Bloom Energy – Not Replacing the Grid Any Time Soon

Date February 25, 2010

Bloom Energy just announced their Bloom Box today.  The Bloom Box is a fuel cell that consumes air and fuel (natural gas, methane, etc.) to produce electricity.  The box is apparantly cheap to produce (key component is sand used to make ceramic plates) and produces a lot of energy for its size (25W per plate).  A segment on 60 Minutes shows Bloom pimping the technology as the cure for power in homes across the world.

According to Bloom, one fuel cell plate produces 25W, one stack is 1kW.  Multiple stacks are combined to produce modules, which can be combined to produce larger systems.  It’s a beautifully simple and modular system that can scale easily.

But don’t believe all the hype.  Their claim that one stack is sufficient enough to power a typical US home 24 hours a day, seven days a week is a bit of a stretch.  According to the US Department of Energy (excuse my lack of Canadian data, but this is a US company and they’re talking US numbers), the typical US home consumed 936kWh of energy per month in 2007.

To see how Bloom’s claims are over-inflated, let’s do a little simple math.  There are roughly 720 hours in a month.  The average home consumes 936kWh per month.  936kWh / 720 hours = 1.3kW or 1300W of power consumed on average for every hour over the entire month.

Bloom’s claim that 1kW is sufficient for a typical US home falls short by 300W per hour.  Doesn’t sound like much, but that’s the average over a month, and it adds up.  The point they aren’t making clear is that their basic system is somewhat capable of sustaining the average power demands of a home, but it does not come close to meeting the actual usage of power in a typical home.

A typical home these days has minimum of 100 Amp service from the grid (new homes commonly have 200A service) or about 12kW.  This is sufficient to power the appliances, lights, heating, etc. that we don’t think twice about using, even simultaneously.  To put it into perspective, a typical microwave draws about 1000 W of electricity at full power, a powerful hair dryer could use 1500W, 5 incandescent light bulbs will draw about 500W, and your desktop PC might draw about 300W.  The total of these examples is already 3.3kW, but under certain circumstance it is entirely possible that much more power is consumed at any given time.

To be truly free from the grid, which Bloom is suggesting their technology will enable users to do, users will need to buy more expensive Bloom modules that supply 25kW of power.  These boxes are about the size of a fridge, and are likely much more expensive.  As well, these fuel cells likely produce heat and will need to be installed outside, which could be problematic for some.

Bloom seems to have a good product and interesting new technology, but they need to be a bit more realistic with what the true energy demands of the typical home really are.  Users should be aware that smaller systems will likely help offset electricity consumption from the grid, and could realize some cost savings over time, but the grid will still need to be connected to cover peak usage scenarios or for redundancy if the Bloom module fails.

All-in-all, I think this is good technology and I’m excited to see where this will take us in the future.  Perhaps it will be common for homes to have their own supplemental power generation from such systems.  Using such systems to remove homes from the power grid, however, is not likely due to cost and reliability factors.  Bloom will likely try to overcome these issues either through clever marketing, or innovation, but until then we will need to continue to rely on grid power.

Apple iPad – What’s the big deal?

Date February 3, 2010

Apple's iPad

Ever since Apple announced the iPad on Jan 27, the media and social networks have been buzzing with speculation and opinions about whether or not this new device will be a hit or a miss. But why are people giving it so much attention?  What’s the big deal?

This idea isn’t new, tablet computers have been around for years and serve their purpose in niche markets.  But the problem with them is that until now they’ve been clunky and awkward to use.

In terms of hardware, they’ve been heavy, bulky and their screens aren’t great.  For software, unless the applications running on them are designed to handle the simple and coarse input from a finger on the screen, the user is relegated to using a stylus and fighting with a clunky operating system (usually Windows) that is intended to be used with a mouse and keyboard.  For most people a laptop computer is just easier to use because it has these devices and is pretty much the same size and weight of existing tablet PCs.

Apple’s innovation with the iPad is not only that they’ve made the tablet small and light enough to be actually enjoyable to hold and use, but also that it uses an operating system designed from the ground up to be touch-based.  This means no tiny x’s to close windows, or no windows at all for that matter.  Simplicity is the key factor.  Anyone with an iPhone or iPod Touch will understand this concept.

Because it’s so simple, some might argue that the iPad is simply a larger iPod Touch.  They’re right, it pretty much is.  But it is due to its larger size that makes the iPad so much more useful.  The iPod Touch is an incredibly useful device, but what it gains in portability, it loses in usability.  The browser on an iPod Touch or iPhone is pretty small and requires constant pinching and panning to view even the simplest web sites.  A larger screen allows the full page to be displayed and much easier input.  Applications built for the iPod Touch or iPhone are limited in screen real estate which prevents them from being truly useful.  Most apps on these devices are more for viewing information remotely than they are for actually creating content.  A larger screen opens the door to a whole new frontier of applications and uses.  Games will be more interactive.  Utilities will have more information.  Productivity tools will be more useful and productive.  All because more can be displayed on the screen at the same time.

Thin iPadSo form really plays an important part in this device.  It needs to be big enough and easy enough to use that anyone can just pick it up and use it without really thinking about it.  Just like reading a book, which brings me to my next point: content.  The iPad will likely do for books, magazines and newspapers what the iPod did for music.  That is, it will make it convenient and readily available to anyone, anywhere and for much less than a hardcopy.  Periodicals like magazines and newspapers could be delivered automatically over wireless to the iPad when they’re published.  They will be the full colour version, complete with the layouts and designs that make many periodicals so enjoyable to read.  All of this becomes readily available in digital form, instantly.  This is pretty big.

Aside from all the hype as to whether or not the iPad will be the next big thing, like the iPod or iPhone, I think it’s safe to say that the high level of excitement about this new technology is justified.  Apple has taken the concept of a tablet that’s been around for a while and made it more convenient, enjoyable and simpler to use.  This, coupled with easy access to digital content, will be what drives their device into the hands of many.  But even if the iPad itself doesn’t catch on, the bar is now set for others producing devices in this area like Amazon’s Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook.  Digital content in a small and useful e-reader is the future, and Apple seems to be leading the pack.

Bypassing the Roadblocks to American Streaming Media

Date May 15, 2009

This post is intended to all you non-Americans out there…

Have you ever wanted to watch that tv show you missed? Have you heard of Hulu? Hulu.com hosts many tv shows and allows users to stream the shows to their computer whenever they want. No more having to stay up late to catch your favorite show, or remembering to set your PVR (or VCR if you haven’t joined us in the 21st Century yet). Yes, Hulu is the next big thing for streaming video. Just like Pandora is for streaming audio. You have heard of Pandora, right? You really must try these websites.

What’s that? Hulu and Pandora are saying they are terribly sorry but you are not in the USA and so they are just not feeling good about streaming content to you, for some reason or another. Well so much for the open internet. I guess you’ll just have to wait for Hulu and Pandora to do some market research and realize they can grow their markets by a measly 10% by opening Canadian versions of their websites. But that would be after negotiating licenses, etc. with the appropriate regulators and distributors. That might take some time.

Or not. There is a solution if you really need it. The solution is to make your computer’s IP address American by routing your browsing through a proxy. There are many programs out there that can do this, but I like Hot Spot Shield for OS X. This is a free application (it inserts ads) that spoofs your computer’s address into one from the US. Once this is done, it allows you to access your favorite websites just like any other American. You do take a bit of a performance hit, and I wouldn’t use it for any secure connections, but it will allow you to stream Hulu and Pandora, and likely any other American media that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to see.

You can turn the proxy on and off, which is handy. I’ve found that you only really need to turn the proxy on when establishing the streaming media connection. Once the connection is established, you can turn off the proxy and continue to stream. I like to keep the proxy off as much as possible, mostly for performance reasons, but also because you never know where your data might be going.

So go get yourself a proxy and open your non-American eyes to the wonderful services that are out there. I really enjoy Pandora, and Hulu is pretty darn convenient.

Microsoft’s DeepZoomPix.com = FAIL (Seadragon)

Date April 24, 2009

Microsoft has managed to do it again. They created something useful (and quite innovative I might add) and then went ahead and Microsoft-ized it.

I’m talking about the PhotoZoom.com website that Microsoft used to have that helped showcase their Seadragon technology. PhotoZoom.com allowed users to upload their high resolution images to a server where it would be processed into the many smaller image snippets that Seadragon uses. Users could then copy the URL of the processed image and use it in a Seadragon plugin on their own web pages, blogs, etc. It all worked quite well, and was server based so anyone could use it.

Maybe it was a marketing decision, or maybe too many people were linking to it rather than actually visiting the site, who knows, but Microsoft decided to change PhotoZoom.com. Under the new name of PhotoZoomPix.com, Microsoft has done away with the option of viewing single images and providing URLs to them. Instead, it is more album based. Users can still upload high resolution images and view them on the PhotoZoomPix.com website, but the only thing users can link to externally now is one of their albums. Not great for those who want to show a single image in the plugin on an external web page.

As well, Microsoft makes it clear that this is a technology demonstration website and it will not be around after Dec 31, 2009. All user data will be lost after this time. The site is intended to demo Deep Zoom technology which is available to PC users in their Deep Zoom Composer application. Unfortunately for Mac users (such as myself) there is no client software to generate the Deep Zoom processed data.

Needless to say, I’m a little disappointed that Microsoft isn’t investing more into this service. Their technology is sound, but right now they’re limiting it to PC users who download their composer software. I have no idea if a Mac version is in the works or not, but regardless, they’re relying on their users to go through the effort of processing their images and also to have their own server space to store this data. That could be a problem for a lot of people who just want to exhibit their images.

I think this technology is pretty innovative and very useful. I’d be willing to pay for the processing and hosting services that PhotoZoom.com used to provide. I hope Microsoft understands this and brings it back in one form or another, with back-end Deep Zoom processing and storage and links to the individual images. For now, I’m going to have to rely on linking to albums, or possibly find a PC to run Composer on.

Seadragon

Date April 4, 2009

seadragon21I’ve been making a lot of panoramas lately, using Photoshop CS4’s panorama stitching feature (which works amazingly well, BTW).  The panoramas are quite huge, and show an immense amount of detail when zoomed in.  Unfortunately, you can’t tell when looking at an image that fits inside a web browser’s window.  The image might as well have been taken in one shot, rather than using multiple shots stitched together and wasting a bunch of time and disk space.  That is, until now.

Microsoft has developed software called Seadragon that allows seamless zooming of large images all in an embedded viewer on a web page.  Yes, they’ve actually managed to redeem themselves a little bit (to me at least) with this technology.

Seadragon allows me to post a huge panoramic photo and the viewers will be able to see the image as a whole, without having to download the huge file which can be many megabytes.  When they zoom in, Seadragon downloads the smaller, more detailed, images and seamlessly fades these into the zooming image.  It’s sort of like zooming in on Google Maps or Google Earth, but better, and with photos rather than maps.

Best of all, it’s free.  Here’s what you need to do to add a zoomable Seadragon image on your web page:

  1. Upload your image to Microsoft’s PhotoZoom site.  You may need to register and create an album for them first.
  2. Once your image has been uploaded and processed, view the individual image in the album and copy the Deep Zoom image file URL shown at the bottom of the image’s page.
  3. Next, go to the Seadragon embedded Ajax viewer website and paste the Deep Zoom image file URL into the space provided and click on the “Build Embed” button.
  4. The Seadragon servers will crunch your image and provide an output at the bottom of the page.  You can customize the width and height of the viewer if you like.
  5. When you’re satisfied with the viewer, copy the provided code snippet and paste it into your website/blog post.  Publish it, and you’re done!

Here are a few images that I’ve embedded into my photoblog (rawpixels.ca) that use Seadragon:

Irving’s Saint John Oil Refinery
Fishing Boats in St. Martins