Could Augmented Reality Be the Next Big Thing in Technical Communication?

I’ve written quite a few Service Manuals on an outsource basis and I can tell you that is generally impossible to convince the customer to go with a manual that the technician would access from a laptop and to add features such as embedded film clips or 3D animation, let alone something like this:

In the not-too-distant future, it might be possible to slip on a pair of augmented-reality (AR) goggles instead of fumbling with a manual while trying to repair a car engine. Instructions overlaid on the real world would show how to complete a task by identifying, for example, exactly where the ignition coil was, and how to wire it up correctly.

A new AR system developed at Columbia University starts to do just this, and testing performed by Marine mechanics suggests that it can help users find and begin a maintenance task in almost half the usual time.

AR has long shown potential for both entertainment and practical applications, and the first commercial applications are starting to appear in smartphones, thanks to cheaper, more compact computer chips, cameras, and other sensors. So far, however, these apps have been mainly limited to providing directions. But researchers are also working on many practical applications, including ways to help with specific repair and maintenance tasks.

The Columbia researchers worked with mechanics from the U.S. Marine Corps to measure the benefits of using an AR headset when performing repairs to a light armored vehicle. Currently, Marine mechanics have to refer to a technical manual on a laptop while performing maintenance or repairs inside the vehicle, which has many electric, hydraulic, and mechanical components in a tight space.

A user wears a head-worn display, and the AR system provides assistance by showing 3-D arrows that point to a relevant component, text instructions, floating labels and warnings, and animated, 3-D models of the appropriate tools. An Android-powered G1 smartphone attached to the mechanic’s wrist provides touchscreen controls for cueing up the next sequence of instructions.

via Technology Review: Faster Maintenance with Augmented Reality.

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I think that we can all agree that this is really neat. However, I can see several potential drawbacks to a system of this type.

  • Before performing a procedure you should always read it over from beginning to end. Unless the augmented reality system is also supplied as a document, this would be hard to do.
  • The price. Obviously at this point systems like this would be practical only for very large organizations like the Department of Defense or a large corporation.
  • Revisions. Updating something like this looks like it might be kind of involved.

Charles Hurwitz – Isn’t He In Jail YET?: A Long History of Lying and Stealing His Way to the Bank

The Bay Area Forest Activist

Charles Hurwitz – Isn’t He In Jail YET?

A Long History of Lying and Stealing His Way to the Bank

December 31, 2005

Early in his career–in 1971-72, Hurwitz pled no contest to charges of fraud before the Securities and Exchange Commission involving Summit Insurance Co. During the late 1980s, he crashed United Savings Association of Texas, leading to one of the biggest S & L failures–for which U.S. taxpayers footed a $1.6 billion bailout bill. As CEO of Maxxam, he raided Pacific Lumber’s $55 million pension fund after his takeover of PL. This wasn’t the first time he’d looted a worker pension fund–previously, retired Simplicity Pattern workers benefits were reduced from $10,000 to $6,000 a year on average thanks to Hurwitz.

via Charles Hurwitz – Isn’t He In Jail YET?: A Long History of Lying and Stealing His Way to the Bank.

Don’t worry–it’s a different Charles Hurwitz. I have an alibi. Honest.

Why am I showing you this? Because this is one of the items that turns up if you Google my name. (It could be worse; my parents could have named me Genghis Khan or Vlad the Impaler)

I thought of this when I saw the following item:

A study from Harris Interactive ( HPOL – news – people ) for CareerBuilder.com found that 45% of potential employers screen candidates via social media, up from 22% last year. Thirty-five percent of employers say they found reasons not to hire a person based on information they found on social network profiles.

via When Social Media Bites – Forbes.com.

If the survey were done among potential employers in the Hi-Tech area I’m sure that the percentages would be much higher.

We hear a lot about how useful the internet and social media are for finding employment, but it is important to keep in mind that this is a double-edged sword. And it’s not only in cases where you list “Industrial espionage” and “Getting into fistfights with my co-workers” as your  hobbies in your Facebook page, it can be also be a strongly expressed political or religious belief or a picture of you in a less than professional pose. In general, personal information about you online tends to work against you and does not enhance your prospects of getting a project or a job.

An update–I came across this link that deals with getting rid of embarrassing stuff on the web; http://howto.wired.com/wiki/Un-Google_Yourself

Why You Shouldn’t Feel Guilty About Goofing Off Instead of Working

Many of us feel that if we aren’t sitting at our desks pounding away at the keyboard or are on our way to another satisfied customer we are wasting our valuable work time. This feeling is especially acute among freelancers who don’t have a boss and therefore have no one to blame for wasting time  but themselves. Because we don’t have to put in an eight hour day we may feel that time we “waste” is time taken from other activities such as family, hobbies or taking a nap. However, recent research shows that it may be good to goof off:

Daydreaming isn’t just the mind’s way of processing information, though. Other scans have found that the wandering mind also utilizes the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that’s involved in problem-solving. The upshot, says Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara who is studying this area, is that your idling mind is likely doing deeply creative work, tackling your hairiest long-term tasks — projects you’ve been trying to address for months, the arc of your career, the state of your marriage. “Mind-wandering is actually a very involved task,” Schooler says. “You leave the here and now and focus on more remote concerns that nevertheless might be more important. We’ve been focusing on the downside of this, but we need to think about the upside.”

Indeed, Schooler suspects that research like his explains why so many “aha” moments occur when we’re drifting — like Archimedes in the tub.

via Clive Thompson on Why Idling Mind Is Mother of Invention | Magazine.

If you want to follow through with the above you might want to consider installing a hot tub in your home office. It may even be considered a business expense.

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Personally, I can tell you that my most productive thinking time is during my 45 minute walk each day and in bed before I drift off to sleep. Both are times when the heavy duty part of my brain is disengaged.

“To the Man With a Hammer Everything Looks Like a Nail”–Mark Twain

An engineer at a company once called me and asked me how much it would cost to edit a Service Manual that he had written for a medical device. I asked him to send it to me so that I could give him a quote. When I received it I saw to my amazement and horror that he had written a 200 page manual (including many graphics) in Excel. When I asked him why he didn’t use Word, he replied “I’m an engineer I know how to use Excel, not Word”.

Why do I bring this story up? For two reasons;

First of all it’s kind of funny.

Second, it shows that there is a tendency to use a tool because we have it, not because it is the most suitable tool for the job. We sometimes may have a tendency to use not only software tools that we already know but also formats and documentation types that we know. For instance if we regularly use Word and FrameMaker but are completely unfamiliar with programs that can help us to generate e-learning material, we will write a standard manual even in cases where e-learning might have been the optimal solution.

For freelancers there is an additional problem. In my experience when I suggest to clients that they think about other documentation solutions besides the standard manual they usually aren’t willing to consider it due to budgetary considerations or the desire to go with the tried and true solution. As an outsider, because you have have no influence inside the organization that is the end of the discussion.  I’ll go into this in more depth in a later post (Stay tuned).

Do We Need to Hire a Salaried Technical Writer or Should We Go With a Freelancer?

You are a high-tech/Bio-tech company and your first product is nearing release.  The product requires documentation and you ask your self what are our options? Before deciding you should consider these factors:

  • The amount of anticipated work— Do you think that you have enough work to keep a full-time writer busy? Will this be the first in a long string of products. Generally companies in the software field release more products than those in the hardware field.
  • The complexity of the material—Is the material so complex that it may be less expensive to hire a salaried writer even though you may not be able to keep him busy all the time so that all the time he spent learning the material won’t go down the tubes?
  • Budget–Hiring a salaried worker means paying them for at least a year. Do you have the budget for this?

The following table presents the options open to you:

writetab3

Israel-The Best Place in the World to Be a Freelance Tech Writer

Why do I say that Israel is the best place in the world to be a freelance tech writer?

Briefly (בקיצור) because in Israel you have a unique situation that combines both one of the most highly developed hi tech industries that is geared to export, together with a limited pool of native English speakers.

Here are some interesting facts about the Israeli hi tech sector and the Israeli workforce:

Israel has the highest ratio of university degrees to the population in the world.

Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation by a large margin – 109 per 10,000 people –as well as one of the highest per capita rates of patents filed.

In proportion to its population, Israel has the largest number of startup companies in the world. In absolute terms, Israel has the largest number of startup companies than any other country in the world, except the U.S. (3,500 companies mostly in hi-tech).

With more than 3,000 high-tech companies and startups, Israel has the highest concentration of hi-tech companies in the world — apart from the Silicon Valley, U. S.

Israel is ranked #2 in the world for venture capital funds right behind the U. S.

Outside the United States and Canada, Israel has the largest number of NASDAQ listed companies.

Israel has the highest average living standards in the Middle East.

The per capita income in 2000 was over $17,500, exceeding that of the UK.

On a per capita basis, Israel has the largest number of biotech startups.

Twenty-four per cent of Israel’s workforce holds university degrees, ranking third in the

industrialized world, after the United States and Holland and 12 per cent hold advanced degrees.

via Interesting Statistics About Israel.

Let’s assume that in order to be good tech writer you must speak English at a native level. (Note: I’m not saying that you must be born in an English-speaking country to write English at a mother tongue level. I’ll go into this in more detail in a later post). According to statistics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliyah#North_American_Aliyah)  approximately 100,000 immigrants from English-speaking countries have arrived in Israel since 1948. Keeping in mind that a significant percentage has left or passed away we are left with a relatively small pool. Of those there are a very small percentage who have the desire and qualifications to become a freelance tech writer. There is therefore quite a bit of demand for tech writers in Israel and a limited supply.

Because most of the hi tech companies are located between Haifa and Rehovot (about 1.5 hours by car), they can all be easily reached, thereby allowing the writer to visit the client to gather information and write from home, as opposed to working as an in-house contractor for an extended period then moving 1,000 kilometers to work as an in-house contractor at another company.

Combining all of the above together with the fact that the cost of living in Israel is lower than in the hi-tech centers of the US. You can see why freelance tech writers in Israel may count themselves as being lucky.