Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Note Taking App Note Lecture-mode UI Design

Given the feedback I have received regarding the purpose of notes, I have formulated 2 designs based around two different approaches. I am going to focus on the Lecture Mode note taking UI for this post. I was reminded by a friend at lunch that I don't need to use the same UI for both lecture mode and (re)viewing.

The Lecture Mode Sidebar
The Lecture Mode sidebar is meant to allow for easier and faster photo and audio integration into notes. The key idea is that taking a  photo or performing audio recording should not be atomic tasks (i.e. a task that has to be both started and completed before other actions are taken). The standard android conventions for photography involve literally moving the user into a photo taking application (which occupies the entire screen) and only returning once the photo has been taken.
The camera pane in this sidebar will show a live thumbnail of whatever the rear facing camera is showing. A single tap will take a photo and add it into the notes, pinching will zoom the camera in and out, and a long press will bring up a menu with basic camera controls (most importantly a control to swap between multiple cameras in case the app accidentally picks the front facing camera).

The Audio recording controls consist of "Record", "Stop" and "Oh Shit That Sounded Important". There is no playback button there, because once the audio is saved into the notes the playback controls are attached to the audio snippet.

The Oh Shit button is a little more complicated. The app will automatically record whilst it is running, keeping the last say 90s of audio. The idea is that if Andrew loses focus and stops paying attention then realises that what is being discussed was probably important, he can press the big red button and the last 90 seconds is automatically saved and audio will continue to be recorded until the stop button is pressed. I have to give Kaz the credit for this idea, it seems like a great way to deal with lapses in concentration.

I am not actually sure what I would do with the rest of the sidebar space, it could be used for some of the menu functions like save and load, or it could be eliminated and some of the other elements enlarged. The sidebar can also be swapped from one side of the screen to the other though a settings menu.

This is the first of the two note taking ideas I have had. In this approach Andrew makes his own notes during the lecture and these notes are assembled into a tree structure. Sections of the tree can be dynamically expanded and collapsed and the notes can be easily rearranged by moving one branch to another section of the trunk.

This approach leads to a natural summarisation process and allows easy skimming of notes to find terms associated with particular topics. Information can be hidden when trying to test knowledge and Andrew only needs to go into detail in sections where he is less confident of his own knowledge.

The obvious downside of this approach is that the lecture slides that are typically provided are can't really be utilised. They could be added via photos or added as pictures but the bulk of the notes must be created by Andrew during the lectures. This approach emphasises the note principles 2 and 4. Notes are summaries of what is covered in lectures and notes are easily skimmed.

PDF Annotation
The other approach is to use the slides provided. Assuming that either they will already be PDFs or can easily be converted into PDFs, this approach then creates a layer that is placed over the top. In Lecture Mode you simply tap a spot on the slides and start typing and this becomes an annotation. Andrew doesn't need to write down everything, he simply needs to add any particular detail that is missing from the slides. When a given note loses focus it immediately collapses into a small dot to avoid taking up too much space. It can be reselected and modified but the focus is around creating new annotations.

It is this approach that really emphasises different UIs for note taking and note (re)viewing. In a later post I will talk about my ideas for how the annotated notes would look in a non-lecture mode.

I would really appreciate feedback and thoughts on these designs and how you think they could be improved.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Hugo Month - Deadline

The Hugo Awards are a set of science fiction awards given out across a broad range of categories, from novels to short stories to editors to fan artists. They are part of WorldCon which is a Science Fiction convention that takes place in a different location every year. Those who are members this year, or were members last year were able to nominate titles and authors, and members this year get to vote.

Since 2009 the con organisers have arranged to provide digital versions of most of the works that make it into voting so that the voters can be fully informed. I am trying to read through as much of this as I can during my break so I can talk about them on the blog. The Hugo Voter Packet is available to all members of ChiCon, which is the WorldCon for 2012, supporting membership is $50US and all of the provided works are DRM free. I should note however that of the novels, only Among Others is available in ePub and Mobi formats, the others are all PDF only which is a pity.

With that out of the way, the first of the novels I plan to discuss is Deadline by Mira Grant. This is Book Two in the Newsflesh trilogy, a post-zombie apocalypse scifi/horror novel. It is written from the perspective of Shaun Mason, one of the protagonists from the first novel, who is a blog journalist.

Deadline is very clearly a mid-series novel. It expands upon the story from the first novel it develops what were previously minor characters and deepens the overarching plot, significant progress is made but nothing is really resolved, because of course there is a third book to the trilogy.

The Newsflesh series, like any good zombies series, is not really about zombies, it is about people. The zombies rose up, but they have not killed humanity, this isn't a world where small populations of humans are hiding from the zombie threat, it is mostly under control, but society has changed. Mira Grant does a fantastic job of painting this changed world and exploring how humanity has adapted or in some cases failed to adapt.

A central theme of the series is about the control of information, again and again the mainstream media is shown as bowing to pressure withholding important pieces of information from the public. It is built into the very core of the premise the Rising was initially downplayed by the media at the request of the government. The reason why blogging is so significant is that new media was what spread the information that helped people stay alive, it helped spread the story of the rising.

I really enjoyed this series, the first book Feed was nominated for a Hugo last year and upon finishing it I immediately purchased Deadline and had to wait impatiently until earlier this month for the final book Blackout to be released. I am have avoid going into detail about the plot as unfortunately discussing most of the plot of Deadline would spoil Feed somewhat. What Shaun is going through in this book was something that resonated deeply with my personal experiences. I highly recommend reading this entire series.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Lecture Note Taking App - What Makes Good Lecture Notes

I have conducted an extremely informal survey with friends about what makes for good lecture notes and about the very purpose of taking lecture notes.

Firstly it would seem that, as most of the time the lecture slides are provided, like me most of my friends don't actually take much in the way of lecture notes. At best the provided slides will be annotated during lectures. It is only really during subjects where no notes are provided that note taking actually takes place. It was generally felt that it was better to be able to pay more attention in lectures rather than spend time writing down everything that is either put up or is said by the lecturer.

The principles I have derived for notes are:
  1. The purpose of lecture notes is to aid revision and to provide reference material for assignments.
  2. Lecture notes are a summary of the topics covered in lectures.
  3. Notes are not necessarily completed in lectures
  4. It should be easy to find particular topics and areas in notes (aka Notes are well indexed)
The goal of this app is to make good notes. The design of the app is intended to encourage the user to create good notes and to use them for later reference and study. This means that as well as pleasing our primary persona Andrew, I need to create a design that addresses these points.

I admit I already have a design in mind, but I would like your feedback, ideally prior to seeing what design I currently have in mind. What would you add to or change about these principles regarding good notes?

The best answer in the comments on this site will get a Steam code for Bastion.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Completed: Bastion

Bastion is an action RPG by Supergiant Games with a unique twist. Narration. Bastion completely and utterly nails narration, the entire game is narrated by a character called The Stranger. From the very opening of the game he narrates what is happening and provides background information about the world and what has happened.

The narration is not just these background details though, as you can see from the video it includes comments on your actions, any time you change your weapons selection or skill selection the narrator talks about the combination, he gives details on weapons, challenges and just helps you feel like you are a part of the world.

The game does interesting things with weapons as well. The loot is pretty much fixed, there are no random weapons or weapon modifiers, so they put a fair amount of effort into making each of the weapons feel and work differently. The mortar and musket are completely different weapons and are useful in entirely different circumstances. All weapons are upgradable up to 5 times during the course of the game with each upgrade being a choice allowing you to further tailer a weapon to its weapon to your play style. I spent a lot of time using the breaker bow because it lets you shoot through things, but towards the end of the game I started using a pair of pistols and the cannon as my primary gear load out.

Otherwise I don't think anything particularly shines about the actual gameplay of Bastion, it is a competent ARPG and that is all it needs to be, because with the amazing narration and the story I think that Bastion will pull most people in and leave them wanting to finish the game at least once.

Games list at time of post: 396 unfinished titles
Changes since previous post: Finished 5 titles, added 6   

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Lecture Note Taking App - Persona Design

This is my first time doing this and so it is more than likely that I am going to be making mistakes during this process. Hopefully I will learn from them, please don't hesitate to point them out.

I have talked to various people about this idea and had hesitated about what I should be putting online and what I should be keeping private, but this is not really intended to be a business venture or anything. It is mostly about creating an app that fills my own needs that could possibly be used by other people.

I bought an ASUS Transformer Prime at the beginning of the year for uni, I was after something to replace my m11x whose hinges had broken making it somewhat less transportable. When it is in its keyboard dock the Transformer Prime looks and feels almost like a laptop. It does have one key difference for lecture use compared to a laptop however. It has a back facing camera. And in a keyboard dock you can actually use that camera whilst still also typing and making notes. I was simply unable to find an app to do this, it could be that it is not very easy to do on Android, I could be terrible at searching the market or it could be a fairly small niche that no one has really served yet, still it is a need I would like to fill.

However, because it is running a mobile OS and not say, Windows, you can't have the same multitasking environment, I can't actually use both the camera and a note taking app at the same time, any time you take a picture/record a video, you kind of bring up a camera app over the top of the note taking app and can't actually take any notes until the picture is taken or video recorded.

So the basic idea is a note taking app that also lets you record video at the same time, record the lecture and take notes and possibly then further combine the two. So record a time stamp at each new line, so even if you aren't playing the video you can sort of page through, be able to replace the video with the lecture slides, etc.

After talking to some friends and reading The Inmates Are Running The Asylum I realised I should be actually designing first, not kind of half forming an idea and charging off into learning how to write software for android. So here I am going to try my hand at writing up the Persona.

This image also picked totally at random
Name: Andrew (picked totally at random)
Occupation: Student, Previously worked in IT
Age: 26
Goal: To Create Good (useful) Lecture Notes for later revision
Other information: Andrew likes to try new things but does not often stick with them, he will try creating notes in a variety of systems. He participates in class but often uses computers not for taking notes but for distraction.

I think that the first task to answer is what makes for good lecture notes? I can't say I am actually entirely sure of the answer. When it comes to studying for tests I tend to actually primarily use the lecture slides provided by the lecturer and make some notes from there, especially audio ones that I can play in the background whilst I am doing other tasks.

Given the target device (Transformer Prime), what capabilities do we have for creating them? There is a microphone, 2 cameras, a Touch Screen and a physical keyboard.

Actually answering what makes for good lecture notes I think is the step I have previously avoided. I initially started thinking about this with the back facing camera and video firmly in mind. I am not so sure of this anymore, certainly I still think that recording audio is useful, but video seems less vital especially when pictures and/or lecture slides would likely work just as well.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Competitive TF2

The Ultiduo Ozfortress map

Despite gaming being my primary hobby, gaming with strangers online has never been a significant interest of mine. There are only a few games where I will ever venture away from the friends list onto the wilds of the untamed internet.

Team Fortress 2 is one of the rare games that has successfully coaxed me into those lands back in distant 2007 with the release of the beta. I still regularly play with friends on public servers where I tend to do fairly well playing primarily as a soldier.

Team Fortress 2 has an active competitive side which I find fascinatingly different from the standard play.

In normal Team Fortress 2 there are 9 classes and the game is built around the expectation that the teams are likely to have between 10 and 12 players. It is geared primarily towards more casual play and includes a variety of random elements to help mitigate skill differences. Weapon damage is slightly randomised, scatter also is random and players have a random chance of critical hits. There are hundreds of items in the game which all need to be accounted for with their various advantages and disadvantages and they have been mostly balanced around this standard kind of play.

Competitive TF2 strips out almost all of these random elements, weapons fire scatters in precise and uniform patterns, damages are not randomised and crits are only generated in specific circumstances based upon items. When I first heard about this it felt incredibly wrong, the randomness is part of the game, I can understand why it isn't desired in a competitive system but some of the most memorable moments in TF2 have come from these random chances.

Team sizes are also changed, the two most popular formats are 6v6 and highlander which is 9v9. Highlander's restrictions are based upon the name, there can be only one... of each class. 6v6 limits teams to two of any class, but only one medic and only one demoman.

6v6 is easily the more popular of the two forms in Australia, it really only sees use of 4 of the classes with the other 5 used sparingly and situationally. This makes the game a lot smaller and more predictable, this mode has been around long enough that there are standard rollouts for each class and fairly stable team structures. It makes spectating easier in that you know the general team composition, but also a little more predictable.

The different team structure combined with players that are more highly skilled in those classes and who coordinate and communicate constantly makes the games feel very different. When I normally play I will try to stick with my friends but I certainly don't feel bound by this, I will take risks and be a little move aggressive than is sensible. I will talk to my friends about what is happening but often in a private mumble channel rather than on the server itself to the rest of the team.

My girlfriend tracks the Australian competitive TF2 scene and as a result we have watched various matches with dinner. Normally just the big matches, the semis, the finals, the state of origin that kind of thing. The atmosphere is very much akin to watching a game of football except that I know more about what is happening.

The key similarity is the commentary. We get our streams via a kiwi named Greaver; he and a few others talk about what the various teams are doing, speculate about their strategies and do post-game interviews. I really love having that, it adds a lot to the game and helps consolidate the relative chaos and distributed nature of the game. It was not built for spectating and there is no overhead map that can be used to see where all players are, nor is there the same focusing that comes from say a ball being passed around. There are some focusing elements, but they are a lot more static and conflicts away from those elements remain important. Good commentary helps tie everything together.

There are also other competitions that the ozfortress community runs and we played in one last month. It was an elimination tournament of Ultiduo.

In Ultiduo each team consists of a medic (a relatively fragile guy who regenerates and is able to heal other players) and a soldier (an all rounder who fights using a rocket launcher and a shotgun). The goal of each team is to hold a central point for a total of 5 minutes.

There were servers available for practice and we managed to rope a few friends into helping us try out the map and try to come up with some strategies. It was a lot of fun getting ready and when Sunday night came we signed up. We weren't exactly hopeful of winning but we wanted to see how well we could do and how far we could get.

Not very far as it turns out, we lost the first game we played fairly convincingly, we were able to take down their medic about three times and their soldier twice. We held the point for 30 seconds, they held it for 5 minutes and we were eliminated.

We had our dinner and returned to watch the rest of the competition. It turns out, even if we had won our first match, the next game would have been against a soldier and medic from the top comp team in Australia iM Intel. It was gratifying to see the pair that had so handily crushed us be taken down. They did worse against Yuki and Bonobo than we did against them.

It was fun to take part of the competition, to then watch the later games and know that you had taken part and to see how the better players did. The key differences in their strategies and skill levels and to simply marvel at the amount of effort that went into it all.

To be honest, at this point I am pretty happy to sit in the sidelines, these matches all take place at night or on the weekends and my week nights are pretty occupied right now, but maybe once the uni year is finished I might try to get a bit more into the competitive scene myself.

As long as I can still find the time to work on the lists.

Sorry for the silence on the site, uni kind of got ahead of me but classes are now over and once my exam next week is done I have a longer holiday ahead of me than I have had since I finished my undergrad.