Some of the most beautiful things are the ones we don’t think about


Traffic light. Crosswalk. Card reader. Elevator. What do those words mean to you? Have you ever stopped to think about them? And I don’t mean “@#&@#! Why am I getting all the red lights today?” I mean really thought about them. Personally, I believe there are a lot of things that we see or use every day that we don’t think about in detail.

For instance, that traffic light I mentioned. These days, they’re getting pretty smart. Now, countdown timers to the light cycling are becoming commonplace. Some light now have cameras that detect how many cars are waiting in a certain direction and will change the light cycle in real-time to account for different traffic at different times of day. Perhaps the smartest thing I’ve seen so far is on a light I drive through to work every day. It’s a light on a road that for the most part is a straight shot, save for a few hills and slight curves. The speed limit is 50 MPH and on a clear day, you can see for a good few miles ahead. Because of all that, it a road where speeding is commonplace, but speed traps are not. But, there is one light that is smart enough to stay red until you slow down to just about a complete stop until it will go green. It’s also smart enough that this only holds true if you are the only car coming from a certain direction. The on coming traffic might have a green, but you’ll get a red if you’re the only car coming. And it’s not because the oncoming traffic gets a turn signal, its sole purpose is to slow traffic down. It works. It’s a simple, beautiful, logical idea that works. And most people would just think “Not another damn red light…”

Now what about that second example, the crosswalk? Isn’t is just a bunch of zebra stripes across the road? In most cases, yes, that is true, but some of them are getting really smart. On that same drive to work, I drive through a development that’s fairly recent. On one side of the road is a small group of shops with some offices a little further down, and on the other side is a group of condos. It’s a single-lane road for both directions (one for oncoming, one for your side) with a speed limit of 45 MPH. It’s also one that gets extremely busy during rush hour. A traditional crosswalk would never work, which is why the one to cross that road is anything but. At both ends of the crosswalk is a button that turns on flashers for the crosswalk signal. But that’s not all. Some absolutely brilliant engineer put flashers in the road. They’re impossible to miss and give you plenty of warning that you can slow down safely. They’re also bright enough you can see them any time of day and they light up the crosswalk at night. Why oh why can’t we get something similar installed at Drexel? I bet it could go in in a week, probably less. It’s a really simple design, but it works really well at making crosswalks safer.

Actually, by Drexel there is a similar setup on Penn’s campus. Their’s doesn’t have the lights in the road nor a button to push. However, it does have the flashers on the sides of the roads and in place of the buttons, electrics eyes. Simply walk up to and end of the crosswalk and the flashers automatically go on. Finish crossing and they automatically go off. It’s the only crosswalk in Philly I’ve ever seen drivers actually stop for. And not because it’s photo enforced or anything (it’s not) but because it’s simple, it gets the attention of drivers, and it just works. Beautifully.

My third example was a card reader. Anyone who has been to a bank with a walk-in ATM after normal business hours should be familiar with one. Stick your bank card in, the door unlocks. Simple right? Actually, not quite. That card reader has to read the information on your card that identifies you as a customer of the bank, run it against a list of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other numbers, find yours, determine you should be let it, and unlock the door. A good one does all of that in a split second. That requires quite a bit of complex technology. Ten years ago we probably would not have been able to do it, or if we could, it would likely have a delay while it processed. I think it’s absolutely remarkable how far technology has come to allow us to do something as complex as that in less than a second. It’s beautiful.

Finally, elevators.  Those who know me can tell you that yeah, I’ve got a thing for them.

As the above video shows, it’s a topic I’ve talked about before. But I still get asked all the time about it. So let me ask you something, if you have to ride an elevator on a daily basis, how well does it run? Does it shake? Is it loud? Or how about its design; does it look like someone just took four panels of particle board, fake tile, and maybe some stainless steel and slapped it all together? Or is it specially designed to match with the rest of the building? The way an elevator looks and runs can tell you a lot. An elevator that runs poorly can tell you one or more of the following:

  • The building owner is cheap and just wanted the bare minimum to comply with ADA
  • Whatever company installed it never did a good job to begin with (*cough*thyssenkrupp*cough*)
  • The building owner doesn’t care about maintaining it, so long as it’s good enough to pass inspection

On the other hand, one that runs well either means it’s pretty new and was installed right or the building owner and/or manufacturer appreciates the technology and mechanics behind it and knows it needs routine maintenance.

Now what about the looks? In the most basic of breakdowns, elevator design can be either factory-default or customized. Factory-defaults are usually pretty plain in appearance. They’re there just to get the job done. On the other hand, ones with stone, woodwork, mirror(s), or glass usually have a bit more of a story behind them. They show that whoever ordered it knows elevators are a hell of a lot more than just a box that goes up and down. They can make a huge impression. Say you run a hotel; an elevator that looks and runs like shit gives the impression that you don’t care about guests, just their money. On the other hand, one that has a beautiful view of an atrium lobby or a city skyline tells your guests you want them to be comfortable and enjoy their stay. You care about appearance and likely are proud of the work you do and the experience you provide. You know elevators are a key part of a building.

As I’ve already stated, elevators are a lot more than a box that goes up and down (or in some cases, an incline). Perhaps the one of the best example of this are the elevators at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, NY.

If you bothered to watch the above video or have ever stayed there, you know the elevators there are not your typical elevators. These elevators use a system known as Miconic 10 for short, or in full, the Schindler Elevator Miconic 10 Destination Dispatch System. These elevators are [generally] smart. You put in the floor you want before entering the elevator and get assigned one that should be stopping at floors near yours. It also shouldn’t be too crowded. The system monitors in real-time how many people should be in a particular elevator ans will automatically attempt to balance the load across other elevators. Better yet, handicapped? Hit the handicapped button before entering your floor and you’ll get the system talking – literally. It will guide you every step of the way, keep the doors open extra long, close them extra slow, and assign you to an elevator with less, if any, people than the other elevators.

While the system is not without bugs, for the most part, it works. It’s smart, it makes sense, and it’s beautiful. KONE, my personal favorite elevator company, has their own system, which can be configured to be even smarter.

All in all, there’s a lot more to the things we see or use everyday that generally goes unappreciated. There’s a lot more to things than most of us take time to really think and care about. However, the beautiful thing about that is it can lead to hobbies: railfans care a lot about trains, elevator enthusiasts want to be one of the first to ride a new elevator, Otakus can analyze anime and manga deeper than others, collectors see something special in otherwise every day objects, the list simply goes on and on. If you have a hobby, think about it. Why do you have that hobby? What do you see differently? What do you appreciate that others don’t?