Digital Life: Talking to the telly! But is TV voice control just a gimmick?
Ever get the feeling you're being watched? As technology itself grows more powerful and complicated, the drive for simplicity becomes more urgent and points to a Star Trek future where everything is controlled by voice or gestures.
That trend fired shockwaves through the mobile and games industries, giving birth to iPhone/iPad and Wii/Kinect.
Television is the newest battleground for voice and motion control. The tech world has been aflutter for months with predictions that Apple is on the brink of releasing a voice-controlled TV set.
Instead of an intimidating remote control bristling with tiny buttons, all you'd need to do is bark at your goggle-box: "Turn that crap off!" or "Record every movie featuring Scarlett Johansson!"
But as is often the case, many companies are already rushing to beat the Apple hype with TV makers such as Samsung, LG and Panasonic incorporating voice and/or gesture control into their sets.
Samsung was at the forefront last year of the new Smart TV craze, which brought smartphone-style apps such as Facebook and YouTube to big screens. But one huge problem was the difficulty of navigating with a traditional remote control. It simply wasn't up to the job.
For 2012, the high-end Samsungs, starting at €1,570 for a 40-incher up to €2,800 for 55-inch, offer limited control via speech and hand-waving.
This ES8000 series, as befits the premium position in the Samsung range, is stuffed to the gills with hot tech. They offer internet connectivity, superb picture quality, Saorview, impressively thin design and built-in Skype camera.
Instead of fumbling for the standard remote, you could say: "Hi TV, volume mute." Or "Hi TV, turn off." Or "Hi TV, channel 31." If you hold your palm up, you can navigate the apps, adjust volume, etc.
That's the theory anyway. In practice, it rarely works flawlessly and sometimes not at all.
Voice control doesn't work when there's sound coming from the TV or background noise in the room. Gesture control fails if you're not smack-bang in front of and close to the screen.
Samsung lacks so much confidence in its new features it even gives you two remote controls -- a regular oblong and a smaller one with a built-in microphone and a touchpad that is almost unusable.
Even Samsung's smartphone apps -- for iPhone and Android, which can also control the TV -- are so ill-conceived that they don't give you a touchscreen keyboard when required for searching YouTube, etc.
The regular remote control beats the gimmickry every time.
None of this takes away from the ES8000 series' fantastic abilities as a TV. But you'd be a fool to buy them thinking the remote control has had its chips.
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor
How realistic do you want your games to be? Surely, they're a pure form of escapism intended to challenge and entertain your mind? Should they also drain your stamina and test your patience?
Heavy Armor is one of those heroically failed experiments we should be grateful still get made.
The Steel Battalion series has always been, frankly, bonkers. The first two instalments required a special €200 controller to pilot its giant tank robots.
Heavy Armor ditches this expensive hardware and relies instead on a combination of Kinect motion control and the conventional gamepad. But it retains its eccentric ethos, making the gameplay like masochistic hard work.
In a futuristic war, you control a giant tank on legs assisted by three comrades in the cockpit. Driving and firing weapons are simple tasks accomplished with the sticks and triggers of the gamepad. But sandwiched with every action is a series of "chores" possible only with vague waves at the Kinect camera.
Sometimes, you need to scope the enemy from afar, so you literally stand up and raise your hand to your eyes like binoculars. Or you may need to vent the cockpit of fumes, so you fumble for the air-con button. Or now and then an enemy tries to climb in, so you have to . . . actually I don't know, because, like many missions, the game never makes it clear.
Wildly ambitious, Heavy Armor conveys the frantic nature of warfare as you struggle under fire to get Kinect to register what you actually intend. But it rarely makes you feel that the gamepad buttons wouldn't be a better substitute.
Heroes of Ruin
Nintendo famously doesn't "do" online well. Maybe it's fear of exposing its core audience of young players to the griefing and swearing commonplace in online multiplayer. Maybe it's lack of experience. But none of its platforms and few of its games seem to "get" it.
That's what makes Heroes of Ruin such a pleasant surprise. On the face of it a fairly standard dungeon-crawling RPG, it incorporates some solid online features that make it well worth a look.
Dressed in luscious visuals nicely enhanced by 3D, HoR settles into a comfortable rhythm of monster mashing and loot collection. That is until another online player suddenly materialises in your game to help -- and (gasp!) can voice-chat to you.
It's mundane stuff on other platforms but an absolute breakthrough on 3DS. Never mind the hokey acting and shortish campaign, RPG fans will lap it up.
Normally, a god game charges you with benevolently aiding your little charges. Here, your duty is to stop the gradual construction of the eponymous tower by assailing humanity with fire and, um, rocks.
But even a cheap download such as this should offer more in the way of strategy and destructive power. As it is, you're forced to hammer the buttons and wait impotently for abilities to recharge as the swarm of bodies grows. As for the wonky Kinect control option? Fuggeddaboutit.
Bits and Bytes
• Talk about softening the blow. Many UPC customers like me will have received a lovely little letter recently outlining several improvements in its broadband and TV services, including a new rise in download speeds.
But the sting in the tail is the letter's last line, noting a 5pc increase in your monthly bill.
Funny how UPC didn't mention it was planning to raise its prices -- just 18 months after the last hike -- when it was shouting loudly about its new on-demand TV services a few weeks ago.
Many customers on higher tiers may now find that downgrading to UPC's basic broadband service -- a hefty 25Mb in most areas -- will serve them equally well and save money too.
• You already knew Facebook is not the place to keep secrets, but some people never learn. A British teenager has created a website called We Know What You're Doing that scours Facebook for 'incriminating' status updates and posts them for all to see.
It's broken down into headings including: "Who's hungover?", "Who wants to get fired?" and "Who's taking drugs?". The site proves that people really are stupid enough to talk publicly about killing their boss, smoking weed or being unable to work because they're still a bit drunk from last night.
Note that there's no hacking involving -- the site's author is merely trying to raise awareness of Facebook users' privacy blindness.