Monday, November 07, 2016

Auto-Park Done Badly - Vancouver Library Parking Lot

I wrote about the idea for Apple Park in my last blog - the definition of extending some of the technology we are seeing in parking lots to reduce the amount of driving around wasting time and gas trying to locate the open parking spots in a large parking garage.

Last week I had the rare need to drive downtown (I usually go by Canada Line) to the Vancouver Public Library and was surprised to find a very poor implementation of the auto-park idea implemented there. What makes it so bad you ask? Let me show you...

When you first drive in you see an e-sign that tells you how many free parking spots are remaining, which pretty well, as long it's more than zero, doesn't say much. At this point the driver's question is - where are they and which way do I turn to get there? This is the first indication of the library lot's poor  design - the designers decided to put the red/green availability lights into the actual fixtures that illuminate the parking rows.  They are very hard to see since they're in the same fixture as the bright white fluorescent (see photo below). In a parking lot with neat orderly rows they might be more useful, but this parking lot has all kinds of strange angles and angular spots to park.

The empty/full indicator is that red light at the end of the bright fluorescent fixture. See it?

But the real mystery of this design comes from a very odd decision. In this picture you can see that they went through the time and expense to install conduit to every parking spot, and an ultrasonic distance sensor over every parking spot.

every parking spot has an overhead ultrasonic sensor, but no LED!

Now, of course you have to do this to make an automated free-parking spot tracker, but why, having spent the time and money to put the sensor over every parking spot, would you not put a $0.10 Red/Green LED to show the driver where the actual empty spots are?

Instead, if you can even see a green light in the glare of the overhead fluorescents, they pretty well tell you "yes, there is a free parking spot somewhere in this vicinity." In the VPL lot however, because of the strange angles, you can drive to a green light and not be able to see the open parking spot, since it might be around a corner.

It's always interesting to see a bad implementation of something to be so instructive, it's just frustrating to know that after what must have been a considerable expense, the utility of the solution is probably quite poor for that single design error.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The practical parking garage - Apple Park

I love technical  innovation, and I hate parking garages. What an opportunity!

My first sight of a tech-assisted parking garage was at Schipol airport in Holland, where each parking spot has a green/red led over the car.  This makes it pretty easy to look down a row of parked cars and see if there are any green lights hovering over empty parking spots. Making the row one-way also reduces the potential conflict of race conditions (literally!) for two cars to try to reach the empty spot first. When a car pulls into a parking spot, an ultrasonic sensor detects the car and sets the led to red.

Of course, once you have individual sensors and indicators for each parking spot, you can network them together to get data that lets you optimize the parking experience, minimizing fumes from idling, and minimizing fumes from impatient drivers, especially at an airport.

At Schipol, and I've seen it now at Heathrow and presumably many other European airports, each parking row then has a sign showing how many empty spots there are to the right or to the left, further reducing the time, and neck-strain of trying to see a green led in the middle of a line of red ones.

Jump up another level, and each entrance to the parkade can have a real-time counter of the number of open spots in each section, letting drivers choose.

I recently watched another drone fly-over of the new Apple campus, with its huge round building, and was surprised to see big rectangular above-ground parking garages for 11,000 cars. Surprised because I thought all that parking was going underground, but in any case, here's a great opportunity for Apple Park - a name for the ultimate in parkade parking apps.

Apple Park simply guides a driver to the nearest open parking spot near their desired entrance, as quickly as possible. The driver can have a default door they like to be near, or set a longer distance so they have to walk a bit, or randomize it for those who like to park in a different place every day.  It has to be a server-side implementation because it has to optimize those 11,000 cars, probably over half of which want to arrive within the same 30 minute window. Apple Park is then a large optimization problem, connected to the cars about to descend onto its entrance ramps, with an estimate of when they will arrive, and assigning parking places with that particular balance of user desire and global optimum that best suits an algorithm. As the driver approaches the parkade, the app tells them which parking spot is assigned to them today, and the best entrance and path to get there given the other traffic at the moment. Like with air traffic control, it is possible that some cars would be told to slow down to avoid a potential bottleneck at a certain location, so the car can move to the slow lane while it is still miles away, or use this time to grab a coffee or pick up that dry-cleaning enroute.

Of course, Apple Park should be embedded into the electric self-driving cars that are probably a growing proportion of Apple employees' commuter devices, and do this without starting up an app at all. Let's see how Apple does with this little project idea...residuals can go to thanks Tim.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Apple was the premiere company at User Experience UX. Have they lost it?

Why the Apple Watch has a case and the Apple Pencil does not is a mystery to me
What made Apple unique in the world of high tech companies? It's this - Apple consistently considered the entire end-to-end user experience (UX) in every product, from the Apple II to the iPad, Steve drove the entire company in service of that consistent, exceptional, and integrated user experience.

I have worked at several high tech companies and know that this is only achieved one way - by a company whose executive team demand it be that way, and force the islands of organizational hierarchy to work together and overcome their differences in service of the end user's experience. Every other company suffers from the inability of the designers who want to provide an integrated ux to their users to insist that different groups within the company align their goals to meet that vision. I've been in meetings where a CEO knows that integrated user experience is what he wants, but his team argues with him as to it being to difficult or too expensive, or not what users want anyway.

Today's example compares the Apple Watch with the Apple Pencil. Having waited for months for any of our local Apple Stores to stock the pencil, I finally just ordered it from the online store, as most savvy Apple users have done before the introduction of the Apple Stores. The fact that I could get a 5-12 day delivery when the stores don't even have stock seems to be a pretty clear message.

When my Apple Pencil arrived, it came in the same kind of packaging as other Apple peripherals, a hard paper box with a plastic inlay. That's about what I expect for a charger or even an adapter, but pencil has something else - tiny parts that I am likely to lose.  One is a lightning adapter to connect the pencil to a lightning cable, the other seems to be a spare tip. Did I mention they are both tiny? Not only that but they are encased in plastic in cardboard, so when you remove them, there is no place to put them.

This is the kind of user experience I dread seeing from Apple. Because when these things strike me as glaring oversights, I know they are appearing to thousands of other people as well. They are the things that when done right, deepen our appreciation of products, and when done poorly, make it, well, about as good as any other product you might buy. Far below what I've come to expect from Apple.

How could it be better you say? Glad you asked. Let's look at the lighting connector. Remove the end cap of the pencil to reveal a precarious and ugly lightning connector. Why a male connector? Because someone's idea seems be to be able to plug it directly into an iPad Pro without a cable. Except for: the connector is most likely to break off, and plugging your pencil into the Pro makes it even more likely it will get broken off - have you seen it? Looks like a unicorn theremin.

Rather, the pencil should have a lightning socket, and come with a short lightning-to-lightning cable. I will charge the pencil far more often than sync it, so the decision to make it easy to sync, but fragile to charge doesn't match most people's use of it.

Next is the tip. It's very nice to have a spare one I'm sure, although I don't know how long it will last, nor do I see them as a part to order from the store when I lose this spare in my usb drawer. Why not leave a place under the end-cap of the pencil to store this, like spare erasers in a mechanical pencil, which would be a very nice metaphor for the Apple Pencil.

But of course a reasonable place to put the spare tip and lightning adapter is in the case of the pencil, which I would want to put on my desk so it is handy when I need it. But wait, there is no case for the pencil. It came in that cardboard box! Not only that, but I cant use the box as storage since the adapter and spare tip are ON TOP of the carrier for the pencil. It would be very nice for the Apple pencil to come in a case that opens, and has a place for the adapter, spare tip and pencil. It would look nice on my desk, and it would keep the pencil from rolling off the desk. That case might look like, well, exactly like the case an Apple Watch comes in. Except that the Apple watch case is in the back of closet, because why would anyone keep their watch in a box? Mine is either on my wrist, or on its charging puck. It doesn't make sense to have a closed plastic watch case.

But it would be great to have for the Apple Pencil.

Now I can imagine the comments - Sure Dave, if you think of it that way it might be better, but you have the benefit of hind-sight...but that is my point - Apple used to think systematically about the entire Apple user experience, now it is getting divided and isolated. Another comment will say - but the Apple Pencil costs 5x less than a watch, so maybe Apple can't afford to create a nice plastic case for it. Well that argument falls down even as it's articulated.

If my Apple Pencil came in a case, it would be good. If Apple returns to considering this kind of overall user experience, it may survive as the world-leading brand it built on the basis of surprising and delighting us, their customers.