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)

Prezi’s 7 Year Itch?

This has been a really hard post for me to write, because some of the brilliant engineers and designers at Prezi are my professional acquaintances and/or good friends. And that’s the very reason I’m writing it – real friends tell it like it is. I’ve been putting this off since I first started using Prezi almost a year ago. But now that I have experienced it in free, Edu and Pro flavors, and created some pretty complex ones, the initial tiny niggles now seemed to have, let’s say, zoomed in (pun intended). So Prezi people: please consider this well-intended motivation.

Prezi was founded in 2009, and I imagine at that time it must have felt something like Wolfenstein 3D: technologically ground-breaking and in some circles, controversial (you may recall Microsoft tried to acquire id Software). Powerpoint needed to be killed, because it enforced linear thinking – and Prezi was the answer. Yet, 6 years later, linear thinking is still popular:

With 60 mn users (and 160 mn -/+ 18% Prezis created, depending on which part of their website you refer to), obviously they’ve got something right. Right enough that they are able to sustain an international presence on a single product. That rarely happens at this scale, and I suppose it is something to be admired.

The Platform

The in-browser experience is brilliant. Works well and virtually eliminates the entry barrier.  I tried using the desktop variant, Prezi for Mac, once. Just once. I found that it in terms of usability, it didn’t offer any major advantages over the website. But the real problem was that it kept false-flagging sync conflicts between the “local” and “cloud” versions. Eventually I decided the fake stress wasn’t worth it and switched back to the browser.

You may not have this dilemma if you would like to use the free power of Linux to share your ideas – Prezi doesn’t support it. (To be fair, they more than make up for this by actively promoting the tech and open source community in Budapest, by regularly organizing/hosting events, meetups and conferences).

There is an iPad version that “enables users to pan, and pinch to zoom in or out of their media” (That’s perfect, because that’s pretty much what an iPad is good for, anyway).

What I really wish for is the ability to resize the slide view pane on the left, so I can identify and jump to specific slides. And multi-select, especially for reordering (use the Force of the Shift Key). I would also like to mark some sections so I can focus on certain areas for preparation. Or even skip straight to one depending on how the conversation is flowing.

I mentioned stress earlier. You can quite easily recreate it by using 2-finger zoom gesture on a Mac. It’s not very precise and often ends up being a lot more than you’d expect. I once had to spend hours fixing my slides when a select-move-zoom operation didn’t go as planned. I learnt the hard way to stick to the zoom buttons and not use gestures.

And finally, it all runs on Flash. Yes, even now.

Features

The undo/redo feature also has a bit of a mind of its own. For simple operations it usually works fine, but when you’re in the flow and make a mistake, it often does the thing you’d least expect. Infinite undo/redo shouldn’t be that hard to implement either, considering everything is an object with attributes, anyway. What would be really nice, though, is some kind of checkpoints — major versions that you can roll back to, branch out of, or share with someone (e.g. numbered drafts). Because, 2015.

The guides when moving stuff around are hard to see. Too often they blend into the background, especially e.g. if the background has a grid. Get those ants marching again!

I also miss the ability to add notes, although what I would really expect is a more modern way of representing “prompts”, in a way that would be intuitive for presenters.

Warning: Brutal Honesty Ahead

Try this test, Prezi folks: create a new Prezi, single slide only, and export it to PDF.

  • Number of pages expected: 1
  • Number of pages found: 2.  The first page is always duplicated during export, regardless of number of slides.
  • Test result: FAIL.

Really, nobody noticed this in all these years?

Or that the image borders provided by the Aviary plugin are too thick and can’t be adjusted? (I trust you when you say my “private”, potentially proprietary/copyrighted images are truly private, even though there seems to be no obvious ToS or protection mechanism).

I’ve had Aviary and PDF export error out on me on a couple of occasions. I can live with that. But must you call them IO_ERRORs? That sounds more like the server ran out of disk space or something. And to non-programmers like my Dad, it probably looks like “ten errors” misspelt.

Nice to have: compressed PDF, with lowered quality. Try printing a 60 MB PDF some time, or re-uploading it — when just a link would have sufficed.

For that matter, why limit social sharing options to only to Facebook? How about Twitter, LinkedIn and dare I say, SlideShare integration as well? (PS: Do people really share presentations on Facebook? How about a good old “Email this” shortcut?)

There is tremendous potential to use Prezi as a content generation tool if it allowed exporting to video, or directly to YouTube (and/or Vimeo). Think tutorials, troubleshooting guides, walkthroughs and just plain not having to talk over and over again — present it, record it, share it. Other people seem to have the same idea, too.

And if only there was a way to present to the second screen, so in a presenter view (or just Edit mode) I can see what’s coming next and how I’m doing with my timing.

Use Your Imagination

sod2

Animated GIFs are still the quickest way of demonstrating processes in action, for example. Importing Google Spreadsheets and converting them into graphs within the editor. Powerful timelines like TimeGlider. Simple maps like OpenHeatMap. Leveraging the zooming and object hierarchy features to build a MindMap mode (which may even serve as a foundation for the final Prezi). And why limit the zooming and rotating to 2 dimensions only? I would love to make a Prezi with 6 slides, each represented on a face of a cube which can be rotated in 3D space. After all, the future of storytelling is going to be virtual and immersive.

(Here’s an idea: API and plugins).

Prezi is great, but that’s no reason to not be even greater.

(Or just release the Kraken: make it open source, let us fork it and watch how people use the platform to build even more clever ideas for telling their stories).

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Global Bullshit Crisis of 2015

doc_bullshit

For the first time in recorded history, the total amount of bullshit being produced on planet Earth every year has exceeded the amount of human shit produced annually.

Leaders around the world are rising up to the unprecedented challenge. “This will not be tolerated any more,” said the leader of a leading Muslim League. “It has come to r misr attention that Bullshit now needs freedom and democracy,” a prominent American leader added. Meanwhile Russia has announced a zero-tolerance policy towards Bullshit: “Any shit will be shot out of the sky. We can’t afford to wait any more to confirm if it is Bullshit or not.”

China, on the other hand, has taken a rather controversial stand by declaring that they will produce even more Bullshit cheaper and faster than anyone else. India went two steps ahead: demanding that Britain should pay reparations to India for all the Bullshit. The UK’s response was to put all Indians on the Bullshit Watch List. A scandal ensued when a leading tabloid revealed that 65% of Hindustanis in the UK are in fact from other -stans. “Bullshit!” was the response from the leaders from these other -stans.

African leaders condemned the event strongly: “Whenever the world discovers something new, it leads to decades of strife in Africa. We are still paying the price for being the cradle of all Human Bullshit.” Soon after, Japanse scientists shocked the world with their discovery that radioactive Bullshit has medicinal properties.

Meanwhile, all of Europe has united against Bullshit. “We must preserve our own Bullshit and not let it get diluted by Bullshit from outside,” said a spokesperson. Canada and Mexico were the only countries to not react. Allegedly when the Bullshit hit them, they were surprised to learn that “North America” is not the same as “America”. Australia reacted strongly by deporting a prominent Hollywood actor’s dogs and New Zeland declared that they need a new flag to deal with all this Bullshit.

The same actor then announced his new blockbuster about Bullshit, expected to complete production in 2017. Bollywood promised to copy the script, add songs and release a Hindi version by 2019. Kollywood vowed to copy the Hindi version and release it in less than 6 months. This chain reaction went on until Rajnikanth announced that he had already made a 3D version of the movie in 1972.

The rest of the entertainment industry was not far behind. The video game industry responded with tons of Bullshit Simulator apps and TV channels were flooded with inspiring shows like “Bullshit Idol”. The music industry announced that Bullshit Dance Music (BDM) tracks could be downloaded for free, in return for credit card details that would be “hacked” only a year later.

Owing to all this frenzied activity, the two leading news making agencies of the world decided to form a consortium aptly named the Bullshit Universal Reporting Platform (BURP). According to their official press release: “In this connected and informed world, our viewers don’t accept plain old Bullshit anymore. Fortunately, we have the backing of such large global corporations that we can afford to create our own Bullshit.”

Silicon Valley has taken up the digital baton to solve the problem from a tech standpoint, and failing that, make tons of money consulting about it. Oogle was the first: “People are searching for so much Bullshit these days, we had to split our company into two to keep up with the demand,” they claimed. Fakebook followed with a public beta of the new Bullshit Multiplier feature. “Throw any Bullshit at it, and it will display similar Bullshit that you might have otherwise missed out on in real life,” reads their updated website. Picosoft and Zamaon almost simultaneously announced their new OneShit feature. “Why should you be limited to your own Bullshit? We want to take Bullshit into the cloud, so you can access any Bullshit, anywhere, on any device.”

Halfapple, however, was ahead of everyone else as usual with their ground-breaking product offering: iShit. No one really understands what it does yet, but there is speculation that for its price, it can probably solve California’s drought problem.

The car industry was quick to recognize the potential of all this surplus Bullshit as well. “Our best researchers are working on it. By 2020 we expect to mass produce cars that run on pure Bullshit,” and industry spokesperson said.

The impact of this event has far reaching consequences for the human race as a whole. Space Agencies around the world are launching probes to other planets to find the origin of Bullshit. Studies have shown that the weight of all this Bullshit is slowing down the rotation of the Earth, and as a result we may soon lose the Moon. “Good riddance,” said the Director of the leading Space Agency. “We didn’t find water on it anyway.”

UFO researchers as well have chipped in from the fringes: “Not since 1947 have we witnessed so many confirmed sightings of Bullshit around the world.” Countries where these sightings have occurred in recent months have been quick to cash in on the tourism opportunity, complete with guided package tours in 12 languages.

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?

What if Google Had to Design for Google?

A humourous take on what would happen if Google had to design their website so that their own Search Engine would rank it right up there…