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.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

I was the first person to see Star Wars

Well maybe not the first in the world, but I did see it at the Edmonton Meadowlark Cinema theatre in 1977, the day it opened, and I can tell you, there weren't many people at the theatre.

My Dad's worked at CFRN, Edmonton's CTV affiliate, where film reviewer George Kelso told him I might like to see this new movie - kind of a space cowboys movie, he called it, after seeing the review screening the day before.  George knew I was a science-fiction nut, and having just returned from a three-month trip through Israel and Europe, I had some free time while I looked for a summer job before going to UBC the next fall.

Meadowlark's Cinerama theatre was my favourite movie location. Opened in 1969 with Krakatoa East of Java, it went on to play movies that were highly influential in my film appreciation.  The legendary print of 2001:A Space Odyssey in 70mm with the first magnetic sound strip in production was a huge event. 2001 also set the bar for state of the art optical effects and highly detailed models, a standard I though was unassailable until Star Wars took it to the next level.

And I knew about what it took to create special effects in movies - somehow it was an ongoing source of fascination to me, and also it seems to my cousin Stu Bass, who has gone on to edit numerous TV shows. Optical printers, travelling mattes, all that stuff came from perusing Dad's books on special effects. So after seeing the crawl and the tilt down to the planets, I thought that after almost ten years, the effects were not going to be much better than what Kubrick could do in 1968.

Until I saw the star destroyer. It was pretty clear right then that Industrial Light and Magic had done something only dreamed about in film production - a motion controlled camera that could repeatedly reproduce the same sequence of moves. Motion control is key to photographing miniatures, where the camera usually is the one that moves around the model, and in a way to be able to later blend background, foregrounds, and multiple objects in the frame from the correct camera position.

Now, almost 40 years later, we have tickets to go see Episode VII. Little did the 19-year old me imagine I'd be going to a new Star Wars movie with my wife and son 40 years from then.

Some things are sweet on every level.

May the Force be with you.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Another brick falls from the Apple facade

At one time, Apple prided itself on not having focus groups, of not listening to what customers said they wanted.

That was the Steve Jobs way.

Steve was not driven by market data. Steve just designed the things he thought the world needed, and that he would love to use, then made an organization that he drove very hard to create and ship them. Those of us who happened to also like those same qualities of fine workmanship and ease-of-use, also bought the products and were very grateful for having tangible things in our lives of that quality. Unlike most CEOs, you could sense that Steve used almost every feature of every product that Apple made. When its design fell short, that's when the difference between Apple and every other tech company became crystal clear:

If Steve didn't personally love his experience of using an Apple product, he made sure it didn't ship until it did. 

No other computer company had the unified vision to drive to a integrated and seamless user experience. There are, and have been, designers with as good taste as Steve, with the ability to articulate and lead a team to create that kind of user experience. But few of them succeed at bringing the entire product to market with that design integrity, and the reason is that the organizational structures prevents the kind of cross-organization head-bashing required to drive the compromises out of the product, and to drive the unity of the user experience forward as a corporate goal. (As I write this, after hearing from my friends who drive the electric coupe, it looks like Tesla CEO Elon Musk might be another exception - the driving experience of the Tesla is often exclaimed to be in that same manner, someone with the taste to know and articulate the quality they seek, and the power to demand the organization work together to achieve it).

Ironically, few CEOs care about their products enough to fight their own organization to achieve as uniformly great products as Apple did. Bill Gates may not have had Steve Jobs' taste, but from watching the many times he demo'd Windows it was very clear that every BSOD event was not the way he wanted it to work. It takes a maniac to drive an entire organization to attend to every excruciating detail that makes a great product. And the larger the organization the more personal energy it takes to keep the compromises from creeping in. It's tiring, as Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki remarked "Don't let the bozos grind you down."

In a few years, when the history books look back at the post-Jobs era at Apple with the benefit of more obvious hind-sight, they might begin with the new Apple TV - the first introduction of a new Apple product (not service, as many of those half fallen flat - remember MobileMe?) that sucks, and sucks in the exact manner that Steve worked tirelessly for many years to prevent.

JasonSnell reviews the new Apple TV and outlines the exact kinds of details that drive him crazy - the same kind of details that would have made Steve throw the thing across the room at the design meeting. and yell at the team about falling so short of the expectations of an Apple product. The examples Jason talks about are the exact kind of issues many of us in the user experience role face when we are the expected to be the lone voice of the customer in a large organization. A good example - having to enter a password multiple times, probably because the Apple TV software group, and the iTunes software group have competing requirements, and their VPs trying to meet their quarterly objectives don’t have someone demanding they overcome their small-minded group objectives to ensure the overall user experience doesn’t suck. The new Apple TV doesn't link to the iCloud keychain, so you have to enter passwords again. The iOS Remote App that made it so much easier to enter alphanumerics and used the touch screen as a remote - doesn't work with the new Apple TV. The iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad screen is the perfect remote for a new Apple TV, while the physical remote could have been just a stand-in for those folks who didn't have an iOS device in the house. Whether Steve thought the killer feature for moving Apple TV from a "hobby" to a product was Siri control, cross-channel search, or physical gestures, none of these is done as well from the new remote. To abandon the iOS Remote app is a tragic lack of vision - the one thing we had come to count on from Apple.

Steve used to do that for us. He was our user experience advocate, and used his influence and deep commitment to ease-of-use to force the organization into aligning itself to the user experience. Tim doesn’t seem to be as driven by it. Jony could - if he starts spending more time using the products than on how they look and how they are packaged.

Because in the end, that’s what makes a product so beloved. That someone cared as much about saving my time and frustration as much as Steve did, and overcame structure, titles, and organizational entropy to demand it. As someone who had the privilege to create a few small products that people told me they loved to use, I know that is the great gift Steve Jobs gave to us all.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

iOS vs OS X - Doesn't Apple "Get It" Anymore?

I've often been puzzled and mystified by the adulation poured out on behalf of Steve Jobs. I mean, I admired Steve Jobs long before it was fashionable, as a product designer he had excellent taste, combined with the unusual skills for a product designer of being able to command the respect and resources to deliver that uncompromised vision to the market.

While current Apple executives tell us that Steve didn't want Apple to be run by the question, "What would Steve Do?" the cadre of us Steve-as-superlative-product-designer people think that sometimes they should.

Because Apple isn't designing good stuff for me anymore. That wasn't a problem when Steve was designing or at least vetting the products before they got to market. Apple was not run by focus groups, its products were what Steve loved to use, and those of us who shared his taste were satisfied, and it was good.

Don't get me wrong, I think Steve Jobs' narcissism led to great products, because they had to pass that critical filter. If Steve didn't love to use it, we wouldn't either.  And there are more things coming from Apple that I don't think Steve would have loved, and I certainly don't. Apple Music for one. iCloud for another.  Apple seems to struggle on all their cloud-based services, and I think it's because they lose focus on who it's for. It's for me.  My music has to be front and center in Apple Music, not U2 or Beats One. I'm supposed to be able to share my family's music. My iCloud photos are supposed to show up on my and my friends devices.

But these are quibbles. There is a much bigger piece missing from Apple's puzzle, one that without Steve, will not be obvious to the executive suite until we help show them.

It's time to bring together OS X and iOS, cause it's a mess.

Apple struggles with reduced iPad sales and scratches their heads as to why. Seems real simple to us. My iPhone is a fantastic device to handle phone calls, messages, email and apps.  But for the real work, I put my Macbook Pro on my lap and get to it.  The reason is simple:

No one creates serious content on an iOS device. Can't be done. We may knock off the quick email reply, or tweet a few bon mots, but it was designed to be a reader device. For Steve. And for a few million other folks.

The MacBook retains its role as the beautiful, speedy machine I work at. When we are in pro mode, it's Microsoft office, with multiple open Word files, and cutting and pasting with Excel. Or immersed in Adobe Creative Suite, sketching content, rendering animations, collecting an article. The Mac crept in to corporations under the arms of creative professionals, and we use Macs to do our work.

That's why the iPad Pro and Pencil are so misplaced.  While Jony Ives has done the regular masterful job on the weight, aesthetics and chamfers, and Eddy has packed the iPad Pro with sweet processing power and the Taptic Engine that smoothly fools me into thinking I cam being stroked by a cashmere cat on my iWatch, there is a fundamental problem with the iPad Pro that Apple has probably considered and rejected.  It's just the kind of big leap idea that made Steve so many friends and enemies, when the inevitable has to be faced, as he did moving the company from OS 9 to OS X, and from PowerPC to Intel.

It's this: The innovations that Apple is bringing to iOS are exceeding that of OS X, and the user experience is diverging.  This is very dangerous ground for a company that taught millions of people that they should care about user experience, and in fact it might be the most important thing to care about in technical products.

Consider this: Many creative pros use a stylus, and pressure sensitive tablets from Wacom are standard fare. But coordinating your hand on a table and your eye on the screen is tedious and unintuitive. But holding your hand in the air to draw on a vertical screen is tedious. So useful tablets are actually now displays, with a pressure-sensitive stylus (ala Cintiq). Doesn't this sound a lot like an iPad? Of course it does, and apps like Astropad serve to fill that gap that Apple has left.  But the iPad is lower resolution that a large screen iMac or MacBook Pro, and variable pressure is coarse compared to the pro tablets.

Until the iPad Pro.

Now there is sufficient CPU, memory, and screen resolution that the gap between the iPad Pro and MacBook Pro is closing. We want to use the power of that A9 processor, and the resolution of the new screen and Pencil, but want to use it on the full Adobe suite, not the "light" version for iPad.

The resolution to this problem is really simple and clear, just the kind of solution Steve loved. It's this: The iPad Pro should run OS X, iOS should be a sandbox on OS X (like dashboard), and Apple needs to merge the Cocoa and Cocoa Touch user experiences. The results? Adobe could run the full Creative Suite and users could design with Pencil. The decision developers have to make about whether they support an OS X app or an iOS app start to converge.

Will there be transition pain? Possibly, but far less than moving millions of users from OS 9 to OS X, or entire applications from PowerPC to Intel.

iOS in an OS X sandbox. Bring together Cocoa and Cocoa Touch. Obvious. It's what the army of creative professionals who create on Mac are awaiting. It's what Steve would have done. And that was good enough for me.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Bye Jurgen

Many people know Jurgen Gothe from his 23-year stint on CBC Radio 2's DiskDrive.  I worked with him before that, when he was a relatively unknown programer and voice on CHQM-FM in the late 1970s.

℅ Vancouver Radio Museum -

CHQM was at the time the premiere Easy Listening station in Vancouver, and FM radio was still finding its feet with diverse and eclectic stations and listeners. Jurgen programmed the 9pm-midnight FM Opera segment on QM-FM every Sunday. Hope I'm not letting the cat out of the bag to say that Jurgen was not actually in studio from 9pm to midnight every Sunday - that was me. A UBC student paid $4/hour in a quiet radio studio with a set of albums and a tape. The tape had Jurgen's mellifluous voice, describing the opera selected for that evening, and several voice segments to be played while I flipped the record over the other side (remember those - two sided records!). It was a great shift for a student, especially for someone inexperienced with Opera - After managing some technical stuff for a few minutes, I then had 20 minutes of unbroken listening through fantastic studio speakers, while I did some math homework.  Heard some good operas too.

CHQM was a great employer for me during my years at UBC. The operations director Terry Higgs, arranged one summer for everyone to take their holidays in sequence, with me filling in while they were away, giving me a chance to do lots of radio station jobs, from erasing and dubbing tapes, to recording and editing commercials, especially on their new Neve-equipped studio.

CBC long-timer David Grierson was also a CHQM grad before he moved to Vancouver Island. David handed the reins of his show Vancouver Live to me and to John Dritmanis where we carried on the tradition of recording new musicians performing and bringing them to a wider audience.