Early last month over in Las Vegas, USA, the Consumer Electronics Show happened, allowing tech luminaries to hawk their latest goods to the world. I find this time of year fascinating, not generally because of what the big corporations bring to the table, because that is often the same old stuff updated for the latest cycle. No, what always interests me the most, dear Hypothetical Audience, is all the odd and/or crazy crap the smaller companies show off. Every year the various fringe companies seem to want to top one another for weirdness vaguely relating to whatever tech trend was going around the office a few months previous (well, that and fakes of big name products but thats a post for another time). This year it seems home automation is the buzz word du jour, and we’ve had a veritable glut of random items that are designed to integrate into the “Internet of Things” idea that’s been floating about for the last few years, all usually with the “Smart” prefix attached. Which is usually an indication that the device performs a task that doesn’t need to be smart at all.
I’ve discussed smart gadgets before, specifically Smart Watches, and it seems that progress is determined to bring us more and more every passing week, expanding into ever more diverse areas of our every day lives. Occasionally these seem genuinely useful, such as the smart thermostats every energy company in the UK is suddenly offering, but more often than that they seem to be designed to overcomplicate general activities that are already dealt with quite capably and efficiently with existing, non-interconnected devices. For a while now I’ve been occasionally cataloguing on my twitter account what I like to call “Smart Devices That Don’t Need to Exist But Do,” and some of the qualifying devices are incredibly silly. Everything from weighing scales that only read out on your smart phones, to Android Powered Sex Toys (No, really) have qualified for the tag. It seems that as we inexorably advance toward becoming a more interconnected digital society, we’re trying to insert digital-ness into areas that really don’t make any sense.
Using technology to make our every day lives easier is fairly common sense and a fairly important use of scientific progress. However, it seems that we’re desperately trying to fit technology everywhere with out any thought as to the practicality of it all (The “Just because you can, why should you” principle I discussed when talking about smart watches). The technology involved is often very fascinating, or at least as far as I’m concerned, but the application seems a bit scattershot. On the one hand we have alarms and thermostats that connect via the internet so can be interacted with remotely, a genuinely useful innovation, on the other hand we have things like the Smart Padlock that can only be activated by NFC contact with your smartphone, thus being totally useless once the battery goes in either it or the paired phone die. The former strikes me as a genuine solution to a problem, the latter just forcing stuff together and see what sticks. Another similar non-issue solver is the trend for refrigerators that somehow (I’ve yet to see the logistics of it explained anyhow) keep track of whats in it, which while I could see the use, it’s really a problem that could honestly be solved by simple investigation of the device’s internal storage space. But the real kicker is it will order additional supplies from internet supplier of your choice automatically, to be delivered at their convenience. Now, I may not get on that well with the rest of the universe, but I at least enjoy leaving the house every once in a while, often indeed to go and purchase food, and this feature strikes me as designed to appeal to very few types of people, and very specific groups at that.
And therein lies the major problem for me. A lot of the perceived issues the internet of things, as it’s referred to by big corporations like Samsung, and its related gaggle of smart things tries to solve seem to only be issues for a small group of people. The mass market appeal almost always seems to be based more on “Look, techie/shiny” rather than “This works for everyone,” with often misleading marketing adding to that suggestion. While it’s ridiculous to expect companies to not be profit orientated, the marketing suggests just plain money is more desirable than making sure the customer and gadget are compatible with one another. It can work both ways too, as sometimes the intended market gets lost in the rush to try and get everyone to buy one. Best example I’ve seen was a cup announced at CES that has sensors and a little screen on to tell you what you’ve just put in it. That’s exactly how it was described in the elevator pitch, give it a moment to sink in. Sounds kind of silly doesn’t it? But, upon further inspection it was designed with conditions like diabetes in mind, so can show any potentially hazardous ingredients. Not that that was going to be the main crux of the marketing, oh no. Kind of goes to prove my personal theory on how marketing can ruin everything.
As I said earlier, there’s a place in this world for Smart gadgets and the Internet of Things, but honestly I think we’re currently trying to run before we can walk. If you ask me a good starting point should be taking what smart devices we already have and know work, so pretty much phones and tablets at this point, and building on from there. There’s already work in that direction from the big tech companies, with smart devices begging to become more interconnected with one another, and even with proper computers (The iOS-OSX integration that came with the last round of updates from Apple springs to mind here). If we are to be dragged kicking and screaming into the interconnected future, it’s a good idea that the devices that already exist play well together before making any more, which has then added bonus of building up a customer base rather than trying to force it with untested ideas.
That being said, I think the current level of interconnectivity isn’t quite enough. There are features that in my opinion need more cross-device communication and simply haven’t had it yet, such as alarms, timers, camera apps and so on. And even when there has been some progress, the connections are often limited to only a single type of add on device or a single operating system. If we are to go to the future linking everything up to and including the kitchen sink to a computer, I think it’s important that we don’t limit ourselves as much as possible. There’s already the net neutrality movement to make sure the data internet remains open to all, and I think the same principle must apply to the Internet Of Things. I don’t want to end up unable to operate my own lights simply because I dare to use IOS and my lights were intended for Android, after all.
I’ve said before, both on this blog and often over twitter and in real life, that it feels like we’re in an age of developing the futuristic technologies we’ve always predicted. The ramifications are often fascinating, but it seems we, to paraphrase a tweet I once saw, want to live the in the age of smart gadgets without living through the age of developing smart gadgets. There seems to be a rush to force computers into every single day to day activity, when what we should really be doing is assessing whether that needs it. Maybe continuing to do it like that will yield results, maybe it’ll make us start to actually realise rushing into it isn’t a good idea. Only time can tell.
Until next time, folks,
—Wants a self drinking cup of tea.