The home, household goods & services

Board games back on the table

If you thought board games were old hat, think again. Unexpected growth in new and exciting board games – up 25-40 per cent annually in the last 4 years – sheds new light on those old copies of Monopoly and Ludo languishing in the cupboard. It’s like many trends set off by the internet – just because you can play virtual games on your smartphone doesn’t mean you don’t want to play them on your kitchen table too. Many people who play online like to buy the physical copies as well.

This is not to suggest Mega Drive, PlayStation or iPhone are suffering serious competition from board games. But they have inspired designers and publishers to come up with innovative ideas for physical games and, in this sense, everybody wins.

Ugg-Tect allows players to build a series of 3D structures while using only caveman grunts (not unlike your average teenager anyway). If you make a mistake, you get your head smacked by an inflatable plastic club. Hmm. This is a shared social experience, apparently. Pandemic, another game, has players acting as medics who are trying to eradicate four deadly diseases from the planet. Finally, Freedom-The Underground Railroad has players working to shelter slaves while fighting to end slavery in political ways.

One designer claims the European approach of indirect conflict and the American approach of aggression are colliding to create better ways of solving a problem or achieving a goal in a game. While American games tend to make story a priority at the expense of mechanics, European games have smoother mechanics but lack clear themes. Many of these games become popular through social networks and, with increasing publicity, they are becoming more elegant and artistic to compete with what is available.

The creator of Qwirkle, a game rather like Scrabble but using shapes and colours rather than words, says her game allows children to play at the same level as adults. She says bringing families together is important in the digital age, where members are so often in their own world. Board games allow parents to spend time with their family in a productive, informative and fun way, without having to come up with all the ideas (or the conflicts) themselves.

Best of all, they remind everyone how to play. Or waste time wisely.

Ref: The Guardian (UK), 25 November 2014, ‘Board games just don’t bring us together – they remind us how to play’ by E Gibson. Also, ‘Board games’ golden age: sociable, brilliant and driven by the internet’ by O Duffy.
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Search words: PlayStation, Xbox, videogame, board game, PC, console, Ugg-Tect, Pandemic, Dead of Winter, specialist, social networks, The Settlers of Catan, trading, Qwirkle, family life, rivalry, play.
Trend tags: Nostalgia, physicality, craft

Powering the future

In the race to develop cutting edge technologies, it’s largely forgotten, especially in developed countries, that 1.3 billion people live in households with no electricity. 85 per cent of these people live in rural areas, such as Africa. But where’s there’s a need there’s generally a start-up and Africa, in particular, is the focus for a number of experiments and investments in alternative power.

Given the remote nature of many households, it is no surprise that localised ‘mini-grids’ attract much of the attention. The percentage of electricity supplied by local wind, solar and hydro is growing substantially.

An advantage of starting from scratch is you can leapfrog many older ideas, such as centralised power infrastructure. One African start-up, Access:energy, is teaching villagers in Kenya how to make wind turbines out of old car parts and scrap metal. It sounds very ‘Mad Max’, but this kind of thinking is very sensible. A single home-built turbine can produce enough electricity to power 50 homes and, when things break, they can easily be fixed by the local people who built them in the first place.

These initiatives provide a test-bed for Western mini-grid systems of the future - and a model of resilience. In the US and Europe, for example, power is usually produced by huge centralised power stations and pumped to end users via large national networks. This is not only hugely wasteful, but lacks resilience, as a failure in one part of the system can quickly cascade throughout the entire network.

The race to power the poorest parts of the world could have dramatic benefits for even the richest parts. We hope so.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 23 August 2013, ‘Africa’s power surge’ by L. Grossman.
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Search words: Africa, energy, electricity, Access:energy, Kenya, wind turbines, alternative energy, mini-grid, resilience, power stations, waste, network, rural.
Trend tags: Decentralisation, localism

Home robots

Jibo, which is due for launch in 2015 via Kickstarter, is potentially the world’s first socially aware robot for use by the whole family. While there are already robot toys, and robots, such as Roomba, that perform a single task, Jibo is a little different.

Jibo looks a little bit like Kenny from the TV show South Park, is not niche and has been ‘optimised for sociability’. Weighing in at 2.7 kilos and standing just eleven inches tall, Jibo can be picked up and moved around the home. Power comes from cordless charging pads scattered in various rooms or from batteries that last 30 minutes. So what’s he (or she) for?

The robot is part assistant and part companion. Jibo can take messages, remind people to do things, take photographs or look after people, for example, reading to children in bed, ordering food or watching over an elderly relative. This is all achieved via facial recognition and natural language processing, but also an ability to express emotions via its digital eye and two-part twisting body. In other words, the robot is designed to express emotion.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 19 July 2014, ‘The first family robot’ by H. Hodson.
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Search words: Jibo, Kickstarter, robot, Roomba, sociability, assistant, facial recognition, natural language processing, emotions, ethics.
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A desire for digital control

According to the French edition of Grazia magazine, there has been a noticeable rise in digital espionage – not by secret government agencies, but by husbands and wives spying on each other. And it’s not limited to adults either. Paranoid parents are spying on their own kids, going beyond Facebook and using apps such as Find My Kids or Family Tracker. But more sinister is using Find My iPhone to snoop on your partner’s location (so actually not your iPhone at all).

For only zero to 50 UK pounds a month, apps like Securaphone, Mobile Stealth, Stealth Genie and mCouple, allow users to find out where a loved or loathed one is, and give secret access to text messages, call logs, photos, calendars, browsing history, What’sApp and Facebook.

How can such secret software be legal? Simple: voicemails can’t legally be intercepted, but data traffic can because the rules for voice and data are different. Generally, text services and social media are still too new for the legislation to have caught up.

Who is using these services? In the early days users were women checking up on men but providers of these services say users are now equally split between men and women. As to why, the first answer is because they can. It’s now technically easy and cheap to cheat, but it’s also easy and cheap to catch people out. Of course, counter-measures can also be used. Black Book gives users secret contact lists on mobiles, Cate will erase calls and Mobile Vault will secure sensitive material in the cloud, although one wonders how effective such secrecy really is.

The second reason, more significant, reason why these technologies are being used is a desire for control. The world continues to become more uncertain but, simultaneously, we’ve been sold the idea we can be in control. Personally, we think we’d be more secure and in control if we simply threw our phones into the nearest river are told the truth to each other.

Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK), 2 October 2014, ‘More and more, we're spying on our other halves’ by C Walden.
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Search words: control, Black Book, Cate, Mobile Vault, cheating, data, voice, legality, Securaphone, Mobile Stealth, Stealth Genie, mCouple, Facebook, Find My iPhone, Family Tracker, espionage, iPhone.
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Only the lonely

Most people think women outlive men, but recent UK government research claims that, in 100 areas of England, the opposite is true. Meanwhile, a report by the International Longevity Centre (ILC-UK) and Independent Age predicts the number of older men is likely to increase by more than half over the next 15 years (up 65 per cent from 911,000 to 1.5 million by 2030).

Worryingly, 23 per cent of these men have contact with their children less than once a month and 31 per cent will go more than a month with no family contact whatsoever. The key problem: when a man’s wife dies, a man’s social circle often dies with her too.

Men who live alone are also less likely than partnered men to seek medical help and, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness, most existing support services are tailored towards or run by women. One solution, put forward by ILC–UK, could be post-retirement clubs. Historically, these were called working-men’s clubs, but these have all but disappeared.

Perhaps there’s a new role here for local pubs, libraries or mens’ shed projects, the latter recently seen in Australia.

Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK), 13 October 2014, ‘Generation of lonely old men ahead as more outlive wives’ by Nicola Fifield.
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Search words: women, men, International Longevity Centre, Independent Age, social contact, loneliness, medical, clubs, libraries.
Trend tags: Ageing, loneliness, isolation