can “IP on everything” yet?

Back around 1998, Vint Cerf, a guy touted as “the father of the internet” came to speak at Purdue. (yeah.. I know, I thought Al Gore was the father of the internet. derp.) It was an odd time. The internet as we have kind of come to know it (the web), was just starting out, having only been available for public use since 1993. I’m guessing I was still on some form of dial up at the time.

Vint Cerf on Boardwatch Magazine

Vint Cerf on Boardwatch Magazine

I only remember two things from Cerf’s presentation. The first was the Beavis and Butthead worthy slogan “IP on everything”. huh huh. (IP stands for internet protocol, a layer of the infrastructure by which the ‘net works) I don’t really recall, but it seems like he must have said it several dozen times. The gist of the phrase was that in the not so distant future, every electrical device would somehow be connected to the internet. At the time, I think this idea was a little more of a stretch than it is now. Why would anyone want to connect their washing machine to the internet? From a pragmatic perspective, I guess I still kind of ask the same question, but at least we have examples of possible uses. Sure, I’d like a text message when the dryer is done.

As an aside, it’s kind of interesting to me to think that the other end of this IP on everything interaction had few interesting prospects back in the 90’s. I think it was kind of assumed that you’d sit down at your gigantic CRT monitored PC (because macs sucked at this time) and wait for the message from your dryer. Similarly it’s also interesting to think about how many roles cell phones now play (and will eventually play) in our data interactions.

For what it’s worth, the other thing I remember him mentioning was having internet on the space shuttle. I think we’ve already achieved that through some terribly slow radio relay.

electric imp guts

electric imp guts

imp development board

imp development board

Anyway, I should probably get to the point. I recently read about a product called electric imp that provides an infrastructure for ol’ Vint Cerf’s idea. It appears to be a system of some stuff mounted in an SD card case, and a socket that’s small enough to fit in most devices.. like a light socket. They use WiFi, so you don’t have to pull a bunch of wire in your house to get it all connected.

Twine

Twine

This isn’t the first project of it’s kind. “Twine” came along earlier on kickstarter, providing a WiFi-ed sensor platform. Twine’s blocky form and external-ness cause it to strike me as more of a hobbyists toy than something seriously embeddable; not to mention the fact that it costs $100 a pop at the early adopter level. The imp on the other hand appears ready to ship to OEMs for inclusion in products at around $50 a piece.

What can you do with these things? My first thought was along the lines of power usage logging. A little program could easily be written to harvest the data from all the imps and then cross reference it with the current electricity cost. This would show you in dollars what each device in the house was costing you. Possibly, depending on how robust the imp is, you could even tell what times devices were plugged into certain outlets based on current draw.

Really though, just power logging is kind of short sighted. I think the real fun of these is going to be bringing a high level of home automation to the average joe. Having this infrastructure means manufacturers can more cheaply make automatable things, like power curtains that you can set to open and close at certain times, light fixtures that turn on and off, etc. I’m not a systems integrator, so I don’t have a lot of cool examples, but I think you get the idea.

[EDIT]

Lauren just brought up the very good point that the electric imp could serve as the hardware basis for an idea that Scott Jenson of Frog Design spoke about at the IDSA Midwestern Conference a few months ago. [View the video here if you are an IDSA member.. I think it only works in ie. OR if you’re like me and don’t think the IDSA membership is worth it, see basically the same talk on vimeo] From the IDSA webpage for the talk :

Mobile apps are on a clear trajectory for failure. It’s not possible to have an app for every device in your house, every product you own and every store you enter. Much like how Yahoo!’s original hierarchy gave way to Google’s search; applications have to give way to a just-in-time approach to applications. This talk will explain how applications must give way to a more universal approach to application distribution: one based on the mobile Web and cloud services. The problem, of course, is that the mobile Web has both hands tied behind its back. Any mobile app today is locked away behind a browser ghetto: in effect, a sub OS inside a larger mobile OS. This isn’t just an arbitrary technology debate. A just-in-time approach to application functionality can unleash entirely new sets of application, ones that are impossible with native apps. This talk will lay out how this problem can be fixed, and what changes need to take place, outside of just HTML5, for it to happen.

Scott Jenson – Why Mobile Apps Must Die – BD Conf, Sept 2011 from Breaking Development on Vimeo.

I think what Scott is pushing for is an ad hoc network of “stuff” in your personal area. In much the way new WiFi networks might appear on your iPhone when you are in their range, WiFi enabled everyday objects would make themselves known to you as well. For example, when I’m in my office building, I might get a phone notification that there is a vending machine down the hall, and it is doing a sale on diet coke. Not only does this bring about a kind of Just-In-Time product/service delivery model, but it also can makes sales more efficient – Ideally, the coke machine would want to sell all it’s stock before it’s refilled, if it has a surplus of something as the refill date approaches, it could make those cheaper to move the product.

Other examples might include getting a notification about bus schedules when you’re near a bus stop. The underlying idea is that you don’t have to search for the information you need, it comes to you.

It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here.

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Dan Hanebrink (file under: weird bikes)

Today I was reading Gizmag and saw a familiar name. The story was about a Hanebrink electric bike set up to pull a golf bag. Weird. Ugly. The current Hanebrink bike has been around in a non-electric version for quite sometime. They pop up in cycling related media every now and then, and each time they do, I can’t believe anyone would buy one. They appear terribly impractical and ugly, although after riding a Surly Pugsley I have to say that big tires don’t slow you down like you’d expect they might.

Hanebrink II Electric all terrain bike

Hanebrink II Electric all terrain bike

What this article really inspired me to write about isn’t the current Hanebrink bike, but a really old one. As many of my generation who grew up in the suburbs riding bikes likely remember, Dan Hanebrink designed a bike for Hutch that was an early iteration of the HPV genre (thats Human Powered Vehicle.. not Human Papillomavirus!) seen here on the cover of BMX PLUS magazine.

BMX PLUS cover January 1988

BMX PLUS cover January 1988

I remember thinking that this bike was so cool. In reality, I have no idea what I would have done with it. Even now, I’d probably only ride it down Kerber hill a few times and then go park it in the garage. At the time, I had no idea that gravity sports existed. In fact, I think my first awareness of such things were from the slew of “extreme” MTV programming in the early 00’s which sometimes featured stuff like street luge. In the past few years I’ve become aware of collegiate HPV competitions and Mountain bike downhill as well. It strikes me as interesting that this guy was working on this kind of stuff in the 80’s, and skirting the mainstream with it. He also competed in fuel efficiency competitions in the 80’s. Some of the designs surely must have been heavily borrowed for modern vehicles of this type. It really doesn’t seem dated at all.

Hanebrink in a fuel economy competition

Hanebrink in a fuel economy competition

metal house in brick

dovecote studio

dovecote studio

I don’t have any thing profound to say in this post, or even anything to add. I saw this building on FFFFOUND! a while back, and really liked it. I was eventually curious enough to go looking for details and found the architect’s website. The general idea is that they took the decayed remains of a brick structure and stuck a small, steel covered building in it.

It’s a great idea and a beautiful building. I have to admit that I was a little saddened to learn that it wasn’t a house, but rather an artist’s studio. This fact is evident when you see the stark interior. I was also disappointed with the project cost, cited at around $250,000 USD. Granted, I don’t know specifically what goes into something like this other than materials. I see that a structural engineer, and an environmental engineer were used in addition to contractors and the like. I’m guessing the engineers all get a good chunk of money.

Anyway.. Just a cool project I wanted to share.

hueristic evaluations.. beyond the screen and ergonomics

Since beginning my foray into Industrial Design and Interaction design, there are a few common threads that keep popping up in my projects and annoying me. Today I want to write about one that came up in a recent project where I was designing a ubiquitous computing/ambient weather forecasting device. As is usually the case, we were required to plan a heuristic evaluation.. for a physical device.

Bonsai weather forecaster

Bonsai weather forecaster

This shouldn’t be a big deal, but the problem is, everyone immediately jumps to Neilsen for the heuristics they’ll be using. This is all well and good; they’re a pretty good set, but they are intended for 2D screen based interfaces, especially web, where it’s automatically assumed that the interface will have the user’s full attention; ie: staring at a computer. I’ve googled “heuristic evaluation” +”physical device” about a hundred times over the past two years and always get the same sad results. Usually, the only things remotely worthwhile are various archives of this IxDA forum thread from 2008. The gist is that a guy is looking for heuristics for physical device  testing, and the IxD folk tell him to look up ergonomics.

In my own practice, I take Neilsen’s 10, ditch the ones that really don’t apply, alter some, or grab some from other limited sources. One of these other sources that I’ve used before is a list from a consulting company called Tristream. I used these in the evaluation of a piece home/industrial automation back-channel management software. It wasn’t totally ideal, but it got the job done.

Neilsen's Heuristics vs AmbientHeuristics (Markoff et al, 2003, p.172)

Neilsen's Heuristics vs AmbientHeuristics (Markoff et al, 2003, p.172)

Back to my ambient weather forecasting project.. I was lucky enough to find a great paper titled “Heuristic Evaluation of Ambient Displays” from the ’03 CHI conference. In it, some folks from UC, Berkeley and Intel Research went through the heuristic selection/creation process I described above, in this case, especially for ambient displays. The paper discussed their test of these heuristics and found them to be significantly more useful in identifying major issues than the original set from Neilsen. In the test, “a single evaluator will only find about 13% of major issues” but “a single evaluator using the ambient heuristics finds 22% of known major problems on average”. (Markoff et al, 2003, p. 175)

Where am I going with this? I really think there should be a published set of heuristics for physical devices. I understand that the type of device greatly impacts the heuristics that should be used, but it would be nice to have a basic starting point that made more sense for 4D interaction than just the stock set from Neilsen. I’m hopping to draft such a paper over the summer. It’d be of tremendous use for myself, but I think the Industrial design community as a whole could benefit. If any of the designers out there have suggestions to this end, please let me know! I’d appreciate the input.