screenshot on Flickr.

Update: SD card support and UK retailers

I’ve now tried plugging an SD card in. This is treated as an additional device. When you first plug the SD card in the camera copies its software to the card and creates a directory structure. When you then plug the camera into the computer, it continues to see the internal USB flash memory as the storage device, but if you then press the red button while it is connected to the computer the device vanishes (nasty unsafe device removal message), and then the SD card gets mounted instead. So it does work with OS X, but not entirely seamlessly.

Oh, and it looks like Amazon UK have the same device, but branded a Busbi BUSVP0010R Video Plus (and looking at the Busbi site, it looks like they and disgo are the same company since they are both handled by cleverstuff.ie).

Update: other reviews

Paul Knight has done a very detailed video review including a comparison with other cameras including DV tape, and an excellent screencast of how to get the disgo working with a Mac. Shiny Shiny have a short review on YouTube, too.

Social networking with schoolfriends in Poland

One of the sites making waves in Poland at the moment is Nasza Klasa, or Our Class. When we were there at Christmas, the whole family was getting very excited about it – reconnecting with old friends and giggling at old pictures. A lot of fun.

It’s interesting that this social network is even needed. Lots of local / native language sites and networks do exist, not only in Poland, particularly in the Far East for instance… this is one area where sites like Facebook sometimes fail. Poland in particular has its own instant messaging network (Gadu-Gadu, on which I have an account but never seem to be able to login using Adium) and other reinventions of the otherwise English-speaking wheel. Although some of my family are on Facebook, they are also enjoying using the Polish alternatives.

Nasza Klasa is suffering growing pains having gained several million users in a very short space of time… it’s particularly evident in the performance of the service, unfortunately. The site reminds me a lot of Friends Reunited, which I suppose was one of the earlier social networks. The idea is the same – reconnecting schoolfriends – and even the colours and layout are not dissimilar to the original Friends Reunited design. Looking at Friends Reunited now (part of the ITV empire, for some reason), it does look horribly dated. We complain about Facebook’s walled garden, but FR has absolutely no APIs or feeds, you have to visit the site to do anything, and you have to pay to be able to contact your friends. Thank goodness the web moved on.

Review: Shure SE210 earphones

Ever since reading Nik Fletcher’s review of the Shure E2C earphones last year I’ve had Shure kit on my mental “would really like some of those” wishlist. I now have a lovely set of Shure SE210 earphones.

SE210 what's in the boxI use my iPod nano a lot, but it is well-known that the Apple earbuds are not the best. I’ve previously thought about some good noise-cancelling headphones, but in most cases those aren’t especially portable as they cover the ears and require batteries to power the noise cancellation. When I read Nik’s review I thought the sound-isolation seemed like an interesting idea, but I wasn’t sure how well it would work

Well, I was able to try out a set of the Shure SE210s (the successors to the E2Cs) at MacLive Expo in London back in November, but I resisted getting them at the time. Now I’ve finally succumbed.

The sound-isolation is achieved by the earbuds having foam or rubber sleeves that act like earplugs and block out the external noise. By default the SE210s come fitted with foam sleeves (picture here), which should be rolled between the fingers before you put them into the ears, where they expand to a neat fit. If the foam ones don’t suit, the box contains four alternative sets of sleeves which may fit better, and a cleaning tool for hooking out any dirt from inside the canal of the earphone sleeve. It’s quite an odd experience at first, since it does feel like you are wearing earplugs and yet able to hear the music… but the sound-isolation is great – people working in the same room as me will attest that it is now harder to catch my attention aurally! Another side effect is that I’m actually using a much, much lower volume setting on my iPod than I used to… I barely have to have any volume at all. As I type this I’m listening to iTunes on the MacBook and the volume is on the lowest possible setting, but it’s entirely comfortable and I can’t hear the click of the keys as I type. The only downside is that it can be a bit fiddly to put them on, especially since Shure recommend having the earphones curled around the ear.

The quality of the audio from the earphones themselves is excellent. With the Apple iPod earbuds it was frequently a little tinny and lacking in depth. The SE210s deliver a lot richer sound with clear bass (although I tend to select the Bass Booster EQ setting on the iPod). Select a multi-layered track like Coldplay’s Speed of Sound – which I also note tends to be be loaded on the iPods in Apple stores, which usually have high-end Bose noise-cancelling headphones attached – and I can hear a lot of texture and detail, and pick out the individual tracks in the mix. As Nik says, there’s a danger of becoming an audio snob with these.

The SE210s also come with an extension cable (the earphones themselves are on a foot-long “stub” of a cable so it’s lucky that the extension cable is in the box), and a carry case. All in all, quite a nice package. Worth a look if you want to upgrade your sound but continue to have portable earphones. Oh, I’d avoid getting them from the Apple store, since they seem to only be available at list price… the price is more reasonable (although still expensive as in-ear headphones got, but these are good quality) elsewhere such as Amazon.