Latest industry insights

Connected appliances – you’re doing it wrong

CES 2014 brought with it the usual oddities including normal household devices brought bang up-to-date with wireless connectivity and an (almost uniformly) rubbish interface. The poster boy for the utterly ludicrous is LG announcing new white goods that you can text in order to receive progress updates. I read about this with a raised eyebrow and an increasing feeling of despair. Why? What possible need is there for this? If you take another example, say, the Walkman – that grew from a desire for music to be something you can take with you; there was a clear need/want. Have you ever had cause to utter the words ‘I wish I could find out how my washing machine is doing?!’ while you’re out and about? Ever? No? What about in the house? Surely not that many of us have houses big enough that we’d need to text the machine rather than, you know, walking to the kitchen/utility room. Also, as an aside, as a liberated, modern woman (or something), my mind does rebel slightly at the thought of being constantly connected to my kitchen. I do understand the problem for the designers. Function sells, consumers want more, not less, but surely this trend cannot continue indefinitely. In my mind, my device utopia would consist of a functionality audit, supported by appropriate research. I’d like to see the interfaces thought about, tested and to ultimately do what they’re intended to do: make the user’s life easier. I say that thinking of my much maligned microwave that I, an interface designer, can only operate at its most basic level. I started reading the manual. It made me angry. I stopped. These things should not be so difficult. We need to establish better ways of marketing and selling on ease, rather than bells and whistles. It can’t be that hard, can it?

Analytics comes to the High Street

California-based firm Euclid is offering retailers a free analytics solution for bricks and mortar stores. The number of people who walk past, the numbers who comes through the door, those who lingered over the shop front and where they went and how long they stayed in the store is all information that could be available to store managers of large department stores down to small, independent retailers. The usefulness of such a system is undeniable, in the same way that analytics drive progress for many website counterparts of these stores. It can allow monitoring of seasonal changes in footfall or product preference, or plan and measure the success of particular marketing efforts/windows. It can also help with predictions for staff numbers during predicted busy periods. Undeniably this is a good thing for the high street which has been suffering from the growth in ecommerce, and the fact that this service is being offered free make a non-existent barrier to entry for stores. The problems come in yet again with privacy concerns. Consumers expect to be tracked to an extent while online shopping. Most of us are familiar with tracked adverts and, although not liked, it is something that has largely been taken as writ and at worst, a necessary evil. However, the high street is currently immune to this, and even though there is no personal data being stored, there have already been complaints and threats of boycotts for stores who have announced their participation. The high street could be seen as effectively the last safe haven, free from tracking and tracing. Now, we are being checked and counted and if we happen to have left WiFi on, on one of our devices, our unique MAC address would also be recorded for more robust data. While this is anonymous in its infancy, I expect individual identification in stores to replace the current loyalty card system and for personalised marketing. It’s reminiscent of the dystopia of Minority Report and, quite frankly, it gives me the heebie-jeebies. I think the potential for business is undeniably positive, but the impact on their customers, in a time of increased data insecurity, I’m less confident about.

VR 2.0

I’ve been fortunate to have experienced a number of interesting and specialist input and output hardware devices in my career such as robotic gloves, game controllers, 3D world navigation and scientific/medical instruments. I’ve recently come across the Oculus Rift VR headset, first demoed last year at CES. Now, I’m old enough to remember what a novelty VR was the first time around, swiftly followed by its abject failure to catch on. The main reason for the failure was largely down to application and technical limitations; it was a good idea, just wasn’t very well executed. Even the Oculus headsets released last year quickly became known for lag and nausea during games application demos. However, Oculus have now demoed a new version, codenamed Crystal Cove which at first glance appears to have addressed the previous limitations of swift head movement, and has been very well-received by the community. I’m really excited to see where this system goes in terms of navigating through game worlds, or other applications such as exploring data visualisations or even being used to complement a specialised control system for a scientific instrument. Virtual reality, with the technology now and the correct applications, is closer than it has been before. Watch this space.

Illuminating news for smartphones

Yes, that was a dreadful pun, sorry, but LiFi is apparently a thing. LiFi technology facilitates high-speed data transmission between devices using light pulses, and in an early stage can trigger a device with an appropriate receiver to display particular content or perform simple actions. It’s very much in its infancy but in my opinion could provide a step further towards easily providing relevant contextual information to a person, in a way that QR codes have failed to do. It could allow your phone to be a tour guide, where LiFi provides you with content about exhibits, museums, galleries or commercially, offers from storefronts. Potential applications are many but as with most of these things, the devil is in the detail. This could be a successful step forward provided the execution is careful, considered and above all, evidence-based.

Smart Babies

This is nothing to do with Baby Einstein, but with monitoring. The Mimo Baby is an internet-connected baby’s onesie which contains sensors allowing a parent to monitor their child’s respiratory action, body position, activity level and temperature from their smartphone. Fabulous. This sounds like a well-considered piece of technology with obvious human benefit giving parents at work or out in the evening can potentially have peace of mind at their fingertips. This is an excellent use of wearable technology and I’d like to see more medical devices in this format, making health monitoring less intrusive and less obvious where possible. Thumbs up.