Thursday, July 30

The Real World ... ... ... (of Warcraft)

Some time ago, South Park (which is a very funny show that I never watch, and wouldn't possibly suggest YOU watch, either) made an episode called "Make Love, Not Warcraft." It was filled with the usual assortment of poop jokes and gross-outs, but running through it was a damned fine skewering of people who obsess over World of Warcraft.

Laughing loudest were guys like me. Ones who obsess over World of Warcraft. We tell you that we have "three 80s and the only reason we don't have a fourth is that we can't decide what class to level next." If you're looking for a WOW-speak to English translation, level 80 is the highest level a character in that game can achieve. Having one level 80 is good, having three is borderline crazy, and I know some people in game that have six.

Anyway, South Park ... where was I? Oh yeah. One great moment in that episode was when the board of directors at Blizzard discovered the rogue player who was threatening to destroy their game, and one of the minions blurted out with "This could mean the end of the WORLD!" and, after a few seconds, sheepishly added "of Warcraft."

Nice job, that, mocking those of us who really feel like a virtual game world is a living, breathing place. We deserve it. Marriages have failed, jobs have been lost, and personal hygiene is a forgotten skill because geeks fall so in love with who they PRETEND to be, they can't waste any attention on who they really are.

By now, most of you reading this (Hi, Mom!) think I'm going to argue that we shouldn't play video games so obsessively. You'd be wrong. In fact, I see nothing wrong with my obsession over video games. My two children also play WOW, and it's very fun to be the dad who comes riding to the rescue (literally! ... well, VIRTUALLY literally). When my son tells his high school friends that his dad has three level 80s and is going to help him with something in game, it provokes looks of astonishment. Almost as much as when he tells them his dad just bought the new Disturbed album. (How DOES that guy have any vocal cords left, anyway?)

No, the point of this rambling muse is that the weirder the REAL WORLD gets, the better and more sane the virtual world becomes. I don't log in to the World of Warcraft because I want to escape to a fantastical realm where magic is real and there be DRAGONS, I log in to the World of Warcraft because the world is stable and predictable. It reassures me to see that things in WOW are pretty much as I left them. The economy didn't become a turd overnight, Stormwind didn't suffer a terrorist attack, and Goldshire is still a cesspool.

(WOW-to-English Dictionary Sez: Stormwind is the capital for the human race, and Goldshire is a small town in the beginning area for human characters. Goldshire is well known as a place where players with overactive glands come to spew hormones all over, and through, their keyboards. If it wasn't so completely pathetic, it would be hilarious.)

In the real world, I have no control over things. I could lose my job tomorrow. I could lose my health tomorrow. I could lose my family to...okay, you get the point. Now, I believe that God exists and has control over things, but C. S. Lewis said it best. Aslan is not a tame lion. He permits things, he even causes things, for his own reasons. And if I don't understand what he does, I still have to accept that he knows what he's doing. What is best for the big picture might be really crappy for me, in the short term anyway.

So while I struggle to remain calm out here, in THERE (this is the part where you get to picture me gesturing at the computer on my desk) I can feel safe. I can take care of myself. And if I DO happen to die, resurrection is just a corpse run away. (Whoops! More WOW-speak. A corpse run is when you wake up as a ghost in the cemetery and run back to your body, at which time the game brings you back to life.)

The irony of it all is nearly overwhelming. Video games with their virtual worlds started out as someplace where we would escape from the mundane in search of adventure and thrills. Somewhere along the way, these virtual worlds have become where we turn to escape the terror of real life in search of safe, predictable surroundings where life follows the rules.

That South Park episode is looking less and less funny, all the time.

Sunday, July 19

Let's Talk ... About Google Voice

I'm a fan of Google. I have been for years. Google was the best search engine when we didn't know what search engines were good for, and they're still the best search engine even though Bing isn't half bad. I use Google Calendar to keep track of my life, Gmail serves as my webmail, email archive, and spam filter, and I use Google Documents more often than I do Open Office or Microsoft Office (I also introduced it to the Into Tomorrow show when it was still called Writely; today it forms the core of how the show coordinates...well, everything).

Oh, and this blog is hosted on Blogger, which is also a Google product.

So I'm a fan. We've all got that. For what it's worth, I don't get paid anything by Google and in fact I've never even met anyone of consequence who works for the company.

I was therefore quite pleased to get an invite to try Google Voice. This is their new telephony service that gives you a single telephone number that will ring multiple phones at the same time, with brilliantly fast voicemail and text messaging built in. After testing it out this week, I've compiled a list of my top five favorite things about Google Voice.

1. One Number to Rule Them All. Part of the sign up process for Google Voice is to choose a telephone number. They have them in all area codes it seems, and I was able to find one in the 954. (Hey! Do I sound like I'm all cool and stuff when I use phrases like "in the 954?" It would be nice to sound cool. At least once.)

After you've selected your phone number, then you link it to one or more of your existing phones. I linked mine to my cell phone and my home phone. Now, when someone calls my Google Voice number, BOTH PHONES ring at the same time. If I take the call on one phone, the other one stops ringing.

A buddy of mine told me yesterday that he HATED this feature, because he doesn't want people to be able to find him nor does he want to give up the excuse that he's missed their call. I suppose there is some point in that, but until I go into the Witness Protection Program, I don't seem to mind if people can find me more easily.

2. Voicemail to Text Transcription, Instantly. If I don't answer either phone, or I decide after answering and hearing who is calling to shunt the call to voicemail, Google Voice takes a message. In just SECONDS (and I mean it was FAST!), there is an entry in the Google Voice inbox, accompanied by an email in MY inbox and a text message on my mobile phone, with a transcription of the voicemail.

If you're anything like me, the bane of your existence is listening to LONG and MEANDERING voicemails. First, you're irritated. Eventually you begin to SCREEEEEAAAAAM at them, demanding that they get to the point! Having voicemails transcribed to text lets me get the entire thing at a glance, discretely, and it doesn't require me to stop what I'm doing and call in to play back the message.

Of course, you CAN play back the message if you want to, either from the Google Voice inbox, your email inbox, or even your text message. I've been comparing the transcriptions to the actual recorded messages, and so far they are extremely accurate.

3. Integrates with My Contacts. My contacts are maintained in three places. I have them in the Contacts application on my Palm Treo, in the address book on Mozilla Thunderbird, and in Google Contacts. The last one serves as the center hub, I suppose, since my Treo synchronizes with Google Contacts using GooSync (an excellent service, by the way, if you want to synchronize a handheld device with Google Calendar and Contacts), and Mozilla Thunderbird synchronizes with Google Contacts using the Zindus add-on.

So no matter where a Contact is entered or edited, eventually the information propagates around to all three places. All automatically, without me having to do a thing. I do something similar with my calendar. I love this system; it is a great boost to my level of organization.

Since Google Voice uses Google Contacts, when a call comes in routed through them, it will both send the caller's number to my Caller ID (as opposed to Google Voice's number) and it will announce the caller by name when I answer the call, which is very useful on the home phone because I don't have Caller ID on every handset.

Best of all, I don't have to do anything additional or different in order to keep this all up to date.

4. Integrated Inbox For Messages And Texts. Google Voice has a web based inbox feature that looks a lot like Gmail. There is a mobile version I can access from my Treo and a nice gadget for my iGoogle home page, so I can see who has called and what message they left at a glance. If someone sends a text message to my Google Voice number, that's forwarded to my cell phone. The text message comes from Google Voice, in this case, so my reply goes back to them and is forwarded to the original sender.

This allows Google Voice to keep a record of both sides in any text message conversation, and it stores these in the same inbox as my voicemails. In short, the Google Voice inbox gives me a permanent record of everything that I might otherwise forget, and there is no need to call in to a voicemail system, or even track down a telephone, in order to access it. It's fast and convenient.

5. Switch Phones in Mid Call, Silently. Google Voice offers conference calling for up to four participants and as a related service, it will let you switch from one phone to another in mid call. Here's how it works. Let's say you call my Google Voice number and I answer on the home phone. We're not done with our conversation yet, but it's time for me to leave. Instead of telling you to call me back on my cell phone, I just press the star button on my phone and the other lines, in this case my cell phone, begin to ring. When I answer, Google Voice conferences the three calls together and then I can hang up on the one I'm not going to use, leaving the other part intact.

If my cell phone voice quality is good enough, the person I'm talking with might not even know I've just transferred their call.

There are a lot of other things Google Voice does. The ability to record phone calls, or to listen in as voicemails are being left (giving you the option of breaking in, if you realize this is an important call that should be taken right now), these are both powerful features. You should check the web site for the complete feature list. Believe me, it's long.

The five I've listed above were simply the ones that made the biggest impression on me.

When I showed Google Voice to my wife, who is a user of technology but not a geek like me (in other words, she's normal and like 99% of the world), she made the observation that this seemed as though it would do for someone what a receptionist in an office might do. It's true, when you think about it. It answers your phone, forwards calls, takes messages, organizes the "While You Were Out" slips (so to speak), and does this all for free.

In these hard economic times, we all need to take advantage of any technology that lets us do more with less. Google Voice does a LOT more, for a lot less. It's on an invite-only status right now, like Gmail once was, but you should be able to get your own account very soon.

Oh, before I end this, let me mention one thing about this service. It's not designed to just be an uber-voicemail system. You don't forward your existing phones to Google Voice. It's not the LAST thing in the telephony chain, it's the FIRST. I've seen complaints from people who are trying to use it as a simple voicemail service (like J2's service, for instance). If you're not letting Google Voice take the incoming calls and manage them for you, then you're misusing the service and you probably won't like it very much (or, at least, not AS much).

Soon, you'll be able to port existing phone numbers to Google Voice. Perhaps that will help people who just didn't want to update everyone with yet ANOTHER new number to call. Or perhaps people are cranky and stubborn, and will be determined to pound their square peg into this round hole.

In the meantime, just browse the list of available numbers and snap up one that's easy to remember. If you try the service, leave me a comment and tell me what you think of it, and why.