Gadget Review – The 3M PocketProjector MP180

Last week I published a review of Visualize This, the new visualisation book and I’m continuing on the review trail today but this time its about a very different subject. The 3M PocketProjector MP180 is a gadget that will be extremely useful to any visualisation or design professionals who need a hyper-portable presentation solution. I was very grateful to be offered the chance to road test one of these devices straight off the production line and so wanted to offer some thoughts about its benefits and potential value to readers of this site.

The MP180 is a portable-sized projector described as ‘your office on the go‘ and claims to introduce a whole new world to projecting. It is not intended to be a replacement for full-powered projectors you in the office, rather an invaluable tool for those working in a mobile environment. Having the ability to present design work, share ideas or even make an impromptu pitch outside of the limited space offered by a laptop screen would seem a great advantage and that is something a pocket projector of this nature can offer.

I’m not going to go into great detail about the device’s specifications, you can find those out if on the 3M site if you wish. Instead, I’m offering some personal observations about how well the device performs and how useful it proves to be.

Features

The MP180 is packed with functionality and claims to offer several features that no other pocket projectors offer including WiFi, Bluetooth, PowerPoint/pdf/MS Office viewers, and a touchscreen interface. You can play movies, image slideshows, audio files and project office documents with good quality results.

One thing that stands out as a major advantage of the MP180 is its versatility, compatibility and connectivity with so many different formats and devices. With 4GB internal memory and a micro SD card slot, it provides a great platform for storing your documents or presentation material on the decide and providing complete freedom from cables or connections. However, if you do wish to connect up to other devices you have SVGA and mini-USB connectors to hook up to and project from PCs, laptops, and smart phones (including the new 3M Apple Cable for iPhone/iPad).

I found the menu navigation and icon selecting no trouble at all, despite reading reviews to the contrary. The evolving display brings greater potential and flexibility than any fixed alternatives. I did, however, find the touchscreen quite fiddly to use and awkward to get achieve complete accuracy of touch. This was particularly evident when it came to using the in-device Browser, which I don’t personally see a great need for nor value – it strikes me as an example of feature creep, best to leave this to projecting from a PC/Laptop.

Like a couple of other reviews I have read, I found the transfer and projection of video a bit fiddly and frustrating as I had to reconfigure all my original video file formats. The MP180 plays MPEG4 files with resolution no greater than 720×480(NTSC) and a frame rate no greater than 40 frames per second and so you may need to reformat your files using the recommended Handbrake or iWisoft software.

One note about the Bluetooth feature – the device supports Bluetooth 2.0 file transfer but the Apple iOS does not so the Bluetooth on 3M MP180 does not work with iPhones.

Size

As the name suggests it is a pocket sized projector - but I guess it depends on the pocket in question! Semantics aside, it is a very portable product, especially when you consider the sofa-sized beasts hanging precariously from ceilings in office conference rooms around the world. As the pair of images on this page show, it is certainly a nice convenient size but I’m not convinced it is sufficiently handy to enable you to project from the palm of your hand – unless you are an accomplished street performer with world-class standing-still skills, your viewers are going to quickly feel travel sick. A useful little stand comes with the device as standard to avoid the need for this. Of course with each additional stand, battery pack and set of connecting leads, this adds to the amount of kit you are having to carry around with you.

Projection Quality

Unlike the sort of reviews you get in gadget magazines, I can’t offer comprehensive test results to reveal how well the MP180 performs in its project quality against comparable devices. It provides 32 lumens of brightness – I have no real sense of judging this other than to say the nice, bright and crisply-detailed pictures I projected were absolutely perfect for my needs. It provides a much bigger vista to demonstrate or present work than a 13inch laptop screen does, with an 80″ (approx) screen size being possible. There is a handy focus wheel on the front enabling you to quickly adjust the settings to suit your position. Its worth remembering that, as with any projector device, you can have the most powerful and impressive features to hand but you’re projected picture quality is only going to be as clear as the light level and wall/screen texture allows.

Battery

The MP180′s battery life is said to last for about 2 hours of continued use. As I said above, it doesn’t claim to be a replacement for a full blown project, rather it is a device that can really help you in those spontaneous or short-lasting situations where a quick projected presentation is advantageous. To that extent, you don’t really need anything much longer than 2 hours and can most likely happily leave the office without feeling the need to drag along the charging plug. That said, I did notice a certain amount of battery drain during periods when it was not being used. Apparently, when the device is switched off it actually enters a kind of sleep mode to enable faster reboot and this means energy continues to be consumed. I would therefore recommend keeping it charged up to the point when you set off for your meeting, demo etc. and then flicking out the battery pack when not using it. A battery that is fully drained will take 3 hours to charge while not in use.

Another key point here is a really critical piece of advice for any users of this device. When you leave the battery pack inserted in the device and perhaps pack it away in your bag, you run the very likely risk of the device switching itself on as the on/off button is very sensitive to any touch or pressure. On a number of occasions already I have discovered the device both on and projecting in my bag, tucked away in the leather pouch this creates a lot of heat and in my mind could prove quite dangerous. In my mind there should be a more rigorous on/off button that reduces the risk of it being launched accidentally.

Cost

Some recent prices I found (inc. VAT) included Amazon.co.uk at £369.99 and a cheaper rate on PersonalProjector.co.uk at £347.99 (there is an exclusive additional £29.99 discount available for visualisingdata.com readers, see below). This price appears to position the MP180 at the higher end of the mobile projector market, but then it does offer a great deal more than the standard products in terms of features and functionality.

Final thoughts

When all factors are taken into account I must say was impressed with the performance and portable nature of the MP180. I feel it adds particular value in situations when you are otherwise having to squeeze a number of people around a laptop screen and it did seem to impress those viewing with me when I used it.

I feel there are some unnecessary features, such as the browser, that are included because they can, rather than because they should, but the essential functions are done very well. It projects a really clear and crisp picture doing justice to original photo images, for example, and videos (inc. sound) are slick. The video formatting issue was annoying but this kind of reflects the lack of standard across video formats which crops up in many other circumstances.

The MP180 offers great compatibility, portability and connectivity which you really need when on-the-move. Despite the battery drain when in off/sleep mode, the 2 hours continual use is absolutely fine. The on/off button issue is a real concern, though, and I think the potential of the device launching accidentally should be designed out in future developments.

Overall, if your budgets are tight or if you need to upgrade other pc/laptop equipment as a priority, you would probably see this as a luxury gadget. However, if you’re already well stocked on well-performing kit, I would recommend the MP180 should prove a tempting addition .

==================

Chance to win or buy at a discount!

Does this sound like the sort of device you would find useful? If you’d like to get your hands on a 3M MP180 there are two ways you can do this:

1) The conventional way: 3M have teamed up with Personal Projector, the Pocket Projection specialists, to offer an exclusive £29.99 discount on the 3M PocketProjector MP180. Additionally this offer also includes a 3M iPhone/iPad AV cable, worth £34, to connect to your projector. Click here to visit the site and use the code 3m14 before August 31st to claim your discount.

2) The contest way: I am about to publish a follow-up post which will provide details of a rapid and simple-to-enter contest where you could win your own 3M PocketProjector MP180. The closing date for this contest will be 17th August so if you’re not victorious there will still be plenty of time to take advantage of the above offer.

Visualizing.org Competition Runner-up!

I was thrilled to hear today that my entry (embedded below) was awarded a runners-up prize in Visualizing.org’s UN Global Pulse visualisation challenge. The purpose of the challenge was to explore survey data gathered by UN Global Pulse about perceptions of economic impact across five countries: India, Iraq, Mexico, Uganda and Ukraine.

The jury’s comment on my work was gratefully received:

The jury also selected a runner-up: Andy Kirk. His project impressed them with the depth and rigor of its statistical analysis. Kirk’s piece is easy to grasp, and manages to convey a sophisticated explanation and detailed contextualizing information about the countries. For this honorable mention, he will receive a $500 prize, courtesy of GE.

Thanks very much to all at Visualizing.org and the judging panel members from UN Global Pulse.

Also, congratulations to the winning entrant, Elena Paunova, whose successful entry is embedded below. Hopefully the collective efforts of all entrants, and the insights that have emerged, will help to affect positive changes amongst those populations most adversely impacted by the economic crisis.

The ways you can follow and interact with Visualising Data

Today happens to be 18 months since I launched Visualising Data and I’m happy to see that all the important statistics are telling me it is going in the right direction and seems to be well received. I wanted to express my genuine thanks to everybody who has read, visited, subscribed, followed, re-tweeted, shared, commented, emailed, discussed and liked the content I’ve posted. I’m sure there are other relevant, active verbs that I’ve failed to list there: whatever you have done, I thank you for it!

The real purpose of this post is to share with you a bit of the strategy and thinking behind the places through which I publish, share and contribute content, so you can get a better feel for which methods and platforms suit your needs best. I have a nicely growing following across all these platforms but I want you to be clear what you can expect from each one.

 

RSS Feeds | It feels a bit dated in many ways, but its still very popular and I am a slave to my feeds. If you subscribe to my RSS feed you will receive updates of every new blog post as soon as they are pulled into your chosen feed reader. Sometimes these readers can render posts in rather unintended ways but generally speaking they are a really convenient way to consume updates from your favourite sites in one place, without having to visit each one individually. Of course, should you wish, you can click back through to the original post on the site and interact or respond through the comments section. If you are not already a subscriber, you can become one here.

Twitter | At its most basic level, this is a way of receiving instant alerts for when a new blog post is published. As soon as I press ‘Publish’ on my WordPress admin site, a new tweet is instantly posted on Twitter, with a shortened link pointing you back to the post on the site. I’m always very grateful when followers re-tweet a post because it genuinely puts my content in front of new audiences. Apart from sharing posts, my twitter activity falls in to three categories: 1) re-tweeting interesting Twitter content I come across, 2) publishing shortened links to interesting web content I come across, and 3) interacting with other Twitter users. If you wish to become a follower of my Twitter account, you can do so here.

Google+ | Google+ is the new kid in town, having only been launched in June but the first impressions are positive. Despite Google’s volatile tendency to pull the plug on short-lived services, it looks like this could be here to stay. Its unclear whether it will become a Twitter- or Facebook-killer, but I’m embracing it as simply an extended platform for interacting and sharing, rather than a replacement for anything. Like Twitter, on my Google+ account you will find all blog posts published as soon as they are on the site, shared links to interesting web content and interactions with other users. The difference will be that, rather than re-tweeting, interesting Google+ specific content will only be shared within this platform. If you wish to add me to your Google+ circle, you can find me here.

Facebook | My Facebook activity can be explained very simply – its just another place where I automatically publish my latest blog posts. I know other bloggers use their Facebook pages for greater interaction and sharing of other content but I’m keeping it simple here. If updates to your Facebook wall are what you are after, you can ‘like me’ here.

Visualisingdata.com | Last but not least, the site itself. Apart from the RSS feeds, all the published blog posts links that I’ve mentioned above will ultimately point you back to my site. The benefit of being on the site is simply that you can easily navigate round all the blog’s content in one place, with easily accessible collections of posts organised by category, publication months, popularity and recency. I don’t allow many adverts to be published on my site, but of course it does help support the site when you visit the site, click on banners or even buy whatever is on the other side!

Book review – Visualize This, by Nathan Yau

Most people reading this post will be very familiar with Nathan Yau’s popular FlowingData blog. For several years it has existed as one of the absolute go-to hubs for visualisation content, news, tutorials and exhibits as the field has enjoyed a remarkable boom, evolving from a somewhat fringe pursuit to something which now penetrates the mainstream.

Last September, Nathan announced that a FlowingData book was in the pipeline. Two weeks ago ‘Visualize This’ burst on to the book shelves, literally, as it raced into Amazon’s top 100 best selling books!

Having gratefully received a copy last week, and after an initial read through over the weekend, I thought I would present a brief review of the book, offering some perspectives about its focus, content and value to visualisation designers of all backgrounds.

 

Purpose

The straightforward purpose of this book is to give readers a guide on how to create visualisations. As Nathan explains in an earlier blog post, describing his brainstorming process “It finally dawned on me that there should be a book on how to actually create and design data graphics. Like, really how… Lots of examples with real data, different tools, and thoughts on design along the way.”

At its heart this is an example-driven book, which builds on some of the most popular content found on FlowingData, specifically the well-explained tutorials which take everyday data visualisation problems and work through methods for solving them. The main hub of content aims to presents accessible visualisation approaches and methods depending on the data and the story you’re looking to tell or unearth.

Whilst referring to design concepts throughout, the book’s content leans towards a useful, practical focus more than it does theoretical. Its less about the why and more about the what, how and when.

It is aimed at those readers who are willing to open up new design opportunities through the capabilities of visualisation programming languages. If you’re a visualisation designer unwilling to embrace the challenges of picking up new coding skills, maybe you should look elsewhere (after you’ve had a long look in the mirror, that is…).

 

Content

The flowchart presented on Page xxvi gives a really nice (and visual) feel for the intended flow of the content. It is organised in a way that encourages you to either read it cover to cover or just drop in on a specific chapter: a structure which makes these type of ‘how to’-focused books so digestible and useful.

The content can be characterised by two distinct clusters – chapters concerned with establishing context and a foundation understanding of data visualisation in one cluster, with the practical methods and tutorials in the other.

 

Introduction & Chapter 1 (Telling Stories with Data)

These introductory sections effectively set the foundation of the book and the value of visualisation.  I imagine these were the most difficult chapters of the book to nail – introductions usually are – but they really help contextualise the subject and draw the reader into the book.

One of the most interesting aspects of visualisation is to hear about how people arrive in this field, particularly as it exists at a convergence of several diverse disciplines. Like traveling to any city there are many different routes and modes of getting there. The origin of Nathan’s own journey into visualisation is statistics, and before that electrical engineering. This appreciation of statistical rigour, clearly heavily influenced by John W Tukey, and an eye for sequential processes are prominent themes.

It’s fascinating to read how, prior to Nathan’s visualisation awakening (to frame it rather dramatically), he viewed “statistics as pure analysis, and data as the output of a mechanical process” (page 2). It was during his brief but pivotal internship at the esteemed New York Times’ Graphics Department (could there be a better internship, anywhere?) that Nathan developed a greater appreciation towards design and the need to tell the story about the data.

Working for the NYT taught him how to report data rather than just produce a graph. Here it was about taking data beyond statistics and analysis, towards a concise explanation of data that helps a reader make sense of real life.

Rather than just being a single continuum between objective journalism/analysis and art, entertainment and compelling categories are proposed as further dimensions, though. I would see this less about a separate space and more to do with subject matter – the methods of presentation will be the same as in the other two.

The Telling Stories with Data chapter sets out with an explanation of the nuances between deploying visualisation for objective analysis contrasted with visualisation for more artistic purposes. It offers the further categories of entertainment and compelling visualisations. Personally speaking, I would consider these to be characteristics of the purpose and/or subject matter, rather than a further distinct category of visualisation.

Semantics aside, I really liked the movie analogy to help explain the types and applications of visualisation. You get boring documentaries, you get inspiring and informative ones. You get great entertaining movies and you get trashy ones. Furthermore, what is the story you’re trying to develop – is it a report or a novel, is it to entertain or inform, is it to motivate and inspire or engage more casually? Taking the idea that data points could be considered to be characters, consider their history, their present and their future. Consider their character development and how do they interact with other characters and in situations, how does the plot evolve, how do you begin the story and end it?

This is a really nice way of conceptualising any visualisation task at hand and leads to what is the strongest central concept of the book – always let the data do the talking. Indeed, looking back at Nathan’s comments about brainstorming, he explains “to me, the nerd statistician, data takes centre stage, and everything else feeds off of it”.

One snippet that I really loved at this point in the book was the use of a histogram to double-up as a graphic legend – a superb little idea that helps transform the depth of a design instantly (page 14).

 

Chapter 2 (Handling Data) & Chapter 3 (Choosing Tools to Visualize Data)

Chapter 2 concerns the critical task of data handling. It covers important considerations around gathering and formatting data, introducing a wide range of options for obtaining data, including a helpful demonstration of python script to automate the task of scraping data from web sites. It then moves through a variety of tools to format and refine your data (such as Google Refine, Mr People).

Part of me thinks there was a chance to go in a bit more depth here about the challenges surrounding initial data checking and exploration, assessing its quality, identifying its range and diversity, learning about the data types, applying cleaning methods – generally preparing it for analysis/visualisation. Chapter 2 briefly mentions the potential issue of typos and Chapter 6 talks about unearthing outliers through visualisation methods, but a more resilient preparation stage would prevent this occurring later down the design process which could justify more discussion, earlier. Then again, in Chapter 1 (page 12) Nathan does refer to the challenges of data checking, conceding that it is his least favourite part of graph making. Good to know I’m not alone…

Chapter 3 provides a useful list of visualisation tools, categorised under out of the box, programming, illustration and mapping, with an emphasis on free resources. One key observation I made, not just about this chapter but across the book overall, was Nathan’s noticeable (and seemingly deliberate) move away from demonstrating methods of data preparation, analysis and visualisation using Excel. I entirely understand his motivation for doing this when he says in the comments section on one of his blog posts “Excel can do some good stuff, and there will be some in the book, but I will also put a lot of energy into weaning people off of it. It’s not as hard as you might think”.

Excel is the ubiquitous data handling and graphing tool: in survey results shown on page 88, 31% of respondents said they used Excel for visualisation. Perhaps its general exclusion relates to a belief that enough people already know how to handle themselves in Excel, what’s the point in explaining methods they are already familiar with?

 

Chapter 4 (Visualizing Patterns over Time), Chapter 5 (Visualizing Proportions), Chapter 6 (Visualizing Relationships), Chapter 7 (Spotting Differences) & Chapter 8 (Visualizing Spatial Relationships)

The fundamental meat of the book, and the content that will have most tangible impact on readers, exists between chapters 4 and 8. Here we have a range of practical ‘how to’ guides exploring different visualisation solutions to respond to different data problems or inquiries.

Rather than being seen as a menu of options, it is a much more coached presentation of what methods and design choices you may wish to make for given situations. As Nathan explained when previewing the book, “you don’t find a tool, and then go look for data that you can plug in. It’s the other way around. You get your data, decide what you initially want to know about it, and then pick the tool that’s right for the job.”

As I’ve already mentioned, those of you familiar with Nathan’s FlowingData tutorials will recognise one or two of the examples covered in these chapters and will be keen to get your hands dirty with a range of other valuable examples.

This section is not so heavy on theory, though it touches on key principles where necessary, it’s more about how to accomplish the visualisation solution you require – what to use, for what situation, and how to do it. It’s presented in a logical, clearly explained and sequential style that would seem appropriate coming from somebody of Nathan’s statistical and engineering background and his practical experiences within the pressured environment of the New York Times Graphics Department.

The demonstrations included focus largely on programming solutions – something he clearly set out to achieve from the outset. Prior to these chapters Nathan introduces a discussion about the fear of programming and the need to take it slowly and build up experience and success bit by bit.

The majority of the tutorials focus on R, which is clearly his strong suit, but there is also good coverage of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, Flash and ActionScript solutions. These provide a wonderfully accessible and helpful introduction to each method, framed around the spectrum of data visualisation challenges we find ourselves facing. Once you’ve conquered each one, feel comfortable with the coding syntax and structures, and ready to move on, you can then explore other texts to dive deeper into each environment. What this book provides is a starting point from which to commence your own learning process.

Nathan is particularly adept at taking initial output of a programming language (say R) and demonstrating how to refine it further, visually, by applying design techniques using Adobe Illustrator. Above all, he makes it clear that the reader/user’s viewpoint is the critical perspective against which all design and visualisation decisions should be made.

Finally, I was struck by the observation about how a failure to identify and understand relationships between content is the key factor that causes most graphics to fail themselves. This demonstrates a strong design trait.

 

Chapter 9 (Designing with a Purpose)

Irrespective of the fact this book could be read out of a linear sequence, I felt the nature of the content in this chapter was more closely aligned with the discussions that took place in the Introduction/Chapter 1.

One main take away from this short chapter, however, is a very well handled passage about the differences, issues and fault lines that exist within the field about defining visualisation, comparing it with information graphics etc. This debate is for a different book or indeed platform, but Nathan offers a balanced and non-dogmatic assessment of these different viewpoints and simply puts forward his approach which is to “consider the audience, the data in front of me, and ask myself if the final graphic makes sense” (page 341).

 

Conclusion

Every book ever written has something missing, you simply cannot write a book that serves everyone’s needs. But you can shape people’s expectations with a clearly defined purpose and this book perfectly delivers what it intends to.

Visualize This is a significant and valuable addition to the library of visualisation titles. You should own it. I’m glad I do.