Hype And Reality In The Future Home
For decades, there has been a great deal of hype about the home of the future, but much of it is just hype and is highly unlikely ever to happen. This chapter aims to separate hype from reality and convey a concept of a future home that is technically plausible and that might actually be commercially feasible.
Much of the hype about the home of the future derived from whatever trend in technology was fashionable. For example, the "home of the future" that was conceived in the 1960's was largely propaganda for the space race, with the intention of giving the taxpaying public a sense that they would someday enjoy the benefits of the program for which they were paying. More recently, in the 1990's, the "future" home has taken on more of an ecological theme.
And now that the Internet is all the rage, the focus has moved back to appliances, making them "smart" and interconnected. The sample being a "smart refrigerator" that could tell when the milk was about to go sour and automatically order more at just the right time. It's entirely possible to build this, but highly unlikely it would sell.
The point is that engineering is very much driven by the fashion of the moment, rather than focused on applications that would be practical, useful, and ultimately adopted.
Artificial Intelligence was touted as the future of the Web, the vision that each individual would have an army of virtual helpers looking after our interests on the Internet. And while such systems have been under development for years, no-one has succeeded, and the most "intelligent" systems in existence are often attempting to follow elaborate and self-contradictory rule-sets. This is a notable failure, in that much of what futurists envision for the future of the Web depend on AI as a prerequisite element.
The concept of a "smart" device has also been a huge failure, that at best has come to mean a device that has features that are unnecessary and often completely incongruous: a camcorder is not "smarter" because it enables the user to clumsily surf the Web on its 3-inch view screen, not is a toaster improved by the ability to check your e-mail.
In many instances, integrating lots of diverse functionality into one package results in unnecessary complexity and an unusable interface. The author uses the term "Frankenstein Device" - which is rather apt - and suggests that adding the ability to do many things poorly is often at the sacrifice of the one thing they are meant to do well.
The concept of the "networked device" that is self-monitoring has also failed to materialize, and the example of a "smart printer" that would place an order for toner when it was running low was a notable failure (having no idea how much toner was in the cabinet beside itself, it ordered far too much, far too often). Failures such as this only make it the more difficult for users to have enough confidence in devices to trust them in future, especially when "automation" results in spending money.
EN: That last bit is in references to devices that are "smart" enough to order supplies for themselves - which is not so much a convenience to the consumer as it is a way for a supplier to attempt to bolster sales. It's a point well taken, as the consumer still feels the need to have control, especially over any decision with an economic impact.
Incrementalism vs. Innovation
In most instances, "innovation" has been incremental - devices becoming more effective and more efficient at accomplishing the same basic task over a long period of time.
Those technologies that have succeeded are incremental improvements: the iPod improves the walkman, which improved the cassette player, which improved the record player, which imp[roved the live musician, all occurring over the course of a century.
However, R&D in the current age is directed not at incremental improvements, but in disruptive technologies that challenge existing paradigms - a recipe for failure, given that people, socially and psychologically, defend against disruptive change.
The concept of a better vacuum cleaner, which makes the task easier in some way, seems unappealing to those who wish to be seen as "innovators," and would prefer to project (and fail to achieve) the grander vision of a lifelike robot servant that performs a multitude of household tasks. There is ample opportunity for advancement in unglamorous areas that the industry is largely ignoring in favor of more wondrous and large-scale innovations, resulting in little progress at a large cost.
EN: the example is a ironically apt, given that two species of "better vacuum cleaner" (the Dyson and Roomba) have been developed, and widely adopted, and have been resounding commercial successes, whereas the android servant has never made it out of science-fiction.
One of the effects of technical advances has been a general sense of disorganization and misery: the more devices a person owns, the more he must learn in order to make use of them, and in many instances the effort of learning is not worth the benefit derived. An excellent example is the plethora of remote controls in the average living room, and the fact that most consumers do not use most of the functionality that the devices provide, generally because of the time it would take to learn to operate the various devices.
Today's home has lots of technology, often very conspicuous, and often unused. An important goal at this stage in our evolution is for technology to take a back set to the benefits it provides: the "gadgets" should fade into the background and, to be successful, should require minimal effort to use.
At the same time, making the gadgetry means hiding the control panels, which may give people the sense of having lost control. It will be a very difficult balance to achieve an outcome where consumers feel relieved of the burden of control, yet not of the authority it entails. "Machines are welcome in our homes," the author writes, "but only if they know their place."
Said another way, "designers will have to make IT more robust and easier to use than anything that currently exists if it is to be successful."
EN: I'm more disappointed than appeased by the mention of "design" here - but this is a widespread problem: designers are not involved until the last stages of product development, where they are expected to correct problems that should have been avoided by more careful consideration at the conceptual stage. ::sigh::
So What Will Work?
Given the broad range of failures, and the knowledge of what is likely to fail, there are a few qualities that are expected to be successful in the marketplace.
Display is an important characteristic: a display monitor should be unobtrusive when in use, and invisible when not in use, blending into the environment when it is not needed. Having a portable display, like a tablet PC or PDA, is also valuable, though it's necessary to solve the problem of real estate: a cell phone screen is simply too small to be useful for much of anything. It's also necessary to have multiple functions for a display, rather than having a multitude of devices, each with their own separate control panels.
Robotics is also another area in which there is room for improvement, but not so much in the sense of androids as devices that are capable of doing more than they presently do: a dishwasher saves the trouble of manually washing dishes, but has created chores of its own (loading and unloading) that could still be overcome.
Interactivity is another feature that is expected to be in demand: the channels that are losing ground to the Internet - print, radio, cinema, and television - have one distinct feature in common: they require the user to passively absorb what is offered, with at most the choice between various pre-programmed options.
Tags and sensors have great potential - the "tag" identifying some object, and an "activator" that recognizes the tag and reacts to it. These elements are critical for being able to bring a great deal of functionality online, though the authors examples seem a bit impractical and absurd, a home that is aware of its contents, and sensors that are aware when an object is moved from one place to another, has significant potential.
Networking is another essential technology: the value of independent devices, each of which operating independently (or more aptly, requiring the user to operate them independently) are significantly less capable, and less user-friendly, than a network of devices that can work together, operated by a single control panel.
To be successful in the marketplace, a product must account for valid needs of its users, and provide value that far exceeds the effort of learning how to use it and operating it when needed. This is the reason many innovations fail - technology for the sake of technology is doomed from its very conception.
While there is no doubt that technology will continue to advance, and advance the lives of those who use it, no single innovation will turn the world on its ear overnight. Instead, it will be a number of incremental advances, over a long period of time, that will take us forward.