Too clever for our own good?

The ‘smart’ home is upon us – but will the electronics that claim to revolutionise our lives lumber us with gadgetry that will take a PhD to switch on?

The revolution expected to sweep the consumer technology industry is in danger of backfiring, researchers warned this month.

Much as it may seem a dream come true to have your wardrobe advise you what to wear each day and the kettle to switch on as soon as you set foot through the door, technologies must make life simpler rather than overload everyday appliances with endless functionality for its own sake, according to experts.

The issue was considered pressing enough to bring technologists, designers and academics from around the world to Bristol last week for 1AD, the world’s first international conference on creating appliances for the future. Unless technology developers change their approach, they warned, their products could suffer a negative response from the public.

We have been promised that within a decade many of us will be living in ‘smart’ homes filled with ‘intelligent’ objects. But will they be too clever for us?

How to put sensors, processors, wireless links and displays into mass-market consumer products without alienating the very people they are designed to help has become an important issue for the hi-tech engineering and design communities.

Some are increasingly concerned that a rush to make the technological utopia a reality will instead create bafflement, frustration and even fear.

A lot is at stake, not least the prestige of some painstakingly and expensively developed technologies which need at all costs to avoid the backlash that can come from being clumsily launched into the world.

Time is short, because if some developers have their way within a few years everyday items will turn into ‘hyper-objects’ equipped with their own microelectronics, computer-processing power and ability to communicate with the outside world via wireless technologies such as Bluetooth.

Moore’s Law, which predicts the doubling of processing power every18 months, is expected to make processors so cheap that even throwaway products will contain them. An early example is the tiny circuit that allows greetings cards to play tunes. Soon it will be possible to embed electronics and networking technology into almost any object, from a table to a milk carton.

The problem, according to some, is that, dazzled by the possibilities that technology offers, manufacturers will recklessly hurl products on to the market with little or no thought for either their usefulness or usability. The worlds of engineering, design, computing and business are simply not sufficiently geared up to the implications of the coming revolution, which will see technology reach people’s lives in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.

Bill Buxton, associate professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, had a stark warning: ‘The question is, how much money is going to be lost, how many bad decisions are going to be made and how much bad stuff is going to be inflicted on society?’

According to Buxton, a long list of technologies is approaching mass commercialisation so quickly that product designers have had little opportunity to think how to use them. Buxton pointed to developments in light-emitting polymer displays (LEPs) as an example of a technology whose time has almost come. Technologies such as LEPs, he claimed, were set to have a huge impact on how information can be displayed and accessed.

The process has already started, said Buxton. ‘They are replacing film posters with plasma panels costing £10,000. It is seen as economic, even today, to replace a piece of paper with a £10,000 piece of technology.’

Within six years, he claimed, it would be possible to construct a huge display for £1 a square foot. How and why to impose them on people is another matter.

Buxton claimed engineers and product development teams would face particular challenges when incorporating networking technologies such as Bluetooth and wi-fi. ‘I might want to link my device with everyone in the same room,’ said Buxton.

However, he pointed out that such technologies are no respecters of walls, and that he could be closer to somebody outside the room than some of those in it. ‘If the devices don’t know what a room is then they have failed.’

According to Buxton, the key question is: ‘Does the device reduce or increase the complexity of the world? Every generation of technologies should reduce the complexities introduced by the previous one.’

But as experience shows, that is far from always the case. The most notorious example of an everyday technology that baffles attempts to use it is the VCR. Programming some early models was so complicated that the devices were virtually unusable, and years of development appear to have led to only a marginal improvement.

The era of the video cassette is almost over, with digital technology in the shape of the DVD player poised to take its place. Once DVD recorders (DVDRs) achieve mass-market cost levels – expected to happen within the next two years – they will replace the VCR in millions of living rooms around the world. It would be reasonable to expect that the new devices would avoid the tag of user-unfriendliness attached to their VCR ancestors. But Bill Sharpe, chief executive of product design specialist The Appliance Studio, said recent research into the first generation of DVDR players gave little cause for comfort.

‘It seems that the electronics community has not listened, or learned from the experience of the VCR. It looks like it is going to be as bad, if not worse, when we start to see DVDRs appearing. The thinking is still to put in as many features at the lowest possible price you can and let the consumer work it out.’

But Sharpe and others think the DVDR will be the tip of the iceberg as everyday objects begin to incorporate more and more technology, grafting hi-tech electronics and computer processing power to the most mundane of items.

This, claimed Sharpe, will leave whole industries confronting complexities they have never before had to deal with. ‘One of the biggest will be how to bring what digital technology can do within the parameters of everyday life. It’s an uphill struggle convincing people that this needs addressing,’ he added.

According to Sharpe, the two sectors that will have the biggest influence, electronics and IT, offer little encouragement. The latter, he said, had seldom ‘strayed outside the world of the keyboard or the mouse.’

The issues arising when people are asked to use an entirely new technology are illustrated by the Electric Field Sensor (EFS), developed by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute. The sensor uses electrostatic fields to respond to arm and hand gestures, removing the need for users to touch a screen, switches or buttons (see sidebar). EFS has a range of potential applications, including allowing people to make choices from giant interactive display screens without the need to actually touch its surface or even replacing switches altogether.

Fraunhofer Institute researcher Jochen Denzinger said it became clear that people using the first application of EFS, a multimedia kiosk called the Information Jukebox, would need time to get used to the idea. ‘Some people thought it was a touch screen and tried to touch it. Others tried to control the screen with some strange movements,’ said Denzinger.

There is also a potential issue of public unease with the nature of EFS technology, which relies on the electric field generated by the user’s own body and requires them to stand on a metal plate. Denzinger said that the technology uses only naturally generated energy, but admitted that the phrase ‘electric field’ could trigger unwelcome associations. ‘It is important to be clear that in terms of the technology there is no danger,’ he said.

The developers of emerging technologies such as EFS hope they will eventually be incorporated into products and services used every day. They are so different from what people are used to, however, that some commentators believe they will force a sea change in the way products are developed, not least because conventional ways of testing them will be rendered obsolete.

Prof Peter Thomas of University College London claimed the explosion of processing power, networked systems and completely new technologies will require a new approach. ‘Testing products in controlled conditions does not work for the type of technologies we are talking about here,’ he said. He claimed the ‘intricacies and vagaries’ of how the products will be used in real life are too unpredictable.

The most obvious recent example, said Thomas, came when mobile phone manufacturers and network operators expected SMS text messaging to be a little-used sub-function of their handsets. Instead, in the hands of real consumers, it became as important to many users as voice communication, forcing the industry to radically reassess SMS’s place in the technology hierarchy.

All this, according to Thomas, means the rush to incorporate ever-increasing amounts of advanced technology into the devices of the future will be futile if people neither need nor want it. ‘We are at least starting to think about what these new products will look like and what they will do. But unless we have an understanding of how real users behave there are going to be problems.’

The message to technologists, engineers and product designers seems clear enough: don’t get carried away. Irene McAra-McWilliam, a former director of design R&D for Philips and a specialist in the psychology of technology, claimed the new world would require a shift in thinking from ‘how’ to ‘why’. ‘What we need is the lightest touch of technology to serve simple, everyday needs,’ she said.

Sidebar: Who needs a kiss when there’s a blooming fine welcome home?

If Korean electronics giant Samsung is to be believed there is almost no facet of your domestic life that cannot be improved by the addition of technology. Researchers working on its Smart Home project have come up with sensors, wireless communications links and digital technologies for every room, every piece of furniture and every domestic appliance.

Concepts include a wardrobe that checks the weather forecast before suggesting an outfit for the day, a pillow that monitors the pulse and respiration of sleepers and a sofa that adjusts itself to the body shape of whoever is sitting in it.

Walls and windows are turned into vast interactive display screens and the dressing table magnifies the face to assist the application of morning make-up.

Even the doormat is not immune. In the Samsung home sensors in the mat recognise the footprint and weight of individual residents, alerting the rest of the home’s systems to their return.

Perhaps the most startling innovation is the Digiflower, left, a vase of artificial flowers each representing a member of the family. The vase includes a short-range wireless system that can sense the proximity of each resident, causing their flower to bloom as they come nearer the house and wilt as they leave.

All this, its Samsung developers said, was more than just science fiction. ‘We are actually building these devices,’ said Sang Hyun Park of the project team. The challenge, however, was proving the concept of devices designed to play such an intimate part in their users’ everyday lives for years on end without overpowering them.

There is also the perennial question posed to visionary technologists by the harder-nosed elements of their organisation. ‘When we go to the board they ask us, ‘How will we make money?” said Sang Hyun Park.

Sidebar: Powered by your own ‘electricity’

The human body itself will play a role in the next generation of communications technologies. Electric Field Sensing (EFS), developed at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, aims to remove the need to touch screens or press buttons to operate devices.

Researchers from the institute developed the Information Jukebox, an interactive kiosk that allows users to access content using arm and hand movements, as the first application for EFS.

EFS generates an electrostatic field and reacts to changes caused by the electric charge of the user’s own body. These are processed by the system’s computer, allowing it to interpret gestures and provide the requested information on the screen.

According to the Fraunhofer Institute, its EFS system crosses an important boundary because it does not need calibrating to each individual user.

The research centre said the ability to control complex systems without the need to physically touch them could open the way for a new generation of interactive displays.

One possibility it is exploring is true ‘window shopping’ in which passers-by point to a display in a shop window to get more information about the items on sale. ‘We believe this offers many possibilities that would not be open to conventional touch screens,’ said Jochen Denzinger, part of the development team.

NTT DoCoMo has developed an electro-optic probe that it claimed is sensitive enough to turn the human body into an energy source that can power communications devices. Adapting technology first developed for tracing signals on a circuit board, the Japanese telecoms company said its Broadband Intrabody Communication system uses a laser and crystal-based device that can enable transmission and reception without the need for electric current or other cables.