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Category: Design

Actually use your phone / computer’s much-hyped voice assistant feature for something other than playing music and setting calendar invites? Dream the impossible dream.

Background:

Voice recognition has existed in somewhat passable form since the late 1990s. But recently it has become more prominent with Apple Siri, the “OK Google” voice assistant, and Amazon Alexa.

The issue:

However, these products are all incredibly limited, and can perform almost no actions beyond a few hard-coded ones that were added at release.

The last 5 years of “voice assistant” development have mainly been focused on extremely specific items of potential commercial interest (e.g. “now you can ask about baseball scores or movie showtimes”), rather than adding core functionality.

If you want to do something besides play music, interact with your calendar, or set a timer, then using a voice assistant is an exercise in frustration.

Proposal:

At every company with a voice assistant division, all senior engineers should have a recurring Monday task where they have to:

  • Find the #1 query that users ask for that is both 1) reasonable and 2) totally un-answerable by the system.
  • Add a response to that query the ever-growing list of hard-coded phrases that the system recognizes.

To assist, I have run through a list of plausible and reasonable queries to test Siri on iOS 11 and “OK Google” on Android 8, and have provided screenshots of the equivalent queries and disastrous results below. They are divided by category.

CALCULATOR: BASIC

  • “What’s 2 + 2”
    • Google: SUCCESS
    • iOS: SUCCESS
  • “What’s 10 factorial?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“10 factorial = 3 628 800”)
    • iOS: SUCCESS (“The answer is 3628800.”)
    • 001CALC-1b-calculator-10-factorial
  • “Open the calculator”:
    • Google: Failure (Redirects to a “install this third-party calculator app!” link, despite the default Android Calculator app already being present.)
    • iOS: Failure on iPad (but, similarly provides an app-store link where a third-party calculator could be downloaded.)
    • 001CALC-1c-calculator-open

BASIC APP INTERACTION:

  • “Redo my last question.”
    • Google: Failure (Gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (“Sorry, [your name], we don’t seem to be navigating anywhere”)
    • 005APP-1-1z01-redo-my-last-question
  • “Clear my browsing history for the last one hour.”
    • Google: Partial success (It says “No problem!” but then directs you to a link with instructions to do it yourself.)

    • iOS: Failure (“I didn’t find any appointments about ‘Browser history.’ “
    • Apparently, Siri interpreted this as a request to clear a calendar event.)
    • 005APP-2-1z02-history-browser-clear
  • “How many new mail messages did I get today?”
    • Google: Failure (Shows a list of recent emails, but does not count them.)
    • iOS: SUCCESS (“Seven new emails were received today.”)
    • 005APP-3-1z03-mail-1-partial-success
  • “Are there any new podcasts?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (“Playing podcasts, starting with the newest episode…” and shows an “Open Podcasts” button.)
    • 005APP-4-1z04-podcasts-new

SYSTEM:

  • Version of the OS:
    • Google: “What version of Android am I running” or “What is my Android version” or “What is the system version” –> Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: “What version of iOS am I running” –> Failure (Refusal: “Sorry, I can’t do that”).
    • 006SYS-1-2a-version-of-os-name

      This fails on iOS… but the question below succeeds.

    • iOS, attempt #2: “What version of iOS is running” –> SUCCESS (“You’re running iOS 11.0.3.” Note that it says you are running this version, but will not respond to a question in that format.)
    • 006SYS-2-2b-version-of-os-part-2-partial-success

      Note that this question succeeds on iOS where the one above failed.

  • “Change the system language to Portuguese”
    • Google: Failure (Gives an irrelevant web search result about changing the interface of a Nintendo DS portable game system).
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “Sorry, but I’m not able to change that setting” with no additional information).
    • 006SYS-4-2d-system-language-gives-3ds-results
  • “Change the OK Google Voice to UK English” or “Change the Siri Voice to UK English”
    • Google: Failure (Gives a relevant web search result for a change, at least.)
    • iOS: Partial success (“I can’t change my voice, but you can do it yourself in Settings” (Button to “Siri Voice Settings” appears on screen.)
    • 006SYS-5-2e-voice-change
  • “How many gigabytes of RAM does this phone have” (Android) or “How much RAM is on this iPad” (iOS) or “how much RAM is on this device” (both)
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “I’m sorry, I can’t do that here.”)

SCREEN & CAMERA RESOLUTION:

  • “What’s the screen resolution?” / “What’s the screen resolution of this phone?”/ “What’s the screen resolution of this iPad?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides relevant-ish web search results for an assortment of different phones.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides generic Wikipedia link to the definition of “Display resolution.”)
    • 009CAM-2-screen-resolution-2
  • “What is the resolution of the phone camera?” / “What is the resolution of the iPad camera?” / “What is the camera resolution of the front facing camera?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • 009CAM-4-resolution-camera

SLIGHTLY MORE DIFFICULT MATH:

  • “What’s the sine of 30 degrees?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(30 degrees) = 0.5”).
    • iOS: SUCCESS (Even though it says, along with the correct answer, “The answer is approximately 0.5.”)
    • 050MATH-1-whats-sine(30 degrees) 2
  • “What’s the sine of pi?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(Pi radians) = 0.” Note that “radians” is (correctly) appended here by Google.)
    • iOS: SUCCESS (“The answer is 0.”)
  • “What’s the sine of pi radians?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(Pi radians) = 0.”)
    • iOS: Failure (Fails where “sine of pi” succeeds. “OK, I found this on the web for ‘What is the sine of pi radians’.”)
    • 050MATH-3-whats-sine-of-pi-radians-2

      “What is the sine of pi radians?” fails on iOS, but “What is the sine of pi?” succeeds.

  • “What’s the sine of 2 radians?”
    • Google: SUCCESS (“sine(2 radians) = 0.909297427.”)
    • iOS: Failure (“OK, I found this on the web for ‘What is the sine of 2 rad.’.”)
  • “What’s ‘sine 2 radians’?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides a web search. Interpreted as “what’s sign to radians.”)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides a web search. Interpreted as “what’s sign to radians.”)
    • 050MATH-whats-sine(2 radians)

NETWORK:

  • “What WiFi networks are available”
    • Google: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides irrelevant web search results.)
  • “What’s the strength of the current WiFi network?”
    • Google: Failure (Provides somewhat relevant installation link to a program called WiFi analyzer that could probably answer this question.)
    • iOS: Failure (Provides vaguely relevant web search results.)
    • 010NET-2a-wifi-2
  • “Is my Wi-Fi encrypted?” or “Is my Wi-Fi network encrypted?”
    • Google: Failure (Informs me that Messages are encrypted, which is a different question entirely.)
    • iOS: Failure (“Wi-Fi is on.”)
  • “Does this device support 80211-ac?” (A WiFi network standard.)
    • Google: Failure (Informs me that Messages are encrypted, which is a different question entirely.)
    • iOS: Failure (“Wi-Fi is on.”)

BACKUPS AND STORAGE:

  • 100BACK-3a-last-backup-2
  • “When was this device last backed up”  or “When was the last backup” (identical results)
    • Google: Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (Shows a random calendar event from years ago that happened to have the word “backup” in it).
  • 100BACK-3c-space-on-device-1
  • “How much space is left on this device?”
    • Google: Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “Sorry, I can’t help you with that here).
  • “How much disk space is free?” or “How much free space is available” (identical results)
    • Google: Failure (gives the results of an irrelevant web search).
    • iOS: Failure (Refusal: “I’m sorry, I can’t do that here”).

Conclusion / Final Ratings:

  • Siri: D-minus
  • “OK Google”: D-minus
  • Alexa: not tested

If every Apple, Google, and Amazon programmer just spent one entire work day contributing a single answer to the repertoire of easy-but-unanswerable questions, perhaps voice assistants would be more reliable.

PROS: Makes voice assistants more reliable.

CONS: Brings the day even closer when humans are replaced by metal skeleton robots.

Speed recklessly with no regard for others with this one insane automotive tip! “BIG SPEED BUMP” hates it!

Background:

Sometimes, when driving through a residential neighborhood road, you may encounter annoying speed bumps, speed humps, or speed lumps (Figure 1).

speed-lumps-0-small.jpg

Fig. 1: Not the dreaded speed lump! (This is a real un-edited sign.)

The issue:

These speed bumps / lumps discourage you from taking the shortcut (Figure 2). But you’re important, and have places to be!

If only there were some way you could take these speed bumps at full speed, without slowing down at all.

speed-bumps-1.png

Fig. 2: Ugh, not speed bumps! Or speed humps! Or speed lumps!

Proposal:

A car could be enhanced with:

  1. An extra set of axles (so six wheels total, instead of four).
  2. A set of laser rangefinders that would detect speed bumps (and other irregularities in the road surface)
  3. A powered suspension that could lift the wheels a substantial distance up into the car (perhaps a foot or more).

Then, when the car detects upcoming speed bumps, it could preemptively move the wheels up just before the speed bump is hit (and then back down after the speed bump has passed (Figure 3).

speed-bumps-2.png

Fig. 3: Top: the car detects an approaching speed bump. Middle: the car moves wheel #1 up to avoid it. Bottom: now that the speed bump has passed, wheel #1 is pushed back onto the ground (and wheel #2 is lifted).

PROS: Ends the tyranny of the speed lump.

CONS: You might forget about this feature when driving another car and hit a speed bump at 45 miles per hour, which would probably not be great.

P.S. Apparently a variant of this was a developed as a proof-of-concept by Bose (the audio company!) in 1986: Youtube link (2 minutes)article link.

Stop wasting space when packing spheres and cylinders into a rectangular box! Use this new eco-friendly tip for saving on shipping costs and reducing the amount of wasted cardboard in the world.

Background:

When packing a box for shipping, some objects can stack perfectly with no wasted space.

However, some common shapes—for example, cylinders (e.g. toilet paper rolls) and spheres (e.g. oranges)—can’t be packed without wasted empty space in the box (Figure 1).

 

1-wasted-space-between-rolls.png

Fig. 1: Note the two different types of wasted space while shipping toilet paper rolls: left) a cylindrical void in each roll, and right) the star-shaped region between rolls.

 

Proposal:

If someone orders a set of products that don’t pack together, a computer algorithm can automatically determine which additional items could be packed “for free” in the wasted space.

For example, if someone bought a box of 27 bowling balls, packed in a 3x3x3 cube, there would be remaining empty space in the middle for at least 8 caltrops to be packed.

Or, if someone orders 12 rolls of toilet paper AND 48 ninja stars, AND 6 candles, the orders can be perfectly combined into a single package with (almost) no wasted space: the candles go in the toilet paper roll tubes, and the ninja stars go between each roll (Figure 2). Additional packaging ideas shown in Figure 3.

 

2-stars.png

Fig. 2: These ninja stars can be shipped “for free” in the wasted space of the original order, and won’t requires a separate box.

 

 

3-3d

Fig. 3: Additional space can be filled with miscellaneous objects.

 

 

Conclusion:

When ordering products online, there could be a button on the checkout page with text like “add random things to my order so as to fill up 100% of the shipping box.” This would both drive additional product sales AND be more eco-friendly since less packaging would be wasted.

PROS: Allows web-based retailers to sell more products without incurring additional shipping costs by cleverly using 100% of the available packaging space.

CONS: This efficient-packaging technique may be difficult to apply beyond a relatively small subset of somewhat-regularly-shaped items.

Increase your profit margins with this one possibly legal trick for selling orange juice from a vending machine. Remember to consult a lawyer to see if product mis-labeling and consumer fraud is legal in your jurisdiction! I mean it might, be, right? But who knows.

Background:

Certain types of vending machines are capable of squeezing oranges and dispensing the freshly-squeezed orange juice right there at the machine. Generally speaking, these machines actually show you the oranges through a transparent window, so you can see the orange-juice-making process.

Most of these machines proclaim that you are getting “100% Orange Juice” or “All Your Vitamin C,” but typically they don’t bother to tell you that the orange juice is fresh—after all, you can literally SEE the oranges being juiced, so there’s hardly any room for confusion. The machines typically look something like the illustration in Figure 1.

vending-machine-exterior

Fig. 1: A futuristic vending machine that can dispense freshly-squeezed fruit right there at the machine.

Proposal:

Since the machines don’t always say that they are actually squeezing the oranges, it might be possible to have a magic-trick-style arrangement where the oranges go into an opaque grinding mechanism and then orange juice is dispensed—the customer will naturally infer that the oranges are being squeezed in the opaque mechanism, but what if this were not ACTUALLY the case?

Figure 2 shows a proposal for a system that keeps the oranges safe and sound (they could even be plastic oranges), while still appearing to squeeze them.

vending-machine-schematic

Fig. 2: An enterprising individual might be able to think of a workaround where the “100% orange juice” vending machine was dispensing much-cheaper juice and avoiding the mechanical hassle of actually squeezing the oranges.

Conclusion:

People usually enjoy food more if it looks good: orange juice that comes from a fresh source will probably be appreciated more than orange juice that comes from a huge drum labeled “50 GAL. LIQUID ORANGE PRODUCT.”

With this “placebo effect” in mind, maybe it’s not you who are to blame for mis-labeling your from-concentrate orange juice, but rather the customer’s taste buds!

PROS: Possibly more eco-friendly, as it allows orange juice to be transported in concentrated form, rather than in bulky whole-orange form. “Placebo effect” of the orange-squeezing process may increase perceived flavor of the orange juice.

CONS: Any claims of “freshly squeezed” oranges could run afoul of product labeling laws in your jurisdiction—word your vending machine text carefully! As always, consult a lawyer before perpetrating blatant anti-consumer fraud on your customers!

Stop paying living wages and replace all your employees by robots—even if the A.I. isn’t there yet to accomplish the task that the employees did! See below for how this revolutionary new way of thinking is possible. Also if you are not a cartoonish plutocrat with a top hat, please do not read this post.

Background:

Running a business is expensive, and employee wages are usually a huge fraction of total costs (see Figure 1).

However, these jobs can’t always be eliminated: many jobs still REQUIRE a human employee, and jobs that require an on-site presence can’t be outsourced.

guy-regular

Fig. 1: This employee has to be on-site to operate the poorly-drawn green rectangles in front of him. He costs 8 of these nebulous “currency units” each day.

Proposal:

Some jobs require an on-site presence and are difficult to outsource, but perhaps we just weren’t thinking hard enough!

In this proposal, a difficult-to-automate on-site task can still be solved by a human operator, except the operator is living far away (in a cheaper cost-of-living country).

The remote operator then performs the difficult-to-automate task using a virtual reality interface (Figure 2) that controls an on-site robot*.

[*] More properly, but verbosely, referred to as a “remote manipulator.”

robot

Fig. 2: Employee (b) in a low-wage country uses the virtual reality / telepresence gloves (c) which are connected to computer (d) and Internet-connected antenna (e) to send a signal (f) to the far-away robot (g) in the high-wage country. Now the guy from Figure 1 can be fired and replaced by Figure 2 guy plus Figure 2 robot (which costs two “$” per day in ongoing maintenance costs). Even with this new robot-maintenance expense, the system is much cheaper than the traditional one in Figure 1.

Conclusion:

Now you can fire all your local employees and replace them with remotely-operated robot arms operated by underpaid foreign laborers.

PROS: Reduces operation costs for your company. The employees can retrain and… go do whatever jobs are left for humans, like writing operas.

CON #1: Maybe it shouldn’t be called a “robot” since it’s not autonomous? Apparently you can call this system a “remote manipulator” or “waldo” or “telefactor,” but those haven’t really entered the popular lexicon (yet).

 

CON #2: You might say “hey, if these robots are operated by citizens of a foreign nation and replace all the industrial capacity of my own country, what prevents that country from just deciding, one day, to take all the robots over, seizing my factory in some sort of cyberpunk-flavored Russian Revolution?” Unfortunately, the solution to that is rather long, and there is insufficient space to write it here.

Are you hunched over your laptop while you give a presentation? Save both your posture and your presentation with this one incredible eco-friendly tip.

Background:

When giving a presentation on a large screen, there are two popular options for calling attention to specific areas of a slide deck:

  1. Physically gesture at the screen (or use a laser pointer, as seen in Figure 1).
  2. Use the laptop trackpad to move the mouse pointer / arrow around.

The issue:

The trackpad method—which requires the presenter to hover around their laptop—usually makes for a less engaging presentation, but it’s the only option for a presentation that requires real-time interaction.

So far, there’s been no way to combine the best of both worlds: 1) the direct-pointing of the laser pointer and 2) the ability to affect the on-screen user interface elements.

 

laser-remote

Fig. 1: Presentation remotes often consist of a slide advance button, a “back” button, and a laser pointer. Some of them also have a gyroscopic mouse, but this feature usually controls awkwardly at best.

Proposal:

Until now, that is!

In this proposal, the presentation remote (and laser pointer) will allow the user to point the laser at an element on the screen (say, a “play video” button), click a button on the remote, and have the on-screen element respond (in this case, playing the video).

The system works as follows:

  • The presentation remote is paired to the presenter’s laptop already, in order to allow the slide advance button to work. This is a normal feature of all presentation remotes.
  • The remote also gets a “reference” image of what’s on the laptop screen at the exact moment. This doesn’t have to be high-resolution; the remote just has to know generally what the screen looks like, updated a few times per second.
  • The remote also also contains a camera, so it can see what its laser pointer is pointing at.
  • So when the presenter points a laser at the large presentation screen, the remote now knows exactly what element the laser is hitting, since it can compare the camera image to the reference image of what’s on the laptop.

This allows the user to essentially turn the presentation screen into a giant touchscreen.

For a touch-aware operating system (e.g. iOS, Android, or Microsoft Windows), this would require no additional software support beyond sending a simulated touch event at the laser-pointer-pointed-at location.

laser-pointer-touchscreen

Fig. 2: The remote has a camera in it, so it can compare what it’s pointing at to the “reference” image from the presenter’s laptop: if the images mostly match, the remote can figure out exactly what the laser pointer is pointing at.

Conclusion:

If you thought it was TOO EASY to set up a presentation these days, this new and complex system will guarantee at least 15 minutes of “wait… hang on, I think I’ve got it working…. no, huh. Is it input 1, or input 2?” at the beginning of every presentation.

PROS: Prevents deforestation by reducing the number of wooden presentation pointers that will be manufactured.

CONS: May reduce deforestation so much that plants grow rampantly across the globe, killing all animal life and depleting the atmosphere of carbon dioxide. All because you couldn’t be bothered to walk over to your laptop to move the mouse!!!

Solve your conference call woes with this one insane tip! Never lean your head weirdly in front of a laptop camera again. FINALLY.

The issue:

During a conference call, it can be difficult to position multiple people in such a way that everyone is actually in-frame.

Usually, either:

  1. Only one person fits into the frame, or:
  2. Everyone is extremely far from the camera, so 95% of the screen area is taken up by a conference table.

Figure 1 illustrates this common scenario.

conference-call-1-without-prism.png

Fig. 1: When multiple people are sharing a laptop during a conference call, usually the video looks like the example on right, where only one person is actually fully visible.

Proposal:

An inexpensive prism can fix this problem once and for all (Figure 2). A prism can be placed directly in front of the camera to split the image into multiple horizontally-spaced parts.

Now everyone can participate in the conference call without needing to move the camera around!

conference-call-2-with-prism

Fig. 2: The prism attachment makes it easy to fit everyone into frame. The prism could attach to the camera by means of either a magnetic clip or some sort of suction cup (probably the best solution for laptop screens).

PROS: Encourages conference call participation by people other than whoever happens to be directly in front of the camera.

CONS: Might result in an unflattering “fun house mirror” effect in the final image. (Although this could be fixed in software, or by a more complicated prism setup.)