Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Chromecast, Leap Motion and Ouya: Experiences and updates

So far this summer, I've gotten several new gadgets; here's the rundown and my experiences so far:

Ouya

I was an Ouya Kickstarter backer and got my system a few weeks before it arrived on store shelves. At the time, I wrote that the software was very rough, with frequent freeze-ups, a confusing user interface and a limited selection of games. Now, after untold firmware updates, a factory reset and many restarts, my Ouya is finally reasonably stable. It still has a tendency to crash in the middle of games, but instead of freezing up, it returns to a point where it's easy to recover. I still wouldn't recommend that gamers rush out and buy one, but it looks likely that Ouya's firmware will be solid and a good selection of games will be available for the Holiday season.

Leap Motion

I put a pre-order in for a Leap Motion sensor last year, and mine arrived a couple of weeks ago. The Leap Motion device plugs into a USB port on a Windows or Macintosh PC, and it senses the position and motion of hands and fingers in a space above and around the sensor. A collection of apps that take advantage of the sensor are available on the Airspace website.

In general, I'm very disappointed with the Leap Motion device. I recognize that it's still effectively a beta product, but based on the demonstrations given to the press, it certainly appeared to be stable and usable. My experience so far is that it's neither. I've tested the sensor on a Core i3-based laptop running Windows 8.1 Pro, and a Core i7-based iMac running OS X Mountain Lion. There's a significant amount of noise in object detection on both machines--when holding my hands still, the image of the hands jitters in space as if I've got palsy--but the problem is worse on my Windows machine. Both computers also have difficulty detecting all ten fingers unless I hold my hands almost perfectly parallel to the Leap Motion sensor. Moving either hand (especially my left hand) more than slightly vertical will cause fingers to disappear from tracking.

The Airspace apps are nothing to write home about, either: A hand-controlled version of Google Earth included with the package is impossible for me to use. No matter where I start on the globe, I usually end up underwater in an unmarked body of water. A version of Cut the Rope is also included, but it's far easier for me to use a mouse or trackpad to control it than it is to control it with my hands and the Leap Motion sensor. Flocking, another free demo app, uses your hands to control a group of fish. It does absolutely nothing on my Windows system, leading me to believe that Leap Motion's performance is very sensitive to your processor's power. Other Airspace apps, which range from free to $29.99 with most priced at $9.99 or less, tend to be overpriced and underpowered--there are far better free to $0.99 apps in both the iTunes Store and Google Play than anything you'll find in Airspace.

At this point, I can't recommend the Leap Motion sensor. It's still too early in its development cycle, and it has no compelling applications. Anything that you can do with Leap Motion, you can do faster and more accurately with a mouse or with your finger on a touchscreen. If Leap Motion improves the stability and performance of its software, integrates it better with Windows and OS X, and improves its usefulness in 3D applications, I'll be able to recommend it.

Chromecast

I got a Google Chromecast Internet video player last weekend, and of these three devices, it's clearly the best thought-out and most mature. Chromecast is a $39 dongle that attaches to an open HDMI connector on your HDTV or A/V receiver. It gets its power from an included USB wall wart. There's virtually no hardware configuration needed on the Chromecast:
  1. Plug the Chromecast into an open HDMI port
  2. Plug in the power supply and attach the USB cable between the power supply and the Chromecast
  3. Switch your HDTV to display the signal from the port to which the Chromecast is attached
  4. Go to http://cast.google.com/chromecast/setup and download the setup app for your operating system
  5. Follow the instructions in the setup app to save your Wi-Fi router's SSID and password in your Chromecast
It was when I got to step 5 that I hit my first (and only) glitch: The Chromecast has to be on the same Wi-Fi network as all the devices that want to use it. I was running on a 5GHz 802.11ac network (which isn't supported by Chromecast,) and my Windows PC couldn't find the the device. However, a couple of clicks later, the setup app switched my PC to a 2.4GHz connection, the app found the Chromecast and configured it for my network.

On the Chromecast setup website, you can also download and install a Chromecast extension for Google's Chrome browser. Once your device is talking to the Chromecast, you can send any webpage (even a webpage with video, such as Hulu or CBS.com) to your HDTV. If you're not using a Chrome browser, you can still use your Chromecast to watch videos from any site that supports it. YouTube currently supports Chromecast with a small icon in the bottom right-hand corner of each video; click the icon, select your Chromecast device, and in a few seconds, the video will start playing on your TV. In addition to YouTube, Netflix and Google Play currently support the Chromecast; other sites are planning to add support in the near future.
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