Monday, March 28, 2011

Color Me Doubtful.

There’s a new mobile picture-sharing app that’s making quite a buzz in the tech industry, and it’s called Color. Yes, that’s right, the word you’ve been using since you were old enough to grip and eat a crayon.

In the wave of Hipstamatic, Instagram and other photo-sharing apps, Color intends to create and promote a photo community in which all users within a 150 foot radius who are taking pictures with the program share images. The end result is a collection of photos stored on your phone taken by other people, mixed in with your own. Let’s describe two possible real-life situations here:

Scenario 1: You’re at an art show. Two hundred people are there. Approximately 5% of the patrons are using Color to document the occasion, including yourself. When you go home, you’ve got a collection of all the pictures taken by yourself and nine other people.

Scenario 2: You’re at a concert. This is a big show, and there are 7,000 people in attendance. You are within 150 feet of approximately 1000 people, of which 5% are using the app to document the occasion. Again, you leave with photos taken by yourself and 49 other people.

Sounds kinda neat, right? Well, it’s a mostly original idea, for sure. We’ve seen these kind of location-oriented social tools in products like Foursquare, where significant public adoption has led to its usefulness. At that concert, there might be fifty to a hundred people “checked in.”

Color will have to overcome this social adoption hurdle to become useful, otherwise you’ll be broadcasting your pictures to no one. The company and its investors understand this, which is probably why $41 million has been dumped into this nu-tech concept. A massive campaign to increase public awareness may be the only way that this takes off.

However, there are a couple major issues here that spell F-A-D.

First, the 150-foot radius intends to stop you from gathering tons of photos that weren’t taken anywhere near you. Imagine being at the Georgia Aquarium and ending up with pictures of the World of Coca-Cola next door. What the developers intend is a collection of photos with a “bug-eye view” – angles you didn’t think of, art pieces you missed, “decisive moments” that could only have been captured by one camera at one moment.

The real end result: Tons of duplicates of photos. Concerts might be the worst, with an end result of 1,000 blurry pictures of the stage or flash lighting up the backs of the heads of the closest four rows. You end up with photos of things that were always within 150 feet of you. Things you likely photographed yourself.

Additionally, the developers envision a society in which lots of happy hipsters hop about with their mobile phones taking Cool Pics. However, as mentioned before, widespread adoption is the key to the success of a tool like this, hence the massive investment into a free app.

The real end result: If you’re not around anyone else using the app, two things will occur: You will not receive anyone else’s pictures, and no one will receive yours. You took a bunch of pictures with this program for nothing. Foursquare junkies may already be familiar with this lonely-user concept: Think about how many times you check in to a location where no one else is, and yet you do it anyway. A check-in program like this requires minor commitment; conversely, a photo-based app requires the user to further manipulate their phone and to be in a relatively picture-worthy setting. These issues mean that this app will probably only be useful at large events or gatherings.

Finally--and this is a big problem for the investors--the developers have chosen a name with an extremely high web presence, on the order of 2.5 billion Google search results. Sure, the company’s incredible SEO got their main page into the top ten results, but when you say “Foursquare” out loud, people don’t think of the children’s game, they think of the mobile app. I doubt “Color” will overtake the concept of reflected light in various frequencies for widespread understanding. However, I would like to take this opportunity to praise the company for not going with Colr.

Speaking of those investors, the company has already racked up a $41 million bill without even launching beyond beta. I wouldn’t be surprised if a large chunk of that money secured the eponymous .com domain name to increase search engine ranking. So a free app, with nary a method for income, returning a profit? I remain doubtful.

Even worse, that 5% use rate mentioned earlier is pretty generous. I’d bet that the actual user rate will be far, far below this. This app is not a game-changer, it's a money-loser; at best, it’s a fun tool for picture sharing.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Confused by Sucker Punch? You're not alone.

Put this in the very short category of movies that I liked that everyone else hates, a small club with So I Married an Axe Murderer in it. I saw this movie on Saturday with five other people who just hated it, and with valid reasons that I’ll get into in a minute.

I try to go into a movie with an open mind, learning as little as possible about it ahead of time to give it a fair chance. Nonetheless, I generally condemn movies before viewing them, and especially action movies. But as I sat in the theater watching this movie in silence, I assumed everyone around me was as blown away as I was. I truly believed that I was watching something that we’d all be talking about for decades. I was wrong.

Actually, it’s not just my friends who felt this way. It was everyone walking out of the theater. It was all the top critics in the world. It’s the IMDB users who, as of this writing, had not even submitted a full five votes to give the movie a score. In fact, Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Sucker Punch is “Hands-down the most nightmarishly awful film of the year.”

So why would I, with my sometimes obnoxiously critical pessimistic view of high-budget movies, approve of this “nightmare”?

My guess is that most people didn’t understand the movie. This is understandable considering the content and the way it was portrayed. There have certainly been exceptional movies that were poorly understood by the viewing audience and therefore rejected as terrible (Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, for one. Convinced yet? No? Philestines!)

You certainly shouldn’t feel bad if this movie confused you and/or you hate it. We’re all entitled to our opinions, and there's quite a bit of merit to yours. Some of the storytelling methodology used in this movie is atypical (which can also be known as “groundbreaking”) and therefore difficult to digest. Here’s some reasons why I think this is a spectacular movie, despite having some very serious issues:


The frame tale walks the line between reality and fantasy. The vast majority of the movie takes place in a grandly delusional augmented reality punctuated by an entirely fantastic world of incredible action. Near the beginning of the movie, the viewer is caught off guard by the transition from the main protagonist’s committal to a mental health facility into a slave-labor brothel/gentlemen’s club. The plot takes an even deeper plunge out of reality when it morphs into a steam-punk World War I alternate reality.

This may be precisely the aspect of the movie that enraged people the most. Why would there be three parallel universes representing the same singular actions? We know very little of the protagonist’s origin; mostly that she has a younger sister and a severely brutal step-father who either serial rapes the pair or attempts it at least once. The main character is beaten, abused, broken; she even kills her own sister by accident in an attempt to save her. Being committed to the facility appears to be the logical choice for a person in her condition. In fact, in this version of reality, she never speaks a word. She is probably extremely traumatized–a likely candidate for frequent escapes from reality.

That this institution is indeed the authentic reality is confirmed in the conclusion of the movie. The brothel world, therefore, is the level in which she is comfortable and can be herself, able to act with confidence and have meaningful interaction with others. It’s the world in which she is worth something. The fantasy scenes, which manifest each time she performs a seductive dance for a club patron, are her escape even further from reality. While using her body as a means to an end, she envisions herself and her fellow slaves as warriors who must conquer an immense obstacle to achieve a small step toward their goal.

The sexual nature of the film’s content was not the focus, and was in good taste. Yes, it is true that the main characters spend most of the movie in skimpy burlesque outfits or ridiculously impractical combat wear. Being the probable victim of repeated sexual assault, it seems appropriate that the main character would envision a world in which her sexuality could be used to attain revenge on those who oppress her, in this case the embellished interpretations of the medical facility’s staff. As for the fight scenes—and you should already expect this from an action movie with female stars—the outfits are typical comic style. How good would Wonder Woman look wearing pixilated camo army fatigues? The entire purpose of the sexy superhero is that it is fully empowering: Not only is the hero incredibly powerful, but also stunningly attractive at the same time. Ever seen a hideous portrayal of Superman?

Despite writing this into the script as an obvious plot device, the director avoids using superfluous emphasis on sexuality. You will not find gratuitous close-ups on body parts or even cleavage for the most part. Even the seductive dance, universally praised by the other characters, is never shown; we get the fight scenes in its place. This was a smart move, as the movie was able to keep its PG-13 rating, thus allowing a younger (and more accepting) demographic into the theater.

The marketing for this movie was very smart. Not once in all of the trailers, commercials, print ads or any other advertisements for this movie did I see a reference to anything except the relatively minor fight scenes. As a result, I was able to view the movie with little prior knowledge of what it would actually be about despite extensive inundation by the successful ad campaign. This approach left me truly able to perceive the movie as intelligent, and not just a gimmick or another “dream sequence” cop-out.

I have heard others comparing this movie to Inception for its apparent use of these so-called “dream sequences.” However, as I stated before, this removal of the main character from the authentic reality is not at all a dream; rather it is her perceived, embellished world based upon the disturbing reality from which she wishes to escape.

Now this isn’t to say that I thought this movie was entirely quality. This complex arrangement of layers of reality are sometimes awkwardly or poorly explained. The failure of the screenplay to tie in all these separate worlds toward the end of the movie is probably the main downfall of the film, confusing the audience into hating it.

Other mistakes include an embarrassing soundtrack, featuring without a doubt the worst possible cover of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” ver made. For those of you that remember, this is the song played at the very end of Fight Club; in fact, I would argue that its use at such an integral part of that revolutionary film (which also featured a protagonist’s augmented reality) earns the movie sole rights to the song. Use in other projects just feels like an unoriginal idea.  Other covers, including the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” and the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” sound appropriate but feature profusely literal lyrics.

In the end, most viewers seem to be confused by the liberation of a secondary character. My understanding is that the main character sacrificed herself in order to let this less damaged inmate escape and continue her life far from oppression. Unfortunately, the entire final scene felt like it was an afterthought, as if the writers developed this incredible story not knowing how they would eventually resolve it, and never quite accomplished it. However, it probably would have been worse to neglect this scene altogether and leave it open-ended since I never hear positive reviews of movie endings that are open-ended. (Also, the very last line of the movie was an annoying and self-important attempt to be profound.)
So say what you will; I feel that if someone watches the movie again with these concepts in mind and takes in the extraordinarily masterful cinematography (not just the CG, but the camera work as well) combined with strong acting, tasteful directing, and an all-around original ideanot based on an existing comic series—Sucker Punch might just win you over.