Wednesday, December 2, 2015

on the internet of things

Last month I attended the Boston 2015 instance of "The Future of Webapps" conference.

It was pretty decent over all. A big theme was "The Internet of Things", making all these appliances and gadgets 'smart'. Josh Clark's Magical UX and the Internet of Things Keynote stood out as an exemplar of the thinking that goes "Lets make the screen disappear by making all the individual things smart". In general, I'm kind of skeptical about this stuff, and if it ever gains a lot of traction I can see a backlash, when people will long for good old light switches and fridges that didn't try to keep themselves stocked on our behalf...

At around 33:00 in that video, he shows a demo of Frog Design's Room-E, where you have a whole area wired up so you can do context-sensitive tricks like point and say "turn on THAT light". It made me think of how prescient Douglas Adams was, writing in the late 70s:
A loud clatter of gunk music flooded through the Heart of Gold cabin as Zaphod searched the sub-etha radio wavebands for news of himself. The machine was rather difficult to operate. For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive - you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same programme.
When I watch the guy in the video wave his arms to turn on the lights, it makes me wonder... how hard is it to turn on a light, really? But of course the answer to that is "kind of difficult, sometimes" - depending on how well you remember where the switch is, if it's placed up the step near the bulb or on the side or on one of those floor mounted switches of if you're supposed to use the wallswitch, or if you have to make sure both the wallswitch and the lamp switch are aligned get the power flowing. But I think the answer for that problem can be better, consistent design before it will be magic room-watching helpers.

There was another "dialog" section:"Lets order take out" [Projected table display updates] "What did I order last time?" [Shows previous order] "Order that."

I know it's a dumbed-down demo, but the fakeness of it reminds me of how until AI gets really smart, it's generally going to be more annoying to interact with than traditional interfaces. (Except of course in ginned up proof-of-concept videos where people order the same anonymous take out dish time and time again.) I don't know first hand how Cortana and Google Now are doing, but Siri can be maddening with her limitations. You really see the strings and the glue and sticks that hold its form of "intelligence" together. And voice transcription? A mess. It just doesn't use enough of the context to really figure out what you're trying to say. And efforts to let one correct a bad transcription via voice (vs just sighing and pulling up the keyboard) are nascent to the point of non-existance.

But of course, if the AI improves, and these helpers can be really smart... it's like the everyperson can have their own little butler. Great! I'd love a little parrot-like shoulder mounted helper, giving me clues about people's faces and generally interacting with systems on my behalf. Except... man, what a privacy nightmare these things will be.

People's response to Google Glass showed me things I never thought of as a kid daydreaming about glasses with a camera embedded (thinking of how it would be so awesome to ALWAYS be able to take a picture of what I was seeing, instantly) -- in a connected world, everyone around wonders where those pictures might end up, and wants to know when you're taking them.

Whether a robot is helping me out in the world, or sitting around embedded in my house, I have to trust it to a huge degree. (In the USA, having household staff is a luxury of the rich, though I'm led to understand it's more of a middle class thing in, say, India, so maybe folks from there have smarter ideas about how such domestic employers deal with trust and their employees than I do.) Take the case of a butler... even if it's not imminently at risk for being hacked, it's likely to be connected in weird ways to its corporate originators. (And even with today's dumb smart systems like  Siri-- big parts of the AI are offloaded to heavier servers elsewhere, so some kind of connectivity seems mandatory.) These AIs are watching you all the time. (Maybe there will be some protocol for that, like the little greenlight that goes on some webcams when they're active? But even that isn't fully trustworthy...

I dunno. I hate to be that old cranky guy, but I'm a skeptic about this brave new world. When I see stuff like "Amazon Dash Button", a brand-specific unitasker that gives you a physical button in your house to press to re-order your favorite product...  I mean, what's the point? You still have to confirm the order on your phone (and thank goodness, right? Like you wouldn't want your toddler going clicky-clicky-clicky and three days later you get a year's supply of Tide all at once.) I mean, I get why companies would like to us to think that way, but is it any better than just a good UX where you can review and repeat your  previous orders?

(Come to think of it, Amazon Dash is fun to think about as an example of not adhering to "loose coupling" programming ideas. You have a button that connects virtually across space to a store. It can't do anything else, and its operations are super-opaque.)

Products like Dash, and concepts like the connected umbrella that flashes "take me take me!" when you're about to leave the house on a day that will turn rainy, or the magic cup that knows what's in it... so much of this stuff are answers looking for problems. Of course in 2006 I sketched out the robot helper I really long for:
All it does is hang out near my closet and wardrobe and hangup or neatly fold the clothing I hand to it...

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