Unite 2010

In the Spring of this year, I was using Torque Game Builder for my game development.  I began to realize that the documentation and community weren’t as helpful as they could be and began looking for alternatives.  After some consideration, I settled on Unity3d because it seemed to have an active community and solid documentation.  After attending the company’s annual conference I can say it seems as though the community is only getting bigger and more involved and the platform is only going to improve.

Unite 2010 took place in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The following are some notes about the conference.

Venue and Logistics

The conference was held at the Marche Bonsecours, which was a great location.  The only problems with it (and the logistics of the conference) were with seating, both at lunch and during some of the advanced sessions.  In both instances, I found myself at least once sitting on the floor.   Hopefully, this was a result of the 2010 conference being more than twice the size of the 2009 version and will be fixed for next year wherever the conference is held.

Both breakfast and lunch were provided at the venue during the conference which made networking a bit easier.  Without the option to stick around the venue for meals, it is easy to end up with a small group to eat with and not meet as many people during breaks.  I met several people as a result of hanging around the Marche Bonsecours at lunch and breakfast.  In addition to these times, there was a short break between the afternoon sessions.  Before arriving, I thought these might be boring as I would be sitting around waiting for the next talk to start (checking Twitter or doing something else just as productive…).  However, I found that these times offered me a chance to relax, prepare for the next talk, and discuss either the previous or upcoming talk with fellow developers.

Sessions and Hands-on

I won’t talk about the individual sessions (they should be available at Unity3d.com soon), but overall, the talks were quite informative and at an appropriate level for me.  Some of the more experienced developers at the conference indicated they would have liked more depth in the advanced talks, but for me, the advanced talks gave me some ideas about how to tackle current problems and shed some light on topics I hadn’t considered before the conference.

One of the other main attractions of the Unite conference is the hands on time attendees are able to get with the creators and developers of the Unity software.  For me, this alone was worth the registration cost of the conference.  What made this truly worthwhile was the enthusiasm the developers had while helping me.  Despite my inexperience (I’ve only been working with Unity for about 6 months, 3 of those part time), I never felt like a question was too simple or easy to solve for those helping out.  When we ran out of time fixing a particular problem on day one, the developers made sure to book me some additional time on the second day to finish finding a solution.

Unity in the future

In addition to the growth of the Unite conference year over year, the attitudes of the Unity employees I met and heard speak at the conference gives me confidence that Unity will continue to improve rapidly.  It was evident through several of the sessions that despite the recent improvements to the engine, those at Unity realize that there are a great number of additional features and fixes that can make Unity even better.  Critically, the company seems to be taking input from the community of users seriously in considering which of these should be tackled first.

After this experience, I’m already looking forward to Unite 2011.

Google Listening to Podcasts

I listen to roughly 1 hour of podcasts on a given day.   I do the majority of my listening on the move, so I need a player that I can carry with me.  For about the last year, the device I preferred was my iPod mini modified to hold a 32GB compact flash drive.  Recently, I realized my phone could serve this function, so I decided to look into apps that would allow me to keep podcasts up to date with the same amount (or less) work than I was doing with my iPod.  That is, anything more than plugging and unplugging my phone into my PC (after setting up the RSS feeds, of course) would be too much work.  I came up with Google Listen, doubleTwist, and winamp as possible contenders.

Google Listen

Listen has a great looking interface.  From the main menu, I can look at recently listened to podcasts, see popular searches (neither of which I use), view  all of my subscriptions and each episode from them whether I have downloaded them or not.  Finally, I can also view ‘My Listen Items’ which shows a queue that I can set up and ‘Fresh Items’.  I like fresh items because it shows each of the newest episodes from my subscriptions.  However, it only holds the latest item, so if a new episode of a given podcast pops up before you listened to the previous one, you are left with only the newest one in your fresh items list.  It also only holds the newest items from the last 7 days, so podcasts you don’t get around to disappear.  I don’t so much have a problem with these two features as I do with the fact that they aren’t customizable options.  Ideally, I would like to customize them per podcast so that for some podcasts, multiple episodes stick around and for more than 7 days because I don’t want to miss an episode.

As a player, Listen does a reasonably good job, but some minor bugs keep it from being great.  First, I have problems with the fast forward and jump to a specific time functions.  This seems to happen only if I try this on a file that wasn’t fully downloaded when I began listening to it.  Even though the podcast shows as fully downloaded, if I use either function, it will jump back to the beginning of the file rendering those functions useless.  Another minor annoyance in time keeping is trying to listen to several podcasts without finishing them.  Listen seems to only be able to keep track of where I am in one podcast at a time.  Sometimes, it fails to even do that.  I have opened Listen expecting it to be in the middle of a podcast that I was just listening to, only to find that it is at the beginning of another podcast I have not yet begun listening to*.  Maybe it’s trying to tell me something?

When it comes to setting up your Listen subscriptions, I highly recommend simply doing it from your Google Reader account.  Searching from within the app on my phone to find subscriptions is awful.  I couldn’t find 4 out of the first 5 podcasts I searched for.  The easiest way to go about it is finding one podcast on the app (to get it to automatically set up the listen folder in Google Reader), then going to google reader on a PC and searching/adding the subscriptions to the ‘Listen Subscriptions’ folder.  If you are moving over from iTunes, you can right click the icon for a given podcast and copy its URL to Google Reader for easy transfer.  I actually was forced to do this for the ESPN Soccernet podcast as I couldn’t get its regular RSS feed to work.  A note on getting RSS feeds from websites:  make sure you check the RSS feed you add for audio embedded in the posts.  If it doesn’t have it, it isn’t the feed you want.

Listen allows for adequate customization when it comes to how and when the user downloads podcasts.  Two major concerns for phone users (depending on your phone and carrier) are battery life and data usage.  To address these, Listen has settings to only download on wifi and only download while charging.  If you have either of these set (or both), but you want to quickly download an episode on the go, Listen provides a pop up warning that allows you to go ahead and download over the air.

I’ve noticed another problem when trying to download over 3G and listening immediately (in addition to the time keeping issues mentioned above).  First, when a podcast encounters an error in downloading, it notifies me.  Great. But if I want to listen to that podcast I go through the following steps:

1.  Click listen

2.  Let it buffer, get error

3.  Click listen again, have it load

This happens nearly every time I try to download and listen to a podcast.  Clearly, there needs to be something in the code checking for enough of a buffer before the file starts playing.

Finally, the biggest problem I’ve had with Listen is podcasts randomly pausing and unpausing for <1 sec.  These sound like a CD skipping, but it doesn’t skip the time for which it is paused.  That is, if it ‘skips’ in the middle of someone saying ‘annoying’ I will hear annoy *pause* -ing.  This is incredibly frustrating when it occurs repeatedly, which it does.  So far, I have noticed it only seems to do this when I am walking around.  The pausing as opposed to an actual skip leads me to believe it is a problem with the software and not my headphones or some other hardware issue.  I have seen the pause problem occurs for other users as well.

Note:  After researching this, I have stopped carrying my phone in my pocket while listening and it seems to have alleviated the problem.

doubleTwist

doubleTwist is an iTunes clone for Android devices.  It has both an Android and PC client similar to the Mac/PC and iPod setup for iTunes.  Simply put, it is a great idea without enough functionality to warrant a recommendation.  Some of the issues I encountered in the short time I used it:

Has problems with devices that have internal storage as well as an SD card (i.e. my Droid Incredible).  The user has to ‘trick’ it into recognizing one over the other.

No ability to rearrange podcasts in alphabetical or any other sort order; they are ordered by when the subscription was added.

I had no problems syncing just the playlists I wanted (Podcasts + songs).  However, it does not show me how much memory those playlists will take up, only how much is currently free.  I had to go to iTunes and look up how much space each list took up and approximate.

Slllooooooooowwww loading up when I restart the PC client.  If you use doubleTwist, be sure to turn off ‘scan iTunes on startup’ to save some time (still slow sometimes with this off).

Finally, I had a problem playing a particular podcast for no reason I could discern.

Winamp (5.59 Beta)

Similar to doubleTwist, this has some great features, but isn’t ready for use.  To be fair, this is a beta, and performs as such.

When you fire up the Android client for the first time, make sure to hit continue.  If you hit ‘home’ (like I did for the first several times I opened it) it will ‘whip the llamas ass’ every time you start up.  I encountered the following problems in trying to use it:

I can’t seem to send playlists to the phone or create playlists from the phone app.  I have to us the PC app ti send files to the phone then create playlists on my phone from the PC app.

I can’t figure out how to use phone storage as opposed to sd card.

After playing around with this program, there are just too many problems right now.  If they can integrate the features people are asking for, this could be what I want.

Conclusion

Currently, I am using Google Listen on my phone and iTunes on my PC when I listen at home.  My dream app would be itunes/ipod functionality for Android with wireless syncing at home.  Hopefully, Google, doubleTwist, Winamp, or someone else can come up with a competent software package to do this soon.

Have any of you found any other podcast programs with great features on Android?

*See comment below for ‘solution’