It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Monday, June 22, 2009

japan and design 1: Welcome to the FUTURE!

Before landing in Narita, most of my exposure to Japanese design was stuff-for-export-to-the-US: toys, consumer electronics, anime, clothing, etc. It wasn’t until we landed at Narita and started making our way to the hotel that I realized just how different the two countries actually are. Sure, the language and cultural barriers are pretty steep, but there’s also some fundamental differences in how Japanese designers[0] address problems.

Here’s one example: luggage. In the states, luggage is all about ease of movement through airports or accessories that make your luggage clip to other luggage and so on. The problem is, “how do I move a bunch of bags from my house to the airport to the hotel and back again?” and the answer is the latest and greatest products from Victorinox, Samsonite, and their ilk.

In Japan, this problem is solved with an actual service, not better luggage. It’s trivial to drop your luggage off at the airport and have it delivered to your hotel, or delivered from your hotel to another hotel or back to the airport. Within Japan, we travelled only with overnight bags, our massive luggage were dropped off at the front desk of one hotel and delivered to our room at the next.

I don’t think that someone actually said, “how can we solve the luggage problem” as much as someone saw a business opportunity. Yamato Transport doesn’t just move luggage, they move pretty much anything from one point to another. Services instead of consumable products were everywhere. Instead of a stack of napkins at the restaurant, we were given steamed hand-towels. Instead of a bunch of signs at a construction site warning passersby of danger, a real, live human apologized for the inconvenience and directed traffic as needed.

When we checked in to our hotel — jetlagged and confused — we discovered a few other little touches that made a huge difference in our stay and how we thought about our environment. After finding our room and dumping our luggage, we were confused by the fact that the power was out. It took us a few minutes to find the slot by the door where you store your (RFID enabled) room key. When you’re in the room, you put your key in the slot, and the power is turned on for your room. When you leave and take the key with you, everything except the fridge and the washer/dryer are automatically powered down. Not only do you always know where you room key is, but you get a daily reminder of how much energy is wasted by standby power or lights that were accidentally left on.

We were also happy to find that our hotel had a “washlet“, and by the end of our stay we were trying to figure out how to smuggle one home. And also wondering if, perhaps, the Japanese think we’re a bunch of dirty savages when it comes to bathroom hygiene. I’m sure the toilet paper industry would not be happy about the mass adoption of washlets in the States, but I think it’s something that’d probably be better for us (and the environment) in the long run. Washlets are another case of the “service instead of commodity” thinking — instead of buying the best/nicest toilet paper you can afford by the pallet at Costco, why not have a toilet that does most of the cleaning for you?

I’ll end on a question that popped into my head while trying to find a trashcan on the streets of Tokyo,

“Can you design a solution that doesn’t create new consumption patterns?”

[0] For the purposes of simplicity, I’m not going to try and guess whether it was a service designer, interaction designer, UE designer, industrial designer, or whatever designer that designed things that I used.

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posted by jet at 14:30  

Monday, June 15, 2009

design and sustainability: recycle vs. repair

A couple of weeks ago, the battery in my 5G iPod, an older 60G, died for the second time. The last time it died, I paid something like $75 to have it replaced and waited a week because I wanted to keep my custom-etched cover. I paid something like $400 for it new, so paying $75 to replace a battery seemed pretty reasonable, if I’d wanted I could probably have done it more cheaply myself.

This time when I visited the Apple store, there was no mention of repair — the only option presented to me was that if I recycle it, I could get %10 off of a new iPod. So, what’s changed? Why is Apple more interested in selling me a new iPod that only holds marginally more media instead of charging me a fair chunk of change to replace the battery in the old one. The rumor is they don’t make profit on the iPod and that it’s subsidized by iTunes sales. Is the hope that in selling me a larger iPod, they increase the amount of sales, and does adding half-again as much space really make that much profit?

So here’s the design issue — why isn’t the iPod designed to be easily repaired by someone at the Genius bar? It’s trivial to swap out the battery in my state of the art Android G1 and it’s been trivial to swap out the battery in almost every mobile phone or mobile HT I’ve owned. I’m trying to remember the last bit of consumer electronics I owned that didn’t allow me to swap out the battery and I’m drawing a blank.

So what’s up, Apple? As a socially responsible company, why aren’t you designing products that can be maintained by the customer instead of designing products that have to be replaced?

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posted by jet at 15:59  

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

mTID Fall 08 Wrap-up

[I’m still building the web pages for the Official Documentation part of my Fall project that will include images, schematics, code, etc. I will post a link when that site is up. ]

For awhile now, I’ve been interested in physical and electronic security and the relationship they have with personal privacy. A large part of my day job for the past 8 years has involved privacy and computer security and I’ve been involved in some sort of security or hacking efforts since the 8-bit days. There are interesting areas of overlap where tradeoffs are made between security and privacy, and as I study design in a formal setting, I’m beginning to see the tradeoffs that will be made with design. While I’ve always been a proponent of security not getting in the way of usability, I didn’t worry too much about what “usability” actually meant and as a hacker, I was basically happy with with something that worked and was efficient.

In design school I’m learning design-thinking, which I’m discovering is similar to hacker-thinking (more on that in a future post). An interesting difference I’ve discovered is that as a hacker, I’m happy if it works. As a designer, I’m not happy until I’m no longer able to improve things. There’s a big leap between “it works well enough” and “it works and I can’t make it any better”, looking back at past hacking projects I can see now how much further I could have gone.

I’m also learning how to better communicate my ideas to people before I go off and act upon them. Hacking has always been about doing something, design is very much thinking about doing something and communicating the idea to people who do things. I want to do both. I want to show someone 20 variations on an idea using sketches, get useful feedback, then go off and do/make something to implement the idea.

For the Fall semester of mTID, I wanted to explore interaction design as it relates to learning about one’s physical and electronic surroundings. I didn’t want to go the AR route and wander around holding a mobile in front of my face or staring down into a tricorder; I wanted some sort of physical or tactile output device that feeds me information as an interrupt based on external triggers. Specifically, something that would let me know that I needed to be paying attention or that I should focus my attention in a specific direction but that was not always on at some idle setting or feeding me information that I have to parse as “negative/off”.

After looking at research in the field of haptic/tactile outputs, I also decided to take on the constraint of COTS technology, preferably open source hardware and software. I want other people to be able to replicate my work using free/cheap hardware and software instead of having to buy expensive mil-spec hardware or developing their own technology. There are teams of people with budgets doing some really interesting things, but I’m one person working in a self-funded studio.

Based loosely on what others have done, I ended up making a few waist-belts and arm-bands using Lilypad Vibe Boards driven by Arduino microcontrollers. The bands and belts are adjustable and can handle between 1 and 16 Vibe Boards. After getting all that up and running, I hooked it to a HM55B compass and did some basic navigation experiments and added a command-line interface to make it easy to manipulate individual Vibe Boards from outside the Arduino.

The thing that surprised me the most was the difference between what was reported in the literature and my personal experiences when it comes to using vibrators on a belt or band. Belts are a bit of a pain and have to be significantly readjusted and calibrated based on different individuals and the clothes they are wearing. For people who aren’t skinny, there are also issues with some of the vibe boards not making contact across the small of the back and for people who wear their pants at the wrong height it can often end up being a “torso band”. However, I was able to get some good practical experience with perceptual issues and concepts like the difficulty of supporting “just noticeable difference” between different wearers.

Due to the number of problems with the belt being used between different people, I started focusing on a band worn on the upper arm. My hope was that it would be easier to adjust and reconfigure, and that turned out to be the case. The arm-band also confirmed a problem that I’d first noticed during work developing the belt: vibrators are great for active feedback during a focused task or a high-priority alert but not so good for low-level alerts or the occasional nudge.

During debugging I noticed that I often startled myself by having a buzzer in my hand or resting on my skin go off, even when I was trying to figure out why it wasn’t powering up. Invariably, I’d drop the buzzer or flinch, even though I was expecting it to do something. (See also the classic “joy buzzer” prank.) My intuition is that we respond to surprise buzzing in a negative manner because of bees and other buzzing insects that can hurt us and that this is why almost every signal I’ve generated has seemed so negative if it happened unexpectedly.

However, having something seem like a surprise or creating a feeling of being startled is almost the exact opposite of what I’m trying to accomplish. My goal is to generate feedback at a less-critical level to alert a person of some information of interest, possibly including an abstract concept. I’m interested more in how to physically relate the sentence, “Hey, maybe you want to look in this direction for something suspicious that might also be hidden” and not the short imperative, “RUN! IT’S A LION!”

So now I’m looking at psych and HCI research again and considering combining vibrations with other tactile feedback. Perhaps a small solenoid that gets the wearer’s attention by “tapping them on the shoulder” then providing more information via the vibrators, or perhaps I can figure out a way to ramp up the vibrations slowly enough that someone isn’t startled.

As frustrating as this semester has been in terms of slow progress, setbacks, and dead-end tangents, I still feel like I’m learning a huge amount in a very short time. Once summer is here, I’m looking forward to some reflection time to sort out what I’ve really learned and how I can use it in the future.

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posted by jet at 17:22  

Monday, December 22, 2008

hardware sketching

I’m really liking the metaphor of hardware sketching. A few years ago, I’d have called this sort of thing a “prototype”, but given how quickly and easily it was built, it really is a hardware sketch. (Shame they didn’t use Processing instead of Flash, but oh well..)

A “time machine” radio that allows you tune into a year instead of a radio frequency.

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posted by jet at 10:24  

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Engaging Contemporary Communication Technologies

[1) Worst. Title. Ever. I know.
2) This is probably the sort of thing that I could send to a sekret group of people who Make Things Happen. The problem is a) I don’t know who they are; b) I don’t know who all to CC for “and these people agree with me”; and c) I believe in public self-organization, so I should put up or shut up. Comments via email will not be shared with anyone, but I’d prefer a public dialog on the topic. –jet]

I’m the first to admit that I have a problem with constructive criticism. I’ve never been terribly good at gently nudging someone onto the right path with kind words; I’m much better at beating them with a stick when they go down the wrong path. I apologize in advance if this comes off as harsh, it’s really not my intent. I want us to be brilliant, I don’t want to score points by pointing out where people are screwing up.

I recently started reading RISD’s latest blog (yes, they have more than one), “RISD by Design” and my response was something like

“Oh yeah? Well we just updated our website design after 10 years! So there! Ok, well, we updated some of it, like the main page and a couple other things and a lot of the departments and the search engine still have the old style and there’s not much visual coherence across the campus other than.. uh… so, how about those Stillers?”

That’s not much of a response. As a matter of fact, it made me angry thinking about it.

How is it that a university doing leading-edge research in pretty much every domain including Internet technology (ex: CAPCHA) doesn’t have any sort of, “Hey, look at us!” blog or journal at the university level?

Sure, there are some people working on departmental and project blogging, but that’s a local level. Peter Lee has CSDiary that covers the activities of the CS department and Golan Levin has a personal blog where he talks about issues related to teaching and being a good student. CMU Design has a Twitter feed, which is really great for students in Design, and a couple of classes have had per-class blogs.

But where’s our flagship blog, authored by someone from the President’s Office or at least someone in PR? Why were we not one of the first universities to have a major public blog/journal?

Thinking about past organizations I’ve been in, some possible answers that come to mind:

  • We don’t have to. Admission to Carnegie Mellon is highly competitive, anyone we want as a student or donor already knows who we are. There’s simply nothing to be gained from investing in some sort of Maeda-like showcase blog.
  • It’s not a high enough priority. Various senior people think it’s important, but we have limited resources and can’t do everything we want to do.
  • It’s a bad idea. For whatever reason, enough people at senior levels are simply opposed to the idea of having a presence in blog-space that they can block anyone else who wants to make progress in this area.
  • We don’t think the contemporary online world is relevant to the education process.

I’d like to think it’s the first reason (“we’re so great we don’t need to advertise”) but on my grumpy days I suspect that it’s one of the latter.

Here’s why.

Last semester I helped with a class called Making Things Interactive. If you go look at the class blog, you might notice that it’s hosted at, not at

Why? Well, we don’t have any blogging infrastructure at CMU. Nada. Zip.

Individual people have individual accounts on the campus network and some folk have installed blogging software on their accounts. However, the bandwidth limitations are pretty tight as my fellow student Jennifer Gooch found out the hard way. When her project One Cold Hand got national press, her site got hammered and was quickly shut down by IT because it was using too much bandwidth. It took several days to convince people within the system to change her bandwidth limits, during which she ended up moving her site to another hosting facility.

Think about that a second or two: We were getting really good PR on a national level for a student’s work and that student’s account got locked down because too many people found her work interesting.

Of course, many groups/departments have their own computing resources and self-host their servers, but by doing this they’re duplicating effort and wasting resources. In my program there’s a tiny little *nix box sitting in someone’s office running yet-another install of gentoo/apache and some custom CMS software. Why can’t we just fill out some sort of web requisition form and get a wordpress install up and running on a hosted campus facility? I host several sites (including this one) at dreamhost, so I can honestly say that it’s pretty trivial to set up a domain and get blogging software up and running if the basic infrastructure is in place.

In the short term, what we need is a blogfarm running WordPress. We don’t need CS to go into NIH mode and create yet another parallel-but-different-solution, we just need a bunch of blades in racks running wordpress and some support from IT in the keeping-it-running-and-updated department. Even if the Powers That Be don’t get blogging, at least give those of us who do the infrastructure we need to set up and run blogs on local, supported servers.

Once the infrastructure is up and running and people are using it and we start getting attention, we can more easily convince the Powers That Be why blogging/journaling is so important to the future success of our university. If a mere art school like RISD (sorry, cheap shot, I know :-) has a public face in the online world, why doesn’t a cutting edge, interdisciplinary research university like Carnegie Mellon have a public face that’s an order of magnitude better?

I have negative free time to help with this sort of thing, but my program could really use a locally hosted blog/website where we could show off all of our work. Right now I’m looking at setting up something on ning to promote our program and asking my advisor to spend a few $ to make the ads go away; I’m more than happy to help someone who has the time/energy to lead this charge.

So. Time to “shut up and skate”, as we said back in the day. I don’t have time to help build a ramp, but I’m happy to help sweep leaves out of an empty pool.

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posted by jet at 21:01  
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