Technology rocks, just don’t let it roll over you

20140617_111045_754_xA recent family vacation helped prove once again that modern technology rocks, but if you’re not careful, it can roll over you.

Aside from my Google Glass developing the dreaded foil bubble design flaw  during the trip, things went nearly without a hitch. Unfortunately, the one hitch I had could have been a major problem. To be fair, modern technology helped it from becoming one. OK, now I’m starting to write in circles, so let’s just get to it using the old format of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Jessi, the kids and I headed to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a week with four mobile phones and Google Glass in hand, plus a Kindle Touch, a Kindle Fire and a GoPro camera. We took no laptops or iPads, opting for the smaller screens and less chance for potential distractions. I knew cellular service on the island we were headed to would be spotty at best, but we did have WiFi in the house we rented.

20140619_080739_725_xThe Good

Google Glass — until it broke — worked great as a camera, video camera and travel aid.

The mobile phones (an iPhone 4S, iPhone 5C, iPhone 5S and Motorola Droid Maxx) all performed admirably. They served as phones, messaging and email units, travel aids (via a Delta Airlines app and Google Maps) and cooking timers, as well as cameras, gaming devices, news readers and social media conduits. The ability to take pictures, including panoramas and photospheres (Google Camera on the Maxx) is becoming increasingly easy and impressive. The fact that the list above is as long as it is while talking about a single device you can hold in the palm of your hand or put in your pocket is still astounding to me.

The Delta app has proven more useful over time and if you fly with Delta, you should use their app. You can learn about your current flight’s status, check seating locations, carry a digital version of your boarding pass and even track your checked bags to make sure they’re headed to the same vacation spot you are.

The Kindle Touch served as Jessi’s book reader for the trip, from the plane to the beach — always ready due to it stellar battery life and always readable thanks to its e-ink technology and anti-glare screen. Its small size made it portable and easy no matter where she went.

The Kindle Fire served as my book reader, as well as video player so I could catch up on a TV show I’ve started streaming through Amazon Prime, as well as a magazine reader and a gaming device. (On a side note, did you know Prime members can download TV episodes to store on your device to watch when WiFi isn’t available? I didn’t — but I’m glad I learned about it before my 5 hours of flight time one way!) One of the fondest memories I think all four of us will have is the laughs we shared while playing The Game of Life on my Kindle Fire around the kitchen table for several nights.

20140620_100914_201The GoPro camera was a loaner from my brother-in-law and I’m glad we had it to capture some underwater pictures and videos to add to our collection of memories. Because he also has the WiFi attachment for his 2nd version GoPro, it meant we could watch the videos each night by streaming them to an app on my phone. Besides again causing me to stare in wonder at how technology has changed and improved, it also meant we could critique our video shoots before we headed out snorkeling again so we knew how to adjust our shooting techniques.

The Bad

There are not a lot of items to list in the bad category. Certainly, traveling with devices means having to take care of them, and we made sure everyone had solid cases protecting their mobile phones. Battery drain is always a concern, except on the Droid Maxx, but since we turned off the cellular and data services during the day, the phones all performed well as cameras without giving us much worry about battery life.

When traveling to the U.S. Virgin Islands, you must be careful not to suddenly trigger a cell tower on the British Virgin Islands. The signal is better, but also a lot more expensive!

Of course, having technology with you means having the world with you, which in some ways is an unfortunate interference when you’re on vacation. But that’s not really the fault of the technology, but rather of our inability as human beings to let go of the daily rat race and just enjoy wandering the maze slowly while seeking the cheese.

The Ugly

For some reason, when you return to the U.S. mainland from the U.S. Virgin Islands, you need to go through U.S. Customs. This happens at the airport in St. Thomas, which means it’s more laid back than say the Customs unit in Atlanta. But it also means you are in a building where your cellular signal is weak at best.

While still at our rental house, I used the Delta app to check in all four passengers and load boarding passes onto my phone via the WiFi connection — or so I thought. Technically, you’re just loading the passes into the app, not downloading them to your phone. What this means is that you need a WiFi or cellular connection while opening the app to use it if you want to see your boarding passes. Unfortunately, this was not going to happen for me in the U.S. Customs area of the airport in St. Thomas!

The customs officer was extremely friendly and forgiving of the technology snafu. He let Jessi and the kids wait to the side with all of our luggage while I went back outside to try to find a signal and open our boarding passes. He even gave me permission to bypass the long line and come right back to him once I had our boarding passes.

IMG_20140624_070017477_HDROutside, the signal was still weak and the app refused to sign me in and grant me access to our boarding passes. So, after a couple of attempts, I went to find paper boarding passes. Ironically, it was technology that again made things easy even though it was technology that made things more difficult to begin with. Delta has self-serve kiosks at the St. Thomas airport. I just had to log into one of them and since I had already checked us in, it simply asked if I wanted to reprint our boarding passes. I did and within minutes we were through Customs and headed to the security checkpoints, paper boarding passes flapping in our hands. (Just one more reason you never wait until the last minute to try to catch your flight!)

I’ve used the electronic boarding passes before without any issues, but it has always been in areas with strong cellular service. This was the first time I had tried going sans paper, and on the way down, the system worked flawlessly. I’m nearly certain it will again when I travel next week, so I’ll try going all-digital again, especially since I know the Delta kiosks have my back in case of failure. (Also note the update I posted below!)

Sharing the memories

As I wrote earlier, I think technology rocks. Sure, there are flaws and there are times when it can be maddening, but most of the time it’s beneficial and it still makes me shake my head in wonder at how far things have come.

Just last night I used technology again to help share our memories. Using Google Plus, I created an event and then invited Jessi and the kids. We now can each upload our photos from the trip to this event, granting access to all four of us to see the trip from different perspectives. It also eliminates the need for, “Hey, remember that picture you took of X? Can you email it to me?” I could, but that’s sooo 2012.

IMG_20140618_145738124_HDR

 

UPDATE: Here’s an idea to address the issue of having a boarding pass on your phone but no cell phone signal to open the app and view the pass. When you first load the boarding pass after checking in (which means you had a signal at that point), take a screen shot on your phone. That way, you’ll have a usable facsimile of your boarding pass available in your phone’s camera roll whether you have a network signal or not!

What if my device can’t hear me now?

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Many of us have joked around with the “Can you hear me now?” line that Verizon Wireless used for its advertising campaign for years. It generally refers to whether someone on the other end of your mobile call can hear you rather than static. As technology has advanced, however, we’ve started talking to our devices almost as much as we talk through them.

Thanks to Siri on Apple devices, Google Now on Android devices and, of course, Google Glass, voice commands are becoming more commonplace.

But what happens if your device can’t hear you?

I discovered this problem recently when I lost my voice while fighting off a bad cold, the flu or the plague — I’m not really sure what hit me. Whatever it was, it silenced me into using gestures and note pads with my family. The biggest discoveries from that experience were that my family is really bad at charades and my handwriting is still the best indicator that I should have been a doctor.

But another discovery was that wild hand gestures and notepads were of no use when communicating with my phone and Glass, so when I was completely without a voice, I was incommunicado with my tech.

For the phones and tablets in my life, that wasn’t really a big deal because I still do 80 percent of my interaction with those via keyboard and screen swipes. But one of Glass’ strengths is its ability to be controlled by voice.

Yes, you can tap and swipe your way through menu commands and activities on the right temple, but you will eventually run into something that requires you to talk to Glass. I’m not sure Google is working on a way to connect Glass with a keyboard for the Explorers who have it now, but it certainly would expand its horizons when they go for the consumer release. I don’t see much point in having a constant keyboard connection because Glass honestly doesn’t need that kind of bulk. Nevertheless, having an option, perhaps with something as rudimentary as a keyboard option available via the My Glass app, might do the trick.

I have been very impressed with the voice recognition programs available now. Siri on my iPhone was the weakest but if I slowed down a little she could understand me a lot better. The Droid Maxx seems to work very well and Glass has been even better. Not everyone has the same results on any of those devices, so your individual experiences may very.

One thing I’ve noticed about Glass is that the device does a great job of hearing me while ignoring others who are speaking around me. I’ve used it to add captions to pictures before sending them from the floor of the noisy North American International Auto Show in Detroit. I’ve also used Glass outside when it’s a little windy and in my Jeep Wrangler where road noise is higher than in most other vehicles. The vast majority of the time, Glass understands my commands and can translate my voice into text accurately. I have noticed that a low battery and a low cellular signal can both decrease the accuracy, but that’s not surprising.

The other good thing for Glass’ functionality is that the microphone works well even if you speak quietly. I’ve actually found that speaking in a normal tone or less works better for it than raising my voice, thinking it would hear me better.

That has been great news these past 10 days or so when my voice was weakening, nonexistent and now, finally, on the mend when I can say, “OK, Glass…Google…elixirs for layrngitis.” 20140304-172449.jpg

Google Glass to the Maxx

I’ve been an iPhone fan for several years now, having switched after my old R2D2-themed Android phone started misbehaving regularly. I’ve appreciated the simplicity of Apple’s operating systems and how their hardware and software “just works.” (That’s why I have, and will probably always have, Macs as my personal computers.)

MaxxBut then I got Glass. And now I have an Android phone — the Droid Maxx to be precise.

The MyGlass app is available for Android and iPhone, and recent updates to MyGlass made the Google Glass experience on an iPhone almost as good as with an Android phone. Almost good enough that it’s not worth switching from an iPhone to a Droid if it’s going to cost you a lot of money.

But as fate would have it, my daughter’s mobile phone is dying and we needed to figure out what to do for her next one. So I researched options and discovered a way to shift phones around on our account by adding a couple of new ones to the stable. Thanks to a couple of our family’s older phones being out of contract and eligible for an upgrade, plus Verizon Wireless’ current trade-in offer, three out of four of us are ending up with new phones and it will cost me very little cash to make it happen.

Since the opportunity presented itself, I decided I would research Android phones to see what’s been going on since that long time ago in a cellular galaxy far, far away when I carried R2D2 in my pocket. Things have changed dramatically and the operating system on my new phone is powerful, clean and fast. (The Maxx uses KitKat 4.4 if anyone is wondering.)

I still believe iOS is best for uninitiated techies or people who just want stuff to be simple and work with minimal fuss. But for those who like to customize their system and make it organized the way they want it, then Android is still the way to go. After showing my wife everything my new phone could do and how I had it set up, she said, “there’s just too much going on there” and reached for her iPhone like she would reach for the hand of a trusted friend. (For the record, she’s getting a nearly new iPhone 5S out of my phone-swapping scheme.)

myglassUnless and until Google makes the MyGlass app for the iPhone identical to the app on Android, though, I’m going to stick with taking Google Glass to the Maxx. Besides the Google universe being seamlessly integrated into the Droids instead of just laid on top like on the iPhones, there are three key things I’ve discovered so far that make the whole experience more powerful for Glass users:

  1. I can now send and receive text messages via Glass. I’ve used Hangouts and really liked the functionality, but in my job I receive a lot of text messages and being able to deal with them via Glass with verbal commands and replies is an awesome feature.
  2. Tethering is seamless on the Maxx, whereas I had to use the Personal Hotspot feature on my iPhone. It worked, but it seemed to drain the battery on my phone and Glass faster than the new setup does. Plus, it’s one more layer of connectivity to be wonky from time to time.
  3. Navigation just happens, fast and easy. With the iPhone, I had to be sure the MyGlass app was open before asking Glass for directions. And I mean open. It was never enough to have the app running on the iPhone. I often had to be sure the app was front and center and the phone wasn’t sleeping or the connection couldn’t be established to make the initial directions appear. After that, the app would occasionally forget that it was needed for turn-by-turn directions and Glass navigation became all about navigating the iPhone and not the road ahead.

There may be more features I discover as I spend more time with this new configuration, and I’ll update the blog with them if I find some. I’ve only had the phone a few days and I’m still adapting. One of the key things Motorola (“A Google Company” until last week) touts about the Maxx is its superb battery life. I must say that in the first full day of heavy use it performed wonderfully. I’ll have to see if that continues, but so far, so good.

Making the jump from operating system to operating system on a phone is a bit like traveling to the same planet in an alternate universe: everything is there, and you can see many similarities, but something is definitely awry.

It’s helpful that I’ve owned Android phones before and that I have a Kindle Fire HD, which has a bastardized Android operating system with similar operational features to my new phone. At some point, I’ll probably write a post on KitKat 4.4 vs. iOS 7, but that topic may have already over-saturated the blogging world and most people are diehard one way or the other, regardless of what I write.

My point is that making the leap from iPhone to Android may not be for everyone, even if they do use Glass. And, eventually, I think the MyGlass app for iPhone will improve.

But for now, I saw an opportunity and I seized it. And what’s that old latin saying? “Carpe Droidem,” or something.