Monday, February 10, 2014

Technology adoption, sinking or swimming?

Mr. Meriweather, did you wind the clock? I'm going to use the sextant to take a fix. Aye captain, that I did, but why don't you just take a glance at the GPS. Aargh Mr. Meriweather, I don't trust that new fangled thing. If the sextant was good enough for me father, and grandsire, it be good enough for me. Besides I don't read so good, and them instruction tomes are weighty.

When I talk about technology it's never from the viewpoint that technology is bad thing, because it isn't. What often happens is it gets misapplied. It can be badly designed, poorly implemented, too difficult or complex to support or have too many critical failure points. Poor contemplation of the inevitable failures can leave you crippled in the water, or on a rock. 

I read Charles Doane's blog yesterday about what had to have been a fun Navico press junket. It was held at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys and was attended by a large number of boating writer luminaries including Panbo's Ben Ellison. You can read Ben's take on the event here. In Charles's story though there was a paragraph that stuck with me.

"Navico's CEO, Leif Ottosson, has set a blistering pace re product development, and the company as a whole is now geared up to introduce at least one new product to the market every 20 days. In the not-so-distant future they are confident they can ramp this up to one new product every 15 days. In any other industry this would seem like gratuitous flack-speak, and you'd expect the "new" products to be only slight variations of older ones, but in electronics generally the market really does evolve that quickly. It seems that Navico's real goal is to haul the once somnolent realm of recreational marine electronics that much closer to the larger industry's bleeding edge."

The first was the concept that Navico is planning to bring a new product to market every 20 days. This speaks volumes about the both the possibilities, and the industry's requirement to innovate or perish. The second was his surmise that Navico may be hauling the marine electronics industry into the future, whether they like it or not. I think Charles's thoughts about this were remarkably prescient. I would just add that some of the others are now moving in this direction albeit it at varying rates. Things are a changing, and I think the pace will quickly startle all of us. The sleeping marine electronics bear is slowly waking up.

Prior to 2008 your boat's navigation electronics were in solitary confinement. They could listen sort of to the outside world, but they couldn't talk to it.

This started to change in 2008 when Garmin introduced the GHP 10 autopilot. Buried down inside their system was an ANT wireless transceiver. Why it was there in the first place is subject to conjecture, and it took five more years to have this capability fully enabled. But it was a first and a start.

The next notable event was Raymarine's e7D with both Bluetooth, and WiFi in 2011. You could actually use a mobile device to talk to it, and to some degree talk to the world. In this same approximate period of time several other notable tech jumps were made including introduction of touch screens, and CHIRP based fish finders. The market very quickly endorsed all of these changes, and these capabilities are now more or less available from all of the big four.

So why did change take so long to happen? Most of these technologies had been around for years. I'm not sure. It could have been concern over potential liabilities or the belief the buyers weren't interested in these things. The answer to this question isn't important. The real question is what technologies can and will be implemented in the near future?

Just reach into your pocket, and pull out your smart phone. The capabilities packed into these small ubiquitous devices made by the millions are orders of magnitude greater that the average chart plotter. They in just a few years already have a bite in the marine electronics market that is to large to ignore. I think is many ways the technology inherent in mobile devices are the current marine electronics tech goal line.

These devices are user friendly, and intuitive because they were well designed for human interaction. Start with you can talk to them, and they will talk back. I can easily imagine scenarios like, "Suri, show me the Boca Grande channel outer marker waypoint on the display." "Suri GOTO Boca Grande channel outer marker waypoint." This is easily possible using only small portion of a mobile devices's existing technologies. 

If I had used a Bluetooth ear bud, and mic for the voice command, I could have kept my hands on the helm the whole time, and would only have to glance at the display to verify It was the waypoint I wanted.

What I do now is lean forward and push a bunch of buttons. Find the waypoint list. Scroll down to the one I want. Select it and then locate and push the GOTO button. Depending on how adroit you are this could take anywhere from just few seconds, to much more time trying to locate the waypoint on the list, and do the GOTO.

There are some other possible subtle benefits. I wouldn't have to be limited to a predefined number of characters used to name a waypoint. It could be any descriptor I wanted to use. I could see the location before I did the GOTO to make sure that was the right one. It could also be double checked for issues. "Suri, show me the course line on the chart." All while staying hands free.

Lastly if your nav system could speak, alarms could be given verbally. Suri could tell me "Shallow water ahead", or "you have arrived." No annoying beeping, and then looking for a message.

This is one simple example of what could be done with current software and hardware. Now add the Google glasses concept to this mix. I still have a Suri, but now I have a head up display built into my prescription sunglasses. The nav data is always there no matter where I'm looking.....which should be for hazards. 

Before anyone's dander gets up I think that mobile devices are and will continue to play an ever increasing role in navigation systems. They still aren't very good in bright daylight, and not yet water resistant enough without putting them in a bag, but they're not going away, and will steadily get better. 

I'm just tendering an argument that the massive amount of investment in both software and hardware for mobile devices and other systems can, and will be ported to the traditional marine electronics marketplace. How much, what, and when will depend on the players, and how resourceful or hungry they are.

I think the next simple steps you will see are adding browsers, wireless keyboards, human speech interaction, finding some way to accommodate third party party apps for systems, and being able to annotate the system's charts yourself. Some aspects of these are underway already.

Who will do these types of things first? Someone will, and quickly. Nature abhors a vacuum.

My Suri is fictional, and is not related to that nice woman Siri who works for Apple.
The Google glass prototype photo is by Wikipedia user Azugaldiak.
The smart phone photo is by Wikipedia user Havarhen.


  1. The free ActiveCaptain Companion for Windows, Mac OSX, iOS (iPhone/iPad), and Android (phones/tablets) follows along while underway and speaks to you as you're approaching a hazard. It queues the hazard without any internet needed so you have all the latest info and comments about the hazard. It's been in use since November and has about 25,000 users today. It's especially nice along the Atlantic ICW because there are so many shoaling and missing marker hazards there.

    1. Thanks Jeffery, my point exactly, AC utilizes mobile devices, and PC's. Maybe in retrospect mobile devices/PC's will end up becoming the more natural human interfaces to the standard navigation system. Technologies like Google Glass, Leap Motion and others will integrate more easily, and faster to the more mainstream tech due to the vast quantity of good third party developers like yourself. Is AC a Google Glass Explorer?

  2. The missing part of the picture is how to reconcile commercial requirements for ever-increasing sales versus consumer benefits of stable product lines with reasonable longevity. As well, the vigorously streaming hosepipe new products entirely ignores excessive external costs imposed by needless replacement old with new.

    There's a fundamental tension here; regardless of need, manufacturers must steadily churn their customer's wallets, must constantly tax customer's mental capacity with various more or less successful user interfaces and must litter the landscape with expired products.

    New product frequency as a figure of merit is a flash-in-the-pan approach, unsustainable for many reasons.


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