Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The complexity of simple devices

This morning I am jumping on an airplane at 6AM. My wife needs to go somewhere this afternoon and does not know how to get there. We have a very nice talking GPS device (a Garmin Nuvi) that could help her to get there.

The question is, can she learn to use the device fast enough to make it useful to her today?

This is the question I was pondering this morning as I was leaving the Nuvi on the kitchen table. I was trying to write her a quick note on how to use it, and the note was getting longer and longer.

Here's what I needed to write down:

Step 1: Turn the thing on. You would think that this would be an easy step. However, the Nuvi has a buttonless design (the entire user interface uses the touch screen) and a case that appears to have no buttons on it. The on/off button is actually blended into the case and is nearly invisible. Then, once you find the on/off button, you have to hold it down for about 4 seconds to activate the device. If you don't know about the 4-second rule, it appears that the device doesn't work.

Step 2: Wait for the device to boot, which takes about 15 seconds. During this time it appears that the device is broken because it just sits there displaying a splash screen. There is no progress bar or anything to indicate what is happening. So you have to know to wait 15 seconds.

Step 3: Once the device boots, the first thing you see is a warning about how you could potentially die if you try to use the Nuvi while driving. That screen is not the most inviting thing to see as your first encounter with the device. You have to push an "Agree" button to clear this warning.

Step 4: Now the "main menu" shows up. You click the "Where to?" button to tell the GPS where you want to go.

Step 5: Now you click on the heart icon to say "show me a list of my favorites." I have pre-programmed the address for where she is going into the GPS, and it will show up in this area. But... the next screen has three things on it and I cannot remember which one you have to press to get to the list of pre-programmed destinations. She'll have to fifure it out.

Step 6: Find your destination in the list, click on it and then click the "Go!" button.

Step 7: Be sure to put up the antenna. This is a very non-intuitive step because the antenna is square and located on the back of the device. It folds completely into the case and is invisible if you do not know it is there. If you don't put up the antenna, the Nuvi can't see the GPS satellites, and therefore cannot tell where it is, but it never tells you this. So you have to know to raise the antenna.

Step 8: Now the Nuvi will do what you want it to do, which is tell you where to go. And it is fantastic at doing this one thing – the best step-by-step speaking navigation system I have ever seen. Except...

Step 9: You have to be very careful about touching the screen at this point. If you touch the screen, the device can go into any of five different modes (depending on where you touch it) that are very non-intuitive to the first-time user. If you get into any of these modes, click the "Back" button. Interesting side note - if you are a first-time user, you don't know what the "normal" screen looks like, so it is hard to know if you have accidentally touched the screen and gotten into one of these sub-modes.

There – that is a quick introduction to using the Nuvi for the first-time user. Imagine trying to write all that down in a quick note to your wife. And compare it to a television, where the instructions are : 1) Click the on-off button (intuitive). 2) Select the channel you want to watch (intuitive). The Nuvi is far more complex than that, and that probably severely limits its possible audience.

What will fix this? Garmin could probably make this a little easier, but not much using the current interface. It is likely we will have to wait for voice interfaces, where the device acts like a little person able to understand what you say and what you want to do in plain English. Maybe 10 years from now? 15 at the most.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Fun, quick link on making rocket fuel from candy

Rocket food

There's a link at the bottom of the page that goes to some specific recipes and test results. Also some nice videos.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Speaking of Ajax

I was talking to a friend last night. We touched on a million things and we ended up pondering Ajax for a moment. If you aren't familiar with Ajax, look at Google maps for an example application, or read this quick article: Ajax: A New Approach to Web Applications.

This is definitely a geek topic, but if you are a geek you can see that developers are trying to solve a problem. Developers are definitely yearning for something here, but they are having a great deal of trouble getting to a clean solution. When you talk to developers, what you inevitably hear is how hard and/or tricky Ajax is. What they are trying to do -- create a custom user interface on a remote machine -- just shouldn't be this hard.

One thing we talked about was how, 20 years ago, we had our first system for creating user graphical interfaces on remote machines. It is called "X Windows" and it is still in fairly wide use today. Compared to some of the stuff you see today, X is an incredibly simple system, which is a good thing. Probably the main problem with X from today's perspective is that EVERYTHING is done on the server. So, for example, when you move the mouse, all the mouse motion events travel through the network to get to the server, which processes them. Definitely doable (it worked then and it works now), but it means the server has to do a lot of work that it should not have to do.

The problem with Ajax is that it is trying to graft into a browser window functionality that a browser window was never intended to handle. It seems like a poor fit.

So the question is, when will someone replace the browser with something far easier and more flexible? It feels like what you need is the ability to open a window on the user's machine. Then, as a developer, you choose which parts of your application will run on the server, and which will run on the client. One comment that came out of the conversation last night was, "why can't I drop a jar on the client machine and run it in a sandbox there?" That has shades of ActiveX.

It will be interesting to witness the technology that replaces the hodge-podge we have today. There is such a strong need, it seems like it should pop out of the ether fairly soon.

[PS - when this gets created, it should take the notion of 3-tier systems into account. Meaning that if you want to use something like Akamai, you should be able to run code on the server, and on any of Akamai's servers, and on the client.]

Windows Live

I saw my first record in a log file today from Windows Live:

Try the search engine. The user interface looks to be Ajax-based (or something similar), and therefore is a bit different.

This page is revealing:

Windows Live Ideas

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The future of storytelling

Take a look at this video:


It is a well-crafted story that makes you think.

10 years ago it would have been near-impossible for a "normal person" to make something like this. Three years ago, it would have been near-impossible for a "normal person" to distribute it to any sort of audience.

Today, making something at this level of quality is still not "easy", but it is definitely within the realm of possibility. And distribution to millions is free and easy.

Loose Change demonstrates the same thing.

Friday, June 09, 2006

New idea

Prepare for liftoff: "There is no subtle way to say this: Brian Walker plans to shoot himself nearly 20 miles into the air aboard a homemade rocket launched from what could be the world’s largest crossbow. (Seriously.)"

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Beating heart in a box

Yes, you read the headline right. It is now possible for you to keep a heart beating in a box. The video is stunning:

Heart beating in a box - CNN video

The technology is expanding to other organs.

So, how long before we can keep a brain alive in a box? And how long before we can interface the nerve pathways from that brain to a computer? At that point, we can consider discarding our bodies.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Do you have anything to say?

I do a fair amount of work with teenagers, so I get mail from them and have conversations. Here is a message that I received recently:There are literally millions of teenagers that have this same question.

I have my own perspective on this, but I am curious about other perspectives and personal experiences from a variety of backgrounds. Does anyone have a story or idea they would like to share?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Forget about flying cars...

A new wing/jet/parachute system:

Paratroopers could fly 200km with new wings system

Sure, paratroopers will get the first crack at this, but eventually it will trickle down to the rest of us.

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