Go Buy Monument Valley. Now.

Chances are you’ve probably already heard all about the stunning new game from developer ustwo – Monument Valley that was released today. If the game is new to you, then let’s just clear the air right now – go buy it on the app store for your iOS device. Now. This is one of those instances where a piece of software is so stunningly beautiful, and provides such an incredibly rich experience, you’re really missing something if you take a pass. Here are just some of the things you’ll see in this amazing casual puzzler:

There’s a great deal to love in Monument Valley. From it’s rich, varied color palettes that change from level to level, to the extremely clever, M.C. Escher-like design of its levels, to the gorgeous soundtrack and audio effects, Monument Valley delivers at every turn. From the moment you start to play, it’s obvious how much love and attention the folks at ustwo have put into their creation. They’ve managed to design a complete gaming experience and bring it to you via the App Store for a minimal price. Too often games these days are filled with in-app purchases that prey on instant gratification to keep players interested. Monument Valley eschews all that in favor of creating a compelling, finite and beautiful environment for you to get lost in for a few hours of your life. The last few levels in particular are wildly inventive and especially challenging.

If you’ve read the reviews, then you probably know that Monument Valley’s play time is short. It took me a total of about 3 hours (off and on) from start to finish to complete all of the levels, and for some, that length may be a deal breaker. If you feel that way I have news for you – many awesome things in life are short but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of your time or money. You’ll probably spend more on your next meal out than you would on Monument Valley but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy both while they last. The game creators have said they focused on making a concise title that can be completed in a short amount of time on purpose. While this may be true, it doesn’t really matter to me because I know if the game is a success (which I certainly hope it is) then we’ll probably be seeing a great deal more of the mystical world of Monument Valley. Show your support of their efforts to bring you something wonderful and head over to the App Store and buy it, gift it and help spread the word by leaving a review today.

Ollie Flies Free(mium)

Today marks a new beginning for Twitterrific, the venerable third party Twitter client from the Iconfactory. Today we’re announcing the app is now free to download from it’s normal price of $2.99. We’ve added several in-app purchases to the app to help cover the cost of push notifications and tweet translation, but the bulk of the revenue to continue development will now come from Deck Network ads that will appear above the timeline. Twitterrific has been available in the App Store since day one and we’ve experimented with both paid and free revenue models. Why are we returning to the freemium model now? Simply put, we’re hoping that by making the app free to download and use, we’ll get Twitterrific into the hands of thousands more people and those additional users will help support development via the increased ad revenue far into the future. The best part is that thanks to new App Store receipt handling in iOS 7, existing paid users are grandfathered into the new model and don’t have to restore any purchases. The app, with all it’s features, just works.

There are lots of risks with moving to this type of revenue model, but version 4 of Twitterrific was by far our most successful and that version was supported by ad revenue from The Deck. No doubt levels of support will increase dramatically for us but that’s part of the trade-off of having successful, thriving software. I’m also personally curious to see if moving to the free model and increasing the app’s downloads by at least 1 or 2 orders of magnitude will improve Twitterrific’s search results in the App Store. Having the very first 3rd party Twitter app in the App Store returned after non-twitter clients in a search has never seemed right to me. If you’ve never tried Twitterrific in the past, there’s no reason left not to give it a go now and we also hope you’ll help us spread the word!

The Bezel’s the Thing

It doesn’t take tea leaves or even a leaked report from the Wall St. Journal to figure out Apple will probably release a new model of iPhone with a larger screen later this year. Users have been begging for more screen real estate, especially with the increased attention of larger-screened devices like the Samsung Galaxy. Also, Apple typically does full product revisions on a 2-year cycle which just happens to hit for the iPhone this fall. All of these factors may create the “perfect iStorm” that users have been patiently waiting for. From a personal standpoint, I would love an iPhone with something around a 4.75″ screen because the older I get, the more I seem to squint and miss-tap at the tiny interface elements of my iPhone 5c.

The report from the Journal seems to hint at two new sizes of iPhones, one somewhere around 4.75″ and another, larger device possibly measuring 5.5″ diagonally. I freely admit that speculating about the screen sizes of these non-existant devices is mostly wishful thinking, but that’s part of the fun. What would your ultimate iPhone look like? What size screen would it sport and more importantly, what’s the new form factor going to be like? For all the talk about screen size, I think the more important aspect of the next iPhone will be the design of the bezel. The bezel is the border around the screen that offsets the display from the edge of the device. Recent rumors suggest that the new iPhone 6 will have little or no bezel between the screen and the left and right edge. If true, this is a far more exciting development, at least for me, than just upping the screen size.

It’s no secret that the industrial design team at Apple has long sought to create a display that’s essentially a continuous piece of solid glass, edge to edge when held in the hand. Such a design would result in a screen that seems to end where your hand begins. Now with advances in Sapphire glass technology and with 7 years of experience under Apple’s belt, the dream of a nearly invisible bezel may soon become a reality. Removing the bezel won’t be a slam dunk however, as there are most certainly software considerations that need to be worked out. Accidental taps and swipes at the edge of the screen would probably increase without some kind of UI “neutral zone” at the perimeter of the display. Designing protective cases that don’t interfere with touching or swiping would also be a challenge, but hardly impossible.

If the rumors are true and the iPhone 6 will have a bezel of around 1mm, it will certainly make for a stunning, refreshed visual appearance at a time when the iPhone seems stagnant. Apple’s supporters note the company is selling record numbers of iPhones even though the form factor hasn’t changed for several years and that is true. It is also true however that users have been hungry for larger devices as well as ones that look and feel different from the existing models to help set them apart from their peers. From the stunning introduction of the retina display to the increased security and cool factor of Touch ID, Apple fans love owning the new hotness. Come this fall, I’m willing to bet a big part of the “heat” won’t be what Apple has added, but rather what they’ve removed – the bezel.

Made With Paper*

No, not *actual* paper. These neat looping animations were created by artist and 3D modeler Pingo van der Brinkloev for iStockphoto but that doesn’t make them any less cool. Always neat to see the way light and shading effect our perception of the world around us.

(via The Dish)

iObservations

This week I finally upgraded to a brand new iPhone 5c after almost 2 full years of use on my trusty iPhone 4s. I’ve now spent a couple days with the new device running iOS 7 and wanted to share some random observations (both good and bad) for what they’re worth. As with anything, your milage may vary.

The Good

AT&T LTE – I mean just look at it!

Siri’s new voice – It’s so much better than before. Feels very Star Trek.

New ring and alert tones – There’s been some fun made of these but overall I really like them. The majority have a light, fun feel that seems to fit perfectly with the new iOS 7. My ringtone is currently set to Sencha and my alert tone is Chord. Groovy!

OS 7′s folders – Worlds better than the one in use in iOS 5 & 6 the new folders are clean, easy to manage & hold more apps.

Background refreshing – We implemented it in Twitterrific and I can already tell it will be one of my favorite features of the new OS. Having content ready for you when you wake the device is killer. Jury’s still out on how it will affect battery life however.

The feel – The feel of the 5c in the hand is just as I imagined it would be. It has the smooth, comfy feel of the 3gs without the extra bezels. It feels rock solid in your hand, not like you’d expect from a plastic phone.

Use of color – Much has been made of the, let’s just say “bold” use of color in iOS 7, some good, but mostly bad. Personally I love it. I love the way your wallpaper setting for instance changes how interfaces like the dialer screen looks. Make an overall change here and the whole user experience feels fresh. Bravo Apple.

Command Center – Being able to turn off blue tooth at will as well as quick access to a flashlight (don’t laugh, it’s useful!) is just great. I can’t wait until I have a use for sharing a file via AirDrop.

Multi-image emails – The ease of use selecting multiple images from your camera roll to attach to a single email is simply fabulous.

The Not-So-Good

Missing share buttons – Apple removed the ability to tweet and post to Facebook right from Notification Center for some reason. I’m not sure why, but this was a great way to quickly get a tweet out without any fuss. You can still do it via Siri, but it’s too prone to errors. Hopefully these controls will be coming back.

Multiple chargers – I like the new smaller, 10 pin charger but my iPad 3 still uses the old 30-pin version. This means I have to keep two different kinds of cords around my home to charge my devices. This stinks. Speaking of charging…

RIP iHome Clock – It will no longer work with my new iPhone 5c’s 10-pin charger port. This makes me very very sad.

RIP Olloclip – Designed for my iPhone 4, my Olloclip is now a useless hunk of metal and glass sitting on my desk. Again, sad.

The feel – Yes, I love the feel of the new 5c, but even though it feels super awesome, it’s also super slippery in the hand. As my wife said, it feels like it’s “coated in butter”. I immediately went out and bought an ugly Apple case for it simply because I just knew I’d eventually drop it. I hate to cover the wonderful plastic up but i’m scared it will slip right out of my hand. I sat it on the arm of my couch and watched it sloooowly slide right off into my lap. It’s crazy smooth.

Ugly icons – I realize I’m being a kind of icon snob here, but I just can’t warm up to the horrible Settings and Safari icons. The fact that they are two of the most important destinations on my iPhone means I have to look at them all the time and I just cringe when I do. Really hope the designers at Apple re-visit these at some point.

Overall I’m extremely happy with with my iPhone upgrade. There’s no doubt that it was time to replace my 4s. The only real choice was if I wanted to move to a 5s or a 5c. I’m extremely happy with how the new phone feels in my hands. The plastic case is top notch and doesn’t have the kinds of beveled edges that made my 4s hard to pick up and hold. Will I miss the finger print scanner, better camera and 64-bit processor of the 5s? Probably, but I’m betting a year from now we’ll see a new model that will have all of these things plus a larger screen and maybe the awesome case of the 5c. If you currently own an iPhone 5, then the 5c may not be the way to go, but if you’re like me coming from the previous model, you just might consider taking the colorful path to plastic town.

Why I’m Buying an iPhone 5c

I’ve owned an iPhone 4s for almost 2 years now and had been patiently awaiting the successor to the iPhone 5 until this week. When the 5 was first introduced, I was off-cycle for a discounted upgrade from AT&T and when I finally was eligible I thought I might as well just wait and see. I was hoping the increasing popularity of larger-screened smartphones would encourage Apple to release at least an iPhone with a 4.6″ screen in their next rev, but as I tweeted this past week, it seems Tim Cook’s pigs have yet to fly.

Now I have a choice to make. I can go with the fancy new iPhone 5s, complete with 64-bit hardware, a greatly improved camera and a cool fingerprint scanner, or I can “settle” for a 5 wrapped in a lickable, candy-coated plastic shell, the iPhone 5c. The gadget freak in me says to go with the snazzy 5s. After all, its increased speed would hold up better over the next 1.5-2 years and the pictures I took would no doubt be greatly improved from those I snap now. The 5s is more expensive, but that wasn’t the deciding factor, at least not for me.

I’ve chosen to go with the iPhone 5c for a couple reasons, but mainly because of comfort. For my money, the most comfortable smartphone to hold and use was the iPhone 3GS. Its slightly rounded back, smooth plastic construction and tight edges made it a joy to hold and use. When the iPhone 4 was introduced, I really didn’t like the device’s form factor. The metal band creates sharp edges that fatigue the fingers and collect dirt. In addition, to me the device is *too* thin to hold safely without a case. The new iPhone 5c’s smooth curves, and seamless sides call out to the scifi geek in me and the colors, oh the colors! It’s much more streamlined, minimal in appearance and seems easier to pick up off the table. I must admit however, if I could have the 5s’ guts inside the smooth, plastic shell of the 5c, I’d opt for that in a plastic heartbeat.

I know that no matter which model I pick, either will be a great upgrade from my 4s. Although it’s served me well these last two years, I’m more than ready for the increased screen size, faster processor power and increased battery life of a new iPhone. With any luck, around this time next year Apple will be introducing a 4.6″ iPhone that will sport an all new form-factor as well as all the neat-o gadgets that are sure to make the iPhone 5s a huge success. In the meantime, unlike Kermit, it’s easy being green.

PS – iOS 7 is awesome, you’re gonna love it!

The User Interfaces of Oblivion

As an UI designer, I love seeing what artists come up with for fictional user interfaces. I’ve admired the work talented folks like Jayse Hansen has done for films like Iron Man and the Avengers for some time and secretly longed to do this kind of work. The latest work from Joseph Kosinski and Crater Lake Productions for the film Oblivion is pure magic. The level of detail, both animated and static, is staggering. I hadn’t intended to see Oblivion in the theater, but after seeing this wonderful work I just might. If you want to learn more, head over to GMUNK and check out their process.

The Art of Doing ‘Nothing’

“When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” This line from Futurama perfectly sums up how I often feel about my job. Designing, if done right, takes the challenge of communicating a complex idea effectively, and turns it into something that can be easily understood by the masses. When designers do their job right, the overall design fades into the background and you just “get” what you’re looking at. It speaks to you on a fundamental level, things just click and you usually see big smiles on the faces of those who interact with your work.

Through the years, I’ve learned the job of the programmer is much the same. Although my programming abilities are limited to rough forms of HTML and BASIC (yes, BASIC), through my position at the Iconfactory, I’ve learned much about what goes into making a successful software application. I see the challenges that our programmers tackle every single day and I for one am always impressed. This is particularly true of our latest effort, the retina compatible version of xScope for Mac OS X.

When Apple’s stunning new display was announced, I was excited about the increased level of detail and clarity the technology would bring to the desktop. The images are gorgeous, text is as crisp as the printed words and colors are deep and rich. Designing for this display means tools that can work correctly with it, giving you accurate and flawless information from which you can build your designs. From the get-go we knew that xScope, our utility for measuring and inspecting the screen, had to be updated for this new display. What we didn’t realize when we began was just how complicated that update would be.

I’m going to be completely honest here and say that even today, after several months, I still can’t get my head fully around the concept of pixels vs window points. Oh, I know what they are and why they exist, but from the time I first learned how to use a mouse, I’ve always dealt with pixels as the unit of measure on the screen. My entire professional career has revolved around the humble pixel and as such it’s been difficult coming to grips with the fact that the days of seeing exactly what you get on screen are pretty much over.

But all of this pales in comparison to the work that my friend, our lead engineer Craig Hockenberry, had to do in order to get xScope working properly with the new retina display. Whenever Craig starts waxing programatic about his coding, my eyes usually glaze over. That said, there were times during the xScope retina conversion when I thought I was going to go catatonic. If you’re the type of person who loves coding, or maybe needs something to read to send them off to sleep at night, head on over to Furbo.org and read Craig’s technical post on the problems with coding for retina. Suffice to say it’s beyond me. Also beyond me – all the math, logic and problem solving needed to surmount this incredible challenge. I have tons of respect for anyone who finds mathematics fun and exciting, and even more for friends like Craig who wield it like a weapon in the service of their job.

When designers and developers use xScope on a shiny new retina Macbook, all they’ll know, indeed all they’ll care about is that the app works as advertised. xScope will give them the data they need to make their apps and designs the best they can be and that is all that matters. Because of the efforts of Craig and Corey Marion, xScope’s lead UI designer, the app just “works” and it works well. Users won’t know all the algebra and bug finding that went into creating it, but I thought it was appropriate to take just a moment and recognize the hard work that went into making it a reality. I sincerely hope you find the new version of xScope as powerful and useful as all of us have. But the best part is if we’ve done our jobs right, you won’t be sure we’ve done anything at all.

Ode to the Federation

Fashionably Geek is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs thanks to gems like this. This wonderful silver necklace is the perfect gift for that stylish Trekker in your life. Created by the Rice Hat Samurai Studio, the necklace is an elegant graphic translation of both the Star Trek combadge and the Vulcan Idic symbol. Their Etsy shop also offers something for Doctor Who fans as well, so beam on over and scoop these prizes up before it’s too late.

[Via Fashionably Geek]

All-Aboard for Tricky Tracks

Tricky Tracks is a stunningly beautiful and deceptively simple web-based game by Maxomedia Design Agency. If you’ve ever played with toy train sets, love building things out of LEGO bricks, or just appreciate beautiful game design, Tricky Tracks is for you. Sponsored by the SBB Swiss Federal Railway, the game’s 15 levels are broken up into groups or “boxes” of tracks, each set on gorgeous, 3D wedges of the Swiss countryside.

The object of the game is simple – Get your passenger train from station A to station B. You do this by simply pulling a pinball-style plunger in the upper-right corner of the browser window. Pull with too little force and your train won’t reach the other station. Pull too hard and your train along with all its passengers will fly right off the tracks in a spectacular wreck (yes, I’ve done this intentionally just to see what would happen). Points are awarded based on how many attempts it takes to complete a level, total time spent and special bonuses in the form of achievements that you rack up along the way.

As you progress through the beautifully rendered levels, you’ll encounter ever more difficult challenges such as railroad switches, car crossings, tunnels and steep inclines. Both the timing and power of your shot has to be perfect if your tiny train is to make it safely from one side of the level to the other. The game play is highly addictive, but for my money, the best part of Tricky Tracks are the visuals. From the moment the game loads, you know you are in for a special experience. The user interface is classic Swiss design – simple and elegant. The camera controls are easy to master and give you a soaring view of the tiny hills, valleys and towns that you’ll be visiting while you play.

I’m told that many of the locations used in the game are based on actual places in Switzerland, which after playing, just makes me want to ride the Swiss Railway even more. The scenes are gorgeous and the extremely narrow depth of focus is reminiscent of tilt-shift photography which enhances the illusion of playing with toy trains. Some levels like Genhimmelen (seen left) seem impossibly difficult, but with enough persistence and a little luck, you’ll be pulling into stations perched high atop mountain cliffs and braving pesky downtown traffic jams like a real pro.

Tricky Tracks makes use of the Unity 3D Web Player plug-in so you’ll need to download and install it for your favorite web browser before you can play. I’m not sure of the minimum system requirements, but I ran Tricky Tracks on my Core i7 iMac with 8Gb of RAM and the game played fine, at least until the last few levels. The complexity of the maps in the 3rd box of levels seemed to make camera rotation a bit jerky, but it was still very playable.

Perhaps the very best part of this wonderful effort is that Tricky Tracks is absolutely free to play. All of the initial 15 levels are included on the game’s website with the promise of a new box of 5 more “coming soon”. It took me about 2 hours to play through every level but it could probably be done in less time. Admittedly, I spent a much of my time enraptured with the look of each level. From the bright, overwhelming city lights of Knetikon (seen right) to the miniature majesty of Chateau Obersbach and the picturesque sea-side town of Sunnikon, the visual wonders in Tricky Tracks delight the eye and bring out the kid in all of us. I can’t wait to see what other challenges the game’s designers have in store, but in the meantime steam on over and give Tricky Tracks a go today. You won’t be disappointed.