Vehicle Displays

September 10, 2012
Driver in a Mitsubishi Galant using a hand hel...

Driver in a Mitsubishi Galant using a hand held mobile phone violating New York State law. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I went to a workshop the other day and heard that a major vehicle manufacturer had adopted the use of touch screen control panels for all of their products.  The speaker had been employed to study the human factors associated with these. His talk was very disturbing – drivers needed more visual attention to use these things effectively as they needed fine motor control (and therefore visual attention) to press the correct area on the screen for their selection, especially if the vehicle was pitching due to the road surface or other conditions.  It made me wonder what bright spark in the company had decided that these displays were a good way to go.  When we are trying so hard to reduce mobile phone and texting use because of the clear and significant problems they pose to road safety, we have a vehicle manufacturer that decides to integrate something into the vehicle which will undo everything that road safety authorities have so far done in this area due to a lack of understanding of the issues involved.

I thought that we had learned from the initial BMW iDrive that technology for its own sake is not necessarily the way to go.  It speaks volumes that BMW now have a very much enhanced vehicle control system which includes haptic feedback so that there is nowhere near the impact on visual resources that the original design had.  And that’s good as the more visual attention is focused on the road, the safer all users will be (put it this way – if a driver is not looking at the external visual field there is no way that they can perceive and react to a potentially dangerous situation).

It made me call to mind a conversation with an engineer who was working on electric vehicles.  He said that they would incorporate noise into the car to emulate the typical sound of current cars.  He insisted that it was the only way to retain safety for pedestrians. It called to mind the situation where a man with a red flag used to signal the approach of ‘horseless carriages’ when they were first introduced in the late nineteenth century.  Why would you introduce noise into the environment when it may not be necessary – surely that is one of the advantages of electric vehicles?  Imagine a city with substantially less road noise (and perhaps more liveable?) as a result.

One disadvantage of course is that the auditory warning provided to pedestrians and other users would not be present, but I’m sure that we have the technology to overcome this aspect.  The almost ubiquitous use of entertainment devices by commuters effectively attenuates these auditory cues in any case as has been tragically illustrated by pedestrians being killed because they stepped out in front of approaching vehicles whilst listening to music from their iPods. However, DSRC network technology could easily provide warning information to pedestrians if it is set up correctly and integrated with the mobile communication networks.  Of course, there would need to be considerable human factors input so that any system is designed properly.

I suppose that all of these examples illustrate the importance of the latter aspect.  It would have been great if the vehicle manufacturer described at the beginning of this post had taken the step of actually testing their idea from a human perspective prior to making such a retrograde decision.  We now have vehicles which inherently create a similar problem to mobile phone use and texting problems that we are trying so hard to overcome – a safety time bomb in each of the vehicles produced by this company. Similar to faulty brakes or steering as it may have the same effect on road safety

One can only hope that the engineers, accountants and marketers who seem to rise to the top of these companies will realise the importance of fundamental human factors in their future products. Not just aspects such as usability testing, but the integral way that humans sense, perceive and process information.  Perhaps we can then apply a safety systems approach to road use and reap the benefits of eliminating the contributors to potential incidents (such as poor vehicle controls) before they occur.

The passing of Neil Armstrong

August 28, 2012

The Saturn V carrying Apollo 11 took several s...

The passing of Neil Armstrong has brought back memories of the historic Moon landing in 1969.  Many who are old enough will remember the awe and excitement of seeing the Apollo 11 mission on the grainy TVs of the day.  I remember as a young boy that my school let the kids out early to view it and I recall peering through shop windows at the landing on the display TVs which were everywhere due to the significance of the event.  Many people had the same idea – it was standing room only outside the local store.

The various articles praise President Kennedy for the original vision, and the scientists and engineers who made it happen. But, as always, it was the human astronauts who carried out the mission, and I recall reading that Armstrong actually took control of the Lunar lander to steer it to its safe resting position after realizing that the planned location was unsuitable.

This poses the question of what role humans will play in future manned missions into space. Will they just be cargo and the autonomous spaceship take them where it is programmed to go? Or will the specially trained commander of the mission and their crew do a similar yet higher tech version of Armstrong and have the final say in where they go?

A few weeks ago, I posted a comment on the issues with regard to pilots becoming flight managers rather than retaining their ultimate control of the aircraft.  There is a current discussion about the ramifications of this for the skills of the pilots and their ability to recover a situation if the automation controls fail for whatever reason. It seems that there is always a problem in striking a balance between automation and human control.  In many circumstances, we get it right but there is still a view that humans should be excluded from decision processes.  I think a better way to go is to provide the humans in executive control the information they require to make the right decisions.  Robbing them of this basic situational awareness is a typical error in automation and the ramifications can be catastrophic.

So, as always, we need to ensure that we provide the right information to the human in the loop, at the right time, and in the right format.  That’s where human factorsprofessionals can help.

Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11

Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sleeping in the moonlight… or not

August 21, 2012

Moritz von Schwind, Selene
and Endymion‎, 1831

In 1609, the English writer Thomas Dekker wrote these lines in praise of sleep:

For do but consider what an excellent thing sleep is: it is so inestimable a jewel, that, if a tyrant would give his crown for an hour’s slumber, it cannot be bought … sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together. Who complains of want, of wounds, of cares, of great men’s oppressions, of captivity, whilst he sleepeth? Beggars in their beds take as much pleasure as kings. Can we therefore surfeit on this delicate ambrosia? Can we drink too much of that, whereof to taste too little tumbles us into a churchyard; and to use it but indifferently throws us into Bedlam? No, no. Look upon Endymion, the Moon’s minion, who slept threescore and fifteen years, and was not a hair the worse for it. Can lying abed till noon then, being not the threescore and fifteen thousandth part of his nap, be hurtful?

Full moon (from Weird
Tales, Sept 1941)

The modern prevalence of jet travel and shift work has prompted considerable research in sleep and sleep-related issues, since many travellers and shift-workers struggle to find effective strategies for managing sleep. Thomas Dekker is certainly correct about the effects which sleep deprivation can have.

However, although Selene (the Moon) caused Endymion to sleep, she is unlikely to be of any help here. In fact, the full moon reduces hours slept, and this effect may underlie traditional beliefs in lunacy caused by the moon. Not to mention the legends about werewolves.

– Tony

The human face and emotion

August 20, 2012
Emotion: Fear

Emotion: Fear (Photo credit: Cayusa)

Everyone has experienced emotion to some degree.  From chilling fear to surprise and delight.  These emotions are quite obvious in children who are still quite innocent in the ways of the world.

The human face is believed by many to betray many of these emotions and this view holds that expressions are quite universal, overriding aspects such as  culture and geographical location.  However, this view derived by Charles Darwin and supported by many subsequent studies begs the question: what do these expressions mean and why are they associated with the respective emotions?  There is new evidence that suggests that there may be more at play here than first thought.   Cultural influences may play a more important role and it may be that the six basic themes of happiness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust/contempt and sadness may have nuances which make the whole concept far more complex than previously thought – it is the subject to current research and discussion with perhaps future modification.

This coincides with technology to clone a human face by the Disney Company.  It seems that this technology will make its way into animations and ultimately, humanoid ‘soft’ robots which will then enable a more ‘human’ interaction. I suppose the task of the engineers has been made a little harder by those pesky psychologists who are  saying that humans are more complex than the six basic themes. Oh life would be a lot easier for a lot of people if humans were simpler and behaved themselves according to physical laws.

But then, psychologists aren’t real scientists are they?  The author of this article decries the methods that psychologists use to describe and understand human behaviour.  Believe it or not, mate, it’s an extremely difficult task – doesn’t really fit in with testing for the Higg’s boson in the CERN but probably at least as difficult.  Similar to doing microbiology without a microscope.  But as technology improves as does our understanding of the extremely complex mechanism called the human brain, we’re getting better.  Sort of like how a real science like genetics made changes markedly after DNA was fully understood and the mechanisms behind how genes are expressed are developed.

After all, chemistry became a science after ancient chemists practised alchemy.

Games and teamwork

August 16, 2012
I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (book cover)

One of my favourite children’s books is I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew by the great Dr Seuss. It contains that wonderful description of teamwork:

… ‘This is called teamwork. I furnish the brains.
You furnish the muscles, the aches, and the pains.
I’ll pick the best roads, tell you just where to go.
And we’ll find a good doctor more quickly, you know.’
Then he sat and he worked with his brain and his tongue
And he bossed me around just because I was young.
He told me go left. Then he told me go right.
And that’s what he told me all day and all night.

Is that really teamwork, though? There are requirements on true teamwork, and these requirements include processes that are (at least to some degree) democratic. But apart from that, what does a good team really look like?

In a 2006 paper in Simulation & Gaming, José P. Zagal, Jochen Rick, and Idris Hsi explore Reiner Knizia’s “Lord of the Rings” board game, in which a team of up to five people play the roles of hobbits intent on destroying Sauron’s ring.

Reiner Knizia’s “Lord of the Rings” board game

Zagal et al. find that this collaborative board game models four aspects of more realistic teams:

  1. There is a genuine tension between perceived individual utility and team utility.
  2. Players may, if they wish, take actions which go against group consensus.
  3. Players are able to trace outcomes (good or bad) back to player decisions.
  4. Players have varying strengths and weaknesses in the context of the game.

These characteristics make the “Lord of the Rings” board game, and similar collaborative board games, fascinating tools for exploring teamwork at its best (or at its worst), and for exploring strategies for improving team effectiveness. And they’re fun, too!

– Tony

The Köhler effect

August 12, 2012

Start of 4×100m relay, 2008 Olympics (photo: “Jmex60”)

In line with the current Olympic fever, a recent article in Wired magazine discusses the Köhler effect in relay races. The Köhler effect (see Hertel et al. 2000 and Kerr et al. 2005) is a phenomenon where less capable members of a team are motivated to perform at a higher level so as to “keep up” with their team-mates (some degree of feedback on performance is required).

A recent journal article cited by Wired studied collegiate swim and high-school track & field relays, and showed a significant Köhler effect, especially in finals. Kerr has also demonstrated the effect in other kinds of collaborative activity.

The lesson here is: to produce a truly stellar team, motivate the weaker members to “keep up,” show them how, and provide objective feedback on how well they are doing.

Members of Cassini spacecraft imaging team, crossing Abbey road (photo:

– Tony

Citius, Altius, Fortius

August 10, 2012

Given the current Olympic fever, it’s interesting to look at the rate at which countries win medals. Tiny Grenada managed a gold, while Jamaica and New Zealand managed more than 2 medals per million head of population:

Rank Country Medals Medals per million
1 Grenada (GRD) 1 9.5
2 Jamaica (JAM) 9 3.3
3 New Zealand (NZL) 10 2.3
4 Slovenia (SVN) 4 1.9
5 Denmark (DNK) 9 1.6
6 Estonia (EST) 2 1.5
7 Hungary (HUN) 15 1.5
8 Australia (AUS) 29 1.3

Some of those countries are too small to see on this map, but the “third rung” with between 1 and 2 medals per million – Slovenia (SVN), Denmark (DNK), Estonia (EST), Hungary (HUN), Australia (AUS), Cyprus (CYP), Qatar (QAT), Belarus (BLR), and Mongolia (MNG) – mostly stand out:

Medals per million at London, so far (click to zoom)

What makes those countries produce so many athletes running faster, jumping higher, and enduring longer? It’s not national wealth, as the graph below shows. Partly, it’s quality coaching. But most of all, “there is no gene for the human spirit.”

– Tony