Creating a fad-free gadget

Senior reporter

I’m not good at fixing things. It’s not easy to admit that to the very capable readership of The Engineer but I’m someone who’s much more comfortable with a pen than a screwdriver in his hands. And unfortunately I’m probably not in the minority.

Replacing broken appliances and electronic items when they could be repaired wastes energy and resources, even if it is good for our economy in the short term. But it’s not just the case that most people lack the skills to carry out repairs themselves; many products today aren’t designed to be fixed at all, or cost so little to produce that it’s cheaper just to replace them.

The rapid advance of technology together with our consumer culture also creates a constant demand for new products that can carry out exciting new functions, making items bought just a couple of years ago seem obsolete, even if they’re still in good working order.

So what if there were a way to upgrade our computers and appliances without having to buy completely new models? What if our gadgets were seen as items that would last a lifetime and always be desirable rather than disposable and brutally subject to fashion?

These questions were raised by a recent Sony-led brainstorming project designed to generate ideas about how technology might help make our lifestyles more sustainable in decades to come.

By examining the potential problems and advances we will face in years to come, the Futurescapes project came up with the idea of creating a single multi-functional device kept over a lifetime that would have emotional value as well as being technologically up-to-date.

‘The concept is in two parts. One is that it needs to be modular and upgradeable, not only the hardware but also the software,’ said Rodrigo Bautista from Engage by Design, the agency that led the concept development.

‘The second bit was to imagine a device in the future would not only be your mobile phone. It will be something you can project with onto a screen, give you entertainment and at the same time communicate to the rest of the world.’

Is it possible to design a gadget that wouldn’t go out of fashion? Engage by Design’s vision of how Wandular might look.

Bautista admitted that developing the technology to create a device that can be continually upgraded would require a lot of research and development. In fact the concept name – “Wandular,” a combination of “wand” and “modular” ­– seems apt as you might need a bit of magic to build one.

But actually, technology is already moving towards some of these ideas. Mobile phones now play music, connect to the internet, take photos and can even be used to pay for goods. It’s not hard to imagine a future where we don’t carry keys or cash, just our smartphones.

And although we replace our gadgets as faster processors and smaller memory chips are developed, we are increasingly relying on internet cloud services to not only store our data but also carry out functions of our computers such as voice-powered search. If we can use the cloud for processing as well as storing data it will reduce the need for us to have the latest chip in our phones, perhaps making upgrading them easier and cheaper.

But another problem is the business model. How would this idea impact a firm like Sony, which like all electronics companies relies on products becoming obsolete so their customers will buy new ones?

‘One of the things that came out of [Futurescapes] is that a device like Wandular is still an evolving device,’ said Chris Clifton, Sony’s chief technology officer of semiconductor and electronic solutions.

‘It’s not that this device necessarily exists in one point in time and doesn’t change, but you can see that the way that it would change would be different, it would be by hardware and software plugins.’

‘“We don’t know” is the honest answer because this is a concept and really we want to open this up to get views from others. But I think within the electronics industry as a whole, looking at how business models evolve is something we’re used to.’

One possibility is that companies sell subscriptions instead of charging up front for a product. We already do this with our mobile phones and people are increasingly paying for cloud services.

For us to move towards a more sustainable model of consuming technology requires more than just advances in the equipment itself. It needs a massive culture shift where people are prepared to pay for something that will last. Especially in a difficult economy, this seems like a huge challenge that is unlikely to be overcome any time soon.

But perhaps the Wandular concept itself could help drive this. If we can create technology that is more easily upgradeable – and repairable – then throwing things away might seem like a much worse idea.