Avengers Assembled Collector’s Set: this is the future of physical media

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After almost a year of waiting, I received my Avengers Assembled 10-Disc Blu-ray set and, to my surprise, It was worth the wait. And while the DVDs are obviously the centerpiece of the set, the extras are why fans like me shelled out a few extra bucks. But are the extras worth it?

Between the HD-quality streaming and digital download options, any movie that I actually want to watch more than once I’m likely to stream or buy a digital version. Amazon, Netflix streaming, and a few other services amply feed my media consumption, so I rarely feel the need to purchase a physical DVD anymore.

The Avengers collector’s set was obviously meant for fans who want some exclusive goodies, but without a cosplay price tag. Unboxing the set, you’re eyes feast on a chromed SHIELD briefcase. The cheap plastic of the case, non-functional clasps, and a handle that is too short to fit any but a child’s fingers all somewhat take away from the overall experience. But at the price point, it’s still nice packaging. And a button under the handle lights up the center circle of the case which is a nice touch.

Opening the case reveals a light-up Tesseract cube set within a plastic tray. Again, it’s the details that take away from the experience: The plastic Tesseract cube’s batteries were dead and the flimsy tray popped out when I removed the DVDs. I replaced the tray easily enough, however, and I was able to replace the button batteries in the cube (though it proved to be rather temperamental to get to flash, requiring several violent smacks to activate).

The set is definitely not designed to be treated roughly like, say, by kids. Thankfully, mine have had lots of practice and know to stay away from other attractive toys like Daddy’s Lego sets, Daddy’s RC cars, and Daddy’s Transformers.

Fortunately, the four dossiers on Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, and Thor make up for the shortcomings of the rest of the set. Included within each are memorabilia and trinkets fans will instantly recognize from each of the movies. The plentiful contents of each folder will provide plenty of enjoyable perusing.

The fifth folder is a SHIELD file with information about the Tesseract itself. It also includes personnel files on Black Widow and Hawkeye. A sealed envelope contains an access card and decoder lens that, once I found the report that matched it, revealed a message pointing me to a website. Thinking it was going to provide exclusive downloads or perhaps an augmented reality game (similar to what the show Lost did a few years back), I immediately logged on (using the access code on the card). The site currently only contains a video preview of Phase 2 of the Avengers franchise, which looks to be every bit as good (if not better) than Phase 1. I hope Marvel has plans to build out the site further, since it has the potential to rally fans before each of the new movies is released.

Avengers - Phase Two

So does exclusive collectible memorabilia make buying physical media more attractive? Or is DVD publishing doomed to the history books along with 8-tracks and Laserdisc?


Review: Google Nexus 7 – the tablet to rule them all

Technology-wise, yesterday was a great day. First, my Samsung Galaxy SII finally got the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade Sprint had teased for weeks. But, and possibly more importantly, my Nexus 7 arrived.

The Hardware

The Nexus 7, the latest Android tablet from Google and Asus, is a 7″ tablet with a quad-core processor, the newest Jelly Bean version of Android, and a slick design. The form factor is wonderfully solid and polished. Amazingly, there are only three buttons and one port on the device. I love the micro USB port for charging and connecting since it’s the new standard (so I have a dozen such cables). The power button and two volume control buttons are the only interruptions in the sleek exterior.
The tablet has a nice heft; it almost seems a bit heavy for its size. The textured and rubberized back and rounded edges make it easy to hold in one hand for long periods, something I’m likely to do as I plan to use this in place of my current e-readers (Nook Color and Kindle 3). However, while the left/right bezel is a great width for holding the device (without pressing the screen), the top/bottom bezels are bigger than I’d prefer. A recent teardown seems to indicate that the extra space is used to house the camera and speaker components, but I wonder if they plan to shave off some millimeters in height for the 2nd gen.

The 7″ screen is simply gorgeous, with rich colors and textures coming through on both photos and videos. The video playback improvements touted by “Project Butter” are evident in the first ten minutes of the free Transformers preloaded on the device. I’m a bit concerned that I can’t find any confirmation (or denial) that Asus used Gorilla Glass on this. I hope the answer is yes, since the only available cover (from Google) wasn’t to my liking, so my tablet is currently unprotected.
I’m still torn whether a 7″ or 10″ screen is better for productivity. The 7″ is perfect for consumption of many types of media: ebooks, videos, and web sites. I still contend that the 10″ screens are better for content creation (blogging/writing, video/photo editing) and viewing large color documents (like graphic novels). But if any device could change my mind, it’s this one.

Jelly Bean

But I practically ignored the physical aspects of the tablet once I turned it on. The speed and fluidity that I’m able to navigate the Nexus 7 is nothing less than stunning. Seriously, this thing is wicked fast.

I’m a previous owner of Google’s former “reference” tablet model, the Motorola Xoom Wi-fi (which was so heavy I hardly ever used it) and the current owner of a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (still running Honeycomb), a Nook Color (rooted and running CM7 Gingerbread). With ICS now on my phone, I’ve experienced nearly every version of Android (my previous phone came with Donut, upgraded to Eclair, then I rooted it with Froyo).

With Jelly Bean, Android has finally reached the pinnacle of user experience. Between the hardware and the OS improvements, the Nexus 7 offers an unmatched user experience.

One of my favorite features of the Nexus 7 is the fact that it’s a Nexus device, which means no waiting for a manufacturer to release OS updates. In less than a day, a system update was already pushed to my device. Having a direct connection to Google for updates is going to spoil me for all devices (mostly Samsung) I own.

Early Observations and Tips

After linking my Google account and syncing, I delved into some of the preloaded apps. Launching Gmail, I was dismayed to find that I couldn’t rotate the tablet to landscape mode. I then realized I couldn’t rotate the home screen, either. Thankfully, a quick Google search turned up the solution:

“If you notice that the device isn’t rotating, feel free to pull the notification bar down and hit the rectangular icon with the two arrows around it. Actually, if it’s not rotating, it’s probably showing up as a lock with two arrows around it. In order to get your device to rotate, it needs to have the box with arrows”

Once turned on, any app that I previously used in landscape mode worked perfectly. I think it’s a mistake that Google decided to disable that by default.

Interestingly, all Google apps (Gmail, Chrome, etc.) are “pre foldered” and the folder is located in the Favorites tray, a quick-launch bar of icons at the bottom of the screen. Placing additional app icons on the home screen is the same as in previous versions of Android, but I found that my longstanding habit of long-pressing the home screen to add a widget no longer works. Since there was no menu option or “more” button, another Google search provided the answer: turns out there’s a “widget” screen on the app drawer. I’ll get used to this – and I already prefer it – but as I now have a phone on Ice Cream Sandwich and a tablet on Honeycomb, going between UI differences will be a challenge.

Had I taken a moment to step back from my excitement, I might have even found Google’s helpful (and free) Nexus 7 User Guide in the Play store. Already, I’ve found the answers to my previous questions as well as a wealth of knowledge about the device and OS which would have required serendipitous discovery.

Essential Apps and Features

While Jelly Bean’s stock keyboard is usable (and fast on the Nexus 7!), I still prefer the alternate Swype keyboard, so I downloaded that from the site. Thankfully, it works flawlessly with the new OS.

The built-in Google voice search is, quite simply, amazing. It’s like being on Star Trek. Merely saying “Google” triggers the search to wait for your voice input.

I’ve only briefly explored new Jelly Bean features like Face Unlock and Google Now (which offers real-time information based on your geolocation), but I plan to dig into it more in the coming days.

For now, I heartily recommend this tablet to anyone looking for a small form-factor Android tablet at an amazing price point.

I Just Googled: “Android App Builder”

I use Google. A lot. Like dozens of times a day. For lots of stuff. Random, crazy stuff. Stuff that I’m curious about. Stuff that the kids are curious about. I Google from my laptop, the desktop, the tablet, and my phone. I figured it would be an interesting experiment if, every time I Googled something that resulted in a noteworthy answer, that I’d blog about it. Heck, maybe it’ll get me back into blogging about anything. So here goes.

What I Googled: “android app builder”

Why I Googled it: This morning, a conversation between my wife and I resulted in a great idea for an Android app (not sharing the particulars in case I actually want to follow through with it). After several searches in both the Apple market and the Android app store as well as multiple Google searches on the web, I am relatively convinced such an app doesn’t exist. I’ve always been curious about what it takes to build an Android app and I thought this would be a good excuse to gain new skills in that area. While  I have some familiarity with programming languages, it’s not very deep, so programming an app from scratch isn’t really an option at this point.

What I found out: I remembered hearing awhile back about an app builder that Google itself released. So I was hoping that my search would help me find that. It did…and yet didn’t. Apparently, the Google App Inventor (as it was actually named) is no longer supported by Google, but is instead being supported by MIT. But unfortunately, they are revamping the app – still named App Inventor and haven’t yet released a public version. If you’d like to learn more about that project, read the website.

I also found other sites – free and paid – that offer similar services. The most promising of these seem to be Andromo and appsbar. That is, both websites are written in clear English and with a nice aesthetic. I have no idea if they can actually deliver on their promises. 😉 Apps Maker for Android offers some handy templates, but none fit the idea I have, so I’m not going to try that one.

The takeaway: I’m curious to see if either of the alternate services I found can actually help me create a working Android app. I’m also keeping tabs on the MIT App Inventor since I’d like to try that one, too. If you’ve had experience with these or any other app builders, please let me know in the comments. If you have suggestions for better ways of diving into Android app development, I’d like to hear that, too.

Some tech tips you might find useful

Ever since Boingboing reported on a Google study that revealed many computer users don’t know basic commands like Ctrl-F (it activates the search – or “Find” – feature in most applications), everyone seems to be jumping on the idea. As a technology trainer, it seems only natural for me to offer my own tips of Windows keyboard shortcuts that many in my classes find very useful.

In no particular order, these are my favorite “power user” tricks…

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Graphic novel helps prepare active duty personnel, family, friends for war zone deployment

If you still think graphic novels are just for kids, check out this very serious novel, “The DOCS”. Designed by RTI International in collaboration with the Naval Health Research Center, this 200-page publication serves a critical population: active duty personnel deploying to war zones and their family and friends.

The story follows four fictional corpsmen as they deploy to Iraq with the Marine Corps and encounter insurgent attacks and roadside bombs, as well as deal with the emotional turmoil of treating the wounded and family issues at home.

Corpsmen Banks, Jackson, Mendez, and Wallace deal with insurgent attacks and roadside bombs, treat gravely wounded Marines, and wrestle with the emotional turmoil of leaving their families behind.

The Docs realistically portrays common concerns faced by our military personnel in war zones and serves as a discussion tool for lessening the stigma associated with combat/operational stress (COSC).

While the novel is set in Afghanistan, the encounters and lessons can be applied to any war zone. The story covers common sources of stress soldiers encounter before, during, and after deployment. But, while the story is easy to read, many of the scenarios are not easy to digest.

There’s the pain of a mother left behind to take on the responsibilities of her husband’s job and role as father.

Then there’s the soldier who disobeys orders because he can’t personally justify firing on a child.

You may be moved trying to understand the emotional pain of a medic knowing she can’t do anything to save a fallen colleague.

You may even gain a new empathy for the IED survivor who loses his leg and whose life is changed forever.

For anyone who has a direct or indirect tie to a warfighter, this novel is a must-read. It could even prove useful for those who support national defense efforts from the comfort of an office and may never get near a war zone.

You can read “The DOCS” online, download the PDF (32.5MB) from the Navy Medical website, or, if you’re a member of the U.S. military, order your free print copy.

Use Feedfliks for advanced Netflix account management

If you’re not a Netflix subscriber, you either don’t watch movies or you enjoy endlessly browsing the local movie rental place for DVDs (that ultimately aren’t available) and racing the clock to return it before late fees start to accrue. For the rest of us, the mail-order and streaming movie service has risen to become a staple of media consumption.

Yet, despite an impressive DVD collection, an improving streaming catalog available from TiVo DVRs, many Blu-ray players, and iOS devices, the options for managing your media queue are underwhelming.

Enter Feedfliks, a companion site that fills in nearly all of the gaps of account management. Offering a full-featured free account option as well as a paid premium account option, Feedfliks gives you a data-rick peek into your account as well as email alerts.

Your dashboard lets you see if you’re getting the most out of your account. This can help you decide to go with a cheaper account (2 versus 3 discs out at a time, for example) or encourage you to return your DVDs more quickly.

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Would you use a touchscreen vending machine that included personalization and game dynamics?

Last year, a new Japanese vending machine technology made its rounds on the Internet as another innovative, if not creepy, application of personalization. The video below shows the machine in action.

When a customer steps up to the 47″ LCD screen to order a drink, a camera identifies the customer’s gender and age. Based on that information, the display highlights the options it has been programmed to suggest to that demographic as most desirable.

When the videos first hit the web, many folks commented that profiling customer demographics in order to influence buying seemed an invasion of privacy. However, perhaps this reaction is due to the fact that the machine only uses age and gender. Just a couple modifications would make the interface much more useful.

What if, instead of using a camera, the machine used near field communication (NFC) to recognize a customer’s phone (or even the payment card seen in the video)? Your phone could include data you’ve added such as your personal preference for drinks and snacks, dietary restrictions, or weight loss and nutrition goals. Then the choices would truly be customized to you.

Let’s take it one step further and introduce a gaming aspect of vending machines. What if the machine communicated with your phone to link to a social network where you earned points for good choices in vending machine food and drink (is there such a thing?). When you selected an option, perhaps the screen would display the nutrition information (Pokemon trading-card style?). Drinks could be represented by characters, each with their own strengths (caffeine, calories, vitamins/minerals).

Undoubtedly, high-calorie soft drink and snack manufacturers would work to prevent such a system. On the other hand, it might help them determine what customers really wanted. What if customers were awarded points for trying a new drink?

The “gamification” introduced in so areas of life combined with the advent of NFC could soon have a profound impact on industries as seemingly insignificant as vending machines.

Wifi signals visualized as a light painting

Via Geekbeat.tv

We all know that countless radio signals are coursing around and through us in our increasingly wireless world. But it’s easy to forget about this invisible layer…unless you have a way to visualize it. One group of artists decided to do just that. By taking a four meter rod fashioned with 80 lights, they created a “light painting” that reveals the pattern of wifi signals around various urban structures in the Grünerløkka area in Oslo. The bar lights up proportionate to the strength of the wifi signal. The result is a semi-transparent three-dimensional graph of light which is both beautiful and fascinating.

See the embedded video after the jump. Read the full story here.

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Finally we can stare right at the sun!

Earlier this week, NASA announced their STEREO project to map the entire sun in 3D. STEREO employs two orbiting satellites – “Ahead” and “Behind” – to map the surface of the sun in real-time. This is intended to provide early warnings in the event of solar flares and other such occurrences that tend to disrupt communications.

By combining images from NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) Ahead and Behind spacecraft, together with images from NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) satellite, a complete map of the solar globe can be formed. Previous to the STEREO mission, astronomers could only see the side of the Sun facing Earth, and had little knowledge of what happened to solar features after they rotated out of view.

Following this, space.com posted an amazing image of a solar filament (shown here) that scientists estimate stretches across nearly 700,000 km of the sun’s surface.

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