Monthly Archives: December 2008

FourTrack

Posted by PH on December 29, 2008
Music & Technology / No Comments

FourTrack, as its name suggests, is a 4-track recording application for the iPhone (and iPod Touch):

On the whole, the application works well. It’s very simple to set up and use (although I’m not mad on the clumsy navigation scheme). Recording quality is pretty damn good given the limitations of the microphones I used, which were the iPhone’s built-in mic and the one on the supplied headset (which are actually very similar in performance). The ability to transfer audio files onto a computer using wi-fi is very welcome and totally straightforward. To be honest, I haven’t done any serious multitracking myself, but Sonoma claim latency of less than 1mS so there shouldn’t be any problem in that department. You can get more technical detail here.

My first impressions were pretty favourable, then. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered a couple of quite serious problems with the program. These have been unearthed because of the (perhaps slightly unusual) way in which I was using the program. My first serious recordings were done at the SAND 2008 conference where I was trying to record a couple of the presentations to use as podcasts on this very blog.

So what I wanted was just a single track of audio, but lasting something around an hour (and the website claims that record times are “unlimited”). I recorded two separate presentations into two songs. What I found when I got them home and transferred onto my computer was that they would both play up to a certain point, and then iTunes would jump to the next track in the playlist.

The recording of the first presentation was about 46mins long, and it always ‘flipped out’ at exactly the same point, 32mins 5secs. The second recording was around an hour and 10mins, and would again always flip out at exactly the same point, but this time 38mins 1sec. I tried loading the files into Peak Express but it reported that both files were corrupt.

In work the next day I tried loading them into Pro Tools, with the same result. Eventually I got them to load into Sound Forge on a PC, and this is what I saw:

What it looks like is that FourTrack continued recording for the duration of the presentations, but in each case it lost the input signal at some point. However, I’m not sure it’s as simple as that: working on a rough memory usage of 5Mb a minute, the file size should be around 230Mb for a 46min recording. The file size is actually 162Mb, which is right if it stopped at 32mins. This suggests that FourTrack did actually stop recording where the audio signal drops out, but that somehow it logged it as continuing to record, which is presumably why I was getting a corrupted file message… Whatever: just to be sure, I recorded one of my own lectures the next day to see if I could repeat the problem and exactly the same thing happened.

Whilst going through this process, I also found what seems to be another quite serious bug in the program, insofar it seems to have a memory leak. Here is a screenshot from iTunes showing the memory of my iPhone with the two presentation recordings onboard:

And here’s the same thing with those two files deleted:

Now those two files only take up around 350Mb, whereas we can see from the above that there is a difference in the displayed application memory of approximately 1.25Gb! Whether this is actually a ‘memory leak’ I don’t know for sure. But I do know that memory management is one of the issues with Objective C, so I’m taking a semi-educated guess.

In summary, I’d say that FourTrack is basically a good program, but as yet it has some technical issues that need sorting out.

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Ernest Adams

Posted by PH on December 15, 2008
Narrative / No Comments

I recently attended the ‘Interactive’ day of SAND 2008. The first speaker of the day was Ernest W. Adams, well known game designer, author, and educator.

Although couched in game-design terms, Adams’ presentation was about the tension that lies at the heart of all interactive narratives, and which we could summarize into two bullet points:

  1. The interactional freedom of a new media object calls into question the wholeness and unity of narrative (and particularly of the plot).
  2. Interactivity constantly breaks the illusion of the narrative (often stated in terms of immersion in the narrative).

In a wide-ranging and highly amusing talk, Adams worked towards resolving at least the first of these problems. His model included three core elements: a database of “character agnostic” situations; a database of characters; and a story engine. In practice the user would encounter a situation in the game and would select one of the characters to deal with it. Depending on which character was chosen, the outcome of the situation would vary.

The character would also ‘learn’ by having experienced the situation (i.e. they would have internal parameter values changed) and this learning would be carried forward in the game. The user would re-evaluate the state-of-play, the story engine would inch forward, and the game would develop uniquely each time played.

Good meaty stuff, which this post does little justice to. I was hoping to have a podcast of the presentation to include but I’m afraid technical issues prevent me from doing so. More on that later…

[Thanks to Chris Jones for the photographs.]

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Soul Trapper

Posted by PH on December 10, 2008
Marshall McLuhan, Narrative / No Comments

Soul Trapper is a very well-produced application for the iPhone that developers Realtime call an ‘audio adventure’: you experience it as if you were listening to a radio play, but at certain points you have to interact with it, giving it a game-like dimension as well.

The story, set in modern-day Los Angeles, plays out as a cross between the 1940s detective novels of Raymond Chandler and, say, Ghostbusters. This rather unlikely combination actually works rather well and after an initial acclimatization period I truly found myself getting involved with the characters and their Hellish plights. It’s more pulp than Chandler ever was, but the dialogue is littered with Marlowe-esque wisecracks and mannerisms and the locations are classic Chandler: missionary churches, surf-spattered coastlines, Cahuenga Boulevard, horseshoe-boothed bars. It’s a world where tough guys don’t drink their whisky, they inhale it.

There’s not much going on graphically. Each of the 23 chapters is simply represented by a single stark image. You’re listening. In fact, you find yourself listening really hard because many of the cues are quite subtle. In order to support this need for detailed listening the quality of the audio is very high throughout, and you’re best off with a decent set of headphones: many of the tasks would simply be unplayable over the iPhone’s speaker.

There are some great audio set pieces later in the game. Whilst in Hell (!) you play the hero swordfighting with a demon and you have to parry his strokes by listening to which side they’re coming from, and then very quickly parry them using onscreen buttons: very Luke Skywalker. Later, whilst recovering from this ordeal, you have to ‘centre your chakras’ by remixing synth tones in real-time. Brilliant, intuitive, fun.

It isn’t perfect: some of the voice acting is a bit cheesy; certain sections of the dialogue are merely functional; and in places the interaction isn’t all that meaningful or productive. But, overall, Soul Trapper is well worth the admission price and good value-for-money at £3.99.

So why am I reviewing Soul Trapper exactly? Well, here’s a couple of reasons:

Firstly, I am intrigued and fascinated by the idea of telling a story using only audio. In our Internet-driven world the default communications strategy privileges images and, in particular, moving images. It is a relief, therefore, to come across a developer willing to attempt something different.

As Marshall McLuhan has pointed out, media exist on a continuum between hot and cool (where by ‘hot’ he means high resolution, narrow bandwidth, requiring total concentration from the user, total involvement). By focusing on audio to tell their story, Realtime have exploited these characteristics of a hot medium to excellent effect.

Secondly, I am also intrigued and fascinated by the interactive narrative elements. The plot itself is not open to manipulation by the user: about the most you can do is effect the order conversations play out, or the way in which the protagonist moves around the limited maps. However, to make up for this, the story fair motors along, and you’re recompensed by some unusual interactive game-like elements (as mentioned above) that crop up in most chapters.

It really is quite an interesting and cost-effective solution to the problems presented by any type of interactive narrative. I shall be interested to see how Realtime develop these ideas in future releases.

To sum up: an excellent release for the iPhone. Highly entertaining and very interesting.

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