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Decisions, decisions

Decisions, decisions

With personal computers now on every executive's desk, it's high time that we provide them with an updated approach towards making informed and timely decisions. The problem we're faced with, however, is that there is a plethora of competing software algorithms on the market, and there's simply no proven technique to evaluate how well each will perform under specific boundary conditions.

Therefore, we need an approach that offers a simple update to the well-proven method of simply 'chucking darts' and leverages the executive's skill to arrive at key decisions.

Until now, this method has been relegated to the ancient practice of actually throwing physical, and potentially hazardous, sharp darts at a very real dartboard (decision aid). But OSHA wouldn't like it much and anyone seen with such an old relic of the pre-computer age as a dartboard would probably be fired on the spot. So I decided to develop a virtual dartboard-one that can vanish with the simple click of a button.

Engineering challenge No. 1 in the development of this virtual dartboard was how to "read" the executive's throwing action without actually having a dangerous object thrown about. One consideration was to have the exec toss a soft object such as an eraser (although no one knows why any worthwhile executive would need an eraser-they never make mistakes...at least not openly). A touch sensitive monitor would read the impact of the blunt object and the PC would provide an easy read-out documenting the decision that had just been reached. Engineering development ultimately rejected this technology as the sensitive screens kept generating decisions even when a fly or gnat happened to contact the monitor. Besides, it's not polite to compare the random decisions of a gnat with the well thought-out and logical decisions forthcoming from your executive staff.

The advent of the video phone and digital computer camera gave me another idea. By mounting three digital cameras within the PC monitor, I created a system whereby processing software receives and interprets the arm motion of the executive decision maker. This motion is extrapolated into a virtual dart trajectory and the target location is determined through the software programming. Early versions of the software didn't actually scan any input from the executive but relied simply upon an internal program involving coin tossing.

Initial user feedback was used to upgrade the programming algorithms, and it is now possible to tailor each executives dartboard decision aid to their particular preferences. Your IT team will need to load some key parameters into the decision programming to ensure the proper dart trajectory. The key characteristics for each executive include:

  • Dart weight (if an actual dart had been used)

  • Arm strength (to be measured through an arm-wrestling machine that can be found in most area bars)

  • Distance of PC from the executive's chair

  • Presence of a ventilation fan, which generates a cross-wind, and magnitude and direction of that cross-wind

The final modification to the programming was not anticipated by anyone on the design or evaluation team. Several corporations reported that their decision aids were not functioning properly as they were not receiving any response from the PC. A field team was sent out to troubleshoot these machines and discovered that the machines were in fact working properly.

The problem was that their executives simply couldn't hit the target! The software fix was integration of a user error code and a corresponding modification to the PC cameras. Now instead of simply recording the executive's arm motion and virtual dart release, we also monitor their eye position and extrapolate their "intended" target. While we still report an error code for their throw, the PC is able to print out their intended target and generate a decision.

This report is one of a series of occasional columns exploring the not-altogether-serious side of engineering by Ken Foote, a mechanical engineer at GDLS. You can reach Ken at [email protected] or e-mail your comments to us at [email protected].

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