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Southwest gets it (mostly) right for in-flight entertainment

Southwest recently announced a very different approach to providing in-flight entertainment. Partnering with dish network they will offer live TV and on-demand programming over the in-plane WIFI to people’s personal devices. Sadly, for now, it’s just Apple devices. I will presume they will extend this to other platforms, including laptops, soon, and they should consider also allowing you to rent a tablet one-way if you don’t have your own.

Everywhere else, we see airlines putting in “fancy” and expensive in-flight entertainment systems. In coach they use small screens in the headrests, and business class and 1st class seats have fairly large displays. I’ve tried a number of these, and uniformly, in spite of all the money, they suck compared to just having pre-loaded video on your own tablet, laptop or DVD player. Even your phone with its small screen is better. Why?

  • Almost every one of the systems I’ve seen has been badly written and underpowered, resulting in atrociously slow response time and poor UI
  • The ones that charge you sit there all flight advertising to you if you don’t pay. Clever people can figure out how to turn off the screen, but it doesn’t matter, because most of the other screens are this very distracting synchronized spam video. Worse, during boarding, they turn up the audio on this ad.
  • They pause your video for every little announcement, including non-safety announcements, spam to shop duty free or join the FF club, and translations of announcements into other languages. I can almost accept doing this for safety announcements (I would rather take a safety quiz online or at my seat and be free from the routine ones) but if you start your movie before take-off (which is a nice thing to do) you will be interrupted literally dozens of times.
  • The video, game and music selections are often quite lame compared to what you can get in any online store for your phone or tablet
  • The live TV has advertising in it, and you can’t FF or get up for a snack like at home. Unless its news or sports, why watch live?
  • There is often a surprisingly large box under the seat in every seat cluster for the in-flight computer. That takes away foot room and storage space and adds weight to the plane. Plus, why are the boxes so large — consider these devices seem to have far less power than a typical tablet?
  • If they have a touchscreen, the guy behind you is always pushing on the back of your seat. Otherwise they have a fairly hard to use hand remote (and for unknown reasons, long latency on button pushes.)
  • Disturbingly, movies are often played in the wrong aspect ratio on these screens, and you can’t do anything about it but watch fat characters.
  • The small screen ones tend to be fairly low resolution, mostly because they are older. Your phone or tablet is usually not that old and has HD resolution.

That’s a pretty astonishing list of failings. Your own tablet has one main downside — they force you to shut it off on takeoff and landing, for no good reason since tests all show a tablet does not interfere with the plane. It also may have battery limitations, though those are fixed with a USB charge port in the seatback. You do need to bring a stand for it, it would be nice if there were something on the seatback to mount your tablet. You would need an app to do plane-related stuff like the moving map or safety training.

What’s amazing is that all the other airlines have paid a lot of money to install these bad systems, and more to the point carry the weight of them everywhere. This is the classic battle between custom technology, which gets obsolete very quickly, and consumer technology like phones and tablets which are generic but replaced frequently so always modern. The consumer tech will always win, but people don’t realize that.

At first, they might have worried that they needed to provide a screen for everybody. This could easily have been solved with rentals, both out in the terminal and to a lesser extent on-board. Especially if you put in power jacks so recharge is not an issue.

Today the airlines would all be wise to tear out their systems and follow Southwest. I don’t care about the Dish Network streaming that much, but better (and more popular) would be on-board servers which offer a local version of the Google Play store and iTunes store containing the most popular movies and new releases. I venture those companies would be OK with providing that if allowed, and if not, somebody else would.

As a side note, let me say that it would be nice if the online movie stores offered a form of rental more amenable to flying. Most offer a 24 hour rental, which starts when you start playing (so you can download in advance.) However, they don’t offer the ability to start a movie on your flight out and finish it on your flight back. So you dare not start a rental movie unless you are sure you are going to finish it on the flight. Another case where the DRM doesn’t really match what people want to do. (I don’t want to “buy” the movie just to finish it later.)

I will admit one nice feature of the rental is that if I am on a flight, I can watch a movie, and that activates the same 24 hour rental period at home, so those at home can watch it there too. That way, if there is a movie we all wanted to see, we can all see it — if those at home are willing to watch it that particular day.

Vislab does successful test on real streets

A nice result for Vislab of Parma, Italy. They have completed a trial run on public roads using their mostly vision-based driving system. You can see a report on the Vislab site for full details. The run included urban, rural and highway streets. While the press release tries to make a big point that they did this with a vacant driver’s seat, the video shows a safety driver in that seat at all times, so it’s not clear how the test was done. They indicate that the passenger had an emergency brake, and a chase car had a remote shutoff as well.

The Vislab car uses a LIDAR for forward obstacle detection, but their main thrust is the use of cameras. An FPGA-based stereo system is able to build point clouds from the two cameras. Driving appears to have been done in noonday sunlight. (This is easy in terms of seeing things but hard in terms of the harsh shadows.)

The article puts a focus on how the cameras are cheaper and less obtrusive. I continue to believe that is not particularly interesting — lasers will get cheaper and smaller, and what people want here is the best technology in the early adopter stages, not the cheapest. In addition, they will want it to look unusual. Cheaper and hidden are good goals once the cars have been deployed for 5-10 years.

This does not diminish the milestone of their success, making the drive with this sensor set and in these conditions.

RAID, backyard backup and the future of backup

Had my second RAID failure last week. In the end, things were OK but the reality is that many RAID implementations are much more fragile than they should be. Write failures on a drive caused the system to hang. Hard reset caused the RAID to be marked dirty, which mean it would not boot until falsely marked clean (and a few other hoops,) leaving it with some minor filesystem damage that was reparable. Still, I believe that a proper RAID-like system should have as its maxim that the user is never worse off because they built a RAID than if they had not done so. This is not true today, both due to fragility of systems, and the issues I have outlined before with deliberately replacing a disk in a RAID, where it does not make use of the still-good but aging old disk when rebuilding the replacement.

A few years ago I outlined a plan for disks to come as two-packs for easy, automatic RAID because disks are so cheap that everybody should be doing it. The two-pack would have two SATA ports on it, but if you only plugged in one, it would look like a single disk, and be a RAID-1 inside. If you gave it a special command, it could look like other things, including a RAID-0, or two drives, or a JBOD concatenation. If you plugged into the second port it would look like two disks, with the RAID done elsewhere.

I still want this, but RAID is not enough. It doesn’t save you from file deletion, or destruction of the entire system. The obvious future trend is network backup, which is both backup and offsite. The continuing issue with network backup is that some people (most notably photographers and videographers) generate huge amounts of data. I can come back from a weekend with 16gb of new photos, and that’s a long slog over DSL with limited upstream for network backup. To work well, network backup also needs to understand all databases, as a common database file might be gigabytes and change every time there is a minor update to a database record. (Some block-level incrementalism can work here if the database is not directly understood.)

Network backup is also something that should be automatic. There are already peer-to-peer network backups, that make use of the disks of friends or strangers (encrypted of course) but it would be nice if this could “just happen” when any freshly installed computer unless you turn it off. The user must keep the key stored somewhere safe, which is not zero-UI, though if all they want is to handle file-deletion and rollback they can get away without it.

Another option that might be interesting would be the outdoor NAS. Many people now like to use NAS boxes over gigabit networks. This is not as fast as SATA with a flash drive, or RAID, or even modern spinning disk, but it’s fast enough for many applications.

An interesting approach would be a NAS designed to be placed outdoors, away from the house, such as in the back corner of a yard, so that it would survive a fire or earthquake. The box would be waterproof and modestly fireproof, but ideally it is located somewhere a fire is unlikely to reach. It could either be powered by power-over-ethernet or could have its own power and even use WIFI (in which case it is only suitable for backup, not as a live NAS.)

This semi-offsite backup would be fast and cheap (network storage tends to be much more expensive than local drives.) It would be encrypted, of course, so that nobody can steal your data. Encryption would be done in the clients, not the NAS, so even somebody who taps the outside wire would get nothing.

This semi-offsite backup could be used in combination with network backup. Large files and new files would be immediately sent to the backyard backup. The most important files could then go to network backup, or all of them, just much more slowly.

A backyard backup could also be shared by neighbours, especially on wifi, which might make it quite cost effective. Due to encryption, nobody could access their neighbour’s data.

If neighbours are going to cooperate, this can also be built by just sharing servers or NAS boxes in 2 or more houses. This provides decent protection and avoids having to be outside, but there is the risk that some fires burn down multiple houses depending on the configuration.

A backyard backup would be so fast that many would reverse what I said above, and have no need for RAID. Files would be mirrored to the backyard backup within seconds or minutes. RAID would only be needed for those who need to have systems that won’t even burp in a disk failure (which is a rare need in the home) or which must not lose even a few minutes of data.

Report from TRB's workshop on automated road vehicles -- down with the NHTSA levels

This week I attended the Transportation Research Board Workshop on Automated Road Vehicles which has an academic focus but still has lots of industry-related topics. TRB’s main goal is to figure out what various academics should be researching or getting grants for, but this has become the “other” conference on robocars. Here are my notes from it.

Bryant Walker Smith told of an interesting court case in Ontario, where a truck driver sued over the speed limiter put in his truck and the court ruled that the enforced speed limiter was a violation of fundamental rights of choice. One wonders if a similar ruling would occur in the USA. I have an article pending on what the speed limit should be for robocars with some interesting math.

Cliff Nass expressed skepticism over the ability to have easy handover from self-driving to human driving. This transfer is a “valence transfer” and if the person is watching a movie in a tense scene that makes her sad or angry, she will begin driving with that emotional state. More than one legal scholar felt that quickly passing control to a human in an urgent situation would not absolve the system of any liability under the law, and it could be a dangerous thing. Nass is still optimistic — he notes that in spite of often expressed fears, no whole field has been destroyed because it caused a single fatality.

There were reports on efforts in Europe and Japan. In both cases, government involvement is quite high, with large budgets. On the other hand, this seems to have led in most cases to more impractical research that suggests vehicles are 1-2 decades away.

Volkswagen described a couple of interesting projects. One was the eT! — a small van that would follow a postman around as he did his rounds. The van had the mail, and the postman did not drive it but rather had it follow him so he could go and get new stacks of mail to deliver. I want one of those in the airport to have my luggage follow me around.

VW has plans for a “traffic jam pilot” which is more than the traffic jam assist products we’ve seen. This product would truly self-drive at low speeds in highway traffic jams, allowing the user to not pay attention to the road, and thus get work done. In this case, the car would give 10 seconds warning that the driver must take control again. VW eventually wants to have a full vehicle which gives you a 10 minute warning but that’s some distance away.  read more »

Vislab to move to urban streets

The Vislab team from Parma, Italy, which you may remember did the intermittently autonomous drive from Italy to Shanghai a couple of years ago is back with a new vehicle, dubbed BRAiVE which tomorrow begins testing on real urban streets.

The difference is this car is mostly based on vision systems, the specialty of Vislab. You can see a photo gallery of the car but it deliberately does not look particularly different. You can see a few low profile sensors. They claim the car uses “mostly cameras” so it’s not clear if there is still a LIDAR on the vehicle or it’s just cameras and radar. The cars to Shanghai used an array of both cameras and single plane LIDARs. It is said that the sensors are “low cost” though an exact list is not given.

This will be an interesting experiment. Previous vision based systems have not proven adequate for urban driving. They have been able to do it but not reliably enough to trust people’s lives to it. Cameras remain attractive for their low cost and other reasons outlined in my recent article on LIDAR vs. cameras.

The sensors on this vehicle are not that obvious. There remain two schools of thought on this. One believes that a significant change in the car form factor with obvious sensors will be a turn-off for buyers. Others think buyers, especially early adopters, will actually consider unusual looking sensors a huge plus, wanting the car to stand out. I’m in the latter camp, and think the Prius is evidence of this. Its unusual shape outsells all other hybrids combined, even the more ordinary looking Camry hybrid, where the Camry is the best selling car there is. However, there will be markets for both designs.

It will be interesting to see the results of this research, and what rates of accuracy they gain for their vision system. Lots of competing approaches is good for everybody.

Rideshare in a transit strike

BART, one of the SF Bay Area’s transit systems, is on strike today, and people are scrambling for alternatives. The various new car-based transportation companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are all trying to bump their service to help with the demand, but in the future I think there will be a much bigger opportunity for these companies.

The average car has 1.47 people in it, and the number is less on urban commutes. Since most cars hold 4-5 people, the packed roads have a huge amount of excess capacity in empty seats. While Lyft and Sidecar call themselves ridesharing companies, they are really clever hacks at providing taxi service. Lyft’s original product, Zimride, is more ridesharing but aimed at the long-distance market. Many companies have tried to coordinate true ridesharing for commuters and people in a city, but with only limited success.

A transit strike offers an interesting opportunity. Without commenting on the merits of the sides in the strike, the reality is that we can do much better with the empty seat resource than we do, and a transit strike can prompt that.

Of course, the strike is already naturally increasing carpooling, and casual carpooling (also known as slugging) also gets a large boost. In the Bay Area, things are complicated because BART is the main alternative to the Bay Bridge, and that bridge is going to get very heavily loaded. Ferry service is increasing but it’s still a 25 minute trip every 45 minutes from the various Ferry docks. The bridge and highways are increasing incentives for HOV-3+ carpools.

Casual carpooling tends to only get you to a rough area near your destination. In this case that may be OK, as other transit is still running, only BART is out. At the semi-official casual carpool stations, there are signed waiting places that get long lines for all the general destinations. You take what you can get, and it’s also efficient in moving cars in and out.

Computer assisted carpooling could schedule people together who are both starting and ending their trip fairly close together, for maximum convenience and efficiency. If the trip starts at people’s houses, or some common point, you don’t have the casual carpool concentration issue. If you start from stops of the transit lines which are running, you still have a problem.

Because of the load on the bridge, the ferry seems attractive, though there you have a chokepoint, particularly in picking up people from the boat. To do that, you would need a parking lot with numbered spaces. People allocated to a car because of a common destination would be given a spot number, and walk to the car there as they get off the ferry. A simple curb (which suffices for casual carpools) would not be enough.

Companies like Lyft and Sidecar make use of people who want to become part-time taxi drivers. While they pretend (for legal reasons) that they are people who were “already going that way” who take along others for a donation, that fiction could become reality in a transit strike. Most carpoolers would probably take along extras for no money, or gas money, especially when they gain a special carpool lane or toll saving as they do on the Bay Bridge. There would also be value in Jitney service, where a “professional” driver (who is just driving for the money, officially or not) takes 3-4 passengers along the common route, and they all pay a reasonable share.

Within a city, that share could be competitive, even with the subsidized cost of transit, which tends to be close to $2/ride. Taxi fares are $2.50/mile plus a flag drop, which means a trip of 3-4 miles could be competitive if split among 4 people, and not that bad (considering the higher level of service) even on trips that are twice as long. (The Bay Bridge is 10 miles long so taxi fares will have a hard time competing with even the higher BART fare.)

Jitney service (shared door to door or on-demand fixed route) is quite popular outside the USA, and indeed there are many cities with active private transit systems and jitney systems. But most Americans are not interest in the inconvenience of going slightly out of their way to deal with the needs of other passengers, and so attempts at such rideshare here don’t rule the world. It’s probably too late for this strike, but the next transit strike might end up demonstrating there are other systems aside from transit that are efficient and cost-effective.

The interface would not be too different from existing systems, except people would specify how much inconvenience they would tolerate from having others in the vehicle and going out of their way, in exchange for savings.

When it comes to robocars, this might happen as well, and it could even happen with vans to provide a very effective shared system that still offers door-to-door. Robocars also offer the potential for mixed-mode vanpool trips. In such a trip, a single person robocar takes you to a parking lot, where 12 other people all arrive within the same minute and you call get into a van. The van does the bulk of the trip, and stops near your set of destinations in a parking lot where a set of small single-person robocars sit waiting to take people the last mile. This highly efficient mode should be able to beat any existing transit because of its flexibility and door-to-door service. The vans offer the ability to be luxury vans, with business class seats with privacy screens, so that upscale transit is also possible.