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Where are we going with big screens?

In many ways the single most debilitating factor of an electronic chart display system is the limited screen real estate. You can never really see the whole chart so instead you have a keyhole view. Like looking at a room through the keyhole you can only ever see a part of it. To understand what the room is really like you need to keep looking around and build up a mental picture to supplement the limited bit you can actually see. In all other ways an electronic chart is probably better than a paper one. Updating is quicker and more accurate, so it positioning, laying off courses and the rest of it. Ah, thinking about it, you can operate a paper chart by candlelight so maybe that is the other plus for the paper chart.

With Nuno we have done a bunch of things to try and compensate for the lack of screen size. To begin with we try and avoid dislocating affordances. An affordance is something which by its appearance invites you to do something with it. Like a door handle or in the computer world a button on the screen. It is a very important principle in User Interface design. When you look at a computer program and you want to make it do something the first thing you will do is look for affordances – something you can press, drag, select or whatever. A dislocating affordance is one which suddenly makes the whole screen change, like a control which make the chart view jump. It is a bit like spying through the keyhole, closing your eye, changing position and then looking again. You can see a different bit of the room but you don’t really know how it joins up to the first bit you were looking at. Much better is to maintain a smooth transition from one view to the other using panning and zooming to maintain a sense of continuity.

imageOverall we have tried to use as much of the screen as possible to display chart. There are no fixed panes that reserve a chunk of the screen. You can arrange a pane like this if you want to but it is not imposed on you. The control bar at the top can be made small and everything else is given over to the chart. Many of the affordances are arranged around the screen in fixed positions so that you will always know where to find them but they become translucent when not being used. Sure they obscure the chart a little bit but you can still see chart and we think the more chart you can see the better.

With vector charts your view is not onto something like a bounded paper chart but more like a view onto an enormous cylinder where the whole world is projected. If you keep panning right you will eventually come back to where you started. This means that however big the screen is that you will still need to pan and zoom. I should clarify at this point that I am not simply talking about the physical dimensions of the screen but also the number of pixels or dots that are used to make the image. To display an image of a paper chart on a screen at about the same size as the original you need about 100 dots per inch (dpi). Less than this and the image will be blurred. More than this and the image will sharped up and be clearer to look at. Traditionally charts are printed with at least 600 dpi so to get a screen image as well defined as that on the  paper is not really possible with current screens. 100 dpi is reasonable a compromise.

So what is the best size for a screen? Well you need to be able to see it all without having to walk around. In fact if you could reach across to any part of it then that would be good. Maybe this problem is already solved. Maybe a paper chart has evolved to be just the right size. Maybe in 200 years of making charts we have actually come up with something that is just the right size for the job. Now the standard size for a full paper chart is a half double elephant. This is not, as you might think, the same as a single elephant. The elephant folio is up to 23 inches tall whereas a double elephant is 50 inches. So the paper chart, at around 25 x 40 inches is in fact a half double elephant.

A screen this size would need to 5,000 pixels wide. At the moment the best mainstream video standard is dual channel DVI which supports up to 2,560 x 1,600. So four of these lashed together could look pretty good. A company called Cinemassive (great name) make a set of monitors like this. EyeVis have some pretty good single screens 64” 4096 by 2160 – not quite enough pixels and a rather eye watering price. However you look at it though we are nearly there.

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One problem with such a big screen would be that your poor old mouse is going to run out of steam. You would need a mouse mat four times bigger unless you could manage to move the mouse four times more precisely. But imagine that you had the screen set up just like a chart table – wouldn’t you just want to reach out and touch it? Multi-touch technology is really starting to gain pace now. Once you get to grips with an iPad you soon find it is a great way of doing things (although pretty hopeless if you have gloves on I recently discovered). The Microsoft Surface is one of the pioneers here. And it is already a table. Sadly for now it doesn’t have enough pixels but it is still showing a really good way forward.

So a screen the size of a chart table is not going to suit every vessel but we are close to a practical system. In fact my company are looking at a project to prototype a full sized electronic chart table along these lines. It is quite feasible that screens will progressively get lighter and cheaper and maybe you could even roll it up. Bigger is better?

ActiveCaptain is coming to Nuno™.

ActiveCaptain? - and just what is that you may ask. Well it is a chart overlay, a crowd sourced data resource, a website and a community. Any the wiser yet?

Let’s start with what it means in Nuno™ where you can see additional information on your chart. Here is what it looks like.

KingsPointeMarina

Those extra little symbols are points of interest (POI) from the ActiveCaptain database. POIs are associated with marinas, anchorages, local knowledge, features and hazards. Useful little snippets of extra information which could be just the sort of thing you need especially when visiting an area for the first time. If you inspect the POI you will find a description, notes and other useful things. Where does this information come from? That is what the crowd sourcing bit is about. As Jeff Siegel, creator of ActiveCaptain explains:

ActiveCaptain allows boaters to share the knowledge and experience that each Captain has gained. The key to ActiveCaptain's content is the ability of registered users to communicate corrections, update information, and create reviews. Fellow cruisers can provide information about fuel pricing, slip fees, a favorite anchorage, or some local knowledge. As a registered Captain you can read marina reviews written by other Captains, write your own review, add a new point of interest, or correct inaccurate information. You add to the content and benefit from the content provided by others.

So not only do you have access to a wealth of information but you can also contribute by way of updates, additions and corrections:

The sharing of your knowledge and information creates an online community of fellow boaters - people from around the country or even around the world who share your love of the water and provide information, opinions, and insight. Registration on the ActiveCaptain web site is free. We feel this is critical to building the community. We also feel that it is important to acknowledge the contributions of our Captains in making this community successful.

And there you have the community aspect as well.

AAndBMarinaShuttleLaunch

The Active Captain website is here. The ‘Interactive Cruising Guidebook’ tab gives you another way of looking at the information using maps and images from Microsoft Virtual Earth. Clearly with many people contributing to this project the information is going to be constantly updated. To handle this we have introduced an update facility within Nuno™ which will grab all the latest data for you so that it is to hand on your boat even when no Internet connection is available.

In the first release of ActiveCaptain you will be able to view all the information however we are planning to allow editing in the near future so that if you find something that you think should be changed then you will be able to make the changes right in Nuno™ and the corrections will be dealt with automatically.

Responding to price and functionality pressure

Lloyd’s List today has heralded a move towards cheaper ECDIS. Most ECDIS are a pretty bog standard PC bolted into a nice case along with some software. It is the software that makes the PC sing and dance. This is what turns an ordinary computer into an ECDIS. This is what the navigator works with and steers his ship by. This is what the training is all about.

How do you reduce the price of software? There is a simple equation in industry that says you cannot sell things for less than the cost of manufacture. Well you can, but not as a long term proposition. In general the idea of any manufacturing business is that you get some raw materials, make something from them and then sell the product so that you can cover your costs and maybe make some profit.

Making cheap software then, how can you cut the costs? There are three broad areas of cost in manufacturing:

  • premises, infrastructure and plant
  • sales and marketing
  • raw materials

Nothing too special about the premises. Any half decent office will do. Infrastructure is the usual raft of management, accountants, office cleaners, human resource experts and other essentials. Plant pretty much comes down to computers and an Internet connections.

Marketing is essential. If nobody knows about you then it can be quite hard to sell.

So far there is nothing unusual, by which I mean that these considerations apply to pretty much any industry to a greater or lesser extent. The way you control costs on this stuff is conventional and well understood. P8049541

However when we get to sales things start to get a little more interesting. Cost of sales for software? Just about zero. There was a time when we would put a CD in a pretty box with a thick manual but we’ve just about grown out of this now. Nobody ever read the manual, the box would end up in the bin and having installed the CD you would often find out that the first thing you needed to do was to download an update. So most software is supplied directly these days and that costs nothing, approximately. The server sits there supplying copies of the software and whether is sends out to 10 or 10,000 users really makes little cost difference. In fact really all that business with the boxes and CDs still didn’t add any significant overhead. Low cost of sales means that there are some big bonuses in selling large volumes of licenses. When we talk about selling software we are really talking about selling licenses to use a copy of the software and this is really cheap to do.

The raw materials for software are people. More specifically people’s brains. The rest of the person is needed as support infrastructure. You need good people to write good software. It is not easy. You need good people and you need time. To build a brick wall faster you can put more builders on the job. Put more programmers on a project and it will often backfire. I have not just made this up, the principle was established over 25 years ago.  Employing clever software engineers is expensive. Very expensive. In fact this is where the bulk of your manufacturing costs are. For a typical software house as much as 90% of their total costs will be wages. People really are the raw material in this industry and in terms of quality, you get what you pay for.

So how can we cut costs? The only cost area that will make and significant difference is the programmers.

Option one. Make the programmers more productive. Shouting, threatening and beating is not very effective (I’ve tried). Providing good tools and using modern project management techniques is much better. Even so there is still a limit. These approaches should be part of a modern software company already so there is not much scope for cutting costs here.

Option two. You could try going for cheaper programmers. This does not work very well. Typically you end up with badly designed software which takes twice as long as you hoped to develop. It is difficult to use, looks rubbish, nobody likes it, there are bugs, it crashes and it is very difficult to maintain. None the less this approach is tried from time to time – you may have encountered some of this software.

Option three. Stop development. If the software does its job and there is no real requirement for further features then this is very effective. Your development costs will be massively reduced and with the minimal cost of sales you will be able to ship software at bargain basement prices.

In the ECDIS world option three has got to look very tempting. Making the software better is very expensive and don’t forget that each new release needs to go through a type approval phase. More expense. Is this a good idea? Well with some 50,000 vessels that will need to fit ECDIS only 5% or so actually have it (ECDIS Revolution Conference). At the same time a much larger proportion have some sort of ECS (not to be used for navigation). This suggests that although they like the electronic navigation bit they are not so keen on the actual ECDIS. Why not? Many possible reasons but my point is that the forthcoming legislation is going to force them to buy a piece of kit that they don’t want. So what would you do? Buy the cheapest solution that gets a tick in the box maybe.

It all comes down to price. A global market of 50,000 is not really all that big for a software product that takes many man-years of work to create. It is going to be hard to claw those costs back. The change in the regulations mean that ECDIS will compete on price and very little else. This will effectively freeze ECDIS development. Option three. You have a type approved solution, it ticks the box and the lower the price the more you will sell.

So, just maybe, we are going to arrive in 2018 with a modern vessel using software written in 2008 based on a display standard from 1998. Yep, it’s going to be 20 years out of date. Just think how good the sat nav in your car was 20 years ago.

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who uses a compass?

So who does use a compass? Serious question. A compass is not the vital piece of kit it used to be. I am not suggesting that you should put to sea without one but it is quite possible to sail round all day without actually using it. I often use the compass just to hold a course. Without using any calculations or taking a bearing off the chart, I find it useful to keep me heading in the same direction. I mentioned this to my colleague Andy and he promptly pointed out that I was not holding a course at all but just a heading. Depending on stuff like wind and currents my actual course could be wandering all over the place. The compass just keeps the boat pointing in the right direction but not necessarily going in the right direction. None the less it still feels quite satisfying to hold the compass steady.

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Another thing I find I use the compass for is picking up landmarks. No great accuracy required. Just measure the bearing to the tower or whatever and then mark it off on the chart to identify what you are actually looking at. Of course it is possible to be much more accurate with a bit of effort. We have just been updating the magnetic variation tables in Nuno™. The raw data comes from NOAA as a series of tabulated values which refer to the World Magnetic Model (WMM).

The World Magnetic Model is the standard model used by the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.K. Ministry of Defence, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), for navigation, attitude and heading referencing systems using the geomagnetic field.

Pretty good credentials eh? In Nuno™ we have code which can interpolate the model and so calculate the magnetic and secular variation for any point on the planet at a given time. Secular variation is the rate of change of magnetic variation. Variation is also sometimes called declination. The current model is valid until the end of 2014 by which time another set of data will be published. At school I was taught that the earth’s magnetic field is as if there were a bar magnet on the spin axis. The reality is a little more complicated, the Earth's main magnetic field is generated in the conducting, fluid, outer core, but it is still not a bad analogy. There is some more interesting detail here on the NOAA website. The field is not completely aligned with the earth’s spin axis. Currently the magnetic north pole is at 80.02° N, 72.21° W. The field is not completely even as you can see from this picture.

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Do we need magnetic navigation when Global Position System (GPS) is available? GPS provides precise point location but only measures travel direction when in constant motion. A GPS receiver must collect several sets of latitude and longitude pairs to obtain direction. In addition, GPS signals may become blocked due to obstructions, adverse terrestrial and space weather, ionospheric conditions or being underwater. Hence, compasses complement GPS receivers to attain precise and immediate navigational headings for air, ground, and water-based systems. Electronic compasses and the WMM commonly co-exist in GPS receivers.

If you have fixed ships compass, say in a binnacle, then to be as accurate as possible you need to account for compass deviation. This is the effect of the boat itself on the compass. Anything close to the compass which can affect the earth’s magnetic field will cause deviation. Lord Kelvin patented a system around 1880, Kelvin’s Balls, which involved two spheres mounted on the binnacle. These were common place for a long while and can still be seen on older vessels. The effect of deviation is directional so if you point the vessel in different directions and measure the deviation it is possible to construct a correction table. You need to get organized a little bit to swing the ship like this but it is possible. If you find the right place you can obtain accurate bearings by sighting on known objects and so eventually you construct a deviation table. In our Henry product you can enter the deviation table – it looks like this:

deviation table

So now it is possible for the system to quite accurately use true bearings (T), magnetic bearings (M) and compass bearings (C). A true bearing is the angle from true North, a magnetic bearing is a true bearing corrected for magnetic variation and a compass bearing is a magnetic bearing corrected for the compass on a particular vessel. The question is :- does anybody, would anybody, use this? We could quite easily add this feature into Nuno™ but, realistically, is trying to use a magnetic compass accurately a bit out-dated these days?

One little lurker that I should mention in closing is electrical equipment. When Lord Kelvin was adjusting his balls this was not much of a concern. Once set the deviation would stay fairly predictable. However anything electrical can generate a magnetic field and these can play havoc with a magnetic compass. A good experiment to try is to see what happens when you switch things on and off. Get your boat still and steady and then try messing with any bits of electronics near the compass. While you are at it have a look at what your mobile phone can do to the indicated direction. If you are lucky then very little will happen, but this is not always the case.

Who is for a deviation table in Nuno™?

The 1st ECDIS Revolution Conference

The ECDIS revolution is upon us, apparently. Beginning in 2012 various classes of vessels will be required by law to carry ECDIS. In light of the the first of a series of international conferences was held in London, UK, on the 23rd and 24th Nov to discuss the revolution and ponder how it might all work out. I decided to waddle over there and see what was going on.

Here is the ubiquitous diagram showing how ECDIS is going to be phased in.

ECDIS Timeline

The opening keynote speaker began with a look at a grounding incident, the LT Cortesia. It is traditional at shipping type conferences to begin with a grounding and I usually look forward to it. The vessel had ECDIS on board and this might have helped avoid the incident if they had known how to use it. However while you could conclude, as many did, that training in ECDIS could have caused the incident to be avoided, you could also conclude that training in radar, charts, navigation and getting enough sleep would also have helped.

imageA subsequent speaker pondered the question as to whether the glass is half full or half empty. His suggestion was that maybe the glass was over specified for the requirement and was therefore a waste of money. This is an interesting notion. It says look at the problem from a different angle which I like. Unfortunately that was about the last glance I got at any lateral thinking.


According to another speaker George Patten once declared “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Another worthy sentiment which also got mostly ignored as the main topic at the conference was training and this is an awful lot about telling people how to do things. I am interested to know why training is taken as an unquestionably necessity. It is expensive, difficult to organize and time consuming. The alternative is to make the kit easier to use. There were some hints at this. One speaker noted that young people could easily switch from one computer game to another. He associated this, quite validly, with a certain mind-set but I would also have added that those games are designed to be easy to use. They are often also more sophisticated and complex than ECDIS will ever be.


A second theme that ran through the conference was one of paranoia. The pirates are coming for us, the cyber ‘somethings’ have probably already got us and the GPS satellites are going to fall out of the sky. There was much anecdotal evidence to support this but a lot of this was really just a combination of technophobia and people generally being daft. The shipping community often act as if they don’t realize that there are other users of GPS or even that GPS was not actually developed for shipping in the first place. From this perspective it is very easy to see how the notion of reviving the antique Loran transmitters might seem appealing. This is now called eLoran which sounds sexier and presumably we will be seeing iLoran shortly. In the meantime if the solar flare maximum in 2013 does cripple the GPS system then there are many sectors where this would cause a massive impact. Possibly there is some scope for collaboration here or at least an interchange of knowledge.

Who knows the truth? Is the GPS chain really very vulnerable?


Although this was an ECDIS conference there were still plenty of raster charts around. 10 out of a total of 24 chart slides were, by my count, raster charts. In fact whenever somebody wanted to illustrate something on a chart rather that make a point about ECDIS they tended to use raster. Why? Well probably because raster charts look better. The cartography is clearer and more readable. ECDIS may be the future but it looks rubbish.


Safety is another common underlying theme of all these conferences. Safety is one of these unassailable things that give rise to a lot of hypocrisy. Everyone makes a big fuss about how safety is really, really important. No cost is too great if it might save just one life. Then everybody goes cutting corners and only implementing the absolute minimum that the law will allow. In the case of ECDIS why does it have to be mandated? If it were any good then why of the world’s 50,000 odd large commercial vessels do only 10% currently use ECDIS? The questions were raised ‘Has it ever been
proved that eNav is safer than paper navigation? What would constitute proof
?’. Good questions I thought and possibly tricky to answer. The problem is that people operate to a perceived risk level. They avoid what they think is dangerous and are comfortable with what they think is safe. Real and apparent risk can of course be quite different which is why some car drivers (genuinely dangerous) are scared to go in a plane (proven to be very safe). So if something affects your level of perceived risk, makes you feel safer, then you will start behaving more dangerously. ECDIS will make masters more confident with their situation and so less risk adverse. They will cur more corners and narrow the margins. The vessels will get there faster and be more efficient but there will be incidents on the back of this. Vessels will be piloted in a way that would be fool hardy without ECDIS and the question about improved safety gets a bit hypothetical.


The ever wonderful UKHO made a presentation where they claimed that chart licenses were not really so difficult to figure out. ENC cells are sold in groups called units. So having identified which cells you need you then need to find the set of units which contain these cells. For each unit you can choose a license period from 3 to 12 months. 4 x 3 months is obviously more expensive than 1 x 12 months (why?). Then you can apply quantity discounts and this gives a starting price in USD. But this is not what you will pay since the chart agent will have a special and undisclosed rate with the UKHO and then your shipping company will likely have a deal with the chart agent. imageThis all adds up to a complex sum involving guesswork. I can’t actually think of a way of making this more complicated. This presentation also gave rise to the most tweeted comment from the whole conference ‘You wouldn't leave your desktop 10 years without updating. ECDIS is no different especially with charts’. A comment with a certain irony since some 30% of that organization's desktop computers are over 7 years old and still running Windows 2000.

This is a sneak preview of the UKHO’s e-Navigator due to be launched early next year.


The purpose of the conference is to understand the ECDIS revolution and determine what is needed to make it happen. Thus began day two. Understanding ECDIS is a worthy cause but possibly understanding computers, even if just a little, would be a worthy pre-requisite. The conference as a whole had a definite tendency to slip into what could be termed ‘comfortable’ discussions. How many ECDIS should be on board? Exactly how many days training are needed? How often should the officer of the watch look at the ECDIS? The ECDIS as such is kind of taken as a fait-accompli, a black box all done and dusted which everyone has to work round. The truth is that ECDIS is a poorly specified and rather primitive computing system. The effect of all the regulations surrounding ECDIS has been to badly stifle its development. Rather than considering ECDIS to be finished we should really be looking at ways to improve it. Until the shackles of regulation are released a little the ECDIS chart display is always going to look poor and cluttered, the user interface will require a manual and every route plan will generate hundreds of useless alarms.


Day two was interrupted for me by spending an hour trapped in one of the hotel lifts. That really wasn’t fun although I did escape unscathed.


Concluding the conference it was agreed that lots of training would be needed, that over-reliance on ECDIS was bad and that the only way to tame the ECDIS beast was a broad swathe of standardization. The concluding remarks from the conference were published by ECDIS Ltd here.

New Nuno News

The Nuno Navigator team are ecstatically pleased to announce the release of Nuno 2.0. This marks the end of the beta trials. Many thanks to all the people that took part.

Nuno has come a long way since we started. This release includes many improvements:

  • Track Log. See where you have been, and save useful bits for later.
  • Anchoring Mode. See seabed features only when you need them. More.
  • Chart Overview. Makes moving around the chart easier, and shows you more information about the charts themselves. More.
  • Quick light recognition. Hover over a light on the chart and see a graphical display of its characteristics. More.
  • Data Import and Export. Save your tracks, routes and places as GPX data or KML (Google Maps). Load data from lots of sources into Nuno Navigator.

In addition there have been the usual bug fixes and lots of minor improvements which just make Nuno easier to use. image

Chart updating is better and faster. A single button click is all you need to keep your charts up to date. In fact you can even set this to automatic and Nuno will download updates whenever they are needed.

 

Nuno track monitorPosition input is better. Nuno will find your GPS automatically and display the ship position, course and speed. Improved filtering means that the display is more accurate and will not jump around.

 

 

You can quickly create a route plan, just a few clicks on the chart, and then follow it using the dedicated route monitor window. This tracks your vessel and displays course information, distances, cross track error and so on.

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Did I mention the search bar? It’s pretty good. You can type in a place name and Nuno will display a list of matches and partial matches. Click on one of these and the chart will fly you straight there. You can also type in a position as a lat/lon or even as a range/bearing from the ship.

 

 

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One of my favorites is the the pencil line. You can attach one end of this to the ship and it will move as the ship moves. Very handy for keeping an eye on the range and bearing to something.

 

 

 

 

 

Nuno is available at the absurdly cheap price of $100 for which you get and indefinite license to use Nuno and a one year subscription (worth $50) to chart updates, Nuno updates, support and other good things. More.

Bright flashing lights

On a paper chart there is not really enough space to describe colors and flashing sequences of a navigational light so a code was invented. ‘F’ is a fixed light, ‘Fl’ is a flashing light (which means it is off more than it is on) and ‘Oc’ is an occulting light. Interestingly an occulting light does not lean towards the dark side. It is on more than it is off. In my dictionary ‘occulting’ also means supernatural, not capable of being understood by ordinary human beings and hidden. Here is the complete list of light types:

  • Oc Occulting
  • Iso Isophase
  • Fl Flashing
  • LFl Long Flashing
  • Q Quick flashing
  • IQ Interrupted Quick flashing
  • VQ Very Quick flashing
  • IVQ Interrupted Very Quick flashing
  • UQ Ultra Quick flashing
  • IUQ Interrupted Ultra Quick flashing
  • Mo Morse Code
  • FFl Fixed And Flashing
  • FLFl Fixed And Long Flashing
  • FOc Fixed And Occulting
  • Lit Unknown details

Which seems like quite a lot to me. Then there are codes for colors. ‘W’ is white. ‘G’ is green and so on. Finally there are indicators of period (time), height and range.

Here we have some raster and vector renderings of Point Hudson. imageimage

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The last one is from Nuno (we think it looks best). As you can see there is some confusion over height units but they are all basically agreed that we have a flashing red light with a period of 2.5 seconds. In Nuno we have also gone a step further and illustrated the flashing sequence with a diagram.

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This is a hover tip, a little floating window that appears when you hover the cursor in one position for a few seconds. We use a lot of these in Nuno.

For the most part reading the light characteristic is pretty straightforward but there are some rules about the characteristic string than can get a bit arcane. Such as: If a Characteristics field consists of Occulting and Flashing Light Characters that have a single period and are not Alternating and have no Grouping then these are merged into a single Light Character.

For example: Fl G Oc R 5s

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The use of Green and Red in combination is quite common despite the fact that red/green color blindness occurs in around 8% of males (women don’t often have this problem). With something like a traffic light it is possible to distinguish the type of light from its position but this is not so easy for marine navigation lights.

There are three types of range that get discussed with regards to lights:

The geographic range is all to do with geometry. It assumes perfect visibility and so is really to do with the curvature of the earth. Here is a typical range table:

image

So from the bridge of a modest size vessel you should be able to see the Point Hudson light from over ten nautical miles away. Note however that the height is referenced to chart datum so in some circumstances the tide will affect visibility. In fact at low tide you will be able to see it from further away because it will effectively be higher above you.

Luminous range is to do with the power of the light and how well it penetrates the atmosphere. So assuming that the murk in the air is the the only thing blocking the light then this is a measure of how far away the light can be seen from. Obviously the brighter the light then the further away it can be seen. But what about color? Do some colors penetrate foggy conditions better than other? Anyone know?

The Nominal Range is what is written on the chart. Technically the nominal range is the luminous range when the meteorological visibility is 10 miles. Which of course begs the question as to what meteorological visibility is. Well one definition is that it is the greatest distance at which lights of 1,000 candelas can be seen and identified against an unlit background (does that help?).

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So if it is a bit murky, meteorological visibility down to 5 miles, then the Point Hudson light will only be visible from less than four miles away.

Almost there

The first full release of Nuno™ is coming soon. Very soon. Within a week even. It has some great new features, some great improvements and some great bug fixes. Ok, so it is not so great that there are bugs to fix but it is important that we fix them. It is impossible to write code without bugs and anyone that says otherwise probably doesn’t write code.

Here’s a run-down of some of the things we’ve improved:

Overview. A small scale pop-out window with data quality and other overview type information on it. This was discussed here.

Anchoring mode. This is a display setting to show a bit more detail on the chart. Useful if you are maneuvering in to tie up but probably a bit too cluttered for regular use. We’ve done a lot of work on trying to manage clutter in chart displays. It is one of the big problems with vector chart systems.

Track log. Nuno will now maintain a record of your vessel track.

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So now you can see exactly where you have been. You can save portions of the track in case you need a permanent record.

Chart Updating. This is getting better all the time. Our aim is to make chart updating so simple that you will, with almost no effort, have a complete set of up to date charts all the time. We are also working on reducing the time taken to update charts.

That is just a sample. There are lots of small improvements and features which all go towards making Nuno a better navigation system and better to use. We have lots of improvements in the pipeline as well. Over the next few months we will be adding support for AIS, Active Captain and others.

What features would you like to see? We’d really like to hear from you.

In the meantime the beta program is still running and as an added incentive for anyone who has shied away from trying out the beta so far:-

Anyone who downloads and activates the beta version before we launch the full version will get 50% of the purchase price of the full Nuno.

Details about the costs are here. The bottom line is that it will save you $50. Even I think that is a pretty good deal. Downloading and activating the beta is free. No cost. No obligation. But you need to act soon because this offer is only until the full version of Nuno is launched and like I said – this is going to be soon.

iPad route monitor

Prolific marine blogger ‘Panbo’ reported that some of our competitors were doing interesting things with iPads and Windows based navigation systems. Andy Nibbs loves his iPad so he went off to investigate…

iPadOnGrassCroppedAndShrunk

The iPad is ideal for an extra view on a Nav system. It’s a general purpose device when away from the boat which eases the sting on your wallet. It has a pretty good bright display and you can made it more rugged with off the shelf stuff. So you can have it in an exposed position next to the wheel while the laptop is in the dry below.

There’s a lot to be said for using an iPad in this way. The iPad is battery powered and connects wirelessly so it can work as an extra display on deck whilst your laptop is kept below. Note that you need a WiFi connection between the iPad and the Windows computer and a suitable app to configure your iPad as an additional monitor. Waterproof cases start at around $20.

The navigation software doesn’t need to do anything special – just work properly with multiple monitors. The iPad looks to your PC like an extra monitor.

Nuno’s route monitor view is just right for putting on an extra display.

Apps

I’ve tried iDisplay and Maxi Vista (both about ten dollars) and they both seem to basically work. Refresh rates aren’t the same as a real monitor.

iDisplay allows you to do some mouse work on the iPad display which is useful but I recommend using the iPad mainly as a display only view whilst a passage is underway. Your laptop’s display is probably better for passage planning.

Maxi Vista seemed to cope better with me checking my email on the iPad and then going back to it but it didn’t allow me to do any mouse work using the pad.

For both apps, you buy the app for the pad and it tells you what to do on the PC – which is to install some software to handle the PC’s side of the connection. Once that’s done, you run the app on the iPad and the app of the PC either detects the iPad and everything springs into life or you have to do something manual on the PC to start it up.

The iPad and PC need to be on the same network. That can be a peer to peer network with just a laptop and the iPad.

(Note: This post was written in 2010, there is a wider range of apps to do this now).

If the software is hard to use then you are going to need training

There is a lot of talk about ECDIS training at the moment. In the next few years ECDIS will become mandatory for quite a wide range of commercial vessels. Clearly having this kit on board is of little use if nobody knows how to use it and so the requirement for training is becoming prominent. mca_certificate_240x159

The argument assumes that the ECDIS cannot be used adequately without appropriate training. This is probably not a bad assumption because the usability of commercial ECDIS software tends to range from difficult to verging on impossible. This may surprise you. Expensive software doing an important job on what may be a large and very expensive vessel. Surely it should be designed to be easy and straight forward to use? Oddly enough this is often not the case. There are several reasons for this:

· The standards, specifically ISO61174, does not lend itself to useable software. This is the performance specification for ECDIS. It is over ten years old and is very detailed. Naturally it is based on ideas and technologies that were prevalent ten years ago. Ten years is a very long time in the computer world – we are talking pre-Windows 2000. What is more at the time the standard was written there was not much around in terms of marine navigation systems and chart data. So rather than drawing on best practices and experience the standard needed to present a vision of how the committee thought that navigation software was supposed to be. Now I don’t actually know how the committee was chosen but I would guess that there were very few computer usability experts amongst the members. Even if there were then they were faced with an impossible job no matter how good their crystal ball was.

· So designing ECDIS compliant software that is also usable is difficult in the first place but it gets worse. Given a realistic situation of limited budgets and resources the focus of the development effort tends towards compliancy issues. Usability is a secondary issue since unless the ECDIS can be certified as compliant with the standards it cannot be sold as an ECDIS.

· Actually getting the software certified is a time consuming and expensive business. I am talking many months and thousands of dollars here. It is not trivial. Once the software is certified then it cannot really be changed without being re-certified. This situation does not lend itself to the sort of on-going development necessary to make genuinely user friendly software. In fact it does not lend itself to any sort of development at all. One of the more popular ECDIS systems around at the moment is actually based on Windows NT4. Remember that? Yes, an improvement over NT3.51 but still a tad short of sparkling when it comes to usability considerations.

· Ship owners are a tight fisted bunch. They typically they will not spend a penny more than necessary on equipment so as long as it meets the regulations. At which point it is usually the cheapest system will do. I am not saying this is wrong, running a ship is a fantastically expensive business, but it does tend to make for comparisons based on simple cost rather than other factors. A particular company’s software may be easier to use but if it is more expensive than its rivals then it will be hard to sell.

Hopefully you are getting the picture now. In an attempt to make ECDIS ‘correct’ and sufficiently similar between all implementations the international regulatory bodies have completely shot themselves in the foot. They have created an environment where the bulk of the development effort and costs are aimed purely at achieving ECDIS compliance and all other considerations fall by the wayside.

S-100 is the chart data standard intended to replace S-57 at some point in the future. The groups working on this have recognized that a typical ECDIS can be a bit tricky to use. They have also noted that each ECDIS tends to be tricky in a different way so they have come up with a solution called ‘S Mode’. The basic idea is that every ECDIS has a button which will set it into S Mode. In this mode the controls, menu options, settings and so on will be exactly the same irrespective of which company made the ECDIS. This is such a beautifully naïve notion. It says ‘we’re a bit scared of this software so let’s make it all the same’. Of course any company developing ECDIS will implement S Mode and probably stop there. Where is the incentive and budget to do anything more? Where is the competitive edge? It all boils down to cost, how else do you differentiate systems that all look and feel the same? And so we arrive at a dead end which ensures training will always be required.

motorola-dynatac-8000xThere is only one way to make software more usable and that it to allow software developers to experiment. They have to try out ideas and find out what works. It is very difficult. In fact it is amazingly difficult but we are making progress. There is still ample scope for improvement but at the same time I feel no need at all for a training course in how to use my iPhone. I doubt that many of the millions of iPhone users do. By comparison my last car, which was a few years old, had an early mobile phone in it (this is back in the days when ‘mobile’ actually meant ‘semi-portable’) and no, I could not actually make the first phone call without consulting the manual. That phone and the ECDIS performance standards come from the same era.

Nuno does not come with any training courses. This is not a declaration of irresponsibility but because we don’t think it needs one. It is not technically an ECDIS but it will do pretty much anything that an ECDIS can do and in most cases it will do it a lot better.