Thursday, December 01, 2005

metabadge - wireless, voice pda

A small group of hardware and software engineers put together a prototype of a new kind of pda - one that completely used voice, with no stylus, and no display. What we found about people's use of PDAs was surprising, and showed a market gap still waiting for a commercial solution.

A wireless, voice-controlled pda. Crazy? or Visionary?

When we began the metabadge project and started to show the prototype, a frequent question was, "Why doesn't it have a display". The answer is simple - you don't need one.

This was 2002. Every pda, every existing version on the shelf had a screen. Yet our research showed people typically had one or two simple queries -

Where am I supposed to be right now?
Am I free Thursday at 2:00?
"Book an appointment, Friday at 10:00, Meet to discuss online help"
What is Dan's phone number?

metabadge enabled anyone who could speak or listen to answer these questions with as little as one button click. That's simplicity. That's ease of use.

The Creo metabadge - Top things people want from a PDA - without a display.

Top Issues Users had with PDAs

    • Size - PDAs are too big to carry everywhere. If it's sitting on the desk, it's not personal enough.
    • Sync - Care and feeding of a PDA was a leading reason to not use them after a few months. Simply too much bother to cable up and sync.
    • Data Entry - Users ended up treating their PDA's read-only, since entering data was too cumbersome
    • Complex - More features meant more clicks to do anything at all, even simple things.

metabadge Key Features

  • small enough to fit in a pocket
  • Airsync - Bluetooth® enabled, metabadge syncs automatically anytime it can or needs to
  • Simple - one click tells you the time, and your next (or current!) appointment.
  • Scroll - one scroll takes you through you future appointments or phone contacts
  • Listen - voice synthesis plays your appointments and contacts so you can keep your eyes on the road
  • Speak - uses Microsoft Speech Recognition, one phrase can book an appointment in Outlook

Creo's metabadge prototype was demonstrated publicly in 2002, but not commercialized. Yet.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Firmware - Quietly Running the World

Firmware is everywhere. If the joke about how your appliances will have IP address and chat to one another while you are at work is slightly worriesome to you, you should be very worried about firmware.

Firmware is not about underwear with wires and foam. Firmware is the netherworld between hardware and software that, like duct tape, just might be holding the world together. Except firmware isn’t as sticky.

Firmware is everywhere, burned into rom chips in cars, fridges, ovens, expensive toasters, house alarms, sprinkler systems (can you tell we are new house owners?), pda’s, audio equipment, cameras, watches, timers, and of course, computers.

Writing firmware is hard, and debugging it is even harder. Firmware runs in real-time, that is, it has to respond quickly to real-world events, like temperature sensors, switches opening and closing, as well as really slow events like waiting for someone to press a key (I imagine PC’s spend 99.9% of the time awaiting human interaction). Debugging firmware is hard because it runs in a resource-poor environment, where interaction with the hardware is the programmer’s main source of feedback. Since firmware is another form of software, we can expect it to be plagued with all the same problems we have come to expect from software.

A few years ago (pre-iPod) we bought a RioVolt cd/mp3-player. Not only did this cd-player play cd’s but it also played ISO-9660 disks of MP3 files. So this means we could compress 10 or so CDs onto a single CD-R and play about 10 hours off one disc. Cool.

No sooner did we get this puppy home than we checked out the web site, where I was informed there is an update to the firmware on this device? What could you possibly get wrong in v1.13 that you have to correct on 32KB of ROM? What else- new features. Better song sorting, easier ways to navigate the complexity of your disc and directories. Ok, fine. Now how do you actually go about updating the firmware of a CD/MP3 player? In this case, very cleverly. I expected some serial port/USB hack download utility. Forget it. You simply download the firmware upgrade file, then burn a CD with the upgrade firmware on it, and stick it in the player. It starts up, recognizes this upgrade file, and rewrites its own brains. I had to turn it back on by hand after. It now sports new features and a glowing v2.0 splash screen.

A year before, we had a rash of firmware upgrades for our laptops at the office, and it was a study in how hard and how easy a firmware upgrade can be. The guys using the NEC laptops had to upgrade from sloppy disc, a process that took two electrical engineers several hours to perform. On my Apple G3 powerbook, I downloaded the app off the web and ran it. It told me it would have to restart and the screen would show the upgrade process, then reboot. I clicked and watched. Sure enough, the application did something mysterious for a while, the machine restarted, and a very simple gui appeared showing the progress bar of the upgrade. Remember, firmware is right above the hardware layer so there is not a lot of operating system and graphics-card level resources for it to play with, so showing anything on screen came at the cost of someone poking pixels into video ram. After this 30 second upgrade was complete, the reboot took me back to the real world of operating systems, and one that could properly handle firewire again.

Upgrading firmware is always going to be a grungy task, since it is by definition low level. As systems get more complex, so does the firmware. I blew up our convection microwave oven by pressing keys in an order that I thought would convect but in fact nuked. A more disastrous case was the Therac-25, which left open a chance for a technician to perform a sequence of keystrokes that delivered 100 times the regular dose of x-rays to a patient.

As designers, we have to keep in mind the phrase I learned at a CHI (Computer Human Interface) conference years ago which was “Know Thy Users for they are not You.” Firmware will continue to be a critical component of a microprocessor powered world, and making it easy for mortals to deal with devices, as well as the ability to upgrade their firmware is another responsibility we should take seriously.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my refrigerator just e-mailed me complaining about the trashy language coming from the garburator…

Sunday, September 18, 2005

CBC and being Canadian

The dispute between mother corp. and the Canadian Media Guild seems to be lasting longer than I had hoped or expected. Perhaps it is, as one guild member suggested to me, that CBC management won't feel any urgency to settle until hockey season starts and they can't snap up that big commercial revenue that supplements the fed money that keeps cbc going.

My sympathies weigh in with the on-air talent, but I have to admit that it makes some sense that the corp. needs to be able to change programming to keep up with trends and competition. You can read the blogs and make up your mind.

One effect of the dispute is that cbc is playing "best of" shows from as far back as 2003, I guess trying to keep many of us from permanently drifting off to commercial radio as a lifestyle choice. It'll work for a while, at least for me, and at least for as long as the level of conversational tone on Vancouver rock stations remains at high school level. But there have been a couple recent events that together have really made me reflect on what it is to be Canadian.

It's lame to fall back on defining ourselves by our differences from the Americans. What are our distinctive Canadian values and society? The two glimpses I saw this week: 50 tracks replays on CBC, and the 25th anniversary of Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope. Fifty Tracks is being repeated in thr 5-6pm drive time, not a bad choice. In this slot various media and music people nominated the most significant songs of a decade. Then the audience weighs in. Typical of the critics, they select the seminal bands and tunes that defined a musical genre, and the rest of us just pick the ones from the top 40 that bring a smile of recognition and remembrance. The insight that it offers as a gestalt of Canada is this - what kinds of Canadian artists and songs are our contributions - Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, The Guess Who, Neil Young, Stan Rogers, The Tragically Hip, April Wine. Our artists play it straight - straight from the heart, and straight speaking. We're generally a country of plain speakers, who love our stories, and respect the storytellers without making them pedestal-tippy icons, or reveling in their human foibles.

Which takes me to Terry Fox. This year 10,000 schools across Canada ran various races to raise money for cancer research. It has been 25 years since Terry Fox started on his cross-Canada trip, trying to raise $1 for every person in Canada, which at the time was around 25 million. Since that time over $360 million has been raised worldwide in his name.

Terry was a hero in the core sense of Canada. He set out to do something hard, he endured pain that many of us would not choose to endure, and he took each day one step at a time, each run one step at a time. He didn't aspire to greatness, he just wanted to do something significant on as large a scale as he could with whatever time he had.

As should we all.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Cars are amazingly heavy...

In both senses of the word. I had the chance last summer to see and hear Dean Kamen talking about - what else - the Segway Human Transporter. While I haven't bought into the Segway vision, or for that matter, an actual Segway, Dean pointed out some facts about cars, especially SUVs that once you hear them, makes it hard to think of them the same when you see them on the street. Dean compared the weight of a person, say 150lbs, with an SUV, of about 6,000 pounds. Hopping into the SUV to drive to the store to get a liter of milk is like Cleopatra getting carried in her sedan chair by 40 slaves. Disturbing analogy. Try this one - try to push your car, especially up a gentle incline. Because car engines are so powerful, we lose the sense of how much power it takes to climb hills, and turn corners. We just push a little pedal, and a stream of liquified dinosaurs burns up and drags this huge hunk of steel and plastic around.

So, I'm starting to ride my bike to the store for milk. My wife has some foolish argument this is a better use of heart, lungs, and money than buying a Segway HT (with yellow fenders). Dang.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Film Directing and Product Management

I have two lives. Now, before you run off to tell my wife, calm down. But really, I have two lives. One of these lives is described on the left side of the piece of paper that is my resume. The other life is on the right side. One of these lives has a future, the other does not. The question is - which one?

The left side is engineering centric. I knew when I was about 12 years old that I wanted to be an electrical engineer, and that aspiration has been achieved. Several years of software design, hardware hacking, working on a Lisa and Mac, worked on a new kind of pda. Most fun has been being a product manager - bringing a product from fuzzy notion to shipping product, and an experience I've had the privelege to repeat with Creo's Virtual Proofing Software, Prinergy, and metabadge. What makes Product Management so attractive to me is that it is applied storytelling.

The right side is full of small, amazingly fun things that have to do with music, video and film. I've done live mixing for bands, and recorded basement tapes of a few. I've shot super 8, and gotten high on the splicing cement. I've been a boom man for college projects, and shot a few videos to learn about non-linear editting. After taking the Director's course at the Vancouver Film School, I came to this conclusion:

Directing film/video is very much like product management. Maybe that's why I like the both. Look at the similarities. 1) You are the leader of a team, of various skills and abilities, who you need to work together to achieve a common purpose. 2) While technical potentials tempt you at every turn, it is your job to stay focussed on the story. 3) Your team works better if you collaborate rather than rule, but sometimes the team looks to you to just make a decision. 4) You are telling a story, and the integrity of that vision is the primary reason behind all the tech.

So, there it is. I'm ready to direct. Where to start?

Friday, August 05, 2005

Time to Start

The ship is sailing, but I've hopped into the trusty kayak and paddled out to jump on.