With online video and cloud storage two of the hottest topics around, we look at some applications that suggest inspiring and productive futures for both.
3D is the visual technology du jour, not just at the cinema but on the small screen too, with realistic 3D video being pretty much the norm now for computer games. There is a business rationale too: CAD suppliers are encouraging us to switch from 2D to 3D modelling, and 3D modelling techniques from the gaming industry are rapidly finding their way into industry, not just for promo videos but also for training videos and programs, walk-throughs and other practical purposes.
Making that games-based 3D video technology accessible to the mainstream – whether for professional, non-commercial or even home use – is the next challenge, and it is one of the aims behind a downloadable toolkit called 3DVIA Studio. Although the starter edition of 3DVIA is free, it is hardly shareware. It comes from Dassault Systémes, which claims to be the second-largest software company in Europe, so it has a strong heritage as well as links to well-known engineering and industrial packages such as CATIA and SolidWorks.
Indeed, models created in CATIA can be exported to 3DVIA format and then played as movies or re-used in a 3D video, for example. There is also a plug-in for Photoshop, allowing users to take virtual photos within 3DVIA models – a 'virtual photo shoot', its developers call it – and then work with them in Photoshop.
A big part of 3DVIA Studio is that, as well as authoring 3D gaming items, it can also be used to create virtual reality or immersive videos. Such 3D videos can include the likes of hand- and wand-tracking technology to help the user move around and explore the model.
This is very complex and sophisticated software – it only runs on Windows, and even then it can be a challenge to run on a virtual machine, say. Ideally it requires a physical workstation with a dual-core processor, a recent 3D graphics card and 2GB of RAM. As well as the development package, there is a 3DVIA Player downloadable; again this is free, and it is a bit less hardware-hungry.
Despite its complexity, 3DVIA Studio includes all sorts of helpful technology, plus there is more available for download – add-ons to do mirror effects, for instance. It therefore makes the process of creating 3D visuals much easier than it otherwise would be and, as a result, it could be a fascinating next step for anyone who already understands 3D CAD, for instance.
While OpenSignalMaps is interesting in itself – it maps the strength of both cellular and Wi-Fi signals around you – it is also part of a larger project to map signal strength nationally and internationally.
Currently available only for Android, but with an iPhone version in the works, it gives you a choice of seeing the direction of the closest transmitter, a signal graph, a Google map or a radar-style plot of the transmitters in your vicinity. Assuming you give permission – which hopefully you will – your gathered information is also fed back to the project, stripped of identifying data and used to expand the signal map. You can also save your gathered data to your SD card in case you want to review it later.
Is it useful as well as intriguing? Well, if your signal is weak, you can try to improve it by walking in the direction of the transmitter. You can also study heat maps on the project website, for instance, to see which networks have already been reported in a particular area.
There are caveats, of course. For example, transmitter locations are calculated by triangulation, so may not be exact. And a blank area in a populated region is more likely to mean that no-one has used the app there yet, not that there is no signal at all. Even the blanks are potentially interesting, though – for instance, a posting on the developers' blog points out the similarity between a map of global signal strength and three other maps showing the distribution of wealth, night-time lighting and events mentioned in Wikipedia!
Free to £120/year
With client software now available for Android, Blackberry and iOS, as well as for Linux, Max OSX and Windows – plus third-party Nokia S60 and WebOS apps – Dropbox is more than just another Web-based online storage service. Even the free version integrates with the file system on the computer, allowing you to treat it as a local folder.
Once you realise what this means, you start to see possibilities. For instance, you can use it to keep whole directories and even whole applications (as long as they are happy to run in the Dropbox folder, rather than the locked-up environment of the Windows program directory) in sync on multiple machines. And if you only want to sync something to specific machines – there is not much point syncing a Windows-based application to a Linux machine, for example – there is a selective sync feature to enable that.
Because the software plug-ins for PCs and Macs actually sync with the chosen folders within your Dropbox, those folders are available offline as well. Changes made while offline are re-synced once the PC is connected again. The mobile versions work a little differently, requiring a network connection and pulling files down as requested, although some versions – the iOS one, for example – will also let you list files as 'favourites' and keep copies on the mobile device.
Impressively, the service keeps a one-month history of file changes, so you can undelete files, recover old versions, and so on. Files are encrypted during transmission and storage, although if you want them really secure you should add your own private encryption on top.
You can also use Dropbox for file uploads and sharing, either read-only via a Web link, or if the other person has a Dropbox account then full folder sharing. One caveat is that folders that have been shared with you also count against your Dropbox capacity limit as well as the sharer's.
The basic version, with 2GB of online storage, is free and is now available in Spanish, German, French and Japanese, as well as English. You can buy more storage, with the next step being 50GB at $9.99 (around £6) a month or $99/year, then 100GB for $199/year.
If you have a smartphone there is a good chance that you already have a pre-installed copy of QuickOffice, the Microsoft Office-compatible document suite for pretty much the full range of mobile devices. If you try it though, you will discover it is most likely only a viewer.
And while that does have its uses, such as quickly looking at data on the go, sooner or later you may want to make changes or even create simple documents while on the road.
The full versions – QuickOffice Pro or Premium, depending on the platform – are a lot more capable, especially in their latest incarnations. The company has recently brought out new versions for both Apple iOS and Google Android, including a version specifically designed for Android Honeycomb tablets, a new iPad release and a major update for Android 2.x smartphones.
Among the notable updates, you can now create and edit PowerPoint files, as well as Word and Excel, on most supported platforms. The iPad version now supports Apple's AirPrint printing facility – which will allow you to print 'over the air' to any compatible printer – and printing to PDF, plus seamless publishing to social collaboration providers such as SlideShare, Scribd and Docstoc, while QuickOffice Pro 4.0 for Android is speedier than its predecessor and gains a bunch of useful features, including find-and-replace, additional toolbars and new formatting options.
The iOS and Android versions also support seamless access to cloud storage services such as Box.net, DropBox, MobileMe and SugarSync. Simply give it your login details and QuickOffice treats your online store as just another local file store, making it even easier to share and sync files.
It is not the only MS Office-compatible mobile suite around, Data Viz Documents To Go is the other main competitor. But it offers a broad set of features, including the ability to work with the latest Open XML file formats as used by MS Office 2007 and 2010 – these are the ones suffixed docx, xlsx and pptx. It is lacking a few things, however. For example, only the Nokia version can open password-protected documents. Hopefully this facility will be able in future updates.
QuickOffice normally costs between $19.99 and $29.99 (£12.35 to £18.50), depending on platform, but the company regularly runs promotions so you may find it at up to 50 per cent off. Also, the Android version can be bought from either the QuickOffice website or one of the online appstores, so check around for the best price. *