Israelis Invent Table Lamp Powered Completely by Tomatoes!

In honor of Israel’s independence day I bring you the following:

We all know tomatoes pack a powerful acidic punch, but we never thought we’d see one lighting up a room! Cygalle Shapiro of Israel-based d-VISION has created an incredible LED lamp that is completely powered by real, edible tomatoes. Currently exhibited at the Milan Furniture Fair, the design collects energy from a chemical reaction between tomato acids, zinc, and copper. This design doesn’t only explore advances in lighting technology – its also an art piece that sends clear and powerful social-conscience messages about where and how we receive energy.

via Table Lamp Powered Completely by Tomatoes! | Inhabitat – Green Design Will Save the World.

The Virtual Company

I remember the first time that it happened to me. I was visiting a company that I was writing a manual for. The office of the company was reached through a hole knocked in the wall of an empty factory. I asked my contact if I could see the device (it was a medical device). He explained to me that all the manufacturing is done by subcontractors and I would have to visit the subcontractor who does the final assembly to see the device. OK, no problem. I next asked to speak to the programmer who designed the interface. He gave me a phone number and told me to set up a meeting with him at his home because he too is a contractor. It turned out that the entire company consisted of  a guy sitting in an office who had an idea and used subcontractors to develop, manufacture and market his product. I subsequently heard that his company was bought by a larger company for a nice sum. I later worked for a client who had the same sort of setup,except that he didn’t even have an office. I met him in a cafe, and when we all had to get together we used a conference room in his lawyer’s office.

In Israel, at least, this seems to be fairly widespread phenomena, and if you think about it, it makes sense.

Carried to the extreme the situation could end up something like this:

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Who Will Be The First To Create A User’s Guide Using Vook?

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Following my earlier post about the Kindle here is another possible new frontier for documentation that seamlessly combines text, video and online support. It looks like it has great potential. My only doubt is that up until now most companies have been spectacularly unimaginative in their use of video for documentation for their products. However, for a relatively high value consumer product this may be a good idea.

What do you think?

The Kindle and Technical Communication

This story caught my eye today:

Amazon’s Kindle hit an important and startling milestone yesterday: On Christmas, the company sold more Kindle books than physical books.

via Kindle Milestone: Amazon Sold More Kindle Books Than Physical Books On Xmas.

If the Kindle and other e-readers are becoming so popular isn’t it just a matter of time until documentation  will  be available as a download to e-readers?

What are the implications for technical communication? It shouldn’t be that much different than producing a document for download  as a .pdf, as the Kindle can read .pdfs. I see it being especially useful for service manuals. A company could equip its technicians with an e-reader containing the necessary manuals already inside, much as some companies do now with laptops.  I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has heard of this being done yet.

Personally as a substitute for books I am against e-readers. First of all I think reading is a tactile experience that includes smell and touch. Secondly, it would destroy the market for used books. Not everyone can afford new books. I buy my books from http://www.betterworldbooks.com which offers low cost used books and $3.98 overseas shipping.

Poorly Designed Product=Difficult to Document Product

Some assignments are very difficult. I am confronted with a complicated GUI or device and have a really hard time explaining to the user how to operate it. I meet with the client again to get additional information and explanations but in the end I’m not happy with the result and the client usually isn’t either. I used to always blame myself for not knowing how to do my job properly, but lately I’ve realized it’s not me it’s the device.

I have written hundreds of manuals and don’t take on projects that I can’t grasp from a technical point of view. So we can assume that I am a competent technical writer This may sound kind of conceited, but I’ve come to the conclusion that if I have trouble writing user documentation for a product it is because it is poorly designed.

In copywritng this can also be a problem. Clients may be unsure about  why a customer should buy their product and not the competition’s. If they can’t provide a clear answer you might end up with something like this:

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.

“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).