Ryan Christoffel

142 posts on MacStories since November 2016

Ryan is a regular contributor to MacStories. He most commonly works and plays on his iPad Pro and bears no regrets about moving on from the Mac. He and his wife live in Texas, where he works for his church.

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Apple’s Clips App Receives Update Adding Disney/Pixar Content and More

Today Apple released the first major update for its short form video creation app, Clips. Version 1.1 includes, most notably, a variety of animated graphics featuring beloved characters from Disney and Pixar films.

In the Disney department you can add Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Daisy to your videos, each with their own unique animations. And from Pixar, characters originating in Toy Story, Inside Out, and Cars are available. There are also a variety of new posters available to be used as title cards, some of which were designed by Disney and others by Apple. A selection of the new posters feature vibrant animations when you use them, such as water rippling in a pool.

In addition to the new content available for creating videos, Apple has also refined some design aspects in the app to make it easier to use. For example, Live Titles could always be edited by tapping on the text, but that wasn’t a very discoverable interface. Now there’s a new button to accomplish the task.

Apple’s press release announcing the update mentions that Clips “is included on all new iOS devices,” which should help bolster adoption of the app. That press release also features a video seemingly created in Clips that’s worth checking out.



Google iOS App Adds Personalized Feed with News, Interests, and More

Google has long been the first place most of us go when searching for something specific, and now it wants to be our primary destination for personalized, proactive content as well. Launching today in the US, and internationally in the coming weeks, the Google app for iOS now includes a personalized feed filled with things like news stories, live sports highlights, and suggested videos, all of which are merged in the feed with other data we’ve come to expect from the Google app such as local weather, relevant travel info, and more.

While Google’s iOS app formerly served as a place to mainly perform searches and see a bit of personalized data, today’s update transforms the app experience entirely. The search option is still at the top of the screen, and that data you’re used to seeing is still around, but the additions included here change the app’s primary purpose. It becomes a place to go not only when you need to find something, but also just when you have a little time to kill and want to catch up on what’s going on in the outside world. If the feed becomes good enough at knowing what’s important to me, I can see myself regularly checking and scrolling through it the way I do with social apps like Twitter or Facebook.

Google promises that the feed will get better over time as its machine learning algorithms gain a more accurate understanding of a user’s interests. One way that users can help that process is through using the new ‘Follow’ button that will soon begin appearing next to Google search results. This button will allow you to selectively follow certain movies or TV shows, sports teams, musical artists, celebrities, and more. Another layer of customization is found in the ‘Customize the Feed’ menu accessible by tapping the three dots in the upper right corner of any content card. Here you can turn the feed off entirely if you’d like, but you can also customize exactly which categories of content will populate your feed.

If you’d like more in-depth information about today’s update, Google has a blog post walking through the changes.


Apple Launches Public Machine Learning Journal

Today Apple introduced a new section on its website dedicated to highlighting its work in the area of machine learning. This new Machine Learning Journal bears the form of a blog, with the following stated aim:

Here, you can read posts written by Apple engineers about their work using machine learning technologies to help build innovative products for millions of people around the world.

The first and only post currently available in the journal is titled “Improving the Realism of Synthetic Images” and is categorized ‘Vol. 1, Issue 1.’ It details how Apple’s photo recognition technology has been trained using synthetic images rather than real ones due to the massive extra cost and workload required to obtain and accurately label real images. The example given in the post centers around the human eye, walking step by step through Apple’s method for increasing the realism of synthetic depictions of a human eye to make them effective alternatives to real images.

Apple has historically been secretive when it comes to its machine learning research, a stance which many speculated had put the company at a disadvantage in the area of recruiting talent. It’s understandably hard to build a noteworthy reputation as a machine learning researcher if you’re unable to talk about any of your work. But near the end of last year Apple’s director of AI research, Russ Salakhutdinov, signaled that change would be coming to the company’s policies surrounding secrecy. The launch of a public journal featured on Apple’s website is very clear evidence of that change arriving.


Outlook for iOS Gains Quick Replies, New Conversation View, and More

Microsoft Outlook for iOS was updated today with several new features, and Microsoft announced that another significant update would be coming soon.

The new feature that appeals to me most is quick reply, which makes the act of replying to an email resemble that of replying to a message in services like Slack or iMessage. At the bottom of each email there’s now a quick reply box you can tap in to begin crafting your response. No need for a separate compose window to appear, taking you out of the conversation; the full conversation is still in view, and you can scroll through it as you wish. I believe compose windows are largely unnecessary friction points that contribute to email’s poor reputation, so while a quick reply box may seem like a small change, for me at least it helps make email easier to deal with. One additional nicety included in the new reply interface is the ability to @mention to call out specific recipients.

Threaded messages in Outlook are now all uncollapsed by default, saving the extra taps previously needed to expand collapsed messages. Now when you open a threaded email you’ll be automatically navigated to the most recent message, so there’s no more need to scroll the full thread before finding what you’re looking for.

Outlook’s sidebar menu now includes a persistent column listing all of your different accounts, making it easier than ever to switch between different accounts. The updated menu also brings more convenient access to folders than was previously available.

These changes are rolling out progressively to all users, so you may not see them immediately.

One other upcoming change Microsoft announced today is that search will soon receive a major upgrade. Outlook’s main navigation tabs will be updated to include only Mail, Search, and Calendar; search’s more prominent placement in the app will be justified due to it including more than just email results – you’ll also find results for people, files, and intelligent information about things like upcoming flights or package deliveries. An exact release date for the new search features wasn’t announced, but Microsoft says it is coming soon.


Microsoft Launches iPhone App for Low Vision Community: Seeing AI

Today Microsoft introduced a new app exclusively for iPhone, Seeing AI. This app is designed as a tool for the low vision community; using the iPhone’s camera and its AI smarts, Seeing AI converts the visual experience of the world into an audible one. As you point the camera at things in the world around you, the app will describe that world in a quick, informative manner.

From a user’s perspective, the app is tremendously simple to use; there’s very little that needs to be done before Seeing AI can begin describing the space around you. If you want to identify people, you can first set them up as recognizable from the sidebar menu’s ‘Face Recognition’ option. Otherwise, all you have to do to start identifying things is select from one of five different categories (the app calls them ‘channels’) to help the app understand what type of object it needs to identify. The five current categories are:

  • Short Text
  • Document
  • Product
  • Person
  • Scene (currently tagged as ‘Beta’)

Microsoft says a category for currency will be coming soon, allowing the app to intelligently identify different denominations of cash.

In my testing of the app, it’s far from perfect in its ability to identify things, but it has done a solid job all-around. Though the tech driving the app may only be experimental and have a long way to go, the app is far from barebones in what it can do now. When identifying a document, Seeing AI will audibly guide you through the capture process to help you get the full document in view. After scanning a product’s barcode, in some cases you’ll receive additional information about the product beyond just its name. And if the app is scanning a person, it can even describe a best guess at their visible emotional state. It’s an impressive, deep experience that nevertheless remains dead simple to operate.

Even if you aren’t in the market for Seeing AI yourself, it’s a fascinating product worth checking out, and it’s entirely free. You can download it on the App Store.

Microsoft has a short introductory video that gives a great taste of all that the app can do, embedded below.


Fantastical 2.4 for Mac Brings Travel Time, Attachment Support, and More

Today the team at Flexibits launched Fantastical 2.4 for Mac, and it is a release packed full of improvements. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but the changes make an already excellent calendar app even better.

Travel Time

A long-requested feature, Fantastical now includes travel time as an option when setting event alerts. No longer do you need to provide a fixed alert time for each event – though that option still remains – because the travel time option will select an alert time that’s tailored to each event and the distance you’ll have to travel to get there, plus a few minutes of cushion.

Attachments

File attachments are now supported for events in Fantastical, with some stipulations. If you have an iCloud, Exchange, or other supported CalDAV-powered calendar, the full range of attachment powers will be at your disposal. With events on those types of calendars you can add, remove, and view attachments. If your calendar is Google-based, you still won’t be able to add or remove attachments directly from Fantastical, but you can view any attachments already present.

Month View

The popular month view in Fantastical has received two significant improvements. One is that if a day contains so many events that they won’t all fit, you can now click the ‘more’ button at the bottom of that day and the hidden events will pop out. When they pop out, they temporarily cover a portion of the day underneath so you can view all the day’s events in the same view. The second improvement is that you can now customize the number of weeks that are displayed at once, ranging from two on the low end to eight on the high end. This is a much-appreciated feature for tailoring the calendar to your personal needs – if you like plenty of breathing room for your events, you can display a smaller number of weeks, whereas if you want to pack a ton of information onscreen, now you can do that too.

Miscellany

Combined Duplicate Events: When you manage a variety of different calendars, including some that may be shared with family members or coworkers, your calendar app can quickly get clogged up with duplicate listings for the same event across those shared calendars. For example, if my wife and I are attending a wedding, which of us puts that on our calendar? Probably both of us, because we’ll both be attending. But Fantastical now condenses those duplicate events so they’re displayed as a single event only, reducing the visual clutter of your calendar while ensuring everyone keeps events on their own calendars as needed. For those who may not like this approach to duplicate events, you can turn it off in the app’s preferences.

Invitation Improvements: Google calendars have received three improvements in the area of invitations. Now you can add a customized message with your invitation response, and you can also view other people’s messages by hovering over their names on the invitation. Lastly, if an invitee is bringing guests with them, you can now see that information as a +1 to their response (or whatever the correct number is). With Exchange calendars there are two small updates to invitations: you can now forward invitations to other Exchange users, and you can respond to invitations without notifying the sender.

Undo and Redo: If you add, remove, or edit an event or reminder and wish to take that action back, now you can thanks to built-in support for undo and redo.

Push Updates for Facebook Events: Whenever a Facebook event has its information updated, or you first confirm that you’ll be attending a Facebook event, those changes are now pushed immediately to Fantastical.


Fantastical was already one of the most powerful, customizable calendar apps on the market, but the improvements in today’s update offer even more in the areas of power and flexibility.

Fantastical 2.4 is available on the Mac App Store and a trial version is available directly from Flexibits.


‘Nintendo Switch Online’ App Arriving on iOS Soon

Juli Clover writes for MacRumors about the upcoming release of Nintendo’s previously announced iOS app, which will serve as a companion to the Nintendo Switch:

During a Nintendo Direct event this morning, Nintendo announced plans to release a new "Nintendo Switch Online" app on July 21, the release date for Splatoon 2. According to Nintendo, the Nintendo Switch Online app, available for iOS and Android, is designed to "enhance your online experience for compatible games on the Nintendo Switch console."

At launch, the only game compatible with the Nintendo Switch Online app will be Splatoon 2. The app will let users voice chat with friends, invite people to online matches, create teams, and access SplatNet 2. SplatNet2 offers up online play statistics and info on upcoming game features.

At launch all components of the new app will be free for all users, but it’s unclear how long that will last. Nintendo has stated that from some point in 2018 and beyond, its online service for the Nintendo Switch will cost $19.99 per year or $3.99 per month, and there has been no clarification to this point on which aspects of the companion app might be tied to that paid service.

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One Year of Pokémon GO

One year ago Pokémon GO launched and quickly became a phenomenon. In celebration of that anniversary, the game’s makers at Niantic announced that starting today a special Pikachu wearing Ash’s hat will begin appearing across the world for catching. It will disappear after July 24, so trainers will need to act quickly if they don’t want to miss out.

Also marking the first year of Pokémon GO’s life, The Verge’s Andrew Webster interviewed Niantic CEO John Hanke. One of the more interesting points from the interview centers on how the overwhelming success of the game early on altered the team’s plans for growing and expanding the user experience through new features. Hanke says:

We lost probably six months on our schedule because of the success of the game. Really all the way through November and December, from launch onward we were rebuilding and rewiring infrastructure just to keep the game running at the scale that we were running at. We were fortunate to have a massive launch, a massive success, and many, many more users than we had planned for. But we had to redirect a substantial portion of the engineering team to [work on] infrastructure versus new features. That switched off things like extending gyms, it pushed out things we still want to have, like player-versus-player and trading.

Hanke reiterates that both trading and player-versus-player battles are still in the works, but he gave no timetable for their release.

Despite Pokémon GO having nowhere near the number of users it once did, Niantic has still had its hands full this summer. They launched a significant update to the game just last month, introducing Raid Battles and new Gym features. And there are several major public events in the works, including one in Chicago on July 22 and others in parts of Europe and Japan.