Archive for January, 2007
Monday, January 29th, 2007
When all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
Well, it wasn’t really a mouse, but my aforementioned SpaceNavigator – but there’s a beta driver for Vista which sorted that out nicely for now.
With the official consumer release of Windows Vista due tomorrow, I thought I’d give an update on how I’ve got on with Vista over the last few months since I last talked about it. You may remember that my big issue with giving up Windows XP for good, in favour of snazzy new Vista, lay in the lack of good drivers from nvidia. There’s been the odd beta driver released since then which have certainly improved the situation somewhat, OpenGL performance became actually usable under Maya, albeit with some buggy quirks – the 3D viewports would go white when you took away focus from them to tweak a channel setting, and wouldn’t refresh until you clicked back on them, which is far from ideal.
Nvidia is expected though to release some much improved drivers sometime on January 30th, with a bit of luck they’ll do the trick – there’s been some leaked variations of it in the last couple of days, but I’ll hold out and see what the final release is like. They’re not the only ones to leave things late though, the few gaps left in the area of driver support have been largely filled, not so much on my laptop (which has worked just fine with the drivers available back just before the business launch in November, although some were updated by Windows Update along the way), but with my fresh install of Vista on my desktop.
Yes, I finally took the plunge and introduced Vista to my desktop. I even bought it a nice new shiny 500Gb Seagate hard drive to have to itself, with a view to ultimately migrate from Windows XP on the older hard drive, to this one. I figured the time was right, and that there would be drivers for everything I had both in and out of my desktop PC, but alas – things haven’t been quite as smooth as my laptop experiences. The big sticking point is the wireless drivers. I have a rather expensive but rather excellent internal PCI card from Cisco, the Aironet PI21AG (the same thing as the CB21AG which is just the PCMCIA version without the PCI card stuck onto it).
When I first booted up Vista fresh, it recognised the card fine, it pointed me to my wireless network, and all looked to be well. However, on typing in my WPA key it all went to hell in a handbasket. After a brief couple of seconds of pondering Vista proudly proclaimed that it couldn’t connect. Any particular reason? Nope, just couldn’t connect. Again and again I tried, but it wouldn’t budge. If I go and look at my network connections, the words “Attempting to authenticate” lurk there for as long as you dare watch, with no hint as to whether it’s having any luck. Okay, I think – maybe the driver release that comes with Windows Vista has been updated, I’ll run a rather long ethernet cable into my network card and see what it finds. There was indeed an update for that very card, and on applying it, it finally connected. Wasting no time, I grabbed drivers for the other couple of missing pieces, my SoundBlaster Audigy ZS 2 sound card needed drivers from Creative’s site which worked fine. My dual-tuner TV card, the Cinergy 2400i DT took to the beta driver from Terratec like a duck to the water.
So, perfect then – everything was working as it should right? Yes, well – a couple of reboots later, and guess what was rearing it’s ugly head again? Yes, the wireless card – it couldn’t connect again, same as before but with these newer drivers. A quick look in the Event log shows the repeated “Layer 2 security key exchange did not generate multicast keys before timeout” error, whatever the heck that means. I’m not alone either, I found a thread on Microsoft’s own forums (going way back to last Summer) that talks about this problem, seems specific to using WPA as the form of wireless encryption. It’s hard to know whether this is purely driver problems, or if there’s something fundamentally wrong with Vista’s wireless network stack. Certainly on my laptop I’ve not really had this issue despite connecting to the exact same wireless router, using the exact same WPA key. There has been the odd occasion where on restoring from a hibernate it’s decided it no longer likes the settings it has saved for my connection, but a reboot has always sorted that out.
Also, rather bizarrely, after leaving it sitting for awhile it randomly decides to just connect = sometimes. I took the opportunity to quickly check Windows update again, and discovered there was yet another driver for the card that had been released just a few hours previously – suggesting that somebody out there might be aware of a problem certainly with this card. Didn’t make a difference though, installing the driver dropped the connection obviously, and I’m no further on. Same lack of connection, same random connection after a half hour wait or so – all rather dodgy. Damn.
Still, as the hours tick by Microsoft seem to be loading Windows Update up with new additions, in the last hour this is how things have changed:
Most of the optional updates are language packs, and the important updates don’t seem overly important (none of the Knowledge Base links go anywhere yet, so who knows really), but still – things seem to be ramping up for the big release. Perhaps a wireless or graphics driver lurks in there yet? Nice of Microsoft to give us ‘Hold Em Poker’, but as I don’t know how to play it, it’s unlikely to distract me from the fact that I have no connection to play with on my desktop.
Still, let’s end on a high – I keep discovering little things in Vista that I haven’t encountered already. Last night a particularly eager software install decided it wanted to reboot my machine immediately with out any warning. Vista however realised that I was kind of in the middle of other things, and threw up the rather flashy screen below listing what I was currently doing. Quite nifty, and for the record – I was only recording Celebrity Big Brother to test out Vista Media Centre. Honest.
Sunday, January 28th, 2007
Okay, so it’s the space year 2007, and frankly – I expected things to be a heck of a lot more futuristic by now. Call me unreasonable if you must, but where are all the flying cars, where are the damn hoverboards that Michael J Fox showed us in Back to the Future, why aren’t at least some of us living on the moon, and WHY do I still have to use a mouse to move around in 3D on my PC?
Right, so I have no intention of addressing those first few, but as you might have guessed by now – the last one I DO want to try and solve, because if not now, when? This is 2007, those aliens have got to be coming soon, and who’s to say they’ll still allow us to play on our computers?
Luckily, 3D Connexion had my back covered, and handily released the SpaceNavigator near the end of 2006. 3D Connexion has been in the market of alternative 3D navigation input devices for sometime, but until now it’s been a prohibitively expensive road to take. The premise of these devices is that in one hand you have your usual mouse choosing options and the like, and then in the other hand on the other side of the keyboard you have your 3D Connexion setup which is really a rubbery cylinder that you can move in six different axis by pulling it or pushing it left, right, away from you, towards you, pulling it up, pushing it down, twisting it in either direction, the lot really. The idea is that this device should be a lot more intuitive when navigating a 3D scene as you’re kind of moving your hand in the direction you want to go, rather than moving the mouse around whilst pushing a given keyboard shortcut key. It’s much better explained by the makers themselves here, if what I’m saying makes no sense.
I first came across these guys back in December 2004 at the ill-fated inaugural CGI Festival, where I got to try out a product they had going at the time, the SpaceBall, similar idea to the latest products, but with a ball instead of a cylinder. It seemed kind of a neat way to navigate, but one that you’d probably need to spend a bit of time on to get used to initially. However, as I alluded to earlier, these things were far too expensive to take a risk on, even if there were potential repetitive strain injury advantages to be had.
Jump forward two years, and although the CGI Festival has disappeared, 3D Connexion had been bought up by Logitech, and the SpaceBall is gone, there’s a number of different devices from them that do much the same thing. The differences between them seem to only lie in the range of buttons around the navigation device itself, and in the case of the SpaceNavigator, you only have two buttons and an overall smaller design, but a very affordable price of around £50 (if you’re not using it commercially) and the same actual navigation cylinder that the other devices have.
How could I resist? Cheap price, funky blue glow, and the word ‘Space’ in the title – the future has arrived! When this little box of future turned up, I installed the drivers along with the plugins that get installed to support any of the applications it can use on your PC. In my case, really Maya was the only app of interest, although it will work in Google Earth too which is quite nice.
The first time you start up Maya after the driver install, the 3DConnexion Control Panel pops up, which it will do for any supported application. It gives you the option to set individual settings for how you want to navigate in that particular application. You can set how sensitive it is, which direction zooms (I chose the non-default green arrowed option shown in the screenshot to the right because it made more sense to my workflow), you can turn off a given axis, or make some more sensitive than others, or you can reverse the axis, which I did to the zoom function as it just proved irritating the other way round. If the blue glow around the base isn’t to your tastes that can be turned off too, although you’d be mad to – it highlights your new toy very nicely to passers by.
You can also configure what the two buttons on either side of the base of the device do, but in the case of Maya, it’s better to do this within the custom panel available within the application for a greater number of options.
The custom panel can be opened and closed within Maya by clicking on the new shortcut button added to the top of the screen, or at its default by clicking on the right hand button of the SpaceNavigator, and it gives you access to some application-specific options with regards to navigating a Maya scene, and configuring the two buttons. These buttons can be set to effectively run any command, be it a ready provided menu option, or a custom MEL script, which is handy.
So, options aside – how does it handle? Well, the danger with this kind of thing is to expect too much of it, which was initially my problem. I almost expected just to rest my hand on it and find that suddenly I could zip about in 3D without barely a thought, and that I’d become SO much more productive. The reality the first time I tried it though was one of wanting to throw the damn thing out of the window. Make no mistake, you need to spend a bit of time just getting used to it, making tweaks to the sensitivity, working out if each axis makes sense as it’s currently setup, and just generally mucking around. I actually found that after 15 minutes of playing, I had to just walk away and forget about it for a bit. On returning to my PC though somehow it all started to click, and I have to say – after a month of use it’s really become a very useful asset.
There’s no doubt I can navigate to a particular point in a scene far more quickly and intuitively than with a mouse. With the SpaceNavigator you can be both rotating, moving and zooming all at the same time, rather than one at a time with a mouse, which really makes the world of difference once you become used to the whole thing.
The SpaceNavigator is relatively heavy, and the combination of a rubber bottom, and rubber grip for your hand means it doesn’t really slip away from you as you use it, which is probably just as well, as this thing isn’t perfect.
The big problem I had was really working out where exactly my hand should be to use it effectively. For general panning around you can just plonk your hand on top of it and push around, but it’s not terribly accurate, and the motion of twisting it, or pulling it up into the air can be awkward. Instead, I’ve found resting my hand beside it and kind of pinching the whole thing with my fingers works best. The pulling up motion still isn’t great, I sometimes find the base not quite heavy enough and have to kind of hold it down with a couple of fingers, but on the whole it works out well enough.
What I can’t get used to though is the two buttons on either side. They just feel awkwardly located, and difficult to push from the angle that my hand is at. I usually find myself having to stop and look at it before realising I’m not pushing the button correctly. I naturally want to push it down towards the desk, but the button needs to be kind of squeezed in towards the centre of the device, which with my left hand is fairly fiddly on the right hand side, and almost totally unusable on the left. I’ll often have to take my hand away from its usual position and go out of my way to push the buttons. This kind of counteracts the overall efficiency of using the SpaceNavigator, so the buttons lie unused most of the time as a result.
And that in a particularly large nutshell, is what the SpaceNavigator is all about. It could do with some greater application support: I could do with being able to use it in MotionBuilder and Houdini, it would even be fun to use it with something like Photosynth come the time. It does however come with an API for writing support into applications, along with some example applications, some of which allude to the device being a lot more intuitive to use than it actually is and aren’t very practical. New versions of the software come out frequently though, so you never know what’s around the corner – the device does already support a large number of applications listed here, and they’ve also just added support for Mac OS X, in addition to Windows.
Autodesk Maya 8.5 just came out a couple of weeks back, so I’m personally hoping they add support for this latest release as soon as possible – I don’t want to go back to the old-fashioned way, and it’s the only thing stopping me using 8.5 in anger (the new Python scripting support is great).
The SpaceNavigator gave me a little glimpse of a better world of 3D navigation, and although not perfect – it will do for now until I can navigate purely through mind power. Something for the space year 2008 maybe?
Update (12/03/2007): Please see the comments for the latest on the SpaceNavigator. Basically, Maya 8.5 support came out shortly after I wrote the above, and having tried it this last weekend it works a treat, even under Vista. 3D Connexion have also just let me know that the costs to buy one of these should normally be around £39 + delivery, and there are more retailers selling it now so shop around.
3D Connexion also tell me that there apparently also used to be support for MotionBuilder in the good old days of Kaydara, so anyone who’s keen on getting support for this product with the SpaceNavigator should go and rattle Autodesk’s cage. Similarly, Houdini support will only come if Side Effects have enough people requesting it.
Friday, January 5th, 2007
Since I started using Google Reader back in early October, it’s become a regular port of call whenever I’ve got time to browse the Internet each day. As Google Reader has improved over the months, with the odd new feature and stability improvements, so too have I added subscriptions to various web pages I want to keep an eye on. But in turn, the number of posts I’m faced with every time I pull up Google Reader have risen to epic proportions – every morning I discover that bloggers and not-so-bloggers have been updating their sites with new postings all night, ready for me to spend the rest of the day trying desperately to flick through them all and get the number of new posts down to zero.
It never happens. Quicker than I can flick through and decide that the hundreds of new items that have appeared are largely not that interesting, more new posts appear. And then more, and more. Obviously the only true way to cut all this down is to remove some of your subscriptions altogether, but then every subscription I have will from time to time throw up something that actually I DO want to read.
Google doesn’t really have an answer for this eternal problem, but as of yesterday morning when I logged in as usual – what they HAVE done is come up with a rather nice new feature that actually just shows that the problem was even larger than I thought, and also kind of hints at where the future may lie in at least reducing the problem – Google Reader Trends. Google Reader can tell me all about my reading habits: when I mostly read items, which sites are updated most frequently, how many of the posts I actually read (not so useful, as I flick through them all eventually), and which of my subscriptions to sites have sat there largely inactive for extended periods of time. There’s even a nice little tag cloud showing what the most common post tags are in all my subscriptions, and how many of these sort of items I actually read.
So what did it tell me? Well apparently for starters, “From your 219 subscriptions, over the last 30 days you read 10,565 items, starred 1 items, and shared 1 items”. Turns out I have way more subscriptions than I thought I did, and they generated ten and a half thousand items – yikes. Now, obviously if I really had read all 10,565 items I wouldn’t really have had much time for anything else in my life. But even if you suppose that I only briefly flicked my eyes over most items as I tried to fly through them finding something of interesting, that’s still a heck of a lot of time spent just trying to keep on top of what’s going on in the 219 little worlds I decided to keep track of.
The new Trends area also shows me the odd spikes in days where I ‘read’ more items than usual over the last 30 days – I can pretty quickly spot the days when I returned from being away for a weekend, or when I wasn’t near an Internet connection for awhile. It takes me days to catch up, as more items pile up.
Finally, apparently Thursday is the most popular day of the week for me to read lots of items, and I’m most likely to try and read my subscriptions at lunchtime, or between 5 and 6pm – presumably when I’m waiting for a lift home from work, and need to kill time. I’ve apparently never read an item on Google Reader from midnight through to about 6am, and also very rarely have looked at anything between 8am and 9am (either asleep, still waking up, or going to work I guess).
So how does this all really help me? Well, as it currently stands – not a lot. I mean, it can show me exactly what the biggest offenders are for sheer number of posts should I choose to nuke some of them, and it can show me lots of things I didn’t know about my habits, but I’m probably wasting even more time now on Google Reader, because I’m also looking at my Trends now too.
What I’m more interested in is what this potentially could become. Many people are predicting Google Reader could morph into a digg like site where people can view the most read items by everyone on Google Reader, which while nice, I’d rather see it go in another direction. Down the line in fact, I’d far sooner see Google Reader try and predict what kind of stuff I’m actually most likely to want to read based on my habits so far. Did I just flick past a given type of item with barely a glance, did I click a link to certain types of sites from within an item, and what sort of posts do I spend the most time reading? If it knows that, perhaps Google Reader can also help me find the good stuff in amongst the crap, and perhaps I can stop wasting so much time trying to find it myself.
Still, for now it could be worse – Robert Scoble of Podtech has 483 feeds, and read 25,185 items in the last 30 days – clearly I don’t know I’m born.