Where’s the technology I want at CES?

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Veg...

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas Nevada in January 2010 (cc) David Berkowitz http://www.marketersstudio.com (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My technology needs are simple. I want my phone to check the weather half an hour before I get up. If there’s likely to be frost, it will communicate with a gizmo in my car that will not only defrost the windows, but it will warm up the seats and the steering wheel for me. My heating should also be given a little boost so that downstairs is nice and toasty. Five minutes before I get up, I want it to switch the kettle on downstairs. I want it to gradually bring the lights up in the room so that I wake up gently.

My tablet should automatically download today’s copy of the Times rather than dumbly waiting for me to fire it up and press the button. My phone should check my diary to see whether I have any appointments in London. If so, it should check that the trains and tubes are running OK. If for any reason I need to deviate from my normal route it should be ready for me by the time I look at my phone. I want my phone to check the balance on my Oyster card, If it’s running low, it should automatically top it up. The TV should switch on and automatically turn to my favourite news channel.

If it’s dark and I walk into a room, the lights should automatically come on. If a room is empty for any length of time, the lights should switch off. If any bulbs are blown, and we are running low on replacements, something will magically buy some best value ones from eBay. I should be able to watch or read any media on any visual device in the house. My wife and I should be able to start watching something on the TV and half way through independently watch the remainder on our mobile phones.

The fridge should have a touchscreen that shows the contents in order of sell by dates together with suggestions for recipes. There will be buttons next door to everything so that we can add them to the next order from the supermarket. The cooker will be told what temperature to warm the oven up to and how long the dish needs. The microwave should be clever enough to work out what’s inside it and set the timer accordingly.

The car should go and fill itself up with fuel. As it sits there most of the time not doing anything, it should also automatically check all those annoying comparison sites and renew my insurance and my tax disc. The car should also book itself in for a service, preferably on a day I’m taking the train into London.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Everything connected up intelligently. The frustrating thing is that much of this technology is here today. The reason I can’t do all these things is because consumer technology is so disjointed. You might be able to get some of these things individually, but making then all work together is either ridiculously expensive, difficult or both.

So what do I think we’ll see at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas? Higher resolution TVs, flexible phones and a sea of tablets.

HD, Blu-ray, 3D – it’s all a conspiracy!

Kicking Television

Kicking Television (Photo credit: dhammza)

A salesman accosted me at an exhibition once and manoeuvred me over to his stand where there were two identical TVs side by side. He was blathering on about the difference that High Definition (or HD) makes to the viewing experience. I looked carefully at the two screens which were showing the exactly the same program.

When the salesman finished his pitch, I asked him when he was going to switch on the HD. He looked at me as if I was a mooncalf and told me it was already on. Puzzled, I asked him which screen was HD. By this time, the salesman thought I was making fun of him. If there was a difference in the fidelity of the display, it was far too subtle for me to pick up.

When our TV needed replacement, we bought an HD model, but only because every TV on display was HD by that time. However, in order to view HD on our TV, we would either need to replace the satellite box or the DVD player and we can see no compelling reason to do so. The satellite box would cost us more money for the same but slightly prettier content. If we replaced the DVD player with a Blu-ray player, there would be no difference unless we also replaced our DVDs.

If I was a cynical man, I would say that such advances come along every now and then and are manufactured to keep the consumer electronics industry and the film industry ticking over. For the consumer electronics industry, they get to sell yet another TV set and another media player. For the film industry, they get to sell the exact same content all over again and usually at inflated prices.

There’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle and not only were some of my favourite films shot in standard definition, they are in black and white to boot. They are compelling viewing because of the acting and the storyline, not because of the technical flash-bang wizardry. Don’t get me wrong, I love the impressive special effects that are possible these days with CGI, but in far too many recent films, there is very little else on offer.

If you are one of the people who likes to keep up with the entertainment revolution, take a good long look at your shelf full of blu-ray discs. You are going to have to pay for the privilege of downloading them all over again in 4D holographic projection format (or whatever the next giant leap in home entertainment happens to be).

Getting from A to B

'This Is Design' at the Design Museum

‘This Is Design’ at the Design Museum (Photo credit: kieranmcglone)

During my childhood, before we undertook any long journey, my dad used to spend the evening beforehand doing his homework. He would sit at the dining room table with his trusty road atlas open in front of him. Working methodically, he would trace a route from where we were to where we ultimately wanted to be, noting down any major place names on the way.

During the journey, we would look out for direction signs to place names from Dad’s list. A medieval traveller would probably recognise the idea. If you want to get from Falmouth to London, you follow the milestones for Truro and then for Bodmin and so on. The system worked well, mainly because Britain has some of the clearest and best road signage in the world. Thanks to the efforts of Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert, the original designers of our modern road signs, roads are easy to identify and it is very easy to pick out direction signs for major towns.

With the advent of a piece of software called Autoroute, we were able to automate the route finding process. After firing up the software and choosing the start and finish points, the system would churn away for a moment before offering the fastest route between the two. If you were lucky enough to own a printer, you could print out a map and step by step directions to take with you. Eventually web sites became available offering route finding which negated the need to install any software.

Of course such levels of prior preparation are not strictly necessary. Armed with a trusty navigator and a road atlas, you could navigate on the go. It’s definitely better if I navigate and my wife drives rather than the other way around. During one trip where the roles were reversed, we were driving down a road beside a river heading for a town on the coast. I had this nagging feeling that we were on the wrong side of the river and every time we neared a bridge or a ferry, I asked my wife to confirm which side we were on. Each time, she insisted we were on the correct side and it was only when we physically ran out of road that she accepted that we were indeed on the wrong side.

When the US military opened up their network of Navstar satellites to public use, portable devices became available which could automatically pinpoint their location anywhere on Earth. As long as a satnav box can find enough satellites, because of the doppler effect, there will be a delay in communications with each one allowing the triangulation calculation to be made.

Smartphones now equip us with a phenomenal array of navigational tools. We can find out where we are, which direction we are facing and how to get to where we want to be. There are virtual reality apps which overlay labels on our screens to show exactly where nearby points of interest are. We can search for a nearby station or restaurant. We can even do all this using our voices alone.

Early explorers who navigated huge distances purely by the position of the Sun would probably find it highly amusing that we still get lost even with all these tools to help us.