Thursday, June 21, 2007

Design innovation

On a recent visit to New York, I happened to visit the Marriott Marquis in Time Square and was surprised to see innovation in an area where there has been none for a very long time. I experienced the new technology in elevators.

We have rarely seen any innovation in elevator design, at least from the end user's perspective. There are not too many players in this arena, which in turn is not a recipe for innovation. If any of their clients complained of long wait times, they always came up with other ways of solving the problem. Like, installing flat panel TVs piping News or other programming near elevators to take the mind off the long wait times.

But this new design tries to solve the elevator problem in a unique way. The distinct difference is that there is no Up/Down button to summon an elevator. Also, there is no display atop an elevator signalling where the car is. In place of the Up/Down button is a panel with a number pad and a display. Every elevator has a name (alphabet, in this case). And, the biggest change is that the individual cars have no buttons in them!

Say, you want to go to the 14th floor. You walk into the lobby and key in the number 14 into the pad. The display tells you to go to elevator "E". You go and wait for the car "E". When the car arrives, you just get into it and it delivers you to the 14th floor. The system is trying to schedule the cars and also batch people into cars based on their destination. So, in case of heavy traffic, you don't end up stopping on almost every floor.

For this to work, you need a lot of cars, and a lot of traffic too. The Marriott had about a dozen or more cars. I was not there during the peak hours and hence cannot vouch for the efficiency of the system, but it seems to work.

The one case where it fails is when you enter a floor number (say, 14) and halfway during the journey change your mind (say, 4th floor). There is no way to stop the car as it speeds by the 4th floor. The other case where it fails is when someone rushes into an open car and tries to find keys to punch the floor number. But, both these cases can be considered user errors and dismissed.

The next time you are in Times Square, check it out. To top it all, at the top of the building is the revolving restaurant The View.