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Fun & Productive Retrospectives For Any Type Of Team

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Fun & Productive Retrospectives For Any Type Of Team originally published on Trello Blog

Retrospectives-final

In the software development space, shipping fast and in a continuously iterative process is only half of the puzzle. There is no point in engaging in agile software development if you don’t also incorporate retrospectives into your process.  If you haven’t participated in a retrospective yet, it’s definitely time to start.

So, what exactly are retrospectives? 🤔

Retrospectives are essentially a post-mortem meeting with everyone involved on a project to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and to agree on actionable ways to improve for the next time. 

Retrospectives are commonly used by agile software development teams to:

  • Highlight opportunities for change
  • Generate meaningful process improvements 
  • Move the team in the intended direction 

Overall, they’re a great way to be able to look back and see if problems that surfaced in the past have been resolved. Unsettled issues are known to impact multiple teams and can mean big losses for the business.

Despite the common application of retrospectives in the realm of agile software development, all teams can take advantage of them depending on the scope. 

If it’s a development team, for instance, that would include everyone who is designing, building, and testing the product. If this was your growth team, however, the retrospective could include marketing, business stakeholders, agency support, analytics teams, design, etc. So whether you organize your work around sprints and releases, or more ongoing areas of work such as support, services, and projects, any team can apply retros.

By making retrospective meetings accessible to everyone, from operational and strategic managers, to members that support only smaller portions of the project, all areas have the potential to benefit.  Each individual has a different point of view that will make your retrospective more valuable.

Let’s illustrate some examples of what you can actually learn from retrospectives and better identify the good and bad (and sometimes ugly) in a project and, ultimately, be able to manage the outcome. 

  • Did you commit to too much work for your entire team to complete?
  • Was there insufficient communication during the time between retros?
  • Did some members of the team not take into account the needs of other members?

As you can see, a retrospective provides a better understanding of the internal workings of the entire team. On the other hand, this is also a time for team members who don’t normally interact with customers, such as engineers or developers, to become aware of the customer’s needs and nuances. Who could possibly say no to managing such valuable information?

Running (Actually) Fun & Productive Retrospectives

To run retrospectives you should involve the full team in order to foster greater collaboration between all parties involved. Introducing elements of spontaneity and fun into retrospectives can help keep teams interested. Plus, who doesn’t like a party?

Retrospective meetings can be divided into a few steps to help teams communicate better. Here’s how you can divide your retrospectives into different steps. Let’s look at a few ways we can set a process that not only gets us to where we want, but is also enjoyable for all participants.

THE WARM-UP

Open the meeting with one of these warm-up activities to get everyone excited in less than 5 minutes. Faster than popping some popcorn! If you create a safe space for everyone involved, you will be rewarded with higher participation and avoid unfocused team members, a lack of buy-in, or poor outcome.

Activity 1: ESVP – Explorer, Shopper, Vacationer, Prisoner 🏝

Start by asking each participant to anonymously report their attitude toward the retrospective meeting. It is an anonymous way to find out if people really want to be there or not. Let everyone identify as one of the four:

    1. Explorers want to learn as much as they can about the project, product release, or iteration.
    2. Shoppers will examine all the information and will be delighted if they can walk away with one actionable idea.
    3. Vacationers are comfortable with the idea of getting away from their desk, but aren’t really there for the meeting. 
    4. Prisoners would rather be doing something else.

Once you’ve done this, you can have a conversation about how to continue with the whole group. For example, if many of the members chose Prisoner, you might want to ask the group if they would prefer to reschedule because they’ve got too many other things on their plate at the moment. Retros are always more effective with more engaged participants.

Activity 2: One-word exercise

Pose a simple question to the team to set the stage. Some examples are:

  • What kind of emotions do you feel from the last project, release, or iteration you worked on? Let the team choose one: happiness, frustration, sadness, pride, etc.
  • How are you feeling today? Rate it from 1 to 10.

 

GATHER DATA AND GET A DIFFERENT RETROSPECTIVE EVERY TIME

Brainstorm and gather data through activities to collect as much information as possible in a short amount of time. Identify the topics that the team would like to talk about. 

Generate insights through activities that will get to the root cause of the problem. Decide what to do with what has been discussed and identify one or more actionable steps that the team can take following the meeting.

For the following exercises using sticky notes, whiteboards, or a digital tool like Trello, can be very helpful to identify the actions to take on together as a team to improve. If you haven’t tried it yet, the new Trello integration for the Post-it® App is the perfect pairing of analog and digital tools. 

Activity 1: Stop – Keep – Start (SKS)

This simple process allows us to explore and ask members of the team what we should stop (S), keep (K), and start (S) doing. 

  1. Stop — What hasn’t gone well, and what do we want to stop doing?
  2. Keep — What is going well, what have we still not been able to draw a conclusion about, and what should we keep doing?
  3. Start — Have we identified something that we should start doing but we haven’t yet?

Trello board

  1. Make a Trello list for Start, Stop, and Keep.
  2. Get team members to add to the lists in the week prior to the retrospective.
  3. Run through each card during the meeting to discuss and cover all items.

 

Copy Board

 

Activity 2: Academy Awards Retrospective

Like all the other proposed retrospectives, the objective of this exercise is to generate as much conversation as possible. However, this one can really help change up the dynamic by designating what has worked best and vote for the winner on the following categories:

  • “Best” (or “Most” exciting, educative, collaborative)
  • Most annoying (of difficult, incomplete, sloppy)
  • Most complex / Most Exciting. (Or let the team define the category)

Set up the game by drawing a 3 parts starfish on an easel sheet and write down 2 category titles. Leave the third blank and spend 5 minutes to identify the missing category.

pie chart showing different team categories

Now, give the team 10 minutes to nominate and make this part of the collaborative process. Then ask the team to vote on the three categories. End the group exercise with a 20-minute discussion of why the selected items are the “best” in their category.

Activity 3: The Speedboat Retro

This exercise goes beyond the typical questions and helps the team to gain insight on things they could not otherwise get if they didn’t go beyond the typical questions. Let’s look at these tips:

  • Island/Vision: Set a goal for the mid/long-term on the project. This idea seems obvious but sometimes gets lost in everyday tasks.
  • Wind/What helps the team: What helps it get better, faster, and more mature. These are the positive elements.
  • Anchor/Things to improve: What is holding the team back: impediments, things that went wrong, or aspects the team doesn’t want to repeat again.
  • The Rocks/Risks: Things that should be analyzed as they might become issues in the future.

image of a Trello board with Post-It Notes

Copy Board

REFLECT ON YOUR RETRO

Close the retrospective by evaluating what has been discussed and checking for opportunities to improve your next retro meeting. Based on the results of the retrospective, every team should have its own plan to revamp and improve the techniques. There are always opportunities for refinement, even if your team has worked together for a long time.

Activity 1: One-word question

  • What do you take away from this Retro: Solutions to issues, nothing, improvements, new ideas, or loss of time?
  • Happiness metric: Each member rates the Retro on a 1 to 5 scale.
  • Make a drawing: Each person makes a drawing and shares it with the team.

These are just a few suggestions of ways to run Retrospectives. There are countless other techniques that you can use to correct and improve your performance. Set a cadence for your meetings as you see fit. For example, periodically every 2 weeks, at specific stages of a project, or after accomplishing larger milestones. 

Keeping the regular cadence of the event means that you can use always use a part of the exercise to make a plan to improve the next one with a healthy feedback funnel. 

If you are interested in more techniques for coaches, scrum masters, and other facilitators, this one-stop retrospective inspiration Trello board is a must.

Happy retro!

A New Gene Helps Explain Why Some People Need Less Sleep

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A New Gene Helps Explain Why Some People Need Less Sleep originally published on Wired

In 2009, Ying-Hui Fu started getting a flood of emails from people who claimed to only need a few hours of sleep at night. Fu and her colleague and spouse Louis Ptáček, both at the University of California, San Francisco, had just identified a gene mutation that significantly decreased how many hours someone needs to sleep. It was the first such gene discovered. Now, it seemed, the entirety of the short-sleeping universe was deluging her inbox.

One man described how he only slept about five and a half hours each night. His son slept a bit more than four. But the two were happy, energetic, and healthy. They weren’t cranky or forgetful like most sleep-deprived people would be. Fu’s lab interviewed the pair, enrolled them in a study, and took a sample of their blood.

Using that sample, Fu and Ptáček have now identified a new gene mutation associated with short sleepers, which they describe in a paper out today in Science Translational Medicine. The mutation is helping scientists understand how our bodies regulate sleep. It’s only the third short-sleep mutation found so far, though Fu and other scientists suspect there are several more. “We don’t know how these different genes converge together to regulate sleep,” says Fu. But each new gene discovery helps elucidate how these interrelated pathways control our 40 winks.

Sleep is fundamental to human life. It reduces anxiety and inflammation, improves cognitive functions like memory, attention, and alertness, and helps regulate mood. People who are chronically sleep deprived have a higher risk of diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. But scientists understand little about how our bodies control this all-important function.

Short sleepers are a rarity. While most people need around eight hours of sleep to be in tiptop shape, short sleepers only require between four and six hours to function just as well. They don’t need naps or long weekend snoozes to catch up. In one month they might collect 75 more awake hours than their well-rested, more typical counterparts. Imagine the amount of Netflix binge watching, email answering, marathon training, or book reading a person could do.

David Dinges, a psychiatrist who studies sleep at the University of Pennsylvania and who was not involved in the study, says that just identifying true genetic short-sleepers, like the father-son duo, is a victory. But Fu’s paper does even more. “There is an ability to identify what the mechanism might be in the brain, that’s still pretty novel in the sleep field,” he says.

Fu looks for sleep-related mutations because those extremes help bring the whole system into relief. But searching for a single gene is challenging. That’s why having a father-son pair was so helpful. The research team limited their focus to genes the two had in common. Eventually they found a single letter mutation in the NPSR1 gene, which codes for a particular neuron receptor. Earlier research had shown that activating that receptor helps keep people awake.

Next they bred mice with the mutation and examined their sleep patterns. The mutated mice did sleep for shorter periods, but the reduction wasn’t as dramatic as it is in the father-and-son team who inspired their creation. That may be because mice have different sleep habits than humans—dozing off at multiple intervals during a 24-hour period, for shorter stretches of time—or because more than one gene is involved in regulating this aspect of sleep.

More revealing, perhaps, is the fact that the mice also behaved normally, just like the father and son. In particular, their memory appeared intact. The day after they were subjected to electric shocks at random intervals. Typically, sleep-deprived mice won’t remember the shocks and will walk blithely across the room. But the mutant mice did remember and moved hesitantly.

Pixel 4 Recorder app can transcribe speech in real time without an internet connection

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Pixel 4 Recorder app can transcribe speech in real time without an internet connection originally published on The Verge


Google is debuting a new voice recorder app on the Pixel 4, and it has some features that very much set it apart from traditional recorder apps. The app, simply called Recorder, also has the ability to transcribe your recordings. That alone is uncommon among voice recorder apps — let alone free ones — and Google pushes that even further, creating those transcriptions on-device and in real time, without sending data to the internet.

For whatever reason, Google hasn’t made a voice recorder app before now. It’s been an odd absence on Pixel phones. And while it could be remedied by downloading any number of apps from the Play Store, having a simple one built into a phone should very much be an expected feature.

The Recorder app really does seem to push beyond what most voice recorders can do, though. Apple’s Voice Memos app, for instance, just records audio and stores it for playback. And while there are some excellent transcription apps out there — like Otter — they usually perform that transcription on a server, which requires uploading your recordings to a third party, then waiting for the transcription to process.

Google is able to do it all on-device, thanks to a new model for processing language, which Google has shrunk down so that it can be stored and run entirely on a phone. The app will even be able to identify certain sounds, like applause or playing music. For now, the app is only available in English, but Google says more languages will come later. It’ll also be limited to the Pixel 4.

The app looks impressive so far. Google showed a live demo onstage, where the app transcribed what the speaker was saying and seemed to pretty much nail the transcript.


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MakePass: Create Your Own Apple Wallet Passes on the Mac

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MakePass: Create Your Own Apple Wallet Passes on the Mac originally published on MacStories

I often find myself reaching for my iPhone or iPad to do something that can’t be done at all or as quickly on my Mac. If I’m already working at my desk in front of my Mac, though, that requires a context switch that slows me down and often leads to being distracted by something else. One of the areas where this happens most frequently is with specialized, single-purpose utilities that are plentiful on iOS and iPadOS, but often unavailable on the Mac.

A terrific example that just debuted on the Mac as a Mac Catalyst app is MakePass, an app for generating Apple Wallet passes. Whether it’s a health club membership card, bus pass, grocery store loyalty card, or concert ticket, MakePass can turn them all into digital passes stored inside Apple’s Wallet app where they are organized and out of the way.

Several apps offer functionality similar to MakePass’ on the iOS and iPadOS App Store. However, my searches turned up none on the Mac App Store. That may be because Apple’s Wallet app is an iPhone-only app, but it’s handy to be able to make passes on your Mac too because that’s one of the places where codes come into your life.

With MakePass on the Mac, you can import a code from a file or photo by clicking the ‘Import from file’ or ‘Import from photo’ buttons or filling in the details by hand. You can also drag and drop a file or image into the app. MakePass supports QR, PDF417, AZTEC, and Code 128 formats, which are automatically detected when you import a file or photo using an Open dialog or by browsing your Photos library. Once MakePass has pulled the necessary information from the file or photo you feed it, you can adjust the color of the pass, add a title and description, labels with additional data, the type of pass, transit type for transit passes, and more.

Generating an Apple Wallet pass from a ticket confirmation email message.Generating an Apple Wallet pass from a ticket confirmation email message.

When you’re finished, simply click ‘Done’ which generates a preview of the pass. If everything looks the way you’d like, click ‘Add to Wallet,’ and the pass is sent to your iOS device, where it’s available for immediate use. If the pass you create uses the same code as a previous pass you’ve made, you’ll be asked if you want to update the existing pass. You also have the option to click ‘Cancel’ and start a pass over from scratch, though I’d prefer if there were also an ‘Edit’ button, so it wouldn’t be necessary to start the entire process over again.

I tried MakePass with QR codes for tickets that I found in email messages on my Mac and barcode information from my local library card. In each case, creating a pass for Apple Wallet was simple and fast, though making the library card pass would have been faster if I’d had some help deciding which code format to use. That’s because I built that pass by hand from the physical library card in my wallet using the app’s ‘Custom pass’ feature. What slowed me down was the lack of guidance about the code formats that the app supports. Not knowing which to pick, I tried each until I found one that matched my library card. A ‘help’ button or other in-app assistance would go a long way to improving custom pass creation.

MakePass's pass preview (left) and the finished pass (right).MakePass’s pass preview (left) and the finished pass (right).

Despite the ease with which you can create Apple Wallet passes with MakePass, there are a few other additions that I’d like to see made to the app. First, I don’t know if a Mac Catalyst app can detect a Mac’s camera, but if it can, using a built-in camera to scan codes, as you can in the iOS version of the app, would be a terrific addition. Second, MakePass should add keyboard shortcuts for each of the app’s actions. Currently, the app doesn’t make use of keyboard shortcuts or the Mac menu at all.

One of the greatest strengths of the App Store over the past 11 years has been the depth and breadth of the available apps. Utility apps have been a big part of that on iOS and iPadOS, but less so on the Mac. Although the Mac is uniquely positioned to become the home of more sophisticated apps ported from iPadOS, more straightforward utilities have a role to play too, especially ones like MakePass, which provide functionality that isn’t already being served on the Mac App Store.

MakePass is available on the Mac App Store for $0.99 and the iOS and iPadOS App Store for the same price.


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Testing Leonardo da Vinci’s bridge: His design was stable, study finds

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Testing Leonardo da Vinci’s bridge: His design was stable, study finds originally published on Ars Technica

The Vebjørn Sand Da Vinci Project bridge in Ås, Norway, is based on a design by Leonardo Da Vinci.
Enlarge / The Vebjørn Sand Da Vinci Project bridge in Ås, Norway, is based on a design by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Pedestrians and bicyclists in Ås, Norway, use the Da Vinci Bridge to cross the city’s E-18 highway, a laminated-wood structure based on an early 16th-century sketch by Leonardo da Vinci. Had Leonardo’s bridge ever been built, it would have been the longest bridge span of its time. But would his original design, given the materials available at the time, have been stable enough to support the necessary loads and withstand seismic tremors? According to a team of researchers at MIT, who built a detailed scale model to test that hypothesis, the answer is yes. The group presented its results last week at a conference in Barcelona, Spain.

The MIT group is led by John Ochsendorf, who has been studying ancient architecture and construction for many years and has a particular interest in domes and arches. Several years ago, he adapted particle spring modeling—the same tool often used to recreate the movement of fabrics and hair in CGI animation (like the movement of Yoda’s cloak in his battle with Darth Sidious in Revenge of the Sith)—to model those architectural features. Ochsendorf’s version reversed the model so that instead of modeling tension, it modeled compression. The software program featured virtual “masses” at key “nodes” connected by virtual “springs,” which bounce around until they find equilibrium, indicating that the design can support the requisite loads.

Compression is the key to any stable arch. “An arch consists of two weaknesses which, leaning one against the other, make a strength,” Leonardo once observed. He was describing a delicate balance of opposing forces based on an inversion of a curved geometric shape known as a catenary. Suspend a flexible chain from two points, and it will naturally come to rest in a state of pure tension. Invert that shape, and you have a state of pure compression. Robert Hooke phrased it best in the 17th century: “As hangs the flexible chain, so inverted stands the rigid arch.” It’s how Gothic architects, for example, were able to design and construct magnificent domes like the one topping the chapel vault at King’s College, Cambridge.

Leonardo da Vinci's original drawing of his design for a bridge, alongside models used by the MIT team to construct a model.
Enlarge /

Leonardo da Vinci’s original drawing of his design for a bridge, alongside models used by the MIT team to construct a model.

Karly Bast/Michelle Xie

Norway’s pedestrian bridge is built with modern material (glued laminated timber, or glulam). In Leonardo’s time, masonry was the preferred material. Masonry will break easily under tension, yet it can withstand huge compressive forces. So that was Leonardo’s choice of material when he pitched his bridge design to the Ottoman ruler Sultan Bayezid II of Turkey in 1502. The sultan wanted a bridge to span a river estuary known as the Golden Horn to connect Constantinople (now Istanbul) to the neighboring town of Galata—a bridge span of about 919 feet (280 meters), roughly ten times longer than a typical bridge of that era, according to co-author Karly Bast, a graduate student at MIT.

Masonry bridges in that era were usually built with a series of semicircular arches, but a span as long as the sultan required would need to be bolstered by at least ten piers. That meant ships wouldn’t be able to pass beneath it. Leonardo envisioned a bridge “as high as a building” with just a single arch, relying on pure compression for structural stability, without any additional fasteners or mortar to hold the stone together. Since the region was prone to earthquakes, Leonardo also incorporated abutments splaying outward on either side of the bridge to stabilize the structure against lateral motion.

To test Leonardo’s bridge design, Ochsendorf, Bast, and co-author Michelle Xin (an undergraduate at MIT) pored over historical documents to glean as much information as possible about materials and construction methods common in the early 16th century, as well as the geologic conditions at the original proposed site for the bridge (the Golden Horn). They concluded the bridge would indeed have been made of stone, since wood or brick would not have been able to withstand the load of a such a long span.

MIT graduate student Karly Bast with a model of Leonardo da Vinci's bridge.
Enlarge /

MIT graduate student Karly Bast with a model of Leonardo da Vinci’s bridge.

Gretchen Ert

The group first determined how best to slice up the shape of the bridge into individual blocks and then used a 3D printer to make 126 blocks to build a scale model, the better to recreate the complex geometry of Leonardo’s original design. They used a scaffolding structure to support their bridge as it was being assembled, removing it once the keystone at the top of the arch was in place. And the structure was stable, just as Leonardo envisioned.

To test the resilience to seismic tremors, the MIT team mounted its model on two moveable platforms and then moved them away from each other the way a bridge’s foundation might move in weak soil. And once again, Leonardo’s design proved stable and resilient, adapting to the horizontal movement quite well until the movement between the platforms became so extreme that the structure collapsed.

Leonardo never got the commission to build his bridge for the sultan, which is a shame, because his design might have revolutionized bridge architecture much earlier. Alas, his design was lost for several centuries, until it was rediscovered in 1952. But a bridge was eventually built across the Golden Horn in 1845, made of wood, that lasted for 18 years. The Galata Bridge has been rebuilt several times since then, and its current incarnation boasts a center drawbridge—solving the problem of ship passage in a different way—with shops below and tram tracks above. I’m guessing Leonardo would approve.

Phone-based VR is officially over

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Phone-based VR is officially over originally published on The Verge


Mobile virtual reality headsets helped millions of people try out VR, but as of yesterday, they’re all but officially a thing of the past. Oculus CTO John Carmack offered a “eulogy” last month for the phone-powered Gear VR mobile headset, saying that the headset’s days were numbered. And Google just revealed that it’s discontinuing the similar Daydream View mobile headset, in addition to omitting Daydream support from the new Pixel 4 phone. The app will still work on older phones, but Google has now given up on a platform it once portrayed as an integral part of Android.

Daydream was announced in 2016, following up on Google’s simpler phone-powered Cardboard headset. At that point, Google projected having “hundreds of millions of users” on Daydream-compatible phones within a couple of years. In 2019, though, not a single current-generation phone supports it. There simply “hasn’t been the broad consumer or developer adoption we had hoped, and we’ve seen decreasing usage over time of the Daydream View headset,” a spokesperson told The Verge.

The reasons aren’t surprising. Cardboard had made simple VR accessible. The New York Times shipped a million headsets to its subscribers for free. But it was a super cheap, disposable product meant for enjoying short experiences. Making the leap to a consumer headset proved difficult. “We saw a lot of potential in smartphone VR — being able to use the smartphone you carry with you everywhere to power an immersive on-the-go experience. But over time we noticed some clear limitations constraining smartphone VR from being a viable long-term solution,” said the spokesperson.

Google says that people didn’t like losing access to their phones since Daydream effectively required launching into a separate app ecosystem. That wasn’t the only problem with phone-based VR. Carmack noted that immersive 3D apps drained precious battery, and the Gear VR, in particular, was annoying to set up. “Far and away I think the biggest issue was just the friction of getting into it,” said Carmack.

On paper, the Gear VR was hugely popular by headset standards. Samsung shipped at least 5 million units of the Oculus-powered device in its first year of sales, while high-end headsets like the Oculus Rift sold in the hundreds of thousands. But Carmack said it just couldn’t retain users because “if you have to pop your phone out of your phone case and dock it in a headset, you will use it twice.” Samsung hasn’t officially discontinued the Gear VR, and it didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Verge. But the headset seemingly isn’t available (at least in the US) through Samsung’s store or from retailers like Amazon and Best Buy as a first-party product.

Daydream was significantly less finicky than the Gear VR, but it had another big problem: phone makers didn’t support it. Google initially announced several partners, including Samsung, LG, and HTC. Most of them lagged in adding Daydream support, though — in part because many mobile displays didn’t meet Daydream’s standards.

Phone-based VR also couldn’t deliver the same intense physical experiences as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or PlayStation VR. As developers began learning what really worked in VR, the gap became increasingly obvious. Mobile headsets were great for playing virtual reality videos, but VR video was hard to make and monetize, and early cinematic VR companies like Jaunt and Within slowly switched their focus to augmented reality instead. Google acquired several well-known VR apps, including the beloved painting tool Tilt Brush, but most required high-end headsets.

Meanwhile, self-contained headsets got cheaper and more sophisticated, adding hand controllers and inside-out tracking. Oculus filled the Gear VR’s old spot with the Oculus Go mobile headset, and it’s now nudging users toward the Oculus Quest, a more expensive but also far more capable device. When you can pay $200 for the standalone Oculus Go or even $400 for the Quest, a $100 plastic shell doesn’t seem like such a good deal.

Google hasn’t really tried to catch the wave of standalone VR. It initially partnered with HTC and Lenovo on two self-contained Daydream headsets, but HTC backed out of the deal and Lenovo’s Mirage Solo was effectively a development kit. Before this year’s I/O conference, Google virtual and augmented reality head Clay Bavor said the team was in “deep R&D” for VR hardware, “building the Lego bricks that we’re going to need in order to snap together and make some really compelling experiences.” A Google spokesperson also emphasized the company’s work on AR features for mobile search and Maps.

Google spokesperson Michael Marconi declined to comment on Google’s plans for standalone Daydream headsets. “There are no changes for people who own a Lenovo Mirage Solo. They will continue to be able to use the headset and the apps they have downloaded on it, and download new apps from the Google Play Store,” he said. If Google does go back to VR, standalone headsets (or headsets wirelessly tethered to phones, if future technology enables this) still seem like its clearest bet.

Simple mobile headsets are literally just a box with lenses, and basic VR apps aren’t hard to make either. So mobile VR probably won’t disappear altogether. Marconi confirmed that Google is still offering first-party Cardboard headsets in its store as well as devices from third-party sellers like Homido and Mattel. But with Google and Samsung backing away from Daydream and the Gear VR, the dream of a full-fledged phone-based VR platform seems unequivocally over.

Hulu is giving customers much more control over its recommendations

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Hulu is giving customers much more control over its recommendations originally published on The Verge


Image: Hulu
Not long after rolling out a long-awaited feature (offline downloads), Hulu is today announcing a slew of improvements to the experience of actually using Hulu. First up, it’s changing the method by which subscribers give feedback on the service’s recommendations. Hulu is introducing a like and dislike system, letting you give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to individual movies and TV shows that the algorithm suggests.

Disliking a piece of content will prevent it from being recommended again. This replaces the “stop showing this” option that Hulu already had. Liking something tells Hulu that you want to see similar shows and movies surfaced by the app. The like and dislike system is rolling out today on the web and Amazon Fire TV devices, Xbox One, the Nintendo Switch, select LG / Samsung / Android TVs, Vizio SmartCast, and Chromecast. Hulu says other devices are coming soon, with iOS, Android, and Roku being the most obvious platforms missing on day one.


Image: Hulu

Hulu is also working to make its home screen feel more personalized and relevant and less like a random mix of popular shows with a few of your favorites thrown in. Over the coming weeks and months, Hulu says it will be “displaying the most relevant collections for you and ordering them based on your watch preferences.” If you never watch kids content, for instance, all of those collections will drop way lower in the home feed.

The company is also reminding customers that humans are often behind some of the picks they see throughout the app. It’s not all about algorithms. “Recommendations and human curation work hand in hand at Hulu to deliver just the right mix of content for our viewers – personalized recommendations, curated collections, and everything in between,” Jason Wong, Hulu’s director of product management, wrote in a blog post. In comments provided to The Verge, Wong expanded on that further.

At Hulu, we believe the best search and discovery experience is built on three key tentpoles – our editors that find and highlight content that is relevant and timely, our recommendation algorithms that work to understand what our viewers like, and our features that enable us to listen to our viewers and give them more control over what they see. This combination is what makes discovery on Hulu unique, and ensures that there’s human input from both sides of the equation — from our team at Hulu and our viewers at home.

Search is also getting smarter: Hulu says it’ll now respond better to common misspellings or abbreviations (like “HIMYM” for How I Met Your Mother). Some of these improvements are coming in the short term, and others will roll out over the next few months.

Earlier this month, Hulu improved the legibility of its home screen by toning down the bright backgrounds and text opacity to make everything easier to navigate. It’s a step that should’ve been taken earlier, but it’s still good to see. All of these changes together make it clear that Hulu — which is now a critical part of Disney’s streaming strategy — is putting a huge emphasis on the user experience. In November, Hulu (the ad-supported basic tier) will become part of Disney’s appealing trio bundle of Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu for a single price of $12.99 per month.

$199 Analogue Pocket promises FPGA accuracy for portable retro gaming

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$199 Analogue Pocket promises FPGA accuracy for portable retro gaming originally published on Ars Technica

  • Floating in a sea of portable games.

  • Black or white hardware for your black-and-white retro portable cartridges.

  • The 615 dpi screen seems like overkill for games like Tetris DX.

  • All of these cartridges will work with the Analogue Pocket, though some will need adapters.

  • Become a chiptune DJ with built-in nanoloop software.

  • This dock will let you hook the Analogue Pocket up to an HDTV and wired/wireless controllers.

  • Have you held an original Game Boy lately? They’re a lot thicker than you probably remember (and much thicker than the Analogue Pocket).

  • Analogue’s Christopher Taber, shown for scale.

If you know the name Analogue, you know the company’s reputation for

somewhat pricey

but

authentic

and

beautiful

HDMI-compatible

FPGA

(field-programmable gate array) recreations of classic gaming consoles. Today, the company is

announcing

that it will extend that line into the portable market next year with the Analogue Pocket, a $199 FPGA handheld that’s fully compatible with literally thousands of original cartridges for the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance (and other portables like Lynx, Game Gear, and Neo Geo Pocket Color via planned cartridge adapters).

The Pocket’s 3.5″, 1600 x 1440 resolution, 615 dpi LTPS LCD display frankly seems like a bit of overkill, considering the Game Boy Advance topped out at 240 x 160 and about 100 dpi. But Analogue’s Christopher Taber tells Ars the Analogue Pocket will sport the same Altera Cyclone V FPGA found in its previous Super Nt and Mega Sg, plus a second Cyclone 10 FPGA “just for developers to develop and port their own cores.”

That means it should be trivial for hackers to add aftermarket firmware to the Pocket through the system’s microSD card slot, as they have for other analogue products in the past. So don’t be surprised if the Pocket gets “unofficial” support for the same NES, Super NES, and Genesis FPGA cores built into previous Analogue products, as well as homebrew cores that support classic systems from the Atari 2600 to the Sega Master System.

While Analogue marketing materials and Taber both insist that the Pocket “does not support playing ROM files,” previous homebrew, jailbroken Analogue firmware has been able to load ROMs stored on SD cards and even dump ROM files from original cartridges for fully digital play (Taber also told Ars to expect “other neat features” accessible through the microSD card slot to be announced in the future).

Perhaps taking a nod from the Nintendo Switch, Analogue is designing the Pocket to work on HDTVs via an optional HDMI dock, which will support wired USB and wireless bluetooth controller (the price for this dock has yet to be announced). For undocked play, the system will sport stereo speakers and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack (

eat your heart out, Game Boy Advance SP

). The Pocket also will have a rechargeable USB-C lithium-ion battery pack (Taber tells Ars, “I can assure that everyone is going to be really happy with the battery life”) and an “original style link plug” if you want to play multiplayer

Tetris

like it’s 1989.

The Analogue Pocket will also come pre-loaded with Nanoloop, a popular Game Boy sequencer/synthesizer that’s been aiding chiptune musicians through original Game Boy hardware and a mobile app for decades now.

While there have been cheaper and/or more versatile Game Boy clones in the past, we’re looking forward to seeing how Analogue’s impeccable design chops apply to the portable retro market when we get our hands on the Analogue Portable next year.

Thousands of DOS games have been added to the Internet Archive

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Thousands of DOS games have been added to the Internet Archive originally published on Ars Technica

Promotional image for video game Wizardry.
Enlarge / Just one of the games added to the archive recently.

Sir-Tech

The Internet Archive has been updated with more than 2,500 DOS games, marking the most significant addition of games to the archive since 2015.

New additions include forgotten classics like

Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant

Princess Maker 2

, and 

Microsoft Adventure

, a rebranding of 

Colossal Caves Adventure

. They also include a whole lot of weird, early experiments and dead ends that should be fascinating to explore for historians, technologists, game designers, and players alike.

The blog post announcing the additions includes some disclaimers: not all games will run as speedily as one might like, not all games have manuals available (though some do), and frankly, not all games from these bygone areas are enjoyable by modern standards.

But given that many of the games from this era were distributed via floppy disks in plastic bags, preservation seems both an admirable and necessary undertaking. There’s as much value in the fact that these games are hosted somewhere safe as there is in the fact that they’re playable. As technology marches forward, it’s important to remember not to discard the old permanently just because the new is more expedient.

Many of these games were added to the Internet Archive as a result of the eXoDOS game preservation and restoration project. Internet Archive curator Jason Scott had this to say about that project:

What makes the collection more than just a pile of old, now-playable games, is how it has to take head-on the problems of software preservation and history. Having an old executable and a scanned copy of the manual represents only the first few steps. DOS has remained consistent in some ways over the last (nearly) 40 years, but a lot has changed under the hood, and programs were sometimes only written to work on very specific hardware and a very specific setup. They were released, sold some amount of copies, and then disappeared off the shelves, if not everyone’s memories.

It is all these extra steps, under the hood, of acquisition and configuration, that represents the hardest work by the eXoDOS project, and I recognize that long-time and Herculean effort. As a result, the eXoDOS project has over 7,000 titles they’ve made work dependably and consistently

As game subscription and streaming services take hold, though, it’s worth asking how we’re going to preserve today’s games for future generations.

For more information about the project, as well as some insights into the challenges of adapting CD-ROM games for use in a browser, among other things, head to the Internet Archive and read Scott’s blog post—then play some long-forgotten games.