Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Video game controllers

This is a very funny article, and it also points out a number of holes in current video games: A Gamers' Manifesto. Basically you can see that it is a long SadTech rant about video games. The lack of real AI is sad, and it does not sound like it is going to get much better in the future. The under-use of the hard drive and the long load times are sad. And so on.

But he leaves out one essential part of all of today's video games -- the game controller. What could be sadder than that? You want to walk forward in a video game, so what do you do? You use your thumb! Want to aim your gun? You use your thumb. Want to look over your shoulder? You use your thumb. Want to jump? Thumb. Crouch? Thumb. And so on.

There are over 600 different muscles in your body to control things like your arms, your legs, your fingers and your facial expressions. Your brain can control all of those muscle groups in most cases unconsciously and usually all in parallel. But in a video game, you don't get to control 600 muscle groups in your character in a natural way. Instead, nearly everything is routed through your thumbs to the character, meaning that every video game is an incredibly limiting experience.

The limitations imposed on us by today's video games are most obvious if you simply think about your normal life. In real life you walk into a room and visually scan it by moving both your head and your eyeballs. To do that you unconsciously use dozens of precise muscle groups. And you can do that scanning while you walk forward, talk to a friend, make facial expressions appropriate to the conversation, process the facial expressions that your friend is making and you can be carrying something in your hands as well. You are using all of your muscles at once.

In a video game, there is no possible way to visually scan the room with the fluidity you do in real life (because you have to do the scanning with one thumb rather than a dozen precise muscle groups). You cannot talk. You cannot make facial expressions. You cannot see facial expressions. You can carry something in your hand, sort of, but you cannot feel it or manipulate it in any way. Today's video games are just pathetic when you compare them to real life.

Video games are going to be one of the main accelerators for technologies like Vertebrane and the body-free lifestyle. People want to be IMMERSED in video games. They want to live inside of them, using all 600 muscle groups and receiving input from all human sensors (not just vision, smell, taste, touch and sound, but also things like muscle position, balance, pain and pleasure). Vertebrane, by taking over all sensory inputs and muscle control, makes that possible. The fully-immersive video game experience, and the ability/desire to fully interact in artificial game environments and scenarios, will drive people to install Vertebrane-like systems.

Vertebrane will be the ultimate video game controller. It will allow you to disconnect from your physical body and connect to a virtual in-game body that is better than your own. By 2050, this will be the norm.


Saturday, May 21, 2005

Cars and roads

If you look at SadTech posts like the ones on farming or cash or locks and keys, you can easily see why these technologies are about to be replaced by something new. The problem is that these technologies each have a huge list of disadvantages. For example, farming as we know it today has big problems with the weather, seasonality of crops, insects, weeds, pollination and so on. As soon as we can produce food in factories rather than producing it out in open fields, the elimination of traditional farming will happen almost instantaneously.

And so it is with the cars and roads that we use for most of our personal transportation today. There are so many disadvantages and costs with the way we do it today that we will abandon our current system at some point.

Here are some of the biggest problem with cars:
  • Cars are expensive. The average new car costs about $22,000 today, and it loses about half of its value in three to four years. In other words, it costs you about $10 per day to own a car.
  • About 95% of the time, however, that $10/day car is sitting idle. It is either sitting in your garage or it is sitting in a parking lot doing nothing.
  • The space where your car is sitting idle costs money. You see this most clearly at the airport, where you pay $10 a day for your $10/day car to sit idle. But any parking place costs money and we pay for it through higher prices for homes and higher prices for things we buy.
  • Cars as they are implemented today are a huge source of greenhouse gases.
  • Something like 40,000 people per year die in car accidents,
  • Driving as we know it today wastes a gigantic amount of time.
  • Cars break down and have to be repaired
  • New items like tires, hoses, belts, oil, batteries, etc. are expensive.
  • And so on.
Then you look at the road system that we have today and you see something similar:
  • Roads as we implement them today are incredibly expensive. In rural areas, an Interstate highway costs something like $5 million/mile to build, or roughly $1 million/mile/lane. In urban areas the costs can skyrocket (as best demonstrated by the "big dig" in Boston).
  • Roads take years -- sometimes decades -- to build.
  • Because they are so expensive, we never seem to have enough roads and traffic is a huge problem in every city.
  • Roads and bridges are expensive to repair and replace.
  • And so on.
Clearly today's situation is sad -- this is a system begging for a "better solution."

Anyone who has ever been to Disney World and looked at the monorail system knows that there is a possible replacement to roads sitting right before us. The monorail at Disney rides on a single, simple concrete beam that is suspended in the air every 100 feet or so by a concrete pillar. Compared to an Interstate highway, monorail track is unbelievably inexpensive -- perhps 1/100th of the cost.

There are a number of systems in various stages of development that all look at the current transportation system that we use today and try to come up with something better. They all work on approximately the same model. Here are three of them.

SkyWeb Express:

The opening sentence on the web site is: "Taxi 2000 Corporation introduces SkyWeb Express, a system that will be faster, safer, more flexible and less expensive than any other mode of transportation." There's a nice video explaining the system architecture and its advantages at the bottom of the home page.


It's opening sentence is: "SkyTran is non-stop, 100 mph personal transit that can totally eliminate commuter congestion in any city, for the same costs of one linear line of light rail."

Here in the RTP area where I live, we have been hearing for years about a light rail system that will install something like 35 miles of track and 16 or so stations for $725 million. Therefore, this sentence on the SkyTran web site is of interest: "People are still being conned into voting yes to be taxed to have archaic, hideously poor performing light rail systems built. Time to properly utilize the microprocessors, sensors and controllers that didn't exist in 1950 to cut costs and move people fast anywhere in a city."

The site goes on:
    In many cities all over the USA, the bureaucrats are trying to get the area residents to vote to tax themselves an additional billions of dollars to build Light Rail systems. All of these systems would consume millions in studies before construction would begin. When eventually completed in typically 6 to 10 years, the bureaucrats typically claim Light Rail will carry 30,000 to 60,000 people per day. (They never mention that auto traffic will have grown by 10 times those daily amounts in the same period of time.)

    Phoenix, Arizona is an interesting example. They want to build a 35 mile Light Rail system at a cost of $1.35 billion ($38.6 million dollars per mile). If the average trip in Phoenix was 10 miles long this would represent 600,000 passenger miles per day. This number is 2.4% of the current (not the year 2010) Greater Phoenix Area's daily commuter traffic of 25 million passenger miles (600,000/25,000,000 = 2.4%).

    Newspaper articles brag that even with stops every mile that the Light Rail would average "almost 20" miles per hour (17 mph in reality). This is barely a healthy bicyclist's cruise speed. Definitely not something to brag about.

    Sounds pretty useless, doesn't it? Can we use our brains to come up with a simpler, much lower cost, faster system?
SkyTran is the result of that thinking. Read the whole thing


The ULTra web site says: "A personal automatic taxi providing on demand driverless travel - using its own guideway network. Effective, low cost and sustainable transport for cities, airports and special applications worldwide." It's max speed is 25 MPH, so SkyTran (at 100 MPH) seems more interesting in larger cities where it is 30 miles or more from one side to the other.

In all three of these systems, the roadway is far less expensive and usually suspended. The idea of "owning a vehicle that is idle 95% of the time" is no longer necessary. In a fully implemented system, parking lots are not needed at places like airports, shopping centers or homes, freeing up huge amounts of land and capital. And so on.

Now the big questions -- Are Americans so tied to their cars that they are inseparable? Can we standardize "cars" and track systems so we can gain economies of scale? Can we build these systems with enough flexibility to do everything the current road systems do? Can we actually make a decision as a nation to start developing a new system? Can we overcome all of the inertia of the current system to create something significantly better in terms of cost and expandability?

If the new system costs a tenth as much as the current system and has a number of other advantages, it may be possible.

Either that, or we may totally transcend the need for personal transportation and transportation systems with technologies like Vertebrane and the body-free lifestyle -- cars and roads become completely irrelevant in that case.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Hypodermic needles

We all know that, especially as kids, the whole idea of going to the doctor to get stuck with a needle is uncomfortable. One of my kids has to get a shot every day, and it is a problem every day. People simply do not like pain.

So why do we have to get shots? Why can't we take everything as a pill? It is because certain medicines cannot survive the acid in the stomach. Insulin is one of those chemicals. Many vaccines fall into the same category.

Back in the 1960s, there was an attempt to replace needles with pressurized guns -- to force the medicine through the skin with pressure. That was not any better because in many cases it hurt more and left a big welt on the skin.

The same problem arises whenever the doctor wants to take blood. The only way to get the blood right now is with a pin prick (for drops of blood) or a needle (for tubes and bags of blood). The problem also arises when an IV is necessary.

It is possible to imagine several different solutions to the problem:
  • Some sort of permanent injection site -- a little rubberish insert that is permanently grafted into the skin somewhere and that gets used whenever a shot is given. Similarly, there could be a permanent tap on a vein somewhere.

  • Some type of tiny nano-assembly unit permanently embedded in your body as a child (like a pacemaker) -- when medicine is needed, the instructions for assembling the drug are sent into the unit and it assembles/releases the medicine as instructed. The same device could analyse blood internally, providing a wireless readout whenever you need one.

  • Even something as simple as an instantaneous numbing cream would be a big help right now.
Whatever path is chosen, this problem is uncomfortable enough that it seems like it will get solved within the next 10 to 20 years.


Sunday, May 15, 2005

Looking at Star Wars from a SadTech Perspective

With Episode 3 about to come out, I decided to re-watch the existing library of Star Wars films to get myself "Mentally Prepared." I was absolutely amazed at the number of anachronisms in the original Star Wars movie, and wrote them up in Watching Star Wars 28 years later.

I am not talking about the obvious things like "space ships make no noise in a vacuum." People have been talking about stuff like that for decades. What I am talking about are things that would be absolutely impossible in a society this advanced -- things that will be impossible even in our own society in just 20 or 30 years. Things like human soldiers wearing cotton cargo pants with matching shirts into battle, or the fact that the princess has to insert physical media into R2-D2:

Click here to read the article.


Thursday, May 12, 2005

Car settings

So... My wife has a new car, and it has three buttons on the center console that you can program to open and close the garage door. These buttons are called "HomeLink". I would like to program them. So I dig around in the glove compartment and find the owner's manual [note to self -- paper owner's manuals are sad]. Here are the steps that you take to program one of these buttons, according to the manual:
  1. Press and hold the two outer HomeLink buttons, and release only when the indicator light begins to flash (after 20 seconds). Do not hold the buttons for longer than 30 seconds and do not repeat step one to program a second and/or third hand-held transmitter to the remaining two HomeLink buttons. [What, does the car explode if you hold them more than 30 seconds? Does it activate the driver side ejection seat? This little 10-second window is itself sad in many different ways.]

  2. Position the end of your hand-held transmitter 1-3 inches (3-8 cm) [note to self -- the fact that we STILL have two measurement scales is sad...] away from the HomeLink buttons while keeping the indicator light in view.

  3. Simultaneously press and hold both the HomeLink button that you want to train and the hand-held transmitter buttons. Do not release the buttons until step 4 has been completed. [Again, do I risk an explosion?]

    Note: Some gate operators and garage door openers may require you to replace this Programming Step 3 with procedures noted in the "Gate Opener/Canadian Programming" section. [What, gate openers in Canada have different DNA than those in America? It turns out that they do.]

  4. The HomeLink indicator light will flash slowly and then rapidly after HomeLink successfully receives the frequency signal from the hand-held transmitter. Release both buttons after the indicator light changes from slow to rapid flash.

  5. Press and hold the just trained HomeLink button and observe the indicator light. If the indicator light stays on constantly, programming is complete and your device should activate when the HomeLink button is pressed and released.
Now, isn't that intuitive??? There are actually four more steps in the manual that handle cases where these first five steps do not work.

Can it get any worse than this? Perhaps. Let's say that you do not like the car beeping loudly at you when you don't have your seatbelt on. You can actually turn it off. To do that you buckle your seatbelt and turn the ignition key on. Then, within 60 seconds, you turn the ignition switch off and unbuckle the seat belt. Then you turn the ignition switch back on and wait for the seatbelt warning light to turn off. Then, within 60 seconds, you buckle and unbuckle the seat belt at least 3 times, ending with the seat belt buckled. Then you turn the ignition key off, and a single chime sounds to indicate that you have accomplished your goal.

When you think about it, this is quite sad. There should be a way to change the settings on a $30,000 car that do not require you to turn the ignition key on and off, wait for a light to turn off, buckle and unbuckle a seat belt three times and so on. That is so primitive that it boggles the mind... it is just nuts.

I own a cell phone, which was free. I can program the ring tone, the background wallpaper and all sorts of other options using a nice menuing system displayed on a color LCD screen. I could make the argument that this LCD screen is itself crude from a SadTech perspective -- in 5 to 10 years I will simply have a conversation with the phone and tell it what I want it to do, rather than scrolling through menus. But a color LCD screen would be a huge improvement over the current steps required to program the garage door buttons or the seat belt chime.

I also have a little $75 firewall/router for my home network. I program it using a web interface. The router actually has an entire web server built in, and all the options for the router are changed with web pages coming from that server. In the absense of a verbal way to talk to the car to change settings (e.g. -- "Car, would you SHUT THE &*%$ UP about the seat belt already!"), wouldn't it be nice if the car had its own web server, and you simply pulled it up either on an in-car web browser or via the computer in your home? Then, the car could also comminicate with the garage door opener on the home network and make arrangements for the garage door to open whenever the right people are in the car.

The point is this -- the systems we are using today to program garage door openers and the seat belt chimes in our cars are ridiculous. They are incredibly sad given that we are living in the 21st century. As mentioned in the post on locks and keys, the house should simply recognize that you are pulling into the driveway (by talking to the car, which knows who the occupants are) and open the garage door for you.


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The media

A fascinating 8-minute movie: