Category Archives: products

Personal review of the EVO 4G or what mobile phone manufacturers need to get right.

I started an email this morning summarizing my review on the EVO 4G, and it quickly turned out longer than I expected so I thought I’d post it here, seeing that I haven’t posted anything in 6 months.

I got the EVO 4G from my dad who attended Google I/O. Generous man that he is, he handed it over to me. For a month I carried the EVO 4G around with me, along with my Nexus One that had been updated to Froyo. It made for quite a comparison since I was able to carry two flagship android devices around with me and I’ve captured my thoughts below.

Pros
SCREEN SIZE – I can’t emphasize this enough but a big HD screen on a phone changes what you want do on the phone. Screen size seems to be one of those things whose appeal is hard to understand rationally. If you had told me it has a 4.3” screen, I might have said that’s too big. But after a single day of using the EVO 4G, I found myself always going to it instead of the Nexus One. Browsing was easier, typing was easier but most importantly I kept wanting to watch videos on the phone.

Kickstand – Who would have thought a kickstand would be useful on a phone, but it’s perfect on the EVO 4G. I would carry the phone with me to lunch, prop the phone on the table and watch videos of World Cup games. Very nicely designed.

Sense– Like the way Sense handles integration of facebook & flickr contents but don’t much like it’s UI. I ended up downloading an alternate home screen that replaced the home interface to make it look more like Froyo 2.2 (not that Froyo has amazing UI, but it’s minimalism appeals to me)

Cons

Lack of Froyo / 2.2 – I manually upgraded my Nexus One to 2.2 and it made a world of difference. Faster, better batter life and full flash integration. If the EVO was to get Froyo (which I expect it will in October), that will make a big difference.

Lack of a single HD video content / app – If you give me a big, hi-res screen – I’m going to want to watch videos and movies but there’s no single app in the android marketplace that does it (till now – Droid X launched with the Blockbuster app). The Sprint video apps were terrible. I tried Sprint TV multiple times and it either crashed, or the video didn’t fill the screen or it wasn’t of high enough resolution. I ended up downloading HD videos from youtube and vimeo and watching them. A partnership with nextflix, hulu, boxee would go a long way to making video on the android phones

Camera – Camera may be of a higher resolution than the Nexus One but pictures were worse.Lots of noise, even in daylight. Megapixels don’t always matter ( I knew that intellectually, now I know it in truth)

Contrast ratio – Compared to the AMOLED on the nexus one, the LCD on the EVo 4G looked washed out. Only pro for the LCD was better sunlight performance.

Battery Life – Definitely less than my nexus one, but with a big screen, didn’t expect any less. Had to turn off a lot to make it through the day

Call Quality – This is more of a sprint issue, but calls were not as high quality as tmobile. I felt like there was a lot of digital compression on the line.

4G – Nice in theory, never ended up using it since it sucked up battery so much. Until you can have 4G on and have the phone last through the day, I don’t see the point of 4G. Nail in the coffin is that T-mobile’s HSPA+ is expected to be faster than Sprint and they are rolling out HSPA+ by end of year. I just used WiFi instead.

Sense– The UI is too heavy taking up a lot of the screen real estate with the curved arc interface at the home screen. Also, considering it’s a google phone, lack of close integration with Picasa in the gallery is unforgiveable.

PPI – 4.3” screen deserves a higher/denser resolution than 800 x 480.

Front-Facing Camera – For this to actually be used, it needs to be paired to a solid video chatting application which Qik is not. In the month I had it, I only managed to make one video call to my dad who was on his laptop using Fring->Skype. Key here is a video chatting application that supports common video chatting applications (Gchat, Skype, iChat or FaceTime)

Mobile phone manufacturers – it’s pretty simple. Fix these issues, and you have a solid phone. I have high hopes for the Droid X since it has addressed some of the issues I’ve identified above (Blockbuster App with rental videos). Let’s see what the rest of this year has in store. It’s an exciting time to be an Android user.

Designing for children

I’ve probably come up and down in my buildng’s elevator several hundred times but never noticed this till today. I was riding the elevator up today with an older woman who offered to press my floor – but couldn’t find it. We started talking about how it might help to have a standard arrangement for elevator keys and then started talking about the height of the keys etc. I always figured that the keys were placed so low to allow people in wheelchair s to press them. However, the woman told me that she had been in an elevator with a child, who because of the design of the elevator keys, could never reach the higher floors.

THe keys in my elevator

This story got me thinking about designing for children – It’s something that I have never thought about consciously and I’m guessing that not a lot of us do. I would venture to guess that we think about designing for handicapped people before we think about designing for children.

The story was certainly timed well – I’m in day 2 of the Physical Human Factors class, taught by the very famous Bill Verplank where he teaches you to be more aware of physical limitations and preferences. We spent the bulk of the class today, trying to understand the concept of Webers law and lowest perceptible differences. My understanding of the law states that you need a greater amounts to preceive differences as you go up the scale. In simple terms, when you have no coins in your hand and you place a quarter, it’s easy to tell the difference in weight. However, when you have 40 coins in your hand and you add another one, it’s harder to perceive the difference. Weber’s law gives you a method to calculate how much weight in coins you’d need to add before you could notice the difference.

Future of Robotics

I’ve reposted an exapanded and slightly edited version of a recent short article I wrote for my school newsletter, The New Idiom

Future of Robotics

I’ve been fascinated by the robotics industry, and a workshop taught by Professor Sato has brought me a lot closer to understanding the this industry. The class focuses on understanding and developing a systemic approach to deploying social robotics in North America, targeted at specific industries such as health care, mobility and home support. The class has given me the opportunity to try to understand the evolving industry of robotics and its potential application to our everyday lives.

Elektro, World’s first robot, 1939

What are robots?
There is no universally accepted definition of what a robot is. The word comes from the Czech word “robota” for “forced labor” and was first used in a 1920s play [2].. Robots can of course conjure up images ranging anywhere from massive, world destroying machines to the lowly robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba which is currently in 3 million U.S households. American and Japanese experts both have different interpretations of the word, but I prefer the one cited by Joseph Engelberger, widely considered the father of Robots, who said “I can’t define a robot, but I know one when I see one”.

Why don’t we have robots doing our laundry already?

It is interesting to note the parallels in development between computation and robotics. Both computers and robots emerged in nascent stages fifty years ago, and in the past half century, computers went from calculating trajectories for naval shells to becoming the supercomputers of today. In comparison, robots have advanced relatively little; clearly, creating intelligent robots seems to be a more complicated problem. Early “roboticists”, however, felt differently and have been predicting for over a half century that robots at home, performing mundane tasks, would be just around the corner.

So why has it taken so long? It’s certainly not hard to create robots that can repeat tasks within a fixed area such as in an industrial manufacturing setting, a capability that has existed for the past 20 years or more. What is hard, however, is to create robots that can exist within a social context. Social robots depend on the ability to see, to walk, to hear and respond, without every specific environment having been programmed into the robot’s brains. It is these abilities that most humans take for granted that have proved the most challenging to mimic in robots.

iRobot Roomba 570.

Why should designers care about robots?
Much like the computer industry in its infancy, the development of the robotics industry has been led by researchers in universities trying to “situate the robot” in it’s environment. This means solving challenges such as refining robots’ ability to walk. recognize the environment, adapt to change, and understand the semantics of language. Researchers have recently, however, begun to commercialize their research and apply robotics to social contexts such as home care, healthcare, mobility, and search and rescue. Moving the development of robotics from the lab to the home provides a real environment to develop their abilities to situate themselves. It is here that designers can play a valuable role, for the ability to develop “user centered” applications of robotics will differentiate companies in this space.

Another challenge to the acceptance of social robots within households is due to cultural preconceptions. Unlike computers[P1] , which were integrated into society with few societal preconceptions, many societies have already been introduced to the idea of robots through popular literature and movies. These cultural influences have colored the reception that social robots will get when introduced to society. For example, the Japanese practically grew up with the notion of humanoid robots and have very different perceptions and preconceptions of robots than their European and North American counterparts. They are perfectly comfortable with the idea of humanoid and friendly robots. However, mention the word “robots” in North America and the inevitable reference to killer robots will emerge. Trying to observe and understand the cultural perceptions and preconceptions of social robots will therefore be crucial in successfully finding applications of robots within these societies.

Sonny, from the movie iRobot

What next?
The robotics industry, while in development for half a century, is still relatively in its infancy and faces a number of challenges in the years ahead. Besides the technological and cultural hurdles to overcome, questions remain unanswered regarding their economic and environmental impacts as well as the ethical issues of human and robot interaction. What is obvious is that robots, whatever form they take, will increasingly play a role in societies around the world and that the ecosystem of services and capabilities will offer increasing opportunities for designers in the years to come.

Interesting Research in Robotics

Robotics is an interdisciplinary field that combines disciplines such as artificial intelligence, biomimicry, computation and cognition, nanotechnology, biology & bionics and many more. Here are some examples of interesting cross-discipline research currently ongoing in robotics:Bionics: The discipline of studying nature to learn principles and apply them to develop more efficient mechanical machines which has lead to advances in gripping technology through the study of geckos.
Researcher: Ronald Fearing – Millirobots
http://lis.epfl.ch/resources/podcast/2007/10/ronald-fearing-millirobots.html

Bioethics: Studying the eventual legal implications of social robotics within human societies. The idea of robotics laws was made popular through Asimov’s three laws of robotics but there have been recent attempt to develop formal laws for social robots. [6]
Researcher: Gianmarco Veruggio – http://robots.net/article/2437.html

Self replications / Self-evolution: Instead of programming how robots should walk, etc – provide robots with the ability to self-generate a model of their behavior in order to allow robots to evolve walking motions which could allow them to continue to operate when they are damaged.
Researchers: Hod Lipson and Josh Bongard – http://lis.epfl.ch/resources/podcast/2006/12/josh-bongard-and-hod-lipson-resilient.html

Behavioral Robotics: For over three decades, the approach to developing social robots was to assume that they had to use sensors to create an accurate representation of the world, and to plan carefully, their navigation and interaction in the world. However, this approach would fall apart if the carefully constructed model was changed before the robot could interact with it. Rodney A. Brooks, head of MIT’s robotics lab and current CTO and co-founder of iRobot studied the behavior of insects and realized that they were able to do some amazing tasks with a very limited neural and cognitive capability. Using these insects as an inspiration, he developed the “subsumption behavior” model of robotics which layers basic behaviors onto each other and which allows robots to more accurately respond to a changing environment.
Researcher: Rodney A. Brooks – http://lis.epfl.ch/resources/podcast/2007/04/rodney-brooks-past-and-future-of.html

There are many more areas of research that are currently underway in robotics. Interviews with researchers in these areas can be found at: http://lis.epfl.ch/index.html?content=resources/podcast/

 

By Sriram Thodla

References
1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot
3. Flesh and Machines by Rodney Brooks.
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subsumption_architecture
5. http://lis.epfl.ch/resources/podcast/
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Laws_of_Robotics
7. http://robots.net/article/2437.html

Cross cultural vs culturally specific

I saw this headline this morning and first scratched my head.

Spice Phone

MWC 2008: Spice Movie Phone has a built-in optical disc drive

The question that everyone seemed to ask was why UMD? My guess, probably cause it was cheaper and easier than to license Sony’s proprietary UMD format, not to mention that UMD’s (and therefore this phone’s) future would be held hostage to Sony’s whim. What was more interesting than the question of why UMD was the question that none of the commentary picked up on.

It’s really unlikely that this Movie Phone from the Indian cellphone maker Spice would make it anywhere besides India, but it’s an amazing phone because of what it’s got on the back: an optical drive

I’m currently in the cultural human factors class taught by Judith Gregory at the Institute of design. This class provides tools and frameworks to allow designers to develop culturally aware products. A comment like the one above shrieks of cultural bias and technological adoration, assuming that since the west has moved on to SD, microSD and nanoSD (just kidding), that somehow a phone such as this would never work.

Rather than worry about the UMD aspect of this phone, my question would be how well this phone would sell in markets that might share similar characteristics to India (a large domestic film industry, manufacturing infrastructure. a large upcoming middle class and deep mobile penetration).

Another example of permanence of objects (or lack thereof)

A adhoc pointer when needed, breaks apart and forms the all too familiar dry-erase marker – or is it the other way around?

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