Sunday, January 30, 2011

Yesterday and Today

You are sitting in a popular street-side cafe, sipping mint tea from a glass cup, playing a never-ending game of shesh besh. You gaze across the table. Your friend carefully considers the board. He smiles a toothy grin as he double-sixes and moves his pieces out of danger. You roll the dice.

The electronics shop opposite you, the one with the over-sized "Panasonic" sign, seems quite out of place, squeezed between a store selling hookahs and a spice shop displaying large sacks of cumin powder, turmeric and fennel seeds.


The crowded street is a circus of color. Of course, you are used to the noise and commotion. Tourists take photos of the pack-saddled camels and their turbaned riders, to which you barely pay attention. You are more interested in the shiny Hummer SUV lumbering elephant-like through the throng of pedestrians, animals and rusty pick-up trucks.

A half-blind beggar shakes a rusty can in your face. You turn him away, knowing that, on a good day, he probably makes more money than you do. The dice are not in your favor and you sigh. You reach into your pocket and hand your friend a few coins in good-humored defeat. No matter. You are content to sit in the shade, watching the bustling activity of the passing parade.

That was yesterday.

Today you are cowering in a dank, overcrowded basement, clutching a Helwan 9mm pistol to your chest, surrounded by the intermittent crack of gunfire, the screech of tires and the jarring sound of breaking glass.

The government switched off the Internet. No wonder they are rioting.




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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Heads-Up: The GUI Gets Real

I recently attended a lecture about Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs). One of the main points that the lecturer made was that you have to build the GUI to suit the needs of the users. Users want everything - and what they want may not be what they need. So the important thing is to understand who your users are (demographic, knowledge, limitations, etc).

You then have to arrange all of the elements of the GUI to tell a story. That is, you need to define the sequence of actions (the process) such that the GUI helps the user to know where he is, what he is doing, how he got there, and what to do next. As the GUI designer, the story you want to tell includes the order in which the various elements on the page are seen by the user. It is very important that the first thing you see on the screen is one that tells you exactly where you are and gives you some indication of what you can do there.

Recently, a question was posed on the Techshoret email list about the best tool for developing Help for mobile devices. Until now, most Help authoring tools did not address large variances in screen size. That is also something the lecturer touched on - what device will the user be using? The type of device determines how you compose the GUI. For example, if the user is viewing the GUI on a television, she is sitting five feet away; on a computer, she is one foot away; on a mobile device, she is perhaps only inches away.

During the course of the lecture, we were shown a number of different types of GUIs, one of which was a screenshot of a GPS device. On the way home from work that day, I thought about one of the fundamentals of GUI design: keep it simple. GPS device GUIs are anything but simple.

A GPS Device (see yesterday's blog)

I don't use a GPS device regularly, but I have seen them in action while riding in taxis and I have played with these gadgets in friends' cars. The first thing that strikes me about the GUI of every GPS device I have seen is that they are cluttered and busy. Typically, the screen is relatively small (I have not seen any larger than seven inches), the majority of the screen is a rendering of a map (with different colors for different types of roads), overlayed with semi-transparent controls, a moving triangle indicating your current position, a compass and other information, such as street names, the speed limit and road conditions. The driver is then expected to glance from time to time at the small screen, sift through the extraneous information, see where he is now and where he is going, all while trying not to drive into oncoming traffic.

It is true that GPS devices deliver voice instructions to drivers, but if developers go to so much effort to display the map, then there must be some advantage to having it on a screen.

BMW's Heads-Up Display (HUD)

So it got me thinking: The whole purpose of the GPS is to help the driver navigate to his destination. The driver should be doing nothing other than focusing on the road. Therefore, a heads-up display (HUD) would be perfect. In-car HUDs display the speedometer and other critical information on the windshield. Pilots use HUDs all the time. Why not use HUDs to display GPS information?

Then I thought, hang on a minute, having all that GPS data on the windshield would be more distracting than helpful. The driver's eyes will constantly need to shift focus from the HUD information on the windshield to the road ahead. Didn't the GUI lecturer tell us that most people can only deal with five elements at a time? Driving already takes up a large percentage of our concentration, having to switch back and forth between the road and the HUD would inevitably cause accidents.

I came up with a pretty clever solution: an augmented reality HUD. Drivers may want to see a map that shows the entire county, city or state, but that is not what they need. In this case, the purpose of a GPS is to give drivers instructions on how to get to their destination. Therefore, they really only need to know which lane they should be in, when to turn, how far to their destination (really important if you are driving an EV) and so on. An augmented reality HUD will deliver all that information without distracting the driver.

Augmented reality HUDs can include features such as virtual road signs displaying the distance to your destination, or virtual roadside indications of the speed limit, upcoming intersections, changed traffic conditions, and so on. The information will be displayed on the windshield of the car, but the driver will view them as if they are by the side of the road. In other words, the information will be where any driver would naturally expect to see it: on road signs by the side of the road.

Virtual painted road markings could also be used so that a driver can be told that he needs to change lanes now in order to turn left at the next intersection. That is, useful information located where the driver would normally expect to see it.

For this system to work, a series of cameras on the outside of the car and cameras inside the car would need to be installed. The cameras on the outside of the car would help the augmented reality HUD to calculate the edges of the road for correct placement of the signs. The cameras inside the car  will be gaze-tracking devices for detecting the position of the driver's eyes so that the computer can properly calculate the correct perspective and angles.

I could make millions from this idea, if only GM hadn't thought of it first:




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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

21st Century Navigation

We have a family tradition: Whenever we go on a driving holiday, we have to get lost at least once. This tradition began on our honeymoon to Mansfield in the scenic Victorian Highlands.

1985 Holden Camira
Driving our trusty 1985 Holden Camira, we decided to head off the highway and "see where this dirt road takes us". Ah, the indomitable spirit of adventure! We drove quite some distance along the dirt road. The scenery was spectacular and crossing a bridge over a babbling brook as the sun glinted off the pristine water, butterflies wafting in and out of the flowers along the bank, was a highlight.

Then then car stalled. The engine wouldn't reengage. Not a splutter not a clank, not a rumble. No matter, it couldn't be too long to the next town, so I took a walk to the top of the next hill to see what I could see. So idyllic. So scenic. So picturesque. So far, far away from civilization. Stuck out there in the middle of nowhere with an overheated engine, no mobile phone, no living soul in sight, and a never-ending road both ahead and behind us. Our spirit of adventure began to wane.

Alas, we were to live to fight another day. A pickup truck miraculously appeared and stopped by the side of the road. The driver explained that he was a wood-turner by profession, but was a hobbyist motor mechanic. He happened to have some electrical wire and other tools in his cab. He rigged the Camira's fan to run continuously and brought some water from the brook we passed a while back to fill up the car's water reservoir. After a bit more tinkering, he got us going again, just in time to watch the sun sink gently over the golden hills.

From: Lifehacker.com
We have since gotten lost, or taken wrong turns, or traveled in the wrong direction on many, many occasions. This is despite that we have learned to bring maps with us (and, it is true, we have learned enough to purchase road maps of Israel dated more recently than 1975 - but only after making that mistake once.) Getting lost has become one of the highlights of our trips, and we no longer become frustrated by two-hour delays caused by missing that all-important turn-off. We have grown to look forward to the inevitable unplanned adventure.

On a recent trip to Machtesh Ramon (the Ramon Crater) we purchased an up-to-date book of Israel road maps. The spiral-bound book contains detailed maps of city streets and highways, as well as information on places of interest. My kids love perusing the book. You can drop them blindfolded  in Rishon L'Tzion, Tel-Aviv or Eilat, even though they have only been briefly to some of those places, and they could easily navigate their way to the closest soccer-card vendor. We have finally joined the 20th Century.

The rest of you, in the 21st Century, no longer need to learn how to read maps. You no longer need to worry about driving past the one highway exit that will get you to your destination. You no longer have to worry if you are holding the map upside down or not. You have GPS.

GPS lets you know where you are and tells you how to get to where you are going. It takes the guesswork out of navigation.

If the regular GPS voices are too boring for you, TomTom, a GPS navigation system, offers Star Wars voice directions. Here's Yoda and Darth Vader in the recording studio:



GPS absolutely has its uses. But not if you are going to Super Bowl XLV in Northern Texas. Organizers  beg you not to use your GPS - it may direct both you and a million other cars down the same route, causing massive traffic congestion. You are strongly advised to follow the map on the back of your ticket. On the back of your ticket? How are you expected to drive to the game, already half drunk, dressed like Steely McBeam, and follow a tiny map on the back of a sliver of cardboard? Don't even think of folding that ticket - not even the "Protection Method" will work, my friend, no matter what you learned on Survival IQ.

But if you are driving to the game, let me know if you need any assistance with getting there. You may end up on a dirt road in Mansfield, Victoria, but at least I know a wood-turning mechanic who can get you on your way again.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sports Technology: Bringing in the Bucks

Technorati Claim Code: CNMGMJN444WT
Sport: A battle between players or teams after which the victor jubilates in the changing rooms and the loser is left to nurse his wounds. The promise of winners and losers is what drives hundreds and thousands of fans to stadiums around the world every year.

Companies pay top-dollar to get their names in front of spectators. In 2005, it cost $2.4m to run a 30-second advertisement during the Superbowl. $10m to $20m will buy you primary sponsorship of a NASCAR team. In 2006/2007 it cost approximately £20m for shirt sponsorship at top English football clubs.

But you can only fit so many people into a stadium, and because sport is now a multi-billion dollar industry with multiple revenue streams (including property, media, licensing/merchandising, and sponsorships), organziers want as much exposure as possible.

So how do you attract more people to the stadium and how do you keep fans in front of television screens? Well, one would think that a competitive match would be enough. But it isn't. Today's sophisticated fans require added value. Enter technology.

Technology has played a growing role in professional sports. Most recently these technologies include: super-accurate timing devices for races, sensors, instant slow-motion replays, and so on. In fact, most sports rely on technology of some sort to ensure that the game is fair, that the timing is accurate and that bad umpiring is minimized. But technology has also been developed to provide spectators with up-to-the-second statistics, incredible camera angles and instant commentary, no matter where they are.

IBM, for example, has integrated its technology into the 2011 Australian Open to such an extent that the entire event could almost not run without it. Big Blue unabashedly comments that:
IBM has been the Official Technology Partner of the Australian Open since 1993. This constant cycle of events sets up a perpetual stream of innovation that sees the technology engage fans in new ways, year on year.
(emphasis added)

Yes, their mandate is to engage fans in new ways. That means everything from super-sized scoreboards around the courts, to augmented reality apps for mobile devices in the stadium complex, to multiple servers connecting the Australian Open website to real-time information, to sophisticated data aggregation and management software. See this marvellous picture gallery on ZDNet showcasing IBM's technology at the 2011 Australian Open.

This article on MSNBC.com discusses "virtual replay" technology, where participants in a marathon can see a virtual animation of themselves running around the course and can compare their speed and progress to other runners at every moment.

Let's not forget the 2010 Soccer World Cup that had games broadcast in 3D:
FIFA estimates that a cumulative audience of more than 26 billion people tuned in to watch the 64 matches of the tournament in the rainbow nation. All matches were transmitted in HDTV, and some 25 matches...were even broadcast using next-generation 3D technology... Sony’s broadcasting equipment for 3D was in use at five stadiums: Soccer City and Ellis Park in Johannesburg and the venues in Durban, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
(emphasis added)

According to this web site, the appeal of 3D television to viewers is that it makes you feel like you are at the game:
Panasonic’s 3D technology excels at creating levels and layers of depth that you simply cannot experience unless you are at a live game.
And sports fans have a lot to look forward to. Sports organizations the world over are constantly looking for ways to keep people watching, because that's what brings in the advertising and sponsorship bucks.

What do you think the next big thing will be to draw the crowds to the stadium or screen?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Do Smart Phones Equal Dumb People?

El Vendor, a five-part advertisement for Android, is pretty funny (catch all five episodes here, on Wired.)

The premise of the series of advertisements is that a vending machine falls on top of Dave, an average assistant manager in a large company. He is stuck under the vending machine for 32 hours. But it's okay because he has his Android phone with him. During that time Dave becomes much more productive than he was before and actually gets promoted -  because with the Android smartphone, he can do anything.

At the end of each of the videos (aside from the first one, I believe) the following text appears:
Android = SMARTER phone.
Are computers making us dumber as they get smarter? Good question. Wish I was intelligent enough to answer it, but I'll give it a go.

Do any of the following sound familiar:
  • I don't have to know facts, I'll just Google it
  • I don't have to know how to speak Korean, I'll just Google translate it
  • I don't need to know how to count, I'll just use my calculator (or Google it)
  • I don't need to know how to read a map, I'll Google it
Nicholas Carr writes in The Atlantic in his July 2008 article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" that our concentration span has become more limited. I know. I tried reading his rather lengthy article, but I was bored by the end of the first paragraph. [Congratulations for getting this far...or did you skim-read?!]

John Elder Robison writes in his article "Is Technology Making Us Dumber" (www.psychologytoday.com, Nov 30, 2009) that:
They [people] have become slaves to machines out of intellectual laziness, and the laziness makes them less smart.
And if you Google the phrase "are computers making us dumber" you get about 48,000 links to blogs and articles that probably say the same thing.

So, just for the fun of it, I'll go against the grain: No, computers are not making us dumber. Computers are merely taking away the need to exert unnecessary energy on remembering things, learning facts and performing calculations that can otherwise be done by a machine.

Did the abacus make us less able to do math?  Did the invention of the printing press reduce our ability to write by hand? Did the Dewey Decimal System reduce our capacity for memory?

The answer is no, and here's incontrovertible proof: Because even though we created all of these technologies and systems to reduce the need to rely on our own mental faculties or physical capabilities, we were still smart enough to invent the computer.

[And, yes, I Googled "define:incontrovertible" to make sure that I spelled it correctly...]

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Will the Marketplace Swallow a W7 Tablet?

The iPad was unleashed on the unsuspecting world of consumer electronics in April 2010. For better or for worse, being the first to market and selling nearly 12 million units, the iPad, a brand new class of device, has set the benchmark. Apple has shown the world that the tablet form factor has a market (whether it existed before the iPad or whether the iPad created the market is a whole new topic.)

Most blogs on the subject of the recently concluded Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2011) agree that the focus of attention was on tablet computing.

There are now a plethora of tablets on offer that compete head-to-head with the iPad. Most of these devices are Android-based systems - some are a serious threat to the iPad (Samsung's Galaxy tab, for one), others are poorly designed, cheap knock-offs. Then there is the Blackberry Playbook (to be offered for sale in early 2011) which runs RIM's Blackberry Tablet OS. The Kindle 3 eBook reader, while not really a tablet computer, offers web browsing, which sort of blurs the line between eBooks and tablets, at least for the segment of tablet users who primarily use the devices for internet and reading.

One company has been conspicuously missing from the tablet marketplace: Microsoft (proof-of-concept designs and announcements of soon-to-be-released devices notwithstanding.)

Is Microsoft too late? Does the Windows 7 operating system have enough class to make it a serious contender in this growing market? Has the doorway to the latest bubble closed to the world's third largest IT company?

Windows Phone 7 was also late to market. The WP7 operating system is, by all reports, very slick. But the iPhone has been around since 2007 and is at version 4.0; Android is about to release it's seventh version (Honeycomb, version 3.0); WP7, launched in November 2010, is currently at version 1.0 - this is ignoring the atrocious WinCE OS, which is not a smartphone platform.

Sales of WP7 phones have been slow. Announcements by MS that they sold 1.5 million WP7 devices is slightly misleading, as most of the devices were sold to mobile phone carriers and not directly to consumers. Perhaps Microsoft can convince the public to swing away from iPhone and Android, which have their own problems. But MS entered the smartphone arena very late in the game and right now it doesn't look too good for WP7.

Now Microsoft is trying to jump onto the tablet train. How can it muscle its way into the market?

Perhaps it doesn't have to push its way in. The iPad is primarily a consumer device. What it has to offer is squarely targeted towards individual consumers. It's a web browser, a photo viewer, a multimedia device, an eBook reader, etc. In other words, the iPad is primarily a content-consumption device, not a content-creation device.

Certainly, there are business applications for the iPad. That is, there are programs for the iPad that are definitely business oriented, and businesses have already demonstrated how the iPad can function as a business tool. However, since it cannot replace a netbook, which is what it will need to do in order to be adopted by business, it primarily remains a consumer device, not a business device.

A Microsoft product, however, may find its niche in the corporate environment. If Windows 7 for tablets can be easily integrated into existing Microsoft infrastructure (and, let's face it, Windows remains the top selling OS in the world), and if MS Office (especially Outlook and SharePoint) runs flawlessly on a Windows 7 tablet, and if content creation on a Windows 7 tablet is easy and painless, Microsoft might have a fighting chance. Blackberry's Playbook tablet, which is designed as a business tool (although their website also claims to support "hard core gaming") , may meet stiff competition from a properly designed Windows 7 tablet.

Other hurdles MS has to contend with include:
  • Its reputation for producing bloated software, as opposed to Apple's "slick" UI

  • Microsoft's vulnerability to viruses

  • Getting the "touch" experience to be at least as good as Apple and Android (it has been reported that Windows 7 isn't the most touch-friendly OS)
  • iPad 2.0

But the tablet market is still very young. It is certainly not as far advanced as the smartphone market was when Microsoft released WP7. Also, don't forget, the corporate world has embraced Windows 7 for the PC, so if MS gets the tablet version of Windows 7 right, they might be able to carve a rather large niche for themselves.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Waiting...

video

Okay, more like tapping, blowing air...and waiting...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Faker Than An Afghani Election Result

First, watch this video presentation of new glasses-free 3D TV technology (kudos to Gizmodo for the link.)



Now, here are my smarmy comments:

  • If his eyelashes were just that much longer, he’d take off

  • The girl across the room is making eyes at you…no, wait…she’s watching Avatar

  • GIs in the Iraqi desert can now watch 3D TV without getting dust in their eyes

  • Attach a few wires and you could power your house while watching Mythbusters
Yeah, right. This tech is faker than a cat putting on a bunnie hat.



(Hint: The cat owner put the bunnie hat on the cat, filmed the cat pawing the bunnie hat off its head - which is what any cat would do - and then the owner played the video in reverse.)

Microsoft, Hackers and the Future of Computing

I really enjoyed this Businessweek article about Microsoft's Kinect (3D sensor, gesture-based hardware for Xbox gaming without the need for a hand-held controller.)

The article contends that MS is so big and so set in its anti-hacker mode of thinking that it cannot see that it is on the threshold of dominating the next generation of human-computer interaction. Imagine using hand-gestures to replace the mouse and keyboard or to control your robotic vacuum cleaner. MS has the tech for this, they are just too narrow minded and suspicious of open source to see the future.

As an aside, this sentiment sort of goes together with this other Businessweek article about knowledge workers: Everyone in an organization has ideas for improving systems and products and should therefore be given the opportunity to contribute. For instance, if you ignore an idea because it came from a delivery guy, you may miss out on productivity improvements. Similarly, if MS ignores ideas just because those ideas originated in the hacker world, and not from within the walls of Microsoft, they may miss out on expanding the scope of their product and the next computer revolution that may follow.

I loved reading the third-last paragraph:

PrimeSense, the Israeli company that makes Kinect hardware, has rushed out a developer version of its product.

Go Israel!