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Posts Tagged ‘medieval’

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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This week has been graduation week at St Andrews. But the university has also been hosting a conference: The Middle Ages in the Modern World, whose subtitle is ‘A multidisciplinary conference on medievalism in the post-Middle Ages’.

Middle Ages conference programme

Middle Ages conference programme

Now the Middle Ages isn’t my main research period, indeed it’s one I don’t know much about at all. But it’s an interesting theme for a conference, and there were enough intriguing looking talks for me to sign up as a delegate. Coming over from Dundee the conference was almost on my doorstep, only half an hour away from home. It seemed daft to miss it. Also St Andrews seems like a perfect venue for a conference on this, given its rich history, including being a centre for learning since the Middle Ages, and its many medieval buildings, both intact and those, like the Cathedral and Castle, more ruined.

St Andrews Cathedral ruins

St Andrews Cathedral ruins

Unfortunately I couldn’t attend very much of it due to my MS-like illness. The conference runs over three full days, plus a plenary talk on the day before then. But I couldn’t ever hope to do successive days now. In the end I aimed for the plenary on the Tuesday, then would rest on the Wednesday, before coming back for much of the Thursday, and resting again (and missing) the Friday talks.

I’d arranged in advance for my husband to attend free as my carer and wheelchair pusher. He would be bored, but was essential if I was going to get through the time there. Although I don’t usually use my wheelchair I find now that when I attend an academic conference, and have the combination of needing to keep my brain in gear and juggle moving around for different panels and things, all for many hours, the wheelchair lets me keep going for longer, and thus stay and participate in the conference for longer too. We had a few hiccups with the disability support when we turned up to register for the conference on Tuesday, but they were eventually all sorted out. The best help of all came from a university porter at College Gate on North Street, who despite the closed-off university grounds and parking due to graduation waved us through, and walked us round to a suitable parking space, right near the Younger Hall where Terry Jones’s plenary was taking place later that day.

We killed time until the talk by wheeling along to the university’s Main Library, where there’s now a very comfortable cafe, that kept me topped up with hot chocolate, while I worked on an academic paper on my iPad and my husband read. I’d printed a floorplan of the library before travelling. It was renovated recently, and I’ve been a bit bamboozled by the new layout. It has changed enormously from the library I knew from 1990 onwards. My husband and I are life graduate members of St Andrews university library, and could have gone into the main area to sit at study desks, but it was more comfortable to kill time in the new library cafe with informal seating and hot drinks machines nearby.

Terry Jones’s plenary talk was being put on as a joint conference opening plenary and lecture to celebrate the university’s 600th anniversary. It was held in the Younger Hall, where I graduated with my husband in 1994, and there was a large audience of conference delegates – who got the good seats at the front – and other members of the public. The principal, Louise Richardson, introduced the speaker, and then he spoke for about 45 minutes on ‘Columbus, America and the Flat Earth’. Overall it was a very well presented talk: funny, educational, and challenging at the same time. It also had, appropriately, a very Pythonesque series of PowerPoint slides, making hilarious use of pop-up speech bubbles. And he got away with a very risque picture at the end. As the principal commented afterwards, it was unlikely that any picture like that had ever been shown in that venue before! It was thoroughly entertaining, and the appreciative audience enjoyed it immensely.

We’d booked a meal in my favourite restaurant, but because the plenary finished very promptly we were able to nip round first to a former computer science lecturer of mine’s home, and have a cup of tea and a chat and catchup with him, which was really nice. And then the restaurant meal was as good as expected.

Sadly of course I had to miss the Wednesday talks. That included a panel on furniture and furnishings, including a talk on the 18th century, that I had been really keen to go to, but then it was moved at a late stage in the programme from Thursday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon. Drat! And I knew I was also going to miss two other talks on the Friday that would have really appealed to me: one about representing the Middle Ages in computer strategy games, and another about weird fiction of M.R. James. Drat again! Still couldn’t be helped.

So rest (actually sleep all night and day) on the Wednesday, then back on the Thursday. We missed the opening plenary, to keep things manageable for me, and turned up around 10.30. The main conference is at the Gateway building at the North Haugh, not far from where my husband and I were science undergraduates in the early 1990s. I hadn’t been back to the North Haugh since I left my full-time computer science PhD in 1996, as my developing neurological illness got too much to battle on with. So it was quite a big thing for me to be back in the area. The Gateway centre is nice: modern, with some good facilities. But there were downsides as a wheelchair user. The lifts are tight if you are in a wheelchair, and I couldn’t have managed them on my own. And there are also lots of doors to negotiate, again something I couldn’t have managed without help. Also from the perspective of a conference venue we found, in theatre 3, that there was a lot of sound coming through from theatre 4 next door, and from the kitchen. Sound proofing in the building does not seem as good as it should be.

On the plus side I really enjoyed my time on Thursday. In the end I only stayed for two panels. Had the furniture panel still been on in the last slot I’d have hung on for that, but as it was it was better to head off before I got too weak. The first panel I went to was on Arthuriana in the Modern World, and included discussions of the Once & Future King, Tolkien’s epic poem Fall of Arthur, and some German Arthurian texts. All were enjoyable, and all prompted me to check what books I have on my Kindle (already Fall of Arthur, going to buy Once & Future King to reread, and bought an English version of medieval romance Parzival).

Lunch followed, and was tasty and well organised, and provided a welcome break before the afternoon panel. It also gave me a chance to look through the book Treasures of St Andrews University Library which I’d bought at a discount in the morning. I was particularly intrigued to read about the library borrowing records they hold, because I studied lots of such records for my history PhD investigating reading habits. And I also spotted that they have three manuscripts of Sir Isaac Newton, so immediately texted my physicist Dad to tell him!

Treasures of St Andrews University Library

Treasures of St Andrews University Library

The final panel I went to was on Modern War and the Medieval Past. I particularly liked Carol Symes’s talk about the Middle Ages of World War I, including the ways in which the Middle Ages was used by the various sides in propaganda. This was well illustrated and used PowerPoint well, showing us posters, postcards, photos and news reports from the time. Thoroughly well done. And then I also enjoyed Andrew Lynch’s talk about the Medieval in Children’s Histories of England. Though on the downside he declared up front that he was talking about four histories: one from the 18th century, two from the 19th, and one from the early 20th. In the end he only really talked about the 19th century ones, which for me as an 18th century book historian was a pity. But I can always try to get a copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s children’s history – another for the Kindle!

We headed off after that. I was quite weak by this stage, and it was better to head home. We took the chance to look at the museum exhibits on the ground floor of the Gateway, before driving round to Jannetta’s ice cream parlour, to have a treat, and use the 10% discount voucher I had from the conference (great idea organisers: thanks!). 52 flavours to choose from, which is really hard, but I plumped for some wacky ones: a 2-scoop tub of spiced peach and hazelnut ice cream. Was good, and served with a wafer.

Ice cream from Jannettas

Ice cream from Jannettas

Tonight the delegates are dining at University Hall, which the conference programme describes as a “turreted, gothic confection of a building”. I stayed there in 1990-1991, and that description just about sums it up, at least the older prettier bits. Lucky diners!

Am I glad that I went? Yes, though I wish I could have gone to more events, and I wish I could have attended some of the other talks I was interested in, particularly the panel whose day was moved. But I had to compromise, and I think I found enough things of interest to me. I also found the talks that I attended well aimed, so they would appeal to both specialists and general (like me) audience members. And my Kindle now has many more books to read. So thanks very much to the organisers, speakers and fellow delegates.

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