How I accidentally reinvented the wheel but felt proud of it
From a challenge to a pleasure
Since the dawn of time, one of the deepest desires of human beings has been to fly. Many centuries after the death of Icarus, who arrogantly flew too high and too near the burning sun, we can finally fulfill our desire without needing waxy wings and bird feathers.
Planes are part of our lives nowadays, and probably they will be for a long long time. Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by fast things, and my eye was obviously caught by the charm of these iron birds, flying at over one thousand kilometers per hour. But what of planes probably charms men and women since their birth is more subtle: the fear of death.
As humans striving for improvement, we find in deaths and threats a challenge: being able to overcome challenges is what makes us stronger and more resilient. Isn’t flying that fast, and that high, one of the deadliest challenges for a simple creature who can barely walk on Earth?
From a challenge to a pleasure
Obviously, our needs changed and we now fly not for the sake of risk, but because we need to.
The first flight is dated 1914 so flying isn’t a new trend, but data shows how the aviation industry is still growing a lot: in the last 15 years, the number of flights doubled, and we can suppose that planes are becoming a new standard of daily transportation.
Since the number of flights is increasing so much, both airports and skies are becoming more complex: dealing with thousands of planes requires new standards both for management and safety.
What is a GPWS?
As I stated, I love planes. I watch every aviation documentary I can find, both from the past and the contemporary era.
These years, A TV series caught my attention: Mayday.
Mayday uses re-enactments and CGI to reconstruct the sequence of events leading up to air crashes and disasters. In addition, survivors, aviation experts, retired pilots, and crash investigators are interviewed, to explain how the emergencies came about, how they were investigated, and how they might have been prevented.
Many episodes made me interested in safety systems, and especially in what a Ground Proximity Warning System is. (GPWS).
a typical GPWS interface.
This system allows the pilots to understand their altitude in relation to the sea level and the plane’s inclination.
Looking at these interfaces I always noticed how hard are to understand:
you need particular training to fly a plane for a reason.
But as a UX designer, I felt the impellent need to design and enhance these interfaces with my Human-Computer Interaction design skills.
The first thing that came to my mind was that pilots couldn’t really see the ground; sure knowing how high are you flying is good, but what if you’re flying in the wrong direction and a mountain is in front of you?
So I decided to design a 2D visualization of the ground in front of the plane, allowing the pilot to exactly know at least 20 minutes earlier if he risked a collision.
How I actually worked
Since I knew nothing about a plane’s ability to change direction or altitude, I had to do a lot of research: this helped me understand how and when the system should warn the pilot.
For example, I got a lot of information about the Boeing 747, which basically said to me “your system needs to calculate at least a 20km line of altitude points”.
That’s a lot of data to process I guess…but is it feasible? Since I am both a designer and a (bad) coder, I decided to do it on my own.
Developing my idea into a new GPWS
I downloaded my favorite JAVA library and connected my new project to two different free JSON REST APIs to get both the localization of thousands of planes worldwide and a topographic dataset based on a query.
After many days of head-scratching, I made the full thing work: you can actually see real-time flights, click on them and get the altitude they’re facing. Right now it works on Processing, but I am pretty sure it can be transformed into a pure JAVA or JS piece of code.
My idea works! it is possible! I could sell this for millions!
No. I just reinvented the wheel.
Well…after losing my mind around this project, I found out it already existed. They didn’t implement it yesterday…but nearly 15 years ago.
Most of the Mayday documentaries I’ve been watching were based on 90s stories, so those planes didn’t have this new kind of safety system.
The sad part is that I didn’t design anything new or more innovative: the current E-GPWS (Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System), looks extremely similar to mine:
As you can see, there is an altitude meter on the left (mine was on the right), there is a plane and the mountain’s outline.
I didn’t invent anything. My idea was old. I felt sad…all my multimillionaire dreams died in a single instant.
Wait a minute…I must be proud!
I did reinvent the wheel…but if the wheel is still used it has to be a good wheel. I didn’t know anything about aviation UX design but what I conceptualized and designed was 100% correct; sure it is useless but being able to design something that is globally considered the best practice possible means that I actually:
- Found out a problem
- Did some correct research (but I’ve should be done more)
- Conceptualized and designed a top-notch standard
Basically, I nailed the designing and problem-solving part.
Sometimes it happens that you design something that already exists, but if it does, probably it’s a good design and it means you’ve done your job well.
Sure, you had to research more before losing all this time, but at least you’ve got a confirmation of your skills.
The next time I take a plane, I’ll know I could have helped build it.
A Jack of all trades UX guy. Mainly interested in human-computer interaction, contemporary sociology and art.