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Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

A couple of months ago I reviewed the newly released iOS version of the Mediaeval St Andrews App. Although I praised the content, I ran into an awful lot of problems with the implementation. I encountered lots of bugs, and was particularly concerned about the central design decision that meant the app needed to be always connected to the Internet, so it could download multimedia data, restricting the app’s use out and about – for example on foot in St Andrews – on a WiFi only device like an iPod touch (which I have) and a WiFi only iPad (like my Dad has).

A new version of the app was released a few days ago. I am pleased to say that almost all the issues I raised have been now fixed, including the always online issue. The iOS app design has been completely changed from an 8MB core download with constant Internet downloads of resources to a 312MB one-off installation, which installs all the multimedia resources (pictures, video, sound files) at first installation, which means that the app can now work offline and online. This increases the initial installation time and space required, but makes the app more flexible in when and how it can be used. It also has the benefit of making the app now seem much more snappy and responsive in general use. With the original version there was a noticeable lag opening up sites and multimedia resources, caused by the app constantly needing to download more data. But now that this data is all localised on the device at installation it not only means the app can work offline, but also makes it faster and more pleasant to use.

Other issues solved include location services – the app can work without those turned on, but now produces an elegant error message, and can then be used with map or tour, rather than be unusable. Likewise the erratic video playing bugs, and the strange white-out bug I reported have all been fixed.

Because I ran into so many user interface issues when I first tried the app my last review focused more on these. Now I can focus more on discussing the content, which I have always thought is superb.

The app revolves around three main interfaces: map, site list, and tour. The last of these just has a children’s tour at the moment (which, yes, works offline too now), but more tours are expected to be added in future.

The map includes marked sites of interest. Though I notice it has missed at least one major St Andrews museum: the St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum at the east end of North Street. Importantly the map now works nicely with location services turned off, and in offline mode. You can zoom in to select sites of interest, based on their location, and then tap to learn more about them.

Mediaeval St Andrews App map

But the core part of the app, for me anyway, is the sites section, providing access to the history of 22 locations in the town. As an example of the depth of information recorded, consider the tolbooth, the former town hall. The main entry for this in the app includes a snippet from the Geddy map as illustration, and then gives a potted history of the tolbooth.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth entry

This is then supplemented by a range of pictures, audio, video, and additional information.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth video

I still find the pictures main user interface unintuitive, not designed like the rest of the app. I’ve been told this is for implementation reasons, because of the plug-in software used to give this functionality. But I still think it’s a shame. A more familiar interface is available from the main site entry page, if you tap on the Geddy map, and then that pops up bigger, and you can swipe left and right through the site’s images, as below.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth picture

I particularly like the additional information available for a lot of the sites, giving historical snippets and curios, as this screen-shot from the tolbooth entry shows.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth additional information

There is an enormous amount of depth of information in the sites section of the app, that is probably best absorbed slowly over time. It would be useful reference material on foot, for example when in the town exploring the sites, but it is also good for home learning and research.

Having said that, if you go to the sites listing, select a site and read about it, it is rather unintuitive to be taken back afterwards to the map interface rather than the sites listing you just used – maybe something the designers might like to look at. Likewise the level of detail varies by site. But usually there is ample to be going on with, and is a good reflection of current knowledge about the town. As someone who has researched a tolbooth elsewhere in Scotland (Melrose) I wish we had as much information about it and a virtual reconstruction like St Andrews!

I am really pleased with this new version of the iOS app. Most of the implementation issues that I discussed before have been ironed out, and it is now generally a pleasure to use. And the change in design, though needing a big install at the start, means it can be used on more devices and in more ways, and is also quicker and more responsive in general use, without the same lag seen originally.

There are still some issues where the app is somewhat unintuitive in use. So I would rate it 7/10 at the moment for user interface and implementation. But that is an enormous improvement on things as they were. And together with my 9/10 rating for content means I give it overall a very strong rating of 8/10.

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First a disclaimer. I’ve something of a vested interest in this app, as a graduate of computer science at St Andrews, before I switched to history and picked up three more degrees. I really like the idea of St Andrews computer scientists and historians working together to provide this resource. And I like that it’s free.

My husband – also a computer science graduate from St Andrews – and I attended the app launch in November 2014, where we got to try out the app on Android tablets provided on the day. We’ve been keen to try it out properly ever since, so as soon as it was available for iOS I downloaded it to my iPad to try.

Unfortunately I have run into a lot of usability issues, which I’m going to detail below. But I want to stress that I think the content of the app is superb, the underlying historical resources which it aims to provide access to. For 22 sites in the town each one has a summary description, with a relevant portion of the Geddy map of the town from circa 1580, and typically additional resources like photos (modern, historical and virtual reconstruction), videos and audio files.

Viewing core details of site

I particularly like where modern and virtual overlap in the app, as in the screen shot below, from the entry for the church formerly above St Andrews harbour.

Reconstruction overlaid on modern photo

The app also has a modern digital map of the town, with its historic sites indicated, providing alternative access to sites of interest. And a section for guided tours, just one tour at the moment, but expect more to be added in future

But the implementation of the app and its user interface proved to be a stumbling block for me, and it’s only fair that I detail the issues, not least to help the app creators improve things. I was testing it on my iPad. However my husband and I also noticed many problems in our brief try out on an Android tablet at the app launch. Particularly how slow the app is to use, probably due to it constantly needing to download information to show the user, an inconsistent user interface design, and troublesome bugs cropping up. However what I’m writing below focuses on my experience with my iPad, an iPad Air 128GB 3G + WiFi model running iOS 8.1.2. I was using the Mediaeval St Andrews App version 1 for iOS.

The first major issue, and it’s a design issue, is that the app requires a permanent online connection. If it’s started with no network connection the screen goes blank and gets stuck in that state. Started with a network though, and all is well. As a long-time user of iOS apps I’m used to offline working, and apps installing everything they need. In practice it’s likely that the amount of data in this case is very substantial, so having an 8MB core app, as it is for iOS, and downloading everything else is appealing. But it won’t always work well. For example I could take the app on my iPod touch to St Andrews, but couldn’t use it as a reference tool without Internet – the iPod touch relies on WiFi, and is not a smartphone. Likewise my Dad has a WiFi only iPad mini, which he wants to use the app on. He can from home, but not elsewhere, including on visits to St Andrews. The constant need for downloading data also makes the app, as we noticed on Android on launch day, often seem sluggish to use, as the user waits for more data to download. And even with a smartphone I wonder how good constant downloading is in terms of data use, especially for larger resources like videos.

On the subject of videos, many of the sites in the app have these linked to them. But the videos would not play reliably for me on my iPad. At the first attempt, and even after rebooting my iPad, they would not play at all. They’d start to download, with a download spinning animation, but the videos wouldn’t play at all. Well apart from any linked sound, as in the Katie Stevenson narrated St Andrews Castle video. The sound started as soon as the spinning animation started, indicating downloading. But no pictures would appear. Fortunately a later attempt did get the videos to work, in a window in the centre of the screen, but I don’t know what was different this time, certainly nothing I was aware of having changed.

An irritating issue when viewing linked photos for sites is that the user interface changes when you view a photo. Normally there’s a back button you tap to go back to the previous screen. To get the same effect when viewing an image, and to close it to return to the previous screen, there’s no back button, but instead you have to look for and tap a small x cross at the bottom left of the screen to close things. I found this very unintuitive and have not got the hang of it.

I ran into other issues. For example the in-app map won’t appear at all if location services are turned off. I don’t normally give iPad apps location services access, and since I don’t have a smartphone I’m unlikely to be carrying this app around as I walk. But turning location services on, even for me located at a distance in Dundee, and suddenly the map worked. I also repeatedly ran into a nasty bug – which I cannot replicate reliably unfortunately to help get it fixed – where I’d be looking at a site’s core listing, complete with Geddy map portion, and suddenly the right half of the screen would go white, and then as I tried to navigate to other sections text would overlay my screen in a very unreadable manner. I also sometimes found the categorisation of linked photos confusing, particularly photos incorporating both virtual reconstructions and modern views, which weren’t categorised as virtual images. But that may be a personal thing for me.

This all sounds very negative, but I can’t stress enough that the underlying content is superb. I’d like to see these user interface issues ironed out, at least the easier ones. Change the photo back interface to use the standard everywhere else back button rather than that confusing cross, fix the app so it at least acts elegantly if started without network connection, and check the videos to see if there might be a bug in there re playing them. It’s probably also a good idea to get the map working with location services turned off. Likewise I’d recommend considering the feasibility of providing an offline version of the app, but don’t know how much data that would take up. Perhaps it might be possible to store the core content for example, such as the core site entry pages, which might speed things up in many places, not least loading up each site initially. But if the app must be used in always online mode, then that should be made clear in the App Store description for people to read before downloading and trying to use it.

At the moment I can’t rate the app higher than 4/10 for implementation and 9/10 for content, giving 6.5/10 if averaged. But I feel that it has much potential, if only some implementation issues could be ironed out in the next version.

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Yesterday I attended the second day of this conference held at Perth Concert Hall. It was held in honour of my former PhD supervisor, Professor Charles McKean. Originally it had been hoped that he would be there, but sadly he died a few weeks ago. But it went ahead in his honour, in a positive manner.

Sadly due to my MS-like illness I could never attend both days, and had to choose one over the other. This meant that I missed a very moving appreciation of Charles by James Simpson, as well as Charles’s son Andrew talking about his father’s research. But overall I think I chose the better day for me, partly on timetabling terms, partly on subject matter. I am not a Renaissance or architectural historian, and the second day’s talks fitted better into the wider social and cultural context I could relate to.

The venue was good. I’ve never been there before, but I was impressed. I was using my wheelchair, and it was level access, and a good sized room for the 70 or so attendants (hardly any chairs free!). Catering was also good, including a nice buffet lunch. My husband accompanied me, to help me manage my wheelchair, and he was made very welcome.

The second day started with the second batch of coach tours to nearby castles. I didn’t go on these, partly for wheelchair reasons, but joined the conference at the first coffee break, before the first main papers session. And it was a good one, looking at castles and tower houses in the wider context of landscape, and European culture. I was particularly struck by Shannon Fraser’s presentation about Fyvie Castle and some of the architectural research that has been done there by the National Trust for Scotland. And Marilyn Brown’s presentation on Edzell Castle – I really must go there! It is not too far from me in Angus – and the iconography and imagery used, and still visible, in the Renaissance garden there. The way she was able to identify likely original European prints that were used as the basis of the designs still visible today was highly impressive. Indeed every time anyone mentioned the use of books by castle owners I would scribble frantically – book/reading historian in full mode. That included books on architectural design, garden design, military manuals, and so on. I also liked it when the speakers could say that the owner owned a particular book, which may have influenced the design of their home.

The second session, after lunch, looked more at interpretation of old castles and houses. This included a thought-provoking talk by Michael Davis, on whether the quest for authenticity is at the expense of castle preservation. I think he gave us lots to think about, and in an era where many Scottish castles are in dire need of preservation, but also people who can afford to pay for the work to be done, it was an interesting thing to muse over. He was followed by Fiona Fleming from Historic Scotland, who talked about how her organisation works with academics – historians, architectural specialists etc. – to understand the buildings that they look after, and to present an image of what they were like in the past to visitors. She closed with a recently created artist’s impression of a Renaissance feast, and there was Charles, in the front, depicted in hose and the rest, raising his tankard to the viewer. Quite a few of us nearly choked up at that point, but it was a lovely thing to close the session on, before the closing reflections by Professor Konrad Ottenheym, with the image of Charles plus tankard staying on screen.

If I have one criticism of the event it’s that quite a few speakers over-ran their time slots, quite considerably, 10/15 minutes, which with 20 minute slots and a fairly tight schedule caused timetabling problems. The pity was that it ate into the time for discussion and questions afterwards, in one case obliterating it, and I wish that hadn’t happened, because I think it’s at those times that the speakers and audience could have had a particularly productive discussion about taking the research forward that Charles has inspired so much.

That’s my one criticism, but in other respects it was a superb day. I’m really glad that I went, I want to learn more about Renaissance architecture and studies now, and I think it was a lovely tribute to Charles, and a very positive way of celebrating an active research area, that I hope will continue long after his time. I also thought it was lovely that so many of the speakers I saw included personal recollections of Charles in their talks, echoing memories for many of us.

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My former PhD supervisor has died. He was a renowned Scottish architectural historian, and professor at Dundee University with many relevant books and journal papers to his name. But I wanted to write about my own memories of him, which primarily concern the support he gave me over many years as a part-time postgraduate history student.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Charles over the last few weeks. I’d known he was seriously ill for many months. But after an article published in The Courier recently, recounting his young days, including Beano and Dandy reading, I hoped for a better outcome, not least because he was talking about his hopes for better health, and mentioning some of the places he would like to visit. It was not to be.

I first met Charles in 2001. I’d recently finished my Open University history and classical studies degree, and wanted to go on to do a postgraduate history Masters. I initially signed up for the OU’s Masters degree, but was frustrated that it had to be studied over three years: with my medical condition, and uncertain future, I wanted to finish sooner. But I couldn’t study full-time, which I knew ruled out St Andrews University’s history MLitts which didn’t (and possibly still don’t) offer part-time as an option. But then I learned of Dundee’s new taught postgraduate Masters in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, which sounded wonderful, and could be studied either full-time in one year or part-time over two years. I emailed Charles to make tentative enquiries, and he emailed me the course book back, and I was sure it was for me, so signed up.

Dundee’s history MPhil (they couldn’t call it an MA because it was a Scottish PG, and it would be a few years before it was renamed to MLitt) was taught weekly on Wednesday afternoons, with seminars on the second floor of the Tower Building at the University of Dundee. Charles led these, but there would often be other members of the history staff coming along to share with us their specialist knowledge. And we were encouraged to bring in primary source material, and discuss them. It was a wonderful time, and Charles was an inspiring teacher. I remember his unconcealed glee as he told us about the Beggar’s Benison club in Fife, and likewise how excited he got when talking about architectural history, such as the changes to the built environment in Enlightenment Scotland. Through him I gained a new appreciation for the importance of urban history: something I had vaguely dabbled with before, but had not studied properly until now. At the end of a year of lectures and essays the full-timers did their dissertations over a few months, while us part-timers had a year to complete. My dissertation was on Melrose regality court (local court) records in the late 17th century, and when the results came in I was the first Dundee history MPhil student to achieve a distinction in the Masters. Charles was delighted for me. I remember meeting him in the city centre by chance, and him saying that my MPhil dissertation was the best-written one he had ever read. I was ever so proud.

After that I started a part-time history PhD, studying reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820. Bob Harris was my supervisor, but a few years later he moved from Dundee to Oxford. Initially I carried on with him acting as my supervisor, long-distance, but there were some drawbacks to this, and at a Thesis Monitoring Committee meeting – the system at Dundee to keep a check on how research postgraduates are getting on, and deal with any problems – Charles volunteered to take over as my supervisor. I was delighted, and accepted his offer gratefully. Although it was not his specialist area he was well able to supervise the topic, based on his knowledge of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Scottish society and culture.

Initially it was a slightly difficult supervisor-supervisee relationship. Charles’s brain thought about historical problems in a different way from mine, indeed I had more in common thinking-wise with Bob. And Charles was also keen, at least initially, for me to do a lot of new research, for example looking at an extensive collection of pamphlets and chapbooks. But I was far through my part-time PhD, and didn’t have time for this, especially alongside my disabling neurological disease. However, together with advice from my former supervisor, Charles and I found a really good working way forward, that was productive, and still inspiring. Discussions at supervisor meetings would still leap about unpredictably, as Charles’s quick-thinking brain would latch onto new, unexpected ideas. But we were making forward progress, and both knew what we needed to do – and in particular what I needed to do – to get me to the end. He was my supervisor for the last three years of my part-time PhD, essentially the writing up period, which also saw me finish off necessary research using primary sources. And he was wonderful at helping me through the difficult writing stage, always giving constructive feedback on chapter drafts, and keeping me going.

I will always remember the coffee that Charles served in his office: usually flavoured, often slightly peculiar, but still nice. And he always had a wonderful collection of biscuits on offer: always unhealthy but ever so tasty! He was also always lending me books. His office was a tower of piles of books – I was never quite sure how he found anything – and he often had something new (or old, sometimes very) to show me, and often lend me. Best of all I always felt inspired and motivated by the supervisor meetings, ready for the next challenge ahead.

Most helpful were his penetrating questions about my research. He was never backward in asking “So what?!” about what I’d done, forcing me to put the research into the broader context and explain why it was important. And he made a big contribution to the analytical side of my PhD thesis by suggesting a higher-level subject categorisation method that I could use throughout my thesis to produce some numbers for relative weights of entertainment, improvement and religious reading, and thus permit meaningful comparisons between different pieces of evidence for reading habits and reading choices.

After my successful viva I had a meeting with Charles where we discussed my plans for the future, and in particular ideas for publication. He was keen for me to aim for extremely ambitious journals: some of which have paid off since, others not so successfully. But all of his suggestions were good, and worth trying. And we kept in contact ever since. The last time I saw him for an extended length of time I was in the university on an off-chance, and after visiting the library I ended up in College Hall, then thought I’d phone his office just in case he was around and free, so I could come and have a chat. And he was welcoming as usual, said come on over, and served me biscuits and coffee, and we nattered for an hour.

It’s impossible not to be sad about his passing, but I’ve been trying really hard over the last few weeks to remember good times with him. For example during our MPhil course he took the students on a walking tour around historic Dundee, at least the city centre parts. I had to use a wheelchair for the walk, with my husband Martin pushing, and we went up the most amazingly tiny wynds. Enormous fun, and we all learned so much. There’s now a Dundee Heritage Walk website based on the tours he did.

I’m also inspired again to pursue some of the interests he fostered in me. For example I’ll continue to photograph interesting examples of old architecture around Dundee and further afield: I’d never noticed them properly until he taught us so much architectural history. And I want to do more urban history research, following both the Masters he taught, and the year’s Research Asssistant work I did with Bob Harris on his pilot small Scottish towns study. And even simpler things, like eating houmous and pitta bread. I’d never tried houmous until Charles suggested I might like it, and I did. Even that brings back pleasant memories.

I am so sad that he has died, and my thoughts are with his family at the moment, and their great loss. But I am honoured to have known him, and am grateful for the difference he made to my life. A kind, wonderful human being.

For more information about Charles, including his research interests, see (at least for now) the history department web page about him.

There is an upcoming conference to celebrate Charles’s contribution to Renaissance architecture research: A New Platform for Scottish Renaissance Studies. This is to be held at Perth at the end of October. Originally, of course, Charles intended to be there. Now that can no longer happen, but we go ahead in his honour, celebrating what he did.

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