Sunday, April 27, 2008

NASA Tech Briefs: Create the Future Contest Awards in NYC

New York City, April 2008: In New York last week, the Create the Future Contest award winners were honored in a nice ceremony. The awards were presented over a swanky dinner and drinks at the Water Club in NYC. (Good thing I changed when I got there: a classic NYC taxi driver let me off early saying, "I can't turn right here. You have to cross there and go under that overpass, past the helicopter landing, and then it's on your left.")

While I was pleased for all the qualified entrants-- almost 1000 this year, a record probably due to having a website -- I was most happy about the two student category winners. Jeremy Connell, a junior in Virginia, actually used SolidWorks for his cargo carrier design. Here he is holding the paper edition of NASA Tech Briefs, which features his winning design on the front cover! Jeremy Connell at NTB Contest Jeremy would like to get a job designing boats. I'm also hoping he'll intern at SolidWorks if he's available and we can work out the details.

The winner for the Transportation design category was student Corban Tillman-Dick, who is actually an economics major at Johns Hopkins. He's the designer of a more efficient engine, the Internally Radiating Impulse Engine. His brothers were all present for the award; they are trying to get funding to base a company on this design. Sadly, their father, who helped with the design, died suddenly in a car accident a few weeks earlier and could not attend with them. Here is Corban and a brother with Jeff Ray, CEO of SolidWorks: Corban Tillman-Dick

A few other winners -- Joseph Hollman designed a beacon locator for mine workers, shortly after a serious mining disaster last year. Here is Joseph receiving his award: Joseph Hollman with award

And Dr. Ajay Mahajan and colleagues were there to receive their Medical category prize for a 3D ultrasonic neuronavigation system for realtime image guided brain surgery. Ajay Mahajan

I'm afraid my camera batteries, bought for €1 in a Venice shop, did not hold out long enough for everyone's prize.

As you may recall, I was the consultant that designed and project managed the contest site for SolidWorks. This was the first year that SolidWorks was a major sponsor, as well as the first year there was any website featuring visible entries (and featuring a frenetic, viral "page view contest" which galvanized many students, not to mention bots). Jeff Ray also accepted the SolidWorks award for "Product of the Year" given by readers of NASA Tech Briefs, entirely coincidental with the co-sponsorship of the Create the Future Design Contest. (Obviously the contest was not judged based on software used by any entrant, and SolidWorks did not participate in the judging in any way.) Instead of a boring talking shot of Jeff Ray, I like this pic of him talking over drinks to our student winner who used SolidWorks.

Apart from the chance to see the sometimes wacky but always creative inventions, I got a lot out of seeing young designers do so well in the contest up against professional engineers. And in general, there were a lot of ideas that could make the world a better place with the right exposure and funding. Providing webspace for inventions and inventors is a good thing for us to do. We'll (and I'll) be doing the site and contest again this year! Stay tuned for another June launch.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Punitive Luxury at the Marriott Marquis

I just got back from an overnight work trip to NYC, where I was booked into the Marriott Marquis at Times Square. I disliked this experience, in oh so many ways.

How about this example of a nasty use of technology? Here's a $7 bottle of Fiji water that's on a weight-sensitive stand, the kind you see in heist movies where Tom Cruise is rapelling in to help himself to something way more fun than water.

The note on this bottle says, "Your account will be charged when this bottle is off the stand for more than 30 seconds." There was dust on the stand, because even the maids are afraid to disturb this gem. [Updated to add: a friend tells me her father stayed in another Marriott in a large American city and ran into the same thing. As he was going into his room, a cleaning woman in the hall warned him, "Don't move the water, don't move the water!!"]

Note that this was a room I was paying $400 for a night. I don't know what I got for it, to be honest. The sink wouldn't drain. And they also wanted me to pay $4.99 for their "tv-on-demand" DVR episodes of "Medium." (My first response, oh so naive, was "Wow, this hotel has DVRs in their rooms, awesome! I guess it's about time since we've all got them at home!" Then I saw the price for everything on it. Give me a break. Where's that warm fuzzy -- oh yeah, this isn't a brand experience, it's a technology scam.)

I didn't bother to try the Internet. They had more neat technology where their elevator collection resided. So many floors and so many attractions in this hotel, that they had a special scheduling routine in place: you enter your floor number, and it tells you which elevator to go wait beside. Despite this clever system of crowd management, their elevators were so busy that staff were escorting the more upset customers (incl. me) to the freight elevators for more realistic timing on their people-mover service. freight elevator with big bag When I got home, I came up with a few "nice" and possibly more interesting uses for their weight sensitive technology, instead of threatening their fleeced guests.

I know a lot of architects who love good hotel design -- but let me say, it's not just about architecture, it's about all the amenities and experience, including how they use their in-room technology. I'm still outraged!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Open Source vs. Organizational Code

An interesting, free article from Harvard Business School working papers: Exploring the Duality between Product and Organizational Architectures: A Test of the Mirroring Hypothesis (scroll down for PDF link). From the abstract:
Specifically, products are often said to "mirror" the architectures of the organizations from which they come. Such a link, if confirmed empirically, would be important, given that product architecture has been shown to be an important predictor of, among other things: product performance; product variety; process flexibility; and future industry evolution. We explore this relationship in the software industry by use of a technique called Design Structure Matrices (DSMs), which allows us to visualize the architectures of different software products and to calculate metrics to compare their levels of modularity. We use DSMs to analyze a number of matched-pair products--products that fulfill the same function but that have been developed via contrasting modes of organization; specifically, closed-source (or proprietary) versus open-source (or distributed) development. Our results reveal significant differences in modularity, consistent with a view that distributed teams tend to develop more modular products. We conclude by highlighting some implications of this result and assessing how future work in this field should proceed, based upon these first steps in measuring "design."
I've seen work on this subject before (including similar diagrams that show code module relationships)-- not usually in business press, although it's nice to see this get a wide audience. Recently I read Becky Grinter's essay in HCI Remixed which reflects on Parnas 1972's "On the Criteria to Be Used in Decomposing Systems into Modules" and on Conway's Law: The structure of the code mirrors the communication of the organization that developed it. Or lack thereof.

More than that, I'd say the UI design and the broader corporate outside facing design often reflects the organization's internal structure and different goals. Marketing groups that don't talk to engineers, executives who don't get along, customer support and sales who don't speak -- these things all hit heavily on the face that a customer sees for the company. All of which can be reasons why "User Experience" as a group can't live low-down in any one part of a company, especially a big one.

More personally, I've started using R, an open-source competitor to MATLAB, and wondering about this stuff as I try to track down the open-source resources I need. I've been enjoying ramping up on R despite finding the documentation available and code quality of some libraries very hit-or-miss. MathWorks's doc team and their demos are one of their strengths. Regardless, R has a growing number of books and sites, and I've learned some simple concepts faster in R than I ever did for the same concepts in M-code. In many ways, I prefer the language to M, despite my belief that open-source usability is generally very poor [here we might have a discussion about usability of the language itself, for different tasks, versus that of GUIs or tools available for programming support, but I'm still thinking about the topic].

In short, R works; plus it's free, and it's powerful and extensible. (For just how free is free: compare about $4K for what I'd need for statistics and database access plus some reporting, with $0K, and that's pretty free.) I wonder how the code compares to to MATLAB's.