Productivity

Waze: The Best Navigation App You’re Not Using

Face it, Auckland traffic sucks and it’s getting worse. The current work on our traffic infrastructure and investment (or lack thereof) into public transport will not have tangible effects for years to come; all the while, people will continue to spend countless hours getting well-acquainted with the rears of the vehicles in front of them.

Image of a Rodius

A ghastly rear to be acquainted with. Source

Empirical knowledge only helps to avoid traffic when destinations and times are familiar. For new trips Google Maps (and navigation), which usually provides the most direct route and an estimation of traffic conditions, could be used. The traffic conditions are based on GPS data Google pulls anonymously from cell phone users and the amount of data must be tremendous. This will likely affect how fast the data can be processed and updated, meaning that changes in conditions are not quickly updated. Furthermore, there is limited information on why traffic might be like it is, which reduces the ability to plan. For example, traffic caused by rubberneckers can clear relatively quickly, while roadworks can cause more permanent delays.

Wouldn’t it be better/faster if someone stuck in traffic could say to Google maps, “traffic is currently [expletive] here because of [reasons]”, and the traffic information at that location is then instantly relayed to other drivers considering taking that route?

This is the essence of Waze: a crowd-powered traffic navigation app that was in fact acquired by Google. Its maps are charted by the community, meaning it remains up-to-date and provides more accurate mappings in less accessed locations.

The Power (Pros) of Waze

Waze functions much like any other navigation app. You type in where you want to go and it figures out the quickest way to get there. It even has other map APIs built in, such as Google’s to pretty much guarantee it’ll be able to find the destination you’re searching for. What sets it apart, is the user’s ability to log the following information which is made available to other Waze users (Wazers):

There are options to provide all sorts of information

Report all the things!

Traffic

Stuck in traffic? Log it through the UI (less safe) or by using voice commands (totally safe). Waze will then mark the stretch of road you’ve been travelling as having traffic and the approximate speed. This can be done for varying traffic conditions, and you can even do it for opposing traffic. Once you’re past the slow zone you can even log the cause, such as an accident, breakdown or hazard.

Construction/Detours

Temporary hazards or effects on routes, such as detours and road closures can all also be logged within Waze. Combined with the traffic data, this allows Waze to adjust the routes it suggests when navigating to reduce journey times.

Police Checkpoints

Similar to current GPS navigators, Waze also has fixed speed and red light camera locations and warns you if you’re approaching them. In addition, users are able to add locations of speed traps and checkpoints of marked and un-marked vehicles to the maps.

Petrol prices

Waze also tracks petrol prices. I find this useful when looking for a place to fill up in an unfamiliar area and need something quick and cheap(er).

Social Features/Integrations

A navigation app shouldn’t really need to be social, but Waze gives you points for using it and bonus points for reporting traffic and hazards. As you level up you can unlock different avatars to use on Waze, which is how other Wazers will view you on the map. You don’t have to be visible on the map, but doing so will allow you to interact with other Wazers if you want to. A more useful function is the ability to share your drive with friends so they can see where you are currently and your ETA.

Not only that, but Waze can pull meeting location data from your calendar, and you can send automated text alerts to your co-conspirators so that they can tell how far away you are from the rendez-vous or whether you’re going to be late. They don’t need to have Waze to receive text alerts and even have the option of viewing an in-browser map of your route to track your progress in real time.

Uhhh, what're you doing on K Road at 2 am buddy?

Whatcha doing on K Road at 2 am buddy?

Limitations of Waze

Waze is fantastic and I use it whenever I need help navigating. My main problem with it is that sometimes the routes it suggests are not optimal and can be a little counter-intuitive. Sometimes this works out really well (Cool, a new faster route I can use in the future!) or not so well (Where the feck are you taking me?!). So for now, I have to use a bit of common sense and discretion in conjunction with the navigation provided by Waze.

I believe the main reason for this is a lack of user-provided data, particularly in New Zealand. Hence this blog post! I am hoping that some of you will try it out, and see its potential. Waze will only be as powerful as the number of people using it so go and spread the word – it’s available on Android, iOS and even Windows Phone.

I am hoping that as the number of Wazers grows, it’ll be able to take advantage of machine learning/AI to better understand the routes it suggests. For example, it might realise, “Ok, it took you 10 minutes to turn right at this four-lane intersection so the next Wazer going this way will instead use a traffic-light controlled intersection further down”. Eventually it’ll turn into some high level traffic management system that autonomously guides flows of traffic everywhere with optimal travel times for everyone.

The other thing Waze could have is more voice commands. Traffic reporting is down to a cinch, but other hazards and commands need to be supported too – just to maintain safety while driving. I am quite confident that this will be added soon enough.

The Sweetener

All in all, Waze is awesome, and does everything your current navigation app does and then some. If you’re still not convinced, consider this. To help promote the latest Terminator movie, Arnie has lent his voice to Waze. So, if the idea of the T-800 telling you to, “Turn left if you want to live”*, doesn’t make you want to use this app, I don’t know what will.

"You've arrived at your destination... Get out!"

“You’ve arrived at your destination… Get out!”

 

* Disclaimer: Arnie doesn’t actually say things like this all the time (a huge shame!), but if he’s not your cup of tea you can also get instructions from Colonel Sanders or some NBA players (lol).

 

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Myo by Thalmic Labs Review

At last! It’s time to write a commentary on something I actually may have an expert opinion on. Maybe. I received my pre-ordered Myo last week all the way from Thalmic Labs in Toronto. Interestingly, I only got it a month or so after people I knew who had pre-ordered it significantly before me (around the time it was first announced). Goes to show it is possible for tech companies to sort out their production to meet current demand (*cough* OnePlus *cough*).

The Myo. Source: Thalmic Labs Inc.

The Myo is an armband or chunky bracelet that sits high on the forearm, just below the elbow. It allows the wearer to control software applications and physical devices through movements that are recognised by its 9-axis IMU (combined gyro, accelerometer and magnetometer). Its unique feature is the usage of the electromyography or EMG signals of the muscles in the forearm.

Basically, the Myo is able to detect different forearm muscle contraction patterns and link them with motions such as making a fist, spreading the fingers or pivoting the hand. Such recognition can occur without the forearm (and Myo) moving at all. Combined with the IMU, this provides the Myo with the ability to sense control gestures and actions of the hand and fingers. Easy parallels can be drawn to the gloved system in Minority Report or the gesture-based computers at Tony Startk’s disposal in Iron Man and Avengers.

Tom Cruise in Minority Report and Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man. Both using natural interfacing methods. Sources: Bit Rebels and Astronaut

Tom Cruise in Minority Report and Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man. Both using natural interfacing methods. Sources: Bit Rebels and Astronaut

I did my postgraduate studies on using the EMG signal as a control method for prostheses or exoskeleton devices – a slightly more difficult problem because the aim was to provide continuous control, for example reproduce an intended trajectory, which requires constant monitoring for changes in muscle activity of antagonistic muscle pairs. The Myo is slightly more simplistic (and therefore consumer-ready) because it only needs to recognise particular snapshots of muscle activity. And it does, really well.

Pros

For a new technology, Thalmic have done an extraordinary job in facilitating the process of getting the Myo out of its nicely and efficiently packaged box, onto your forearm and recognising control gestures. Instructions are very clear, and it’s the little things, like checks to make sure the Bluetooth dongle is attached properly and demonstration videos that exemplify each step, which really make the difference. Any Luddite would be able to do it – and that signifies a fantastic user experience.

The Myo itself works. There is no over-promising of its ability to recognise gestures. Out of the box, allow it 2-4 minutes to stabilise and you’ll be able to use it immediately. The gesture library is currently quite limited but there are a few to choose from:

Gestures

The basic Myo gestures. Source: Thalmic Labs Inc.

Obviously, the muscle activity required to produce these gestures are the easiest to differentiate, but it shows Thalmic have carefully considered what gestures to use and how to use them. This is reinforced by the “wake-up” command (double tap of the thumb and middle finger), which tells the Myo to start listening for a gesture. The feature prevents false positives, or unintended gestures from carrying through to the device being controlled.

Combinations of gestures can be used to generate a secondary tier of commands. For example, an opened hand followed by a clenched fist could generate an action on its own. This opens up further possibilities for control and actions once a user becomes proficient at stringing different commands together.

The Myo itself is comfortable. I’ve worn it for longer periods of time (20-30 min) and have not yet experienced discomfort. It also comes with adjustment clips for if you have smaller forearms. I don’t think there’s an alternative for larger forearms, but all I’ve had to deal with are those skin depressions that fade after some time. I’m hoping to eventually see how it feels after an hour or more of use.

Thalmic has its own Myo app market, called the Myo Market. It contains the “connectors” that are currently compatible with the Myo and allow you to use it to move your mouse, manipulate your web browser (all the good ones are supported: Chrome, Firefox and Safari), change presentation slides or control your media player (Spotify, VLC, iTunes and WMP are all supported). The connectors allow you to integrate Myo with a host of other applications and games, such as Minecraft, Popcorn Time, and even Saints Row IV, but I have yet to test them out. There’s even a connector for Trello, which at the time of writing is the only productivity tool supported.

Cons

The Myo is relatively new, and although their developer program has been active for a while (still a little butthurt I didn’t get in…), I expect more and more connectors to come out soon to further populate the Market. At the moment, I feel like there isn’t enough functionality for a user to completely integrate the Myo into their interfacing experience. It’s not much use when you can only use it for certain (and a few) apps.

My other main issue is that there’s no over-arching system that ties all the connectors together. For example, to use the Spotify connector, the Spotify window has to be in focus. I therefore either need to alt-tab or mouse click the Spotify window before I can perform the gesture that I want. Cutting the Myo out of the process is faster and easier. However, if I can tell Spotify specifically to listen for the next gesture, and other apps to ignore it, I won’t need to disrupt my current workflow. To me this seems like an app selector is needed that could be like a weapon selection wheel commonly found in games where the protagonist can carry a gazillion weapons. I’m going to take this idea to the developer forums to see if it can gain some traction.

The weapon selection wheel in GTA V. Source: GTA Wiki

As I said before, the gestures are quite simple, and I expect additional base gestures to be added as the recognition algorithms of the Myo are improved. More complex movements will allow more to be done and faster. At the moment, because the gestures are focussed on movements emphasising polarity, it can get quite tiring quickly when a multitude of gestures are used in sequence. Even more so, when such range of motion of the wrist isn’t often used.

The IMU works well and can accurately sense movement. Its main function so far is to operate as a dial when rotating the forearm (for example as a volume knob), or as a panning tool (for example moving a cursor). The problem I’ve found, especially with the panning, is that when this is combined with a gesture, there is quite a bit a drift. This makes it difficult to use the features in tandem with gestures. I gave up trying to click on buttons using the mouse connector. Some sort of compensation is required.

It is also limited by its position close to the elbow. The data available to it isn’t as rich as it would be if it was around the palm for example. This is particularly evident during rotation, as the wrist experiences more natural rotation than the upper forearm. Getting the upper forearm to rotate is slightly awkward without straightening the elbow. I am however, interested to see how this might be overcome.

Finally, if you watch the promotional video of the Myo, and compare it to what you can do now you’ll find that some of the applications were only ideas. While definitely feasible, not all of them are available yet, such as smart home or robotics control. However, I believe support for them are coming – just don’t get your hopes up too early.

Conclusion

The Cons are really points of improvement, and Thalmic and the developer community are probably working hard to address them. The Myo is certainly an innovative product and has the potential to reshape how we interact with technology. Much of its success depends on developers, and on how they exploit its features to provide a seamless, intuitive and natural interfacing method. I especially look forward to more connectors being developed for productivity apps. Hopefully I’ll have the time to provide some input, as I do want to see it grow and improve. I really want to be able to wear it constantly and have my environment respond to my wishes without need for visual displays or feedback. Not only that, but I believe the Myo has the potential to really enhance our existing interfacing experiences. The hard part, is figuring out how.

Bonus clip: Demo of using the Myo to control the Parrot AR.Drone quadcopter. The implementation is basic (leverages mostly off the IMU data), but it’s a good example of where the technology could be used.

Inbox by Gmail Review

I’ve been using Inbox by Gmail since late October and I am hoping I will never need to go back to old school Gmail… ever. In case you don’t know, Inbox is Google’s latest attempt at controlling how we receive and manage email, and it has been met with mixed responses from the internet denizens. In this post, I will share my experiences with it and explain why the approach Google has taken seems to be in the right direction for me, an organisational nightmare with constant backlogs of email up to my ears. Inbox is able to organise email and has advanced search features that can help to keep track of the swathes of information, documents and files that inevitably accumulate over time. Note: When I refer to “Inbox” I mean the application as a whole, and by “inbox” I mean the inbox within Inbox.

Shown below is a screenshot of the main view provided by Inbox in the web application. I mostly work on a PC during the day so am using the web application of Inbox more often. I use the app on my phone or tablet only when I’m out prowling the streets. Immediately noticeable, is how clean it is – a single column of content that displays emails in discrete time blocks – e.g. This month, Yesterday and Today. Attachments are immediately accessible and actions (described later) are available for each email. The top left button provides a comprehensive menu with Inbox’s additional functionality, and if desired a Hangouts panel can be opened and pinned. The advantage of this clean layout is that it is easily reproduced on mobile devices so there is no difference in interaction, whether you are on a phone, tablet or desktop computer. And the best thing? No ads!

Screenshot of the Inbox Desktop App

Screenshot of the Inbox Desktop App

Inbox tackles email in a noticeably different way, and to me, this is the crux of the innovation of the approach behind it – other reviews seem to have missed this concept and complain that it does not facilitate the way they’re used to emailing, or that adapting to Inbox is a chore. Change is almost always met with some resistance, and adjusting may require some habitual fixes, but that being said, Inbox is not really blowing the concept of email right out of the water. Instead, Inbox gently reshapes emailing by presenting it to the user as a more manageable To Do or task list, instead of purely as a messaging system. The layering of new terminology, such as replacing “archive” with “mark done” is not only superficial, but also includes the underlying framework to support task management processes. These features are summarised as follows:

Inbox Actions:

The consideration of emails as tasks is most apparent in the available actions provided for each email. Besides the usual Reply, or Forward, Inbox provides the buttons shown below:

Main actions for emails, from left to right: Pin, Snooze, Mark Done, and More

Main actions for emails, from left to right: Pin, Snooze, Mark Done, and More

Pinning an email marks it as important, and requiring further action. In doing so, a Reminder can be added to the email which shows up under the Subject heading as a cue to the reason the email has been pinned (e.g. to reply to later or for future reference). All pinned emails can be viewed instantly through the toggle located on the top menu bar. Once emails are marked as done, they are automatically unpinned and removed from the inbox. However, for some reason, pinned items cannot be removed from the inbox and retain their pinned status. This means that pinned items can only be removed from the main inbox view when marked as Done, which seems counter-intuitive since they can still add to the visual clutter – just like in regular Gmail.

Example of a Reminder on a pinned email. The icon and note are visible beneath the subject.

Snooze is a new feature that mimics the snooze feature of an alarm clock. The email being snoozed is removed from the inbox and redelivered at a specified time (any date or time). This emulates some of the features provided by third party extensions for Gmail and makes it much easier to come back to emails that require an action. Having the email delivered at a later time means that it no longer clutters your inbox and you don’t have to worry about remembering to reply.

Marking emails as Done again emphasises the task-oriented nature of the emails. Instead of marking them as ‘Read’ or archiving them, the user indicates that they are done with it and no further action is required. This complements the other activities: pinning – i.e. to do; and snoozing – to do later. Emails can be marked as done individually, as a Bundle or for the entire inbox (Sweep). When the inbox is swept everything is removed except for pinned items. Snoozed items will be delivered as if it were a new email.

Bundles:
These essentially replace the Labels system used in Gmail. There are pre-determined Bundles (categories), such as Travel, Purchases, Social, Updates, Forums and Promos, which Inbox automatically sorts emails into. You can set up your own Bundles based on criteria you specify, similar to creating email filters. The main feature of Bundles is the ability to easily group similarly topical emails and specify a fixed time for them to arrive. For example, I have my Promo bundle sent to me once a day (at the moment, the time is fixed at 7 am, but I would eventually like the option to specify the time). This means I can glance through it quickly, and for the rest of the day I won’t be bothered by the tonnes of emails I get from daily deal sites, other retailers and promotional activities. I am therefore, not inundated or distracted by unimportant emails throughout the day – I only get them once, quickly sort through them and that’s it. Bundles can also be Swept, so the whole lot can be removed from view with a single click to maintain a clutter-free inbox.

The caveat with Bundles is that it may take time to set up. Existing filters are carried through from Gmail, but this may require some tweaking to make use of the Bundles provided and to create your own. I had previously made use of Google Labs’ multiple inbox add-on, and approached bundling by deleting all my filters to set the bundles all up from scratch. For the first week, I also had new Bundle emails delivered as they arrived so that I could check the sorting was happening correctly and I wasn’t missing anything important. Now, I’m not so worried about it and haven’t missed anything too important yet.

Search:

Inbox supposedly leverages off some powerful search abilities. I have yet to test this thoroughly, but so far it seems like past emails and resources are easily found and displayed for me to search through. The jury is still out on whether this is more accurate with a complex labelling system and keywords – for example, I found “labels:chats” really useful for dredging up information from conversations over Gchat and this behaviour is not reproduced in Inbox.

Summary:

My experience with Inbox has largely been on the desktop version as that is where I do most of my emailing. Many reviews focus on the mobile platform version – which I suppose is what it was originally designed for. I have gone full early-adopter and completely transitioned to using Inbox for all of my emailing, and noticed a substantial drop in the amount of time I spend sorting and clearing unwanted and non-productive email (more time for YouTube!). The task-oriented nature of the approach has aided me in keeping track of actions I need to take, and reducing noise and clutter. Right now, I have seven pinned items and a few snoozed emails that will be coming back to me over the next couple of months. On Gmail, I would be struggling to keep items in my inbox below 50 – a self-imposed maximum that dictated how many could be shown on the screen at a time (I despise having to look at a second page of emails – it’s like who ever looks at the second page of Google results?).

I’m hoping that Inbox doesn’t fade into oblivion like Wave and Buzz, and from that I’ve seen, the general response is positive. Come full release, I hope it remains ad-free, and would like to see improvements that allow pinned emails to be hidden, desktop notifications, more flexibility in managing hangout chat popups and chat history, and greater stability (infrequent crashes were experienced). The fact that the latest Gmail mobile application (released 6 November) actually looks quite similar to Inbox is encouraging because it would suggest a smoother transition (and potentially higher adoption rate) to Inbox. However, if you are already in control of your email and have an effective labelling/filtering system in place – Inbox by Gmail might just mess it all up and not be worth the switch.

I still have several invites for Inbox, so if you’re wanting to give it a go, get in touch. Currently, you’ll need a Gmail address.