Android Phone Goes Inky. E Inky, Prototypically Speaking.

Wow, what a great headline…

I read an article at Laptop Mag regarding a prototype Android phone that uses an E Ink display.  My inner critic decided to outwardly criticize, producing a rather lengthy blog comment.  I reprinted the comment here on my own blog because… well, why not?

Laptop Mag’s hands-on demo:

My response:

Notwithstanding the super-light weight and super-long battery life that E Ink affords this device, the display is a showstopper. The talk about using an older processor is a red herring; a faster processor won’t fix fundamental characteristics of the display. The currently available generations of E Ink give you a trade-off between refresh speed and power consumption; crappy refresh rates mean long battery life, fast refreshes are draining.

The E Ink screen is great for displays that don’t require rapid refresh, but this prototype demonstrates how inappropriate it is as a smartphone’s primary display.

Motofone F3

When you buy an Android phone with multi-touch, the implication is that you’ll be interacting using finger swipes and taps, and that your interactions produce feedback quickly enough to make the experience seem natural and effortless. What we think of as normal single- and multi-touch functions would lose much of their utility; pinch-to-zoom, for one, would be a noticeable series of zoom-in steps (instead of a fluid growing and shrinking effect), something you could achieve with a zoom-in button and a single finger.

I’m not trying to bad-mouth E Ink, here – this is just not a viable application until/unless E Ink rolls out a display that gives you imperceptible refresh without massively increasing power consumption, hopefully at a reasonable price.

It would be cool to have the option of swapping your phone’s display, either physically changing it for another one or flipping one over the other like a book cover. There are times when I wish my display was e-paper, but then I look at my Motorola F3 and all is forgotten.

😉

LG Support Super Happy Fun Time

Who doesn’t love an easter egg hunt?

Staring at the refurb LG television on my desk, I felt the need to check its customizability, or “hackability” for those wearing rollerblades.  Before any of that could happen, I wanted to find precise specifications and descriptors for the TV to help my search.  The logical place to start was the manufacturer’s support site…  Corporate product support sites are universally craptastic, but LG has a way of making theirs even more frustrating.

Model 22LG30 LCD TV

Example: the exact model number stamped on the back of my TV isn’t listed in the product search.  I have a 22LG30-UA.  When I visit LG’s Canada support page* and enter “22lg30-ua” I get no results at all from the quick menu or drop-down menu.  Hmm.  That’s not a good sign.  Clicking the Search button brings me to a results page that purports to show close matches to known products.  But there are none.  Zero matches for product, tutorials, or frequently asked questions.

*Strangely, I initially landed at the UK support site.  I can’t say that this was LG’s doing since I performed a Google search instead of entering the basic lg.com URL, but I didn’t realize I was at the wrong site for my region for a few minutes.  A “you appear to be in Canada, would you like to visit their site instead?” message would have been appreciated.

Playing the game, I try a less specific search term, “22lg30” (case isn’t important) and I get this from the quick menu:

22lg30search

Notice the total lack of “22LG30-UA” results.  This time, at least, I have some leads.

This is a clear UX failure; you’ve asked me for a model number, I gave it to you verbatim, you tell me there is no such product.  One of us is lying or misinformed.  I can appreciate that they have oodles and oodles of model numbers and that running a support site isn’t generating revenue, but somewhere in the corporate databases there must be a master list of model numbers that could be dumped to the support site.  Then, at least, a user would have the luxury of finding that his television really does exist.

So, I have two possible matches for my model, “22LG30DC” and “22LG30DC-UA“.  What do these mean?  What is the difference between a model that has “UA” and one that doesn’t?  Is there a default, generic result that I should try first?  There are many ways to help me, the frustrated user, complete his task, but I’m left to click through each link.

I clicked the results in order, looking through the first result, then back to look at the second.  The pages were exactly the same in any meaningful way and looked like this:

22lg30support

There was no information about region specifics (is this a UK model, a Canadian, a German?), no explanation of the “UA” suffix, no information about release year or years, no mention of product family or relation to other products.  There wasn’t even a picture of the TV!  All you get is a generic, slightly ghosted flat panel TV image, which is quite unhelpful when the user wants to know if it’s his television and, naturally, there is no caption or asterisk telling you that it isn’t a picture of your device.

The Help Library section, which one expects to have tips about the device, includes gems like:

  • Sharing Files & Folders – Windows Vista OS
  • Smart TV – Resetting of Netflix Premium Application
  • DLNA not supported on Macintosh Operating System

None of these is related to the product on the page.  Oh well.  Let’s check the manual and get all of the information we want:

22lg30manual

THANK YOU!  Not even a manual to peruse for the 22LG30DC-UA model.  The 22LG30DC model does list a manual, a PDF document (sigh) which appears to match my product.  PDFs are annoying in all sorts of ways, but at least I do, eventually, get the info.

My favourite part of this whole exercise?  Finding LG’s USA support site.  It has an exact listing for “22LG30-UA” with the correct product image (top of this post, source lg.com), a spec sheet with information not found in the manual, and different Help Library information that is also unrelated to the product.  Parfait.

Why is the support database balkanized into separate regions like this?  It makes a certain logical sense for each region to list only the models actively sold (and therefore supported) in that region, and it will probably have no negative effect on most users, but there are many realistic and recorded scenarios where users find themselves unable to get what they need.  From the outside, I can’t know the real reasons for the regionalized nature of LG’s support system.  I would not be surprised, however, to learn that no real usability analysis or user testing was performed, and that support was organized according to the structure of the companies involved rather than a genuine effort to provide a service to the customers.

The whole foundation of good user experience design is knowing your users, and anyone who has really tried to know their userbase has discovered a heterogeneous group of people with different expectations and different ways of solving their problems.  Accepting that reality, a good designer must account for these different expectations and methods, finding ways to accommodate and assist.  You can’t make every task the press of a single button, nor can you make every user act according to your plans, but you can offer suggestions (“You might also check our other regional support sites”), useful information (“The sections of the model number refer to this year, this family, this region, this revision, etc.”), and more agency (“Enter this, press that button” vs “If you know X or part of X, you can search for Y here.  You may also try these other methods, or follow our tutorial, etc. etc.”).  A little consideration can build a lot of customer satisfaction.

LG Support has other ways to frustrate the consumer (not releasing updated firmware via the support page is a frequent complaint), but that’s enough for today.

My next post introduces us to the hidden world of the TV’s Service Menu.

Tron: Legacy: The Phantom Menace: Fully Loaded.

Dear Reader,

I find myself sitting here on a Sunday afternoon, eyes fixed on a terrible tragedy.  That tragedy is a movie called Tron: Legacy.

I could enumerate all of the horrible choices that were made in the story, the screenplay, the directing, the visual design, etc.  I could do that.  But I won’t – my neckbeard isn’t nearly thick enough for that kind of endeavour.

Instead, I will say this:   (SPOILER ALERT)

Jeff Bridges turns into a new age yogi or guru or hairy monk.  He wears a robe-like suit-like garment.

It has a bowl

A bowl.

Yes, a bowl. If I were the kind of guy who defends crappy movies, I would point out that all of the “people” living inside the computer have a similar bowl-shaped socket on the back of their garments.  It is meant to hold an dinner plate identity disc that stores your memories, yadda yadda, and doubles as a weapon.  It’s basically a soul frisbee.  Everyone has a soul frisbee.

Except poor old Jeff Bridges.  I’ll spare you the hoary

“OMG I was betrayed by my own clone and I guess I’ll go be a space Buddhist and wear a robe thing and OMG I hope my son shows up and reminds me of who I was and some guy stole my soul frisbee and now I can’t play Frolf but I hope I can get my soul back and maybe a game of hackeysack”

plot since it’s not germane to the point I’m trying to make.

My question is this: Why does his monk suit have a bowl?  It had a bowl.  On the back, for the soul frisbee.  I get the part about him being inside the computer and that everyone else has a frisbee socket, but he must have made the monk suit himself or at least ordered it from a tailor who takes neon water as payment.  But at what point is he sitting on his computerized bench with a needle and thread thinking “Wait, this thing needs a bowl.” ???

You’re supposed to be the messiah to all of these two-dimensional characters (in 3D!), so surely you can give yourself a pass on the soul bowl garment requirement.  Perhaps he didn’t want to stand out.

Jeff Bridges in his white monk suit.

I don’t want to look out of place here in this world of electric soul frisbees.  I’d better put a bowl on my monk suit.

While trying to wrap my massive head around this question, I had an epiphany.

Tron: Legacy is the Phantom Menace of Tron movies.  Lots of money and effort spent on the CGI side, but the screenplay was given such little attention that it was launched into the sky when CGI jumped on the teeter totter.

This movie is a candy bin of horrors in the bulk food store of bad ideas, but it’s “Cash or Debit ONLY” and I’m $2 short of hobo bait, so I will leave you to ponder what I am calling “The Monk Suit Bowl Conundrum“, a mystery of such depth that it would require a diving bell full of Agatha Christies to discover its foundation.  Puff puff.

Google Play says your username and password don’t match?

UX designers and coders take note: nothing will frustrate your users more than being asked for login credentials and being told that they’re wrong.

This is especially true when the user (me) is trying to enter a long alphanumeric password on a tablet with a stylus.  Every time the user sees “username and password don’t match”, they will naturally assume that they’ve hit an extra key or capitalized something accidentally, and will grumble to themselves as they try again.  Things get even more fun when the password field is masked with stars to prevent shoulder surfing.

It’s pretty easy to humble your user this way.  So easy, in fact, that you should spend time analyzing the user’s task to see if you’re asking them the right questions and giving them enough help…

Case in point: Google Play Store.  I have a very low cost (cheap) tablet on which I managed to load the Google Play packages.  When asked to login to my Google account, I received the very helpful response “username and password do not match”.  I attempted to login several times with my normal credentials and failed every time.  There were any number of reasons for this to have failed (including the fact that my tablet was unsupported, ahem), but the real reason was ridiculous:

I use Google’s two-factor authentication.

Logging in to Google from a new computer usually means entering my username, password, and then a 6-digit number that is sent to my cellphone over SMS.  If I enter the user/pass incorrectly, the error would be “username and password do not match.”  If I enter the 6-digit number incorrectly, the error would be something like “incorrect PIN.”  This is straightforward proposition: enter your Google username, your Google password, the PIN that Google sends to you; if you get something wrong, you entered the user/pass incorrectly, or you mistyped the PIN.

Google Play’s device login, however, doesn’t mention anything about PINs or two-factor authentication.  A naive user, like myself, assumes that he must enter his normal Google username and his normal Google password.  But that’s wrong.  Normal username, yes, but you must enter your “application specific password”.

What’s that?  Rather than implementing the SMS PIN step, Google lets you create a sort of special password that you only use on mobile devices or desktop apps.  There are many good reasons for doing this; it’s extra security against rogue apps or compromised devices (not exposing your main Google credentials), it saves developers using Google APIs from having to rework their products, and the application specific password is only made of lower-case letters so that mobile users won’t have to fiddle with entering special characters.

Good reasons, all of them.  But it all falls apart at the user interface.  Users are dependent on the UX designer to give them the information they need for the task.  Failing to mention mention that “password” could mean “application-specific password” is a big omission.  Google’s support site does mention the issue, and users of 2-factor authentication are told in advance to expect this behaviour, but that doesn’t cut mustard.

Now, back to my under-powered plastic tablet and its slight violations of terms of service…

Curse of the Samsung R330 Firmware Phantom

I spent far too much time trying to fix a cell phone, today.  One of my kin has a Samsung SCH-R330 feature phone with Bell.  A week ago, it began freezing and soft resetting whenever the “1” key was pressed at the beginning of a number.  This meant that dialing long distance or using the hotkey to access voicemail would reset the phone.

The error would go like this:

  1. Open the phone and press the “1” key
  2. The screen goes completely black for about 2 seconds, then the image returns but the phone is unresponsive for 10-15 seconds.  Button presses do nothing, and no button tones are played through the speaker.
  3. The screen will display “Looking for service” or “Home only mode” or some other network-related message.  Phone responds normally to button presses now.

The static image on the screen and the non-responsive buttons looks like a soft reset.  The image would be sitting in the screen buffer and that buffer probably doesn’t get flushed or updated until later in the reset sequence.

There’s some key information here for the troubleshooting process.  The screen buffer is probably just a designated spot in the phone’s RAM.  RAM is volatile, meaning that any information is lost when power is off…

When the button was pressed, the screen went black, and we could presume that a black screen meant power loss.  Superficially, the relationship looks like this: button press => power loss.  A button is just a bit of conductive material that bridges a path in a circuit; you press it, the circuit is closed, current flows.  Ideally it has only two states, On or Off.  But what about a short in the circuit?  If some conductive foreign material gets into the button gap or otherwise causes the button’s conductor to deflect onto another path, a short circuit could be created, bypassing all of the logic circuitry and putting the phone into an error state.  Depending on the location of the short, the phone might power off completely, just like removing the battery while the phone is on, but, if the short only caused a logical fault and not a loss of power, the phone’s processor would just fall back to a reset mode and go through the boot process.

The phone cam back to life by itself, so that seems to rule out a total loss of power.  And, if we recall that the image on the screen reappeared after going black, we have more evidence of a soft reset.  If there had been a total power loss, the screen buffer would be empty, so instead of a nice main screen image, we’d see a blank screen or the default loading screen you see when the phone is first powered on.

So is it a short?  If we presume that it is some mechanical problem with the button or some related structure, then the error should occur regardless of the state of the phone.  That is to say, the error should happen regardless of what app is running, what menu is on the screen, what order I press the buttons, etc.  Simple enough to test: press the “1” button from the main screen, from the main menu screen, in Camera mode, in Text Messaging mode, as the first number, as the middle number, as the last number, and any other way you choose.

What we find is that the error DOES depend on the state of the phone.  If you dial “54321”, everything is fine.  If you dial “12345”, the error happens when you hit the “1” button.  The error happens at the main screen and in the main menu, but does NOT happen in Camera mode or in other sub-menus.  A mechanical fault would not be dependent on the logical state of the phone.  So it cannot be the button itself.

If an error depends on logical conditions, then perhaps the error is rooted in logic.  To be more specific, the logic of the phone’s software.  The phone itself is an electromechanical device, but it needs a set of instructions to tell it how to behave like a phone; communicating with the cellular network, displaying an image on the screen, responding to a button press, etc.  The instructions are called firmware.  Firmware is like software in that both are sets of instructions for operating a logical device, and both can be changed by reprogramming, but one thinks of firmware as being more intimately married to the device than regular software.  Firmware usually lives closer to the device’s “brain” and contains everything that is necessary for the basic functions of the device.  Software is a more general term and, in the context of this post, is something that would add other functionality to a device, like apps on an iPhone, but be an option rather than a standard part.

Barring a curse, demonic possession, or the ghost of LeVar Burton, the problem boils down to the firmware.  As the phone follows its instructions and moves from state to state with button presses and cell signals, the phone is put into a state where a single press of the “1” button gives the processor a value it doesn’t expect or a command it cannot execute, and it panics.  It’s a bug.  Maybe the instructions say “if Button 1 is pressed, go to the instruction at location ABC” but ABC does not exist, or contains something other than a legal instruction.  I don’t know.

“So, Mr. Gilliland.  Should I toss the phone in the garbage?” you ask.

Well, yes.  It’s an old feature phone.  Crawl out of your bunker and join the 21st century.

If you’ve bothered to read this far into the article, you probably want to keep using the phone, so I have good news.  The fix is simple.  Turn on the phone and navigate to the main menu, the one where you see “Tools”, “Camera”, “Messaging”, etc.  Usually you just have to hit the big round button in the center of your keypad to bring it up.  From within the main menu, press the SOFT BUTTON on the TOP RIGHT of your keypad.  It looks like a hyphen or a minus sign and it’s just to the right of the round center button (but it’s not part of the ring).  This should bring up a box with two options:  Menu Style #1, and Menu Style #2.  Use the button ring to select Menu Style #1, then press the round center button.  The main menu’s background colour should be black, now.  If it is, you’re done.

Yes, that’s it.

The error only happens if you have changed your background to Menu Style #2: White.

White background + “1” button = crash.

This is a firmware issue, so technically it can be fixed by flashing a new firmware into your phone.  The firmware is distributed by your carrier, Bell in my case, and the phone has a simple option in the Tools menu to install the latest firmware.  According to the phone I’m working on, it already has the newest firmware, which means that either Samsung doesn’t want to produce a newer firmware, or Bell doesn’t want to bother with updates for an old feature phone.  I asked Samsung Support via Facebook (who responded quite quickly to my initial pleas for help) if they offered a generic, non-carrier-branded firmware to end-users, but I haven’t heard back.  There’s just about zero chance that they would offer such a thing, since the carrier prefers to own any relationship to the end user and decide what features and customizations should be enabled on the user’s device.

If you’ve experienced this weird bug, send me an email or leave a comment on this post.  I looked high and low for a documented case of this bug and found nothing, so I hope this helps someone.

Cheers.

Nintendo’s Wii U in Paper Prototype Form

Prototyping is an indispensable tool for design.  You have an idea of what you want your product to do, who the user will be, and what the product might look like, but you need feedback.  Feedback from users, designers, and other stakeholders, will tell you if you’re on the right track.  Hand a user a prototype and ask him to perform a task; you’ll quickly learn how many of your assumptions were right.

The key to an effective and efficient design process is to prototype earlier and often; the earlier you produce and test prototypes, the easier it will be to implement changes in design, and, ultimately, you will get a better product.

Gamasutra has an article about prototyping an app for Nintendo’s Wii U.  The developer wanted to see the interface in the real world and be able to touch the device, putting himself into the user’s shoes.

His solution involved bits of cardboard and glue.

This kind of paper prototyping is fast, cheap, and very powerful.  Within minutes you have something you can put in your user’s hands (or just in front of him) that can be manipulated, modified, or torn up without much grief.

[Review] Space Shuttle: Final Countdown

Watching a show on eqhd about the Space Shuttle..  Shows the life of the Space Shuttle program from the design years of the late 60s and 70s to the retirement in 2011.

It’s made for a general viewing audience, so don’t expect any real insight or analysis.  It offers a simplistic overview of the shuttle program, but at least it’s pretty.  I liked that they included lots of interviews with actual astronauts and NASA staff.  I would rather have had them narrate the whole thing.

It’s worth a look, but I have a laundry list of quibbles:

  1. The clips of the Challenger break-up had explosion sound effects dubbed in.  I found that to be disrespectful, cheap, and totally unnecessary.  It’s as though the break up of the launch vehicle and death of seven astronauts wouldn’t be enough to hold someone’s attention.  This isn’t a World’s Greatest Disasters show, folks.
  2. The narration was tedious.  The voice was an edgy bass that had the cadence and inflection of a movie trailer narrator.  “In a world…”, that sort of thing.
  3. The suggestion that the possible loss of Columbia and astronauts Young and Crippen during STS-1 would be the greatest space tragedy in history…  so the loss of the three cosmonauts on the first Salyut mission was/would’ve been less tragic?

Missile Nostalgia

I’ve mentioned that I’m a space nerd, but my interest extends beyond the normal civilian programs.  If you know the history of the space race and of civilian space efforts, you know that they’re inextricably linked with military programs.  Many military space programs have operated under cover of peaceful civilian ones.  I write this prologue because I don’t want you to think that I’m interested in war and death.  That is to say, I’m not just a space nerd; I’m a technology nerd.  I’m all about the technologies, the efforts, the possibilities.

I’m fascinated with military technology.  I’m not so interested in the intent of the designers or the creators as I am in the underlying nature of the objects and ideas.

And so I’d like to introduce you to Sprint and Spartan.

These missiles were part of the Safeguard program.  This was an early anti-ballistic-missile program undertaken by the United States.  It was a system of tracking radars, computers, and intercept missiles meant to protect American assets from nuclear attack. The missiles are what really interest me.  Spartan would rocket into space to intercept warheads before they hit the atmosphere.  Sprint, on the other hand, was a point defense, a last-ditch effort to destroy a warhead before it was in range of its target.

The logistics involved in intercepting a warhead are really something to behold.  You have to track the warhead, plot its trajectory very accurately, issue launch orders, and have a missile with enough acceleration to meet the target within the desired kill zone.

Those challenges are hard enough for Spartan, but Spartan has the luxury of time — its target needed several minutes just to get to the kill zone.  Sprint’s target was practically in the kill zone when Sprint launched.  Sprint’s launch to intercept time was on the order of 15 seconds!  15 seconds to travel 30 kilometers from a dead stop.  100G acceleration.  It accelerated so fast that it needed a heat shield that burned away in flight, just so that the rest of the rocket didn’t melt from the air friction.

Check out the video below.  It gives you a brief outline of the whole system and shows actual test launches of Spartan and Sprint.


Hail Columbia!

Image of Shuttle Columbia launchI must confess that I’m a space nerd.  It’s an affliction I’ve had since I was four or five years old.  Rockets, satellites, astronauts, cosmonauts, freeze-dried ice cream, the works.

When I was a kid, my Dad traveled to the USA quite frequently on business.  It just so happened that some of his trips were to Texas.  To a nerdy space kid like me, the word “Texas” equated to “Houston, Texas” which equated to “Johnson Space Center“, NASA‘s Mission Control.  I don’t recall if my Dad came up with the idea or if I nagged him mercilessly, but either way my Dad, my Mom, and I made two trips to JSC.

It was heavenly.  We toured the buildings, ate authentic NASA cafeteria food, spotted astronauts, took stereotypical tourist shots (Dad peering into the nozzle of a giant Saturn engine), and felt like a part of the whole operation.  We even picked up some NASA patches from a gift shop and my Mom sewed them onto a pale blue jacket of mine.  It looked like (to my mind) a real astronaut jacket for going around the town and impressing people.  I wore it everywhere.

As I got older, I gradually discovered the realities of the Shuttle program and the ugly nature of political compromise.  It was like going to Disney Land as a kid, then realizing as a teenager that the guy in the Mickey costume lived in a bachelor apartment on a steady diet of mac and cheese.  The romantic view was gone.

So, on to the point of this post.  I am the King of reminiscence.  I love to watch old documentaries and movies that remind me of how I used to feel.

Well, today I happened to be flipping through the TV channels and saw “Hail Columbia!”, a documentary about the launch of the first Space Shuttle, Columbia, in 1981.  The film was released in 1982, so it is full of the feelings of hope and possibility that pervaded at the time.  Watching it gives you the feeling that something great is happening and that we’ll all be living on space station in a decade.

I highly recommend that everyone watch it, nasaphiles and normal humans alike.  It’s in IMAX, but it also shows up on HD channels from time to time, and is available on DVD from Amazon.

Czech it out.

 

New Arrival – IGEL 3/2 Thin Client

Just picked up an IGEL 3/2 thin client, low power computer from Surplus By Design.

It doesn’t have much in the way of specs, but it should be enough to run a basic server for backups and playing around with Linux.

Finding information on these machines isn’t easy (they’ve been end-of-life’d), so I’ll put everything I’ve found into this post.  Maybe it will help some other poor soul.

Specs:

Rear shot

  • 400MHz Via Eden processor
  • 128MB SD-RAM in a SODIMM package (512MB maximum supported)
  • 3 USB 2.0 ports (one front, two rear)
  • 10/100 LAN onboard
  • VGA D-Sub connector attached to onboard S3 Savage4 graphics chip (8MB)
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports
  • Compact Flash header (internal) with maximum 1GB CF card
  • Smart card reader (internal)
  • 1 X Stereo output and 1 X Microphone input
  • 1 X Parallel port (DB-25)
  • 1 X Serial port (DB-9)

Supported Operating Systems:

  • Damn Small Linux
  • (more to follow)

Notes:

  • Identifying models can be a bit difficult; the unit itself will have a marking like “IGEL 3/2” but the company uses a different naming scheme in their documentation and support
  • IGEL 3/2 is officially known as the IGEL 364 LX or IGEL 364 Compact