Rendering the Mouse

There is lots of talk about the purchase of Pixar by Disney. I won’t make much comment on it because, like so much else, it’s been done. In particular, this guy nails it.

I will say that the deal will go a long way toward solving Apple’s video content problem, though it won’t make non-Disney media companies any less afraid.

The main point of this post, however, is to talk about the genius of Pixar films. I’m not talking about their features, though those are certainly entertaining. Pixar’s brilliance, however, really shines in their short films. Their early stuff in particular, like Luxo, Red’s Dream and Tin Toy both pushed the envelope of the technology of the time and told great stories. I bought the Monsters, Inc. DVD just to get a copy of For the Birds. I’d love to have a DVD of just their shorts, but for now it looks like I have to settle for crappy, quarter-of-already-awful-standard-TV-resolution iTunes downloads.

WoW Hollywood

Like any good on-line game, World of Warcraft has spawned numerous communities, each with their own culture. I think two of these cultures could come together fairly soon and create something impressive and fun.

A robust, talented and creative collection of people use WoW to create machinima, animated movies that use 3D game engines to capture “live” motion of the models (as opposed to frame-by-frame hand rendered stop motion animation). Like most genres, machinima obeys Sturgeon’s Law (90% of anything is crap), but when it’s good, it’s extremely impressive what can be done with just images from a game. The Warcraft machinima community, in particular, seems to cut across a wide swath of styles, from drama to advertisements, comedy, even…uh…romance (may not be safe for work). Even using just the limited emotional and motion range of the avatars and camera in WoW, much of this work is impressive.

A completely unrelated group has been irritating Blizzard, the makers of WoW, by running private servers. These servers emulate the real game servers run by Blizzard, allowing clients to log in for free. Generally, being reverse engineered, these private servers are buggy, slow, vastly underpopulated and potentially ripe to be shut down an any moment by Blizzard legal. Still, there are a bunch of them. One of their attractions is that, given control over the server, it can be tweaked to, say, increase the rate of experience awards or otherwise customize the game.

And this is where I think the two communities could meet. It seems like it would be desirable for the machinima community to have a hacked server with additional camera motion control, undisturbed access to sets (that is, the ability to reach places in the game without being attacked by mobs), complete wardrobe control and so on. Sort of a Hollywood back lot for producing machinima.

I’m probably the worst person to comment on this, as I neither produce machinima nor use private servers. For all I know, something like this already exists. Still, I’m not going to do anything with the idea, and it seems a shame to let go to waste.

Also, since I’m on the subject of WoW, just a random lament: if only the game supported selling short! With the war effort currently ongoing, you could probably make a killing on commodities that were close to being fully collected.

Greed trumps thinking differently

Apart from another dumb name from Apple (“MacBook Pro”), the underwhelming announcements in the most recent MacWorld keynote hid a really cool idea that could have changed how people used computers, had it not been saddled with an extremely irritating and unnecessary limitation. The new edition of iPhoto has a feature called (somewhat unimaginatively) “photocasting”. It allows you to upload a photo album to a server, and provides an RSS feed to which others can subscribe. If they also have iPhoto, it wraps around the RSS feed and opens the album like any other iPhoto album. Instant, easy image sharing for the masses. They don’t need to know how it works, it just does.

This is a cool idea largely because it helps eradicate one of the more unpleasant abuses of technology: e-mail attachments. There are a number of free and easy ways to move files from one person to another. Attaching them to an e-mail is one of the worst of them. It works, but it really isn’t what e-mail systems were built for. This method survives, even prospers, because most people don’t know any better. The photocasting system avoids the main drawbacks of e-mail file transfer: maybe you really don’t want that 50 megabytes of pictures from grandma to fill up your inbox and make the rest of your mail bounce. Maybe you don’t want to spend the download time it will take to grab all this data you don’t want, just to read your e-mail. Maybe there shouldn’t be separate copies of this data stored individually in the dozens mail queues that grandma cc’d on the message. By easily creating a single copy of the data in a semi-public spot and mailing a reference to this data, this data is no longer shoved down at you, putting you in control of if you want it or not. By making it seamless, Apple brings this solution to the masses.

Problem: Apple’s implementation of this idea requires the possession and use of their subscription .Mac service, which means that the masses will never use this idea enough to allow it to supplant e-mail attachments as the photo-sharing mechanism of choice. Had the whole system been made an open standard that could be published to any web server, the majority of the planet would be sharing photos this way within a year. By tying it to a service that most do not use and only Apple provides, this great idea will languish.

Well, perhaps not. The one saving grace is that Apple chose to use an RSS feed. Since RSS is an open standard, it’s likely that enterprising souls will release “iPhoto album readers” on various platforms, so at least the “viewing” half of the system might catch on. No doubt people will build software to upload a bunch of pictures to your own server and publish a compatible RSS feed for them. This will be useful, but you won’t be able to do it from iPhoto, which will suck.

The .Mac service, while somewhat interesting, is completely useless to me because I own my own web domain (for not much more than a .Mac subscription). The service would only be compelling to me if one or more of the following happened:

  • Apple combines the two products they obviously consider to be yearly costs (iLife and .Mac) into a bundle that costs much less than the two combined. That is, offer an iLife + .Mac yearly subscription for $100 or so. This, I suppose, would be the equivalent of giving away iLife with a .Mac subscription.
  • Someone built an open source clone of the .Mac system that I could run on my own server. It may be that such a project already exists, but Google’s insistence on ignoring the dot in “.Mac” make searches for it problematic. (If anyone is interested in starting such a project, I think a great name would be “!Mac”, pronounced “not Mac”.)
  • .Mac is changed to provide domain hosting services, with corresponding flexibility for installing blog software, etc. I’m not holding my breath for this.

I’m sure Apple is thinking that keeping the system closed like this will bring them more revenue. I’m also sure that making these neat ideas open would bring them even more.

Update: There is now a surprising amount of foaming at the mouth about how well or badly Apple uses RSS. Sam Ruby wades through it.

Smoke on the water

In one of my first posts, I suggested a viking-themed Las Vegas resort. Having just been back to sin city for the winter solstice, I’m even more enthusiastic about this idea, especially after a suggestion from my uncle (the same uncle that inspired one of my architecture papers over a decade ago).

Being told of my viking hotel idea, his immediate response was “it could host viking funerals.”

Vegas is already a wedding destination. I bet there are enough people that would pay to have their remains burned in a wooden barge on the resort’s artificial lake. The lake would have to be set up with a horizon, perhaps a falls into a bit that explodes into a massive inferno when the ship falls in (this is Vegas, after all). There would be a big feast of course; it would be an all-inclusive funeral package.

I think it would start a new “destination funeral” trend. First in Las Vegas (think of how much the Luxor could make doing pharaonic embalmings and entombments), then elsewhere (maybe zombie funerals in Haiti).

World of interface geekery

While watching the blessedly final appearance of some bad football announcers (“we could end up on the ocho”), I tinkered with some World of Warcraft addons. I had an idea of how I wanted things to look, but couldn’t realize it until finding FlexBar. Along with Titan, this incredibly arcane add-on (the FAQ indicates that the original author considered vi good user interface) allowed me to make my UI look like this:

If you want to do the same, the following might save you some pain. Once you install FlexBar, logon to WoW and go to the screen that allows you to edit your keybindings. Scroll down and you’ll see a bunch of FlexBar related bindings, all bound to nothing. Do the following:

  1. Bind some key (I used ctl-shift-f) to the “Open Flex Main Menu”.
  2. Bind FlexBar Button 1 through 12 to your primary action keys (e.g. 1, 2, …, 9, 0, -, =)
  3. Bind FlexBar Button 25 through 36 to some lesser-used action keys (e.g. shift-1, shift-2, …, shift–, shift-=). If you follow these instructions, these would be actions assigned to your right vertical bar.
  4. Bind FlexBar Button 49 through 60 to some lesser-used action keys (e.g. shift-F1, shift-F2, …, shift-F11, shift-F12). If you follow these instructions, these would be actions assigned to your right secondary bar.
  5. Bind FlexBar Button 61 through 72 to your secondary action keys (e.g. F1, F2, …, F11, F12). If you follow these instructions, these would be actions assigned to your left secondary bar.

Once done, return to the main screen and hit the key combo you assigned to the FlexBar main menu (item #1, above). In the ugly window that pops up, click “Script Editor”. This brings up another ugly window. Paste the following into it:

RunScript Script='MainMenuBar:Hide()' on='ProfileLoaded',
group button=1-12 anchor=1,
group button=25-36 anchor=25,
group button=61-72 anchor=61,
group button=49-60 anchor=49,
horizontalgroup group=1,
moveabs button=1 xx=2 yy=40,
horizontalgroup group=25,
moverel button=25 trgbtn=12 dx=38 dy=0,
horizontalgroup group=61,
moverel button=61 trgbtn=1 dx=0 dy=38,
horizontalgroup group=49,
moverel button=49 trgbtn=72 dx=38 dy=0,
show group=1,
show group=49,
show group=61,
show group=25,
lock group=1,
lock group=49,
lock group=61,
lock group=25,
text button=1-120 text='%b',
justifytext button=1-120 pos='bottomright'

This script assumes standard UI scaling. Under this scaling, buttons are 38 pixels. If your UI uses different scaling, you’ll need to change items in the script like “dx=38” to use whatever pixel size you use. Also, if you don’t want the labels on the buttons, remove the last two lines. Pasting this might strip out the returns, which you will need to add back in.

Once this script is pasted in, click the “config” button. This will run the items in this script (you’ll see them flash in green at the top center of the main screen. You might want to save the script as “DefaultConf” or something similar.

At this point, your new bars should be set up, but the default button bars (with the dragons on the side) is probably still visible. The script above will have added a line to take care of hiding it on startup, but you need to force one execution of it. You can do so by doing anything that changes the resolution of the screen (moving to windowed mode and back, for example) or logging off then back on.

You should also read the FlexBar docs if you use this beast, but that should get you going.

Update: I should have made clearer that if you hide your main bar as show here, non-toolbar functionality, like bags and xp display, are hidden. This is where the aforementioned Titan comes in, as it gives access to much of this functionality. Also, key combinations (e.g. ‘o’ for the social panel or ‘p’ for the spellbook) continue working as normal.

One thing that I do need to change is to move the “Channeling” bar up a bit. When I get this working, I’ll update the script above.