Home surveillance at the Crossroads of Hardware and Software

by M Qamar

Cameras as surveillance devices have been around for quite sometime. But since the mobile device market has erupted in the last five years, many new startups have been building cameras as wireless accessories to mobile apps. Webcams, like the original iSight, were large and bulky objects compared to the almost invisible FaceTime camera's on newer iMacs, MacBooks and iOS devices of today. While companies like Dropcam and Withings have been selling stand alone webcam hardware, coupled with web and mobile apps for viewing your streams online, its seems that there is a potential convergence of existing hardware and specialized software that can be beneficial to users, as well as create effective business models for these startups.

Being a first time parent and a little obsessive about new technology, I have invested in two Dropcam devices. Having started with the first one in the living room, I decided to buy a second one for the bedroom to maximize coverage of the apartment. With my obsessive surveillance on their website dashboard and free iOS app, I realized that the entry/foyer/study/corridor/vestibule between the living room and bedroom lacked coverage. 

Despite moving the cameras around a bit to maximize coverage, I concluded that I needed another Dropcam on my desk, next to my iMac in the vestibule. However, this third camera however would have set me back another $150. After spending $300 on two devices, I wasn't sure if I wanted to be this heavily invested in one company's hardware. Noticing the almost invisible FaceTime camera on my iMac, I wondered, what if…?

Dropcam provides a free app to view security streams, but could they build an app to use the idle camera on your home computer as a Dropcam device? This could be a very cost effective solution for the end user, and a compelling addition to the Dropcam ecosystem. There are apps available where this is already possible, although Dropcam could likely provide a comprehensive solution by coupling their stand alone hardware with the capability of existing products into a unified surveillance dashboard. Dropcam may have already considered this approach, but as a customer, I would welcome the option.

Windows 8.1: Found in Space

by A Kikta

Based on video previews of Windows 8.1, I recently wrote a short piece on the newly added Wallpaper Persistence and it's effect in organizing and spatializing the OS.

Now, having used the update for some time, it's clear that this effect is even more apparent—and important, than it seemed at first blush.

By allowing boot directly to the desktop, the desktop itself now truly appears as the base layer, the space in which all OS elements live. Desktop icons are, as they have always been, above the desktop.

The tiled Modern UI now also effectively functions as a desktop overlay (as I had always thought it should). Desktop icons simply disappear when the Modern UI is triggered, a simple and effective solution. Desktop icons and windows, as well as the tiled Modern UI start menu, are now effectively hierarchically equal, side by side overlays, as opposed to hierarchically ambiguous, separate UI's as they were in Windows 8.

When a Modern UI applications is launched an animation is triggered in which the tile flips outward and expands to fill the screen, suggesting that Modern UI applications live in a another layer above the tiled Start Menu. This does help maintain orientation, but the connection here is fleeting.

Notification overlays (low battery, Windows Update, etc.) work as well as they always have, the horizontal stripe making it intuitively clear that action needs to be taken before proceeding. This recalls the experience of unwrapping a well packaged garment, where you must remove the cardstock band to access the item inside.

Additionally, Modern UI apps still feel significantly overscaled on a large external monitor (My real world use of Windows 8, and 8.1 has almost exclusively been on a 24" 16:10 monitor). Defining a max Y height could improve the experience, focusing content toward the center of the screen vertically, while reducing certain elements (images, body text, etc).

I expect that Modern UI apps are not seeing heavy use on laptops and even less on desktops. Combined with Surface RT's slow sales (and Windows tablet sales as a whole?), Modern UI apps are likely not gaining the screen time that Microsoft had hoped. The strategy of a hybrid OS, leveraging the existing Windows user base to promote exposure to and development of Modern UI apps, may be failing. Lack of users begets lack of developers begets lack of users, ad infinitum. Improving the experience of Modern UI apps at larger screen sizes is a necessary step to reverse this trend.


Mac Pro MMXIII: The Uncomfortable Lightness of Being

by A Kikta in

Apple has always been an organization with a point of view, an organization with a philosophy about the products that they produce and the experiences that those products impart. With the previewed design of the new Mac Pro I believe that there is one guiding philosophical approach at worklightness.

Lightness has long been a hardware pursuit at Apple, with each generation doing more with less, more simply, and more intuitively. Each generation of device has been lightened and focused, extraneous and outdated elements purged, unnecessary details eliminated. iPod leads to iPod Mini leads to iPod Nano. Accessible battery with meter (button and LED's) leads to sealed battery with meter leads to sealed battery without meter. 

Each change moves a step closer toward the ideal device, the device that recedes and integrates, leaving only it's essential function. At first these changes are uncomfortable—progress generally is.

Nowhere is this philosophy more apparent, and more polarizing, than in the design of the new Mac Pro. The product is an answer to a question that no one asked; how do you make a powerful workstation as small as possible? And more importantly, why make a workstation as small as possible.

Even in a desktop computer, there are tangible benefits to reduced size; reduced expansion leads to reduced product size leads to reduced material costs, reduced packaging size, reduced warehousing and distribution costs, and reduced environmental impact—doing more with less.

But these reductions require trade-offs, trade-offs that to many users will not make practical sense at first, and to some will never make sense. But in the relentless pursuit of lightness these trade-offs seem obvious, even inevitable.

Time will tell if these trade offs are prescient, overly ambitious, or a misstep  (this is certainly Apple's lowest risk product line with which to experiment). But as history has proven, the most influential products are often answers to questions that no one asked.


A Smooth Transition: Wallpaper Persistence in Windows 8.1

by A Kikta in

The transition between the desktop and tiled environment in Windows 8 is a full-screen state change. Visual elements are unique to each, creating a transition that is jarring and disorienting. 

As seen in this Windows 8.1 preview from Microsoft however, an incredibly simple and seemingly effective solution has been introduced; persistent wallpaper. By allowing the use of identical wallpaper in both the tiled and desktop environments, elements in each now inhabit the same virtual space suggested by the wallpaper image.

This simple change introduces a hierarchy to the OS and adds an orienting sense of depth;  desktop and tiled elements alike now appear above the same wallpaper.

Of course, the preview video shows an utterly clean desktop, devoid of any icons or open windows. But nonetheless, persistent wallpaper can only be seen as a usability improvement to an inherently conflicted and complex operating system.

Source: WindowsVideos YouTube Channel

Another Micrsoft Surface

by A Kikta

The Surface tablet was a significant step for Microsoft, a meaningful shift to the company's business model, a genuinely innovative form factor, and at least in terms of hardware design, impressively well executed. But Surface is flawed....for my use it's just too large for a tablet and too small for a laptop.

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SunCycle Lamp

by A Kikta

In 2012 Anonymous.d hosted a competition for the design of lighting fixture suited to a computer work space. Long days and nights at the computer, distanced from the natural world outside, influenced my submission. Check out the site, there are some great submissions.

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You Know What Would Be Cool....A Weather App For Me

by M Qamar in

Stepping out last weekend on what seemed like a sunny spring day, I dressed light and encountered windy New York streets, overcast in the shadows of high-rises. As I crossed the streets for a few sunny rays to warm me up, I thought, I needed a weather app that understands my behaviors and preferences. Not the temperature, not the wind speeds, not the percentage of rain or shine. There is an entire category in the App Store for weather apps telling you pretty much the same thing.

I use a handful of these apps through out the day. Check the Weather, Today, Dark Sky and most recently Forecast. They all have some usefulness. Check the Weather and Today have similar functionality. Dark Sky, and its sister web app Forecast, offer great inclement weather predictions but mostly just present significant amounts of data through nice animations. Siri, with Yahoo's weather data, makes an attempt to answer "Do I need an umbrella?" Swackett makes a recommendation and tells me what kind of jacket or hat to wear, or that I should grab my sunglasses on the way out, but seems to be more interested in selling me different clothing styles and ads (admittedly an interesting revenue model).

What I need is an app that asks what the weather is like for me, and learns from my responses. Is it chilly? Did I wear a scarf? Did I use my umbrella? These questions can be asked based on the hyperlocal weather at my location. As it learns over time, the app could suggest what I should wear based on my past behaviors. It may not get it right the next time I step out on a deceivingly sunny but chilly day in New York, but whats most important is that its learning what's best for me, rather than simply repackaging commonly available weather data. What about the missing data....me!