2 November, 2012 - 11:53 By News Desk

Chips everywhere. Really?

Although I am definitely an engineer underneath, I’d be the first to accept that futurology is often more of an art, distinguishing the likely from the possible.

This is rarely more conspicuous than in the ‘chips everywhere’ concept. Most IT companies have some R & D projects in this space. 

Going back to the early 1990s illustrates the problem well. Back then, the internet fridge and smart waste bin were both made, but I won’t embarrass the companies involved further by naming them. 

You could obviously add the IT to the fridge to scan each item as you remove it and automatically re-order it. As you throw something in the bin, the barcode scan would open the right section for recycling. 

Both these products were made, but it was immediately obvious to me even as a novice futurist that they were both doomed and would never sell apart from a few ‘home of the future’ demos. People simply don’t want their fridge to order the milk: And if you build a PC into the front, first it would be ergonomically wrong, and secondly the PC would be out of date within a year whereas the fridge is meant to last a decade. The smart waste bin would be expensive and fragile and would need custard and tomato sauce-proof electronics. You’d have to make sure the bar-code was clean and you’d have to hold the can right to scan it before you throw it away. Those trivial increases in difficulty of use were enough to guarantee market failure.

Now we’re there again. Various companies are again excited by the idea of putting chips everywhere. Yes you can make a microwave that is controlled by your iphone. Yes you can turn on the bath from the office or your car. No you won’t. The proof is that the automated home has largely been possible since the 1960s but few people live in one.

The hard bits to predict are the areas with some merit, but not enough to make them certain. I don’t want to turn on my lights by using my phone, but on the other hand, I can imagine some people living in rooms with a wide range of lights who might want to choose a mood and have all the various lights brighten and dim to achieve it. Some meeting rooms do exactly that.

Then again, I was given a remote control in my BT office with 50 buttons just to switch the lights on or off. Balance between function and invasiveness is everything. Waving my hand at a light to raise the brightness might be fine, as would be the Star Trek ‘dim the lights 25 per cent’ voice command.

The mood feature wins because it automates the process of manually adjusting 10 lights. The hand waving sometimes might win because it could be intuitive and appeal to couch potatoes. 

Remotely running the bath, turning on the microwave or washing machine are inappropriate because the benefit is minimal but the risks and costs are high. If you run a bath without putting in the plug you waste the water, so you have to automate that bit, and also add sensors to make sure the water turns off at the right time, and adjust the flows to get the temperature right. It is just an expensive and intrusive solution to a trivial problem, rather like my cumbersome remote control to turn a single light on and off.

Energy efficiency is a successful market, though. Adding chips to equipment that monitors energy use is good as long as it doesn’t add too much to cost. Having a few devices such as washing machines or fridges communicate with the electricity company to allow some remote control of timing as a trade-off for lower energy price is potentially useful too, but only if the owner can over-ride at will and retains overall control. And privacy mustn’t be compromised. I don’t want my washing machine to monitor how often each garment appears so that marketing data can be extracted and sold to clothes manufacturers.

Reliability generally (not always) falls with increasing complexity. Extra chips are extra things to fail. Adding operating systems or other software may mean regular software updates, crashes, and even the need for security software. 

Clearly kitchen rage then becomes another factor. You don’t want to be forced to install new software before the microwave or kettle works when you have kids to get out to school. Going to the extremes, you could have your fridge monitor your food use, and it could talk to your bathroom scales, and they could all be made to communicate with your medical insurance provider. But if my fridge decides to order a healthy alternative to something I enjoy eating, the fridge will quickly find itself smashed or recycled.

So it really comes down to common sense, but often that goes AWOL when people talk chips everywhere. It seems that the key factors are simplicity of installation, maintenance and use, costs v savings, privacy, reliability – and most of all the potential gains in quality of life. Very few home automation functions add significantly to the last one, and that’s why the others usually add up to an overall negative.@timeguide



Newsletter Subscription

Stay informed of the latest news and features