The home, household goods & services

A Good Listener, But Not a Friend

Did you know hundreds of thousands of users say “good morning” to their voice activated assistant every day? Amazon Echo and Google Home are selling in the millions, but why? We could say good morning to our phones as they feature the same, or similar, voice recognition technologies.

Surely these new devices are just jumped-up speakers with a voice. They don’t have heads like robots and they don’t move, so why are we confusing technology with people? The reason is partly where these devices are located (generally kitchens) and partly because voice is the only way users can interact with these devices.

If you don’t own one of these devices they are essentially agents that offer convenient home help: they can play songs, set reminder timers, research the internet, read out recipes or render a variety of routine household tasks hands-free.

The fact these devices are ‘always on’ is one clue as to why large numbers of people are being polite to these machines and even treating them as members of the family. The device is always listening out for their name. In the case of Echo, it responds to hearing its name by lighting up a series of LEDs in the direction of a user’s voice.

Such non-verbal behaviour is quite powerful. Contrast this to humanoid robots, which seem to be having a much harder time fitting in. Voice is also a very intuitive interface. Such devices feel a lot more seamless, so the interface almost disappears and the device becomes a character or even a friend.

The voices are all female too. This tends to imbue trust, although it’s been pointed out this is reinforcing sexist stereotypes. Many of the roles these devices take on (secretary, assistant, caregiver) have historically been categorised as women’s work. (See New Scientist, ‘Lazy coding is teaching software to be sexist’).

There’s another big downside to these devices too. Every utterance made in range of these devices is captured and analysed by Amazon or Google. This is made clear in device privacy policies, but how many people actually bother to read these in detail? This has huge implications not only for personal privacy, but for data ownership and security too.

These devices will become more ubiquitous, not only at home, but at work and in between. They will become increasingly personal and better able to understand our individual whims, wants and even our fears and dreams - if we allow them to.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 17-24 December 2016, ‘Home invasion’ by V. Turk.
Search words: Social robotics, social robots, family robots,
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Sofa So Good?

More people now die from sitting than smoking. The problem has become so bad that England’s National Health Service (NHS) has been forced to publish guidelines about how to sit properly. What’s next? A sofa tax?

The problem is people’s bottoms are getting larger, requiring support from deeper, softer, shorter sofas. But giving overweight people deeper, softer, shorter sofas to lounge around for longer on, makes them more overweight. Perhaps in the future lounge rooms will be full of big blobby sofas containing big blobby people.

James Levine, who wrote Get up! Why your chair is killing you, has even coined the term “sitting disease” to describe what most people do all day nowadays. In the UK people generally sit or lie down for an astonishing 13 hours every day and this excludes time lying down sleeping.

It is time to get up. Too much lounging on sofas and chairs is associated with a big rise in the threat of diabetes, heart problems and developing gastro-oesophageal reflux. So why are we sitting down so much?

A lot of work now involves sitting at a desk in front of a computer. But at home now we do the same thing. Another reason may be that people are too damn tired and stressed out to do anything else. Unfortunately, reclining for too long will eventually put you in a horizontal position forever. Buy now, pay later, as the sofa shops say.

Ref: Sunday Times (UK), 24 April 2017, ‘What’s going on with our sofas? By M. Rudd.
Search words: sofa, obesity, sitting, health problem, work, sedentary
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Kidults at Play

It’s become fairly typical to see adults playing games on their phones. But in the UK almost 20 per cent of children’s building sets and action figures are now bought by adults (usually men) for their own use. Indeed the ‘kidult’ toy market has grown three times as fast as the toy market overall with Millennials (18-34 year-olds) leading the trend.

Interestingly around half of adult toy purchases are made online, which could be down to convenience or even embarrassment.

Frederique Tutt, NPD Group, says the reason for this growing trend is probably down to stress and anxiety, especially at work. Toys obviously hark back to safer and simpler times.

Ref: The Times (UK), 10 April 2017, ‘Tough day at work? Get the toys out’ by A. Ellison.
Search words: kidadult, toys, stress, mobile games
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The Engaging Nature of Dumb Phones

There appears to be a growing trend towards turning things off and unplugging, especially at home. At present the average smartphone user checks their phone a staggering 2,617 times per day (Can't be right - Ed) with 89 per cent of users claiming to check their phones at least once between midnight and 5am (Or this! - Ed). So have we reached Peak Gadget?

There are now examples of retailers, especially restaurants and bars, installing Faraday cages to disable mobile devices. It’s surely only a matter of time before such detox technologies appear in people’s homes.

While killyourphone workshops have cropped up in Berlin, several handsets have recently launched that hark back to simpler, less noisy and less frantic times. The re-launch of the 16-year-old Nokia 3310 (and the enduring popularity of second-hand examples on eBay) is another weak signal.

The Light phone is a $US100 device designed by a couple of dropouts from a Google new talent initiative a few years ago. Joe Hollier, one of the geeks behind the device, comments: “Everything was about creating apps to get users hooked, rather than developing something people needed.” He goes on to add: “they (Google) were trying to frame it as if we were making the world a better place by getting people addicted and selling them more stuff.”

To some extent these dumb phones - or retro phones - are just takes on ‘festival phones’ – old phones with limited functionality and extended battery life. But it’s also to do with the joys of simplicity and perhaps disconnection.

Most of these devices (and similar signal-blocking pouches) are not meant to replace smartphones, but rather to complement them. You use them when you go out for dinner with your girlfriend or when you want to stay connected for emergency reasons but don’t quite trust yourself to stop checking other devices to see what other people are doing. In other words, it's about technology refinement, not technology regression.

Ref: The Times (UK), 24 September 2016, ‘Jaded generation ditches hi-tech for simple delights of the dumb phone’, by L. Bannerman.
Search words: dumb phones, retro, simplicity, disconnection
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