Design Precognition

I am known to fanboy design firms. Yes, I used fanboy as a verb. Sue me. In any case, the three companies that I most admire, sorted by coolness in descending order are: IDEO, Art. Lebedev Studio, and frog design.

On my bookshelf I had a coffee table book called Frog: Form Follows Emotion, which is sadly, just not very well designed. It does have a lot of design eyecandy, but provides very little information about the design process and philosophy, about the story behind the beautifully designed objects.

The book is already 8 years old, so some of the projects seem dated. It’s still worth a read, especially since it sells for only 65 cents, used, on Amazon.

I was looking through it recently, and found a very interesting picture.

Looks pretty similar to the “table lamp” mac, which itself is pretty dated now, doesn’t it?

Optimus Mini Three Full Review

I once read a book called “The Mouse Driver Chronicles: The True-Life Adventures of Two First-Time Entrepreneurs” about two guys who started their own company with an unorthodox business plan: making a real, physical product and selling it. This happened during the dot com era, when everyone was making money hand over fist with immaterial products: websites, content, synergy and such. At the very most, bits and bytes would overlap with physical world in online stores – you could order something online and get it delivered, but there were very few companies that produced an actual product. Well, there was one place that would send a real dog turd to a recipient of your choice, but they went under and I can’t even find their website. “Brick and Mortar,” a metaphor for physical world (as opposed to online) stores became a pejorative.

So, these two guys embarked on creating a company with a single product: a mouse that is shaped like golf driver and selling it to big novelty stores and catalogs. Very not dot-com. Designing the product was easy: take a golf driver head, slap mouse buttons on it – there it is. Dealing with the manufacturer was a lot more difficult. These days most of electronic products are made in China, and flying there is pretty expensive. You have to deal with the language barrier, timezone shift, and cultural differences, while collaborating on making a physical product. A single miscommunication and a whole batch worth tens of thousands of dollars might be ruined.

This is the reason why so many great product ideas go unrealized. A great example of that is SiliconFilm: a film roll-sized device that would convert your regular SLR into a digital one. Many people would want to buy one, but it’s been a stady winner of Wired’s vaporware awards.

Mousedriver was a simple product: a stock mouse in a slightly different housing. When I’ve heard that Art. Lebedev studio was actually planning to make one an OLED custom input device, Optimus Mini Three, I had my doubts that it would ever become real, but plunked down 100 bucks (a special pre-order price, it’s $160 or so now) and was prepared to get my money back in a year or two. Instead, in less than half a year I got a parcel from Taiwan. Inside was a working Optimus Mini keyboard. A was dumbstruck.

Now, Art. Lebedev Studio is a slightly more serious outfit than the mousedriver guys. It’s a large (about 150 people) design firm lead by a brilliant designer Artemy Lebedev. This guy:

Artemy (aka Tema aka Art.) Lebedev is so notorious in Russian web design scene, that he goes by the moniker “Youknowwho.” The Studio is based in Moscow, with satellite offices in Latvia and Ukraine. Web design is their bread and butter, but lately they’ve been branching out into industrial design. Starting with a funky coffee mug called ColorShift Atmark, they’ve been steadily building their portfolio of actually manufactured objects.

There are only two other design companies that excite me as much, IDEO and Frog Design. Lebedev Studio in my mind is destined to be as great as IDEO. One day I found out that my favorite toothpaste tube(Crest Neat Squeeze) and toothbrush (the “fat” Oral-B one) were both designed by IDEO, as well as many other wonderful things. Good design is very important to me, and Art. Lebedev Studio is finally starting to come out with things that I can buy.

The concept design for a keyboard with buttons containing little OLED screens called Optimus recieved a lot press coverage. Lebedev would be crazy to attempt manufacturing something complicated like that, just as it would have been stupid to attempt to create Apollo spacecraft without building a Redstone rocket first. So Youknowwho decided to do a proof of concept – a three button OLED “keyboard” and called it Optimus Mini Three. As I mentioned before, mine arrived from Taiwan a short time ago.

I opened the box, plugged in the USB cable, installed the software and was up and running in about a minute. USB devices are supposed to be plug and play, but can be very finicky – refuse to be recognized, fail to install drivers, etc. Wasn’t the case with OM3 – the usb communication code is rock solid.

One thing you should know about the organic led screens is that they are extremely hard to photograph. They behave kind of like the old tv screens and computer monitors, having some sort of a refresh scan. Ideally, I would take pictures in a professional light tent with a camera on a tripod taking a lot of pictures with a slow shutter speed. I ended up taking a lot of pictures hand holding the camera with the exposure of 1/13th of a second. My lens has an anti-shake feature and I have very steady hands, but the pictures could be a touch sharper if I used a tripod. There are also problems with moire pattern that shows up in pictures, but is of course not visible to the human eye.

Here I loaded some sample images from the web. They look very crisp live, but even with all the camera artifacts, they look passable photographed. The contrast and resolution is very impressive. Also, the plastic that covers the screens gives off very little glare and does not hold fingerprints well. The only thing that shows up is light-colored specks of dust. I did not even bother wiping down the buttons after pressing them for the most part.

Here’s an example of the silly slot machine game that comes with the software.

Here’s a closeup of a single button. There is a bit of an issue with the pixels right at the top and bottom: they are a bit off.

The memory and processor resource tracking application shows a \little artifact: a small stripe of dead pixels. This seems to be a software issue though: these pixels work in other applets and images, and actually show up in the software preview. In resource monitor mode the software itself takes about 10% of processor time for itself. This can probably improved, but this is not much more than I would expect from any resource monitoring application. Overall the “configurator” software is in a pretty solid beta. It does not crash, but certain features need some work: the Windows Media Player widget keeps scrolling “Winamp” messages, time and weather widget does not change the weather and is hard to read, etc.

I could not resist opening the this thing up. I pried up the non-skid rubber and found two screws. Mr. Lebedev has a habit of leaving funny notes in code comments of most of his websites. I was looking for a message, or the design team’s signature on the inside of the case (like with the original Apple Macintosh), but did not find anything.

The keyboard is not completely silent – when in operation it generates a very faint buzzing sound and the buttons are slightly warm to the touch. I thought that there might a little fan inside, but did not find one.

The keyboard looks like it’s made out of metal, but it’s actually very high quality plastic. To make it more hefty, the designers used two strips of metal as wedges that hold the pcb in place.

I did not take apart the screen assembly, but unlike most electronic devices these days, the mini keyboard seems to have been designed with future service in mind. Replacing the screens is easily within the abilities of do-it-yourselfers. As you can see, the key mechanism is the soft, rather than clicky one. This is a matter of preference, of course, but a click, as a feedback mechanism would be nice.

A lot of message board nerds cry – “unlike the full keyboard it’s useless!” The usefulness of mini three is in the software, of course. Even in it’s present state with one minute of spare time I came up with at least one cool use for it – a three webcam viewer. The picture is worse than the original, but the idea is that the left button shows Mount Fuji (at the moment under the veil of the night), the middle one – the Empire State Building and the right one – a live seahore webcam that lets me know what the weather is at my favorite fishing hole. I haven’t played with the SDK kit that is available yet, but it seems to be super nice. “What can I do with this?” – whine some on digg and reddit message boards. A hacker’s reaction would be different – “what can’t I do with this!”

160 bucks seems like a lot of money for a three button keyboard. I’ll admit, it’s not for everyone. The thing is, people spend a lot more on stupid case modifications and other blinkenlghts. And this well-designed gem of an accessory would be the coolest thing as far as the eye can see in your personal hell of a cubefarm. It’s a little hackable art piece. Practical? Not very. Cool? You bet your squeedly-spootch. Is it a good deal? Well, a much lamer lcd display goes for 80 bucks. A very neat laser keyboard goes for 180. Shiny is expensive.

I have one gripe with the design. The keyboard is made so that it will lie flat. I’d like to have a little wedge, so I’d be able to see it at an angle (I think I’ll make one myself). What I do like, is that the screens are easily rotatable in software, so you can just lay it vertically.

Of course, it’s a bad idea to program Optimus Mini Three to trigger self destruct, as it’s not cat-proof. But I think I’ll program a cat toy sequence in it though. So far the plastic stood up very well to cat claws.

For sticking with this lengthy and rambling post, I’ll let you take a little glimpse in my geeky life. Here’s a snapshot of a part of my table, including my fancy input accessories, for which, as you might have noticed, I have a bit of a weakness.

Behold the Power of eBay!

There are amazing man-made materials out there. Super plastics, super ceramics, super metals. We mostly read about them in science magazines. One of the reasons these awesome materials do not get used as much as they should is because they are expensive or hard to get. But a more important reason is the simple fact that an engineer building a prototype probably missed the news article about the material, or could not get her hands on a sample in time.

iDEO, a design company that I worship has a very cool tradition: keeping a special box with all kinds of crazy material samples in every office. Engineers and designers can borrow pieces just to play with them or to use them in projects.

One of the examples that I know of, is the special rubbery plastic that they used to isolate TIVO‘s hard drive in order to reduce vibrations and sound. My TIVO is very quiet.

Interestingly enough, these days many super materials can be purchased on eBay. Take for instance that aerogel plastic that was recently used to capture some comet dust that will surely bring an end to our civilization. Photos of it look like some crappy Photoshop special effects.

Well, you can have a sample of your own for about 30 bucks.

Or how about Fluorinert? It’s a completely non-conductive liquid made by 3M that Seymore Cray (hey, have you seen this post of mine?) used to immerse his supercomputers in. Yes, you can have your own computer in an aquarium with the help of eBay!

Unfortunately it looks like nobody is selling LN2, so you can’t do this. Or make LN2 ice cream.

I Am Sorry :(

Sadly the Company is no longer in eBook business. On the other hand, because of this you can do much more with your eBook device than ever in terms of creating your own content.

iDEO designed descendants of Softbook (REB1200 and GEB2150) are probably the finest eBook devices that were ever available to consumers. Rocketbook descendants (REB1100 and GEB1150) gave a better bang for the buck, and were marvels of engineering in their own right. And now all you can do is hunt down some of them on eBay.

I am going to write more about hardware eBooks later, but for now enjoy this funny error message from my REB1200.

Are You Proud of Your Workplace?

I like decorated workplaces. And I don’t mean a cube with a swimsuit calendar and “motivational” posters from http://www.motivational-posters-animal-posters-sunset-beach-photos.com/ (that’s a real address too). I don’t like Despair, Inc Demotivators TM, although I wish I came up with that idea myself. It’s a big business, as illustrated by this spooky picture of their warehouse:

What I do like, is when an office has some artifact or artifacts that everybody is extremely proud of. For instance in Boston office of defunct company iXL they had an Aibo dog (the expensive first version), which they’ve got for creating http://www.aibo.com. I worked in New York office of iXl.

A company that I worship, iDEO, has an office which has the ultimate office decoration. Some engineers went to the airplane scrap yard and brought back a huge WWII bomber wing, which they polished and hung above a meeting room.

Art. Lebedev Studio, a company, which I think will become Russia’s iDEO, and which I also worship, has the coolest collection of old technology

Fog Creek Software (yeah, I worship a lot of companies) strives to provide the best working enviroment possible. From their website: ” … That means the nicest work environment we can get. For now, that means an historic brownstone in an exciting Manhattan neighborhood full of caf├ęs, bookstores, ethnic restaurants, movie theatres, and a rather disproportionate number of Persian rug shops. We have a real garden out back, a full kitchen, a pinball machine, and natural light… ” And that is even more amazing than an airplane wing.

Me? Well, I have a small collection of old vacuum tubes (or valves as Brits call them) in my cube. But I think a nice jet fighter’s helmet and a nice jet instrument panel from eBay’s fine selection would be much cooler.

Ok, I am off to install a 120 gig drive (a bargain at $130) in my Tivo. Wish me luck.