Cars of the future

What will cars of the future be like? In the comic strip Sally Forth, Ted Forth (the husband of the title character) occasionally says that he’s disappointed because things from science fiction of the past, like jet packs, have not been invented or have not become commonplace. He also laments the lack of flying cars.

Ted Forth and others might hope for flying cars in the future, but I have other hopes for cars of the future. Flying cars might be fun, but they’re a long way off and might never happen. I’m thinking in more practical terms: I want a modular car.

A what car? Yes, you heard me right, I want a modular car. A car that’s made up of interchangeable parts. Any module, or part, can be replaced by any other module that connects to other modules in the same way and provides the same features to the car.

A few years ago my family had a car which we called the “white car”. We usually refer to cars by their make (“the Subaru” or “the Buick”), or sometimes by their body style (“the van”), but for some reason we referred to the white car by its color. We bought the white car when we lived in Hawaii and had it five or six years after we moved back to Utah. It was reasonably reliable and fuel-efficient and was a good car overall.

Then the car developed a fatal flaw: the engine block started leaking oil. I took it to a mechanic who said that he could try sealing the leak somehow, but that didn’t work, and I ended up junking the car, just because of an oil leak. Maybe I was too hasty and we could have driven the car for a while longer, but the main problem is that because the engine is big and complicated and tightly integrated into the rest of the car, replacing the engine would have been too expensive compared to what the car was worth.

In a modular car, if one module develops a major problem you might have to replace that module, but because the modules are not tightly integrated, it’s much easier to replace one module. The modules have standard interfaces, so they are interchangeable. How would that work for an engine, or a transmission, or any of the other complicated mechanical parts in a car? It wouldn’t, at least not for a typical vehicle with a gasoline or diesel engine. Electric cars, though, are another story.

Current electric cars are not modular and are tightly integrated like other cars, but they don’t have to be that way. Electric cars can be modular so that you could replace a motor as easily as you could replace a hard drive on your computer. In fact, modular computers are the inspiration for modular cars.

In the early days of computers, they were tightly integrated the same way cars are today. Then the IBM PC came out and other companies started making clones. Some companies started making compatible parts: cases, disk drives, motherboards, graphics cards, memory, and even processors. Now people could choose the best processor, the best disk drive, the best motherboard, and so on. Instead of putting up with a so-so motherboard so that you could get the best graphics card, you can get the best of both. Or, if you didn’t care about graphics card but needed lots of memory you could do that. Competition for producing components heated up and innovation increased.

With cars it’s an all or nothing deal. You can’t choose the engine you like best and put it with the best transmission. I would love to have that option for my family’s 2003 Honda Odyssey which is currently on its third transmission. Ouch. Of course, we didn’t know about the transmission problems when we bought the car, and when we found out about them it was too late to do anything other than sell the whole car. With a modular car it’s never too late to change. You might end up with a module that’s a lemon, but replacing a module is much less expensive than replacing the whole car.

Not only that, but the transmission in a modular car is not an expensive, very complicated mechanical device, it’s a pair of wires. Okay, it might be stretching it a little bit to call wires a transmission. Really the transmission would be the axle between an electric motor and the wheel. Or a few lines in a computer program. Or all of the above. The point is that a modular, electric car can be much simpler than an integrated car.

Increased innovation and simplicity aren’t the only advantages of modular cars. I live about thirty miles away from the university where I work. I ride the bus as often as I can, but some terms I have a late class and can’t ride the bus. I would love to have an electric car to make that commute, and as far as I know, that’s within the range of all-electric (non-hybrid) cars. But what happens if I want to go on a car trip? Even a relatively short trip, say 200 miles round trip, would be too far for a non-hybrid, electric car. Yes, I could get a hybrid, but then I would have a car that’s more complicated than an integrated gas-powered car, not less.

With a modular car the problem is solved. For day-to-day commuting I would use a power module that has only batteries in it. For trips I would use a power module that has a gasoline or diesel powered generator. Yes, I would have to buy gas to put in the generator, but the generator motor would be specially designed just to generate electricity, and to do it as efficiently as possible. And the car’s software would know how to minimize use of the generator by doing things like monitoring the batteries and taking advantage of regenerative braking.

It’s a win-win situation. It’s good for me personally because I spend less money on gas, and on the car. It’s good for the environment because my car can make use of the cleanest power that’s available. At first I might be using electricity produced by a coal-burning power plant, but then when I put solar panels on my roof I can use cleaner energy without making any change to my car. That opens up lots of possibilities in terms of reducing dependence on fossil fuels, cleaning up the air, and helping to minimize climate change.

There’s a good reason why my family (some of us, anyhow) spends at least one day of our family reunion in the summer working on a proof-of-concept modular electric car (how nerdy is that?). There’s a good reason why we (at least some of us) work on that same proof-of-concept car on Black Friday every year when family members come to town for Thanksgiving. (Hint: It’s not just because of the insane crowds in the stores.) There’s a good reason why my brother, Ed, started A Truly Electric Car Company (ATECC) ten or twelve years ago. In fact, there are lots of good reasons: innovation, simplicity, flexibility, less environmental impact, and more.

So if you invent a flying car, I’d love to have one. As long as it’s a modular flying car.

 

Here’s a compensated link to a book that tells how modularity transformed the computer industry: Design Rules, Vol. 1: The Power of Modularity by Carliss Y. Baldwin and Kim B. Clark

Geocaching by the bay

A few weeks ago I flew to San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference (GDC). The conference was great, but that’s the topic of another post (or posts – I might get long-winded (long-fingered?) and write a bunch of posts about it). Besides going to GDC I also enjoyed a great visit with my brother and his family. We had some delicious meals, including some tasty Japanese dishes.

As it turned out, my visit was perfect timing to talk to the patent examiners for a patent application my brother and I are working on for the company he founded, A Truly Electric Car Company (ATECC). The patent application, and the company, will also be the subject of other posts.

But that’s enough about topics of other (future) posts. The topic of this post is geocaching.

Since I live in a landlocked state (Utah), I like to go to the coast whenever I can. So I asked my brother about going to the coast while visiting him and he suggested that we go to the Pigeon Point lighthouse. I checked it out on geocaching.com and found out that there was a geocache there. Since I guessed that there wouldn’t be cell service there, I loaded the cache onto my standalone GPS. That wasn’t as easy as it should have been, since the USB cable for my GPS is flaky. I really need to learn how to set up offline caches on my phone.

Unfortunately the Pigeon Point lighthouse is not in very good shape. Even so, it’s in a beautiful place and the lighthouse adds an interesting historical element to the site. After walking around the lighthouse and enjoying the setting, my brother and I started looking for the geocache.

It was fortunate that I had loaded the cache onto my standalone GPS, because there wasn’t any cell service. We found the general area of the cache and started looking for it. I have some experience with finding caches (Pigeon Point was my 131st cache) but it was my brother who found the cache first. At that point it was getting dark and we didn’t have much more time to look, so he gave me a suitably subtle hint and I soon found it. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t find the cache without a hint, but considering the fact that I couldn’t easily return to look for it again, I was happy to have found it.

It was also nice that we didn’t have to look at the cache’s hint, which told exactly where the cache was. Unlike the cache’s owner, my brother knew the specific situation and give a hint that would help without spoiling the mystery. For me, that’s what geocaching is all about: solving mysteries. And I love mysteries.

Some people talk about liking geocaches because looking for a cache takes them to a place where they otherwise wouldn’t go and they can enjoy the place because they decided to find a particular cache. That’s sometimes the case with me, but more often I look for caches in places where I am going anyhow, so the cache isn’t the reason I go to a particular place.

The caches that I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones that presented the most challenging mystery that I solved. It’s kind of fun to find easy caches. If nothing else, an easy cache adds one to the total on my profiile on geocaching.com (currently at 133), but easily-found caches are usually soon forgotten. Caches that are too hard to find are not easily forgotten, but they are frustrating and not fun. There’s a sweet spot there that’s hard to hit. To put it in Goldilocks terms: not too easy, not too hard, just right.

From a game-design perspective, making a mystery that hits that sweet spot is a big challenge. The game has to give clues to the player, but no single clue should give away the answer. There can be clues that are useless, or even misleading (red herrings), but for the most part each clue should contribute some information but not so much information that no other clues are necessary. I think of it in terms of “partial information”.

With geocaching, partial information comes into play in a variety of ways. First and foremost is the partial information of GPS devices. Apparently there are mapping-grade GPS units that give very precise information, but the ones that most geocachers use might be off by anywhere from 3 meters to 10 meters. So when a device says that you are at a geocache’s location, you might be 10 meters away. Not only that, but the distance the device says will change. It might say you’re one meter away at one point and then a few seconds later say that you’re 5 meters away. For some applications that could cause big problems, but for geocaching it just adds to the mystery.

There’s also the question of hints. Hints are encrypted so that you won’t read them accidentally. A lot of hints tell you exactly where the cache is. That was the case with the Pigeon Point geocache, and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve looked for caches in some places where I know I won’t be able to return soon, and I would rather have a hint that gives away the location than have to leave without finding the cache. That’s especially important because caches sometimes disappear, so you could spend a lot of time looking for a cache that isn’t there any more.

On geocaching.com each cache can only have a single hint, which limits the possibilities for partial information. But there are other ways to give clues, or to find clues. Sometimes the description of the cache will contain clues. Sometimes other geocachers will give hints, accidentally or on purpose, in their logs. Log entries can be encrypted, like hints, so that you don’t see spoilers unless you want to, but sometimes there are bits of information that, taken by themselves, are not spoilers, but combined with other log entries make useful and interesting clues.

My next opportunity for finding geocaches was at GDC, which was at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco. There’s a park there, and I knew that there were some geocaches hidden in the park. However, when I tried to use the geocaching app on my Android tablet it got hung up. I think it was a problem with the tablet, which is a cheap one that has several issues, rather than a problem with the app, which is a good one.

The app is Neon Geo, which I used for years on my old Samsung Galaxy Note 2 phone. When I switched from my Note 2 to an iPhone 6S Plus I couldn’t use Neon Geo on my phone anymore, so I put Neon Geo on my cheap Android tablet and used the tablet for geocaching. I didn’t really look for an app for my iPhone because the official geocaching.com app has poor reviews in the App Store. I should have looked more, because when my tablet flaked out at GDC I missed out on an opportunity to find caches in an interesting place.

On my last day in the bay area my brother’s family and I decided to go to a park that’s on the bay near the San Francisco airport. I knew there would be cell service there, and I didn’t want to fuss with my GPS’s flaky USB cable anyhow. My cheap Android tablet was useless for geocaching at that point, so I looked in the App Store for an iOS geocaching app.

First I looked at the official geocaching.com app again: bad reviews. One of the reviewers mentioned an app called Cachly. While looking for information about Cachly I found a great geocaching web site: The Geocaching Junkie The lady who writes the web site compared Cachly with another app, Looking4Cache. The bottom line was that the differences are relatively minor and she liked them both.

I decided to go with Cachly, and it worked well. I like its visual design and it’s easy to use. My only gripe is that the text that shows the distance to the cache is very small, and I can’t read it without reading glasses. I have to use reading glasses a lot these days, so they aren’t a big deal, but making the distance text larger seems like a pretty easy change that other other users would also appreciate.

The park by the bay was beautiful, and we found a couple of caches there. I was the last one to find them, but I got to enjoy the park, a nice day (with only a few drops of rain), and some time with my brother’s family.

geocaching.com

Here are links to the three geocaches I found on my San Francisco trip:
Pigeon Point Lighthouse GCYGEB
Public Access GCP52D
Es Effo Bug Hotel

Captain on the bridge — Part 2

You’re a powerful warrior battling a huge fire-breathing dragon. You swing your great sword with all your might! Except…, um…, it’s not a great sword. It’s a little lump of plastic sitting on your desk: a computer mouse.

When you play a medieval fantasy game on a computer, the computer screen is a window into a fantasy world. The computer gives you the sights and sounds of a fantasy world, and as long as you’re looking at the screen you can be totally immersed. That’s fine if you have a big screen. Sort of. There’s still the fact that you’re typing on a keyboard or moving a computer mouse, which is not exactly the same as swinging a sword or waving a wand.

But here’s the thing about spaceship bridge simulation games: using a computer can be part of the game. Not only is it okay for the navigation officer to use a computer to plot the ship’s course, it’s what you would expect. You can quibble about what kind of peripherals and user interfaces a computer of the future might have, but it’s certainly possible to visualize a setting where the appearance (and maybe even the processing power) of computers hasn’t changed a lot but the propulsion and other systems of the ship are advanced enough to allow interstellar travel. Using computers adds to the ambience of the game rather than detracting from it as it might in a medieval fantasy game.

In Part 1 of this series I wrote about a tabletop game called Space Cadets where each player has a station on the bridge of a starship. It’s a great game, but the game mechanics are limited by the fact that players have to manually keep track of everything. What happens if you have a computer for each station? Then you have something that can look a lot like what you see in Star Trek and other space-themed movies and TV shows:


“Captain,” the science officer says, looking up from her computer screen, “sensors show an unknow vessel rapidly approaching.” The main screen shows an image of the approaching ship.

“Yellow alert,” the captain says. “Shields up. Comm, open a channel.”

“Aye,” the tactical officer and communications officer say, and use their station’s computers to follow the orders.

“Hailing on all standard frequencies,” the comm officer says. A moment later he says “No response.”

“The unknown ship’s weapons are charged,” the science officer says. “It’s preparing to fire.”

“Stand by to return fire,” the captain says.

Okay, I’m not going to get a job as a screenwriter for the next Star Trek movie, but the point is that with the right programs and a group of players who get into roleplaying you can get gameplay that’s a lot like a TV show or movie. The science officer is not pretending to do what a real science officer might do, she is doing what a real science officer might do. Granted, the data on her screen is fictitious, but it’s well within the capabilities of current computer games to produce very convincing data and displays.

Is there a game that does that? A game where each station has its own computer with appropriate data displays? Yes, there is. It’s called Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator, and it’s a great game. There is a comm station, a navigation station, a weapons station, and an engineering station. There’s also a main screen that can show an image of space in front of the ship or a map of part of the galaxy.

Each player has a job to do, and each player uses their computer to do their job, just like crew members do on the “real” spaceships in the movies.

“But wait,” you say, “how can I feel like I’m on a spaceship when I’m sitting in my family room that looks nothing like the bridge of a spaceship?”

That’s a good question. The answer is that when you get into the game, what’s important is what’s on the screens and not what kind of furniture is in the room or what picture is hanging on the wall. You could say a similar thing about a fantasy game, but even a family room with a picture of Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josephine hanging on the wall can feel like a spaceship bridge if it has computers in it and you’re paying attention to the screens. Sure, you could put some candles in a room and a sword on the wall and call it a castle, but you’d still have all those computers in the room, that look nothing like the things you find in a castle.

If I had to choose between a family room with computers and programs that have a fun and “realistic” game running on them and a room that looks like a spaceship bridge but has no functioning computers, I will take the family room, no matter how good the bridge looks. In fact, a few years ago my family went to the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas just before it closed down. They had a reconstruction of the Next Generation bridge there, and I got a picture of myself sitting in the captain’s chair. I like the picture, and it was fun to be on the bridge, but after standing there and looking at it for a few minutes there’s nothing to do. I’m not even sure where the picture is now.

Isn’t there a way to get the best of both worlds? To have a great-looking bridge that has computers? Yes, there is, but it isn’t cheap. Some people make a room in their house into a bridge, or make a bridge that can be put up or taken down like a movie set. I think there are more people who want to do that, or have started doing it, than have actually done it, but at least one person has done a great job. There’s a link to a video of a great spaceship bridge at the end of this article.

What about virtual reality (VR)? If you really want to be surrounded by a spaceship, why not go with VR? First, that means that everything on the bridge has to have a 3D model and has to be included in the program, which means spending more time and money. A lot more. Game companies are fine with that, but what if I want to make my own games?

VR is great for vision. (At least, I think it is. I haven’t really had a chance to try it out other than a couple of minor demonstrations with Google Cardboard.) It’s probably great for sound as well. But what about actions?

A couple of weeks ago I was looking at the schedule for talks at GDC and noticed that there was a talk about a Star Trek bridge simulation game that Ubisoft is making. I had no idea there was a game like that in the works and at first I was really excited about it. But then I realized that I would have to spend $600 to $800 on a VR headset and controllers, and so would anyone that I wanted to play with. That’s a fair amount of money to spend on games, but obviously it would open up possibilities for lots of other games.

But then I noticed one of the station consoles in the trailer. It was a pretty simple console, with a few sliders on it, and I realized that because of the limitations of the VR controllers, there are limited options for the console. Sliders. Woo hoo.

I am still interested in the Ubisoft game, and I might buy it when it comes out. But when I’m a member of a starship bridge crew, I want to do more than drag a few sliders around while I watch a VR movie. I want to plot firing solutions and decrypt messages and write programs and research mysterious aliens and figure out how to stop the engine core from exploding and vaporizing the entire ship. And I don’t think I can do all of that with a few sliders.

One place where VR could really shine in my game is for away missions. I can totally see crew members putting on VR helmets that let them go down to a planet’s surface and explore on foot or in simple vehicles. Using VR controllers to fire laser beams at a ginormous alien creature that was about to swallow half a dozen innocent bystanders would be a blast. But for the bridge, I want computers that can be used in the usual way, not just with VR controllers.

In short, I want a starship bridge in my basement. I want lots of screens and computer-controlled lights and sounds, and I want the computers to be interesting and useful in a variety of ways, like computers are in real life. It won’t be easy to build the starship bridge and write the software, but with a modular, incremental approach i think it can be done, and I think it will be a whole lot of fun along the way. The journey is the reward.

There’s one other thing I want for my bridge simulation game: great stories. I guess I forget to mention that little detail. I don’t know what Ubisoft has in store for its new spaceship bridge game, but stories are definitely not a strong point for Space Cadets or Artemis.

Stories in bridge simulation games will be the topic of my next post in this series.

Non-compensated links:
Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulation
The Starship Bridge Simulation Network
Spaceship bridge at Kansas City Maker Faire

Compensated links:
Here’s a link to a great book on amazon.com that tells all about how you can build a cool starship bridge in your basement:
Oops, I guess there aren’t any books like that. Maybe some day I’ll write one…