Category Archives: Design

Listening to Customers

In 2011, BlackBerry peaked with a little more than 50 million devices sold. The trajectory had an impressive ~50% CAGR from 2007 where the sales were around 10 million devices. I am sure the board and chiefs were pleased and expected this trend to continue. One might expect that ~250 million devices were to be sold in 2016 if the CAGR could be sustained. Even linear growth would be fairly impressive.

Today, in 2017, BlackBerry commands a somewhat unimpressive 0.0% of the smartphone market.

There was also Nokia. The Finnish toilet-paper manufacturer pretty much shared the market with Ericsson in Scandinavia and was incredibly popular in many other regions. If I recall correctly, they sold more devices than any other manufacturer in the world. But they were the McDonalds of mobile phones: Cheap and simple (nothing wrong with that per se). They did have some premium phones, but perhaps they were just too expensive, too clumsy or maybe too nerdy?

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Talking on a Nokia N-Gage phone

Nokia cleverly tricked Microsoft into buying their phone business, and soon after the Microsoft gave up on that too (having been a contender in the early years with Windows CE/Mobile).

I am confident that BlackBerry was “listening to their customers”. But perhaps they didn’t listen to the market. Every single customer at BlackBerry would state that they preferred the physical keyboard and the naive UI that BlackBerry offered. So why do things differently? Listen to your customers!

If BlackBerry was a consulting agency, then sure, do whatever the customer asks you to. If you’re selling hot-dogs, and the customer asks for more sauerkraut, then add more sauerkraut, even if it seems revolting to you. But BlackBerry is not selling hotdogs or tailoring each device to each customer. They are making a commodity that goes in a box and is pulled off a shelf by someone in a nice shirt.

As the marginally attached customers are exposed to better choices (for them), they will opt for those, and in time, as the user base dwindles, you’re left with “fans”. Fans love the way you do things, but unless your fan base is growing, you’re faced with the very challenging task of adding things your fans may not like. Employees that may be prostrate bowed but not believing, will leave and eventually you’ll have a group of flat-earth preachers evangelizing to their dwindling flock.

It might work as a small, cooky company that makes an outsider device, but it sure cannot sustain the amount of junk that you tag on over the years. Eventually that junk will drag the company under.

Or, perhaps BlackBerry was a popular hotdog stand, in a town where people just lost the appetite for hotdogs and had a craving for juicy burgers and pizza (or strange hotdogs)

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Taste and Craftsmanship

I think it would be unfair to say that blue is a better color than green, or that flat design is better than skeumorphic. And I don’t think we’d appreciate flat design w/o having been through skeumorphic design first (and poor, misguided attempts at that too).

The website craigslist.com is #50 in the world (#10 in the US), and I think most designers will agree that it looks pretty plain. Amazon.com is #11 and sports a pretty chaotic design. So it would seem that a design doesn’t make or break a product; a product that works really well can succeed in spite of not being pretty. I suppose the design just has to be appropriate. I wonder if craigslist would have been where it is today, if Craig Newmark had tried to keep up with the design trends over the years. I think what’s key for craigslist is that the design looks almost bohemian, which may resonate quite well with the self-image of its users.

But craftsmanship is something slightly different. Poor craftsmanship can be a dealbreaker, and I believe it carries bigger weight than aesthetic preferences. Even if craigslist looks rather plain, it does follow some fairly well-established design rules. It would appear that the craftsmanship is good – the designers know what they are doing, and while you may not be particularly attracted to the site (the taste), the design feels deliberate and done with/on  purpose.

craigslist

As an example of the polar opposite, take a look at Yahoo! classified registry. I don’t know what those pages are for, but it seems as if Yahoo! has no taste. They’ve just mashed a bunch of random ingredients into a very tasteless pie. I wonder if they are maintaining it at all – it sure looks like they’ve abandoned it a while ago. I think the Yahoo page is an example of no taste, and bad craftsmanship. The “New” icon seems completely out of place, and it looks pretty bad.

Yahoo

 

So, I think it’s safe to say that Yahoo! have failed. A poorly designed page, with no meaningful purpose (that I can see). This sort of thing must be avoided at all cost. Yet it seems that a lot of companies end up with something similar to Yahoo!’s abomination. A lot of times, as developers discover a new technique, they can’t wait to use it – somewhere – anywhere. When I was first dabbling in WPF I did a (terrible) mirror floor effect. I immediately popped it in the administrator app. As it was pretty cool, no-one told me to remove it. It still sits there. Inappropriate and annoying to me. And as time passes, my preferences change. I went from skeumorphic to flat, but I never had the time to redo all the assets. As a result, I have a mix of both styles.

So, I understand why design rot happens, and I am pretty sure that I know how to remedy the situation, but I can’t prove that theres a ROI on cleaning it up. People who didn’t buy our product, are not going to complain about the lack of consistency in the design, and people who did, probably don’t care enough to complain. Thus, the problem appears smaller than it might be. Furthermore, a new, overhauled design, may not sit well with our existing customers, and there is clearly a tendency to want to do everything vastly different a second time around (the second system effect).

 

One Auga Per Ocularis Base*

In the Ocularis ecosystem, Heimdall is the component that takes care of receiving, decoding and displaying video on the screen. The functionality of Heimdall is offered through a class called Auga. So, to render video, you need to create an Auga object.

Ocularis was designed with the intent of making it easy for a developer to get video into their own application. Initially it was pretty simple – instantiate an Auga instance, and pass in a url, and viola, you had video. But as we added support for a wider range of NVRs, things became a little more complex. Now you need to instantiate an OCAdapter, log into an Ocularis Base Server. Then, pass the cameras to Auga via SetCameraIDispatch and then you can get video. The OCAdapter in turn, depends on a few NVR drivers. So deployment became more complex too.

One of the most common problems that I see today, is that people instantiate one OCAdapter, and one Auga instance per camera. This causes all sorts of problems; each instance counts as one login (which is a problem on login-restricted systems), every instance consumes memory and memory for fonts and other graphics are not shared between the instances. In many ways, I should have anticipated this type of use, but on the other hand, the entire Ocularis Client is using Heimdall/Auga as if it was a 3rd party component, and that seems to work pretty well (getting a little dated to look at, but hey…)

Heimdall also offers a headless mode. We call it video-hooks, and it allows you to instantiate an Auga object, and get decoded frames via a callback, or a DLL, instead of having Auga draw it on the screen. The uses for this are legion, I’ve used the video-hooks to create a web-interface, and until recently we used it for OMS to, video analytics can use the hooks to get live video in less than 75 lines of code . Initially the hooks only supported live video, but it now supports playback of recorded video too. But even when using Auga for hooks, should you ever only create one Auga instance per Ocularis Base. One Auga instance can easily stream from multiple cameras.

However, while Heimdall is named after a God, it does not have magical capabilities. Streaming from 16 * 5 MP * 30 fps will tax the system enormously – even on a beefy machine. One might be tempted to say “Well, the NVR can record it, so why can’t Auga show it?”. Well, the NVR does not have to decode every single frame completely to determine the motion level, but Auga has to decode everything, fully, all the way to the pixel format you specify when you set up the hook. If you specify BGR as your expected pixel format, we will give you every frame as a fully decoded BGR frame at 5MP. Unfortunately, there is no way to decode only every second or third frame. You can go to I-Frame only decoding (we do not support that right now), but that lowers the framerate to whatever the I-frame interval would be, typically 1 fps.

If you are running Auga in regular mode, you can show multiple cameras by using the LoadLayoutFromString function. It allows you to create pretty much any layout that you can think of, as you define the viewports via a short piece of text. Using LoadLayoutFromString  (account reqd.) you do not have to handle maximizing of viewports etc. all that is baked into Auga already. Using video hooks, you can set up (almost) any number of feeds via one Auga instance.

sdk_loadlayout

Granted, there are scenarios where making multiple Augas makes sense – certainly, you will need one per window (and hence the asterisk in the headline), and clearly if you have multiple processes running, you’d make one instance per process.

I’ll talk about the Direct3D requirement in another post.

Pareto Principle

…or the 80-20 rule as it is also known. I am not fully convinced that it holds true; that 80% of your profits come from 20% of your clients, that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the staff, and that 80% of the peas come from just 20% of the pods. But when designing software, I think you need to keep the Pareto principle in mind.

As we add features to our product, we usually sit down and have a meeting about how to create the UI to enable a user to accomplish some task. As we wireframe the UI, people around the table will come up with additional ideas, and point out weaknesses in the design. But quite often, the longest discussions are about what I call “fringe use”. The reality is that people tend to imagine that they are going to use a lot more functionality than they actually do. Since the feature is not in the product, we really don’t know if they are going to use it, and there really isn’t any scientific way of knowing if people will actually use a function. Merely Asking people simply doesn’t work, and we can’t really do A/B testing on software such as ours.

We might not spend 80% of our time discussing and designing UIs for the 20% (or less) that will actually use the feature, but we certainly spend a lot more time designing for the minority, than the expected revenue from these border cases seems to justify.

While the 20% might be getting a good deal, there are more serious consequences. The 80% that really don’t care about the 20%’ers special needs, are getting a shittier deal. Time is a limited resource, and every minute we spend on fringe, is a minute stolen from normal users experience. At times it also means that the interface for Mr. Normal becomes cluttered with a lot of irrelevant options. More options means that the UI is more taxing on the old brain.

I think we need to get back to spending 80% of the design time on the 80% of the users. Am I wrong?

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Let’s Ask the User!

It has been demonstrated over and over again that “asking the users” can be a terrible idea when it comes to user interface design, yet you still encounter people who fancy themselves UI designers,  but feel that the users should tell you how to solve a UI problem.

You can’t design an application without interacting with users, but I never, ever, ask people to tell me how to design things. I often ask “in your opinion, what is the most difficult or annoying thing about XYZ”. If there is a consensus about something being difficult to accomplish, I will do a mock-up and show it to the interested parties. When a designer says that he has found a usability problem, but he is asking the users how to resolve it, I get lightheaded and have to sit down for a while.

So please, if you fancy yourself a designer, and there is a problem, you find the solution. not the users.

Live Layouts vs. Forensic Layouts

In our client, if you hit browse, you get to see the exact same view, only in browse mode. The assumption is that the layout of the live view is probably the same as the one you want when you are browsing through video.

I am now starting to question if that was a wise decision.

When clients ask for a 100 camera view, I used to wonder why. No-one can look at 100 cameras at the same time. But then I realized that they don’t actually look at them the way I thought. They use the 100 camera view a “selection panel”. They scan across the video and if they see something out of place they maximize that feed.

I am guessing here, but I suspect that in live view, you want to see “a little bit of everything” to get a good sense of the general state of things. When something happens, you need a more focused view – suddenly you go from 100 cameras to 4 or 9 cameras in a certain area.

Finally, when you go back and do forensic work, the use pattern is completely different. You might be looking at one or two cameras at a time, zooming in and navigate to neighboring cameras quite often.

Hmmm… I think we can improve this area.

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Analog vs IP Video

In the good old days, you had to have a guy walk in front of an automobile, ringing a bell to warn pedestrians that a car was coming (at walking pace), it was unreliable, difficult to operate, and one false move and it became an instant death trap. Horses, on the other hand, were easy to replace, they all fit in the old barn, and they all ate pretty much the same food.

The car analogy is not to say that IP is the car of today compared to a horse; the analogy is that when cars first came about, it took a long time before they became as homogeneous as they are today. Back then it was very difficult to see cars as a viable alternative to the horse. The point I was trying to make is that we are busy designing a better car, while others are convinced that Horse 2.0 is the way to go.

So is IP really better than Analog?

A DVR is analog – right?

Well… Let’s define the terms a little, to avoid the semantic confusion. In this discussion, “analog” refers to the transmission mechanism from the camera to the recording device. “analog” means that the camera sends an analog, uncompressed NTSC/PAL signal directly to the recording device. Whereas the an IP camera captures the image, compresses it and sends it via an IP network to the recording device.

The recording device may be labelled “DVR” or “NVR”, but in most cases the internal components are roughly the same. A DVR usually comes with a framegrabber card preinstalled that allows the recorder to capture the analog video and store it in digital form on a storage medium (is this starting to sound like lawyer-speak?). Likewise, an NVR may be retrofitted with a framegrabber card too, and thus the DVR and NVR becomes almost indistinguishable. Therefore, the discussion is not about DVR vs NVR, but rather analog vs. digital transmission of video.

Cabling
If you already have cabling in place, or if the placement of the cameras is such that you can’t cluster the cameras, then the cabling part of it is equal. But if you can do clustering, it is extremely cheap to do with IP cameras. Also, as Mark Schweitzer pointed out in the LinkedIn forum, IP comes with a built-in upstream channel, so if you ever need to replace a fixed camera with a PTZ, you do not need any additional cabling. Wireless transmission can also be achieved and you can monitor a camera (or a cluster of cameras) via the internet. As far as I can tell, HDcctv cannot piggyback off cat5, but need new HD-SDI cabling (I’m sure Todd Rockoff can clearify on the cabling requirements). I don’t know if SDTI is commonly used in HDcctv installations either.

Image Quality
Analog comes in a few flavors; the most common is NTSC/PAL(and their variations). NTSC has a resolution of 486 lines which in many cases is too low to identify faces unless they are very close to the camera. IP allows you to pick cameras that fit the purpose; cheap, low res cameras for overview, more expensive HD cameras for details and so on. If you so desire, you can easily replace one camera with another of higher or lower resolution. HDcctv seems to allow 1080P (2MP) as the maximum resolution. I think the increased flexibility of IP makes a winner overall.

Live viewing
For those who look at video, live, and respond to it, low latency and fluidity (high framerate) is important. High resolution less so. The reason is that you do not need crisp video to see that someone is fighting on the street, it is only when you go back to investigate and later go to court that the high resolution is real important (identification of license plates etc). Some IP cameras allow you to run 2 streams at the same time. One that gets recorded and one which is called up on demand when you want to view live video. Naturally, you are constrained by the bandwidth available to you as well as the ping-time. If you are cabling like you would an analog installation, you would have no problems with latency or quality at all.

On the other hand, if your IP camera does not provide dual streaming capabilities, then what you record is is what you get to see live. This means that if you run a low framerate and high compression then your live view will reflect that. On the other hand, you can always replace the camera with a better one that supports dual streams.

Playback
Even if the transmission of analog video is lossless the recorder will compress the video using the same compression technology as the IP camera. Any compression artifact introduced by the IP camera will also be introduced by the recorder as it compresses the video. However, while the IP solution may provide playback video in substantially higher resolution than the live video feed (which has an emphasis on framerate and latency), the analog solution can never provide higher quality than the live feed. What you see live is the highest “quality” that you will ever see.

Again, apples to apples, if IP is deployed using analog cabling conventions, you can certainly get the same live/playback quality as an analog system (e.g. VGA/30fps). Furthermore, your recorded video may be of much better fidelity than your live video (e.g. 1080p/10fps). This makes it possible to identify faces and license plates on the recorded video as you are conducting an investigation. It must be stressed that this is not always possible to achieve, bandwidth constraints are always a factor that must be taken into consideration. You should never expect to get 5MP, high quality, 30 fps recordings over a dial-up internet connection.

Scalability
IP cameras is like a BYOB party. Everyone brings their own beer, so you just need to consider how many people will physically fit in your pad. IP cameras already do the compression for you, so the recorder simply needs to pipe the data to the hard-drives. In an analog system, the recording device is handing out the beer as people arrive. The host might have enough beer for a 16 people, but once you are out of beer the party stops. Furthermore, some IP cameras will allow you to do motion detection, or even video analytics directly on the camera (this technology is still in its infancy though). Obviously, a system based on analog transmission can also scale, by adding more/stronger/faster recorders. In terms of scalability I think IP eeks out the advantage, but not by much.

Conclusion
I think the prudent investment is not in more barns for horses or investing heavily in horse 2.0 (which requires special pavement to achieve the speed of a car).

With that said – Happy Holidays folks

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HD vs PTZ

I have to agree with the Luddites. Analog PTZ is far superior to IP MP Video. Especially if you need to really zoom in on tiny details, and you have a manned system…

…But that’s like judging a fish by it’s ability to climb trees (as Einstein supposedly said once).

Let’s flip it around, and ask how well an analog PTZ camera can look in two directions at once. Let’s ask if analog PTZ can do a tour at 90 degrees per second, 24-7-365 without breaking. Let’s try and do analog PTZ in Houston, from an office in New York on a shoestring. Let’s ask if we can change our minds and zoom in on a different area after the video was recorded.

Now, if an IP based optomechanical PTZ camera was given the same budget as the cost of wiring an analog one, then you would not be able to tell them apart at all. And I am guessing you don’t really need to spend the full budget to get equal performance – you can probably get good (perhaps not as good) performance a lot cheaper.

But what if you really wanted to replace a mechanical PTZ with a MP camera?

I guess a lot of installation were getting mechanical PTZ’s in the past because there was no other choice. Now there is. It’s fairly cheap to install 3 fixed cameras vs. 1 PTZ (simply because you don’t need to pull 3 cables all the way back to the recorder – you can pop in a POE switch and cluster the 3 cameras). If you then put in 3 decent cameras you are golden. You even get to see things from 3 vantage points – something PTZ will never do. Even if a vandal breaks one, you still have 2 others that are recording.

It is true that right now, the cost of 2 additional camera licenses are a burden, but I think that cost will come down dramatically over the next 24 months.

But a mechanical PTZ camera is really equivalent to a Gigapixel camera. If you do the maximum zoom level, and do a full pan-tilt of the area you get a huge resolution. If you were monitoring highways it would make sense to have an optical PTZ at the intersections which would allow you to zoom in much more than the MP would ever let you.

Another disadvantage to HD cameras are that they take up a lot of space and they require a lot of processing power to decode. This is mostly an issue for the client side developer (as we need to decode the frames to show them to you 😉 ), but an issue nonetheless. Some people will just compress the crap out of those feeds, but that totally negates the purpose. You might as well use a lower resolution camera then. Sometimes the framerate gets lowered to the point where you might as well be looking at a slideshow – but that might just be good enough for the user.

So I think Todd Rockoff is correct. HD and PTZ are complimentary.

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Preallocation of Storage

What is the principal argument against pre-allocating (formatting) the storage for the video database?

One problem that I am aware of is if you need to pre-allocate space for each camera. A camera with very little motion might record for 100 days in a 100 GB allocation, while a busy one might have just 1 day. Change the parameters and it gets real hard to figure out what a reasonable size should be.

But say that you pre-format the total storage you need for the entire system, and then let all the cameras share the storage on a FIFO basis. This way, all cameras would have roughly the same amount of time recorded in the database.

My, decidedly unscientific tests, show that writing a large block of data to a continuous area on the disk is much faster than writing to a file that is scattered across the platters. Disk drives now have large caches and command queuing, but these mechanisms were designed for desktop use, and not a torrent of video data being written and deleted over and over again.

Some people balk at the idea that you pre-format the disk for reasons I simply do not understand. If you have a 100 TB storage system, I would expect that you’d want to use the full capacity of the disk. There are no points awarded for having 20% of the disk empty, so why do people feel that pre-allocation is bad?

Any takers?

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Is ONVIF a complete failure?

I like to sit on the sideline and critique the work that other people did. I tend not to participate in committees as I find them totally counterproductive.

To make a protocol a success, I think it should be simple. Now, simplicity is in the eye of the beholder, but take the original HTTP proposal. One page.

ONVIF is not just one page. It is a LOT of pages, a few concepts but a LOT of room to interpret things differently and mess things up (don’t forget to add developers tendency to make funny errors to the mix).

I am told that ONVIF is already creating problems in the real world. An NVR vendor recently announced that a new “Samsung ONVIF driver” was available. The idea that you write ONVIF drivers for particular vendors tells me that while ONVIF might not be broken per se, there are certainly problems pretty much across the board (please correct me if I am wrong).

ONVIF is really a great example of two problematic concepts. Design by committee and the second system effect. While the committee part is fairly obvious, the second system effect might need some clarification: Most people that participated in the committee had already had experience with simple HTTP based interfaces. Now, instead of picking the BEST parts, keeping it simple and then incrementally add functionality, they decided to make this the “mother of all rewrites”. No more simplistic HTTP, no, let’s go all out and throw the technology du jour at it. What about SOAP? Hell YEAH!! I guess the ONVIF guys could have chosen CORBA as well, because when CORBA was hot the community wanted to use CORBA for everything too.

Here’s one example of how the ONVIF committee, in my opinion, have compromised the user for the sake of the technology: Events are never pushed from the camera to the NVR, instead the NVR has to POLL for events. This may or may not be a problem, if you want your system to respond fast you need to poll more often. I think it is a poor design. I don’t need my app to act like a kid in the back seat asking me “are we there yet” every 30 seconds (or every second if you want something that seems a little closer to real time).

Now, I don’t pretend to know the motivation for this weird design and I suppose that there is some merit to it (I just don’t know what it would be). An alternative could have been a HTTP POST with some XPath and an expiration, the response would then be a multipart/mixed response, each payload corresponding to an event.

Don’t take this the wrong way, the ONVIF spec is a magnificent specimen of work, but I believe you have over-engineered the solution. All we needed was for you guys to agree on the same freaking URI to get video and we’d be done, instead we got something terribly complex that I believe will be too difficult for a lot of people to implement.