Fixing the Things About Technology I Hate

Senior Editor Tekla Perry sees 2012 as a year of small but key improvements

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Remember podcasting before the 2001 introduction of the Apple iPod? Yes, podcasting existed back then. It wasn’t easy, but there were podcast shows and audio players and software—lots and lots of software, multiple pieces of clunky software you had to run to get an audio file from a podcaster to your computer to your audio player. Once you found them in the first place.

Then came the iPod and iTunes, which let you find podcasts easily, subscribe, and get new episodes just by plugging your iPod into your computer. The earlier podcast “solutions” were, by my precise calculations, 97 percent of the way there in terms of usability, and the numbers of people who listened to podcasts was maybe in the millions. Apple took podcasting that last 3 percent of the way, and the number was soon in the hundreds of millions.

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show didn’t break new ground. No new category made its way into the pantheon of gadgets and devices we suddenly can’t imagine life without—nothing like Blu-ray in 2008 or e-readers in 2010. Progress was, instead, incremental. As they do every year, televisions got thinner, lighter, and brighter, for example—and so did laptops. This time around, though, laptops are finally getting light enough. And a year in which every laptop becomes the equivalent of the MacBook Air is a good year.

And so, for Spectrum Senior Editor Tekla Perry it was a very good show indeed. She calls this the Year of Fixing the Things About Technology I Hate, and she joins us today to talk about how consumer electronics designers and engineers have just made her life a lot easier. Tekla, welcome to the podcast.

Tekla Perry: Hi.

Steven Cherry: Tekla, you’re a TV watcher, you’re an iPod wearer, and you’re a mom. In each of those realms, life is soon going to get a lot better. Let’s talk...let’s start with television. Most people focus on the 50-inch screen, but you want to talk about the 4-inch device on the coffee table.

Tekla Perry: Right. The device I think most of us love to hate about our television is the remote. We’ve hated them for years: They’ve added buttons, they’ve become more and more complex. We’ve struggled with multiple remotes, picking up the wrong remote for the wrong device. I’m constantly having to change my remote buttons to figure out which thing it’s talking to, because it’s turning on the wrong thing, fighting with the...fighting with my kids over the remote, losing the remote: Is it under the couch pillows? Is it somebody sat on it and killed the battery? I mean, remotes just have hosts of problems. So the basic ways that people are talking about communicating at this point, that will be the next way we tell our TV what to do, are voice and gesture. Voice: People are very excited about Siri on the iPhone, love to talk to their phones. Clearly the next place that that kind of technology could go would be the television. And then gesture is instead of picking up the remote, you just wave at your television with an empty hand in some way, and your television knows what you’re talking about.

Steven Cherry: So to change channels or change the volume or—

Tekla Perry: So those, both of those, so either voice or gesture to change channels, turn the television on, to change the volume, go to a website, search for new content, any number—you know, page through a channel guide, all of those things. The idea would be that instead of a remote, you could either wave at your television or yell at it.

Steven Cherry: So, basically for the iPhone that would just be an app that you download, and then you would just not even—not even press buttons on the phone, you would just talk to it.

Tekla Perry: No iPhone involved. I used Siri as an example of voice control. Instead, [it] would be like voice control you could use in your television.

Steven Cherry: Okay.

Tekla Perry: Okay. So the idea is you talk to your TV, or you wave at it. So I went to try—I wasn’t able to try them all. Several companies say that these type of interfaces are coming in future models that will be introduced later in the year. They’re not available yet. I tested the version from Samsung, and I went and saw another version from a company called Soft Kinetic that’s building a gesture interface that manufacturers will put into their televisions, and they say they have manufacturing partners, but those haven’t been announced yet. So over at Samsung we tried voice first. It wasn’t that natural; you have to say specific command words, like “channel up,” “volume down,” “mute,” and if multiple people are talking, the television ignores everybody. The response time, trying to get from channel to channel, seemed pretty slow. You’re like, “channel up”—wait, wait, wait—“channel up”—wait, wait, wait—that wasn’t very natural. In a noisy room, the way we use TV, for most things like that, I think voice may not catch on that well. So then Samsung was also integrating this voice with gesture. Their televisions had—will have—both, and this kind of makes sense because some functions are better for gesture, like going through channels or raising the volume, perhaps, than would be voice. The interesting thing about gesture is nobody’s quite sure what a gesture vocabulary would be, yet. So there’s going to be a lot of experimentations with companies trying different types of gestures. Like, how do you want to communicate with your television if you are using your hands and arms to get its attention. So Samsung’s idea is that you—to get the television’s attention by gesture, you give it a little beauty queen wave, where you put your hand kind of stiffly in the air and just give it a little side-to-side wave. And that gets the television’s attention. To page through channels or select things on the screen, Samsung had you holding your arm up, your hand up, and shutting it crisply and opening it crisply. Very kind of crisp, contained gestures, somewhat marionette-like. So this seemed fine to me, it worked much more responsively than the voice; when you were paging through channels and you shut your hand, it stopped immediately. But I went over to this other company’s—Soft Kinetic—and they have a very different idea of what kind of gestures you should use to talk to your television. Their gesture is, you get your television’s attention by sort of sweeping your arm up in the air, much as a conductor might lift his baton, or a kid in Harry Potter would pick up a wand and wave it. That was actually more fun than standing there waving at your TV like a beauty queen. It felt a little more natural. In general the...the other gestures from Soft Kinetic were more arms and more sweeping, where if you want to sweep your arm off to the side like you’re throwing something away, that was a little more fun. I don’t know which one is going to catch on. Soft Kinetic says their graceful arm motions are less tiring than standing there with your hand opening and closing it.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I think I like the idea of conducting the TV. Let’s move on. Tekla, I remember the year we both went to China and we compared notes on noise-canceling headphones, and both of them, both of the ones we used, sucked. This month you finally found some headphones you think maybe you can live with.

Tekla Perry: Yeah, now these aren’t noise-canceling. For long airplane flights we probably still will be looking for noise-canceling headphones, until—and this was also promised at CES—the airlines start building noise-canceling technology into the seats themselves, and then we don’t have to worry about that at all. There was a company from Israel demonstrating what it called “Quiet-Bubble” technology that would cancel noise within the headset, or within the headrest.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, and I think that company is Silentium, and we did a—

Tekla Perry: Silentium, yes.

Steven Cherry: We did a podcast with them in 2010.

Tekla Perry: Well, I was pretty excited. They say they have one seat manufacturer now that’s building it in but no airline customers yet. So we can only wait for that. But the headphones I really liked, because I just hate having things on my ears; whether it’s walking around town or being on an airplane, I like my ears free. I also am concerned about my kids wearing headphones all the time and the hearing issues and also the getting-hit-by-a-car issue when they’re out running. So a company called AfterShockz had headphones that did not cover the ear at all, they actually rested on the cheekbone near the ear and used bone conduction to get the sound into your—into your head. They bypassed the ears altogether. This was pretty exciting. I’m really excited to try these in a non-CES environment where I can listen to my own music and see if they actually sound good enough.

Steven Cherry: Tekla, you know, Francesco, our audio engineer here, and a musician himself, is grimacing, and I have to say I had the same reaction. The description of it being on the bone instead of in the ear just sounds horrific, but you assure us that it was pretty comfortable and usable.

Tekla Perry: It was supercomfortable. And the sound quality, you know, they’re saying it’s not great, it’s not the equivalent of high-end headphones for audiophiles, but I’m not using that typically. I’m using kind of inexpensive headphones that are just comfortable when I’m out and about, and with traffic noise and all that you don’t necessarily need the high-end headphones when you’re running. They’re meant for a sporting environment where you might not have great headphones or great sound quality to begin with. I’m holding off on saying is the audio quality good enough, because the music that they were playing, which was sort of, you know, hip-hop kind of stuff, is not what I normally listen to, so I couldn’t really judge it.

Steven Cherry: So speaking of moving, moving around town, you had one nonelectronic discovery you wanted to share with us. Your own kids have all reached the age of reason, but the days of dragging a toddler around are still fresh enough in your mind, I’m sure.

Tekla Perry: This was by no means nonelectronic. This was electronic technology comes into a new realm, and that is the stroller. I think, you know, strollers have to date been 100 percent mechanical, and every stroller has had a different solution as to how you fold it up to get it into the car or put it away or whatever. And none of these solutions had ever been really good. They all jammed, they’re all hard to do, they’re all hard to figure out. You never can go up to a strange stroller and instantly know how to fold it. It’s a complicated thing. So a company called 4moms has a stroller called the Origami Stroller. And this is—you know, I—one person called it the Prius of strollers, this is a geeked-out stroller. First of all, it’s power-folding, so it has a button, you press it, and the motors do the work, it folds the thing: You stand back, and it folds the thing up. It has a detector to tell if a kid is in the seat, so you don’t fold it up when the kid is sitting in the stroller—probably a good idea. You don’t have to charge it because it generates energy from the wheels as you push the stroller around. It can be used to charge your cellphone and other devices: The little stroller bag in the back has plugs, you can generate electricity for those devices. It has daytime running lights, it has nighttime pathway lights, the LCD display. This was the most tricked-out stroller I’ve ever seen. And the surprising thing to me is, now the price sounds high—it’s [US] $850. And I never paid that much for a stroller, I’ve...back in the era where the fanciest stroller you could get was still under $300. But the hot stroller for the past, I don’t know, five or six or more years, has been the Bugaboo, and I just looked at the price of that out of curiosity, and a Bugaboo is $880. So this undercuts what currently is the high-end stroller, and you know, gives you all these high-tech details. So it looked like a lot of fun. I’m sure I’m going to start seeing those in the wild really soon.

Steven Cherry: Tekla, you know in the New York City subway system strollers can take up an enormous amount of room in the middle of rush hour, and if even one person folds up their stroller who didn’t used to, I think this product would be a total win for New York City. There was one other thing that I saw that I was really excited by: There were two companies that had very catchy little demonstrations, because in their displays they had a fish tank or a big glass container full of water, and they were throwing things in there like iPhones and iPods and other smartphones and all sorts of little gadgets. And not only did they work when they came out, but these things were working in the water—under the water. And when you pulled them out and you touched them, you could not tell that there was anything on these gadgets. There was no case, there was no plastic sheet, so these two companies, Liquipel and HzO, say they have developed a water-resistant coating for electronic devices that is a nanotechnology—it’s vapor-deposited. It coats these things, makes them waterproof without interfering with their connection, the operation of their touch screen. Both of them are saying the technology is proprietary, they’re not saying exactly what it is, but it worked amazingly. Clearly, these two companies are going to have a patent battle coming up. There are some connections between the companies, there’s some bad blood, and it’s, you know, not clear how that’s all going to work out. HzO is planning on marketing its technology directly to manufacturers, so you will get your products already waterproofed, and if you drop your iPhone in the toilet you can just pull it out and it won’t even have stopped working. Liquipel is doing a direct-to-consumer model where they’re having people send in their gizmos, and it’s $69 each, including shipping—they will waterproof them. The question about that is, if the manufacturer can tell that it’s been waterproofed, if something happens later on, does it void your warranty? So Liquipel says they can’t even tell. A lot of people have doubts about that, but we haven’t tested that out yet.

Steven Cherry: Well, Tekla, thanks for going to CES every year, and thanks for joining us today.

Tekla Perry: Okay.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Spectrum Senior Editor and CES veteran Tekla Perry about some very welcome incremental progress shown at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 19 January 2012.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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