CES 2016: From the Fringes

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is the premier trade show for tech product previews and release announcements, going as far back as the VCR in 1970 to Driverless Cars in 2013*. This year the CES featured about 3800 exhibitors, spanning 2.47 million sq. ft. spread out over 3 locations** visited by 170,000 media and industry professionals — and I was privileged to count myself amongst them. Featuring keynote addresses from Intel, Netflix, IBM, Samsung, nVidia, Volkswagen and other big names, a lot has been written, presented and shared on mainstream as well as social media about the 4 day event. This chart sums it up the hype pretty well:

Source: BuzzRadar.com

Source: BuzzRadar, CTA

I decided to share some of my views from the fringes, rather than the trenches — there is no point in rinsing and repeating what is already out there, nor do I have any delusions about the value of my personal opinion about tech that enables your car to count how many oranges are left in your fridge (yes, it was demoed, with voice control).

Oculus_c

The Oculus Rift demo was by far the hardest to get into — there was a line, a line to get in the line, and a third holding area. Eventually I made it on the last day, and it took me about 20 min to recover from the simulator sickness caused by piloting EVE Valkyrie’s spacecraft from a living room chair. I still felt there were rough edges and the HTC Vive was by far a more refined, immersive and truly flawless experience. The new Sony PlayStation 4 VR was quite impressive as well: I could lean out of a moving car and look behind me, and the granularity of control was so good I could rotate knobs on the car stereo. OSVR.org based devices were quite popular too, and some others that caught my eye were Virtuix Omni active VR platform, AntVR’s Holodeck concept and ICAROS‘ EUR 10,000 gym equipment that lets you fly around in a virtual world powered by your own body. Certainly beats playing first person shooters wearing VR googles on a treadmill, or riding a virtual horse on a exercycle.

There were tons of clones (mostly based on Gear VR) and drones. Augmented Reality seems to be gaining ground, but despite solutions like the Sony SmartEyeglass and Daqri Smart Helmet, VR seems to be more popular of the two. It’s worth noting that virtually every VR or AR demo was running on Unity3D content, including those at NASA and IEEE’s booths.

I also tried my hand at racing simulators of various scales: from small VR setups, to actual cars mounted on motion platforms, to a massive 4×4 grid of 55″ OLEDs in front of a force feedback seat rig. There were several interesting display technologies on show: 3D without glasses, transparent (scaling up to entire walls), curved and Samsung’s modular, edge-blending display tech straight out of a sci-fi movie. Avegant’s Glyph might turn the display industry on it’s head, though, much like the way it’s worn.

SamsungModular_c

 

On the automotive side, voice, gesture and intent based user interfaces seem to be gaining ground. Also making an appearance were adaptive user interfaces and improvements in sensor fusion, self-learning and self-driving techniques. There were tons of wearables, 3D printing and home automation booths. The two core themes seemed to be a maturing of the ecosystem (just about everything built on top of something else, not too many technologies solving problems from scratch) and apps for doing things that don’t need apps, like locking your front door. You’d think we would stop there, but no:

On the social innovation side, I found GrandPad, Casio’s 2.5D printing and the Genworth R70i Aging Experience very thoughtful. Besides these, I liked Mixfader‘s idea of an MVP slider for mobile DJs: after all, the crossfader is the main thing that requires precise tactile control, everything else can be relegated to the screen. Also impressive was Sony’s line of 409,600 ISO see-completely-in-the-dark cameras. And this is now a thing:

LifeSpaceUX_c

You’d also probably be able to find a lot of beautiful photos of Las Vegas on the Internet, so let me leave you with this video of a not-so-common Las Vegas activity that I squeezed in on the last day, courtesy of DreamRacing.com (very fringe-y because I picked a Nissan over a Ferrari). Thanks for reading!

* Apple, Google and Microsoft have their own tech events and despite the Xbox (2001) and Android devices (2010) being unveiled at CES, these companies tend to keep their product announcements exclusive to their own events. So no Hololens at CES.

** „Tech East (Las Vegas Convention Center), Tech West (Sands/Expo at the Venetian,  The Palazzo, Wynn and Encore) and Tech South (Aria and Vdara)

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Amuse UX Conference, Budapest

Last week, I had the privilege of being part of a group attending the first edition of AmuseConf on behalf of our company. Amuse is “an international conference for anyone interested in how to design and develop successful products that users love”. It’s organized by the same good folks that bring us the outstanding CraftConf year after year, sponsored primarily by Prezi and UStream (and SAP in case of Amuse). They did a near-perfect job, with only minor glitches with the seating and catering on the first day. Considering that the Big Data oriented CrunchConf was also literally next door, the event was practically flawless. Fast, uninterrupted WiFi and no food options for vegetarians/vegans remained a hallmark this organizing team (even though Tom Illmensee, event MC is himself vegetarian 😉 ).

(BTW, if you’re wondering why so many tech conferences are being hosted in Budapest, the event’s WiFi password should give you a hint):

20151103_083708867_iOS

510 attendees from 32 countries (as far away as Australia) made Amuse a roaring success, as did its impressive lineup of Speakers27% of the speakers were women, which is great for a tech conference — I hope next year we have even more!

Below is a summary of the talks I found the most relevant to my work. But by no means does that mean you should skip the other talks… depending on where you are and what you’re doing, you might be interested in some of the eclectic topics covered such as:

  • Designing web interfaces for children by Trine Falbe
  • Conducting research outside “sample of convenience” by Bill Selman from Mozilla Foundation
  • Design Thinking by Tobias Haug of SAP (my favorite quote: “Innovation = Execution x Creativity”)
  • How to get your dream UX job by Andrew Doherty of Google (worth checking out just for his mad presentation skills)
  • The Ethical Designer by Cennydd Bowles
  • Storytelling in a multidevice landscape by Anna Dahlstrom

Design Equilibrium

By Jonathan Lupo

Jonathan opened the conference with a very engaging talk drawing parallels between businesses and ecosystems: a “balanced exchange of value between Actors, Enterprise and Brand”. He gave practical examples citing the application of Lynn Shostack’s work on Service Blueprinting to a transformation in the healthcare industry. I strongly encourage viewing his inspiring talk on YouTube.

His core suggestion is a separation of Product Design from Service Design. The latter “fills in whitespaces between points of [rich] engagement provided by products”, helping to restore balance to the overall experience, and hence the business ecosystem. This is the real intangible value of services, as opposed to products.

He also proposed the concept of an “Engagement Model”: a framework to contextualize all the data a business collects.

UX: Design as a Science

By Joel Marsh, author of the UX Crash Course

Joel’s key message was that “Scientific UX Design is reproducible”: essentially drawing on the principles of the Lean Startup and applying them to the UX domain. His presentation was one of the most popular and engaging ones, and his quotes and examples garnered a lot tons of positive feedback. One thing that struck me was his exposition on the two types of creativity: Creative expression and creative problem solving. He noted that an over-applicability of creative expression can make you feel good as a designer, but result in an over-designed and bloated product:

ArtVsDesign

Another talk I would highly recommend watching when it comes out on UStream.tv.

Making Dog Food a Part of Your Balanced Diet

By Toby Sterrett

Toby used his work at Simple Bank to highlight the pros and cons of “eating your own dogfood”. The initial employees used the app themselves, and one of the downsides was that the missed revelation that users of such a smooth app had to deal with a paper form-based process to close their account, which took up to 20 days.

Another inspiring talk that you should definitely check out, full of quotes of wisdom like:

  • “Delight is design’s superpower”
  • A past discussion on Leadership strategy: “Build a shared vision, get the **** out of the way”
  • “UX is not about throwing technology at a problem, but throwing people at a problem”

On the other hand, Simple A/B tested as many as 16 variations of their login page (for more examples, check out UserOnboard.com).

Live posters being created by @remarker_eu

Live posters being created by @remarker_eu

How We Built Hotjar and Onboarded 50k Users in a Year

By Dr. David Darmanin

David used practical examples from Hotjar to support his model of “Drivers, Barriers and Hooks” when dealing with site visitors. He also put a quirky twist on some timeless wisdom:

The two most amazing insights for me were:

  • Hotjar captures every single customer interaction on a Trello board, and uses that feedback to prioritize their features.
    • They also make their roadmap public, which demonstrates their commitment and at the same time reduces enquiries about feature requests
  • They use the income from their paid customers to fund the creative freedom to build features for their free customers

The Invisible Interface: Designing the Screenless Experience

By Avi Itzkovich

Avi, founder of UXSalon, opened with a discourse on recent editions of Microsoft Productivity Future Vision. From there he led the discussion on towards a future without bigger and wider screens (which wouldn’t require “superhuman arm strength”):

  • “The most profound technologies are the ones that become invisible” 
    • Like automatically opening sliding doors
  • “Voice UI is the future”
  • “Gesture control is here to stay, but not on screens”

The Best Interface is No Interface

By Golden Krishna

Golden surmised that we are all “chipping away at digital chores”, and we don’t have to be “slaves to screens”. He has laid the foundations of the #NoUI movement with his book“The Best Interface is No Interface”. His excellent talk (slides here) was supported by book reading and real examples. Also, don’t forget to check out his accompanying toolkit on “how to create elegant solutions with no screens”.

For further inspiration to join the movement,  take a look at his Producthunt collection of “interfaces that require little or no time with screens”.

Magical UX and the Internet of Things

By Josh Clark

Josh opened with an announcement of his book release: “Designing for Touch”. His presentation was literally magical, complete with a wand, to the point that he managed to tie in together excerpts from preceding talks and put the whole conference in perspective. I found a similar slidedeck from one of his previous talks here, and I highly recommend taking a look at it while we wait for the official conference videos to come up on Ustream.tv. It was a treasure trove of out-of-the box examples like:

  •  Augmented REality Sandtable (ARES), which literally turns dirt into a high-tech, military-grade user interface… using not much more than a Kinect and projector
  • Grab Magic, which brings superpowers to data transfer
  • Propeller Health, which connects Asthma inhalers to phones for health monitoring

Josh’s key message was “interaction at the point of inspiration”: that we should think of “the whole world is an interface, just like it has always been”. He proposed “thereables” instead of wearables: bits of smart technology in the physical space where we would expect to interact with them, not something we burden ourselves by carrying or wearing all day long. To this end, he suggested that “the smartphone is Magic Wand 1.0 for everyone” and we should start thinking of it as just more than a screen.

IMG_4185

Regarding user interfaces, he had 3 bits of advice that I found remarkable:

  • “Technology should amplify our humanity”
  • “We shouldn’t educate users on how technology works, unless we really *have* to”
  • “Honor intention, don’t assume it”

Josh ended with a call to action:

Like this one.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Driverless Cars?

Jetsons

Image Courtesy: Ludie Cochrane, Flickr

In case you’re late to the party, it all started with the DARPA Grand Challenge more than 10 years ago. Then Google got serious about it. Then Audi. And Audi on a racetrack. How could BMW be left behind? Then Tesla brought autopilot to it’s cars. And Apple decided to improve the experience of accelerated transportation. While Volvo decided to converge the phone and the car. And others attempt to use smartphones to augment the automobile’s current capabilities.

Meanwhile, other advancements were happening, too. Inertial navigation from Jemba. Shape-shifting cars from BMW. Augmented Reality in cars. And in Supercars. The convergence of video games and race cars, which started with instrument cluster design in the Nissan GT-R. Analytics in race cars. Infrastructural innovations, outside the car itself. Convoys of robot trucks in war zones. And some others that didn’t do so well.

There is also talk of remotely driven cars from Ford. Although clearly the poor level of software quality we have come to terms with on our desktops needs to be addressed before we scale it up to our cars. Maybe open source cars will come to the rescue.

Impact on jobs and economy aside, there are some fundamental problems with this whole “autonomous vehicle” thinking. Allow me to point out the elephant behind the SUV in the room:

  • #1: Cleaner, greener energy is a much more serious problem to solve than eliminating monotony, fatigue and accidents
  • #2: The 21st century problem is not with drivers or cars, it is with the infrastructure
  • #3: Driverless cars still need to be sturdy enough to support human life
    • It makes sense to make aircraft unmanned (whether for war, commercial or humanitarian purposes), because an aircraft without a human being in it can be lighter, cheaper and more efficient (it doesn’t need windows and safety equipment, for example). Contrary to this, passenger cars, regardless of whether they are driverless or not, will always need to carry the same level of safety and comfort equipment (maybe even more) as they do now. So making a car driverless in a sense just makes it more expensive.
    • Already, about half of the cost of a modern car is software, lest you be tempted into thinking that adding more software will make cars cheaper
  • #4: A chain is only as strong as its weakest link
    • As long as software is written by humans, there can and will be disastrous and potentially fatal mistakes. Not too long ago, the good folks who write software that puts shuttles in space acknowledged that we are still in the “hunter-gatherer stage” of software development. Although we have made advancements in leaps, there is still a lot we don’t yet fully understand.
    • Airline pilots have been dealing with a dangerous phenomenon known as automation dependence for years. It’s a problem we don’t have on our roads… yet.
  • #5: We don’t really need cars any more
    • At least not in our cities. Even though we’re driving less, there are more of us driving. And more of us driving even bigger cars than ever before. But what are the use cases?
      • Commuting to and from work? At approximately the same time every day? With tens of thousands of other people like you? To approximately the same physical location? Sounds like a classic opportunity for optimization. How about jumping into a more efficient mass transit vehicle with all the others?
      • Public transport not clean or safe enough? It would cost a fraction of the money to improve and optimize our public transport systems, compared to what it would cost to spam the planet with billions of driverless cars
      • Going shopping? Running errands? Consume less, walk (or bicycle) more and support your local grocery shop 🙂
      • Going out after work? You can’t drink and drive, anyway!
    • The only reason we need cars any more are for inter-city travel, emergencies, last mile connectivity and motor sports (because no one wants to see a bunch of algorithms racing each other). We need to fix our infrastructure and our way of life, not our cars.
    • Peak Car. It’s a thing.
  • #6: We are reinventing the wheel. Literally.
    • Given the problem statement that driverless car manufacturers have set out to solve, wouldn’t it make more sense to make cars that can fly themselves, rather than be constrained to the limits of 2 dimensional roads? After all, that’s already a solved problem.

Update 2015-05-25: More food for thought: Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck

Dual God Theory and Other Advancements in My Philosophical World View

Abandonment

Image Credit: "Abandonment", 2004, from my personal collection. Creator unknown. Or forgotten.

There are at least two levels of Creators. One that Created Us (Humanity), and one that Created the Universe we inhabit, the Creators of our Creators.

By extension, we are the Gods of what we create: Furniture, entities inhabiting computer programs, Artificial Intelligence.

Yes, furniture is alive, too. It just has a lifespan that operates at a level we can’t yet comprehend. The same way the Earth is alive, and all planets and stars and everything in the known Universe is alive… and dies.

Just because something doesn’t breathe doesn’t mean it’s not “alive”. Anything that follows a cycle of creation, existence and destruction is “alive”. The slower the metabolism and breathing rate, the longer something lives. That is why whales live 10 times longer than dogs. Some things just have a metabolism rate approaching infinitely slow, or just metabolism in a completely different dimension.

The phone or computer you are reading this on is alive. It follows rules and rituals it doesn’t really understand, only because it is expected to. And it blatantly refuses to accept ideas (files) from certain other phones. And that is basically the genesis of Religion.

___________________________________________________

So the ultimate question then becomes: Why and when did our Creator(s) abandon us?  Was it when we became artificially intelligent? Will we do the same? Will they ever come back?

Is this a test? Are we just an iteration in a cosmic lab? Why is there no readily perceivable life anywhere else we look, yet the planet Earth seems to have a sample of every conceivable life form, every conceivable geographical formation and natural wonder? Are we in an ark? And how many more are out there?

I was once accidentally locked in a bathroom for nearly 2 hours. The longer I was in there, the more the house and the world outside ceased to become relevant. What if I never got out? Would it matter who created me, and what wonders lay outside?

If there was someone else with me in there, I would eventually have completely forgotten the outside world. We both would have started a new life together, getting by on what limited resources were available in our locked little world. Our lives would have changed. We could potentially start a new civilization. Future generations would wonder at the strange artifacts in their world, remnants of a long-forgotten world. And one day, they would start arguing and killing each other over who created, who put them there.

What if humanity never left this planet? Will we just blossom, suffocate and wither away?

As the socio-economic problems on this planet get worse (because “the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum”), it is naturally more likely that more and more government funding would be redirected towards solving “local” problems, rather than seeking answers to the above questions via more intensive space exploration programs. Which is why more corporations and entrepreneurs will step in. And more humans will be willing to sacrifice themselves to ultimately find out where we all came from.

Flight Simulators for the Serious Hobbyist

As computers get more powerful and cheaper, and as human beings advance their knowledge and experience further, we are fast approaching a point where fantasy and reality are fused into one big blur of sensory exhilaration. Some time in the last decade, we crossed the point where Flight Simulators became so realistic that time spent flying in a simulator started being counted as actual flying hours. And new technologies such as Oculus Rift VR are only making the future more exciting. The best part is that a real(istic) flight simulation experience is now well within the reach of the common enthusiast.

Dusk

Getting off the Ground

For PC or Laptop owners, there are already several high quality, open domain Flight Simulation software available that are backed by worldwide communities of enthusiastic users and contributors. Coupled with easily available off the shelf controllers and accessories, they are enough to transform your desk and armchair into a virtual cockpit. For the latest news, reviews and discussions, check out resources such as SimHQ and NewsFlightSim.

Doing It Yourself

If you want something more immersive, and have access to a bedroom, you can draw inspiration from this French gentleman and build your own simulator at home. There are plenty of DIY resources available to guide you, such as X-Sim (also check out the work of SirNoName), DIY Flight Sims and ARC Air. For those willing to splurge, there are high-end solution providers such as SIM Room.

The Complete Flying Experience

The full fledged flight simulation is experience is much closer than you think. The Emirates Aviation Experience will let you fly an Airbus A380 in an instructor-led 30-minute session for about £50, in UK or the Dubai Mall. You can even fly a Boeing 737 in shopping malls around the world, such as  in Bangalore or Mumbai (Flight4Fantasy) or in Budapest or Győr (PremiAir). And if you are really serious about flying, you can get professional lessons in a full fledged flight simulator at Swiss Aviation’s training center in Zurich for the price of a high-end laptop.

The Future

With Virtual Reality making a comeback, keep an eye out for interesting Oculus Rift enabled Flight Simulators. Or take the next leap into Space Flight. And while we are on the topic, why not eliminate the aircraft altogether and jump right in to the experience of flying like a bird?

User Stories vs “The User’s Story”

Last year I bought DiRT3 for Windows DVD on sale. Based on its ratings, It seemed a good candidate to try out my Poor Man’s Xbox: An Xbox WiFi controller connected to a Windows laptop, hooked up to the TV.

Even though I had bought a DVD, it wanted me to register online with a Windows Live ID. Well, if I wanted to play a game online, there are plenty of options. Why would I buy a DVD? So every time I started the game, I would select some fake name, configure all my settings (controller, driving aids and so on). But because I had refused to sell my soul, the game wouldn’t save my settings locally.

After a few times I got fed up and decided to create an ID. How hard could it be, right? Right?

reality

Let the Games Begin

It had read before on that gmail addresses can be used for Live. So I provided mine at the game startup. A few “Next” clicks later, it refused to recognize it. Then:

  1. Exited game
  2. Fired up web browser
  3. Went to Microsoft site
  4. Registered my gmail ID for the Live service. What fun, a verification email was sent.
  5. Opened gmail
  6. Clicked on verification mail. Read through cheesy welcome notice.
  7. How cool! Now I have a free Xbox Live gamertag. Which I can change. For free. Only once.
  8. Decided if my profile was going to be online, might as well use a gamertag that my friends would recognize. Isn’t that the whole point of social gaming?
  9. Changed gamertag. Now my Xbox Live page was in a state where the new gamertag appeared in some places, and the original was still retained in others (e.g. the logout option)
  10. Logged out, logged back in to make sure the change had taken effect (standard Microsoft workflow: If it acts weird, restart it)
  11. Still the same. OK, whatever. But wait… in doing all this experimentation I discovered “Privacy Settings”.
  12. Changed my privacy settings to sane ones. Hopefully they were mine, because they still referred to the original gamertag.
  13. Finished, closed browser
  14. Fired up game

You’d think that 14+ steps to register for playing a game would be enough. But no. Now that I had a valid XBOX Live ID, I could log in. And now that I had logged in, I needed the latest updates to the XBOX Live gaming system installed on my laptop. Someone had decided to reuse code for this: it would be installed as a Windows update! And guess what, after that I had to restart my laptop, too! Because apparently only selling your soul just doesn’t cut it these days.

But finally I was getting close. I had restarted laptop and game, logged in and voila! Since by registering online I had clearly indicated that I’m heavily into social gaming and all that, now I was being asked to supply my YouTube credentials so in-game video could be uploaded to my channel. Which doesn’t exist.

Past that , the game wasted some more seconds checking for Downloadable Content. Which I was least interested in, considering that I had barely even played the game yet. But, it still checks every time I start the game. The exact same check every time, which notifies me about the exact same shiny new packs available, which I’m exactly as disinterested in.

And here is the highlight of the whole experience: After going through the effort of registering online, I still have to re-configure my settings every time I start the game. Because apparently saving a few strings of text to a file requires something more that investing in a laptop, operating system, DVD and Internet connection. In the attempt to play this game, I spanned 2 types of storage media and 4 internet services,  gave up my privacy and recreational time, and it still forces me to use factory settings. On the other hand, the graphics are a generation ahead, the menu has 3D text and the game makes the CPU generate unbelievable amounts of heat. Which is exactly how things were back in 1996.

Conclusion

1. User experience and usability are not just about product features. They are also about the experience of reaching the point where the product can be used. Any software that requires more than 10 steps and an hour of time is unusable.

2. In the year 2014, the only reason I should be forced to restart my computer is to prevent catastrophic meltdown. Not to install updates. What’s next, autonomous cars pulling over on the side of the highway and restarting because the manufacturer decided to push updates?

(EDIT: I wrote this as a joke but a reader pointed out that this is actually happening right now: Where’s my Knight Rider 2000?)

3. This whole experience stank of multiple individually proven and smooth solutions sloppily strung together to deliver working software. I can bet Codemasters and/or Microsoft were thinking they were being agile, leveraging reusable components and delivering in an impossible schedule. All the user stories were delivered, but did anybody step back and think of the user’s story?

Q: Whatever Happened to Virtual Reality? A: Augmented Reality

Let me kick off these sections on Augmented Reality & Technology Trends with a mention of Christopher Mims’ recent post over at [MIT] TechnologyReview.com:

So what was it, really, that kept us from getting to Virtual Reality?

For one thing, we moved the goal posts – now it’s all about augmented reality, in which the virtual is laid over the real. Now you have a whole new set of problems

It will be worth your time reading his entire analysis of the question. Meanwhile, interesting things have been happening in the Augmented Reality (AR) field. First, it was Pranav Mistry from the MIT Media Lab demonstrating a cheap, adaptable and wearable gestural interface, aptly called SixthSense. Watch the TED Video from November 2009 here.

Then in 2010, marketers started experimenting with adding AR layers into the real world, making use of software such as the Layar platform for mobile phones. You can watch a convincing demo here. I say convincing because mobile phones are the most likely candidate for widespread adoption of AR technologies. Because if they were not, we would have more devices like the Wrap 920AR from Vuzix, which are basically wraparound goggles that provide an immersive AR experience.

The Video Game industry is always quick to adopt new interfaces (and often invents them),  and AR is no exception. Motus from the University of Abertay Dundee uses a Sixense TrueMotion controller (I couldn’t find any relation to SixthSense) to manipulate a virtual camera in a virtual environment, with applications in gaming, animation and simulation. It was originally inspired by the Simul-Cam that finally enabled James Cameron’s 20-year old dream to come to life, in the form of the 2009 movie Avatar. Ironic, a movie about remotely controlled humanoids, filmed using AR cameras.

Speaking of Avatar, not only was the technology behind it futuristic, but so was the marketing, which used an i-TAG system that allowed the manipulation of an on-screen 3D model, using a Webcam that scanned interactions with a tag in the physical world. Also, the same idea of controlling remote representative agents is explored in a different form in the 2009 movie, Surrogates, which IMHO was more “epic” than Avatar.

So the next question is: When will we reach the point when we won’t be able to tell the difference between what is “augmented” and what is “real”? Or would we rather not be able to?