Archive for January, 2007

Update from the TechKnowledge Floor

A very interesting trend is starting to pop up among the vendors. After years of absence (despite audience demand), e-Learning development tools have started to appear. There is of course the traditional suppliers Adobe (Captivate/Flash), Trivantis Lectora, and Articulate. Articulate just released their newest product called Articulate Online, a place to easily publish and track content online. Some of their newer work is becoming more and more impressive. However, there are new players in the space. Watch for several new announcements both from the incumbents and the new competitors in the coming months. I’ll be blogging on several of the latest advancements especially in interactive exercises and simulations in the upcoming weeks. These tools are going to put power of quality simulation and interactivity into the hands of the instructional designer and learner instead of just being the realm of the programmer and artist.


The Future of Learning and Technology

Greetings from ASTD‘s TechKnowledge in Las Vegas. It’s been an interesting day so far. There are about 1300 people at a sold out show here. However, they only have 8 computers in the CyberLab for all of those people. Not to compare it to Learning 2006, but there were over 100 computers there for about 1800 people. At a tech show, they should be able to do better. There is a continuous line for the computers.

Anyway, Tony Bingham got the content kicked off well by comparing traditional media (encyclopedias) with new media (wikipedia) and the need to balance quality vs. speed. At times, one or the other is more important. It’s been said before, but coming from a person who previously worked at Britannica, it brought a lot more color. He went further saying that content needed to be relevant, timely, personal, and real all as perceived by the user. I think these are widely applicable to all content, and will be the content of another blog entry once I return.

Tony was followed by Thorton May who was a fun, ADD presentation. He had a lot of great points that deserve blog follow-ups. They were probably minor points in his presentation, but they stood out to me. First, the job of a trainer is to be a translator. I think that’s a great metaphor. All to often, trainers are telling, not translating. It’s a radically different view. I do differ from his view a bit in that translation is necessary because the training is too far from the work (see my entry on transfer for more of this viewpoint). His second point of interest was that, today, “experts” can’t guess, make stuff up, or try to get by. With the ubiquity (in the developed world) of technology, people can instantly check facts and call the expert out. That’s a huge change with the learners can get better, faster information than the teacher.

After the main session, I attended a great session by Tony Karrer to a packed room on the use of blogs and social bookmarking. Tony is a PhD and the former CTO for eHarmony. I’ve added his eLearning blog to the blog role to the right. He’s got a lot of great things to say, and I should have added him ages ago. I’ll comment more on his session in a later entry, but thought I’d point a few people in that direction if they haven’t found it on their own.

More to come from Vegas…


Eco-friendly Wineries, Amazing Vistas, and Government Reform

I just returned form my most recent trip to Oregon which included my first trip to Oregon wine country. The setting was an unusually comfortable, sunny day in Oregon’s Dundee Hills about 25 miles southwest of Portland. As we drove through the back country of rolling hills over paved and unpaved roads, I could only imagine how much more fun it would have been to do the drive in an Audi TT or a new Saturn Sky. The roads were a steep and curvy as any I’ve seen. Around each turn and over each hilltop was a new even more amazing view. We were on our way to Torii Mor which other vintners had recommended for their port made from Syrah grapes. Just the concept of a Syrah port was enough to build anticipation. However, as we topped one of the last hills in our back country adventure towards the winery, the picture at the right popped into view. Mt. Hood stood off in the distance over 60 miles away. We had to pull over and spend some time just taking in the breathtaking vista.

I can only imagine what it would be like to live and work in such an amazing environment everyday. Certainly, some people are quite lucky and have decided to do something about preserving it. When I think of the various businesses that have a negative impact on the environment, I normally don’t think of wineries. Yet to some extent every business does. We all do, and Torii Mor is doing what they can to limit the impact. From the more obvious naturally cooled underground cellars and low energy/high efficiency lights across the property’s buildings to solar paneled roofing for their tasting room and recycled water runoff from their fields. It seems that every decision included a environmental assessment with the goal of a zero environmental footprint. Good luck to them as they push to achieve LEED certification in the upcoming months.

While I’ve certainly tried Oregon wines before, access in Michigan is quite limited. Outdated laws protecting nearly non-existent industries limit access to many great wines from across the country. Over the last 10 years, I’ve toured many wineries across the country and even France & Switzerland. I can honestly say that I would put most of the Oregon wines up against any others I’ve tasted. They are known for their Pinot Noir, but have a pretty extensive list of varietals that grow well. Erath (which amazingly can be purchased in Michigan) and Torii Mor both had some truly great wines. Oh, and the syrah port mentioned about was unique and quite good…a nice variation from the normal port for sure. I have to say though that my favorite winery was Cuneo for their bold, spicy reds. I could have bought all of them except that taking large bottles of liquids on a plane is out of the question and shipping to Michigan has been heavily restricted. This is one area where government reform is needed to repeal or replace outdated laws.


Jet Lag

I’m in the middle of a series of travel over the next few weeks, and it got me to thinking? What causes jet lag? I’m just a few time zones west and in some ways, given my propensity to stay up late, Pacific time better fits my sleeping patterns. Regardless, though, of where I am, westbound travel doesn’t seem to impact me or at least not as noticeably. In flights from London or Paris to Detroit, I seem to be able to reintegrate more quickly than the flights in the opposite direction. The impact is a little less dramatic from Pacific to Eastern time, but it still seems to be different depending on the direction. I know a few of you are travelers out there. Do you experience the same phenomena? What you think could make them different? Just click the “comments” link at the bottom of this post to send me your ideas.


The Movies: The Game

A couple posts ago, I discussed the concept of Machinima. Many games have been used to create these movies, but very few have made it quite so easy to customize and create movies from scratch. The Movies: The Game is a prime exception. This game falls in the genre of a resource allocation or simulation game. Other more famous games in this category include Zoo Tycoon (official site), Railroad Tycoon (official site), and the now classic SimCity (official site) among many others.

In game mode, the goal of this game is to run a movie studio. Here are some of the primary tasks:

  • Hire and train actors, builders, film crew, stunt people, and maintenance staff
  • Build and maintain sets and studio buildings as needed
  • Script, staff, film, produce, and market movies

Sounds pretty easy, huh? Well as with all resource allocation games, there are constraints, and this is where the game gets interesting. Here are a few of the constraints:

  • Money is limited. It has to be earned before it can be spent on staffing or sets
  • Actors are moody. They don’t like to work to much and work better if their friends with their colleagues. They tend to drink or eat a lot and sometimes don’t show up for work. If their movies do well (or their peers do well) they want more money.
  • Sets and the rest of the lot deteriorate and need constant maintenance including lawn care.
  • The general public is fickle. Genre preferences are constantly changing and to make the most money the movies produced must equal the movies demanded.
  • Actors get older, and with age come experience which helps the movies do better. However, older actors are generally less desired especially in certain genres such as action films. To lessen the impact, they can get makeovers, liposuction, and a few nip and tucks to keep them looking young forever (or at least until they retire).

When is the game over? Well, that’s the great part about games in this category. To some extent, the player defines what winning means. Certainly being the number 1 studio is one measure, but that can change when another studio releases a movie. In the end, at the ultimate point in the game, players are able to fully create their own movies including designing their own actors, scripts, etc. The game designers made this very easy. In addition, the more skilled artists can actually create their own clothes, props, and sets to augment those that come with the game. I suppose that’s the ultimate in studio control.

Why is a game like The Movies important for learning and communications? Videos are expensive to make and almost always need to be redone if anything changes. Using machinima, the actors never change, the sets are always available, and updates can be as simple as re-recording the voice overs. The movies can be used as standard training videos, communications, or even vignettes for simulations. The best part though is the price…currently under US$20 and it’s available at your local electronics store (Best Buy, Amazon, etc). Don’t forget about the Stunt & Effects pack which adds a bunch of new sets, costumes, and of course stunts & effects. The Movies runs on most standard PCs (and a just released Mac version too).

As with most games, there are rich, vibrant communities surrounding the games. So for those of us like me that can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, these sites offer costumes, sets, and props already pre-made if none of the ones work out-of-the-box. Here are a few of the better links:

To find out more about The Movies and machinima in general, sign up for my online session where we’ll go into much more detail. Here’s the information:

Title: Machinima: When Video isn’t Video
Date/Time: Friday, February 16, 2007 at 1:00pm US/Eastern Time
Registration Info: Click here

Description: Machinima is a technique that co-opts video games or other sources to produce animated videos for entertainment. Join Tom Crawford as he explains and demonstrates this technique. Learn how clever instructional designers and developers are using engines from resource allocation/simulation and other video games to create instructional videos and animations. Learn how you can leverages off-the-shelf software to make quick, easy, effective training animations and video vignettes for a fraction of the cost of traditional corporate video production.


Blogs vs. Websites and 5 Things Meme

Awhile back Mark Oehlert tagged me the 5 things meme. No, Mark, I didn’t forget about you. It just took me a little longer than most, and I decided to take a different approach. Well, really, I went a little overboard and updated my entire bio, resume, and a few topical favorites that can be found in the upper right of this page. I think most of you will find more than 5 things you didn’t know about me in there.

It was interesting as I started thinking about how to respond. My website was pretty outdated, and it seems that blogs have actually completely replaced individual and family websites anyway. For sure, blogs are much easier to put content up and they have a lot of capabilities. However, they don’t have as much power as I had when had full control of the website. Granted, HTML and other scripts can be inserted all over the place, but that part’s not as easy as it was on the old website. I guess power is sacrificed with ease of use. So, I decided to avoid the whole problem and merge the two. My blog is now my home page and all of the web content pages are now integrated into the blog navigation. That way all of the same content still exists, but I can control the look and feel of the web pages a bit more than the blog allows.

Now that I updated all of that content, doing the 5 things meme was much easier. So, here are the 5 things I’d point out about from my bio that you probably didn’t know about me:

  1. Food: I love to cook and experiment in the kitchen. I love to try new mom and pop restaurants, and I’m addicted to the Food Channel (Duff, Bobby, Mario, etc). Especially shows like Alton Brown‘s Good Eats. I learn so much on that show. Its the only one where I’ll watch the repeats.
  2. Travel: I’ve been to all 50 states and quite a few countries. This fall I was able to spend quite a bit of time again in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. What a great time to rediscover those states. Shortly, I’m back to Oregon & Nevada which both should be great trips.
  3. Music: I play piano, write music, and have performed in live bands. I really enjoy going to hear live music, especially unplugged or at least not processed. It’s so much fun to see talented musicians who really enjoy what they do.
  4. Michigan: I’ve lived in 11 different cities, all in southeast Michigan. Most of that was due to my undergraduate co-op program and various career moves, but if you want to know something about the area, I would hope I’m a good resource.
  5. Job Change: In the last month or so, I’ve decided to go out on my own for a bit while I explore the next step in the career. For now, I’m doing contract work with some interesting companies with assignments in Information Technology, Learning and Business Strategy. If you or someone you know is looking for a contract or full-time employee, please let me know. My full bio and resume are live on the blog, and my e-mail address just under the “about me” section in the upper right corner of this page.

So, Mark, does this qualify for fulfilling the 5 things meme?


Machinima: Using Virtual Actors for Learning and Entertainment

What is machinima?
The word is actually (and possibly obviously) a combination of two other words, machine and cinema, and from that we get a weak clue as to the definition. Machinima is a technique (and has become a genre) where an individual uses a game environment and its characters to create a movie. The technique has been around for quite a while, but in the early days they were difficult to create with out significant video editing skills. In 1992, that began to change with the release of a game called Stunt Island. This game was different in that it let the player use props and sets to create and record scenes that could be spliced together to make a movie. After that several now classic games such as Doom, Mech Warrior II, and Quake–possibly the most extensively used for machinima. Today, nearly everything from sports and racing games to shooters include some form of instant replay and often a save function (especially PC games). Machinima emerged from this capability.

Certainly, before this time, a motivated artist could have learned 3D modeling and animation, and used a variety of tools to put these together. They could have also hired real actors, built sets, and filmed live movies. Both of those are time consuming and expensive. Machinima allowed the latent film director to create their own stories comparably more quickly and certainly less expensively. New games such as The Movies (which I’ll discuss in much more detail in one of the next couple posts) made this even more easy. For a more complete history, please see Wikipedia.

What does it look like?
There are lots of examples on the web. Caution: some of the examples are not meant for all audiences. The current classic is probably Red vs. Blue. It is often credited with bringing popularity to the genre. Based on the hugely popular game, Halo, the stories chronicle adventures of two of the key characters in the game. Another couple sites to check out include Ill Clan and the huge integrator site Machinima.com.

Why would it get used for learning?
Movies have been used for learning almost since the dawn of the movie industry. Videos are great for communicating lots of messages. Short video clips have even been integrated into modern simulations to reflect the views of the various roles in the simulation.

However, movies are often expensive, time consuming, and nearly impossible to update. Even if the sets and props are all still available, do the actors look the same? Do they have the same clothes? If only one line needs to be changed to reflect the new corporate policy, the whole movie may need to be redone.

In machinima, the actors never age or gain weight. The sets and props are always available. An update can be as simply as a few clicks of the mouse and updating the voice over. If one of the voice talent is not available, re-recording voice is relatively inexpensive and quick. Creating a series of quick clips for the use in a simulation, game, or lecture can be quick and even fun.

I presented this topic at a recent conference where one of the audience members suggested that the participants in a class actually use machinima to create their own training video as an exercise in the class. So, for example, if the class is about how to greet a customer that walks into a store, participants in the class could use machinima to create a few short clips with one or two being bad examples and another couple being good examples. By using the tool, participants would be demonstrating their knowledge of the topic. It’s not a typical simulation, but certainly is a powerful idea.

Is anybody doing it?
Interestingly, at the auto show (see the 4 previous posts), one of the Chrysler kiosks used The Movies Game to create the videos displaying the products. Of course, they were part of the in-game advertising (a topic for another post) and provided many car models for the actual game. They also used the game as contest for creating the best movie.

Where can you find out more?
I’m so glad you asked! I have a session sponsored by Adobe coming up on this exact topic. Please sign up today. It would be great to have you in my session. If you can’t make it, they do record the sessions and have them available a few weeks later. Here’s the information:

Title: Machinima: When Video isn’t Video
Date/Time: Friday, February 16, 2007 at 1:00pm US/Eastern Time
Registration Info: Click here

Description: Machinima is a technique that co-opts video games or other sources to produce animated videos for entertainment. Join Tom Crawford as he explains and demonstrates this technique. Learn how clever instructional designers and developers are using engines from resource allocation/simulation and other video games to create instructional videos and animations. Learn how you can leverages off-the-shelf software to make quick, easy, effective training animations and video vignettes for a fraction of the cost of traditional corporate video production.

Are you available for additional speaking and consulting opportunities?
Yes! I’ve been asked this question quite a bit lately, and the answer is definitely yes. Would your company like more information on this or other topics from the blog? I am available for speaking and consulting on a variety of business, information technology, and learning topics. Just send me an e-mail using the address in the profile area of this page.


The Concept of Concepts

The favorite part of the auto show for almost everyone is the concept cars. Sure, it’s good to be able to go to one place and try out all of the cars on the market without having to endure the Michigan cold spell that always hits just in time for the auto show. However, the concept cars always draw the largest crowds.

Concept cars are an important part of the show. The manufacturers use the concept cars for several key reasons:

  • Ideas – Get feedback on an idea to see if the public thinks it is worth additional Research & Development. Rarely, can consumers come up with truly innovative ideas for a given product, but they can almost always respond to an idea. In this case, the test is on one feature of the vehicle rather than the whole car. For example, a few years back one car could turn it’s wheels completely sideways to ease parallel parking. Buzz can determine whether a pet R&D project ever sees the light of day.
  • Cars – Get feedback and sales projections on an actual car before it goes into production. Sometimes, the concepts are so developed that they are actually ready or nearly ready for production (often with a few tweaks) in less than a year. However, production of an untested idea can be expensive. Market and consumer feedback can determine whether a product ever makes it to market. The Chrysler PT Cruiser is a classic example of this. It received huge buzz one year and was on the market before the next auto show. I have a feeling (maybe it’s just being hopeful) that the Chevy Volt may fit in this group too.
  • Design Cues – Sometimes, it’s just the high level feedback that they’re looking for…long hoods and big curves around the wheels were prominent in this years show. While the cars may not make it, the style might start appearing on other models if the feedback is positive.
  • Brand Image – Frankly, maybe one of the biggest reasons for the concept cars is managing the brand image by creating a perception of coolness and innovation. Dodge did this with the Viper a few years back. Not only was it a concept car that was near ready for production, but it also was a hint of the design cues and new brand image for Chrysler. All of the other cars in the line, followed the Viper design cues for many years from the Avenger to the Neon. DaimlerChrysler has definitely maintained the lead in innovative design and they’re ability to hire designers certainly has benefited. This year, GM is finally back in the design business with several new cars, and it shows in both the consumer buzz and the critics awards. Ford, I’m sad to say, still has a ways to go…with maybe one or two exceptions.

As we come down to the last 24 hours of the auto show, I thought I would share a glimpse of the possible future for the automobile in my final post on this topic. Here are a few that stood out to me:

Acura Advance – Notice again the sweeping line, passenger compartment set very far back, and the soft lines across the hood and down the sides. Here are some more pics and info from one of the press previews.

Chang Feng – They were relegated to the basement, but they were the first entry ever at the auto show from China. I would doubt they’ll be in the basement long. Although, I just hope they don’t come upstairs with this model. Exactly how does it turn? The front and back wheels (yes, there are 4 wheels) don’t have enough room. I guess this one’s really a concept. Here’s their official website.

Chevy Camero – This is one of the cars that I think will help bring GM styling back from the brink. They finally are building a true muscle car again. It looks like a whole lot of fun. I hope one of my GM engineer friends buys one soon. Get more pics and info here.

DaimlerChrysler Smart fortwo – OK, this feels more like a golf cart than a car, but it is legal. It even includes changeable door panels, so the fashion conscious can match their wardrobe or mood. It’s no slouch either with a top speed of 90 mph with a fuel economy of 40 mpg. It may look like a concept, but it’s scheduled to arrive in the U.S. in less than a year. Here’s their official website.

Dodge Viper – I know I said the Camaro is a muscle car, but the Viper still makes it look wimpy. This car is car looks part race car, part Batmobile. Get more pics and info here.

Ford Airstream – What were they thinking? I know futuristic crossover with links to a classic road trip memory. Nice thought. A little too out there for my taste. This definitely fits int he categories of testing ideas and looking innovative, because the car itself is a long way from production with no seat belts, uncomfortable seats, and a very strange cylindrical TV. Get more pics and info here.

Ford Interceptor – This one Ford got right. Powerful, strong, long hood, mean look. Any self-respecting mafioso or gang leader would look great in this car. The brushed chrome grill is an excellent touch. Get more pics and info here.

GM Holden Efigy – Here’s another note on a GM design comeback. This one is retro and modern all at the same time. Chrome, brushed chrome, slick styling, very cool. Note the integrated tailpipes in the rear. Here’s their official website.

Mazda Ryuga – Notice the sweeping lines, the all glass roof, the curving fenders, and the huge wheels. I’m also really glad the detailing on the doors came out so well. Get more pics and info here.

Saturn Sky Redline – Another great design for GM. Who would ever imagine Saturn coming out with something like this. I think this may be the coolest car they’ve ever designed…though that’s not a big hurdle. In any case, it’s definitely worth a long look. Here’s their official website.

While these next few cars aren’t really concepts, they still invoke the same inspiration since for most of us they will remain just concepts and never reach our market. Here are a few of the best luxury showings at the show including a Bentley, Lamborghini, and Rolls Royce:

If you see a car or idea you like in this group, be sure to contact the manufacturer. The more feedback they get, the more likely they are to build the car you want. With enough feedback, the concept may actually become real.


Who Killed the Electric Car?

Apologies to Chris Paine and the other makers of the movie of the same title. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but it is in my Netflix queue.

Did you know?

  • 100 years ago there were more electric cars on the road than gas.
  • Among the many other things he did, Thomas Edison built an electric car in 1889.
  • The car pictured at right, one of the early electric vehicles, won a race lasting 185 miles in the early 1900’s. 185 miles! Just think what technology would have been like today if all of the research had gone into that battery.

Back in the mid ’90s, I worked in Beaumont hospital’s IT department. We had recently moved into our new, state-of-the-art computer center just south of 15 Mile & Stephenson in Troy, Michigan. Shortly after moving in, a flurry of activity started happening at the building just north of us on the corner. Only a parking lot separated us. Overnight a couple strange devices appeared in the parking lot. Then, eventually, these very strange looking cars showed up. Saturn (another innovative project that GM squandered) had been founded less than 10 years before, and these cars looked like Saturns that had been squashed. We watched with anticipation trying to figure out what we were seeing as they drove around the parking lot testing handling, acceleration, and braking. Then, they pulled up to the new installed devices…and plugged them in! Eventually, the EV1 was introduced and we got to watch some of the late-stage testing and development. GM had the global lead. Performance was actually pretty good. Quoting from the movie website, “A prototype set the land speed record for electric cars in 1994 at 183 miles an hour. EV1s accelerated to 60 mph in under 9 seconds and to 30 mph in under 3 seconds.” What would have happened if GM had advanced the research? They had the lead. They squandered it. They missed the somewhat obvious trend (at least obvious to those normal people who were getting hit hard at the pumps). Instead, the were in a battle to see who could produce the biggest cars and trucks ever…Hummer, Escalade, etc. Looking back through history, each time gas prices have jumped, electric vehicle demand and research has increased. Maybe high gas prices is exactly what we need to reduce our dependence on oil.

Anyway, now they’ve lost significant market share in the global automobile industry, and are playing catch up. At this year’s auto show they announced their concept vehicle, the Volt. Concepts are a tricky thing and I’ll post on them in a few days. Some concepts are really to show ideas that are a long way from production and others are to test reaction to vehicles that could be released in some cases in a few months if demand is good. Apparently, the Volt falls somewhere in between. There seems to be some concern about the battery’s power and safety. Of course, we heard these same things about the EV1 and those cars had great performance and lasted 7-10 years before GM removed them from the roads and had them crushed. Now, don’t get me wrong…I don’t want my car melting down like some giant laptop battery gone bad. (They use the same types of batteries now, on a different scale of course). However, I’ve got to believe that if the market reaction is positive (and it seems from all of the press that it is over the top), that a relatively small amount of R&D money can solve the relatively minor problems they’re describing.

Technically, the Volt is actually a hybrid…at least sort of, but not really. Apparently, it can last long enough to get most Americans to and from work. However, if the battery gets close to dying before being recharged, the gas engine kicks in and recharges it. I suppose to be a true hybrid the gas engine would have to power the car. Instead this one charges the battery which powers the car. Even if the gas engine does have to run, by charging the battery and not powering the engine itself, it gets about 150 miles per gallon. Now that’s cool!

The interesting thing about the electric and electric hybrid cars is that they get around the problem of the network. Hydrogen, Natural gas, and even E85 need a network of filling stations that are convenient and ubiquitous. Given the investment required and the obvious resistance of the oil companies, creating or adapting a network is a slow and painful process. The network for the electric vehicle (our oh-so-reliable electric grid) is already in place. They can be plugged in almost anywhere and don’t actually consume that much power. Even the electric/gas hybrids have this benefit because both networks already exist.

Decreased impact on the environment, decreased dependency on oil (especially foreign oil), and lower consumer costs are just some of the tremendous benefits of alternative energy vehicles. There time has finally come. I hope.

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In-Car Technology

There was more cool, innovative car tech this year then I can remember seeing in many years. Here’s the rundown:

iPod Integration
The iPod has taken over the world. I know it’s heresy in some circles (including this one), but I’m really not sure why. It’s not the best device on the market (with plenty being smaller, more powerful, cheaper, more fully functioning). They restrict access to music through their service only. I just don’t get it, but in any case, given the market size integration with their platforms is a no-brainer. I doubt there was any debate, in fact there was probably a rush to just do something to say that an iPod will work in the car. The simplest and by far most common that earned “iPod compatibility” status is the mini stereo jack. Of course, anything can be plugged into that. Boring! More fun is the real integration into the steering wheel. Several cars demonstrated control of the iPod from controls on the steering wheel. The iPod was stored in a special holder in either the glove box or the arm rest, while the in dash display of the song list made navigation a breeze.

MyGig
Other companies took different approaches. The Lexus answer is pictured at the right. Chrysler’s approach is pretty innovative. They have just introduced MyGig, a 20-Gig hard drive in dashboard for holding ripped CDs. Besides the obvious radio/CD/DVD features, it also includes Sirius radio, a USB jack, head phone outputs in the backseat, Bluetooth, a navigation system, a mini stereo jack, and a 6.5″ LCD panel with both touch and voice control. Interestingly, it’s not just available on their high-end cars, it’s making it throughout much of the line. When am I due to get my next car?

Sync
Not to be outdone, Ford and Microsoft have partnered to create Sync. Features include the obvious Bluetooth cellphone integration, voice, steering wheel, and in-dash control, audible text messages, in dash message/info display, voice activated MP3 player, device charging, phonebook sync, and multilingual inputs and outputs. Interestingly, they also created a seamless transition between using the phone as you enter or leave the car without having to hang up. What did they leave out? Why didn’t they include the ability to send a text message or to sync calendar appointments and reminders? I suppose this is version 1.0, so we’ll see what happens.

Cyllindrical monitor
I’m not sure how this would ever be used, but take a flat screen, wrap it end to end and surprise and round monitor, but how do I watch it? I think I’d get dizzy. Thankfully, unlike almost everything else in the list, this is just a concept, which we’ll talk about in a couple posts.

Rotating chairs
While the rest of Detroit is phasing out the minivan, Chrysler is once again innovating theirs. This time, on top of other features, the middle row of seats can turn around to face the back row…a feature lost since the minivan brought the demise of the full-size van. New safety restraint laws were, I’m sure a challenge, but now the kids can talk to their friends without getting yelled at for turning around or taking off their seat belts. It even includes a small (probably useless) table. A couple other concept cars (one pictured) showed this feature, but Chrysler’s is in production. Also, lest we worry about Chrysler, they’re not ignoring the move to so-called “crossover” vehicles replacing the minivans at the other companies. They’ve got a slate of those coming out too.

Regular power outlets
Only so many devices are made with car-compatible chargers and power cords, but that’s no longer a worry. Regular power outlets are now being included. No worries if the laptop runs low or a really big screen TV is needed (see the next item), now, there’s power for everything.

Integrated tailgating
Tailgating has clearly made the big time. All kinds of vehicles have started adding features to make tailgating just a little easier and a little more fun. Drop down speakers in the tailgate were the first to be added as shown by the Jeep pictured at right (add Sync, MyGig, CD/DVD, or iPod integration and there’s an instant party). Fold out tents, tables, and regular power outlets make setting up for the big event quick and easy. One company even turned the sunroof into a pop-up video screen. Let the party begin!


Glove box chiller
OK, this won’t work for the tailgate, but if a few cans need to be kept cool, Chrysler’s integrated a chiller into the glove box. No more need for a cooler on those mid-length road trips. Of course, this was brought to us from the people who made the talking car (which my dad owned…very cool). So, who knows how long it will really be around.

Air conditioned seats
I get why this is important. Even heated seats have their place, but at least they heat up the whole seat while giving that strange feeling. This version, shown at right, blows (yes, blows) a steady stream of cool (or warm) air up through vents in the seat. No, the seat is not chilled or heated…it’s vents in the seat. OK, who thought of this and what were they doing at the time? Thankfully, this is also just a concept.

Self parking
Most of the things in this list are solutions looking for a problem or at least an audience. This one is definitely a problem solver. The new Lexus parallel parks on behalf of the driver. It determines whether the car will fit safely in the space, and then, at the push of a button, it parks itself. Really. Hands free. Push the button and go. Now that’s cool. This should be standard on every car. Forget about learning this in driver’s ed. Give me a Lexus. Think about all of the technology pieces that went in to solving this puzzle…vision systems, processing power, drive train controls (braking/accelerating/turning), safety systems, and override systems. All engineers should solve problems like these.

Alternative energy
All of this stuff is cool, fun, and maybe even helpful. However, the big story at the show is alternative energy. It seems, after decades of denials, Detroit has final heard the call for energy efficiency and it’s being pushed hard. Flex fuels such as bio-diesel and ethanol (i.e. E-85) are hitting the market across all of the makers. Of course, the hidden little secret being whispered is that while E-85 cost 80% of the price of regular gasoline they burn 80% as efficiently, so the net cost difference is zero since more is needed to go the same distance. However, they are renewable resources, so that has to count for at least something. Other fuels being developed include hydrogen, natural gas, electric, clean diesel, and hybrids. Clean diesel is an interesting approach that uses a specially designed engine (pictured at right) that removes most of the impurities from a diesel burning engine. A Quick Rant: Not everything in this category is a hybrid. To be a hybrid, two or more technologies have to be combined such as gas/electric, hydrogen/electric, etc. A pure hydrogen vehicle (or any other type) is not a hybrid. End of Rant. The issue with hydrogen and natural gas is the network. There are very few of them around which makes refueling a bit of a problem. That’s where hybrids come in. They solve the chicken-and-egg problem by letting the driver use 2 sources of energy until the network gets built up. I just hope we’re not creating another Beta/VHS (or for the younger generation BluRay/HDDVD) situation where suppliers won’t build the network until one technology wins. One interesting solution is pictured at right. This company has developed a home fueling station for natural gas vehicles. Now that’s convenient!

Last, but not least in alternative energy…the electric vehicle. This one gets its own post, and it’s the next one.

Other
There was lots of other technologies being shown such as Bluetooth, navigation systems, and DVD players with A/V inputs for game consoles, but we’ve seen these all before. So, I left them out. Just know they were there.

Summary
OnStar was certainly an early pioneer in this space, but the bursting new slew of products is truly amazing. I’m really excited about the future of technology-enabled automobiles. There’s a ton of potential in this space for somebody who wants to get into it.


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