dreams Personal

Sense sleep tracker: Perchance to Dream

Sense, by Hello Inc. is a sleep tracking thing, which I backed on Kickstarter last summer.

I’m a fan of Kickstarter. Enough to need to develop a spreadsheet tracking where projects I’ve backed are at, and then to turn it into a web-app that’ll get out of soft-release at some point.

For full disclosure: I kickstarted this project.
For full disclosure: I kickstarted this project.

Projects have many and variant qualities in communication. Some fall into the famed “silence trap” where the project stops sending out updates because they don’t have anything to say, and then feels they can’t send a small update after such a gap, and the gap grows in proportion to the desire for more information, so nothing ever gets said again. Some produce weekly updates, even if those are “We fell down a rabbit hole. It was dark, so we came back up. That was this week, sorry”

Hello Incorporated did fairly well at communicating until Christmas, when they announced a reasonable delay on a tight deadline project. Then they stopped communicating. Eventually we got the shipping notification, and then a short note about having some quality control issues, and then nothing again. This in addition to a late-stage decision to split delivery into “USA first, international later” after the originally announced “Backer Order” delivery stages did not make their community any happier. With a recent £25m investor round (Which – because of the laws of tech journalism – is possibly more likely 5m) the primary purpose of their Kickstarter was to create a community around their products, and by not communicating they’ve shot that in the foot somewhat. On the opposite end, you have people like Pebble, who despite a series of Grade-A fuckups, both avoidable and iceburgy in nature managed to keep an interested and dedicated community engaged enough to stay with them. There were malcontents – there always are – but Pebble handled their five month delay with greater aplomb than Hello has.

But that’s a dig at the process, and the process is only a part of the experience. In fact, what the world needs is to split Kickstarter product reviews into three parts, I think. First, the management of the campaign itself, for which I’m going to give Hello a fairly reasonable 5 out of 10. Good on the take-off, engaged on the landing, but a little shakey on the dismount.

The second score doesn’t apply here, because it would be for extras beyond the original product. A lot of Kickstarters go heavily into Stretch Goals, which split into Enhancements and Distractions. Both Order of the Stick and Doublefine got into trouble for having too many Distractions – T-Shirts and physical items took up a lot more of their time than expected – whereas project which have focused on a limited and planned set of possible Enhancements have done better, although that’s not without its own set of rabbit holes to fall down. Hello’s Sense campaign stuck with its offering, got 2.5 million of it’s 100k original request, no distractions or enhancements.

Which leaves us with the product itself.

The packaging displays an almost apple-like dedication to presentation
The packaging displays an almost apple-like dedication to presentation

The packaging for the sense is very much inspired by the Apple first-bite-with-the-eye method. A solid black cylinder opens up to a plinth display of the product, all of which lifts to reveal the cables and stuff underneath it. The object itself has a high attention to detail: The product glows with a soft green light when its happy, and a moderate red anger when less so.

Custom-moulded USB port
Custom-moulded USB port

Even the Micro-USB cable is custom moulded to sit flush against the case. A simple procedure via the app (for iOS and Android, both respecting their respective UI guidelines, and both well crafted) sets up the device over Bluetooth to connect to Wifi, and then over bluetooth with the sleep pill (Small bluetooth thing you connect to your pillow which does the actual measurement bit).


The glow is only animated while its trying to do something. In this case, it is booting
The glow is only animated while its trying to do something. In this case, it is booting

Though setup, the only problem I had was that the secondary pill for my partner (the packaging for which is the white disc under the black block above) requires a second install of the app on another device, which isn’t compatible with her iPad 2 (because it requires low-power bluetooth, which the iPad 2 & Mini don’t support). I ended up digging out an older Android device to set fyr’s account up on. For two-smartphone households, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s not ideal.

But then only sleep remains. It arrived this morning (I was, not without irony, woken up by my sleep tracker arriving. Thanks UPS), so apart from setting it all up I’ve no idea how the tracking does in real life. Right now it’s happily telling me the room is too bright to sleep in, slightly too humid, slightly too bright. None of which is a massive surprise to me. I’ll try it for a week or so (over a fortnight, because we’re out for Empire this weekend) and see how well it works.


Computer Games Gaming

Broken Agency

On the uccessfully raised $3,336,372 on Kickstarter to do something I’ve always wanted Double Fine to do: Make an old-style Lucasarts Adventure game, but with all the shiny graphics and stuff that modern development can provide.

Three years, one and one half months later, we get the final result: An old style Lucasarts adventure game, with all the shiny graphics and stuff. Everything we ever asked for, but not quite what we wanted.

If the whole thing had come out last year, or even half of it came out within a stone’s throw of the original pitch date, this might be an entirely different story. But it didn’t, so it’s not. The first act was a really good adventure game, the graphics were pretty, the sound and voiceovers were well done, even the shear range of the variations of “That doesn’t work” went well. The puzzles were signposted, and – for me – hit the slightly easy side of the magical Adventure Puzzle Line, where you know *what* you should be aiming for, and now you need to work out how.

If nothing else Vella – in the middle – is a black female protagonist in a high profile game, which isn’t nothing. Plus, she punches and blows up more things than Shay does.

The problems I had with it were almost always where it didn’t reach far enough, or didn’t play hard enough, and central to those were the lack of playing with the central premise – that you are two sides of a single adventure. There wasn’t any crossover of puzzles, and while you could see the seams where the storylines touched, until the very end they didn’t interact at all.

Act 2 answers all my problems with those, and rarely has everything I asked for been quite such a hollow victory.

There isn’t a long and storied history to multiple protagonist adventure games. There are, in fact, two. Manic Mansion, and its sequel, Day of the Tentacle, and once you’re treading on the coat-tails of DOTT, you need to have laced up your boots well and tight, because you’re wandering in to one of the most complexly logical sets of multiple-person puzzles seen. Dropping a hamster into a deep freeze in the present to revive it in the future stuff.

Broken Age Act 2 misses the mark in three important respects:

For full disclosure: I kickstarted this project.
For full disclosure: I kickstarted this project.

First, the pleasant and well-crafted locations in Act 1 are the pleasant and well-crafted locations in Act 2. Characters have advanced a scene – often due to events of the first half – but the traditional revisiting of the last Act’s stars to explore new dialogue and new puzzles misses any balance of exploring any new places, or any new characters. I can think of one single character in Act 2 who didn’t appear in some form in Act 1, and their influence is almost zero. Some get expanded, and some locations are modified, but you’re almost always visiting old places from a new angle.

See, I'm in the credits and everything.
See, I’m in the credits and everything.

Some of the puzzles are great and well crafted, but not many. Adventure games have never really respected the time of their players, but some of the puzzles of Act 2 take this to egregious levels. One in particular requires a combination Rorschach test, a conversation with an NPC 5 screens away who you have no reason to suspect might know anything about the subject, who then sends you to find a pencil so they can write down a diagram which you then have to abstractly describe in another three stage Rorschach test five screens away, any single mistake will reset the whole thing back to the beginning. I’m not proud to say I ended up solving that puzzle with a walkthough and a screenshots folder, and it still ended up taking five more attempts.

In addition to the read-the-designers mind aspects of some puzzles, there’s a weird disconnect where a few puzzles cross characters, and there is no in-game mechanism for them to be able to share information. If Shay sees this diagram, and Vella has to use the content to fix a thing, and the whole point of the storyline is they barely ever meet, how do either of them solve the puzzle? And that’s not including the puzzles that rely on a single off-hand line of un-repeated dialogue from the other side. One spacebar to skip cutscene and you’re doomed to guess.

Both main characters have their crosses to bare. Here, Shay only has nine different kinds of cereal. And his spoon keeps talking to him.

In other words, it’s not that far away from some of the more bastardly ends of the old-school Lucasarts adventures, where you had to read the designers mind to get any further.

There are some bright spots, and enough glowy-moments of successfully solved a difficult thing that I don’t regret my time or money devoted to it. The dialogue is well written, and the story well-realised, if not inclined to dig deeply into its themes too much. The voice overs are great, and I enjoyed the music.

All in all, it’s… what we asked for, if not the Adventure Game Revolution we hoped.

Highly worth picking up on the cheap at some point, and going through with a policy of shift-tabbing to a walkthrough if you get stuck for more than your patience lasts..

Computer Games

Pillars of Eternity: Gather party, venture forth

Group shot. Complete with little green circles, like your parents used to bake when you were little, or something
Group shot. Complete with little green circles, like your parents used to bake when you were little, or something

It wasn’t until about four hours in that I heard it first. The triggers for it aren’t the same as previous games, it’s more forgiving in that respect at least, but attempting to get out of an underground maze:

You must gather your party before venturing forth.

This is sixty hours of nostalgia trip, an old school CRPG ripped from last decade and presented at 1080p, from the zero-to-hero character arc to the micromanagement of fights to the little green circles on the ground, it’s the infinity engine reborn.

I’m a way in now, just having finished Act II, so while these aren’t thoughts on a completed game, I’m fairly sure they’re grounded, unless the rest of the game suddenly massively changes.

You can turn off the HUD for nicer screenshots, but you lose the targeting circles
You can turn off the HUD for nicer screenshots, but you lose the targeting circles

Combat is semi-turn-based, in the Final Fantasy style more than anything. Your character will do an action every N seconds, if you set what that should be, it does that, otherwise it’s an autoattack. There’s no AI, no script behaviors, if you want to cast a spell you need to do it yourself. Hit points are in two pools, endurance and health. Points come off endurance first, and then health later on, and endurance recharges between encounters, while health requires a Rest. This improves the D&D cycle of heavy fight, camp, while retaining danger. Zero health is maiming first, or straight to permadeath, depending on your difficulty settings.

They are difficulty settings, too. While there is the standard slider of easy to impossible, there are separate options for Iron Man delete-save permadeath, Expert Mode, how much you see in conversation trees (Do you want to know that there’s a [Perception 13] conversation route you didn’t quite make? Would your game be enhanced if you could see that taking this option will boost my reputation, while that one will decrease it?), the aforementioned maim-before-kill, and a few other options.

It’s not a game if you don’t like reading, either. While most of the characters – and all the party banter – are voiced, conversations with NPCs tend towards “key phrases” rather than full narration. The intro and explanatory set pieces get full voices, but the deeper routes – and roots – of the conversation tree are plain text. This makes sense, but does sometimes lead to voicework trailing off into silence before suddenly launching into a monologue several choices later. It’s an advancement on and an inspiration from the original games, but occasionally a disjointed one.

A screenshot of combat in Pillars
Six party members, plus pets for any or all, means combat-micromanagement can become a macro task.

It’s a brand new universe, too, and one that Oblivion are really keen to give you a grounding in. The whole game is filled with books, exposition and characters willing to educate you at great lengths on metaphysic and history. There’s loads of identifiable NPCs who you can click on for a 500 word vignettes on their past lives. It’s all entirely optional, but still occasionally overwhelming. There’s also a weird lack of time in all of it, possibly to avoid aging the characters. The universe is interesting and has a few fascinating basises, but is ultimately a very familiar fantasy universe. They could have made it much better by, for example, just not having elves or dwarves at all, or at least calling them something else.

Your party is made up of characters, in both senses of the word. There are more companions than you can have in your party at once, eventually. Some of them are more interesting than others, some give good banter but aren’t very useful in combat. One very useful innovation is that at any inn you can pick up a random adventurer – whose skills you specify exactly like on chargen – to come along with you and fill in any gaps your party has.

The aesthetics are nice, I suppose. There’s a certain chunky quality of the character models that works oddly with the beautifully hand-painted backgrounds. It’s honestly lovely to have a game not built out of familiar tilesets. The sound is so much like Baldur’s Gate that it could be from the original soundtrack and I couldn’t tell, but I wish there were more variations on the battle music.

The tone is a bit bleak, and beyond party banter there’s not a lot of humour in it. To discuss this more, I’m going to have to get into the story a bit, so if you’re avoiding spoilers completely, you probably should just skip the bit between screenshots. I’m not going to talk about anything that actually happens after the first half hour, but I am going to talk about general themes and possible triggers.

"It will take you 1 day, 24 hours, 30 minutes to complete your journey"
I think we’re going to differ on what a day is, game

The overarching theme of the game is The Soul, with a lot of science-vs-religion in there too. The big bad state-of-the-world problem is that babies are being born without souls at all, and this is being blamed on a) something big that happened a while ago and b) a class of magic-users who manipulate souls, and put souls into things, and such. There’s a lot of plot around ways they’ve tried to fix this problem – binding souls into bodies, putting animal souls in instead – but the main character’s Distinguishing Power is the ability to peer into the souls and past lives of people.

Because the main way this problem manifests is with soulless babies, there are major elements around killing babies, and a certain amount of dead-babies imagery in the game, and effect on mothers (and, indeed, fathers). It’s not roughly handled, as such, but it’s occasionally heavy. There are quite a few writers named in the credits, and while the lead writer and most of the “Additional Writing” credits are – from names – male (and I know that at least one of the “Additional Writing” credits wrote the scripts and character for two companions), the two overarching “Writer” credits are both female. It’s not balance, really, though I can’t tell from outside, but I’m both glad they didn’t dive directly into “the importance of motherhood” with a full white-male team, and kind of wishing there were more front-facing female voices in Oblivion. Certainly none of the main narratives in the kickstarter videos were. Anyway, I’ve strayed off my original point.

A loading screen
A loading screen! With a combat tutorial! Just like in the olden days! and also every other game.
For full disclosure: I kickstarted this project. $40 of the 4 million pounds it raised was mine.
For full disclosure: I kickstarted this project. $40 of the 4 million pounds it raised was mine.

Generally, though, it’s great. Like, consume my day great. If you liked Infinity games – even if you didn’t love them, or found the mechanics overwhelming – I can highly recommend it. It’s a kickstarter project I’m happy to have backed, and the first Kickstarter game that’s been everything I ever expected of it.

In fact, I stick by the brief review I posted a few hours in:

Did you like Baldur’s Gate style games? Don’t buy this. This will suck sixty hours of your life, and do you have sixty spare hours to spend on computer games? I didn’t think so. Don’t get this game. Your loved ones and dependants will thank you. It’s awesome.

There are niggles. While it’s hard to end up with “Trap” builds, where your party is functionally useless, it’s far too easy to get in over your head. Mobs and areas aren’t levelled, so your first clue that everything’s about to go arse over teakettle is often when the shorts are already arcing over the samovar. In fact, in the process of writing this review I managed to take a one-way trip five levels down the megadungeon under your stronghold – two features I’ve not even mentioned in the 1300 words above – and had to restart from my last manual save after it put me nose to nose with a small dragon. My last manual save was about two hours prior to completing Act II. That has, however, given me a chance to complete some quests that I didn’t realise were suddenly going to resolve as failed when Act II ended. We’re back to Infinite Engine basics again: Autosaves are good, but manual save often.

It’s also got a few other narrative annoyances, like NPCs who are perfectly reasonable though a complicated dialogue tree until they suddenly attack, meaning if you fail the fight (see unlevelled monsters, above) you’ve got to go though the tree again. Trying the same conversation with “You could have taken this option if you were higher level in $foo” options on tends to reveal that there’s nothing you can do, this is a funnel to a large fight, and all your talking cannot convince them. Sometimes you can, but when you can’t it seems very… computer gamey.

It’s still an outstanding example of its type. The third Baldur’s Gate I didn’t even realise I was missing, fifteen years since the last one. This is the new bar that Torment, the next Shadowrun and even Beamdog/Overhaul’s forthcoming licenced Baldur’s Gate 3 are going to have to clear.

And now, I’m going to go play some more of it. See you later.


Pebble Smartwatch

The pebble in Watch mode.
The pebble in Watch mode.
I find it somewhat suspicious that in the last couple of weeks, as the 70,000 people who backed Pebble’s Kickstarter start to get their rewards, that the interest in an Apple branded smartwatch has reached fever pitch.

The Pebble is a smartwatch in the same vein, a bluetooth-connected extension to your phone, so that notifications from it can appear on your watchface, you can control your phone’s music, and basically your watch becomes a remote control for your phone.

My Pebble arrived yesterday, and I’ve been prodding it a bit. More long-term thoughts when I’ve been using it for a while, but here’s my first impression.

Let’s start with the hardware. The face is a bit chunky. I haven’t measured it exactly, but it’s about a centimetre thick, and takes over most of my wrist, as you can see below. It seems solidly built, with a nice curve to the screen, and comes with a rubber watch-strap of standard size (which I intend to replace quite soon). Charging happens over a magnetically attached USB cable, the design of which allows the casing to remain waterproof down to 180ft. Since my bath’s not that deep, that should be enough for me…

The screen is a backlit e-ink kindle-style screen of sufficently high resolution that I don’t notice any pixels at normal viewing distance. The backlight (which can either be activated with an ambient light sensor or by activity) is bright enough to the display by, but neither dazzling or distracting, and you will probably not be able to use it as a torch, for example.

The setup process is a bit unwieldy right now. You’ll need to install the Pebble app for your phone first,  attach the thing in your phone’s own Bluetooth settings (where it says “Verify the Pebble is showing this set of digits” when it doesn’t appear to be able to do that until the new firmware is installed), and then back to the Pebble app to activate it and upgrade the firmware, which takes about five minutes.

After that, you have a watch which will buzz and display your most recent text message/email incoming.

The iPhone app’s not very good, right now. It suffers from a “clever” navigation structure where you can swipe to get to different areas of the app, or back to the menu, but with no clue as to what “direction” anything is. Currently the only thing you appear to be able to do is add new watch faces. Pebble’s hopes of getting the SDK out early enough for people to have written apps for the watch appear to have been (aha) dashed.

There’s platform variation too. Apple only expose email and SMS/iMessage notifications over Bluetooth, so until the Pebble app can send notifications in the background (which I hope will be soon), only Android can send arbitrary notifications for whatever apps you want (Personally, SMS & email are fine for me for now, though I’m interested in future apps), and I’m not sure if this is a pebble bug or because I’m using exchange-synced contacts on iPhone, but the callerID seems not to be working very well.

There’s a bit of beta quality about most of the software and firmware, in fact. The phone ships with the light-sensor for the backlight disabled, because when you enable it any button click toggles the backlight, including scrolling the menus, turning the device into an SOS beacon. The “Tap” functionality to light the backlight at night also doesn’t appear to be there yet.


Music_IntegrationThat all said, the basic functionality is working, and all the problems I’ve found are very much software issues, things that can be fixed with future firmware and app updates for the most part (save any limitations Apple put on the communication. Android users are generally going to find generic integration better, I think). The music functionality, where the watch will display the track name and artist for the currently playing song, as well as Skip, Pause & Rewind, is working very well, even for Spotify and arbitrary music players (though I’m told this isn’t generically true for Android right now).

…and right now I can’t recommend you get one.

I preordered mine in April last year, for $115 + P&P, which is kind of outside my direct “I paid x for this” mental connection, but I’m not currently convinced that if I were to buy one right now for that price, I’d be happy with it. In fact, I probably wouldn’t get one. If the apps start coming though, and if it becomes more useful (being able to see what’s on my phone without digging around in my pocket? Handy, but not £80 handy), that might change, but there are too many “not currently working”, “Only on android”, and “not quite there yets” in the paragraphs above for comfort.

We’ll see how much of an everyday necessity it becomes in the next few weeks, and I’ll report back then.

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computing programming

Kickstarter Tracking & Historic currency conversion in Google Spreadsheets

Because I’m going to need this again at some point.

I’m currently tracking progress of my Kickstarted projects with a Google Drive Spreadsheet. This is partly because it tells me exactly how much money I’ve spent on KS projects over the last year, and helps me manage my new One In One Out system of dealing with them. But one of the issues with this is that most Kickstarters charge in dollars, and the CSV export reflects this, as does my record of how much I’ve spent, so I wanted to convert the numbers to sterling for stats. I could use the current rate, but while it fluctuates slowly, it does fluctuate, and I’d like this to be more long-term useful. Since I already have a completion date for each project – which is within a couple of days of when the money was taken – I can work it out using the GoogleFinance methods. This is how I’m doing that:

Given this:

Title Progress % Ended Pledge £
OOTS Reprint Delivered 100% 21/02/2012 $76 £47.95
Project GODUS Waiting 20 21/12/2012 £15 £15.00

Column E is worked out like this:

(Because it keeps breaking: That’s This GIST).

So eventually you can get graphs like this:


Which tells me that by straight count, 34.2% of the projects I’ve backed have delivered, a small number have failed, and most are in progress (“Delivered” means I have all the physical/digital stuff I paid for out of it. This is a personal rather than objective measure, so I’m counting the OOTS as having arrived because my main purpose was to get the books, the digital stuff Rich is still working on is very much an added bonus. So from my perspective it’s “done”. “Failed” means that the project was funded, but didn’t work out. Kickstart failures don’t get on this chart)

(If you want to copy the spreadsheet for your own purposes, you can clone it to your own Google Drive account from this blank version)

Current issues: If the final date wasn’t a trading day, the historical version falls back to today’s result, rather than the previous trading day. Also, I’d like to automatically pull in data from Kickstarter, but so far no API to do so 🙂