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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Do they get to see what I see?

        A few days ago, I was watching Professor Sheena Iyengar's TED talk on "The art of choosing". Something that the camera captured during the video stuck with me for several hours after I saw the video. She was tapping the notes that she prepared for her talk.  Then the hard reality struck me. She was using the Braille script.
      In her talk she referred to a couple of websites. Hours later, I wondered how the visually challenged use the internet. I closed my eyes and tried to use my personal computer. I could not access a single webpage. Then I tried my mobile phone. Given that it has a touch screen tapping the screen did no good while I closed my eyes. I realized that a significant portion of today's technology is based on the visual effects. Is the technology marginalizing a large and important section of end users?
      Out of curiosity, I searched and learned about internet for the visually challenged. The good news is Engineers have always been thinking of ways to make the impossible possible. The most popular one in use for surfing the internet seems to be the screen reading softwares like VoiceOver in OS X and JAWS for Windows. It isn't as simple as it sounds. Imagine how long it would take if we read out loud every word on a webpage!  Wouldn't reading the enormous amount of data on a single webpage take a lot of time? Websites like Facebook have an option in their settings for the voiceover of each webpage. There is an incredible amount of smart work that engineers have put into this to improve the internet experience for the visually impaired. All this is with the personal computers and laptops. How does this work for mobile phones and the apps?
     Braille type is an Andriod App that helps the visually challenged touch the screen in the braille script format. It is a multi-touch technique that allows the user to tap the screen at multiple locations simultaneously and recognizes the letter that was typed. But this is only when the user needs to input something to the mobile phone. How about interpreting the touch screen? How can they figure out where each icon is on the screen? Should they always depend on a sighted person to do this for them? Thankfully the answer is no. There is a lot of effort being put into enabling tactile feedback on touch-screens. There is also a rule called slide -rule that researchers at the University of Washington proposed. The rule recognizes 4 simple gestures like one finger tap, two finger tap, flick and an L -gesture. Each gesture commands the device to perform a specific task.
     These efforts raised hope in me that the technology is becoming friendlier to the visually challenged. There is very clearly a strong continued interest in developing touch screens and better apps to help improve the technology experience for the visually challenged.
     Kudos to all the engineers for their vision and efforts in making technology inclusive! As an Engineer, I feel impelled to be more sensitive and thoughtful in making technology accessible to everyone.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Talking of Technology to my Grandmother

               I visited my grandmother a couple of weeks ago in my hometown Hyderabad in India. She is in her late 70's. I was very happy to see her after approximately a year. She was equally happy to cook yummy food for me :). After we had all the yummies (actually I had most of it :D) we sat down for an absorbing afternoon conversation that stretched itself into late in the evening. I am quiet sure you are wondering as to what  such a conversation offers to future engineers. But it did turn out to be an interesting conversation that got me to realize two very important lessons.
              My grandmother decided to stay alone since my grandfather passed away a few years ago. My parents visit her every now and then to see how things are with her. Given that she stays alone I asked her what her favorite pass time was. I thought she would say "I watch religious shows on TV" or something like" I am on a knitting spree" or even beyond" I plan a tour to temples" which probably are the most common answers one would hear from an Indian grandmother. But to my surprise she is really busy on a huge project. She is working on compiling the work of many ancient scientists, philosophers and religious heads unknown to the world. Are you wondering if she is even educated? She is a post graduate and a poet. So now with all her experience and expertise she is working very strongly towards her goal.
               I got inquisitive about what information she gathered so far. She has been extensively reading for the past several months. She started off with explaining how sages (Rishis) left family and friends and lived in seclusion in forests while working on great scriptures. (At this point I actually felt, well though we might not refer to scientists as sages any longer, that is almost true with great scientists who spend countless hours on research!). Then she told me about how ancient Indian sages envisioned   communication between people staying far off without the use of a gadget. They (and my grandmother while explaining to me) were referring to wireless communication. She told me how ancient sages also thought of a devise that would help human beings watch what was happening a different place in small box like gadget. She was referring to a TV!!! She also talked of some mathematicians how figured out some interesting theories through (what she calls) "meditation". Well, research is all about focus and concentration and that is exactly what meditation is. So I would love to go with the word meditation in place of research :).
                Then came the interesting question after an extravagant explanation of great work in ancient times. She asked me what I was working on! I told her that I work with sensors that communicate wirelessly. She asked me to explain. Then I had to translate it to her to fit her understanding. I reminded her that we humans have panchendriyas i.e 5 senses namely vision, touch, smell, taste and audio. Those devises that artificially sense the environment in one or more perspectives of the panchendriyas are what we call sensors. Then she asked me a couple of questions on cellular technology which came down to electromagnetic theory. I saw her get excited. She said some of these ideas had already been in thought in ancient India.
               The important lessons that I learned from conversing with her are
1. If only we knew the language of the great scientists, ancient science and math is like a gold mine. The more we dig into it the more we learn.   Sometimes this saves a lot of effort. We don't have to rethink what has already been thought of!! This is not just about a quick literature review of a field for the last 20 years. Its more about going back a few centuries. Whatever be the place we come from, we all have ancestors and going back to our roots surely helps us go forward! Because after all if we neglect history, history keeps repeating!!!
2.While I am "researching", I tend to loose an important connection with nature. When I had to use the word panchendriya, it suddenly occurred to me that nature is smarter than we are. Merely imitating the mother "nature" to automate natural processes helps create wonders!!!
               As future engineers we are all definitely excited to fast forward into the future. The best way to get into an automated super fast future is to not only use our natural instincts and intelligence of this age but also make a beautiful re-connection with the past.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Troubleshooting.... Why is it so much fun?!!!

          I am always super excited to start working on new tools and building new stuff. Each time I build or work on something new with all that I know... more often than not it does not work the first time I build it. After the first few naive attempts I used to lose hope. But now.... I learned that troubleshooting  and getting things to work is the most exciting part of the whole building process. So from now on, we will refer to troubleshooting as "fun-hunting".
          The first thing to do in troubleshooting (fun-hunting) is to not lose hope, keep the spirit high and be patient. The next thing to do is to believe that we are definitely capable of making the impossible possible. The third and the most important of all. When in a team, DO NOT DISCLAIM RESPONSIBILITY or find fault with others' work. Because this is just a "fun-hunting" game and not an "ego-clashing" game. These  three things are just psychological. But when it comes to the technicalities of "fun-hunting", there are different ways of doing it and each engineer/technician has his/her own way of attacking the problem. Most of them are skills that are acquired over a period of time that come from experience. 
           But for beginners (which includes me) it requires a careful thought and perfect focus on what we are supposed to do. The first time I had to troubleshoot a model that I built, I was completely lost and felt as if I was searching for a light in a dark universe. The reason being... it is very hard to identify where the "fun" actually began because often the designs are humongous. Well, how should we go about this? For the first time we will definitely need some supervision.  Do not feel embarrassed or guilty of getting into that situation. But from the second time to avoid having to depend on supervision it would be a great idea to do it ourselves. Then we are back at square one. That's okay!!! Everybody has to through this phase. 
          To start with break the system into smaller parts and look at what each of the individual blocks is doing. This seems obvious and natural. But I realized that the "fun" is... these blocks behave perfectly fine individually. The "fun" is they are not compatible with each other!! The key is go back to basics and be patient. 
        When we learn stuff at school we often tend to skip detail because sometimes the focus is just on getting around the tough part and solving what is easier and quicker. But when it comes to making something work that simply does not work. The model or product that you build will force you to dig deeper to make it work. Here the evaluation is not the grade but the product itself that we build. The output of our effort is not any longer a letter or a number... it is real and visible. The world does not care for an awesome design as long as it is not working. The key is to not abandon something that you built. If you abandon it someone else is going to grab the chance to make it work. It's definitely not worth it!  (However, sharing work and experience is definitely worth it :))
        Remember that the history keeps repeating. So the mantra to master the skill of "fun-hunting" is to maintain a log of what we have learnt from a design that did not work. There is never a failed model. There are only teaching or training models. Thats how we learn!! :) Lets all crave for the immense satisfaction that a working model provides!!!!!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Technology from Trash

       I bought a new phone after getting done with my old contract. I now do not even bother where I left my old phone. Then came a new laptop. Then again a new something else which replaced my old something else. I had  (and will have) a bunch of e-things replacing my old e-ones. But very recently I sat back and was thinking about the amount of e-waste I alone was generating. I know I am not the only one!!!! Mobile Devices, laptops, ipods, ipads, gaming devices ..... the list is unending......
        What is the most natural solution to this e-waste? Well, lets sell it to someone who is willing to buy it even after getting to know that it has its share of disadvantages attached to it for being a used one. Then what? Ultimately the device is going to be dead eventually. That is when the actual problem surfaces. That is when the device is an "e-waste". The concern is most of these e-devices have a lot of toxic materials embedded into them which release harmful wastes/pollutants into the environment when handled irresponsibly. In most parts of the world, the current ultimate solution to handling the e-waste is to burn them!!! How unsafe can that get!
       Tons and tons of these "to be e-waste devices" are ending up in the developing parts of the world which are lured by the low priced used devices. However, the disasters that the disposal (burning) of these devices is not just an environment disaster to these nations but to the world in general. A better solution to this problem would be to recycle this e-waste and make a new e device out of it.
     We, as responsible earth citizens need to think of solutions to the e-waste problem in two different directions.
  • Now that we have already accumulated a lot of e-waste, we need to pay immediate attention to supporting the growth of (r)e-cycling industry with proper safety guidelines  in place. 
  • The future products need to use bio-compatible materials during their manufacturing process so that they are bio-degradable.
       There are a few initiatives towards the guidelines pertaining to dealing e-waste which includes the European Waste Electronic and Electric Equipment. India, China and Ghana are few countries that are heavily effected by the e-waste and are working positively and quickly towards supporting the e-cycling industry to fight the environmental disasters that these devices can cause.
       Interestingly, I learned that there are a couple of products that e-cycling has led to which included jewelry from the metal waste that the e-devices produce!! Isn't that super cool!!!! It definitely is a creative thought. There will be several other low end e-devices that are by products of the e-cycling process in future. Recycling e-waste is one of the modern day fastest growing industries. 
          With all this in mind, it is our collective responsibility as Engineers to think of creative and productive ways to deal with e-waste. There are several burgeoning small scale industries thriving on this motto almost in every town around the world. So the next time you have an e-device that is close to being obsolete locate a e-waste collection center closest to you to deposit your stuff there (I will also :) ). 


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Art of Packaging

When I was in my high school, my Math teacher once scolded me for not presenting my solutions in a readable format. The readable format in his definition was to draw margins to the pages and writing the problem definition as it was originally defined. He actually told me short example on how visual effects really make an impact. He asked me a simple question "If you were given two choices regarding your lunch today which would you prefer? The one in an unclean greasy bowl or the one a neat and clean bowl?"Well, the lesson did not stick in my mind even after a long lecture filled with examples on why it is important to present things in a nice and pretty format because I did not lose points for not doing it!!
Later, in my undergraduate studies, once a grader wrote in my Lab report "What is this? Where are the margins, labels etc...?" I still did not bother to learn the lesson because it was not particularly effecting me in any which way. In fact, I honestly did not understand the importance then.
Then again... in my Graduate studies, one of my teachers said "I refuse to read this. This means you have not even proof read the document you sent me." I did... but I did not have an eye for it because my focus was on checking to see if what I wrote had any technical significance at all in the first place as otherwise I assumed I would be terribly embarrassed. Another teacher said "You were clearly in a hurry." These two comments rung an alarm!!!!
After so many of my teachers sometimes including my parents saying the same thing repeatedly, I decided to observe my own attitude while perceiving others work. Interestingly, I almost always have a problem reading (or listening to)others work if it was not presented in an organized fashion. I sometimes get stuck even with typos. Then I finally realized how annoying it is to see carelessly presented work. Not that I really suck at it. It is just that I get really excited when I am done doing things by hand and by the time I need to present it, I am in a rush. And in this super excited state I write e(2j) instead of e^(2j) but still read it as e^(2j) because I think my mind, hands and eyes all think alike which is definitely not very true. 
 All these comments and feedback added a new dimension to my perception of presenting work. I recently read an article in a magazine which was talking about how customer reaction trends have changed just by changing the way a survey on the website has been presented. The focus of the article was on how important it is to use visual effects to impact the customer experience. This opened my eyes....creativity is a necessity when it comes to winning attention.
So friends if you are having the same issue as I do then, from my experience the magical formula for good packaging of work is to have a pinch of patience, a little dose of common sense and a touch of creativity. I am sure I might need to add pinches of several other things as I move on!!!!!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Building smarter and secure homes, offices and structures

           With sensor technology seeping virtually into every walk of today's life, it is now that much more practical and feasible to think of secure and smart buildings.The next generation homes and offices will have the capability of being self sufficient in terms of monitoring their security and reporting threats. They are in fact expected to do a lot more. They will be capable of monitoring their energy consumptions, health status of various appliances and build their own internal networking systems to help energy efficient pervasive computing.
Smart homes
            Smart homes are equipped with smart grids that form a home area network that have greener and cleaner power saving capabilities. Sensor technology plays a key role in sensing and monitoring the use of energy and resources that help in effective use of the energy with reduced wastage and possible storage of energy for future use. Smart homes will also be capable of protecting themselves from burglary. There has been a lot of interesting work going on towards the idea of the ability to localize a source of threat within the building.
Smart offices
          The concept of smart offices has been a topic of heavy commercial interest. Smart offices are envisioned to have the required networking to provide information of the locations of various available devices that would perform a given task. The devices communicate with each other to divide tasks efficiently thereby reducing waiting periods and providing for organized use of resources. This organized use of resources makes it possible to put some of the devices to sleep/reduced power consumption mode whenever necessary. Smart offices have an improved facility to do quick localization of sources of threat (example: find the exact room/cabin where the fire started off). This drastically reducing the amount damage done to the infrastructure. Smart offices have better surveillance and provide for a safer work environments. The energy aware and security aware offices are also rapidly gearing towards providing for easy and context aware indoor navigation.
Smart Structures
             In the 21st century, it is extremely important for structures in public use such as malls, theaters, flyover, bridges etc. to be monitored continuously for possible threats to prevent situations of massive loss of human lives. Sensor technology is playing a key role in bridging the gap between existing means of supervising the health status/possible threat to security of structures and the requirements of the next generation. There is a lot of fascinating work that has been feeding into the idea of locating the exact location of the source of threat or the exact location of a crack in a bridge (for example). It is current hot topic as to how to deploy sensors for the best possible supervising of the structures.
              The so called next generation is not so far away from today. Several of these ideas have already been put to use in many cases and are still in experiment phases in some cases. All the next generation needs is those tomorrow's engineers who can look beyond just catering to the needs of the industry and make the idea of 'green and safe everything' a reality.