Design-Think Challenge: Make Your Car-Horn Smart

About Time The Car-Horn Gets A Much-Needed Update

Design-think for smart horns for smarter cities
Design-think for smart horns for smarter cities

Cars have evolved dramatically yet the car-horn remains essentially the same: a brutish, beastly remnant that barks loudly and incoherently in our ears and our cities’ soundscapes with its harshness. Can design-think solve this problem? Here are some quick notes I made as I crawled in a huge traffic snarl in New Delhi recently, with horns just hooting and honking thoughtlessly all around.

Am looking forward to all of you discussing and pitching in with your design-thinking to give this a more evolved and final shape, and to have you implement at least some ideas to get the wheels moving in this direction. You sense the birth of new startups here?

Horns With Eyes

Let’s give eyes to our horns. Imagine we set up sensors in the car. Sensors that continuously monitor the eyes of the driver. The moment the driver presses the horn the sensors immediately track, in milliseconds, with sensors outside, what is it that the driver is seeing that prompts her to honk. In the case of motorbike and two-wheeler scooter drivers, the sensors and tech are embedded into the helmet and are synced with the vehicle’s horn. I know this is a rather sophisticated and demanding piece of tech, but it is possible. In fact, such ‘driver monitoring systems’ have already been designed and exist since more than four years. For instance, take a look here. None, however, explore how to integrate these smarts into a horn and to curb our propensity towards honking.

The smart-horn system not only quickly identifies what is the driver honking at, but also assesses why, using machine-learning. Here are some typical real-world user-case scenarios, and on how it is programmed to respond. The driver honks at:

  • A car ahead to give way. The system emits no sound into the open environment. Instead, it blinks an icon on the dashboard inside the other car and sounds a gentle, specific tone that indicates to the other driver to give way. Imagine the peace and silence outside.
  • A jaywalker who suddenly steps in front of the moving car or bike. A short note designed to alert but not alarm, emitted only in the direction of the jaywalker and adjusted to be audible enough for the short distance.
  • Children or a procession in front to give way. First, the system ensures the vehicle cannot speed in such a situation.The horn quickly changes its tone to a fun, cheerful, musical chime that will catch the attention of the children or the procession, and makes them alert and also happy. The volume of the alarm automatically levels down to fill only the area with the children or the group in front and not travel further than that. Did you know most horns are typically 103dB and above. Factor in closer proximity and that may cause permanent damage to ears.
  • A speeding vehicle coming headlong. The systems on both the vehicles will attempt to avoid the collision by setting each on a different course while dramatically slowing down the vehicles. Emergency warning tones and notifications fill the cockpit of the two cars. It also checks if the respective horns have to be sounded externally, and will rapidly decrease the volume as the vehicles near. Yes, you read that right.

Of course, in every situation the system will have a quick over-ride placed at the steering wheel, so the driver may blare away if required in any case.

Road-Rage? Just Horn OK Please

So what else can the system do? For trigger-happy, road-ragin’ folks who love to press the horn hard, the system will always play the sound of the horn inside the car for psychological comfort, without actually playing it outside in the open. This is a little like that camera-shutter sound you hear when you click a photo with your mobile-phones. There is no manual shutter mechanism in a smartphone. The system will also trigger the appropriate alert-sound and notification inside the targeted vehicle or towards the pedestrian, but with more pleasant notes and volume. More importantly, sensors monitoring the eyes and those embedded in the horn measure the psychological state of the driver. It specifically picks up cues for aggression, impatience, anger, rage, frustration, as well as panic, drowsiness, and even drunkenness. Based on these cues, the system will intervene as appropriate. The possible interventions that can be designed would need a whole, separate post, but you get the idea.

For instance, it could play soothing music; release calming and pleasant aromas to soothe the nerves; and even talk to the driver. In states of drowsiness it could turn up the music-levels, turn down the temperature considerably, and release sharp lime-based aromas in the car to make the driver more alert. In the case of drunk-driving, the system may suggest and even prompt the driver to pull over or even book a cab, and on refusal, may alert authorities and loved-ones as well.

Look Dashing on Your Dashboard

The local authorities could also set up analytics on the smart car-horn. Based on how sparing and courteous the driver is with the horn, parking-lots and gas-stations could offer discounts as a government incentive. The results of the analysus may also negatively or positively impact the car-insurance policy premium and bonuses. Yeah, this rabbit-hole can go quite deep.

The system makes the use of the car horn in our outdoors almost redundant, bringing much-needed peace and quiet in our cities and our lives. The sounds are also tailored to indicate context and emotion, rather than just blare the same loud and garish notes. For this system to be successful, the government needs to set policies, resources, and deadlines. Car and vehicle manufacturers could launch such systems as smart value-additions. And I foresee a slew of startups that see the numerous opportunities available in this space.

All of this may take anything from two to five years, but eventually our cities will get less noisy and more quiet, and our citizens more civil and courteous. We may then just finally say “OK TATA” to the rudeness and crudeness of the archaic car-horn.

Kindle Under Your Nose

Using Design to Surpass My Experience of Reading A Book

Attention to detail. Carved out a notebook handcrafted in India, into an Amazon Kindle book-cover for myself.
Attention to detail. Carved out a notebook handcrafted in India, into an Amazon Kindle book-cover for myself.

You use your nose to read a book.

The faint smell of ink mixed with that sharp note of glue, and of course the woody smell of paper. Your fingers love the assuring texture and of paper as you unfurl your mind and curl up your body with your favourite book. When you finally close your droopy eyelids, you love the book resting on your chest, as if in a gentle embrace, while your imagination expands into your dreams with the fantastic worlds conjured by the living words of the book.

No such magic happens when you read an eBook.

The plasticy feel of the Amazon Kindle clutched in one hand is a barren, stark experience. Geeky perhaps. But shorn of the aesthetic breakthrough Gutenberg achieved with his first printed Bible in hot metal type. Even today, Gutenberg’s Bible is considered a marvel of design, typesetting, and illumination. So what is it that Jeff Bezos lacks with the Amazon Kindle?

Amazonian Jungle of Design

I carefully studied the user-interface design of the Amazon Kindle, now in its 7th incarnation with a touch-screen, 6-inch ink-display. The initial simplicity of design over this Linux-driven device peeks through. Just a screen with text typeset to the font and size of your liking, with margins you can choose, and with a single long-press to look-up the dictionary or a wikipedia-entry. Convenient and intuitive. A gentle tap on either side moves to the previous or the next page. However, with each new feature and extra option added over versions, the patchy, shoe-horned approach to design begins to show its signs. Even after three months of heavy use, I tend to get as lost and bewildered in the rabbit-hole of menus and options, as Alice in a Matrixed-wonderland.

Are You Experienced?

One evening, after the first session of one of my Design workshops, I sat alone, visualizing how I would overhaul the user-interface design of the Kindle for the third decade of the 21st century. Lots more can be achieved by not doing, and by leaving things out, in design. But is it all about the UI bass, no treble? Curious, I called some of my friends who use the Kindle. The response was universal. Each felt disappointed by eBooks and expressed something lacking with reading pixels. That may explain why sales of eBooks have suddenly plateaued across the world and printed books have rebound.

Aha! Here then, is where user-experience is the real bottleneck. I can’t fix the user-interface design of the Kindle as Amazon has locked it all away. But I can certainly fix the user-experience. All I need to do is to focus on the nose.

Hina Khan with the hand-crafted book-cover she made for me.
Hina Khan with the hand-crafted book-cover she made for me.

Notebook by A Student

I got in touch with Hina Khan, one of the students I have been mentoring in design since several years. In the past ten years, Hina has come to me every few years, just to sit and learn over several months, some aspect of design, color, photography, and more recently, typography. Hina is quite a versatile creative-professional, dabbling in many disciplines of art, design, and creativity. So when she ambled in one fine morning for her mentoring session on the complexities of free-culture, I gave her my DRM-ensnared and restrictive Kindle as a side-project.

The brief was simple. Let’s take a beautiful, handmade and organic notebook or diary which is made in India. Carve out the inside pages hollow and glue them, to form a cavity into which the Kindle tucks in. Hold it down with elastic or a thread or something. Embellish the design at will. And here, ladies and gentlemen, is how and what she crafted.

Diary of An Amazonian Madman
Diary of An Amazonian Madman

Hina caught the Delhi Metro to Chandni Chowk to deftly skip back in time by three centuries. She scoured the small by-lanes in search of a handmade notebook or diary of the required size and aesthetics. Surprised at not finding anything worthwhile, she did shop for a variety of exotic hand-made papers and art-supplies for her other various projects. Hina then searched the more artsy Khan Market  where at last she spotted just what she wanted. A notebook with screen-printed inscriptions in Hindi and Urdu, some quite incomprehensible, but nevertheless beautiful in its calligraphic style.


Don't judge this book by its cover
Don’t judge this book by its cover

She bought this silky azure ribbon and handed it to a tailor to carefully stitch it around the border.


Kindle Book-cover
Kindle Book-cover

From her collection of wood-block prints, Hina stamped a paisley design on front-side of the notebook, and then meticulously painted it in by hand.


Illustrated inside-cover of the Kindle book-cover
Illustrated inside-cover of the Kindle book-cover

Why tweet about a book when you can have a birdie in the inside front-cover? Yes! an original illustration by Hina drawn and traced onto that red paper, and then glued to the inside-front of the Kindle cover. The hollowed-out pages of the notebook were glued together and stuck into the inside-back, and then painted orange.


Opening an eBook, the organic way
Opening an eBook, the organic way

The final finish of the book-case, with the Kindle embedded.

Niyam Kindle
Niyam Kindle

Hina braided this cord, then punched two holes into the back of the book-cover and tied it in. We noticed the cord holding the Kindle in was a bit bulky as well as loose, causing the device to often fall out of its crevice.


Improved design of the Kindle cover
Improved design of the Kindle cover

So Hina promptly replaced it with two elastic bands in white.


Magnum opus of design for user-experience
Magnum opus of design for user-experience. Proud of the design and craftmanship of Hina Khan.


The New User-Experience of Kindle

Here at last was a Kindle with a spine. That was what was missing in the experience all along. The feel of a real and more importantly, organic, hardbound cover. The flourish of calligraphy with Indic scripts. The touch of silk. The smell of real paint-inks and not just printing inks. And the feel of handmade paper inside.

Now I find offset-printed books too mechanically perfect, machine-made and precisely trimmed. A product of an industrial age that dehumanizes, scales monstrously in the name of economy, and ravages the environment. A machine-made book is not compatible with the new value-systems of the more sensitive 21st century. Why sacrifice a tree for just one, and usually expensive and disposable book, when you can just make one hand-made book-cover, and read thousands of books-as-software inside. All this while enriching and enhancing the ‘real’ experience of reading a ‘real’ book.


Free Culture

Speaking of free-culture, should you wish to replicate the design of this ‘Kindle book-cover’, be happy to know it is published under a creative-commons license, specifically the cc0 license. The design of the original handbook may be subject to copyright by its author. What this means is that you may freely replicate this design, modify and adapt it, to make your own Kindle-cover or iPad cover, a book-case or a hide-out case or piggy-bank or anything else you can conjure up. You may choose your own colors and materials, improve upon this, use a different handbook or even a hardbound or paperback book, and kickstart a cottage industry around this. A few are already doing this around the world.

I’d be happy to see your designs. Please share them by posting them on my FaceBook page on design here: 

So get yourself a Kindle or any other eBook reader, and make this Earth into a lotus-paradise.


Autobiography of an Android Yogi

Why I’ve Stopped Using A Smartphone, And So Will You.

Autobiography of a Lenovo Yogi
Why I stopped using a smartphone. While being irreverent to one who is irreverent. With my Lenovo Yoga 2 tablet and a Moto 360 smartwatch, circa December 2014 onwards.


The increasing momentum of my digital life, personal and professional, was suddenly hurled over a precipice into a beep-less, soundless, vacuum. All thanks to my Samsung Galaxy Note. One moment it was an artsy, smartsy phablet. The next moment it frapped into an inert, lifeless brick while in the middle of a battery-recharge. As abruptly simple as that. The experience reminded me of one of my favourite meditation techniques: The Stop Exercise by the mystic master, Gurdjieff. The great aspect of the Stop! Meditation is when you re-emerge from it, something intrinsically changes in you. Maybe that explains why I wish to explore a new way of living and working digitally without a traditional smartphone.


Yoga: The Alpha and the OMG!

What’s better than using a smartphone? In fact, what is it that a smartphone aspires to be? A tablet, of course. So I immediately started researching on the most suitable tablet for my needs, one which can also handle voice-calls and SMS-texting. That immediately ruled out the Apple iPad. Try this experiment for yourself: Look at the price of an Apple iPhone 6 plus. Then look at the price of a 7-inch iPad. Do you realize a 7-inch iPad is nothing but a larger 5.5-inch iPhone, with similar or same features, the same iOS, the same apps, but with voice-calling disabled? It still has cellular network connectivity, mind you. So then exactly what is it that merits an iPhone to be so expensive? Your hypnotism that a smartphone is meant to be expensive, while a tablet is meant to be a cheaper alternative to a laptop. If anything, the iPad should have actually been more expensive than the iPhone 6 plus, given the larger screen. Yet in a rather twisted way, the top-end iPhone 6 plus can be 250% to 300% more expensive than the price of an iPad mini. Emphasis on the hundreds of percent here, for the same tech.


The other thing I want is freedom. The freedom to have a micro-SD card in which I may freely drag-and-drop all my music, photos, and videos, and carry it around. Good luck with that shiny Apple thingie. First, you don’t even get a micro-SD card. And forget about the woes of using iTunes. I love the simplicity of using a pen-drive or a micro-SD card to manage my music-collection. My way. The lack of a micro-SD port on the new Google Nexus also puts it to shame, and out of this race. Again, do note how much you pay for a 32GB or 64 GB microSD card or pen-drive. Then take a look at how much Apple charges you for moving up from a 16GB Apple iPhone to a 64GB one. Har! Har! No wonder they don’t want to offer you a micro-SD port.

Okay, so everything I need in a smartphone, I have here. Rear and front-facing cameras. GPS for navigation, audio-jack, microUSB, sensors, Bluetooth. The battery especially is impressive at 6400mAh which can even be used to charge your other devices. The greatest joy is I get to install all my favourite apps from the Android store. Can you imagine the experience of WhatsApp, Telegram, FaceBook, web-browsing, Google Maps, on a gigantic 8-inch screen at full HD resolution? You may never want to look at your scrawny 5-inch smartphone screen again.


Witnessing the Watch

For a phablet that large, my life has surprisingly become so hands-free. I feel freed from the tyranny of having to constantly clutch a smartphone, or pull out one about a hundred times a day to glance and respond to the constant stream of interruptions. I carry the Yoga tablet 2 in a smart and artsy sling-back, which was originally meant to be an iPad slingbag. Often, I just dump it in my laptop bag, or leave it aside on the co-passenger seat or even the backseat while driving. No more distractions. A discreet bluetooth headset perched on my ear allows me to make and receive calls.

The jewel is of course the Moto 360. All incoming calls, tweets, facebook messages, emails, WhatsApp and Telegram messages, SMS-texts, and several other types of notifications from many other apps, land straight on my wrist. Just a glance is enough, followed by a swipe or two on the watch screen. The battery on both devices lasts me a full day of solid work with no need to recharge. I pair my interaction with the devices using Google talk. It still has issues in recognizing Indian names to call, so am waiting for that experience to improve. A smartwatch is a winner of an idea. While people are predicting the failure of the Apple watch, am quite confident the market for smartwatches is going to explode. The smartphone does need a smartwatch. There are new paradigms at work here. Apple may emerge the top smartwatch maker in the world, but Android will have the largest marketshare by far. Don’t kid yourself about a smartwatch. This paradigm-shift is here to stay.

Suffice to say I get a complete 100% overlap of all the features and tasks I expect from a smartphone. Now comes the stimulating part, the extra and new experiences and discoveries I couldn’t even have imagined. And which take me into a new leagues with experiencing smart mobile devices.


Beyond The SmartPhone

The first experience which is completely new for me, is the lavish 8-inch screen on which to surf the web and watch videos, at full HD quality. It’s like moving out of a congested single-room apartment into a mansion with gardens. This is not an incremental jump from a 4-inch screen to a 5-inch one or 5.5-inch screen. My first Apple Macintosh computer, the Mac 512K launched in 1985, had a 9-inch greyscale screen, with less than one-fourth the resolution of this Yoga tablet.

Then comes the music. The Lenovo Yoga tablet 2 ships with large, stereo speakers built-in, and with Wolfson audio-processing and Dolby. The sound, though near-field and moderate in volume, has to be heard to be believed. At my table at work, the side-table at night, or even at impromptu moments, I just prop up the Yoga and play some music. When I wish. It’s so personal. Indeed, I bought the first Yoga tablet in April of 2014 for my mother, as a personal music-player and iPod-replacement. Take a look at the pic here, with the two Yoga tablets. The ease with which I can manage my music-collection, share files, look up and play music, find albums, just cannot be beaten by an Apple iPod or iTunes. That era is finally over.

Excellent replacement to an iPod. The external 64GB card holds a massive collection of music, especially music for active meditations and a huge selection of English and Hindi discourses from Osho. As well as eBooks and a smattering of videoes.
Excellent replacement for an apple iPod. The external 64GB card holds a massive collection of music, especially music for active meditations and a huge selection of English and Hindi discourses from Osho. As well as eBooks in both languages and a smattering of videoes.


The Lenovo Yoga 8 as a replacement for an Apple iPod goes further. Using the new dual-plug microUSB pen-drives, you know the types that have a standard USB plug on one side, and a microUSB plug on the other, I can effortlessly and seamlessly transfer music on-the-go back and forth between my tablet and my laptop and even to or from another smartphone. While listening to an Osho discourse, if I find the mp3 file suffering from audio problems, I can just launch the web-browser, and download a newer version of the file from the site. I’ve set up a sleep timer that switches off the music or the discourse automatically after 45 minutes. And auto-starts with a playlist of music with which to start the day early in the morning. I can freely create my own playlists with gaps of silence, for meditations when requested. Indeed, my mother uses the Yoga tablet without a SIM card, and as a dedicated music-player, which in her own words, has a gorgeous, large, and colorful user-interface and a user-experience that is far more delightful, and easier, to use than an iPod.

The cylindrical housing of the battery is a unique aspect of the design. It offers a better grip than the tiring one required to hold a razor-thin tablet or smartphone for longer durations. It feels like a curled book or magazine. Indeed, the Yoga tablet offers a great experience for reading eBooks.

I just finished reading ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ on the Yoga. This is the book by Paramahansa Yogananda that Steve Jobs had willed to be gifted to everyone who attended his funeral. More on this book someday perhaps in another blog-post. I find reading books on Yoga a joy. Okay, that’s a pun, I obviously mean the tablet, not just the topic. Then there’s Zinio and the ability to read all my favourite magazines in a digital format. The large screen is just so much more comfortable.


The Path of Renunciation

There are still a few minor things to sort out. I still  haven’t found a suitable tablet-holder with which to affix my Yoga tablet in the car while driving. That’s also because I haven’t looked hard. But that’s the point. Google’s voice-recognition is still awkward and clumsy at times. For names it just can’t recognize, I memorize the numbers and then spell out the numbers alone to dial. Clumsy. The rear-camera does not have a flash though it can click in very low light. People did complain about the software being buggy, but that was at its launch. A couple of updates later the software works fine for my needs, but there are still a few annoyances which I’ve just taken in my stride for the moment.

The one negative aspect that I truly dislike, is the apparent renunciation of Yoga for MHL support. For the uninitiated, MHL stands for Mobile High-Definition Link. That means, with a nifty little adapter, you can mirror what’s on the Yoga tablet’s screen on to an HDMI-enabled device like a large LCD or LED screen, or an overhead projector. Most needed for a guy like me into professional and corporate training and workshops around design, design-think, and creativity. So far, tech-support in India seems clueless about its support, and the few adaptors I’ve tried don’t work. I do know the previous version supports MHL so am hugely disappointed this one does not.

I hope Lenovo fixes these problems in the next version, while Google refines its voice-recognition considerably, as am probably going to stay on the path of Yoga for sometime.


So that’s it. That’s my story. Hidden in this is of course the concepts of design-think used to find a creative approach to selecting my next smartphone. I love to think of everything as a design problem, and try to use a creative approach to find an alternative solution each time. So why don’t you read this post again, this time from the perspective of design-think. Makes the journey more rewarding.

Note to Self: A Whole New Galaxy of Creativity

At last, the first smart phone for creative people is here: The Samsung Galaxy Note.

Circle This

What is the one, exclusive, killer-feature of the Samsung Galaxy Note that endears it, right out of the box, to creative professionals like me? The pure simplicity with which I can open any web-design or user-interface screen, encircle elements and scribble over them with a stylus pen. Then add notes to it, and send it across to my colleagues or clients. That’s it. And what’s the next? The legendary use of the paper napkin for scribbling logo designs for startups and million-dollar companies can now move to a digital incarnation, in this the second decade of the 21st century.

How to Handle Pressure

Turns out there’s lots a creative professional can do with this smartphone. The stylus is pressure-sensitive. Hence it mimics shades, tints, and variations of shapes and shades as you draw, sketch, and illustrate. The screen-resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels equals the resolution of most netbooks, so you can assess how your designs will render in that ratio. But what’s really impressive, is that the 1280 x 800 resolution fits into a dazzling super-AMOLED screen of just 5.3 inches, in 16 million vibrant colors, at a pixel-density of 285ppi. My first Mac in 1985, had a 9-inch black and white screen, at 72 ppi. Which is why the world is still stuck to the  now mythical 72ppi. Grow up, people.

I love the rendering of fonts on this display. Reading books and periodicals is such a joy. Have just been looking for fonts and typography apps to relish the crispness of typography. Those of you who’ve grown up with the coarseness of mobilephone font-renderings that lasted nearly 15 years, will know what I mean here. This phone makes owning the Kindle Fire redundant. I’ve got the Amazon app here, plus a few more apps for eBooks and magazines. But it’s the feel of typography, the comfort and smoothness and attention-to-detail that my much-neglected eyes experience with this display.

The large screen manages HD video playback with no latency or dropped-frames, thanks to its dual-core 1.4 Ghz ARM Cortex chip. You read that right, this beauty comes with a dual-core CPU. Plus a Mali-400MP Graphics Processor Unit. The result is a smartphone not just for authoring, but for pure inspiration. I have a live wallpaper with floating fish in a pond. A tap or a touch on the screen creates ripples and refraction-effects in the water that is just breathtaking.

All this consumes battery. The Note ships with a Li-On 2500 mAh battery. That’s huge. But given the bandwidth-leech that I’ve become, and the heavy geeky use that I extract from all my devices, it’s surprising how the battery lasts a day for me, and sometimes more. your mileage will vary. Mine does, every day. I carry my micro-USB cable with me in my laptop bag, have a separate charger in the car, and generally move to places not far from the grid. Knowing how to throttle your power-consumption is an art every geek must know, and it’s not just true for this phone. Secondly, with the growing gaggle of gadgets I find myself carrying every day, I’ve decided to invest in a battery power-brick. Am still deciding on an Amzer or an Eto, or something else. Given the abundant sunshine I get in the Indian capital, I’ll settle for the one with the added solar-panel, like the Amzer.

Is it a phone for folks like Sudev Barar, who tend to motor their muscle-cars out into the Indian sub-continent’s harsh climates and tend to veer off far away from the grid? As a GPS device mounted inside the car, most definitely yes. Digital-freedom lovin’ folk like Sudev will especially appreciate its support for both A-GPS and GLONASS. Though rather unfortunately named, GLONASS is what you’ll run to should the powers-that-be decide to abruptly switch off your access to GPS satellites and imagery and ask you to kiss their ass. I have yet to play around with GLONASS, but I hope Sudev does us all the honour of a thorough testing of GLONASS on the Samsung Note with his sojourns across the majestic terrains of our sub-continent.

The in-built video-editing software is another marvel of engineering and software interface-design. I could never have imagined non-linear video-editing would come down from its lofty heights of high-end workstations costing millions of dollars and several hundred thousands of dollars in training, to handheld devices for folks to use with nothing more than a swipe and a thumb. Am utterly overwhelmed here.

Sentimental Note for the Newton

Then there’s the handwriting recognition. I must admit, the moment I unboxed the Samsung Galaxy Note, a wave of nostalgia overwhelmed me. I went back to the time I unboxed my Apple Newton 120 in circa 1997. Having endured the idiosyncrasies of the Apple Newton’s infamous handwriting recognition engine, I found myself delighted with the generations of evolution am inheriting here. It’s been just three days with the Note, and I’ve eagerly abandoned all other forms of input, and am always tapping and scribbling furiously away with my stylus. I hope I soon forget how to use QWERTY keypads on mobile-screens. The arrow of technology is going to come full-circle. At least for me. So far, all my new contacts, memo notes, expense sheets, web-forms, emails, text-messages, and other forms of verbose text are handled entirely using the handwriting recognition of the stylus.

Okay, I know, I do need to write another blog-post, in which I’ll share all the apps and widgets I use, plus the techniques and workflows, for handling some aspects of professional user-interface and UX design on the Galaxy Note. Pause, I’ll just make a note of this. There! I’m back.

Let’s talk about how the Galaxy Note disappoints. Unless you’re a large-sized Gorilla who’s adopted Tarzan the man-child as your son, there’s no way you can clutch, and use your fingers, all using just one hand. We take this for granted with other phones, but don’t try this at home, at office, at your studio, or anywhere else. I can live with that, as it is like a small moleskin digital diary for artists, designers, poets, and dreamers. But here’s the huge design failure I refuse to forgive. It has no eyelet for a lanyard. Yup! No way for you to hang it from your wrist, should you need your hand to grasp something else, or for those awkward moments when it falls. The question with the Galaxy Note is not if it will fall or slip out of your hands, but when. Thankfully, for mere humans like us with puny hands, Samsung compensates with its wildly successful Gorilla Glass. The smooth and shiny screen can take a few nicks and bumps and falls without even a scratch.

Another thing. Most dealers will play to your insecurity, and insist you buy a screen protector. Don’t. All you’ll get are tiny air-bubbles if not applied well, and a less responsive stylus. This is Gorilla Glass, remember. To be inspired by Gora Mohanty’s favaourite aphorism: “Lipstick on a pig”, sticking that flimsy plastic to this is like applying a UV sunscreen lotion to a polar bear.

The Gamma Ray professor reminds me, I’d better look up the impact of the phone’s microwave radiation on the human body. This impact is known more popularly as the SARS rating. Can’t seem to find reliable data at the moment, so someone please post here, but the Note seems to be actually better in some cases, with lowered SARS rating, than an iPhone 4s. That’s a real wow! if that’s correct. Anyways, keeping it away from my pocket or person when I’m not moving is what I do.


Okay, so how should you use this moleskin diary of a thingie, as a phone? Holding it against my cheek and talking to it is akin to experiencing a face-palm in mid-sentence. I for one pocket it in specially tailored trousers I anyways fashion myself. The headset wire then runs under my clothing from my ears to my pocket. There, I’ve got my hands free, but Alas! The headset provided by Samsung has an omni mic that picks up all the ambient sounds and noise around you and pumps it into the ears of your caller miles away. I’ve spent three days researching and finally ordered myself a Plantronics 903+ bluetooth headset, so I can hopefully pair it later with my iPhone 4S as well. Thanks to Vivek Puri, who lived up to his “And now for something different” clarion-call by pushing me to the Plantronics rather than some run of the motormouth.

The sound-quality, as expected, is tuned for the human-voice. Call-quality is good, actually great on the phone, but listening to music is a real ear-sore. Anyways, I’ve segregated my music-listening to the vastly superior Creative Zen xi-fi. When I say “vastly superior”, fellow audiophiles know which devices I’m comparing this to. But let’s not get into that discussion, fanboys.

The microphone is surprisingly sensitive. Too sensitive in fact. Coupled with bad software-engineering, the voice-recognition is a huge failure for me. The software does not compensate for the mic’s sensitivity to pick up ambient noise, so the monitors keep trembling. Takes it quite a while to end its scanning and start processing the audio data. By that time I’ve lost interest and am quietly waiting in amusement to listen to the rubbish the voice-recognition will dole out.

The other major design-flaw, is the Note’s less than mediocre lense and camera quality. Creative professionals long know that a higher megapixel camera means nothing, unless you’ve got great glass and algorithmic goodness to bring out the subtle nuances of photography. The Galaxy Note is a classic example of how Samsung’s goofed up major-time on this. Hey! Samsung, Apple and the rest of the mobilephone market just nailed Kodak to the cross-hairs of their viewfinder. Flickr and Picasa revel in how the Apple iPhone is the camera of choice. A nice and buzzing cottage-industry has sprung up around the iPhone, selling custom lenses to fit over the phone. Samsung’s totally lost it on this one. So get it right folks.

The Note comes with no manual. I just googled for it, and downloaded it. Incidentally, the smartphone’s got 1 GB RAM, and 16 GB internal storage of which 11 GB is free. I’ve also added an 8GB microSD card for good measure. The Android Gingerbread 2.3 OS on it works smoothly. The other reason I bought the Note was that I knew this would easily upgrade or update to Android 4.0, just when I’ll be finally settling into my soup of OS and apps on 2.3. That’s the way the cookie crumbles for me. But love it.

I’m using Ubuntu 9.04 on my Apple MacBook Pro 5,1 for the moment. Connecting the Note over a USB cable automagically mounts its storage, but strangely, I cannot find the photos and videos I’ve clicked to drag-and-drop around. Thinking it could be a kick-in-the-tyres that Ubuntu needs, I just did a double-check under the Mac OS. Same story. More on this in some time once I’ve figured out what’s happening.


Having played around with enough smartphones and tablets, I find the Samsung Galaxy Note is a surprising joy and delight to use. It’s a whole different way of looking at smartphones again. I’m sure Atul wants to know what I did to my beloved Bada phone. I gave it a Wave of goodbye, of course. Heck! I just got inspired and remembered a nice joke must scribble it to Atul right away. Meanwhile Apple, keep banning Samsung. They’ve become too innovative and creative and I wouldn’t be surprised if people want to step out of their iOS cages and stretch their limbs with superbly designed Android experiences. How I wish the battle between Apple and Android was not about market-share, but about freedom.

Sync Your Mobile while Saying Bye-Bye to MS Outlook

I just bought myself a Samsung Wave mobile, a stunningly beautiful phone with engineering that’s even more delightful. I had my wallet out of my pocket, seconds away from buying a Nokia E72, when I spotted the Samsung Wave. Wallet back in my pocket, went home to research if the Wave is as promising as it looks, or should I look for a third option. First stop, the reliable review-aggregator website that showed both the Nokia E72 and the Wave were equally matched. Next stop, YouTube, where I checked reviews and hands-on demos by geeks and reviewers. Then I went through the official website, and then scoured through the Samsung Apps website to check for available software for the smartphone: The underlying platform, called Bada, is indeed open-source and totally rocks.

Wave Goodbye to Nokia

My only worry though, was how to transfer my contacts and calendar from my old and battered Nokia E61i, to the new Wave. For the record, I use Ubuntu Linux 9.04 on my MacBookPro laptop, which also has Mac OS X installed separately on the hard-disk. No Microsoft Windows on my machine. The Wave ships with a software called ‘Kiet’ that syncs contacts between the mobile and MS Outlook which obviously only runs under Windows. Digging deeper I discovered FoneSync, a Euro 19.95 utility from Nova Software that syncs the Wave with the address book and the calendar of Mac OS X. A few users’ comments elsewhere on the web alluded to some bugs and issues with it. Hmmm. No support or software or hack for Ubuntu Linux users. Time to shift to the cloud.

First, I used a free plug-in for iSync under Mac OS X, that syncs contacts and calendars between the Nokia E61i and the Mac OS X. Once I got the data into my laptop, I then opened the Address Book of the Mac, and exported all my contacts into a single file, once as a *.abbu file, and again as a *.vcf file which is a vCard file. Similarly, I exported all my calendar events as an *.icf file.

Booted into Ubuntu Linux and imported these into Evolution, which is a free, muft-and-mukt alternative to MS Outlook for Linux users. Now I could happily deposit the E61i in the new ‘ecology-recycle’ bins dotting every good mobile-store in Delhi. If you have old mobile power-adaptors and phones, please do consider depositing them here rather than throw them away with regular trash. Anyways, back to the cloud-sync.

I then opened my Gmail account, clicked on the ‘Contacts’ link in the left-pane, and then clicked on ‘Import…’ to pull in all my contacts into Gmail. Similarly, imported all my calender-events into Gmail’s Calendar. So now, apart from backups on my Mac OS X and Ubuntu Linux partitions, I also have my mobile data backed up in the cloud. I can connect into it from anywhere and sync any of my devices whenever I wish.

Finally, on the Samsung Wave, here are the steps to follow:

1. Press the main-menu button to display all your software and applications.

2. Press the ‘My Accounts’ icon.

3. Press [Exchange ActiveSync]

4. Type your email ID “”

5. User name will appear as “xyz”

6. Type your password

7. DO NOT enter anything in domain field.

8. Press [Done] and let it process

9. Type “” for server URL

10. Enable “Use SSL”

11. Press [Set]

12. There you go, select anything which you want to sync.

I’ve compiled these steps from the helpful info provided here:
This obviously assumes you’ve got internet-access activated on your mobile-account, or else have access via Wi-Fi.
Cleverly enough, the Samsung Wave links multiple records of the same person into one consolidated entry in the phone’s address book.
Plus, for the first time, I can see just how hyper-connected I’ve become: click on a contact’s name and view all calls, sms-messages, facebook messages, tweets, direct-messages on twitter, emails, and IM chats, in just one place.
The Samsung Wave GT S8500 is a great phone. I especially love it’s voice-quality and ability to hold on to weak signals. My ears feel better since I’ve switched. And of course, the touch-screen experience on a vibrant AMOLED screen is sensational. It’s 5 MP camera, and HD-Video capture is impressive. A built-in video-edit software can also add captions to video-segments, and an optional cable outputs to a TV. Everyone, from little children, grandmas, Blackberry-enthusiasts, iPhone-users, to uber-geeks I’ve shown the phone, appreciates the beauty and design of this phone. The only thing that beats it currently, is the Samsung Galaxy, and the newer and newer models of top-end Android smartphones, which of course, cost a great deal more.

Niyam on NDTV Gadget Guru: Blu-Ray Wins Format War

NDTV’s Gadget Guru went live for this special episode. The buzz on and behind the sets was quite electric. I was at 2008, when I got the call to come over to their set for this live episode.

[The embedded video above contains trademarks and copyrights owned by NDTV and its affiliates and partners.]

Niyam on NDTV Gadget Guru: 2009 Look-ahead

Looking ahead at gadget trends for 2009, on NDTV’s popular ‘Gadget Guru’ show. Just discovered this on NDTV’s new service called ‘Tubaah’, a comprehensive video-repository and web-presence of NDTV’s programmes. Enjoy!

[The embedded video above contains trademarks and copyrights owned by NDTV and its affiliates and partners.]

Niyam on NDTV Gadget Guru: 2008 Wrap-up

Just discovered NDTV’s new service called ‘Tubaah’, a comprehensive video-repository and web-presence of NDTV’s programmes. Here’s a video of me on their popular show ‘Gadget Guru’. This is the 2008 wrap-up. Enjoy!

[The embedded video above contains trademarks and copyrights owned by NDTV and its affiliates and partners.]

Video-Screaming! Live From My Mobile.

Live Video-Mobile Streaming from Anywhere to Everyone. Are you screaming yet with

I just headed over to, and installed a free and clever little software in my Nokia E61i mobilephone. This ‘qik’ software, allows me to stream live video from my mobile-phone, from anywhere on planet Earth, directly to the world wide web. Yes, you read it right. It transforms my mobilephone into a video-streaming device that transmits live video to the internet. Think of it as a web-camera you can carry in your pocket wherever you go. More conveniently, a web-camera without a computer or a tethered internet connection.

You may check out my video-streams on my free account, at and engage in a live chat or share comments for each video. I started by testing it over wi-fi, but am quite impressed it works with GPRS-over-EDGE as well. So I can stream live-video from any location on Earth, as long as I get a signal on my mobile. That’s incredibly neat.

What’s not so neat, is that the website and the software is still rather buggy. The site also seems to be rather slow on the take, but hey! we’ve all got spoilt by YouTube. I can choose to publish videos that are marked for the general public, or for private friends and family.

Streaming with Ideas

I can capture and share any experience as it happens. Could be as ordinary as a beautiful stroll at a beach; a mountain-sunrise; lunging down a wild roller-coaster; or even unusual traffic snarls. Anywhere life takes me, can now be streamed with frightening simplicity. Playing my own paparazzi  is the ultimate in 21st century decadence, but I suppose for the moment we call it, livin’ it up.

So what do you think I’ll use it for most often? The first video should offer you a hint. Let friends and clients know am still in the bathroom getting ready, for instance! If I’m going to lose my privacy, I’d rather do it with style.

I’ve only got one life to video-stream.



Seeking Intelligence and Meaning on the Web

Let’s Start with Toys through Hopefully We’ll Get to Truth Later.

What is the world wide web? A collective outpouring of almost a billion minds chattering together to create a cacophony of frenzied thoughts that overwhelm and deluge you. If you could imagine a single giant megaphone connected to the web, and a text-to-speech engine, that converted every blog, chat, email, and every fragment of text on the web into sounds, mixed it with all the podcasts and music, as well as the audio from all videos published on the web, what would you get? Crank up the volume for good measure.

The web is man’s search for meaning. A thirst for intelligence embedded within information.
Google is a funnel, but leaves it to you to extract meaning and intelligence from its results.

A small step in the right direction is alaTest. It addresses a rather frivolous purpose: intelligently rate
any electronic gadget you may wish to purchase. alaTest achieves its goal using a complex and brilliant algorithm, that automatically searches the web for all expert reviews on a single product, then compares it with users’ comments and reviews, to arrive at its alaScore. The engine is much more complex than that, but what would take me several hours or even days through several sites and reviews, is now achievable with almost a single click, in a few seconds.


The site is still a work-in-progress, and expect a few anomalies as the engine refines itself. However, it is a commendable project. For all those who often love to pick my brains on helping them choose their often pre-determined gadgets (hehe!), please consider using the evaluation here instead.
On a more philosophical note, it mirrors our path. As children we start with grasping toys as we try to decode the world around us. Gadgets are nothing more than toys, more often for boys. Hopefully, some day, we may just find the essential algorithms developed through alaTest and other similar engines, to find more meaningful insights on the web, than just what to buy. Until then, let’s enjoy alaTest.


John Lennon, Steve Jobs, and Poor Children of the World.

Lennon Inspires. Even Today.

The word ‘Apple’ means many things to Steve Jobs. It evokes Newton and science; knowledge and the forbidden fruit; it is rumoured to pay homage to Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer age who committed suicide by consuming a cyanide-laced apple; and finally, it symbolizes one of the greatest influences and inspirations for Steve Jobs: The Beatles, especially John Lennon.

The Beatles formed their own company, based on a phonetic pun, called ‘Apple Corps’ with the Corps pronounced as ‘Core’. Steve Jobs was deeply inspired by the vision and humanistic attitude of Apple Corps, and sought permission from the Beatles to label his company as Apple as well. At that time, neither party could have foreseen Apple Computers’ eventual foray into digital media, music, films, and entertainment.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he launched the ‘Think Different’ campaign, saluting the heroes of his life whose visions he hoped, would inspire the new Apple. One of the ads featured John Lennon and Yoko Ono, with the Apple logo and the slogan ‘Think Different’ on the top-right. A few years later, when Apple launched dedicated Apple stores, they were simply called ‘Imagine.’ You can spot an ‘Imagine’ store in Delhi’s Ansal Plaza mall near South Extension as well.

Somewhere along the way, and despite those ‘Think Different’ ads, Steve seems to have lost sight of his vision of humanity, of playing prometheus across the digital divide, of hurling a sledge-hammer in an act of defiance against Big Brother. Currently, all Steve seems to be interested in, is creating increasingly snobbish products, in a rather autocratic manner, with increasingly snobbish and overpriced tags. Not good especially during a global financial meltdown. It is almost shocking to see Steve completely switched off from the revolutionary world of ‘muft and mukt’ digital culture. Steve has also lost the plot on the Netbook revolution, ultra-affordable and small-sized laptops, sweeping across the industry.

It seems to take Nicholas Negroponte from MIT Media Labs to really ‘Think Different’. He launched the netbook revolution in the world, with his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, which he insists, is not about a laptop, but about education for poor children across the world. To promote his OLPC, the project has just launched a new ad, with a digital re-incarnation of John Lennon. Okay, it’s a bit cheesy, the voice and accent are quite fake, but the message is strong and somewhat inspiring.

For good or bad, John Lennon as the new unsung hero of the computer revolution merits a thought. And hope some day, Steve does consider publishing an ad with Negroponte’s photo for his ‘Think Different’ campaign. While you watch the video-ad of OLPC and John Lennon here, I leave you asking yourself the question: “Can Steve Jobs think of making a difference in the world with computers and technology that touches the lives of ordinary and even poor people, finally making a real dent in the universe?

Lennon ad for One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)