Product Reviews

Product reviews, about things I have, well actually used.

Tobi.com’s Augmented Reality Dressing Room

Fashion apparel website Tobi.com recently launched an augmented reality dressing room for their customers, allowing them to “try on” the clothing directly from the website and then save and share their fashion choices on the social networks Facebook through the “Fashionista Augmented Reality Application“. This is all done through the use of Flash based augmented reality programming, motion capture, and real-time personalization.

The developers behind this application are RichRelevance, a leading provider of next-generation personalization and product recommendation tools for enterprise-class eCommerce sites, like Sears.com, BassPro.com and Walmart.com, and Zugara which is a leading interactive marketing company that focuses on emerging media and technology. Zugara is also a member of the Augmented Reality industry’s “AR Consortium”.

Zugara introduced the first version of this application in June 2009, with their Youtube video example. Recently Tobi began using a customized version of this application for their customers. Tobi’s version is interesting in that not only does this application open up the doors to allow users to interact directly with the merchandise, but shoppers can also take a picture of themselves and their favorite looks by motioning over the camera icon within the Fashionista interface. The image can be saved and emailed to a friend for feedback, or easily uploaded directly to Facebook, where it is published to the shopper’s profile. A shopper’s friends will then see the image in their news and live feeds and be able to comment on it immediately.

“friends still play an important role in influencing consumer decisions. more than eighty-three percent of online shoppers said they are interested in sharing information about their purchases with people they know, while 74 percent are influenced by the opinions of others in their decision to buy the product in the first place. Zugara and RichRelevance are excited to give retailers a new way to connect shoppers with their peers, and make the online shopping experience more like the offline: social, personal and engaging.” said Zugara CEO Matthew Szymczyk

According to the press release, Fashionista creates a totally individualized and engaging customer experience from three core components of emerging media, technology, and eCommerce:

  • Augmented Reality combines real-world and computer-generated data where computer graphics or objects are blended into real-time footage. With Fashionista, images of  clothing are merged with live video of the shopper.
  • Motion Capture recognizes and records an individual’s movements and integrates them into an on-screen model. With Fashionista, hand motions enable the user to virtually navigate backward or forward on-screen to select clothing, indicate preference, and take a photo.
  • Personalized Clothing Recommendations deliver a highly engaging and individualized shopping experience based on the current shopper’s session as well as “wisdom of the crowds.” With Fashionista, a stream of recommendations that leverages multiple recommendation types is displayed and updated based on immediate user feedback on preference.

“My time leading R&D at Amazon confirmed the importance of continually innovating the customer experience,” said David Selinger, CEO of RichRelevance. “Apparel retailers are leading the charge when it comes to social media and online shopping, but they can’t afford to hold steady and stop investing in their shoppers. Fashionista is the next step in eCommerce: part ‘Webcam Social Shopper,’ part brand experience, part social tool, and totally integrated on RichRelevance’s personalized product recommendations platform to deliver measurable ROI.”

This is one of the first examples of Augmented Reality that I have seen that truly takes advantage of the overall experience. After spending a couple of hours playing with the site, application, and Facebook app, I see a ton of potential in this, and I am rather surprised that other online retail giants like Amazon and Zappos haven’t taken full advantage of this yet. Not only does this apply to online clothing retailers, but this has the potential to be applied to other hard goods as well. As the ubiquity of webcam deployment, and the adaptation of augmented reality for mobile devices continues to grow I see this kind of application really taking off. More over if done correctly this is the kind of application that has the potential to build brand buzz, from the cool factor that goes with it, and its hooks into social and viral networking.

Fashionista is available on the RichRelevance enRICH Personalization Platform and utilizes existing product data feeds and images. The application is built in Flash to provide users a seamless experience with no additional plug-ins and allows retailers to track the tool’s performance using existing analytics.

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Olympus EP1 PEN, Low Light Shooting Test

Over the weekend I did a little experimenting with the EP1 with a low light shooting test. All the shots were set at ISO 300, and shot using natural light coming from just the blue LED’s on the Christmas tree. The camera was set at 1/80th of a second with an aperture of f4.5 for the light and ornament shots, and 1/8th of a second at f4.5 for the overhead shots of the ceiling. The results are a bit on the noisy side, but over all I’m impressed that the sluggish auto focus could actually grab anything in these conditions. I’m also rather impressed with the amount of detail in some of the areas highlighted by the LED’s. I cropped these to 1024 by 768 from the original 4032 by 2272 pixel size to manage the upload to the blog. I’ll try to get the full-sized images out on my Flickr photostream later today.

Why I love Mini USA. The Schwag Box Arrived,

Today when I looked in the mailbox I was happy to see a large, heavy brown cardboard box from Mini USA. This is why I love the Mini brand, they go above and beyond the call of  duty when it comes to building and maintaining brand loyalty. They do it by sending you schwag. Well designed and thought out schwag at that. While the materials that are used in the free stuff is not always outstanding, the writing, graphic execution, and overall experience is. This is the third package I have received from  them in the last month and a half, and the contents of each has been specifically designed to enhance your ownership experience and develop a unique sense comradery with fellow Mini owners. The images below Illustrate how they connect the car, to the brand, to the ownership experience. Each item is designed to be used with the car, from the stickers that spell out fridge like motoring poetry for you car windows, to the log book, secret message decoder. All of it is designed to extend and build your brand loyalty to Mini. All of this helps to develop the word of mouth evangelism that Mini owners preach to non Mini owners.For less than 10 bucks worth of goods that get sent to each new car buyer, they get thousands of free advertisements that come straight from the customer’s mouth. That is brand smart thinking. I can’t think of another car company that does anything like this, for a mid-level automobile.

PaperStone Counter Tops

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PaperStone Finish

I just finished waxing out and buffing down the PaperStone counters in the house. PaperStone for those of you that aren’t familiar with it, is the same stuff that lab counters are made of. 

Our PaperStone counters truly are beautiful the heavy-duty solid surface known for its performance has a deep black luster when it has been waxed out, its warm to the touch, and it has a contemporary appearance. More importantly its environmental sustainable. It is made from post-consumer recycled paper and a proprietary, petroleum-free resin. It is the only solid surface material certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, Smartwood and the Rainforest Alliance. According to the USGBC ( US Green Building Council ), specifying the use of PaperStone can earn you up to five LEED points.

PaperStone isn’t just an attractive counter material that is produced in a socially responsible manner, This stuff is  also strong and tough. the counters have a  steel-like strength in span. The look has a stone-like beauty and it can be worked like fine hardwoods. Our counters have a fine bevel edge that finished the lip around all of the exposed adges. I have to say that I have seen PaperStone counters worked in some amazing ways though, where the edges have been routed into amazing shapes and finishes.

About every 90 days you are supposed to treat the surface with PaperStone Finish, a natural substance that is applied with clean dry cloths after the wax like material has been softened in warm water. The PaperStone Finish is rubbed on in a thin layer, working the surface in a circular motion. Once the entire surface is covered you let it stand for 20 minutes and then buff it out with a clean dry cloth. I have to say, that I am really thinking about putting a buffing attachment on my drill and using it. I have aa tone of counter space and rubbing it down by hand is not only time consuming, it’s hard too. The only issue I have is that after treating the surface, you are not supposed to use the counter for 12 hours. This allows the PaperStone Finish to harden up and the luster to deepen as the material continues to soak into the surafce.

The Paperstone finish is heat resistant, but unlike surfaces like Silestone, it will mark if an extremely hot object is left sitting on it. The surface can be sanded and re-treated though. Another issue that I have found is, that like a wood surface, it moisture gets under an object that is sitting on the surface, and it is left for an extended period of time, it will leave a lightened mark on the counter. This is easily removed though by hitting the counters with a new treatment of PaperStone Finish.

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A freshly buffed kitchen island

A Double Review. Zappos & PUMA’s Furio V Ferrari Driving Shoe.

This is a double product/store review. First it is about Zappos, where I bought a new pair of driving shoes. No not the slip on driving moccasins that you wear when you need to go business casual. Driving shoes like the kind that supports the back of your foot and increases roll between the pedals when you are really driving your car.  So first lets talk about Zappos.com.

zappos_logoI spend a lot of time researching products online before I buy them, and in many cases that research turns into an online sale. 90 percent of the time it’s free shipping and no tax that sells me on an online store purchase. I am satisfied with waiting a few days if it saves me some cash in the long run.  I have been using Zappos since the first month that they went live on the internet. I had read a couple of online articles about the company and how they were poised to become the Amazon of shoes and apparel.

JUst incase you didn’t know it by now Zappos sells shoes, but their website proclaims that they’re a “service company that just happens to sell shoes”. That term by its very nature, can be a bit hard to believe. Many websites claim  to have spectacular service and few actually live up to the claim. Zappos follows through on it.

The ten-year old company, founded in 1999, sells an immensely wide variety of shoes and now apparel. Their website is easy to navigate, and when searching for shoes you can see customer reviews of each shoe, along with the percentage of customers who felt that the shoe was true to their size, true to their width and that the shoe had good arch support.

The reality is that most people are uncomfortable buying shoes online. This happens for a number of reasons. Because of things like the fit of a shoe is a very personal thing. Because styling doesn’t always hold true to the online image, or because there is a perception that returns, or customer service is going to be a hassle.

I often range from a size 12 to 13 when buying shoes, it depends on the brand.So I almost never know if the shoe I’m going to get from an online store will fit perfectly or not. That’s where the Zappos return and shipping policy comes in. It is flawless. Each shoe ships with a pre-printed return label. If the shoe isn’t what you expected or it doesn’t fit put it back in the box, slap the label on it and call the UPS 800 number for a pick up. If for some reason you have lost the label, call the Zappos 800 number, or go online to print a new one. I have purchased allot of shoes from Zappos, and I have returned at least 5 pairs. I have never had any trouble. The customer service is simply amazing.

In terms of the site, navigation, and shopping cart process, Zappos is comparable to other ecommerce websites . One stand out feature though is their “Larger Image and Alternate views” which are fantastic.  You get a real sense for what you are purchasing.  However, what truly sets them apart is their massive selection and service.

As for the selection – it’s so extensive it can almost be overwhelming.  You can find everything from high-end brands to everyday options.   Also try their search functionality – you can find specific items very easily (try automotive racing shoe,  with heel support, etc). And on top of this is an excellent filtering engine that lets you refine your search by size, width, color, materials etc.

Where the genius of Zappos really begins is when you place an order.  First of all, it arrives within 2 days (though lately it has been arriving the next day at no extra charge).   So if you need something for the weekend and it’s Wednesday – you are going to have your product in hand by Friday.   Second, you don’t get charged some crazy fee for the rush delivery.  In fact, you don’t get charged at all.  Free shipping, and free returns always.

One of the challenges of buying shoes online is of course, fit.  So once again that’s why Zappo’s super easy return policy is so helpful.  I bought two pairs of dress loafers winter which often are hard to get the right fit. One worked, but the other didn’t.  The return was not a problem. I had accidentally tossed the return label, so there were literally 3 steps I had to follow

1. Go to Zappos.com and print out a return slip and put it in the box.
2. Print out the pre-paid return label and place it on the exterior of the return box.
3. Take the box and drop it off at UPS/USPS, or call UPS for a pick up.

No charge, no hassle.  It really couldn’t be easier.

Lastly, there is their telephone customer service.  It really has to be mentioned it because  it is so extraordinary.  As easy as their online service is, sometimes you just need to talk to a live person.  At Zappos, there is no aggravating automated system, or long annoying wait time.  You can talk to a live person within one menu selection and about 5 seconds. Seriously! More over they are courteous and knowledgeable.  I love it. One of my most hated things is automated phone services that eventually end up having you talk to someone in a call center on the other side of the world.

As a business, Zappos places a lot of emphasis on their customer service and it really shows.  There tag line says it all. “Powered by Service.Be Passionate and Determined.”

Now for the new driving shoes I got.

PUMAOriginally I was going to get another pair of Piloti Avus, but when I hit the Zappos site they didn’t have them, so I did a quick search on automotive racing shoes, then narrowed the results by size and started sorting through the selections. After digging around, I settled in on a couple of different brands but ultimately settled on the new PUMA Furio V Ferrari for a couple of reasons. Fist off while it is a true performance driving shoe, it can be worn every day without any discomfort. Second, it looks cool. I know not the smartest factor when looking for a shoe with a specific need. None the less, as a designer the way something looks is going to effect my purchase.

M StrapThe shoe itself features the  Furio M Strap, and a co-molded rubber heel that allows for perfect roll and range of motion required while driving. The molded rubber heal wraps around the back of your foot creating a stable brace that allows you to move quickly between the accelerator and the brake with limited impedance. The exterior is full leather, and the interior is flame resistant, photo(17)(although I seriously doubt I’ll be driving in any conditions where this might be needed). The asymmetrical forefoot pad follows the natural outline of the foot ensuring maximum contact and pedal feel. Something that I find very important, since the pedals in the MINI are a bit on the small size and I have some big old feet.

The shoe does not lace but instead uses PUMA’s alternative strap closure for full  customization, comfort and fit all with a contemporary  look that is stylish yet not overpowering. The strap itself is finished with a TPU pull which is mixed with rich textures and functional form.

photo(12)The shoe features a low-profile outer sole which is a re-invented interpretation of PUMA UNI construction that is used in a number of their driving shoes This construction type  offers performance benefits while driving, and it helps to lower the weight of the shoe. This model weighs in at 10.9 ounces.

The shoe does run a bit narrow, and the fit is quite snug. The shoe was designed this way on purpose. It helps you to feel the pedal against your foot while driving. And I have to say that the heel brace might put some people off, since it really grips the back of your foot. My suggestion is this, if you want them buy them. If they don’t fit or they feel funny to you, send them back using Zappos super simple return policy.

My 09 MINI Convertible. First Impressions.

 

MINI

The New Convertible

 

 

In 2001, BMW revived the MINI brand by unveiling a new MINI Cooper model that updated the classic design and styling of the original while growing the car’s trademark size enough to fit the updated engineering, safety equipment and conveniences that modern drivers demand. It was a perfect play by BMW, and while MINI sales haven’t exactly set the world on fire here in the U.S. (although they are reported to be up 9.7% in 2009), that’s probably because the MINI brand has stood alone in trying to teach American car buyers what the Europeans already know: Premium small cars are worth every penny you spend on them. In other words, Americans typically associate the value of a car with its size – the more you spend, the larger a car you should be. MINI Cooper stands in stark contrast to this idea.

In 2004 I bought a British racing green Cooper S and after 6 years, and 30,000 miles I traded it in for a 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible in interchange yellow, with the JCW aero kit.  Like I mentioned above Americans have a hard time grasping the notion that a premium level car can be small, and this car will definitely challenge the notion that value equals size. Why? Aside from opting for the high-performance John Cooper Works package, the convertible is the most expensive model in the MINI lineup, and the S model makes it even more so. With that said, the price of the car is worth every penny spent.

The convertible is now based on the second-generation R56 platform, the S Convertible is 2.3 inches longer than the model it replaces, though and at 146.2 inches long it’s still the second smallest car sold in the U.S behind the annoyingly cute Smart cars. The freshened front end is both taller and more rounded, these concessions were made to comply with new crash and pedestrian safety standards around the world, but the new MINI is still an unmistakable descendant of Sir Alec Issigonis’ original brilliant design.

Having owned my new MINI for just over 1 week this is really a review of first impressions and observations about how the car has changed in the last 6 years, and the differences between the hard top and the convertible model

The exterior of the car is distinguished with a set of matte black rally stripes that run from the air dam in the front all the way to the splitter on the bumper in the back. The front and back bumpers and grills have a more aggressive lower stance than the standard bumper assembly. In addition the JCW kit adds a side skirts to complete the ground effects for the car. The color while listed as yellow tends to shift in varying light and tends to lean to almost a Chartreuse at times. 17 inch black fan wheels, with a machined lip complete the exterior look. wheelsNow I am going to say something that many people might not agree with. The MINI, like any other convertible, looks great top down. With the top up not so much. I’m not saying it’s ugly, I’m simply saying that 99 percent of all convertibles just don’t look good top up. The lines are wrong, and the canvas top breaks the flow of color across the car. It is a minor issue, since the point of having a soft top is to drive top down as much as you can.

The interior of the car is similar to the older model MINI that I owned, the center of the dash is dominated by a larger than life speedometer. In fact in the 09 the speedometer is even larger than in my 04 which is really a great visual touch. Once again the large tachometer sits above the steering column and for the convertible, the Openometer sits directly to its left. Yes the Openometer, a gauge that monitors the total number of hours and minutes your car has been driving top down. open oTotally fun, completely useless, I wouldn’t get rid of it for anything.  What I don’t get about the MINI is the redesign of the center stack where the remaining controls sit. I love the toggle switches which are the main control buttons on the car, they feel expensive, look great, and are easy to use. They are however the only part of the controls that marry design aesthetics with ergonomics.

The problem is there are buttons everywhere, most of which seem arbitrarily placed and adapted in shape to fit their location. The controls for fan speed and temperature, look like rollers but are really just buttons that toggle on a horizontal axis, and then there is the poor volume knob, left all by its lonesome below the slot loading CD player. It sits quietly in an expanse of dash isolated and orphaned, creating visual confusion. I guess it just couldn’t be squeezed into the bottom half of the giant speedometer where the rest of the audio controls huddle together. Aside from this though, the overall look is quite pleasing. center stack

Since I paid the premium for my open air experience, the only button I really care about is the one that lets the sun in. The toggle switch sits above the rear-view mirror, and lowering and raising the roof takes just 15 seconds. In addition, there’s a sunroof mode that slides the cloth roof back just over the front seats. The result is an extra-large sunroof. A way larger than a my old sunroof, sunroof that stretches in between the beefy-looking roof rails that attach to the windshield.

controls sun roof

When the roof is retracted, it folds itself neatly into a stack that sits on top of the rear deck. The stacked roof does compromise rear visibility, but the tiny back seat which sits all the way back at the trunk line means there’s no where else for the top to go. One good thing MINI has done is a new active roll bar system that sits flush with the rear headrests. Unlike the last convertible’s fixed double hoops that occupied the full view of the rear view mirror. This new system stays tucked away until an impending flip triggers a charge that extends the bars to save you. The new system is more discreet and offers equal protection.

roll bars roll 2

The drive train is a Turbo Charged 1.6 liter 4 cylinder direct inject engine, that is paired to a 6 speed manual transmission. The engine produces 172 Horsepower at 5500 RPM and generates 177 lb-ft torque at just 1600 rpm. This is the reason that you pay a bit more for the MINI. Why because this means get up and go, the kind you don’t get in many small cars. The clutch is perfectly weighted and its take up point is defined. While the six-speed’s shift throws are a little long, each flick of the wrist is rewarded with a smooth, straight path into the next gear. I can’t name another small car sold in the U.S. that can match the Mini’s mechanicals, and you can tell the influence of parent company BMW and how it has impacted the performance of this car.

engine shift

The MINI convertible is listed with a 0-60 time of seven seconds flat. This might not sound quick, but the impression of speed, especially with the top down makes up for it.  Based on the handling experience of my former MINI I was nervous about torque steer and turbo lag, but equal length half shafts keep the wheels spinning in the same direction and the low-end torque helps mask the turbo spooling up in all but first gear where there has been some slight hesitation off the line.

Now for a note about Baron MINI where I got the car. This is the 5th automobile that I have purchased from Baron. It is my second MINI and the third one overall. As you can tell I love the folks at Baron. I have never really had a bad experience with them, and they have always gone above and beyond when working with me. My sales associate, MaryAnn Calhoun was absolutely phenomenal. She did such a great job and really sealed the deal on the purchase of this car. I mean that. I had no intention of buying a car when I walked into Baron two Saturday’s ago. Based on my experience with MaryAnn I’ll be returning to Baron for any future purchases.

This weekend I intend to post a photo essay of both the new convertible and the 50th anniversary Mayfair edition. It’s going to 70 on Saturday, perfect weather for top down driving and photos.

tilt-shifted

Design Friday part 2. Dish Doctor by Marc Newson

 

Dish Doctor

Marc Newson's Dish Doctor

 

When we came over to look at the new house back in June Chris and Emily had the most amazing dish rack sitting on their counter, and I fell in love with it. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so we bought the exact same dish rack that they had.

The Dish Doctor by Marc Newson. I love Newson’s design work and this is a perfect example of why. Bright colors, distinct form, functionality, excellent materials. It all just adds up as good design This is one design that proves that anything can have a unique style and feel – even a dish rack.

The Dish Doctor is made of sturdy polypropylene, and comes in both glossy and translucent colors. The rack is a two piece object that comes apart for  draining the collected water from within. We chose bright orange with green accent tips on the tines that hold the dishes. the color contrasts perfectly when sitting on the black kitchen counters.

Marc Newson is recognized as one of the most prolific and visionary contemporary furniture and products designer of this generation. Newson designs everything from home decor like soap dishes and dishracks to private  jets and concept cars. His designs are picked up quickly by curators from MOMA in New York, San Francisco MOMA, and London’s Design Museum to add to their permanent design collections.

Dish Doctor

Dish Doctor