Tuesday, November 15, 2016

2016: A View from the Past

I was listening to a lecture on YouTube by a fellow named Tony Seba, who talks about major disruptions in society, and what happens to the market of what the disruptions displace.

He showed a picture of Easter Sunday, 1900 on Fifth Avenue in New York City. There are dozens, even hundreds of horse-drawn carriages parading up and down the street -- and in the middle of all these equine-powered vehicles, there's a solitary gasoline fueled automobile.

NYC-Easter Sunday 1900

Fast-forward a dozen or so years. Same street, another Easter Sunday, but now it's 1913. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of gasoline-powered automobiles fill the street. There is exactly one horse in this photo.

NYC - Easter Sunday 1913

It's likely that none of the people in the 1900 picture would guess what the ratio of horses to cars would be in the following decade, but I think it would be safe to assume they'd never think horses would become rarities.

Yes, there are still horses more than a century later in Manhattan, but they're remanded to pulling a few tourist carts through Central Park. They're novelties, not relied-upon forms of transportation.

Here in the 21st Century, we're at another disruption point: the end of the internal combustion engine. From the vantage point of when the essay you're reading was written (late fall of 2016), mostly it seems impossible. Right now there are 253 million cars on the road in the United States. Less than a half million are electric vehicles, and most of them cost in excess of $60,000.

All that's about to change in 2017  with the arrival of two major fleets: the Chevy Bolt, and the Tesla Model 3. Within the first year of production, nearly one million new electric vehicles are expected to wind up in the garages of the non-rich and non-famous. This surge of new cars not powered by gasoline is the first wave of what will be a fundamental overthrow of the reign of internal combustion.

If you've not experienced driving an electric vehicle, this disruption may seem impossible. There's an entire culture of internal combustion, firmly established in gas stations, Jiffy Lubes, service centers, and transmission shops. All these businesses will soon be as outmoded as typewriter repair stores and Blockbuster video rental centers. The change will be so elemental that it's difficult to picture what the new landscape of transportation will look like.

Imagine never needing to visit a gas station again. The "gas station" is now your own home, where you'll plug your car in at night pretty much the same way you plug in your smartphone to its charger. There will be no more oil changes, spark plug tune-ups, broken alternators, radiator flushes, muffler shops, replacement fuel pumps, blown head gaskets, or worries about what kind of octane gas to use. You won't have to pay for emissions testing because your car won't emit anything. Every morning, your car will have a "full tank" thanks to an overnight charge.

Moore's Law, the computer marketing concept that the density of memory storage increases while the price of memory decreases will have a codicil in battery power. We are currently capable of a 100 kWh battery, but that density will increase to 130 kWh within a year's time. As battery density increases, batteries to cover the same distance will decrease in size, allowing for weight savings in a car and further increasing range. The idea of having a 400-mile single charge car battery by 2020 isn't a fantasy - - it's a conservative estimate of the future.

This may sound unlikely, but I believe electric vehicles will comprise more than 90% of the country's active vehicle fleet by 2023. As adoption of electric cars becomes a standard, the pace of replacement will become as rapid as the replacement of CRTs with flat screen TVs was just a decade ago. Over 98% of electric production is produced from domestic sources, and the demand for gasoline will fade as suddenly as the demand for cassette tapes did 20 years ago. We will look back on 2016 as the end of a strange era, when people carted tanks of flammable fluid around in their vehicles just to propel themselves on the highways. Babies born this year will look at pictures from 2016 and think how strange the whole concept of running gas engines on wheels directly in front of the passenger compartment was. Since I've test driven an electric car, I can grasp that idea clearly - - it's like seeing pictures of steam engines chuffing into train stations half a century ago.

My advice? Don't buy a new car with an internal combustion engine. You'll regret it within the next 1000 days. I'm serious. Gasoline engines are going the way of DOS, floppy disks, ditto machines, and slide rules.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Cardboard World

Sorry for the pause of more than a dozen months. Overtaken by events, and all that.

I got back from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. It's an annual ComicCon of whiz-bang equipment being hawked to the credulous masses every January. Thanks to a good friend, I became a temporary "Exhibitor" and wandered the merchandise tables for several days.

UHDTV seems to have reached the tipping point for home purchases. With 50" screens selling for under $500, I think this is the year they'll start appearing on people's living room walls. In about three years, this little essay will seem quaintly naive, but 4K television is quite an amazing advance for the movie-watching public. Sony has a 4K projector about the size of an old cassette tape that can beam an eight-foot-wide screen onto a wall. I think hardware TVs may be replaced by these little doodads, as it's much easier to ship and hang a fist-sized box on the ceiling than it is to mount a picture window-sized monitor on the wall.

My favorite two bits of hardware from the show, though, were involved with building Virtual Reality (VR) spaces.
Ricoh Theta S
One item was the Ricoh Theta, a slim plastic stick about as tall as an iPhone with two fisheye lens at opposing sides of the stick. The device records 360° still and video images and broadcasts same to nearby Bluetooth devices. The clarity is astounding. The accompanying software allows for editing and timelapse photography. Its ability to capture an entire sphere of any location in high-definition makes the Theta a game changer for tourist imagery. As it's a mere $346 list price, I think it's going to be a big seller in the coming year.

Way down the price pyramid, but just as much the game changer is the Google Cardboard viewer. Vendors were handing out version of the viewer for free as tschotskes, and the supported base of media available for the device is expanding exponentially by the day.

Briefly, Google Cardboard is a View-Master like device to see 3D images through a stereoscopic pair of lenses. The reason it's called "Cardboard" is that the viewer is typically a carefully folded cardboard box, with appropriate slots and pieces of Velcro used to hold the thing together. By dropping an iPhone or Android into one side of the box, the viewer can be used as a simple VR device. Google has quite a few example programs on their site, and many YouTube videos support the Google Cardboard VR standard.
Google Cardboard

The Cardboard viewer is ingenious and amazing - - I put one together in about three minutes, slipped my iPhone into the far end of the box, and had the device calibrated and ready to go in less than another minute. The iPhone's accelerometer passed axis changes on to the software, and the video screen updated my views immediately.

In one example tour, I walked by the Eiffel Tower and the canals of Venice. I hovered over a baby gorilla in a jungle, and even stood atop the Spirit rover on the surface of Mars.

The technology isn't quite ready for prime time but it's easy to see how ubiquitous this device and others of its kind will become. I want to learn more about VR technology, so I've ordered a Ricoh Theta to explore the matter in more detail. Expect many experiment posts shortly.


Ricoh Theta S

Google Cardboard

CES 2016