$5 eBooks from Packt

The technical publisher Packt is offering eBooks for $5 through January 6th, 2015 as a holiday promotion. I encourage you to look very carefully through their selection and see what appeals. If you have time to read on, however, I’d like to explain in greater detail my mixed feelings about Packt (this was probably not the marketing department’s intention when they sent me an email asking me to publicize the promotion but I think it will ultimately be helpful to them).

Packt Publishing has always been hit or miss for me. They are typically much more adventurous regarding computer book topics than other publishers like Apress or O’Reilly (Apress is my publisher, by the way, and are pretty fantastic to work with and very professional). At the same time, I have the impression that Packt’s bar for accepting authors tends to be lower than other publishers’, which allows them to be prolific in their offerings but at the same time entails that they produce, quite honestly, some clunkers.

A specific example of one of their clunkers would be the Packt book Unity iOS Game Development Beginner’s Guide by Greg Pierce. The topic sounds great (at least it did to me) but it turns out the book mostly just copies from publicly available documentation.

To quote from one of the Amazon reviews from 2012 by C Toussieng:

“This book is unbelievably bad. What specifically? All of it. It takes information which can be easily garnered from the Unity and/or Apple websites, distills it down to a minimally useful amount, then charges you for it.

And this one from 2012 by JasonR:

The book basically covers a few pages of the Unity docs, then goes into 3rd party plugins they recommend, each plugin gets a couple of pages. Frankly, a simple search on Google will give you more insight.”

This is a shame since, even as more learning material is always appearing on the Internet which displaces the traditional place of technical books in the software ecosystem – material that is often free – there is still an important role for print books (and their digital equivalent, the eBook). While online material can be thrown out quickly, often covering about a fifth to a tenth of a chapter of a book that goes through the print publishing industry, they tend to lack the cohesiveness that is only possible in a work that has taken months to write and rewrite. A 300-page software book is a distillation of experience which has undergone multiple revisions and fact checking. A really good software book tries to tell a story.

The flip side, of course, is that modern technical books quickly become outdated while technical blog posts simply disappear. All in all, though, I find that sitting down with a book that tries to explain the broader impact of a given technology serves a different and more important purpose than a web tutorial that only shows how to perform streamlined – and often ideal –  tasks.

A propos of the thesis that good software books are distillations of years of experience – we could even say distillations of 10,000 hours of experience – I’d like to point you to some of the gems I’ve discovered through Packt Publishing over the years.

All of the Packt OpenCV books are interesting. I’m particularly fond of Mastering OpenCV with Practical Computer Vision Projects by Daniel Lélis Baggio, but I think all of them – at least the ones I’ve read – are pretty good. Daniel’s bio says that he “…started his works in computer vision through medical image processing at InCor (Instituto do Coração – Heart Institute) in São Paulo, Brazil.”

Another great one is Mastering openFrameworks: Creative Coding Demystified by Denis Perevalov. According to his bio, Denis is a computer vision research scientist at the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and co-author of two Russian patents of robotics.

One I really like simply because the topic is so specific is Kenny Lammers’ Unity Shaders and Effects Cookbook. His bio states that Kenny has been in the game industry for 13 years working for companies like “… Microsoft, Activision, and the late Surreal Software.”

I hope a theme is emerging here. The people who write these books actually have a lot of experience and are trying to pass their knowledge on to you in something more than easily digestible exercises. Best of all – ignoring the example from above – the material is typically highly original. It isn’t copy and pasted from 20 other websites covering the same material. Instead, the reader gets an opinionated and distinct take on the technology covered in each of these books.

What I especially appreciate about the $5 promotions Packt occasionally surfaces is that, for five dollars, you aren’t really obligated to try to read the entire book to get your money’s worth. I’ve taken advantage of similar deals in the past to simply read very specific chapters that are of interest to me such as Basic heads-up-display with custom GUI from Dr. Sebastian Koenig’s Unity for Architectural Visualization or Lighting and Rendering from Jen Rizzo’s Cinema 4D Beginner’s Guide. It’s also a great price when all I want to do is to skim a book on a topic I know pretty well in order to find out if there are any holes in my knowledge. Mastering Leap Motion by Brandon Sanders was extremely helpful for this and, indeed, there were holes in my knowledge.

According to his biography, by the way, Brandon is “… an 18-year-old roboticist who spends much of his time designing, building, and programming new and innovative systems, including simulators, autonomous coffee makers, and robots for competition. At present, he attends Gilbert Finn Polytechnic (which is a homeschool) as he prepares for college. He is the founder and owner of Mechakana Systems, a website and company devoted to robotic systems and solutions.”

Ash Thorp Shout Out

Ash Thorp is another alumnus of Atlanta’s ReMIX conference for code and design who has made it big (or, to be accurate, big-ger). Like Chris Twigg and 3Gear, who were profiled in the last post, we were fortunate to have Ash Thorp present at ReMIX a few years ago when it was still possible to get him.

Ash was recently named to the Verge 50, squeezed somewhere between Tim Cook and Matthew McConaughey. The Verge website’s Fifty of 2014 is their list of the “most important people at the intersection of technology, art, science and culture.”

Ash Thorp is a visual designer for movies, designing both the intros for movies as well as the overall look and feel of a film. His specialty is sci fi and superhero movies and you’ve seen his work everywhere from Prometheus to Ender’s Game and beyond. He first came to our attention because of his website where he lifted the curtain a bit and showed how film design is actually done. From this, we could start piecing together the similarities between what he did and the more standard graphic design typically done for digital and print.

Ash Thorp is also the host of the Collective Podcast, which are a series of open-ended and meandering conversations about design, life and the universe. It is an earnest attempt by creative professionals to connect the world with their work and to use their work as designers as a prism for understanding the world. There is nothing quite like it in my field, the software development world, and we are all the poorer for it.

He’s also done lots of other cool projects, like his homage to Ghost in the Shell, that are all about being creative and sharing inspiration without an underlying profit motive. He is constantly trying to share and change and mold and give which is as much a testament to his boundless energy as it is to his essentially giving spirit.

Here is the brilliant presentation Ash gave at the ReMIX Conference a few years ago, revealing his approach to … well … work, life and the universe.

The Future of Interface Technology – Ash Thorp from ReMIX South on Vimeo.

Congrats to NimbleVR

I had the opportunity to meet Rob Wang, Chris Twigg and Kenrick Kin of 3Gear several years ago when I was in San Francisco demoing retail experiences using the Microsoft Kinect and Surface Table at the 2011 Oracle OpenWorld conference. I had been following their work with stereoscopic finger and hand tracking with dual Kinects and sent them what was basically a fan letter and they were kind enough to send me an invitation to their headquarters.

At the time, 3Gear was co-sharing office space with several other companies in a large warehouse space. Their finger tracking technology blew me away and I came away with the impression that these were some of the smartest people I had ever met working with computer vision and the Kinect. After all, they’re basically all Phd’s with backgrounds at companies like Industrial Light and Magic and Pixar.

I’ve written about them several times on this blog and nominated them for the Kinect v2 preview progrram. I was extremely excited when Chris agreed to present at the ReMIX conference some friends and I organized in Atlanta a few years ago for designers and developers. Here is a video of Chris’s amazing talk.

Bringing ‘Minority Report’ to your Desk: Gestural Control Using the Microsoft Kinect – Chris Twigg from ReMIX South on Vimeo.

Since then, 3Gear have worked on the problem of finger and hand tracking on various commercial devices in multiple configurations. In October of 2014 the guys at 3Gear initiated a Kickstarter project for a sensor they had developed called Nimble Sense. Nimble Sense is a depth sensor built from commodity components that is intended to be mounted on the front of an Oculus Rift headset. It handles the difficult problem of providing a good input device for the VR system which has the obvious side-effect of preventing you from seeing your own hands.

The solution, of course, is to represent the interaction controller – in this case the user’s hands – in the virtual world itself. Leap Motion, which produces another cool finger tracking device, also is working on creating a solution for this. The advantage the 3Gear people have, of course, is that they have been working on this particular problem with particular expertise in gesture tracking – rather than merely finger tracking – as well as visualization.

After exceeding their original goal in pledges, 3Gear abruptly cancelled their kickstarter on December 11th and the official 3Gear.com website I have been going to for news updates about the company was replaced.

This is actually all good news. Nimble VR, a rebranding of 3Gear for the Nimble Sense project, has been purchased by Oculus (which in turn, you’ll recall, was purchased by Facebook several months ago for around $2 billion).

For me this is a Cinderella story. 3Gear / Nimble VR is an extremely small team of extremely smart people who have passed on much more lucrative job opportunities in order to pursue their dreams. And now they’ve achieved their much deserved big payday.

Congratulations Rob, Chris and Kenrick!