Is this the end of HealthVault?

MSN Health & Fitness

As part of the rebranding to MSN, the fantastic Health & Fitness app gained a number of smaller features, and lost one big one: synchronisation to Microsoft’s HealthVault medical data backend.

HealthVault first started back in 2007 in the United States as a medical storage system designed for families to share data with doctors and medical institutions. It expanded in 2010 to include the United Kingdom with grand plans to integrate the service into the UK’s National Health Service. It seems that these grand plans were never realised, as I’ve never been able to get access to my NHS data this way.

HealthVault for Windows Phone

I have been using HealthVault for years though. It’s my central repository for all my health information including steps from my Fitbit, blood pressure, emergency contact details and, until now, calorie intake and exercise statistics from Health & Fitness.

In my opinion, today’s removal of the HealthVault synchronisation is probably for technical reasons, but it may signal the beginning of the end for the service. I can’t imagine Satya’s Microsoft keeping two competing health platforms up and running for long. Especially with new competitors outside of the company from the likes of Apple’s HealthKit and Google Fit.

I was involved in a small private beta of the Health & Fitness app for Windows Phone in an effort to try and reduce the serious amounts of crashing that would occur on the app when tracking exercise with the GPS. It’s also no shock to anyone that has used it that entering information and waiting for it to synchronise was a slow process.

MSN Health & Fitness for Windows Phone

Synchronisation is super-fast on the new Health & Fitness app and the newly designed Azure-powered backend is probably a big factor in that speed, especially when compared to the aging HealthVault platform API.

The diet and cardio information entered into the app is also available on the new MSN portal that launched today. This is also super-fast and responsive. It’s no wonder they’ve made this decision for end users.

Finally, there is a possibility that MSN’s new cloud backend will eventually end up synchronising directly with HealthVault, rather than going through the device-based clients as it used to. But it seems doubtful based on my understanding.

Update

Since writing this article, Microsoft Health has been announced. Microsoft has confirmed that backend data from this new health insights engine will be able to export to HealthVault. I can only assume that MSN’s Health & Fitness data will be updated to feed into Microsoft Health, and eventually into HealthVault. At the moment, this isn’t happening, but I’ll update the post if/when it is up and running.

Cortana comes to the UK

Something I can do for you, Jules?

When I first started using Cortana four months ago, she immediately became a useful asset for things like reminders and search. Over time she got much better at giving me local information about places, events, and restaurants automatically.

The other thing that improved greatly was her voice and personality. She started to tell jokes, sing songs, answer trivia related questions and much more. Over the four months I grew attached to the personality, and got used to the voice.

When Cortana officially arrived in the UK they did the expected localisations work, like using Celsius rather than Fahrenheit. But they also changed her voice – and therefor her personality – to be British, and for some reason this means she is a lot more formal and a lot less friendly.

Microsoft Cortana

In the United States, Microsoft’s personal assistant is voiced by Jen Taylor – the original voice of Cortana from the Halo series of video games. Her voice is friendly and bouncy, and has lots of emotion.

Over the pond things are different, Cortana has been voiced by someone else for the British market. My initial reaction was that this new voice sounded slightly robotic like a generic ‘sat nav’. This is obviously not a good thing for the technology.

I’m not really surprised though. There is no single British accent, and unless you’re going to provide dozens of options, you’re probably going to choose one that sounds like ‘BBC English‘.

It turns out that the way a computer speaks to you is absolutely fundamental to the way a vocal user interface works. As we move into this world of natural voice interaction, we need to understand what this means on the human level. In this case it feels to me that my personal assistant has left her job, and has been replaced by someone else. Against my wishes.

Localisation aside, Cortana is pretty much the full featured version that you get over in the United States, for example here is what Cortana showed me on Saturday the 16th of August while I was studying in the library.

Cortana on Windows Phone 8.1 GDR 1

As you can see there’s a lot of information here and almost all of it stuff I wanted to see, though I must admit I could quite happily see some improvements in how she finds potentially relevant news. Ideally I’d like to have something like Techmeme‘s ability to surface technology news.

Overall, I’m extremely pleased with Cortana and I’ve already noticed improvements in the voice to make it less robotic. But I have to admit, I’d much rather keep the original voice of Jen Taylor and combine it with the ability to tell me temperatures in Celsius.

Is that too much to ask for?

Watching Gravity on Xbox Video

I don’t own any movies on DVD or Blu-ray. None at all. I gave up on DVD at the same time I stopped buying CDs, and I have never been interested in getting myself a Blu-ray player for movies either.

Most of the movies I watch are on Netflix, but once in a while a new movie comes along that I want to watch as soon as I can. In previous years there weren’t any decent (legal) ways to do this, but these days there are a number of options for getting movies online.

As a happy user of Xbox Music, I thought I’d give Xbox Video a try.

Xbox Video

Xbox Video is a streaming video service that lets you either rent or purchase movies, and watch them directly on your Xbox, Windows device or in a web browser.

The only video I’ve purchased on Xbox Video previously was Mean Girls – but that’s a 10 year old movie and didn’t include any of the fancy extras you get with SmartGlass.

When Gravity became available I purchased the HD version for £14.99. Because it’s purchased, rather than rented, I can watch it as many times as I want, including the SmartGlass extras.

Gravity

In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone is a mission specialist on a Space Shuttle mission to Hubble, when an accident causes the rest of the crew to perish.

In a slightly unrealistic-but-more-realistic-than-most-movies turn of events she finds herself at the International Space Station, then to a Chinese Space Station in an attempt to get back home.

SmartGlass on Windows Phone

Through Xbox SmartGlass you get access to special content – which I believe is also included on the Blu-ray release. I have the option of accessing the extras through either my Windows Phone, or my Surface tablet. There are also apps available for both iOS and Android too, but I don’t have either of those devices.

My favourite part of the extra content was actually the video short, however I couldn’t get it to play full screen for some reason. Bit of a shame.

Xbox SmartGlass

In “Aningaaq”, we see the other end of the radio conversation that Stone has while in the Russian space craft. Aninqaaq, a fisherman in Greenland, is also dealing with death in his own way. This time we are provided with a translation for his side of the conversation, which is a great little extra to the movie.

Overall the Xbox SmartGlass experience was good, and more interesting when I watched the movie for the second time. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a movie specifically for the extras before, and I’m not going to start – but it’s a good little bonus.

Gravity

Using Windows Reading List

When Windows 8.1 came out it included an application called Windows Reading List, which used the Share functionality of Windows to bookmark articles which can be read later.

Any application that shares the right kind of information can be used with Reading List, but the applications I use most often are Internet Explorer, Flipboard and the Bing applications.

Reading List

When you share an article to Reading List it asks you which category to use. I have set myself up with categories for software development resources, health and fitness information and general inspiration for life and work.

Adding articles on either Windows or Windows Phone will use your Microsoft account to synchronise automatically. This is completely seamless in both applications – meaning there are no options to configure these settings at all. I’m quite happy with this, but I know that some power users would prefer the option to choose how the information is synchronised with their computers.

Reading List and Internet Explorer in Reading Mode

When you use the application on Windows, clicking on one of the articles will open up another window next to the snapped reading list. I love this feature, and it really goes to show the strengths of multitasking with the modern interface in Windows.

Doing the same on the phone just opens Internet Explorer, the related application, or prompts you to search the store if you pick something that is incompatible. For example the Bing Wikipedia app isn’t currently available on Windows Phone, so clicking articles from this app prompt you to search the store.

Reading List for Windows Phone

The addition of the Windows Phone version of this application has really increased its use for me, however it’s obvious uses are diminished when used with older versions of Windows.

At work I use Windows 7 for my development machine, and there’s no way I can share interesting links found here with my Reading List. While I’m not expecting Microsoft to create a desktop app, a simple bookmarklet or browser extension would certainly do the job for collecting new articles to be read later.

Hi, Cortana!

Cortana in Halo

More personality than Google Now and more personal than Siri. Cortana is Microsoft’s personal assistant, providing a natural language interface to Windows Phone 8.1. Even though Cortana is not available in the UK yet, I switched my regional settings to US to enable her.

If you don’t know already, Cortana takes her name from the AI computer in the Halo series of video games, published by Microsoft Studios for the Xbox. In the Halo universe, she assists Master Chief throughout their adventures – getting emotionally attached along the way.

Hi, Jules!

Today’s Cortana shares the same name, voice and some of the attitude, though the primary focus is for her to be a loyal employee. The development team went out and interviewed real personal assistants – the ones who look after calendars and communications for business executives. The aim was to build a personal assistant who is able to anticipate the needs of their boss – the user – before they know what they need.

Cortana Tile Animation

While Cortana doesn’t share the same visual appearance of her namesake, the abstract appearance is probably one of the smartest moves the development team could have made. Using animations to give emotion, Cortana will look pleased to see you when you load her up, as well as looking thoughtful when processing requests. It’s my understanding this will be expanded and improved upon as time goes on, allowing her to look sad when your favourite sports team has just lost a match.

“remind me to go running when I get home”

The speech recognition is really good, though you don’t have to speak to her every time you want her to do something. You can type in an instruction in the same way you would speak it “remind me to go running when I get home” and she’ll silently confirm that she understood your intentions. This is a great feature, and I can see a lot of potential for this text based interaction. If I can switch to Cortana while writing code and just type a request without taking my hands off the keyboard – I’d be very happy. (PowerShell module anyone?)

Go running when you get home

Reminders through Cortana are very powerful for me in many ways. I use my Office 365 calendar all the time – and Cortana can interact with that by creating and managing appointments, but she can also create what I like to call ‘disposable reminders’ which are essentially one-off reminders that are based on time or location.

The places Cortana knows are powered by the Bing Maps service, something I’ve already been using for years. From day-one I had the benefit of Cortana already knowing about the dozens of places around the world I’d previously marked as favourites.

Bing Maps for Windows 8.1

Cortana now lets me to go one step further by giving these places a nickname. This allows me to say things like “remind me to pick up eggs when I go to the shop” and she’ll know I mean my village shop.

If I want to be a little less specific, I can say “remind me to pick up eggs when I go to Tesco” and Cortana will ask me “which Tesco?” and I can reply “Any”. This is great for when you are traveling or staying away from home and just want to use any store. She’ll also tell you which one is closest, naturally.

Bing Maps for Windows Phone 8.1

Travel can also be tracked by Cortana, though I haven’t had the opportunity to try it yet. It’s my understanding that she can track flights as well as provide useful information like weather and currency exchange rates for your local destinations.

Cortana Diagram

Already I have gotten used to having Cortana around. For example, I often use my Surface in bed with a stylus. This lets me write down my thoughts in OneNote. When I’m using a pen like this in a full screen experience – I don’t want to switch the search app, bring up the on-screen keyboard, or type in a query to get results. I can just pick up my nearby phone and speak a query like “how large is mars” or “how old is Patrick Stewart”

Cortana Bing Search

Answers to queries like these are also powered by Bing – my search engine of choice. However she does get stumped at some things. For example, when I asked her the current phase of the moon, she didn’t know the answer.

Things will no doubt get better though, and I already think she’s become a valuable asset to me in the pursuit of getting things done, and being productive.

Hi, Cortana! I hope we can be friends.