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Posted in new / noteworthy by hemmant jha on December 31, 2012

Welcome to 2013!

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Posted in new / noteworthy by hemmant jha on December 23, 2012

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec: Bivouac. MCA, Chicago. Oct 20, 2012–Jan 20, 2013.

Some very nice things that are attractive to the general population and critics alike. Not easy to pull off – a show worth visiting.

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Posted in good design, new / noteworthy by hemmant jha on July 12, 2010

The wheelwell.org site is up!

After a rather extended period of time, and after a few surprises along the way that are best discussed over hard liquor, our online presence has been established. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be tweaking and massaging the site based on the feedback we get from you, so please come forth with your thoughts and comments!

For those of you unfamiliar with wheelwell, I’d recommending reading through our story and our mission. This is our first non-profit, and it’s geared entirely towards improving the human condition as it relates to personal mobility and disability. These are issues that affect all of us, directly or indirectly, so join us. Learn from us. Teach us. Support us. Help us make wheelwell the standard-bearer for what is possible in personal mobility.

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Posted in new / noteworthy, review, things we like by hemmant jha on May 2, 2009

T-Mobile Cameo Digital Picture Frame.

Seldom do we [at thinkmore] encounter a modern electronic device that makes us smile. Modern electronic devices are a breed unto themselves – tripping over each other to do everything. A laptop is a phone and fax machine and media center, a phone is an organizer and movie player, a GPS device is all of the above and a heartrate monitor combined, a cup of coffee is also a USB charger – you get the idea. Not many of these devices work well, and even fewer are worthy of being produced, let alone purchased.

Looking around my room, I see a lot of electronic devices – most of which work well enough, so they can be labelled functional [with slight and infrequent hiccups], but none of them have that ultimate resolution and polish that would make them a real pleasure to own and to use. Examples of thoroughly well-considered objects are few and far between, and the T-Mobile Cameo is not one of them – but it is special and worthy of mention.

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When first announced late last year, it seemed like a moderately interesting product. Picture frames were getting to be somewhat popular – as companions to the compact digital camera, but not quite. In terms of picture quality alone, these frames left a lot to be desired. Most displays used in these frames were not able to present images in true photographic quality – as such, not worth the $100+ asking price. We were not able to see true usefulness in these devices – a screensaver on a laptop could present pictures just as well, without one having to transfer images to yet another device. Digital cameras themselves had large enough displays for an impromptu slideshow.

The Cameo tried to change all that – this was a frame with its own cellular account [a phone number / SIM card] and email address. Send a picture to this number or address from a phone or computer – the Cameo would add it to its library within minutes, and insert it into a slideshow. Travellers could send back snapshots of their travels on the fly, grandparents could see how their grandchildren were coming along – all without a computer or any fiddling whatsoever. Essentially, if given as a gift, it could be plugged into a wall outlet and left alone. Enjoy the new images that show up automatically, do nothing.

The barrier to entry was the price – $100 for the frame and $120 annually for the service. This has since been rectified – $40 for the device and $24 annually for the service. Having purchased one since this change, I can safely say that this is a truly useful product and fun to use.

Here are the details : 

Picture quality is just fine for a $40 device, and on par with more expensive frames out there, with the possible exception of this $1000 OLED frame. The service is great for $2.oo a month.

The picture looks smaller with the broad fake leather frame attached – unless you’re fascinated by and attracted to fake leather, relegate it immediately to your recycling bin [for plastics]. If you must have a decorative frame, commission one from your child – crayon and cardboard can work wonders in the right hands.

The Cameo needs a bit of polish to be great – the user interface, the icons, the casework, etc. are perfectly functional, but that’s about it. The hardware works, the network connection works. Obviously, resolved functionality and solid engineering are good things. The role of the ‘designer’, unfortunately, has been limited to that of a cover stylist. The device is just fine without that covering, in an ‘industrial’ / workmanlike sort of way. Sans cover, one may notice that the locations of the screw holes are not symmetrical – perfectly in keeping with the rough-hewn nature of the device. That is how it has been photographed and presented in this post – for glamour shots, please proceed to this address.

This is a perfect for keeping friends / family informed and connected.

Setup is painless. Truly painless [this is a big deal, as any of us who have tried to navigate ‘simple’ setup menus know all too well]. The Cameo is plug and play – literally. It was ready to go right out of the box – all that was needed was a slight lowering of brightness. The brightness controls work in rather large steps – finer gradations would be better.

It is really cool to see a new image pop up by itself, unannounced.

A little green ‘new image’ icon that appears next to new additions.

One cannot send multiple images in one email message – this was a source of some anxiety at first when the images did not appear on the frame, but the issue quickly became apparent.

In terms of time taken for a new image to appear, the frame / wireless service is sensitive to the size of the sent image. Resize before sending [this is easy enough for users of Apple Mail, with resizing on the fly available right in the message window].

For better picture quality, one does need to make sure, again, that the sent pictures are the right size [720X480] or very close – automatic resizing by the frame or by T-Mobile is not great and the drop in quality is readily apparent.

Time taken for new image to show up on frame : 2 minutes [of course, the recipient does not know when it was sent, so does not wait for it].

An ambient light sensor automatically turns the clock on at night – straightforward white numbers on black background. Clock has automatic time setting straight from cell network. Again, painless.

And it’s only $40, with monthly service the same price as one cup of coffee. T-Mobile probably has a reasonable return policy – it couldn’t hurt to try it. Once you do, more likely than not, you’ll keep it.

PS : It’s interesting that so many words needed to be used to describe a good, yet not quite there device. The Cameo is good enough that a case can be made for it, but it is not quite able to speak for itself. In this blog at least, the quality of a product may be judged by the length of the accompanying writing [some good ones here].

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Posted in new / noteworthy, the world around us by hemmant jha on April 12, 2009

GM Segway P.U.M.A. / PUMA.

The subject of much conversation upon introduction, the GM Segway PUMA raised quite the stir. When I first heard about this, I assumed it was a car company+shoe company collaboration – a small, light and sporty automobile in designer colors and with small, springy seats. Puma does sell bicycles, so a small Puma sneaker inspired people mover is not entirely improbable.

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Instead, this is a car company+extremely innovative personal technology company collaboration. PUMA stands for Personal Urban Mobility & Accessibility. It is not meant as a multi-mode, universal accessibility vehicle for wheelchair users [which would be very special indeed], but as a replacement for the standard car in an urban environment. Derived from the Segway personal transporter, the PUMA [currently experimental] shares many of its essential features – the 2 wheeled dynamically stabilized drive system, full battery power, the ability to communicate with the vehicle using a smart phone. Additionally, the PUMA is a two seater, with 35mph top speed and a 35 mile range – perfectly adequate for getting about in the city. 

Imagine a world where the urban environment was devoid of cars, and people got about on PUMAs as the sole means of transportation. In this scenario, the PUMA would be great – I would trade in my Prius for one. The city would be largely smoke free, clean and quiet – without the constant hum from engines, and the soot. Accidents with bicycles would be less catastrophic.

But the average city is not that city. New York, where this video was shot, is most definitely not. 

Imagine the PUMA in the current city environment – or a city environment even a few years from now, when SUVs will largely be extinct. Who will be able to use it and how? Where will it be used? It will probably not be used on pedestrian walkways, where people have died from collisions with bicycles. On bicycle paths? Unlikely – it is faster, wider and heavier than a bicycle and capable of traveling at the in-city speed limit for automobiles. Alternately, could it be driven alongside cars? Again, unlikely – since passengers will not survive an accident in the current iteration of the vehicle, which seems fragile [but again, it is experimental]. Arguably, the PUMA could be beefed up and made safer, at the expense of added weight and volume. This would do to the PUMA what safety regulations did to later generations of the Jaguar E- Type [the vehicle was beefed up to meet safety requirements, which necessitated a more powerful engine to offset the additional weight and to maintain performance. In turn, the larger engine added to the weight while simultaneously affecting the handling of the car – its main attribute besides its looks].

Without a realistic future in sight, it is quite amazing to see how well the PUMA has been received, and how much press it has garnered. I have yet to see a critical analysis of the PUMA in the mass media. What is particularly curious is the silence from the critics of the TATA Nano – the Nano was whipped as being both fragile and unsafe [and improbable as well, until it was released earlier this month]. The Nano is a small, simple, affordable car that has 4 wheels [so it does not need the highly sophisticated balancing system]. It seats 4 and gets about 70mpg in the city. 

Here’s a quick comparison of the PUMA and the Nano – the similarities are listed below :

PUMA and Nano meant for in-city use, not freeways

PUMA and Nano designed to be small

PUMA and Nano designed to be light

PUMA and Nano designed to be eco friendly [each in their own way]

The dissimilarities are :

1. Price – according to GM, the PUMA will likely cost about 1/3 as much as a car. Does this mean it will cost $4000, $8000, $12000? The Nano costs $2200.

2. The seating capacity – the PUMA seats 2 in its current iteration. There may be versions released later that seat more, but that would move this vehicle from the category of micro urban transporter to small family vehicle, which is what the Nano is.

3. Protection from the elements and from collisions. Of course, the future PUMA will be designed to address these issues – spiffy renderings aside, solutions remain to be seen. The Nano, while not as adventurous in its conception as the PUMA, is a real car that has been designed to function in the real world.

This direct comparison is clearly unfair – we’re comparing a proof of concept to a finished product. The PUMA is obviously the germ of a concept designed with the best intentions and incorporating very innovative technology, but to what end? It is being touted by GM not as a concept with many ‘aha’ moments, but possibly a very real way of getting about in the near future. This sounds unlikely, not least because it comes from a company with a track record of shelving innovative electric vehicles. There’s the added danger of trivializing the efforts of the other groups that are focused on electric vehicles, by showcasing improbable concepts as near-real. If one [major] project folds, it may tarnish the reputation of the movement as a whole.

Segway, led by Mr.Kamen, would be an excellent choice to create a personal mobility device for the future. GM would be a great manufacturing partner. But one cannot hope to create a real-world device without adequate regard for where it must live. Seen in isolation, there’s some excellent thinking that has gone into this experimental version. However, for it to remain much more than just the sum of its parts, I think the teams involved will have to focus differently, think broadly, holistically. A device created without due consideration for its operating environment and the needs of its users will remain no more than a novelty.

Rather than in a design or technology museum, I would like to see this product alive and well either in our current environment, or in one completely tailored for it – PUMAville? PUMAtowne? [terrible, I know – if you have a better name, post it in comments].

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