Sunday, 28 February 2010

Video: NHK program about the next generation bullet trains

Very interesting to see the how considerations like weight, noise, and vibration, are put into designing the new bullet trains.


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Why natural interface excites me

What do you think about when the word “Natural Interface” comes up?  If you were like me, things like the iPhone touch interface, the Microsoft Surface, and the tablet PCs would immediately come up.  When a new paradigm of interaction, like touch, comes on the scene, some would wonder about its usefulness beyond the cool factor. I wish to address part of that question below.

Craig Mundie, Microsoft's Chief Research and Strategy Officer, recently demonstrated the interaction paradigm of 3D gestures in one of Microsoft's research projects. My favourite part was how he manipulated the design of a turbine blade using gestures and be presented with the outcome in terms of wind flow on a colour scale. By using gestures to manipulate design this way, engineers can avoid a large part of perturbing and experimenting with various parametric equations. The results are immediate, and changes can be made on the spot. This speeds up the design process, which has a direct economic impact. On the industry level, it enables larger problems to be solved more quickly.

Consider yet another scenario - robotic surgery. To operate with ever greater precision and effectiveness, surgeons need the help of various medical equipments and robotic devices that help them to see and operate better. Robotic arms that are small, flexible, and very "natural" to use for surgeons will allow for ever more complex surgeries to be done in minimally invasive manner. This is very important because size of cuts has an big impact on the patient's quality of life after surgery. Here again having an interface very natural to use makes a difference.

Let's consider the broader concept of natural interface. To me, technologies are tools, and making interfaces more natural is about accessibility - making those tools accessible/useful to a larger audience and support innovation in their respective problem domains so they enhance human abilities rather than impede it. How different would lives be if actuaries had to interact with their data through switches rather than keyboard/mouse/monitor/GUI? The impact is immense.

More importantly, on top of supporting people within their problem domains, if interface designers can find a low enough common denominator in interaction paradigm, people from across disciplines can collaborate much more effectively. What if auto designers can manipulate their design and immediately show engineers the impact of the change in a way engineers can understand and action on? What if the data was shown to designers in a way that they can understand engineers' perspective, too? Better designs faster is my guess.

What about being able to easily visualize and manipulate the mountain of data collected to enable high level decision makers to get a good picture of their organization and effect change more successfully. I think we are just seeing the beginning of such initiatives. Applying this level of accessibility to the entire industry or society and the effect is profound and full of possibilities.

No pressure, interface designers. :)

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Parable of the financial crisis by Charlie Munger

Very well written article summarizing the financial crisis.  Thanks to my friend Seungchan for sharing this article with me.

Subscribing to email notification for my blog

I have just added a new widget in this blog to allow email notification on new blog posts. If you would like to be notified by email whenever a new post is available on my blog, please type your email in the text box under "Subscribe via email" and click the “Subscribe” button. You’ll be sent a verification email. Just follow the activation link and you are all set!

I hope this makes it easier to keep track of my blog. :)

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Google and Railway companies

A rough thought…

I like trains, and often thought the railway industry has many similarities to the telecom industry.  Both industries are about transporting stuff, just that one is for physical goods, and the other digital goods.

Watching a documentary about railway, I learned this fun fact.  In Japan, railway networks are more developed and the industry is full of private railway companies.  Some (not sure how many) railway companies run their passenger rail business at a loss consistently.  But how do they survive?  It turns out, they cross subsidize.  By owning both the railway and the department stores around its stations, they use the profits from those stores to fund the railway business.  The railway subsidiary continuously improves their ride experience to try to drive more traffic to the department stores.

Could something similar to this happen in the telecom/internet industries?  If we consider Google and other expensive web properties to be the department stores, and the railways the internet’s infrastructure (in the sense of browsers/OS, and the telecom infrastructure), could it make sense that companies like Google will eventually want to provide this infrastructure directly to consumers to provide a better surfing/browsing experience in hopes of driving more traffic and value for their search/ads business?  What are the factors that would make this proposition of directly controlling the infrastructure more compelling, if at all?  Perhaps Google will consider this approach if it find the added benefit of delivering their ideal surfing experience outweighs the cost of setting it up.  For example, when the building out their own browsers and OS helps them to understand the users to target their ads and searches much more and help them be way more profitable.  Google came up with the Chrome OS and browser so far, and now are branching into the mobile software space.  I wonder what is in store next.

Going back to the Japanese railway example, Japan’s national railway company (the crown corporation) couldn’t compete with the private ones because it was prohibited as a public company to operate in the same manner.  If one day Google does provide consumers its own infrastructure, both on the software and hardware level, it’ll be an interesting thing to watch.

Thoughts and comments are welcome!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

How does technology distract us?

I was thinking about this a little, about how technology has an impact on the way we think.  Here are my thoughts.

It wasn't too long ago when I was in high school in Taiwan and all you need was a textbook.  You know that if you study the textbook well a grade of A would be guaranteed.  Everything you needed was in that one nice package.  No worrying about what information you have missed and trying to hunt down the right information.

This is quite different today.  We now live in a stream of information (I got this notion from Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks).  Information is updated all the time, and often it is our job to deal with the ambiguity and diversity of data that is out there.  The low cost of swinging from one piece of information (in the case of internet, just switching to pages) is lower than ever before, urging us to move on whenever our judgment call deems a page not worthwhile.

I think this "background processing", the need to feel we are responsible for finding the right information in what seems like an unending pool of data at least contributes to the feeling of information overload.  It's a bit like gambling.  We are not sure of the outcome, and thus the effect is magnified.  The ambiguity about whether we have the complete picture and the fear that maybe one thing out there could completely change the basis for our research, drives us crazy.

Another fact I think makes us information addicts that check emails all the time is the fact that it is asynchronous.  The non-real time nature of tools like email and voice mail have made group collaboration much more efficient, but precisely for this reason, the recipient of this information can often get overwhelmed, because the sender does not need consent from the recipient.  For example, if people had to always use phone calls to conduct business rather than using email, there won't be "left over" calls at the end of the day because when you're on one call, someone else has to wait for you to finish before speaking to you on the phone.  With emails, it is up to you to just send the info and let the receiver deal with it.  This makes for the volume of incoming data more volatile with emails, and since habits have momentum, when the volume of email is low, we crave for it.

All this comes down to the question of "what does information mean to you".  Of course, if none of us deem the information valid or useful, no information overflow would occur.  However, it is useful to address this issue for a growing number of people who find information to be an indispensable part of their work life well being and for sustainable progress as a society.  I wonder what are the technologies that will be required to address this.  Some sort of intelligent agent perhaps?  Habit change is definitely needed, but how?  Just one of my many thoughts.  :)

How does technology distract you?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Thoughts on the iPad

On January 27, Apple announced the iPad, their first tablet device. It is a very interesting product in many respects IMO, so I have gathered my thoughts below. Enjoy!

Form Factor

The iPad is a tablet and not a clam shell device, users will most likely use it either on a stand or be holding it with one or two hands. This makes it ideally suited for use while standing and in confined spaces. It also feels more "intimate".

Size wise, the iPad is a bit bigger diagonally than a regular hard back book, about the thickness of 2 pencils stacked up, and weighs 1.5 pounds. It is very mobile. I can see users carrying it around the house more than they do a laptop.

Casual Computing

15 years ago, when you want to check your email, you would walk up to your Pentium I PC, turn it on, wait forever for the start up, dial a phone number to connect to the internet, turn on your email client, and click "Send and Receive", and wait some more for your messages to download. Today, we have our Blackberries/iPhones that notify us when a mail comes in. Within seconds we are reading and replying to it, and many managers today can't imagine their life without mobile email, and nothing is stopping email from being the basic feature of every phone in the future.

This concept of a technology being completely woven into and adapted to a user's lifestyle (it disappears) is what I think of as "Casual Computing". (I am not sure if Steve Jobs agree though. :) ) Using the email example above, the instant on, always connected, and mobile characteristics of a cell phone makes email disappear and we start to use it very casually - anytime, anywhere. Compared to 15 years ago, emails these days are quite "casual".

Of the many interesting features about the iPad, this is the most important thing for me - it has the potential to make many applications more casual than before, and introduce a new set of behaviours in using computers. Purchasing decisions are often based on impulses. How many times have you thought about buying something at one moment and not long after decided you weren't going through with it? What if the ability to execute the purchase was readily available then? Many people would probably have gone through with it.

The iPad, with its current screen real estate, makes browsing and selecting products pretty pleasant. Combined with its mobility, connectedness, and instant-on feature, I suspect consumers would perceive and use the iPad as a large iPhone in app usage. If the iPhone user behaviour is any indication, then we can expect huge amounts of micro-transactions of many kinds and the user data gathered to be more real-time than before. The two areas that I'm most excited about on the iPad are in books and gaming.

Book Reading

I love to read, and I love paper. I've been checking out various e-readers and the iPad seems the most attractive to me thus far, though it's more than an e-reader. It has a colour display large enough to feel "intimate" with the book, allows web browsing, and refreshes pages quickly when page turning and can play videos.

iPad's desktop like display in my opinion opens up a lot of possibilities in book reading. Videos and other interactive features not possible with the Amazon Kindle can now be embedded in books. Think about a music history textbook that has video/audio of the music pieces being taught, or any book with interviews with the author, or instruction manuals that have videos to teach you how to assemble a piece of furniture. Videos will greatly enhance reading in these areas.

I think the iPad may also make book reading more social - allowing more interaction with the author and other readers in the community. Readers may participate more in the making of future books with the author, too.


I am not a big fan of gaming, however, I can see the iPad bringing new audiences like what Wii did. Social games on Facebook like FarmVille have become very successful recently, and it appealed to many people who previously did not consider playing games on a PC. iPad is very suited for games (like FarmVille) that require frequent status checking, some degree of interaction between other players and the player’s properties. Imho the iPad addresses the needs of this market and the audiences in it, particularly middle age women.

If the iPad is coupled with a very frictionless way to buy/sell virtual goods I think there is a tremendous commercial opportunity.

Concluding thoughts

I think the iPad is a device with a lot of potential. The challenge is to convince the consumers that it’s a device way more intimate than a PC, and with a much better visual experience than a phone. I expect the user adoption would be slow at first, starting with frequent travelers and e-reader buyers. Interesting times indeed!

I welcome your comments. :)