Thursday, December 31, 2009

Are you still alive?

Well it's been way too long since my last post and if you've read some of the user comments on previous postings, the last thing I want you to think is that I've somehow been shut down. Nothing could be further from the truth! But I have been very busy.
My wife and I bought a house back in September and it seems that every spare moment in the 6 weeks prior to that and since has been taken up with moving preparations, the actual move, and then renovations. So far we've managed to repaint all the bedrooms but the next job is to remove a wall in the main living area and then remodel the kitchen and lounge area. On top of that we need to remove all the carpets and sand the wooden floor boards back. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.
Our house is in Warriewood which is about half way up the Northern Beaches region of Sydney. It's a great location and we are only about 1km from the beach (around a 10 minute walk). I really want to be well connected with my local community and so on top of all the moving and renovating, I also did the Surf Bronze Medallion qualification which lets me volunteer as a Surf Lifesaver at my local beach - Warriewood SLSC. Hopefully this will also come in handy with some other things I'm involved in such as Surf For Life.
On the professional front, the major landmarks were a trip to the US for a week to discuss some higher level opportunities (still hush hush), an editorial webcast discussing the impact of high level software on embedded design, a webinar discussing how ECAD and MCAD design processes can merge, sponsorship and attendance at FPT'09, and creating a wacky NB3000 based Christmas Light Display.
So as 2009 draws to a close, I can definitely say that it has been a very full year and yes, I am very much alive. There are some very exciting opportunities emerging for 2010 that I hope to share with you soon so stay tuned.
Happy New Year.

Friday, October 2, 2009

You get what you pay for

The other week I was passing one of my local car dealerships and I noticed a car brand that I hadn’t seen before. It was a Chinese manufactured 4x4 and it was listed at about $20K less than a similar 4x4 that I’ve had my eye on for awhile. Of course my initial reaction was it couldn’t be all that good but in spite of that, I took one for a test drive.

To my surprise, I can honestly say that it wasn’t an entirely horrible experience and I was seriously considering my options. There were a few niggling things such as very heavy suspension and a driver’s side mirror that didn’t fold out far enough but overall it felt like a pretty solid vehicle. When I returned it and started talking turkey with the salesman, I asked him about the extra options. I wanted tinted windows, a tub-liner and canopy for the rear tray, and a towbar. As expected, they were all additional options that pushed the price up by about $3000 but hey, you get what you pay for right?

Ok, I agree. For most things you do in fact get what you pay for. But does that also mean that if I want less, I can expect to pay less? Altium Designer is a unified design tool that includes (amongst other things) PCB, FPGA, CAM, Simulation, and Embedded Software development capabilities. So should I expect to pay less if I don’t want the FPGA bits? Or maybe I don’t want the embedded software stuff; can I pay less if I leave that out?

How you respond to this question really depends on your philosophical position. If you think FPGA or Embedded Software is an optional extra, then you’d rightly expect to not have to pay for it if you didn’t want it. But what if it isn’t? What if FPGA and Embedded Software development is a necessary part of sustainable product development? Surely it should always be included as part of the ‘base model’.

Put another way, what if I wanted to buy a Volvo without airbags? Will they sell it cheaper? What if I only want two forward gears, can I remove the top three gears and get a discount? Of course not. The reality is that these features are so much a part of the complete product that it doesn’t make much sense to try to remove them.

In the same vain, Altium views FPGA and Embedded design capabilities as being so fundamental to the future of electronics product development that it makes no sense to treat them as optional extras or ‘delete items’ that you can take off the price. We are all heading towards a future built on smarter products that continue to increase their reliance on functionality defined in the soft realm, and whether today’s customers choose to use these capabilities or not will not change the inevitability of that future.

Maybe you do get what you pay for, but maybe you need more than you realize.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Being free to succeed

As a subscriber to Seth Godin's blog, I was reading a recent post on The reason riding a unicycle is difficult. As it just so happens, I taught myself to ride a unicycle a couple of years ago (some brief footage here) and what Seth mentions about falling is quite true. To ride a unicycle, you actually need to sit up straight and lean forward as if you're about to fall. But to save yourself, you pedal to catch up and before you know it, you're riding. So the key to riding a unicycle is finding that knife edge between falling flat on your face and moving forwards.
A few years ago, some friend's kids came away with us on holidays and I promised them I would teach them to ride. Their names were T. and D. and they were about 6 & 5 respectively. T., being the boy, was right into it and took off like a flash. After barely an hour of running behind him, he was off like a pro. But D. took a bit more work. After the first fall or two, she was ready to give up. It seemed that everytime she got going, she fell off. To her, riding was pain and not something worth pursuing. I could see that I needed to change my approach.
So instead of teaching her to ride, I started teaching her to stop. We did a few practice stops where I held her on the bike and without it moving forwards, I got her to take her foot off the pedals and place it on the ground as the bike fell to the side. Once she mastered that simple skill, integrating it with moving forward was just a matter of practice. After a day, she was up and doing laps alongside her brother. By taking the fear out of the fall, she was suddenly free to succeed.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Avoiding conflict with customer service

With the kids on school holidays and in another city with my parents, it was high time my wife and I got away for a weekend together. We found a hotel/resort online, phoned ahead to make a booking, and leisurely drove down to the NSW south coast.
At the time of making the booking, I had requested a dinner reservation for 7:30pm. When we arrived however, the hotel reception informed us that a reservation had been made for 7pm. Later, when we fronted at the restaurant at 7pm, we were told that the reservation had, in fact, been made for 8pm and that a table would not be available until that time. Slightly inconvenienced, we went back to our rooms with the prospects of our stomachs churning over for another hour. But at 7:30, I received a call from the restaurant to inform me that a table had now become available and we could begin our dining immediately if we so desired.
So in the end, we got the dinner reservation at the time we originally requested but not without some mucking around. I noted all of this on the hotel feedback form when we checked out. The hotel receptionist was very pleasant and smiled warmly as she finalized the invoice. "Did you consume anything from the minibar?, No? Well that's all paid up then. Did you enjoy your stay?"
I hesitated for a moment. Do I tell her that we had been stuffed around by the dinner reservation? Or do I simply return her smile and not mention it?
I chose the latter after convincing myself that I had written all my grievances in the hotel feedback form and that there was no need to make a scene by going over old ground. But as I walked back to my car and drove off, I pondered this interaction.
I've done enough customer service stuff to know that for every 1 person who complains about something, there are at least 10x that many people who have probably felt similarly but have chosen not to say anything for fear of 'making a scene'. So when someone does indicate that their expectations have not been met, it is well worth the effort to resolve things both for them and to ensure the same thing doesn't happen again. But for me, telling the hotel receptionist that I had felt let down by the restaurant booking would have created a position of potential conflict between the two of us and that really wasn't something that I wanted to come between my weekend away with my wife. It was just easier to avoid the conflict altogether and move on.
But in doing this, I had let an opportunity for improvement pass by the hotel.
I started thinking if there was a better question that the receptionist could have asked that would have solicited my feedback without creating a sense of conflict between us. I concluded that a better question might be, "Is there any feedback that you would like me to pass on to management for you?" All of a sudden, the receptionist is no longer my adversary but is now my advocate. My grievance was not between me and her. It was with a faceless hotel reception system that had mucked my dinner plans around. And yes, that IS something that I would like passed onto 'management'.
By asking this slightly better directed question, the receptionist would have created the opportunity for much better feedback without creating a position of confrontation between us. By introducing 'management' as a third party into the discussion, she would invite me into her confidence and create an atmosphere of much better customer service. So while I honestly did enjoy my stay, the hotel is much more likely to receive the valuable feedback it needs through a better framed question.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Avoiding Premature Evaluation

I was recently part of some discussions with company 'NoName' who had been evaluating Altium Designer. They knew a thing or two about FPGAs and so that's where they had headed first. When they found the schematic editor and the library of FPGA-specific components, they figured they understood what Altium Designer was all about and formed the (premature) conclusion that it was just another schematic-based FPGA design system.
When I questioned 'NoName' about their conclusion, they revealed, "We evaluated the design tool in line with how we felt a design tool should work." It's hard to argue with that logic and the reality is that their conclusion wasn't actually wrong - Altium Designer does allow you to do FPGA design using a schematic-based workflow. But it offers so much more than that and it was my job to help them see that.
Given that we all live in such an information rich environment, most of us have developed sophisticated filtering systems that allow us to order the information we we receive each day into nicely contained buckets. This works really well with well-behaved information that conforms with our pre-existing classification system. But what about the other things? How do we handle that?
That depends on whether we think the information is likely to be well-behaved or not. If we think it is well-behaved, then we will probably try to stuff the new information into one of our existing buckets. If we think it isn't well-behaved then we may try to put it into a couple of buckets. And in very rare circumstances, we may even consider making a paradigm shift and changing our entire bucketing strategy.
The problem with paradigm shifts is that we don't always know when we need to make one. Because we spend most of our time packing new information into existing buckets, our brains get very used to that sort of routine. So when something comes along that would warrant a paradigm shift, we may overlook it in our haste to stuff it into a pre-existing bucket.
That is how I would describe 'NoName's' initial reaction to Altium Designer. They thought they knew what they were looking at, they confirmed their ideas through some initial investigations, and once the classification process had concluded, they saw little reason to reconsider their conclusion. But to their credit, 'NoName' proved extremely open-minded and allowed me to discuss Altium Designer further with them. As a result, I was able to show them the features beyond the schematic entry capabilities and the overall exchange of information was quite valuable.
So if you're suffering from premature evaluation too, then maybe its time we talked about it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Best Switch Debounce Routine Ever

Switch debouncing is the process of filtering out the mechanical chatter that comes from switches (and relays) when their contacts touch or release. The duration of the chatter depends on the physical properties of the contacts but can last for as long as several tens of milliseconds. A comprehensive backgrounder to switch debouncing can be found here so I won’t repeat that content here. But I want to share with you an effective software debounce routine that is elegant in its simplicity, efficient and perfectly scalable.

Consider the following ‘bouncy’ signal.

Up until t=3, the input signal is in a low state. At t=3, some EMI induces some spurious noise on the wire that we want to reject. At t=5, the switch is in a bouncy state as a result of being activated. And at t=6 and beyond, the switch is in a stable high state.

The goal of the debounce routine is to reject spurious signals such as those found at t=3 while still reporting a valid transition within a timely fashion. This can be done by taking periodic samples of the signal and reporting an update once several samples agree with one another. The exact number of samples and periodicity will depend on the environment that your application will be used in and the immediacy that you need to report an update.

So let:
A = Current Switch Sample (T=0)
B = Previous Switch Sample (T=-1)
C = Sample taken prior to B (T=-2)
Z = Last reported debounce value
Z’ = New debounce value

If (A = B = C) then
Z’ = A
Z’ = Z

We can create a karnaugh map for Z’ using the inputs A, B, C and Z.

There are a number of benefits to this routine over other routines I've seen:

  1. It works for debouncing an entire input port as well as individual bits.
  2. It doesn’t consume any timer resources other than those required to periodically call the routine.
  3. It can be readily implemented in programmable hardware, and
  4. It is perfectly scalable. So you can expand the number of samples without modifying the basic algorithm. For instance, the equation for debouncing across 4 samples is:
    Z’ = Z(A+B+C+D)+A.B.C.D
    And the equation for sampling across 5 samples would be:
    Z’ = Z(A+B+C+D+E)+A.B.C.D.E

A sample C routine is listed below (please excuse the formatting):
int debounce(int SampleA)
static int SampleB = 0;
static int SampleC = 0;
static int LastDebounceResult = 0;

LastDebounceResult = LastDebounceResult & (SampleA | SampleB | SampleC)
| (SampleA & SampleB & SampleC);
SampleC = SampleB;
SampleB = SampleA;
return LastDebounceResult;

Thursday, April 30, 2009

What is your sense of entitlement?

In my last post I mentioned that Altium have stirred the pot with their new pricing model. Well now they've gone even further with a web-based advirtising campaign and billboard promotion. The text is a little hard to see in the photo so I've included it here:

1,000,000 people overseas can do your job
What makes YOU so special?
Altium. Next generation electronics design solutions.

Not surprisingly, its caused a rise out of more than a few people with one person stating that Altium should sack their ad agency and the foolish executives who approved this indignity. It is certainly a stark departure from the "You're so special" sort of advirtising that we're used to seeing.
But it has got me thinking about the sense of entitlement that we have around our work, our skills and our job. What is at the core of our indignation over someone overseas taking our job?
Karl Faase, a regular "life moments" radio presenter, recently had this to say on one of the local community radio stations:

The present generation has grown up believing that every child needs good self esteem. Every child needs to believe in themselves and their ability. But is there a potential down side to this attitude? Over the past 20 years American children have grown up being told they are special and can achieve anything and now there seems to be a growing gap between American kids’ self esteem and their abilities.
In a study of maths skills tests among students in eight nations, Americans ranked lowest in overall competence and Koreans highest, but when researchers asked the students how good they thought they were, the results were exactly opposite; Americans highest, Koreans lowest.
We need to be realistic about our abilities. As writer Steve Salerno says “In the grand scheme of things, knowing one's limitations may be even more important than knowing one's talents.”

When it comes to designing electronics products, the days are gone when our value was implicit in the degree or qualifications we had earned. We have jobs for the simple reason that we add value to the companies that employ us.  It is an issue of economics and not entitlement. The only defence is continuous innovation.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Altium's new pricing model

I can hardly believe it's been over a month since my last post.
Things are progressing nicely on our target project but it has taken quite a few twists and turns over the past 6 weeks as has the focus of the objective.  I can't say too much at this point 'cause it aint public yet but all will be revealed soon (very exciting!).
Last week we released new pricing for Altium Designer. It's been really interesting to see the user response to it on the forum.  A number of people have reacted to the fact that our huge reduction in price has severly depreciated their purchase. Others have just been happy that Altium tools will be more accessible to the broadest possible range of designers.  Yet others have taken the synical view that it is simply a grab for cash in tough economic times. From the inside though, I can honestly say that I am excited about the pricing decision as I know it will help a lot of struggling engineers and companies out there and it will ensure that price is much less of a barrier.
So let me know what you think.  Is it still too much? Or is it too little - i.e. will the "you get what you pay for" adage work against it?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Fail fast, fail cheap

Often when we try to build something, the very last thing we consider is failure.  But it is actually through our failures that we learn the most and find the path towards true innovation. So rather than avoiding failure, we should focus on sandboxing our thoughts in a way that captures failure early and cheaply.
Let me offer a recent example.  You've heard me talk about the new design that I'm working on for an upcoming training program we are running at Altium.  Well I thought we were going to go ahead with the Natural Disaster Management System but that got canned because we didn't want users to pay several hundred $$$'s in weather measuring equipment in order to replicate the project.
So the new project is a moving light system. Basically it involves mounting a high powered LED onto a pan-tilt head (something like this) and creating a moving light show that can be controlled from a myriad of sources.
According to info I found on the web, driving R/C servo motors is pretty easy.  So I thought getting one to work would be a piece of cake.  In actual fact it was pretty easy but after connecting up the first servo, its range was only about 90 degrees.  I needed at least 180. No problem, tweak the driving circuit a bit and before you know it I had it driving across the full 180.  As it happens, the generic servo drive specs didn't seem to match up with the servos I bought and I had to spread the signal out a bit to get the full range.
So in a word, my first attempt failed, but that's what lead me to the second attempt and a greater understanding of what I am working with.  I now know that I need to leave provision in the application code so that I can calibrate for any servo to ensure I get the full range out.
So fail fast, fail cheap, and move on to the real innovation.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Forget what you know. It is hindering your progress.

Some time ago, I found myself at some sort of big self-help thing that gave the facade of helping you unlock your own potential and find a new state of being, but at $600 for the "introductory" program, it smelt a bit like someone's money-making system. In the end they didn't get my money but I did manage to pick up a bit of free advice. They broke knowledge into three types:
  • The things I know that I know
  • The things I know that I don't know, and
  • The things that I don't know that I don't know.
The things I know that I know are things like my birthday, my parent's names, the approximate speed of sound in air, etc.  The things I know I don't know are things like the exact population of my city, the volume of sydney harbour, the mind of a woman.
Now when it comes to the things that I don't know that I don't know, well I can't give an example for the simple reason that if I could, it would be classified in the one of the previous two categories.  The point of that expensive self-help program was simply that the key to unlocking your potential lies in your ability to be open to the things that you don't know that you don't know.  It kind of messes with the mind a little but if you think about it, it actually makes good sense.

But I have been pondering some of these thoughts in the last day or so and I think I can add a new category to the list:
  • The things I think I know that I really don't know
When it comes to the rapid movement of technology, it is this very thing that hampers our ability to reach for the stars.  Technology is continuously changing the rules.  We think we understand the game and so we start playing it one way. After a little while, we check the scoreboard only to find that we have actually been playing on a field that is far removed from where the real game is at. Why? Because we thought we knew something and so we didn't think that we needed to check it again.

We are living in the so-called information age. Information is available to us like never before in history and is being continuously expanded on at a break neck pace. As a consequence, our brains have developed keen filtering processes that help us partition up information and navigate our way through.  Some things we accept on face value. Other things we examine more closely. But having reached a conclusion about something, we rarely revisit it unless we perceive that some other piece of new information warrants a rethink.
But what if we never receive that new piece of information? What if we continue on our way thinking that we know something when in fact we don't? We are actually in a worse state than absolute ignorance.  We are trapped in an erroneous paradigm with no way to get out and no sense that we are in the wrong place.
To add to the deception, we often build on our conclusions.  So conclusions that we have arrived at in the past will often form the basis of further conclusions that we make today.  But what if our original conclusion is wrong and we don't know it?  All of a sudden the house of cards starts tumbling down.

In the film "The Matrix", Neo is encouraged to free his mind; to not be constrained by what he thinks is real. In the Matrix, there are rules that are meant to be bent, and some which are meant to be broken.  By thinking that we know what we know, we forget to question where our degrees of freedom lie.  Because of what we 'know', we hinder our progress.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The project begins

Well it's been way too long since the last post but I've been flat out. I've been testing a range of new components that we want to use in our project board. The idea is that we prototype each of the various sub-circuits to make sure we don't end up with any surprises when the first proto pcb comes back. So far its proved a very fruitful exercise.
One of the devices I had to check out was a 2W audio amp. Now apart from the poor english in the datasheet (Example: When driving a speaker load suggestion set to the BTL mode for get the more power output.), the application circuit was drawn with the shutdown connection wired ON - i.e. to VCC. So without thinking, that's how I wired up the test circuit. When I got nothing coming out of the amp, I probed a little further, went back and read the data sheet, and realized that ON meant the shutdown was on, not the amplifier was on. Shutdown ON = amplifier OFF!
A quick rewiring of that pin and everything came to life - and quite impressively too. Given the mistake I made, I checked over the circuit that our hardware guy had created and sure enough, he'd been tripped up by it too. So it was well worth doing the quick prototype.
Next job was to test out the quality of some low priced speakers. They were tiny surface mount things and they sounded crap! I'm glad we did that check because it would have been a real let down if we'd gone ahead with them. It forced us to probe a little further and our sourcing guys found some great little beasties for about 70c each. They are 30mm across and use rare earth magnets and boy they can pack a punch. Unfortunately I don't have the specs on them just at the moment but I'll post a link later on.
I checked out a few other components such as an SPI-based Real Time Clock and One-Wire ID chip. Fortunately there were no surprises there but I've got to say, using Altium Designer to do the testing was a real breeze. They already have software drivers for SPI and One-Wire devices so it was pretty easy to get some basic test applications up and running.
So it looks like we are just about set to begin developing our first reference design. We had a brainstorm yesterday and came up with over 50 project ideas. But as we narrowed it down, we didn't want to spend all the time on developing the application. We wanted a project that would let us demonstrate the way to approach building a system without getting bogged down in the detail of developing a complex application. So it looks like the project will be a Natural Disaster Reporting System. The basic idea is that these units can be installed in people's houses and will log weather data back to a central site. In return, that site can send emergency response information back to the units based on immenent danger from fires, hurricane, tsunami etc. It'll give us a chance to show how to interface to a number of IO devices as well as build a nice user interface for the LCD and perform some Ethernet comms. I'm looking forward to building it.
Oh, and as a very topical side note, we drove down to Melbourne last weekend and had to drive through some of the areas affected by the bushfires. We weren't trying to be nosey but you can't help but notice the huge devastation. There are warnings that the weather tomorrow might be pretty bad as well and my mother in-law is going to evacuate just to make sure. No one wants to take any chances after what happened three weeks ago. So maybe our little project might get some people thinking about ways to use technology to better manage people during Natural Disasters.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What would you like to see me design?

It looks like I might have the opportunity to work on some techy projects at work. But the best part is that we don't even know what the projects are going to be yet. At this stage, the goal is just to create some cool stuff. I can't tell you what hardware we'll have to work with yet but you can bet it'll be heavily based on NB2 stuff. So what would you like to see me build? I want ideas. I want suggestions. I want the weirdest, craziest ideas for cool little gadgets and applications that you've always wished someone would build for you.
As an idea, I was hunting around Harvey Norman today for an Ethernet-USB adapter. Basically I want to have a portable hard drive available to my home network but without needing to have any one specific PC on. So the adapter would simply present the portable harddrive to the network so anyone can access. Even better would be the ability to limit certain PCs to certain folders of the hard drive so everyone can have their own storage space. (BTW, I did find one but it was $199 - way too pricey!)
Another idea might be a USB - Hard disk drive adapter so you can use one of those cool Everio hard disk based camcorders and dump the contents to a much bigger portable drive every so often without needing a PC/laptop.
So give me your ideas and let the world know what hot new gadget it needs.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What matters most!

Australia is still gripped by the tragedy of the weekend's fires as the death toll continues to rise. This morning's news reports posted the count at 181 but warned that it may dramatically rise as emergency service personnel gain access back into the areas effected and continue the grizzly task of finding more bodies. Around 20 fires remain out of control and several towns are still on high alert. But the weather has abated to some extent and it looks like the atrocious conditions of the weekend that lead to so many people being caught unaware are behind us.  If nothing else, we certainly won't be underestimating the power of the elements.  One report likened it to a hurricane that rained firey embers and drove flames ahead of it with such ferocity that it could not be outrun. Even families who took refuge in bunkers have been found perished. And in one photograph, the alloy wheels of a car lie like a solidified molten lava flow on the ground.
I've tried a couple of times to blog about topics that were the original purpose of this diary but have found myself unable to focus.  Surrounded by such human tradegies, my ongoing thoughts about technology are inconsequential.  Technology is our servant.  It is our aid to a better life. But when life itself is under threat, the pursuit and accolades of technology must take a back seat as we focus on matters of greater importance.  Hug your children.  Tell your husband or wife that you love them. Be human. Use now as an opportunity to remember what matters most.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Fires rage through Victoria

This morning I woke to the tragic news that over 100 people are now confirmed to have died from bushfires in my home state of Victoria, Australia.  Unfortunately it would appear that the worst news is still yet to come as authorities have only recently been able to get back into the worst effected areas to begin the grizzly task of sifting through the destruction.  So far, over 750 homes have been destroyed with countless loss to property and possessions.
The eyewitness stories that have filtered through all tell a similar tale of personal loss and tragedy, but the common thread that seems to run through all reports is the shear ferocity and speed that the fire raged. For some it was only a matter of 10 - 15 minutes between realizing the fire was heading their way until their homes were totally engulfed.  As a consequence, so many were caught in a panic and confusion trying to escape at the last minute.
One picture which probably hit home the most for me was of the burnt out shells of 5 vehicles that had collided on one of the roads in the path of the fire.  The panic and fear that the occupants of those vehicles must have experienced in their last moments alive must have been horrific. For a moment, as they tried to escape the devastation of the approaching fires, they must have felt optimistic about being able to outrun the flames and flee to safety.  But with thick clouds of black smoke obscuring visibility, it was a near certainty that an accident would occur as so many other people caught in the mayhem struggled to leave at the same time.  
It seems so obvious that panic is the last thing that one wants to find themself in at a time when clear thinking is so vital, but when planning their escape route, drivers would have thought about the roads they were travelling on and imagined them just as they had always seen them - infrequently travelled with plenty of capacity. But as people rushed to leave the scene everything changed. Roads became blocked, visibility obscured and people died. My thoughts and prayers are with all those suffering under this shocking event.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

... and now for the business cards

Yesterday I posted about just how easy it was to buy and set up a custom website in an evening but today I want to tell you about how we created our very own business cards too.  Having the website was one thing but we needed a way to get the word out and point people from the conference to it.
The key here was that it all had to be done superfast!  If we had more time we could have looked at using one of the online business card services such as clickbusinesscards. I've heard a couple of really good reports about their service but for our situation, we didn't have time on our side.
Instead, we opted for a cheeky use of Harvey Norman's photo centre. If you are handy with photo shop or some other image editing software then you can create your own impressive business cards very quickly and easily.
A standard business card is 8.56cm x 5.398cm and you can get 3 into a 6" x 4" photo or 4  into a 5" x 7" photo.  The normal price for 5 x 7's is 59c each but for 6 x 4' s its 25c.  And if you go on a Thursday, the 6 x 4's are only 19c each.  So that means I can get 3 business cards for 19c - i.e. 6.33 cents each. It's not double sided but it is photo quality and actually cheaper per card than clickbusinesscards' 1000 qty deal.
Renee estimated she only needed about 30 business cards to cover the conference so the total investment would be all of $1.90 if she printed it up on Thursday. Can you believe it!  In the end, Renee decided on going for a 6x4 photo sized flyer so she could put more information on it and because the conference is actually today (Thursday) she had to print them up yesterday and  couldn't take advantage of the special. But all up, she got 30 very professional looking cards printed off for $15 yesterday and she went off to the conference this morning brimming with confidence and optimism.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Watch out Web Developers

I recently had an experience with some website creation software that simply amazed me. My wife (Renee) is taking some very deliberate steps to refocus the direction of her career towards Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and she will be attending a conference over the next couple of days. While preparing for this networking opportunity, she decided that it would be a good idea to put a lot of her ideas and knowledge online and then give out business cards that would direct people to her website. But she didn't know how to create a website and, as the technologist of the family, was looking to me to assist her.
The last time we looked into creating a website it was for an online wooden toy business and it cost us several thousand dollars to get a professional web developer to set it all up for us.  I know a thing or two about C/C++ programming and I've dabled in other languages too but I'm a long way from anything when it comes to web programming. And so it was with great fear and trepidation that I set out to create a website in an evening.
We thought about creating a free website using Google Sites but it wouldn't give us our own URL or email and Renee wanted a more professional feel. So she looked into Smartyhost which is the hosting service we have used for a number of our other websites.  She was particularly drawn to  their $40 Website Package which offered your own domain name for a year, 5 page website, email, and hosting. It sounded too good to be true so it's fair to say I was a bit skeptical. But after running through the online demo, I felt confident enough to at least part with my cash and try it out for real.
At about 9:15pm I punched in my credit card details and launched myself into the abyss. I thought all my fears had been realized when, after submitting the payment form, the only feedback I got was that my transaction had been successful.  No information about what the next step should be and I was completely lost as to where to go next.  I quickly checked the email account that I had registered as part of the purchasing process but nothing. I checked again and still nothing.  What next? Patience.  Having done a couple of things like this before, I figured it would probably take a few minutes for the domain to be allocated and the details to come through so I waited a while.  
After maybe 10 minutes, some emails started to trickle in with the information I was after.  They provided me my login details including an auto-generated password, and a link to the site creation software that would guide me through the rest of the process. We picked a page design from the 460+ templates and customized it to our particular taste. Next, choose the names of the 5 pages you want. We selected the standard 'Home' and 'Contact Us' from the list of preconfigured pages but for the 'Links' page and 'CSR Information' page, we just used one of their default containers.
Next was the editing process where we added all the content.  Renee had already written all the information into a Word document so it was simply a case of cut and paste and tweaking the layout here and there.  Renee wanted a picture of herself on one of the pages and so we had to slip that in as well.
Finally we published the page and we were live.  I tried opening another web-browser window and typing in the URL: but to no avail. The domain name was still propagating and I knew that would take at least 24 hours or so. I still had a bit of energy left so I decided to set up the email.  Tap, tap, tap and 5 minutes later that was all sorted as well.  Renee had a professional email account linked to her domain name.  I looked at my watch and it was only 11:30pm.  I couldn't believe it.
So all of this technology has got my mind spinning. Maybe I'll share some more thoughts in another post but my parting conclusion was simply that the ease that someone can create a presence on the web is astounding and there is really no excuse for any business not to have one.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Happy birthday to me

On the 3rd Feb, 1973 I first caught sight of the world.  In that year, the Australian top single was Tie a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree. Its amazing how some of the songs on that list have still lived on having been repopularized through modern films. The two examples I can work out off the top of my head are:
* Killing me softly with his song - used in About a Boy
* You don't own me - First wives club
but there might be more (comments?)
So now that I'm on the downhill run to 40, it makes we wonder what fate awaits me.  Of the 40 songs that are listed in the australian pop archives, several seem to have survived to the modern era without being rehashed but most have simply fallen out of vogue never to be played again (accept in some weird 70's theme party where you have to come dressed as something starting with the letter 'P').  And what about the names of the songs? Even though I can't remember (or never knew) many of the tunes, the titles don't seem to have changed much in almost 40 years.  We are still singing about love, lost love and sex.  Is there anything new?
So it begs me to think about what this all means for my future.  As a technologist, how should I move with the times?  Are there going to be themes and technologies that I learned about in my 20's that will still be around in another 20 years time? What technologies are going to be 'rebirthed' to a new generation? And what technologies are simply going to fall by the wayside?  Putting your money on the right horse is pretty important for technologists because their fate will often be tied to the technology they are invested in. I sure don't want to be backing the horse that loses its rider as it rounds the final bend. Pass me my crystal ball...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Be Bold

You certainly don't have to look hard to find all sorts of economic doom and gloom predictions in the media.  So what should our response be?  Should designers and technology leaders retreat into their shells and focus only on low-risk, incremental improvement type products, or is there a better option?
Before answering this question, it is important to consider once again what it is that drives company profits.  You can slice and dice it a number of ways but ultimately the key driver of company profits is differentiation.  If consumers can't differentiate your product from your competitors' products then you will be forced to compete on cost alone. Over time, costs will be driven down and profits eroded until only the highest volume players who are able to achieve better economies of scale will remain.  You can hope that you are that company but its a very unreliable business model that relies on you covering your back as much as attacking from the front.
So differentiation is the key to a sustainable business model and building profits. And working further back up the food chain, it is design innovation that builds the greatest differentation.  How do we innovate? Well that's the million dollar question and there is no formula that will guarantee breakthrough. But it is possible to posture yourself to be in the best position to maximize the benefit when the next innovative idea hits you.
Look at your design processes.  Do they stifle innovation or promote it? Look at your design skills. Do you know how to access and maximize the benfits of the latest technologies?  Do your design tools create a barrier to innovation, or do they help you leverage your existing skills to access the next wave of disruptive technologies? Be bold.  Now is the time to study hard and equip yourself.  If you are going to retreat, don't retreat to nothingness.  Retreat to the lab.  Use it as an opportunity to refresh and reinvigorate your career.  Innovate your way forward.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Design Challenge #1: Auto air hockey opponent using Wiimote

Way back when I was an undergrad some friends of mine created a really cool design project - an automated air hockey opponent.  They hung a B&W camera above the table so it had full visibility of the playing field.  They were only students so they actually had to create the table from scratch using a sheet of masonite with a million (not really - but I'm sure it felt like it!) hand-drilled holes to let the air through, and a blower vac.  Instead of using a white table, they made it black and they used a white puck too.  Here's the cool part.  They built a PC (ISA) card with some electronics on it that measured the voltage of the incoming video signal.  As the scan line passed over the puck, they would 'see' the voltage blip on the video signal and by keeping track of the video sync signals, they could get a pretty good idea about where the puck was in 2D space.  The rest was up to the PC to take those blips and crunch the numbers to track the puck's path and move a huge big whacker that was the automated opponent.
That was all back in 1994 but I want to pose a new challenge.  How about putting an IR LED on the puck and using a wiimote to track it.  Thanks to Johnny Chung Lee's contributions (and others) accessing Wii signals is pretty simple.  So all it takes is a bit of motivation and maybe a spare weekend. Let me know if you decide to give it a go.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Welcome to my world

Ok, so here we are.  Blog number 1.  I suppose I'd better introduce myself.  My name is Marty Hauff and I live in Sydney, Australia.  I'm passionate about education and electronics and so my job at Altium provides me with a perfect mix of technology and communication opportunities.
 Currently I am largely engaged in creating training material (mainly videos) although they sometimes let me out of my cage to present at various tradeshows and conferences.  
Aside from my professional interests, I am married to a wonderfully understanding woman (Renee - who survived being a PhD widow for a number of years), and I have a 2 kids (Michaela & Dante) who I'm very proud of.
The rules of my blog are simple. If you want to add to the discussion then jump right in.  If you want to use bad language, spam, or just make a nuisance of yourself then feel free to do so in your own blog - not here.