All posts by ian

Lego Millennium Falcon – Buy or Build?

soloStar Wars has been very much in my thoughts lately. Like pretty much everyone in the world, probably, given the huge marketing push behind The Force Awakens. So I couldn’t help but stop and stare when, in the window of a sleepy toy shop in a quiet corner of the UK where my Dad lives, I saw a large, impressive-looking Lego Millennium Falcon. I peered closer, then recoiled in horror at the price tag: £189.99! Whoa.

So like any sensible person, I turned to the internet to see if this beauty was available anywhere else at a more reasonable price. And that’s when I fell into the rabbit hole of Lego Millennium Falcons: rare ultimate collector editions, custom-builds, retired models, 10179s, BrickLinks and MOCs. Oh my.
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Bad UX and Stockholm Syndrome

When we’re thinking about the impact of good and bad UX on the experience of using software there are a large group of people who are often overlooked. They’re not the discretionary consumers, who may be put off completing a purchase by requiring an extra click or form field, but a those who are forced to use in-house developed software required to complete their day-to-day work.

These apps are often clunky, with awkward UX, interaction foibles and bugs. They’ve quite possibly been “”designed”” by programmers, rather than UX specialists. But people have no choice but to use them day-in and day-out. So how is this likely to affect their attitude to the application?

An interaction can be so bad, so awkward to execute, that it feels almost painful. Maybe not when performed in isolation, but when repeated over and over it can become mentally (and even physically) wearing.

The application has them captive, and sets about bending them to its will.

But then a strange thing happens. The users start to think it’s OK.

Maybe it doesn’t feel quite as bad as it used to. It’s not really so awkward that it works that way. In fact, it feels right to do it this way.

Actually, why would it be done any other way!?

Wait a second, what just happened?

Despite the terrible treatment meted out, and partly due to the captor showing some small kindness – giving the ability to do their job, however awkwardly – the hostages have fallen in love with the application, their cruel, heartless captor.
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Heisenmemory

I am sick of non-deterministic memory management. So sick. This was the big promise of .NET wasn’t it, way back in the 00s? No more having to worry about reference counting, double-frees or leaks. Well all we’ve done is switched it for worrying about event handlers, garbage collector pauses and weak dictionaries.

If you don’t have to worry about memory in .NET applications, then why are there so many commercial tools for solving memory-related problems? I’m starting to yearn for the days of being able to put an instance on the stack for the length of a curly-bracketed scope, and knowing that after that, it’s gone.
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Dad Gaming

imageI have recently entered a new, strange and exciting phase of my gaming life: Dad Gaming.

To put this in context, I’ve been playing games for a long time. I Mutant Camel’d through primary school, Sonic’d through the student days, PaRappa’d through my early career and Mario’d into marriage.

But at all of those points I was playing with peers. Consenting adults, fully aware of gaming tropes and vernacular, able to hold down several buttons and a trigger simultaneously while loosing off a round of sniper fire.

Nowadays, my gaming partners are 2 girls under 10 and my outlook and attitude to gaming has completely changed. Vast swathes of the electronic landscape are off limits, and to be honest, I’m enjoying the change of scenery.

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iOS OpenGL ES compatibility gotcha

Oh man, I just wasted too many hours of my life trying to figure out why calls to glBlitFramebuffer in my iOS app were returning GL_INVALID_OPERATION. I was targeting iOS 7, so I should’ve been able to use OpenGL ES 3.0 calls, and after all, I’d built against the v3 headers and everything else was compiling and working… right?

Wrong. Well, I really should’ve RTFM. It turns out that ES 3.0 use is not determined just by the OS version, but by the hardware. So even if you’re running iOS 7, you can only use ES 3.0 if you’re on the latest gen: iPhone 5S, iPad Air etc. Check out the full compatibility matrix here.

Here are a few extra tips to help you avoid wasting your time like I did if you’re explicitly targeting OpenGL ES 3.0:

  • As well as running on the right hardware, you can also use the simulator, which supports emulation of v3.0.
  • Call glGetString(GL_VERSION) to get a report of which version you’re actually running.
  • Pass the appropriate parameter to EAGLContext initWithAPI, if you’re using it.
    e.g.

     self.context = [[EAGLContext alloc] initWithAPI:
        kEAGLRenderingAPIOpenGLES3];
    

It’s pretty frustrating that you get no indication that the function’s not supported, as opposed to just having being passed bad state. But I guess that’s par-for-the-course with a bare-bones, down-to-the-metal API like Open GL.

Sigh.

SpriteKit for Cocos2D developers

spritekit logoOn my recent iOS puzzler Wordz, I decided not to reinvent the wheel, and instead use an off-the-shelf 2d game framework. I settled on Cocos2d. It makes it very easy to put together sprite-based games or apps by providing all the basic pieces like a scene graph, animations and integration with a couple of physics engines. It’s built on OpenGL but, happily, hides all that away from you – unless you need it.

No sooner had I released it, than Apple came out and announced a new framework for 2d games: SpriteKit. And it’s remarkably similar to Cocos2d. Here I’ll take a look at a few places where they differ, so you know what to look out for if you’re considering migrating to SpriteKit.
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Dynamic D3 with Knockout.js

A couple of things happened recently that prompted me to write this blog post. Firstly, I’ve been playing around with HTML5/javascript based user interfaces and data visualisation. Secondly, I watched a fascinating presentation from UX guru Brett Victor, making me wonder if it was possible to create an interactive, data-drawing app like the one he demonstrates, purely with Javascript. There are 2 well established JS frameworks that we could combine to help us here: Knockout.js and D3. But can we make them work well together?
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A short (and round) history of the button

Early MacOS OK and Cancel buttons
Early MacOS OK and Cancel buttons
The push button. It’s truly the blunt instrument of UI design. While most other controls provide some indication of the type of operation they’re performing – sliders are adjusting a value, a switch is moving between two states – buttons just mean “do something”. What? The only way to tell is to press it and see. But this shouldn’t be the case.
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An iOS Lava Lamp using OpenGL ES shaders

screenshot
Screenshot of the finished lava lamp effect
Catchy title, eh? This little experiment came about as I’ve been working on an iOS app where I decided to use an embedded OpenGL view, via GLKit, for a bit more flexibility than a plain-old UIView. This found me falling head-first down a rabbit-hole of OpenGL ES shaders. I ended up putting together a little demo that emulates a lava lamp using a nifty bit of GLSL code.
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