Ideas for Better Products

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Traffic Rules by GPS

On one of my business trips to Japan, I took a taxi to my customer site. Most taxis there have car navigation systems. On this particular trip, the navigation system informed the driver whenever it crossed a boundary between wards and cities, and even informed of the ever-changing speed limits.

Recently back home, I got a traffic ticket for not making a complete stop at a stop sign. So I took an online traffic school course and was reminded of the myriad of rules and regulations which all drivers are supposed to know, but of course don’t. Such as not being allowed to make a U-turn in a business district – the definition of a business district being >50% density on one side of the road for 600 feet or >50% on both sides for 300 feet (for California). My wife had gotten a ticket years ago for that one. In each case, we had to pay over a hundred dollars in fines, fees, etc.

So, a useful feature for navigation systems to have, in addition to getting us from point A to point B and telling us of restaurants and gas stations along the way, would be to alert the driver of the do’s and don’ts according to local laws. It could be as simple of displaying constantly-updated signs on the display, or optionally giving verbal updates/warnings. Putting this capability in rental cars would help out-of-state (or visitors from other countries) avoid potentially-serious mistakes.

With so many portable car navigation systems these days to choose from, an added feature like this would certainly stand out.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Tele-Connected Homes and Telepresence

Recently, Cisco announced their Telepresence virtual conference room products. People from different parts of the world can interact in a virtual conference room. The feeling of being together in the same room is enhanced by the use of similar furniture in each location, large displays (to make each person on the screen life-size), and high-resolution real-time video. A little while back, LG-Philips announced their 100 inch LCD TV. It shouldn’t be long for these technologies to be combined in the home to connect multiple homes together. For example, if the grandparents live far away, it would allow the kids to see them frequently. With more broadband connections to the home (enabling such things as streaming video, Slingbox TV, downloadable movies, etc.), it shouldn’t be long before one could even keep these home-to-home links on continuously. So the in-laws can be in the “next room” (good for seeing the kids) while still in another state (good for you). If the hardware can be built into the home during construction (much like the way central air conditioning or in-room speakers are pre-installed), cost wouldn’t be an issue since it’s absorbed into the home price (i.e., part of your mortgage payment). Once the display wall becomes pervasive, one can imagine “attaching your room” to other locations around the globe, such as your office, a classroom, the lion cage at a zoo, a vista point overlooking the Grand Canyon, the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower, the flight deck of the space shuttle, etc. etc. That’d be pretty cool.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Watching TV or Movies on my Cell Phone

It’s a pity the US is always lagging behind the Japanese and Koreans on cell phone technology. On my last business trip to Japan, the advertising in the trains were touting their current generation of cell phones with digital TV capability. According to a Newsweek article by someone who used one of these phones, a gigabyte of memory can store five hours of video. So not only can you watch live TV, but you can also do TiVo-like pause/replay and also bring along ripped movies from home. Here in the US, one would have to carry three things: a portable TV, a video iPod, and of course, the phone itself. Pretty sad.

Paying by Fingerprint

I once took my kids on a bike ride to the neighborhood park, then to the corner shops for ice cream. But I had forgotten to bring my wallet. It would’ve been great if the stores accepted payment using a biometric scan. And soon, maybe they will. Some stores are testing a payment system that links your fingerprint to your checking account, so that all you need to do is scan your finger and enter a PIN. Can’t wait for it to get to our supermarket.

Starting Your Car by Cell Phone

When it’s cold or hot outside, it would be nice to be able to start your car remotely. Some luxury models offer this, or you can buy an aftermarket accessory. I came across a news story of a high school student who modified her car so that it could be started from her cell phone (hence, no range limits).

Speaking of remote controls, we have universal learning remotes for TVs and garage door openers. It would be nice to have a universal learning remote control capability for our cell phones. Being able to open the trunk or start your car by using your phone (with appropriate lock code protection) would mean carrying one less bulky key or key fob.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Movie Rentals for iPod

We live in the “Digital, Mobile, Virtual and Personal” age (according to Carly Fiorina). iPods certainly fit that lifestyle. But when it comes to watching movies, having to buy every movie puts a crimp on fully enjoying watching them whenever and wherever we want. The purchase model works for songs since we listen to them over and over again, but that doesn’t work for movies. Most of us would prefer to watch movies once or twice, and move on to the next (new) one. We subscribe to Netflix, so we can watch movies whenever we want, but unfortunately not wherever. It would be great if either iTunes supported a movie rental business model, or Netflix got into the online (download) movie rental business. The same kind of “any 3 checked out at a time” model could work. The movies could be pre-formatted for certain kinds of players like iPod or the NEXX NF-810 to save download time and eliminate the hassle factor. Now that flash memory is cheap, 8GB can easily hold all checked out movies at a time. With my iPod, I listen to audio whenever/wherever, and with my new Sony Reader, I read my books and technical articles whenever/wherever. All I need now is a video player with online movie rental service and I’ll be fully “Digital, Mobile, Virtual and Personal.”

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Voice Recognition in Cell Phones and To Do Lists

Many years ago, I used to carry around a credit-card sized 30-second chip-based voice recorder. It was handy for capturing “to do” or shopping list items while I was commuting to and from work. It was okay for a few items, but not practical for long lists since you have to listen through the entire set of recordings whenever you wanted to review your list, and transcribe to your notebook or PDA. Cell phones nowadays have the ability to record short “voice notes”, but same problem. Nowadays, I just jot down the items on Post-It notes – not safe while driving.

Some recent cell phones, like the Samsung SCH-I600MSA, have speaker-independent voice recognition. Although intended for name and number recognition, if it can be improved to handle a general vocabulary, it would be a really useful feature because those “to do” items can be entered by voice, but reviewed and manipulated visually. They can go straight into the “to do” section of PDA or Pocket Outlook software. Now that would be useful.

Built-in Car Interior Cooling

While we are headed toward winter, the temperature reached 83F today. In the summer around where I live, it can reach over 100F. On those days, going out for lunch means getting into a hot car, even if the sunroof had been cracked open and the pop-up sun screen used to block the sun coming through the front windshield. You can buy a solar-powered fan to vent the hot air through a partially-open window. But why not have it built into the car? Having it solar powered means it operates when it’s most needed and it doesn’t drain the car’s battery. Seems like a no-brainer extension of the car’s “A/C” capability.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Neighborhood Blackbox (Part 2)

Back on Sept 24, I posted an article about a neighborhood blackbox recorder. At this year's CES, GE demonstrated a unit called Intellicorder which comes pretty close.

Programmable Universal Holiday Lights

Well, it’s coming up on Halloween and time to put up the appropriate outdoor decorations. Thanksgiving and Christmas arrives soon thereafter. When it comes to putting up the holiday lights outside, I procrastinate. As for taking them down again, well, we once had Christmas lights up until Easter.

It would be great to have universal holiday lighting that could be programmed to show holiday-appropriate colors. Orange and purple at Halloween, green and red at Christmas, etc. Now that we have cheap multi-color LEDs, it shouldn’t be difficult. I would rather pay $30 for a strand of programmable universal lights than $3 for single-holiday lights.

There’s even a patent for such a concept, so the idea isn’t new. Let’s see who productizes first. And one day, maybe homes will be built with lights permanently installed. By the way, if you want to see a cool Christmas light display, check out this one on Google Video.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Universal Power Supply and Adapter

When I travel, be it for work or with my family, my luggage gets weighed down with a bunch of AC adapters and battery chargers. There’s one each for the laptop PC, the phone, the PDA and the iPod. And if the family is coming along, multiple phone chargers (for different models), the GameBoy charger, a couple for different portable razors, etc. It’s nuts to carry so many widgets that do the same thing: turn AC to DC. While AC and DC voltages (and power ratings) may vary, that’s just a matter of transformer capacity versus charging time.

With the advent of the iPod and USB connector, it looks like we finally have the opportunity to standardize the world on one connector for charging, hence on one charger. The smallest USB charger I found was in Japan, and there’s now even a worldwide-compatible AC adapter with a USB slot. Now if only all the gadget makers could standardize on their power connector, starting with cell phones, PDAs and laptop PCs, that would be great.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Drink Heater and Cooler in your Car

Cars have air conditioners, window defrosters, even seat warmers. One more useful option would a cup heater/cooler to keep the coffee hot in the morning and sodas cold in the afternoon. Seems pretty obvious but it’s still not available in cars – hey, it can’t be that difficult. As far as I know, the 2007 Chrysler Sebring is the first to offer this as an option. Meanwhile, everyone else can get a plug-in unit until the other car makers catch up and offer this capability, preferably standard.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Wireless Earphones for iPod

I have an iPod Shuffle that I use daily to listen to various podcasts. It’s small enough to tuck away in a pant or shirt pocket, but then the wires going up to the earphones are an annoyance. They also look ugly against any decent clothes one may have on (unless you want to show off the white wires and earphones and help Apple’s marketing campaign). Looking around, I did find some wireless headphones (such as Ten Technology’s Naviplay) that use Bluetooth but no one seems to make something smaller and more stylish like Motorola’s over-the-ear Bluetooth units for cell phones. Oakley’s Thump 2 sunglasses with MP3 player has the right idea but isn’t for iPod owners. If someone made sunglasses or earphones with Bluetooth and if iPods had a Bluetooth transmitter, that would be a great combination of cool and convenience, wouldn’t it?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Weather Forecast Clock

When I get up at 6AM, it’s not easy to guess what the day’s weather will be like without resorting to listening to the radio, watching TV, reading the newspaper, or opening the computer. There are weather clocks which measure the outside temperature and track barometer readings. But even with the prevalence of Wi-Fi, I have yet to find a unit that consults the web. Weather sites like have weather information by zip code. Someone should make a weather clock that periodically consults a weather site by zip code and show not only the current temperature, but the day's forecasted max/min temp, chance of precipitation, etc. While the product may not yet exist, the idea was captured by Luke W a couple of years ago in his conceptual designs. Hope someone will make his weather clock one of these days. It would be great to know each morning how to dress right for that day’s weather.

Easy Vitamins and Supplements

If you’re like me, you’re popping quite a few pills and tablets each day for health reasons. Multi-vitamins (general health), Claritin (allergy), Ginko (alertness), Glucosamine (joints), etc. Popping all these is not much fun, and for some large pills, not easy (I always think that it’s not a matter of if I’ll choke on one of these, just a matter of when).

When I travel to Germany or Japan on business, I buy effervescent multivitamin tablets which I dissolve in water and drink at breakfast. Not easy to get this stuff in the US. The closest thing is Airborne. Other forms that make vitamin-taking a bit easier (usually for kids) are gummy bears and chewable tablets. But there aren’t many choices for adults for our particular full-spectrum vitamin and optional supplement needs.

It’d be nice to put vitamins and supplements into the things that adults normally eat, drink, chew, etc. Here are some ideas:

  • Like vitamin-laden sweetener for coffee (“I’ll have a vitamin venti.”)
  • Healthy chewing gum (“Want some glucosamine gum? Or Claritin caramel?”)
  • Supplement powder packets for bottled water (“Ginko tea time!”)

Of course, they would have to taste reasonable. Judging from the chocolate calcium supplements that my wife doesn’t take, that’s the hard part.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Neighborhood Blackbox

When I drive by those signs that say “Neighborhood Watch”, I wonder if there’s really anyone watching. While I live in a pretty safe suburb, I still wouldn’t want my kids walking to and from school by themselves.

One of the best deterrents to crime is to use video surveillance (and make it plainly visible to all). While video based surveillance systems exist, they aren’t small and cheap enough to be deployed everywhere. But the pieces exist.

Camera – CMOS image sensors are cheap and plentiful (thanks to cell phones). Adding IR LEDs allow night-time use.

Storage – Flash memory is cheap. At 1fps and 1MP resolution, a cheap 1GB chip can probably store about an hour of video, depending on compression, continuously over-writing the oldest data. (As memory gets cheaper, one could increase the frame rate, resolution and/or data lifetime. On 9/11/06, Samsung announced their 64GB NAND flash chip.) That would give enough time for the police to turn off and collect all the nearest blackboxes after a crime or accident.

Power – With so many solar cell companies entering the market, it won’t be long before affordable small units are available. Night-time operation would be via a battery that was charged during the day.

If we could pepper our neighborhood, be it residential or commercial, with these low-cost surveillance blackboxes, one would expect the area to become safer. They could also help provide evidence. As for the issue of privacy, keep in mind that while there are lots of cameras, there’s no one watching them in real time. Like airplane blackboxes, they would only be reviewed after something has happened.

Useful Diagnostic Tool for Windows

Computers have gotten faster (clock rate, bus bandwidth, memory size, disk latency, etc.) but it feels like each generation of laptop PC that I buy doesn’t give me quicker response. You can’t blame the bloated applications since a zippy CPU and sufficient RAM can go through instructions and data quickly. Usually, I find it’s all those background tasks that use up CPU cycles and virtual memory. (The less memory that’s left for applications, the more likely they’ll “thrash” and ultimately just hang.) Many of these background tasks automatically check for updates to applications and download the files for us. The other cause for delay is when some network resource is not replying to an inquiry and the application has to timeout before continuing, but that application holds up what you want to do.

We need an easy-to-use application that can show us what’s causing the slowdown and delays. Windows with its Task Manager isn’t enough – it only shows which piece of code is using the most CPU but doesn’t show us the parent application that invoked that piece of code so that we can end that application (and change its startup setting) if we want to. Nor does it show which application is hanging up the computer waiting for a reply from some other application, hardware resource or network site.

There are diagnostic tools like Process Explorer that are useful but still not so easy to use. What we need is something for the masses, preferably built into Windows, that simplifies the task of finding the CPU Hog, Stuck Process, Bandwidth Bandit, Disk Thrasher, etc., and then dealing with them.

Expiration Date Label

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to quickly and consistently find the expiration date on food product packaging? For example, expiration dates are clearly visible on car license plates. California plates have the month in the upper left and the year (color coded) in the upper right.

It would be great if food products had a similar month/year (or day/month for perishables) labeling. Or even simple printed dates of manufacture and expiration. The Europeans and Japanese are ahead of the US in this area. In Japan, both the date of manufacture and the expiration date are clearly provided.

While the manufacturing cost may be a bit higher, seems to me this is a potential product differentiator that the market would appreciate.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Smart Fridge or Pantry

How often have you dumped food from your fridge or your pantry because you weren’t aware the storage expiration date, or fridge shelf life had passed. Or looked into a jar of spaghetti sauce with no expiration date and wondered if you should gamble with your life. It doesn’t have to be so. When LG introduced their TV fridge a while back, I thought it wasn’t the best marriage of appliance and a full-color display. But since most everything we buy has a UPC symbol, why not add a scanner and turn the fridge into a smart inventory tracking system? The hardware pieces are there.

The software example also exists. When a CD is loaded on your PC, the music management programs like iTunes, RealAudio etc. can consult online databases like Gracenote to download track information. In the same way, a produce database can be accessed using the scanned item’s UPC code to download information about the expiration date (unopened), fridge shelf life (opened), volume or weight, nutrition information, etc. Aside from the obvious advantage of warning when certain foods are approaching the end of their shelf life (so you have a chance to use it and not dump it), the software can also build up patterns of usage and predict when items may be getting low and need to be purchased. So instead of trying to figure out what you should buy on your next trip to the store, imagine being able to print a list being maintained by your smart fridge (or smart pantry).

An example of smart storage at home, albeit pretty expensive, already exists for wine drinkers. GE has a wine storage and inventory control system called the Monogram Wine Vault. So it shouldn’t be difficult for GE to make their fridges smart and much more useful.

eTextbooks and eNewspapers

Several years ago, I was intrigued by a company called E Ink based in Cambridge MA. They have a display that draws zero power during viewing, and only uses energy when flipping the pixels to show the next page. Now Sony is going to deliver its Reader e-book based on this novel display. With much longer battery life (7,500 page turns – i.e., several books worth), it should fare better as an all-purpose e-book than prior attempts. I hope Sony and others will take this baseline product and make two things that I would consider very useful.

– School textbooks are bulky and my kids’ backpacks are ridiculously heavy these days. With Adobe PDF and appropriate DRM (digital rights management), there’s no reason why all the content couldn’t be provided in electronic form. While the ultimate convenience would be to be able to download any textbook, a nearer-term step would be to sell books pre-loaded on cheap flash memory cards. The eTextbook could double as an eNotebook (capturing handwritten notes in class) with links between notebook and textbook pages.

– The idea is not new. To make it popular, the reader should wirelessly download the latest news continuously. The technology exists via Wi-Fi at home, and cellular networks outside (e.g., Blackberry devices already do this for e-mail). That way, anytime one picks up the eNewspaper, it has the latest news. A low-cost version would have a one-way interface – i.e., (only) download content using user-defined filters to monitor a spectrum of broadcast content. A two-way version could handle e-mails, blogs, etc. but now you’re getting closer to a PC such as Sony’s UX or Samsung’s Q1. But I’m looking for something for $200, not $1000~$2000.

A Better iPod or MP3 Music Player

My family has several iPods. They’re great. But even with the latest innovations announced by Steve on 9/12/06, there are some features I would like to see that would make life easier.

Make it Wireless – With Bluetooth and Wi-Fi as prevalent as they are, it should be possible to have the player recognize its host computer whenever it comes within range. File transfer could be done wirelessly, even automatically. After all, PDAs like Palm’s Treo have Bluetooth wireless syncing already. Zune has Wi-Fi but it seems to be aimed at music sharing between players.

Build in the Transmitter – Many of us play our iPods in our cars. In one car, we use an FM transmitter, and in the other, an old-fashioned cassette interface which is clearer. Either way, there’s extra clutter in the car. While some auto makers (BMW, Mercedes-Benz, GM, Ford and Mazda) have, or have announced iPod interfaces in their cars, there’s nothing as universal as an FM radio in cars. If the player has a built-in FM transmitter, it would be much more convenient and cleaner.