Monday, 20 October 2014
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A new fridge won't change your life. However 'smart' it is.

It’s been a long week: the first back to work after Christmas usually is. But I can only imagine how much time has dragged for those attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week. At least for those who aren’t sucked in by what The Engineer’s news editor referred to this morning as possibly the greatest collection of bells and whistles ever assembled.

In some years, the annual gathering of the world’s consumer technology industry unveils an advance that we can genuinely expect to filter down through an entire product range over the next few years (Blu-Rays, internet TVs and Ultrabook laptops have all featured at previous events). But without such a headline product, CES seems to descend into a competition to produce the device least likely to impact people’s lives. And this year looks worse than ever.

Smart watches have already become the greatest product wanted by no one thanks to the release of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear last year. And yet multiple copycat devices were on display this week.

This morning we’ve been treated to the news that you can now design and print your own pasta shapes. Aside from the point that we already know 3D printers can handle complex structures like living cells so dealing with flour and water is hardly groundbreaking, how many people have actually ever wanted a way to make their farfalle a bit rounder?

Another device promises to turn your smart phone into an electric stun gun. Brilliant. So when I’m held up for my phone, the mugger can fire 650,000 volts into me for an added bonus as he runs away laughing.

Not once have I looked at my TV and thought: ‘It’s good but I wish it was bendy’. Yet someone at Samsung must have had that thought because the company duly revealed a telly that changes shape depending on where you are sitting. Perhaps my living room’s just not big enough for me to appreciate it.

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Source: CES

CES 2014: The greatest collection of bells and whistles ever assembled?

And of course, manufacturers are still obsessed with making ordinary household appliances ‘smart’ by connecting them to the internet and giving them a joylessly cheerful interface.

LG has unveiled a “HomeChat” system that allows users to text their oven or air conditioner and turn them on before they get home. Remote control and natural language processing are both useful tools, true, but I’ll be waiting for the industry to make a washing machine that won’t catch fire before I start using text messages to turn it out while I’m out of the house.

Equally, a way to find out how many beers are left in my smart fridge (an “advance” unveiled annually at CES for years now) when I’m out shopping would indeed be welcome. But until there’s a way to accurately assess how much food is left in each of the RFID-tagged packets I’ve deposited inside the fridge, such a system is always going to be limited. And why on earth would I need a touch screen on the front of the appliance to give me an inventory of its contents when I can just open the door and see what’s inside?

There’s nothing seriously wrong with most of these ideas (the stun-gun phone aside) and some of them may well end up as standard features of home appliances in a decade’s time. But none of them are life-changing enough to persuade most people to part with a significantly larger sum of money when upgrading.

Part of the problem is that companies seem to have seen how readily people take up free smart phone apps that claim to help you improve your life by reminding you to brush your teeth or monitoring your sleep patterns, and thought that they can build such capability into the household items themselves.

But such apps are usually forgotten about pretty quickly once the novelty wears off, so it seems highly unlikely many people are going to pay extra to get the same experience from an internet-enabled toothbrush or “smart bed”.

Of course all industry exhibitions feature plenty of products that are neither new nor likely to have far-reaching effects. And this year’s CES has featured genuinely innovative technology in the form of driverless car technology (although we’re already pretty used to the idea).

Still, I can’t help but cringe everytime I hear an item that struggles to justify its existence described as ‘revolutionary’. A little perspective would be a very welcome thing.


Readers' comments (20)

  • A lot of this is just a desperate attempt to differentiate themselves and garner more sales. If you build a good product that is reliable and economical to operate the sales will come. It's time companies learned to put function above form.

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  • Anything positive to say at all then, no?

    The flexible glass in "Bendy" TVs is indeed a major innovation, and for someone who watches TV with a group of people (who invariably argue over seating positions) I can see this being very useful.
    Wearable tech is also going to be huge in the next decade, in my opinion at least, and smart phones are the dawn of that era.
    And personally if I could afford a fridge which would enable to quickly review its contents through my phone while I am in Tesco I would certainly buy one, cupboards next, please.

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  • The positive bits are in there if you look e.g. driverless cars. And I didn't say anything about wearable tech in general.

    As I said, I too would welcome a fridge that can actually tell me exactly what's inside it while I'm at the shops. When one is actually available I'll let you know.

  • I presume all these smart intertnet connected devices will have the Genuine People Personalities installed to make your interface experience that much richer

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  • Share and Enjoy!

  • I'm glad to see I'm not the only one to appreciate that the word "essential" when used to describe a product's feature usually means "something you could well do without". I do worry that Stephen Harris looks far to young to be adopting this viewpoint, though.
    Regarding the perennial stock controlling fridge, the drawback seems to be on the RFID side. I still have to play the hokey-kokey with my shopping in Tesco since no-one seems able to come up with a system which will scan my trolley in bulk. Until this becomes the norm, my webrigerator won't be able to keep track of stock and I'll have to keep checking the fridge manually for beer - and while I'm there I might as well check it hasn't gone off . . .

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  • I can envisage the day when my smart trolley in Tesco beeps to tell me that there's only 4 slices of bacon left in my fridge, and asks if I'd like to to buy some more.
    However, this feature will probably become a nuisance after the novelty wears off, just like targeted adverts do on certain websites.

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  • I love technology but I do agree with lots of the points Stephen makes - particularly re. the fridge and auto switch on of appliances, most of which have timers or do the job quickly when you get home.
    I love the comment re. the scan of the whole trolley and await this delivery with keen interest! I'd also find an auto scan of my fridge and cupboards by Tesco and others and then an auto-comparative costing for replenishment and a home delivery which tops up the shelves; - only a small advance on factory consumable replenishments of consignment stock when you think about it. Any takers?

    Thank you Stephen for an enlightened article - and from one so young when it could have appeared first in 'The Oldie' magazine

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  • How's this for fatuous: A couple walking down my local high street were using their tablet to locate shops, businesses and services that were right next to them. 'Oh look,' said one, fixated on the tablet's screen. 'There's an O'Reilleys pub.' Holy cow! I thought. If you take your head out of your arse you might even see it with your own eyes!

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  • Car manufacturers have got away with it for years, why shouldn't domestic appliance manufacturers have a go ?

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  • To me, the best story to come out of the show is that Intel is now manufacturing the world's first 'conflict free' processors. Given their clout, their call for the electronics industry to follow suit should have influence.

    Not a technology or engineering story, but definitely one that should impact our lives as we all desire a more peaceful world.

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  • I have to say, it appears to me that mankind has taken leave of common sense. You guys keep going high-tech, but what is needed is low-tech that works on "new" physics, that works 100% of the time, is reliable, low energy input, etc. Also what is needed is a better pipe tobacco to use in my cigarette tube stuffer while I ponder the universe.

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  • The poll is about wearable computing concepts at the show being at the forefront. So, was there nothing else other than smart watches?

    @sheila
    Electronics manufacturers are already planning to source "conflict free" minerals so that their products will be authorised for use by US Defence Contractors. Who then make, er, mostly defence products.

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  • Please be aware that the definition of SMART (technology) doesn't necessarily translate across to the people who buy most of these worthless items.

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  • Great article.

    This is precisely why non-engineering commentators often erroneously claim that the pace of technological change is now faster than ever before and still accelerating.

    An iPhone , for example, is a great bit of design but is an increment on the smartphones that existed before it, which were incremental on the less smart phones before that. It is not a fundamental advance.

    Only hindsight allows the judgment of the rate technological progress.

    Taking only really fundamental steps:

    If we start (for example) in 1874 with the invention of the telephone, we can progress to electrical street lighting (1878), then electricity distribution networks (1880 to 1882), first modern automobile, 1886, radio transmission, 1890 onwards, first repeatable (gliding) manned flight, 1891...... I could go on at both greater length and in greater detail. All of these were major, society changing events. Fundamental progress is now glacial by comparison and (as I repeatedly observe) we could learn a lot by studying why.

    When I graduated the business management fashion was "Lets see what the Japanese are doing this week and copy them". A better approach might be "Lets see what the west was doing this week in 1890 and try to understand why we are so useless by comparison".

    Fluffy bells and whistles are not life changing innovation as you so correctly observe. Well stated!

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  • I thought Q invented the Stun Gun phone. I saw it save James Bond's life.

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  • Why bother going out shopping? Sometime in the future I'm sure our fridges will be linked to online shopping which will automatically 'restock' when certain items run out.

    Personally, I've never had a problem with the pen and paper list approach. As with much of this technology, which the article recognises, it is based around 'novelty apps' that seem great at first but really don't save time or add any value.

    Maybe its because this is based at consumers who love to buy 'novel' products rather than really improving a product like making it more efficient which, most of the time, isn't particularly exciting

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  • Talking to neighbours who are watching the same TV programs you are would be more fun than talking to the oven or the airconditioning.. people watch usually at least 12 hours of telly a week 600 hours a year of chat.. PUBS (Phone User Billing Services) could really clock the money up.. billions per country per year in exclusively compatible chats...the obvious brand name would be INTELLICHAT.. and you could even translate from one kind of profile into other languages and intelligent ways of profile talking..

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  • We need to start thinking of smart systems, not smart gadgets. For instance, I tell my fridge that 5 mates are coming round tonight. Fridge knows that last time they came they drank more beer than I currently have in the fridge, so fridge sends an order to the supermarket. Supermarket says sorry, we haven't got that beer in stock today, how about some wine. To which fridge says "no thanks, I'll try elsewhere". Once sufficient supplies are located, delivery and payment is arranged, and beer is delivered after I get home from work and in time for mates arrival.
    All the components are ready now (ish). Who will be the first to put them together?

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  • I am rooting for the driverless car, as then my wife can complain about its driving instead of my own.
    And what I want in a smart refrigerator is one that orders a six pack before I run out, and it would also be nice if its internal 3D printer made the pasta, or other starch based substance on my spouse's whim list instead of me having to fetch such.

    paul bruce

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  • Why would anyone need a 'smart' fridge to let them know what needs replacing when they are in the shop?

    We have been having our shopping delivered for a long time and don't need to waste time driving to and from a supermarket.

    We already have a 'smart' solution!

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  • About 40 years ago! (I am now definitely a candidate for a piece in the "Oldie") and at the start of increased use of computer analysis of our purchases (by Tesco et al) I had the idea [to save us the trouble of wandering around Tesco picking up what we thought we needed (lists or not)] of a series of 'boxes' already made up and positioned by the door. Batchelor male, female, couple, couple one child, two children, etc DINKN, etc, golden-olden, etc
    These would contain the basics that each type of 'family' unit had purchased week by week. I am sure Tesco's computer system could have designated that almost totally, even than and even more accurately now.. Guess who did not like this idea. The big T who positively wish to have wandering customers, who will pick up on impulse things they definitely do not need!

    But I live in hopes: particularly as Dr Altzheimer gets closed and I cannot find the keys to my buggy!
    Best
    Mike B

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