Office – The lowly coffee stirrer

I think the round plastic coffee stirrer is kind of dumb. Its shape makes it terrible at creating enough turbulence to actually stir coffee (often requiring two, especially for something like hot chocolate) and it’s little bit of a waste.

For class, we were asked to breathe new life into an object we discard daily, and to think about how to improve it. Plastic bags were given as the example, and I chose coffee stirrers. After cutting, stretching, tearing, melting, twisting and tying coffee stirrers, I came up with a few uses. Here are a couple:

The first was decorative office plants:

And a brush/pen combo for cleaning out keyboard debris:


Then I got to thinking, why not combine two products in one? Sweetener + coffee stirrer, thereby eliminating the waste of the sugar packet. My concept product of a sweetener-filled coffee stirrer with a breakable end was created by melting the ends and perforating one end to make it easy to break.

And my computer mock-up:

Click for PDF

The little “paddles” help break the end off as well as stir the liquid.


Energy – Wind Power

Photo by Charles Cook on flickr

I think wind power is terrific.

On an ICE Express train trip a couple years ago from Berlin to Heidelberg, I gazed, fixated, out the windows at the distant wind farms. The turbines were spinning peacefully in a field. Many parts of the world have accepted wind farms as parts of their landscape, strangely beautiful and peaceful, and also symbolic of a better, cleaner future.

As the US struggles with a shift in the way we produce energy, there is a large opportunity for “benevolent” capitalism to play a hand in greening the States. Yesterday, billionaire T. Boone announced a wind farm that will provide enough electricity initially for 300,000 homes, a number which is expected grow to 1.2 million by 2015. Not only that, but people willing to place turbines on their property will receive royalties of about 20K annually.

Paying people to put turbines on their property is a good idea in a country where money talks.

Wind has downsides in how flexible it is to locate, as well as resistance from communities about perceived visual disruption. It has been used in the United States, mostly, in large tracts of remote land. But some companies are developing small-scale wind that runs more quietly and is visually attractive enough to bring turbines to public places.  Quiet Revolution, for instance, makes a vertical-axis turbine which is safer and more flexible, and can even be placed on top of city buildings, where the wind is turbulent.

As the price of fuel-based energy continues to skyrocket, renewable energy will become more and more attractive. It can’t happen soon enough. And it will be much more pleasant to drive (or, perhaps, pass by high-speed train) by than this:

Office – Phoning Better

An old design for a new generation of phones. (Click to enlarge)

[XFR] [4] [3] [0] [LINE #]

I think that’s the key combination to join two calls.

I think.

Either way, it’s absurdly arcane.

I can kind of see the XFR part. Presumably, that stands for “transfer,” which in some twisted way makes sense, because you’re, um, transferring two calls together, or something. But seriously, what kind of significance could the number 430 possibly have? (Wikipedia: it was the year Feng Ba abdicated as the emperor of the Northern Yan, which was vying for control of China. Hmm…) What committee came up with this number? (“So we all agree, 430, we think this is an intuitive and logical number to have to dial to make a conference call happen.”) My guess is that there was a little bit too much 420 being passed around.

I’m not sure what phone system they were using on the other side Tuesday afternoon. Either way, they tried fruitlessly for at least 10 minutes to join all five parties together. After repeatedly dropping at least one party, we eventually settled on three, deeming the other two “not important enough” to keep trying. Now that’s business efficiency, folks.

The point is: It shouldn’t be this hard.

This is true for so many things we encounter on a daily basis that have obviously had no thought go into the user experience whatsoever. Swiping a MetroCard? Shouldn’t be this hard. Adding a contact to your cell phone? Shouldn’t be this hard. Getting a person on the phone with technical support instead of talking to a know-nothing computerized voice? Shouldn’t be this hard. Reading the labels on prescription bottles? Shouldn’t be this hard. Doing taxes? Shouldn’t be this hard. (But I digress…)

The truth is, there are some dial-in conference call systems that work fine. Someone sets it up, then you call in with a PIN code to a service that puts you in the conference. Great.

But really, it’s time for the office phone, as we know it, to go the way of the dinosaur. There’s no point, when virtually every desk has a computer and virtually every computer is hooked up to high-speed internet. Instead, let’s create a handset/wireless/video accessory and a software application to match.

Here’s my design for a new generation of office phones. They would be semi-independent of the computer—that is, if the computer was off (or crashed), the call would simply be forwarded to your cell. The idea, then, is that while in the office, the phone’s interface would be almost entirely through the computer, a là Skype. This would allow more flexibility, user-friendliness, and power than any office phone. So when joining five parties, you could click a button on the computer, rather than enter in some key combination and, perhaps, sacrificing a goat. 

A nicety of a software application would be the ability to set up the software to forward calls immediately to your cell phone, or to ask the calling party if they would like to either leave a voicemail or a be forwarded to your cell phone. This would eliminate the problem of trying multiple phone numbers. 

The software would allow you to see when your colleagues are available, busy, or on the phone:

A mock-up of the computer interface.

I wanted the design off the phone itself to “get back to basics.” No longer an independent device, the point of the next-generation office voice appliance is simplicity of functionality—it serves as an input and output of voice and video and nothing more. The design itself is an update of the design of some of the first phones ever made. 

Old vs. new

The phone has absolutely no buttons. Lift the wireless handset to answer, place it back on the stand to hang up. To activate the speakerphone, put the handset face down on the table. An accelerometer detects the placement and turns on the loudspeaker, turning it into an instant teleconferencing device. To turn speakerphone off, just pick the handset back up. The handset itself is held onto the base using magnets and is charged inductively, like a toothbrush. As for the camera, twist the lens to close the aperture for ensured privacy. 

Features. Click to enlarge.
Feature diagram. (Click to enlarge.)

A phone shouldn’t be a device to battle with. It should do what it’s supposed to do, no fuss, no muss. 

Ed: The Gas Tax Holiday

Let me wander a little bit off topic to talk about the Gas Tax Holiday.  I don’t want to wander too far into politics, but I have to give kudos to Senator Obama for boldly opposing it despite the fact that many Americans will perceive it to mean he wants them to have expensive gas (how elitist!)

I drive only for work or when I am home on vacation. Most of the time, my ride is 600-feet long, seats hundreds, tops out at about 50 miles per hour, weighs many tons, uses enough energy to light Buffalo… yet is surprisingly efficient considering.

First, the average amount of money saved under the plan is about $30 per family. By car ownership standards, this is a drop in the bucket. It’s less than 1/2 a tank of ONE refill. Now consider insurance, maintenance, tolls, parking, gas… if you can afford those things, $30 is not going to be the difference between eating and not.

Now consider this. Gas prices remain as high as they do because although people are driving somewhat less, there are still a ton of people purchasing gas at the current prices. Exxon had its best quarter ever with a whopping $10.9 billion profits. (Hope you’re not eating lunch.) With that in mind, let’s take a look at an Econ 101 chart:

If the government artificially lowers the price of gas, then the demand (blue line) will grow (shift right). Guess what that means? The prices will go right back up. So now we’ve taken away tax money that is used to invest in YOUR community towards things like infrastructure repair, and used it to line the pockets of the oil companies. Hey, maybe next quarter Exxon can have a $14 billion profit!

Here’s what Clinton had to say about it:

I’m not going to put in my lot with economists… Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantages the vast majority of Americans.

Yeah! What do the economists know? Seriously?

Car culture in America is deeply entrenched, so much so that people resort to illogical arguments (or simply ignoring the facts like Clinton). Cries that Congestion Pricing in New York City would harm the middle class was disingenous, considering the overall cost of parking in Manhattan in the first place is so outrageously expensive (over $600 a month at a garage near me) that anyone who is driving in is WEALTHY. Period! Poor people are not driving into Manhattan! Admittedly, CP had its problems–for one, people who don’t have access to transit need better Park-and-Ride facilities at transit stations first.

Honestly, what is up with the acceptance by the MSM and general populace of doublespeak and logical fallacies in modern politics?

It’s all part of a slow and painful realization that the era of cheap oil is over. An 18 cents per gallon tax break for 3 months that will eat jobs and infrastructure improvements is not going to change this. What will revitalize this country is a massive Federal infrastructure overhaul program providing jobs, research, innovation, and investment that, at long last, rebuilds and reconnects the country with dependable, safe, multimodal, ecological, and efficient transportation. It’s how all of our existing infrastructure came to be, but it’s literally falling apart and its based on dated thinking. Obama’s call to invest in the rail system instead of a nonsensical tax break is a nice one, but it’s not thinking big enough. As long as politicians pander to their constituents or simply do not have a clue, this country will continue to languish and fall behind as the rest of the developed world moves forward. This is our chance.

Off to School

Hi friends,

There’s been quite a delay between posts—I’ve been traveling for business and for pleasure. 

I will be attending a summer pre-grad course in Industrial Design here in New York City. It starts in two weeks and I’ll post my work here. 

In the meantime, I am working on some new posts and will update soon! I spent about 15 minutes today with another firm trying to get a conference call set up properly, so I’m thinking especially about how clumsy office phones are. 

Electronics – Tales of an e-book reader

About a year and a half ago, I mentioned to some friends I was considering starting a company that would produce e-book readers. “E-whats?” they asked, puzzled. “E-books. Nobody has done them right. Sony has built a nice device, but they’re missing the killer app, which is content delivery. Like iTunes, but for books, newspapers, and magazines.” Their blank stares were really all the proof I needed.

Of course, in November 2007, Amazon dropped the Kindle on us. At which time, I resigned myself with the reasoning that nobody was better positioned to dominate the market than the world’s biggest online book reseller.

Nobody knows how well Kindle is doing, beyond the fact that it’s backordered. Is it demand or supply chain problems? Who knows. But some people have turned their nose up at the Kindle for a variety of reasons:

  1. You’ll pry my paperback out of my dead, cold, hands.
  2. Showing off my bajillion-book library makes me appear cultured and refined.
  3. The iPhone is better positioned to become the perfect platform for eBooks. Just wait until the SDK.
  4. The Kindle is hideously ugly.
  5. The Kindle is expensive.

(1) and (2) there is simply no arguing with. People enjoy the sensuality of a book – the feel of the cover, the smell of the paper flipping by their fingertips, the aged look of the wrinkles and bent spines. They enjoy displaying their library for all to see. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. The e-book reader is much more likely to be used for casual reading, like a John Grisham or James Patterson thriller. We all read them, but we’re not dying to put them on display for others.

(3) I respectfully disagree with for a couple of reasons. The iPhone is a terrible platform for reading books for two major reasons: battery life and screen technology. E-book readers use a technology called, appropriately, E ink, which looks shockingly like real paper because it is not backlit. Because it is not backlit, and only requires electricity when changing the contents of the screen, it uses only a tiny bit of energy. Backlit screens are more straining on the eye and less calming than reading off paper.

(4) is absolutely true. I’m not sure what the Industrial Design team was going for–retro, or ugly chic. Either way, it doesn’t quite work. To me, it looks like an Apple IIc from 1984. While that design language was interesting for a home computer in the eighties, it’s not the book reader of 2008. My biggest problem with the Kindle’s design is that it’s a little too unashamed about being the anti-book. The keyboard, which is rarely needed, unnecessarily dominates the over 1/4 of the front. I don’t want to feel as if I’m reading off of a fancy electronic dictionary. The entire front should be reading estate. If you’re trying to replace books, don’t make the experience plasticky and tacky. The materials should be solid, smooth, and refined.

(5) is also true. $400 is a big asking price when the device is intended to replace $7 paperbacks. Of course, the product is priced at a premium to start. And nobody knows how many they are selling, because Amazon refuses to disclose.

In my opinion, even more than replacing books (especially hardcovers), the e-book market is better positioned to replace magazines and newspapers. Besides the obvious green benefits (think of the tremendous amount of paper produced, printer, and shipped daily–this would also be a great marketing point), most people throw out their newspapers and magazines at some point. The papers know the end is near, and the industry has responded much more gracefully to the shift than say, the music industry. They’ve launched updated, largely free Web sites with features such as videos, podcasts, blogs, message boards, and polls.

For the portable reader, it’s all about content delivery. You shouldn’t have to lift a finger. Upon waking, the day’s newspaper should be on the device as the newspaper is waiting on your front door. Your magazines should appear as soon as the issue is ready, just as you’d receive them in the mail. Pick your device off its charging stand and go.

Buying books should be easy and fun. And the books should be priced well below the price point of an actual book. I’d pay $5 for a Grisham novel.

Another killer app could be catalogs. People love flipping through catalogs, and although mail-order is heaving its last breath, a modern catalog would let people order just by tapping on the thing they want. You could choose your favorite stores and receive the latest catalog to flip through for free. Think about it: one-touch ordering a pair of jeans from J. Crew or a set of dinnerware from Williams Sonoma. Billed to your account and delivered, no fuss, no muss.

The following is my design for an e-book reader. It is made out of metal and hardened (scratch-resistant) glass, and has a treated interchangeable leather integrated cover and changing stand. There are no buttons. Just like a real book, open the cover to “turn it on,” close it to “turn it off.” The cover is held either open or closed by a magnetic latch. A magnetic sensor turns the device on or off. The rest is controlled by touching the screen. To scroll, move up and down with your finger. To turn a page, brush your fingers across the screen, as if you were turning a real page. Text entry, when required, is done via an on-screen keyboard. Bring up the menu by double-tapping the screen. Otherwise, the menu stays completely hidden. A light sensor activates a front light in dim situations. 

It features Wi-Fi for free over-the-air (OTA) downloads. In range of a free or registered network, Wi-Fi downloads the news and periodicals as they become available.

Browsing books, magazines, references, catalogs, and periodicals is done with an alphabetized “library” interface. Think of it as Cover Flow for books.

Purchases and free downloads are made from the device itself through an integrated store. Documents, like PDFs and other e-books, may be sent to the device for free by e-mailing them to a specific e-mail address. The device would not force the customer to use the built-in store.

Forget e-mail, Web browsing, games, etc. Those applications are well taken care of by existing devices (phones, computers) and there’s no reason to cram low-quality applications into a device that just happens to have Wi-Fi and a screen.

I’m going to work on the interface a bit and post an follow-up in the future. For now, take a look at the case design by clicking on the thumbnail below:

Click for Full Size

Transit – Envisioning a Communications System for the MTA: Live Info

I doubt I’m alone in being frustrated by the complete lack of meaningful communication when I step into the subway. Nobody wants to be reminded at 108 dB that their backpacks can be searched when they’ve been waiting 25 minutes for an elusive (A) train at rush hour. Don’t blame the person who is giving the announcement, or the token clerk, because they have no idea where the train is either.

We’ve seen from cities around the world that it’s not at all impossible to keep passengers informed of when the trains are coming, when they’re delayed, and when there’s important information to be relayed. This is true even in cities with train systems nearly as large, old, and complicated (London is a perfect example.) We also know that people will patiently wait much longer as long as they know how long they have to wait in the first place.

When I don’t like something, I love trying to make it better. This is what my blog is going to be all about. My efforts in this case are a concept I dubbed Live Info, which aims to create a comprehensive, integrated communications system—covering the way passengers receive and request information, to how problems are reported, and where and how the information is sourced and managed. It includes both the bus and the subway. It is on the platforms, in the mezzanines, at station entrances, in the train cars, on your phone, and on the web. It attempts to minimize its own costs by forming a private-public solution. 

Some examples of Live Info’s features:

  • Text a bus station to learn when the bus is arriving. Text a subway station from anywhere to find out when the next trains are due to arrive.
  • Find out on board the train when your connecting train or bus is due to arrive.
  • Receive advice on the platform and train about whether it’s faster to switch to the express or stay on the local.  
  • Learn before passing through the turnstiles whether there are delays on your line. 

Regardless of the costs, I think it’s worth considering the advantages of integration, standardization, and a streamlined workflow. I don’t believe Live Info is innovative in the technology it uses—nothing is voodoo, here—but rather in the way the systems would work together to provide customers with rapid, precise information.

If you find this at all interesting, I encourage you to read through the full report, written as a “proposal” (unsolicited, of course) to the MTA. At this stage it’s really conceptual, but attempts to envision and describe the foundation for a total solution. Download it here (8 MB PDF, 33 pages).