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What makes a great teacher?

February 22, 2009
binaryclues

Is there a message in there?

Who are your teachers? Whom do you learn from?

Whenever I talk to someone, or read an article, or finish a project, isn’t the goal that I come away having learned something? Isn’t that what makes Seth Godin’s stream of content so interesting?  He seems to find insight where others walk on by. Is that because he is a great teacher? He clearly has a lot to teach us. But, perhaps it’s that he is a great student. He’s more receptive to learning something new. Can we be as receptive?

My list of “teachers” is pretty long, but I’d guess none of them are aware of it. I don’t pay tuition, I don’t have tests, but if I don’t pay attention, I may get left behind. 

Are you looking for a teacher, or perhaps you have experience to offer someone else? The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) has an eMentoring program that pairs young engineers with experienced ones. Do other societies have similar programs?

You don’t have to be in a classroom to have teachers. These are simply people you learn from, and they can be everywhere, if you’re listening.

Photo Credit: Rodolfo Clix

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Notes from “Plug into the SmartGrid”

February 17, 2009
Andy Karsner

Andy Karsner - Policy Panel

Washington, DC Feb 17, 2009 –  Every seat in the auditorium at Google’s DC office was filled with people passionate about bringing about change in the way power is distributed. People even lined the back wall and the overflow room. A total of 500 people in attendance. The event format was split into two industry panels, the first discussing the technology requirements for a SmartGrid and the second focused more on the Federal and State policy initiatives required to properly implement such a sweeping technological plan.

Tomorrow afternoon, the ~2-1/2 hour video footage of the panels will be available on both Google’s DotOrg channel as well as GE’s YouTube channel. If you don’t have time to watch, here are my notes from the event. I’m sure I missed some details, so please correct me or submit your comments.

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Google To Give The Energy Sector A Jumpstart

February 13, 2009

windpower_hdrThis week, Google announced they’re Beta testing a new application that you can use to track your household (or business) energy use by device in an effort to cut energy usage. Google PowerMeter will break down your energy usage almost in real-time. According to their data, the clothes-line may be due for a comeback. As the old adage goes,

“If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” – Lord Kelvin

They’ve built the application, but now they’re looking to develop some hardware to go with it. Google is not the only player in the game, though. Pepco is also looking to develop Smart Meters in the DC suburbs, and Agilewaves, comprised of a trio of NASA engineers, developed similar technology after the wave of California’s rolling blackouts in 2006. Even with a decent head-start, it might be hard to beat the raw initiative, seemingly unlimited cash reserves, and amazing grasp of user interfaces that Google has shown time after time. 

Last fall, Google and GE announced a partnership aimed at pushing technology and policy in the energy sector. To kick off the initiative, they’ll both be hosting Plug Into The Smart Grid next Tuesday at 2pm EST. The event appears to be open to the public, but plan for attendance to be maxed. Instead of making you fight the crowds, though, they’ll be posting the  content within 24 hours of the presentations on both Google’s DotOrg channel as well as GE’s YouTube channel. Google has also invited everyone to submit and vote on questions in advance via Google Moderator. This event appears to have some big players, so it’s not exactly a grass-roots effort. But, everyone is going to be called upon to act eventually. Now is a good time to start paying attention. 

Program

  • Introduction and welcome 
    • Dan Reicher, Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, Google.org
    • Bob Gilligan, Vice President, GE Energy
       
  • Part I: Envisioning smart power
    Energy tools and technologies to empower people with information and choice    

    • Moderator: Bob Gilligan, GE
    • Adrian Tuck, CEO, Tendril
    • Ron Binz, Chairman, Colorado Public Utilities Commission
    • Jeff Renaud, Director, Ecomagination, GE
    • Ed Lu, Advanced Projects, Google
    • Kelly Speakes-Backman, Principal, RE+GENeration Consultants LLC
    • George Bjelovuk, Managing Director, American Electric Power
       
  • Break
     

Part II: Accelerating the energy revolution
State and federal policies to drive smart power
Opening remarks: The Honorable Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change (invited)  

  • Moderator: Dan Reicher, Google
  • Fred Butler, President, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners
  • John Podesta, President, Center for American Progress (invited)
  • Andy Karsner, Former Ass. Sec. for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
  • Chris Miller, Office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Photo Credit: John Nyberg

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Preparing for the Digital TV Transition

February 11, 2009

digital_worldI get most of my news and entertainment online instead of through the television. But, we still turn on the weather or PBS cartoons in the morning, so we needed to prepare for the upcoming “digital transition”. Here’s a summary of how I chose a converter box and built an antenna. Did I miss anything? What did you do?

As you’ve probably heard, Congress and the FCC are requiring full-power television broadcasters to drop their analog signal and go completely digital. The date for this transition was originally scheduled to be February 17, 2009, but it was postponed recently to June 12, 2009. According to the FCC, they plan to use the “discarded” analog spectrum for public safety communications (fire, police, rescue squads, etc.) as well as auction off portions to private companies for the expansion of more advanced wireless programs such as wireless broadband. Regardless of why Congress has federally mandated a technological shift for television broadcasting, it appears to be happening. Even with the postponement, there is no reason for you to wait.

Note: If you’re a cable/FIOS/Satellite subscriber, you don’t need to worry. The digital transition is only for over-the-air (OTA), broadcast television that you’d pick up with an antenna. 

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Winter backpacking and product design

February 9, 2009
Sunset at Lost Lake

Photo Credit: Josh Keller

I went on a winter backpacking trip last weekend with an old friend. I’d been looking forward to some snow camping most of the year. It’s a great way to get away from the electronic ties I can’t seem to shed on my own. It’s also a great way to get away from the crowds, as not many other people are out camping when the weather is well below freezing, even in Colorado.

Backpacking in the winter involves a lot of extra gear, much of it heavy. So, I’d been training by running and lifting weights. I thought I’d be ready for the mountains, but I live at sea level, and I’d never camped above 4,000′ or so. I wasn’t prepared for the effect 10,400′ of elevation would have on my body even though I’d expected some weakness. I was moving at a very slow pace and fighting the symptoms of minor altitude sickness – headaches and slight nausea. There was just more factors to this adventure than I could consider without actually getting out there. With each trip, I learn something (many things) about staying comfortable in adverse conditions that no matter how long I plan, I just won’t anticipate them from home.

How many times have you (as a consumer) had trouble with a product and thought it seemed like the designers never used it themselves? They thought they had all the angles covered, but maybe they never took it “up to altitude” to really examine how it might behave under real-world conditions with real users. Sometimes it’s not easy to predict all conditions, especially when you don’t have the right perspective. As the design engineer, you understand what this button does and what that double-beep means, and you might even think it’s intuitive. However, you can’t be completely objective, but it’s not your fault. It IS your fault if you just stop there and don’t consider your options.

Give your prototype to user focus groups. Give it your coworkers. Give it to your family. Watch people interact with it and try to figure out how it works. If it’s an avalanche beacon, users will interact with it while wearing winter gloves and shaking from the fear that they have 15 minutes to find their friend or HE WILL DIE! Can they remember your 10 minute training session to follow the prescribed scanning procedure along the lines of magnetic flux? Can they hear the indicator beeps over the howling wind or their own heartbeat? Can they even get the device into Search Mode? A good designer must consider every possible use case. Don’t give up, yet. Even a highly specialized device can be intuitive when designed well.

I can understand if you don’t want to test drive your product on a winter camping trip, but you can find real users to provide perspective for almost any situation. (astronauts rarely design the spacecraft that they travel in, but they’re likely consulted on the design) No matter how much you ponder your users from behind a desk, there will always be something you forgot to consider. Get out there. Experience the world of your customers. You might just make a better product.

winterbp_snow

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Strive for a simple design

February 4, 2009

There are a lot of ways to solve a problem, but it seems like many of them are more complicated than they need to be. You start by satisfying one design criteria. Then you tackle the rest of them, one-by-one, until the problem is completed. Unfortunately, you may end up with a Frankenstein product that’s difficult to use and ugly.

The best design, the one to strive for, is the simplest one. This is the one where everything fits together and works. It’s easy to use and elegant. It makes you hit your head and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?!” As an engineer, I’m impressed by simplicity just because it is so hard to achieve. I’m always considering it as the ideal solution, something to aspire to.

chessyoutriggers

Homegrown outriggers - CAD rendering

“Good design is as little design as possible.
Less but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with inessentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity!”
– Dieter Rams

“Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler!”
– Albert Einstein

I am usually found within the electro-mechanical device sphere, but I can appreciate good design principles wherever they happen to show up. I keep thinking about something I saw while fishing for Rockfish on the Chesapeake Bay last Spring. I can’t find anything online about it, so I thought I’d share. I’m not a fisherman, so you’ll have to excuse any incorrect terminology. I had seen fishing outriggers that were long rigid poles that stick out from the boat sides and the fishing line attached along the length, like these. They keep the lines wider apart so you can have more lines in the water without tangling.

On this boat, though, they had outriggers that were a couple of wood planks mounted together with threaded rod. A line is attached to the eye-bolt at the front and it’s dropped off the boat. As the boat drags it, the water rushes past the planks and forces the outrigger away from the boat until the angle, rushing water, and mainline reach an equilibrium. Attach your fishing lines to the mainline using shower-curtain hoops. When a fish bites and drags the line, it breaks free of the hoop. It’s as simple as can be, and you can build a pair for around $50, I’d guess. After-market outriggers go for $500 and up, plus there’s professional installation and maintenance.

I’m not all that impressed by “cheap and dirty” solutions, even when I use them myself. For the most part, they’re just enough to get by when you can’t come up with the right solution. However, even though these are inexpensive outriggers, they’re also easy to install, can reach out 50′ to 100′ off the boat without any modifications, and don’t raise your height into the local bridges. They might be better than the “real thing”!

picture-011

Photo credit: Alex Flamm

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to get a picture of the setup, so I created a CAD model from memory. It may need a bit of tweaking to work properly. I’m guessing the 2″ x 12″ boards are 36″ long, and it’s about as wide assembled. Remember to use stainless hardware and boards that float.

I’m interested to hear if anyone knows the origin of these things or how well they really stack-up against mounted outriggers. All of the other boats in the marina seemed to have them, but maybe it’s just a local thing.

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Can you feel me now?

February 2, 2009

Touch the red pillIn graduate school, I studied haptics. But what is “haptics”, and why does it matter?

Haptics is the study of the sense of touch. Unlike our other senses – sight, smell, hearing, and taste – we can feel the world throughout our entire body. It’s a very complex system. We use our sense of touch to perceive temperature, texture, vibration, density, and more. But what if you couldn’t touch anything? How would you be affected?

Haptics and technology
Not everyone is taking to the digital revolution. People like the feel of a newspaper or of gliding pen across paper and do not like to work on a computer. Now that digital technology has progressed and grown into more corners of our lives, people are less accepting of the fact that it lacks the sense of touch.

The rumble pack in game controllers was one of the early attempts at integrating a sense of touch into the gaming experience. When you blow something up or drive off the track, an eccentric mass rotates (similar to a cell phone) and causes vibration. The sense isn’t overwhelming, submersive, or even accurate, but you can perceive meaning from that vibration, and it’s better than nothing.

For a class project, I developed a magnetically actuated force-feedback mouse. I added an electro-magnet to a common computer mouse and placed it on a steel mouse pad. When energized, the frictional force increased from almost nothing to 2N (.44lbf). Quite substantial. I devised several experiments to showcase how the feedback could be utilized and to explore how haptic feedback might improve a user’s ability to click on-screen items faster and more accurately. I created virtual textures and a target that slowed the mouse for you when you entered it. You can download a PDF of my paper detailing my project and the experimental results.

Companies and universities are studying the integration of haptic feedback into products of far greater importance than my class project. Intuitive Surgical leads the commercial medical robotics field with the da Vinci minimally invasive surgical system. Force feedback allows surgeons to have the tactile sensation similar to a standard minimally invasive procedure, except with the additional benefits of an intuitive control system, virtual boundaries, and motion scaling. Sensable Technologies has developed a haptic Dental Lab to digitally scan and interact with the details of a patient’s mouth to fabricate better crowns or bridgework. Immersion Medical manufactures a suite of surgical simulation products to provide doctors with lifelike training and planning tools. And, of course, Dr. Allison Okamura’s Haptics Lab (my alma mater) and other university programs are also on the cutting edge of haptics research, exploring new ways to interact with the tools of the next century.

The future of digital
As our interaction with the world around us becomes more digitized, we can expect great innovation in the use of haptic feedback. Logitech has improved on the vibrating game controller with some exciting racing wheels, and even the Blackberry Storm offers feedback in its touchscreen. We enjoy and need the sense of touch. It’s a large part of how we interact with the world and it improves our experience.

Dont’ worry, you will feel a thing.

Photo credit: Rodolfo Clix