Blog Fodder from the CES: Acres of Inappropriate Touchscreens

Every year the Consumer Electronics Show offers wonderful blog fodder, and new entries for the Inappropriate Touchscreen Files.

I am grateful to the organizers for making life easy for bloggers!

Let’s look at some of the “innovations” noted by staff of wired.com and others.


 

CES is, of course, chock-a-block with “smart” products, and this usually means that they have slapped a touch screen interface on something that never needed one before. This year, they also tend to inhabit the Internet of Too Many Things, connecting to home networks and cloud services..

These are the classic candidates for The Inappropriate Touch Screen File.

In addition, many of the “smart” products are solutions to non-problems. Assuming they work at all (which often is questionable), who needs it? I give extra points for an Inappropriate Touchscreen Interface that also addresses a non-problem, or creates worse problems than it solves.

Four New Entries

Ween Smart Thermostat

The thermostat is a classic and elegant analog device, with an intuitive and simple physical interface. Naturally, this is one of the favorite targets of the internet of too many things.

The Ween “Smart” Thermostat is a networked digital controls the thermostats throughout your house from a single location. Note that this breaks the old-fashioned model of controls in each room—you have to go to the control center to manipulate the thermostat in any room. Sigh.

But wait, that problem is fixed by using Bluetooth to connect to everyone’s smart phone! The Ween “pairs with the phones of everyone in the house, and it can adjust the temperature automatically based on who’s home”. You can also use a touchscreen interface to, well, set the temperature.

Yay! Your thermostat “saves energy” using multiple cellphones, Bluetooth radiation, and many watts of electricity. And it spies on your family in your home. Nice!


 

Withings Thermo

Another simple technology, the home thermometer has worked fine for years. But Withings wants to “improve” it by using infrared sensors to read the temperature of your skin and infer your body temperature. (Remember: the whole point of using the thermometer is to get a reliable reading of your actual temperature, not based on the highly variable surface of your skin.)

Not content with a complicated way to get less reliable data, Withings has slapped on a touchscreen interface. Their app lets you graph your temperature (thus matching the technology of paper and pencil) and “will recognize all the members of your family individually, and can share all that info with your doctor.”

I’m sorry. Did I need a digital device so I could tell whose temperature I just took? And even if I wanted to “share” this information with my doctor, I doubt that she would have any use for such data.

This product uses its touchscreen to solve several non-problems, all in one pointless device! Congratulations!


 

The Autonomous Desk

The company is called “Autonomous”, and their desk is said to be “smart”.

Now a desk, standup or otherwise, is another class passive analog technology. A work surface works OK within broad ranges of configurations, and manual adjustments enable you to tune it to your current preferences. Incidentally, you use all your other tools, digital and analog, on your work surface. This basic approach has worked forever.

Autonomous soups this up with a plethora of digital features, among other things, it “senses your arrival in the morning and automatically raises to your preferred standing height”

Actually, this feature isn’t really a matter of your preferences, the desk is actually designed to change your behavior, teaching you to stand rather than sit while working. Not just a smart desk, it’s a smartass desk.

Naturally, there is a touchscreen app, with a zillion features, most of which you already have or can get for your mobile device. So, my desk can run a calendar for me—if I don’t already have one on my phone, which everybody does.

The desk also is networked and connects to your local Internet of Too Many Things. Thus, your desk can control the lights and window blinds for you—I’m sure you have been having trouble operating those tricky devices.  Or maybe your thermostat controls yoru desk. Or does the lighting adjust the desk.  It’s hard to know, but one thing is for sure:  you don’t run the show.

But wait!  There’s more!

it has a speech interface so you can now yell at your desk. Things are going to get confusing, with your desk, phone, thermostat, and everything thing else all listening to you, and responding to your confusing and ambiguous utterances.  Sounds like fun, no?

All in all, it’s not clear that adding this much complexity to your desk is likely to improve productivity, creativity, or worker satisfaction.

Just turn off your desk and focus on work, for goodness sake!


 

Digitsole Smartshoe

“Control your shoe with your smartphone”. What more needs to be said?

Frankly, I haven’t been having any difficulty “controlling” my old fashioned shoes.  But what do I know?  Perhaps kids today haven’t mastered this life skill.

The shoes apparently “automatically tighten”—i.e., they tie themselves, a skill we all learned in preschool. They also adjust how warm your feet get (does it have active heating and cooling?)

There are sensors that detect shock absorption, and collect data to estimate steps traveled and calories burned.

Naturally, the shoes have Bluetooth, and connect to a touch screen app. (I mean, how can you adjust how tight your shoes are, without a touch screen??) The app also uses the sensors to “track your day”. I.e., your shoes are spying on you.

Amazing!

And I bet it integrates with my magic standing desk, so my shoes can tell the desk if I’m really standing, or cheating with a stool.



 

So we see that the availability of inexpensive wireless networking and ubiquitous digital devices is leading to a flood of nearly identical, pointless, “innovations”, which “solve” non-existent problems.

Most of these products will certainly not succeed—who wants to pay hundreds of dollars or Euros for a poor solution to a non-problem?

But what does it say about the designers of these concepts? Who thinks we need Bluetooth in our shoes and furniture? Why would anyone want to create a complex, expensive interface to elegant devices such as thermostats or thermometers?

These devices also monitor and spy on us, in order to “optimize” our lives. At best, this is kind of stupid. Having the thermometer magically understand whose face it is pressed up against is, well, not exactly a hard problem for unaided humans to figure out, is it.

Networking all these devices is a security and privacy threat. I really don’t look forward to having my shoes hacked, or my boss monitoring my desk.

But worst of all, these devices are totally centered on individual preferences, me, me, me. Where they deal with multiple people, such as the thermostat, they do so by implementing “optimal policies”. How are these established? A combination of authoritative commands and algorithms.

The message here is that the way we decide how we live together is to be solved by impersonal, “smart” methods, data, and “objective” algorithms–dictated by me. How do all these spoiled little tyrants work out differences?  No idea.

Where we used to talk to each other to find out if someone is cold, or would like the temperature turned down, we now rely on the computer to figure that out.  And miss out on the small talk that builds human relationships.

Not just inappropriate, but also harmful.

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