The home, household goods & services

Guilty pleasures

By the time the typical British child reaches the age of sixteen he or she has owned (and possibly played with) with GBP 11,000 worth of toys. The UK is one of the largest toy markets in Europe worth at least GBP 3 billion a year and British parents spend more on kids' Christmas presents that any other nation in Europe. British children also throw away 44 million lumps of plastic each year most of which are in perfectly serviceable order. One toy trend that has emerged in recent years - and it's a trend that's not just confined to Britain - is the promise that toys are more than just fun. Sales of so-called 'educational' toys are booming and birth to aged three is one of the fastest growing segments within many toy markets. So what's happening here? Firstly, parents are being persuaded that certain toys are a path to future intelligence, wealth and success. In contrast simply mucking around with other kids (too passive) or outside (far too dangerous) is seen as sloppy and self-indulgent parenting with no clear aim or 'outcome'. As for spare time forget it. Every moment must be filled with an activity - ideally 'educational'. This is partially a response to parents spending less time with their children - and thus feeling guilty - but it's also a result of adults becoming deskilled at raising children and therefore passing the job onto other institutions ranging from schools to toy makers. A good example is a toy called Vivo. This is a 'digital aquarium' with real fish that tells children when the fish need feeding thanks to a digital clock. This allegedly teaches "confidence, friendship and the security of a regular routine". All thoroughly commendable but do we really need a digital fish tank to teach such qualities? In a sense all toys are educational and moreover it is the context in which toys are played with that is the most important factor not the toys themselves. What is worrying perhaps is the fact that toy makers are making unsubstantiated claims about their products, claims which in almost any other industry would be subject to stringent regulations and evidence. The fact of the matter is that we know next to nothing about how things shape thinking or how kids use toys to shape their identities. Perhaps it's time we started to find out?
Ref: New Statesman (UK) 18 December 2006 -4 January 2007, 'Toys for guilty parents', D. Birkett.
Search words: guilt, parents, parenting, kids, childhood, toys
Trend tags: anxiety

Energy empowerment

Today, if you try to erect a 30-foot wind turbine in your back yard, chances are that someone won't let you. Solar panels are more acceptable and nobody bats an eyelid if you install an air conditioning unit on the side of your home. However, this is and will change. 13 million Americans live on plots of land an acre or more in size and wind power companies are targeting them to sell a new generation of home-style wind turbines. Indeed, we are witnessing a significant shift whereby technologies that were once only available for industrial customers (wind power being a classic example) are now being sold to the average Joe in suburbia. The tipping point here is primarily tax credits for the erection of clean technology but the ability to sell unused power back to a network is also pushing many eco-cynics into previously uncharted territories. Will a small wind turbine or solar panel really make that much of a difference?Given that Europe is reliant on potentially unstable regions like Russia and the Middle East for 50% of its energy, solar super grids and massive offshore wind power networks will indeed have to be built but much of the onus will shift to the individual to generate and conserve their own energy. Indeed, the future of energy may look very similar to the Internet - it will be distributed, open-source and interactive. We will thus see the development of a variety of micro-generation options including wind and solar. Every little bit helps as they say. On a slightly tangential note the idea of being self-reliant in energy (and water) is likely to strengthen as a trend over the coming years because ordinary people will have access to technology that was previously unavailable to them and also because their trust in institutions like government and big business will decline and people will feel more empowered if they can do it themselves.
Ref: Business 2.0 (US) January/February 2007, Wind power, the home edition',
J. Alsever. See also Business 2.0 (US) January/February 2007. '8 technologies for a green future',
S. Datta and T.Woody.
Search words: global warming, clean tech, wind power, solar
Trend tags: climate change
Source integrity: ****

Do buildings make people fat?

Can architecture make you fat? Back in the 19th century town planning and public health were more or less the same profession but since then the two professions have hardly met - until now. The US and Canada are leaders in this field with two seminal studies into the relationships between buildings and obesity published by Dr Reid Ewing at the University of Maryland and Professor Lawrence Frank at the University of British Columbia. Back in the UK the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) is promoting the idea that buildings can make people thin. An obvious idea is to get people to use staircases in buildings rather than lifts (or remove the lifts altogether). This may sound like a frivolous point but lifts tend to be the focal point of building entrances and staircases tend to be hidden away. But staircases do more than create exercise. Staircases encourage serendipitous conversation and idea generation far more than lifts do so perhaps more should be done to make staircases more user friendly (music, paintings, vending machines for water etc?). Another point is that the low-density design of many cities and neighbourhoods is acting as a barrier to fitness. On the face of it high density housing looks like a bad thing but actually it encourages people to go outside. Retail also tends to be close at hand so journeys can be made on foot. Low density, low connectivity designs in contrast mean that people have to jump into a car to get anywhere and retail is also so far away that the car is the only option. The solution? Well if people are lazy making the healthy option the easiest option should solve the problem.
Ref: The Guardian (UK) 3 January 2007, 'Can architecture make you fat?, P. Arendt.
Search words: health, fitness, town planning, architecture.
Source integrity: *****

Ordinary clothes enter the laundry basket of history

Smart clothing, ranging from nano-enchanced materials to clothing with embedded computers (and even computer screens), is starting to slowly make an appearance.The latest example is self-cleaning clothing. The technology was originally developed by the US air force and resulted in smart underwear that can be worn for days or even weeks without washing. The idea is a spin off from a biological warfare protection project but even in conventional warfare bacterial infection can be more lethal than bombs so using clothing to kill off germs has always been of great interest to the military. The process involves using nanotechnology to attach a range of chemicals to materials so that, for example, water, mud and sweat cannot cling to clothing. Over time these chemicals loose their water repelling or bacteria fighting properties but soaking the clothes in a fresh batch of chemicals can easily recharge them. The first civilian application of the technology is expected to be sportswear because the technology will mean that sports kits will not get as dirty or will not have to be washed as often. Moreover, sports clothing will be more comfortable because less sweat will be aborbed by the material (a major benefit to marathon runners for instance). Of course there is the argument that making people less dirty will actually have the opposite effect. Less exposure to dirt and germs will water down the body's natural immune system and we will all end up buying spray on dirt to keep us healthy.
Ref: Sunday Telegraph (UK) 31 December 2006, 'Self-clean technology to remove the mud, sweat and tears of wash day forever', R. Gray.
Search words: clothing, smart clothing, nanotech
Trend tags: nanotechnology
Source integrity: ****

Top 4 consumer electronics trends

If you were one of the 150,000 people that meandered through the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (US) earlier this year, read no further. But if you missed it and want to know what the next big thing will be, here are the top four trends that ought to set the direction for the US $140 billion US consumer electronics market over the next few years:
1. Internet protocol TV (IPTV). The IPTV market is already worth US $500 million in Europe according to IDC Research and this should grow to US$4.3 billion by 2010. As a result telecom carriers and Internet service providers (ISPs) are rushing into this area. This is potentially significant because ISPs and telcos will henceforth be in the media distribution business. Expect more mergers between content creators and distributors as a result.
2. WiMax. It's been a long time coming but Wi-Fi may finally make the transition to Wi-Max in 2007. This means faster Internet access - especially mobile access - and this will drive all kinds of new devices and applications.
3. Mobile TV. Mobile TV or video-on-demand (essentially phone TV) is still a hot trend. Lehamn Brothers predicts that 50 million configured handsets will be sold by 2009 and the mobile TV market will be worth US$15 billion by 2009 (yes, but will anyone be using them?)
4. Next generation TV technologies. Amazingly boring. The shift to digital TV will drive the adoption of plasma and LCD screens but these technologies have their problems. Expect a bunch of new flat screen technologies and acronyms anytime during 2007-8.
Ref: Financial Times (UK) 5 January 2007, 'Visions of an electronic future',
P. Taylor.
Search words: consumer electronics, smart homes
Source integrity: *****
Trend tags: connectivity