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.

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 Oshoworld.com 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.

My Flight into Music

‘Flight’ is a music-track I composed, arranged, mixed and produced in 2007. The music emerged towards the end of an intense three years of active meditations. ‘Flight’ is authored using 100% Free and OpenSource Software (FOSS). More specifically, used a Linux-based OS, called UbuntuStudio.

Excerpts from ‘Flight’ were later used as background music for a short-film published from Los Angeles. Was even more thrilled when I also got paid for it. 🙂

You are encouraged to download, share, mix, re-mix, and have fun with ‘Flight’ for commercial or non-commercial purposes, provided you respect its copyright and creative-commons license, which is cc-by-sa-2.5 india. Here is a simple-to-understand version of this specific CreativeCommons license.

Taking Flight
In 2007, Was also invited to conduct a small workshop on ‘Digital Sound’ at a leading national FOSS event, called freed.in. You may view a blurry picture of UbuntuStudio with a sound software. Then in 2008, was invited to another National FOSS event, called FOSSMEET at NITC in Calicut, where I delivered a talk “How to design sound, compose music, and master your album.” Ended the talk with ‘Flight’ which received a huge ovation, and hours after the talk the participants lingered around and discussed all things from music to FOSS. That was quite an experience. You may view a photo of the audio, sound, and music talk at fossmeet here. Finally, on 28 March 2010, I released ‘Flight’ at the CreativeCommons Salon event held in Delhi. Discover more about this event on twitter using the id ‘ccsdel’.
Flight into Jamendo
‘Flight’ is published on Jamendo.org, a wonderful website for musicians and music-lovers who wish to share muft and mukt music. This is my first album published here. Within a few days will also publish another album of dance-music composed more recently. Discover my artist page at Niyam on Jamendo where I intend to publish even more tracks and albums over the coming months. You may also soon find me dabbling at ccmixter.org.
Soaring with Freedom
All the sounds you hear have been designed in a software-synth with quite a tongue-twister of a name: ZynAddSubFX. This software-synth was plugged into a software that handles virtually unlimited multi-track recording. Called ardour, it is more specifically, a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Even more interesting is how almost all the sound-based software plug into one another under UbuntuStudio. Mimicking the coils of cables, plugs, and connectors found in a real-world sound-studio, is a software sound-patch, called Jack Audio Connection Kit. A lot of sound-effects and the pre and post-processing of sound were handled using myriad sound-FX plug-ins, from LADSPA. You may find thousands of free sound-effects from LADSPA. The final and minor tweaks and exports were handled in the audio-editing software Audacity.

Surprisingly enough, did not use any of my other favourite free software for this project, especially Hydrogen: The Advanced Drum-Machine for Linux, as well as the music-sequencing software RoseGarden.

Earlier Sounds
In October 2006, also published an entire album of sound-field recordings made in the middle of the night and at dawn, in remote mountains while living in a stone-cottage next to a stream. Thousands of people have downloaded the audio-files from this album, a few have re-mixed these in their works, and some I know held a group-meditation based around the album. You may discover the sound-field recordings at Niyam on freesound.org. Plus, discover some drum-loops published around the same time creativedot though the site seems to go down every once in a while.

Stay tuned for more sound and music, especially since I love authoring in diverse genres.

Is An Audiophile A Meditator Of Sound?

Have just been reading this article with great interest:
Why We Need Audiophiles”,
Fremer seems to have honed his ability to listen to music and sound over his lifetime. No wonder he can easily experience the dull, flatness and soul-sapping sound of MP3 music and even compact-discs. Please read the article to appreciate this.
If you’re into Indian music, you can try a simpler experiment, that costs zero in any currrency.
First, listen to a live amplification of a tabla, or a rudra veena. Then go close and listen to it unplugged, without any mics or equipment. The difference is astounding. I’ve often challenged my students to try and create a faithful recording of a didjiridoo, and so far, no one seems to have caught it at its original analog quality.

But I digress. The audiophile may be addicted to the purity of sound, and driven to extreme fetish to acquire the right gear to hear the perfect sound, but the audiophile is still obsessed with sound.
This is where eastern mysticism steps in. Try silence. Have you ever got addicted to deep, blissful, unperturbed fathomless silence? Can you imagine how nourishing that must be for your ears, for your mind, for your soul?
The journey from an audiophile to a silent meditator is rather mysterious. The first thing you realize, is that physical silence is not possible in the physical world. With great fortitude when you do manage to almost cancel all external sounds, the sounds from within your body are louder than the noisiest traffic outside. The gnashing of your teeth, the breathing of your body, the beating of your heart-beat: you never realize how noisy it is to inhabit the human body!
This is where the mind is called in to contribute with what it can do best. You soon learn to teach your mind to attenuate all noise and sound outside and inside. This fascinating noise-cancellation ability of the mind allows you to drop into silence. Momentarily at first. It’s like suddenly diving several hundred kilometres deep into a pitch-black and extremely cold and refreshing ocean. You see nothing, you hear nothing, you feel nothing, but it’s all around you.
Then you come back. Exploding into an explosion of sound and noise of the universe.
Want to be an audiophile for free? Just meditate. Heck! You might even forget sound.

[ends]

Moving From Noise to Sound

Most of the recent advances in the technologies of sound, are a step-back, or can be largely classified into those that reduce high-fidelity; those that add noise and distortion; or else a mixture of both. The fundamental principles of sound still remain unexplored, pointing to several grand areas of research and development, as well as significant opportunities, through the 21st century.

Am delivering a talk titled “Moving From Noise to a Fundamental Understanding of Sound in the 21st Century.” This, at RAFIT 2009, which stands for ‘Recent Advances and Future trends in IT’. RAFIT 2009 is being held at Punjabi University, in the vibrant city of Patiala in the north-Indian state of Punjab. My talk takes a fresh and inspirational look at several possibilities in a new approach to sound, and the bold approach to research required, that may unlock the richness and complexity of sound.

Am going to share new or alternative ideas in:

1. The Physics of Sound. Comparison to the Phenomenon of Light.
2. Psycho-Acoustics.
3. Loudness. Internal Versus External. Loudness Curves.
4. Clarity versus Distortion.
5. Coding Semantics in Sound Signals: Traffic Horns.
6. Decoding Sound into Semantics and Meaning.
7. Voice and Speech Recognition: Two Different Things.
8. Localization of Sound. Binaural mysteries.
9. The Emerging Role of DSPs.
10.Machine-Recognition: Humour, sarcasm, moods, and figures of speech.

In addition, am also delivering the key-note presentation at this prestigious event.
Discover more here: RAFIT 2009.

[ends]

Are Words Empty Vessels of Sound?

A zen brush-stroke defines an empty bowl. Using typography, I carefully placed the following words near it: “words: nothing but empty vessels of sound.” You may check the calligraphy and design here: writing.
words: nothing but empty vessels of sound

I must have authored the original design somewhere in 2001. A few hours ago today, in 2008, I received the following email from a complete stranger called Ian. I immediately wrote back to him, and sought his permission to share this email with you. Says Ian:

“Words cannot be empty vessels of sound. Words work fine in written form, yet no sound is heard. Words are not the vessels for sound – Sounds are the vessels of words. Words have an idea behind them. They represent realities that we grasp in our minds as ideas. God made a physical universe that has true reality because He is REALITY and was able to communicate reality to His creation. Reality is lent by Him. He made this creation by WORDS. He communicated the reality by speaking (in infinite power) it into existance. Its reality existed first with Him, and He communicated it with “let there be..”. He gave the gift of words and language to man. We cannot “speak-create”, but we can transmit the ideas behind things by sending and receiving words.”

Hmmm. Here’s a question, Ian, though it’s a little more like a zen-koan: Can the deaf, especially those born with total-hearing impairment, learn to read and write? The answer is a surprising yes. Discover more here: Raising Deaf Kids. You may find something even more fascinating here: Deaf People’s Inner Voice.

The essential point, is that even the deaf create an ‘inner auditory’ sense equivalent, or maybe equal, to what we experience as sound. You may search the web for more case-studies and research into how the deaf learn to read and write, and often so eloquently and with much better grammar and style.

Magic Moment: The word, then, is indeed a sound. Words to me, are vessels of sound. When you learn to read a word, you learn to say it loud to yourself. Soon, the subtle and magic moment arrives when your parent or teacher recommends you read the word ‘silently’ to yourself. The sound then becomes internal. As humans, we impart thought, and soon, abstract thought, to words. For example, the word ‘apple’ makes you think of the tangible fruit. The word ‘innovation’ is a pure and abstract thought. Beyond thought, as humans we impart emotions and moods, and even cultural and other connotations to the words we use. Nevertheless, each word has first to be a sound heard in the mind.

Empty Vessels: Students and participants to my various workshops have almost always asked me why I describe words as “empty vessels”, especially when I earn a part of my livelihood and name as a professional author and editor. I leave that for you to ponder over, but I do hope you find inspiration in the sufi poetry and lyrics sung in this exotic music video. I especially love the sequence with the sufi-whirling:

And inside,
We’re all still wet.
Longing and yearning.

How can I explain how I feel?