Category Archives: Design

The “spin-tar” – a new musical instrument

What has more strings than a Rock Ock, spins around like a whirling dervish, and sounds like a cross between a steel drum and an electric violin? Why, a spin-tar, of course.

Somebody stop me if this actually exists. There are a lot of obscure musical instruments in the world, and I’m not an expert. Continue reading

The Millennial Warning Problem

I was thinking about the old problem of how to warn people not to dig open a nuclear waste repository that may be unsafe for an extremely extended period of time. There’s an article on Slate from 2014 here. The problem has been discussed for years though. I remember reading about it when I was a kid.

International radiation warning symbol. Click to view other related symbols on Wikipedia.

In the past, governments have tried crowd-sourcing a solution for a warning sign that will still be understood thousands, or tens of thousands of years in the future.

The problem specifically is that a sign, whether it consists of iconography or text, may not be understandable even after a few generations.

I can’t think of a specific example right now, but I’ve encountered examples of iconography from less than a hundred years ago that I had to look up. That obviously wouldn’t do for a sign warning of imminent danger. There’s worse things than accidentally entering the wrong washroom, after all.

What if, instead of crowd-sourcing the solution, we instead extended the resolution out over time? Time-sourcing it, if you will. Continue reading

Decomposing the Bus

If you take public transit, this scenario will be familiar to you.

After a lengthy wait in the freezing cold (or sweltering heat), the bus finally arrives. It was likely held up by rush-hour traffic.

You fight your way onto the bus through a mob of people trying to get off. When you eventually get on, you find yourself packed in like a sardine in a can, with somebody’s heavy bag poking into your back.

As the bus lurches away (throwing everyone into each other), you see a crowd of angry people, through the window, who couldn’t make it onto the bus.

So here’s a thought for you:

What if it was possible for you to get on the bus before it had even arrived?

What if it was possible for all of those other people to get off of the bus after it (and you) had already left?

Continue reading

What will cellphones look like in 5 years time?

What will cellphones and other mobile devices look like in five years time? I’ve been pondering this question for a while now, and this post has gone through numerous iterations.

It would be very hard to determine what mobile gadgets will be like over a longer period, but given the current rate progress (and market adoption), the following points of speculation might be valid in five year’s time:

  • The rise of head-mounted displays like Google Glass means that mobile devices won’t need to have large screens (or possibly any screens), which means they will no longer be forced into the flat, rectangular packaging of today’s pads and cellphones. A screenless gizmo that connects wirelessly to your glasses could look like anything – a belt buckle, an old-school Walkman, or something completely new.
  • Battery life will no longer be a major concern. Between improvements in batteries that are close to market availability, Apple’s patenting of tiny fuel cells for phones (not sure I’d want hydrogen in my pocket, but anyhow), and several competing wireless energy technologies, I suspect that how your devices are powered will change rapidly in the next few years. This is a good thing. Batteries haven’t changed much in a hundred years, and they’re one of the least reliable technologies in use.
  • We’re likely to see more experimentation with input devices. I don’t think keyboards and mice are going “away” just yet, but better verbal input, gesture recognition and other experiments are likely to be available in the market.
  • The performance gap between laptops and their smaller cousins will close. New chip technology seems to be focused heavily on power consumption, so it is likely that the types of chips used in mobile gadgets will be similar (or possibly identical) to those used in laptops. One implication may be that fully-fledged operating systems will win out over less powerful, specifically mobile ones. That could mean, for example, that iOS and OSX will converge, and that Microsoft may actually be crazy like a fox. In the longer term, there are still many companies that would prefer to push processing power into “the cloud”, and have mobile devices primarily act as dumb terminals, but I think the short term will see things largely going the other way.
  • We may see some new form factors – if most of what you need can be built into a pair of glasses, and only some people need things like more storage, or faster co-processors, there may be a market for small add-on devices that communicate via Bluetooth with a primary device, and that contain things like SSD hard drives, or high-powered GPUs.
  • We may see a further move away from cellular technology to “WiFi plus Voip”. I already use Skype and Google Voice more frequently than I use my cellphone’s phone number. If free (or merely very cheap) WiFi becomes ubiquitous, why pay for cellular service? If the ENUM system takes off (it is still largely experimental), you’ll pay a few bucks per year for your phone number (similar to domain registration), and forward it however you want, to whatever devices you wish. I suspect this will further erode the customer base of cellular service providers (to the benefit of companies like Apple).

What does this all mean?

  • It would take a lot for me to be able to do serious work from a mobile device. A full-sized keyboard and mouse are rather useful when writing code, or typing up a lengthy document. If my cellphone had a docking station, that might change, but I suspect that (for certain kinds of users) laptops aren’t going away any time soon.
  • The companies that will win in this space are going to be the ones that bring the full power of a laptop to this smaller form factor. The ability to do – for example – professional graphic design requires several things: a really good screen, dextrous interface device(s), lots of processor power, lots of storage space, great software, and sufficient battery life to not be tied to a wall socket (although Starbucks is usually helpful in this regard). You can almost do that now on an iPad, and I could imagine a designer in a few year’s time standing in the middle of a park, wearing a pair of Google Glasses and an input glove, and generally looking like they were conducting an orchestra.
  • Increased competition between companies in the mobile space means that there’s likely to be a lot of experimentation over the next few years, in order to try to find niches that are profitable. Expect the rate of change to accelerate, and lots of oddball products that ultimately wind up being dead ends. This looks similar to the early days of the “luggable” computer to me.
  • Expect some amazing new collaborative software for these new, powerful mobile devices. The future is not big transparent multi-touch screens like in Minority Report; instead it will be 3D collaborative spaces that are viewed via, and interacted with by multiple people wearing glasses.

The whole world is a user interface

Flickr Creative Commons - Omad

Lately I’ve been working with two very talented user interface designers.

The problem with hanging around UI/UX folks on a regular basis, is that everything starts to look like a user interface.

I really do mean everything.

Driving around my neighbourhood, I find myself thinking that a turning lane in a particular spot would really do wonders to streamline the browsing, um I mean driving experience.

Waiting in line at the grocery store, I see the need for additional whitespace to accomodate the users shopping carts at the front of the store. Oh and the cashiers could benefit from a longer grocery input field so that they’re not left waiting from the customers to unload their shopping carts.

The ergonomics crowd have understood this sort of thing for decades. Complex machinery – think car dashboards – go through this process all the time. Its really only starting to trickle down to other kinds of products and experiences now though. Many have noted that we’re entering a golden age of design. I just hope that whoever is responsible for our road system gets on board.