» Archive for October, 2012

Driving Alone: How Technology is Reducing Distractions on the Road

Friday, October 26th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira
Lane departure warning in Mercedes-Benz E350 BlueTec

Lane departure warning in Mercedes-Benz E350

Recently I have been giving some thought to practical uses of technology with respect to one of the most highly-publicized dangers, namely distracted driving. While distractions at the knowledge worker’s desk can cost a lot of time and money, distractions on the road can be deadly.

One application that comes to mind is the Google self-driving car. While I haven’t ridden in it (since no one drives it really), I have been driving a car for the past year or so that has some features that approach the Google self-driving car’s functionality. My car’s features include active cruise control, which uses radar to adjust the car’s speed in order to maintain a preset distance between the vehicle and the one ahead.

First, a disclaimer. I like to drive and I enjoy high-performance cars, especially on the unrestricted sections of German Autobahns. I don’t like the idea of the car driving for me, either. I didn’t even like the idea of cruise control, primarily because I felt that it would lead to a lack of attention on my part, until I started using the active version.

Another feature, lane departure warning, which is triggered by optical sensors detecting pavement lane markings, informs the driver if the car strays out of lane. Should the warning be ignored, the system will guide the car back into the lane by braking the wheels on the side of the vehicle away from the line.

Blind spot detection uses radar sensors in the rear bumper to monitor the space to the right and left of the car, focusing in on the blind spot. If a car is nearby, a warning triangle in the respective rear view mirror turns yellow. If a car is more or less next to yours, the arrow glows red. If you activate your turn signal, indicating an intention to move in the direction of said vehicle, the arrow blinks red and an alert sounds. If you continue in the direction of said vehicle, the car’s Electronic Stability Program uses rear-wheel braking, specifically applying the brake on one side, to nudge the car back into its lane.

If that isn’t enough, the car also monitors the driver (usually me) to make sure he is awake enough to drive. In the first 20 minutes of each drive, the car establishes a profile for the driver based on steering input and other factors. If a driver deviates from the profile as established, it may mean that he is sleepy. If this is determined to be the case – and the system is operative at speeds over 50 mph (80 km/h) – the car beeps and flashes an Attention Assist message (“Time for a Rest?”) on the dashboard.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Knowledge Work Kills

Friday, October 19th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira
Use it or lose it...

Use it or lose it...

I’ve often wondered about the impact of the change in how we work, from manual and active labor to knowledge work at our desks, with respect to our health. After all, while our life expectancies are significantly longer than even 50 years ago, we suffer more knowledge-age ills, including back problems and neck and shoulder injuries. What I didn’t realize, however, was how frightening the reality was.

Let’s look at the rise of the boob tube. While the term “couch potato” has been the subject of much derision for several decades, the combined effect of long-term television watching with our propensity towards knowledge work has become a matter of great concern, and not just to me. Simply put, the more time we spend sitting in front of a computer screen, be it a laptop or desktop, the shorter our lives will be.

In an article in the October 2012 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine entitled “Television viewing time and reduced life expectancy: a life table analysis,” J. Lennert Veerman of the Centre for Burden of Disease and Cost-Effectiveness, School of Population Health, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, and his colleagues examined data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Diabetes, Obesity, and Lifestyle Study, the latter an ongoing project studying the health habits of almost 12,000 Australian adults.

Along with questions about general health, disease status, exercise regimens, smoking, diet and so on, the survey asked respondents how many hours per day in the previous week they had spent sitting in front of the television.This was significant in that researchers found it easier to get respondents to quantify the length of time they spent watching television (and sitting) than simply sitting by itself.

What the researchers found was striking, to say the least. Compared to subjects who watch no television at all, those who watch an average of six hours per day have a life expectancy of 4.8 years less. Each hour viewed reduces that person’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.

The numbers here are staggering – indeed, the researchers compared the loss of life from TV viewing to that associated with major chronic disease risk factors including physical inactivity and obesity.

I’ve become all too aware of my own sedentary knowledge-worker lifestyle and have made several major changes that get me out from behind the computer screen (the TV was less of a concern as I am happy to report that my television viewing habits are minimal, very happy indeed). In the past six weeks I’ve flown over 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) and, while I wasn’t exactly flapping my arms in order to keep the aircraft aloft, the combination of walking through foreign cities and airports (and I find I am more apt to walk around the city when I am not home) as well as the convenience of a hotel gym and pool (while I seemingly ignore the gym and pool on home turf) make it easy to remain active and keep fit. I’ve also just started doing Crossfit, a community-based training program that combines several types of cardiovascular and resistance trainings into a benchmarked sport.

Just as with cigarette smoking, a habit I never acquired a taste for, it’s never too late to stop smoking and it’s never too late to stop sitting in front of the computer or TV. Now that you’ve finished this column, why not go out for a bike ride or walk and become active?

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Technology You Should Be Paying Attention to: 3D Printing

Friday, October 12th, 2012 by Cody Burke
Makerbot Replicator 2

Makerbot Replicator 2

One of the most exciting up-and-coming technologies today is 3D printing. If it sounds like science fiction, that is because, in many ways, it is. The technique builds 3D objects, layer by layer, through a variety of methods. At its most basic level, imagine a hot glue gun that can move on two horizontal axes, as well as vertically, squirting small drops of glue to build up an object one layer at a time. More complex types of 3D printing use powder that is solidified by an ink jet printer head loaded with binding material, or even a solution of liquid resin that is solidified by a laser beam.

The technology itself is not new; indeed, it has been around since the 1980s, and, up until recently, it was more commonly known as rapid prototyping. It is a form of additive manufacturing, which is distinct from the more common subtractive manufacturing since instead of taking a block of material and removing mass to shape an object, it starts with nothing, and adds material to create the object.

Recently, due to an explosion of consumer-level interest in the technology, 3D printing has been getting serious mainstream attention. The darling and established market leader of the consumer 3D printing movement, MakerBot, started selling DIY 3D printer kits in 2009, and has expanded rapidly, receiving a $10 million venture capital investment from the Foundry Group in August 2011. Since then, the company has released two versions of its Replicator line of 3D printers aimed at the “prosumer” market, and opened the first 3D printing retail store in Manhattan. Between 2009 and 2011, the company’s printers accounted for 16% of the market; in 2011 alone they accounted for 21.6%.

The largest players in the field are 3D Systems and Stratasys. They are established public companies with diversified operations that cover medical, industrial, architectural, design prototyping, and 3D scanning. Both have been aggressively acquiring smaller companies to build out their technology portfolios and move into new markets. 3D Systems is the overall market leader in terms of revenue ($288.9 million as of June 2012) and grew by 41.7% and 44.1% in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Stratasys comparatively, achieved revenue of $177.9 million for the same period.

In addition to making and selling hardware, a market has emerged around providing 3D print services. Shapeways and Ponoko are two companies occupying this space, both have established online marketplaces (similar to eBay or Esty), where designers upload 3D designs that can be ordered for prototyping purposes or purchased directly by their customers. The companies handle the 3D printing and shipping, eliminating the need for designers to ever touch the product, or invest in the high-end 3D printing equipment that is used.

The ever increasing level of press that 3D printing technology has been receiving has its own dangers. Gartner placed the technology at the peak of its 2012 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, predicting that overinflated expectations of what is technologically possible will lead to a slump in the market, before eventual slow but steady growth emerges as practical applications are found.

The attention the technology is receiving is considerable; it seems that not a day goes by without a major publication covering some aspect of the industry, including a series of stories about the potential (good headline material but overblown) to manufacture a gun in your home using the technology. Potential applications that earn headlines include printing organs, mass copyright and patent violations, the death of the global supply chain, printing in space, etc, etc, etc. The list is endless, but many of these use cases are years away from being viable.

Nonetheless, the future of 3D printing is bright (perhaps literally so, as Disney research has developed a way to print optics in light bulbs). A reality check on the limitations of the technology and an adjustment of expectations may be in order, but have no doubt; 3D printing will be one of the great technology storylines for years to come.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Why Can’t We Just All Get Along (Online) and Pay Attention?

Friday, October 5th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Safety first! Padded pole by UK company 118 118.

Sitting on the ANA Boeing Dreamliner inaugural flight from Seattle to Tokyo, Japan, I brought up some reading material on my iPad and first turned to the Wall Street Journal.

In the German-language edition, I found the headline: “Sind iPhone-Nutzer schlechtere Eltern?” (Are iPhone Users Worse Parents?). The lede looked at a hapless father, Phil Tirapelle, who lost track of his 18-month-old son while he was busy texting during a walk outside. The toddler was “almost trampled” but rescued just in time. Regular readers of this space know that the number of emergency-room admissions for pedestrians who walk into lampposts while texting has doubled every year for the past five years.

Clearly, not paying attention can be a problem and sometimes a matter of life or death. Indeed, I just saw an article in the New York Times in which New York City’s transportation commissioner was quoted as having stopped people from walking mindlessly into traffic while texting (half of them were grateful, she reported; the other half were irritated).

We are absorbed and are unable to distinguish between that which is urgent, that which is important, and that which is none of the above (that would be most everything). Yet we cannot disconnect for fear of missing the mundane. And it could cost someone his life or result in great injury.

Later in the flight, I found an article in the U.S. edition of the Wall Street Journal positing the question: “Why We Are So Rude Online,” a topic also near and dear to my heart. Over the years I have noticed that people’s personalities become completely different once seated behind what they believe to be the anonymity of the computer.

But back to the WSJ article on rudeness, in which a TV announcer, Chip Bolcik, is quoted as knowingly posting “provocative” political questions on his Facebook page. He bemoans the fact that he has lost two friends over Facebook spats, but Bolcik is hardly innocent. He fans the flames and encourages dissent, even using “attack dog” friends to further fuel a fire.

Stepping back for a moment, one has to wonder if this is how Bolcik would conduct himself at a gathering of friends. He seems to feel that one’s behavior in the online world can be different, but he is quickly learning that there are no free passes and, as he commented after losing a particularly close friend, “I was pretty upset.”

The problem here is that the entire idea of how one comports oneself in society has been tossed aside. The online world isn’t isolated. What happens online can have repercussions both online and off. Saying anything that comes to mind isn’t any more acceptable online than it is to scream “fire” in a crowded theater.

It’s the newness of it all that allows this to happen. There are no rules, or so people seem to think, yet the very rules that govern life in general are still in force. The thought bubbles that float above cartoon characters, thinking things that should not be said, hold thoughts that we too should not air online.

I wrote about which medium one should use over a decade ago, calling it What Works Better When. The prime impetus behind this was that many people seemed not to understand how saying the same thing, but across different media, could result in different interpretations and understanding of what was being communicated. I never considered, until now, that I would have to contemplate expanding this to include when not to use technology (while crossing the street, for example) or that saying things without thinking (“I hate you”) might come across as more than a bit severe in an online environment where the tone cannot be transmitted along with the words.

Our lives have been so swept up by our infatuation with all things online that we cannot disconnect and are most likely typing something we probably shouldn’t while we mindlessly cross the street looking down at the smartphone. Perhaps New York City needs to update its Walk/Don’t Walk signs: they could say “Text/Don’t Text” instead.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.


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