Episode Eighty Seven: Robots; Smart Things; College; Wintermute

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

It’s been a long day. It started early, checking out of the Sheraton at which I’d been staying for Solid, and headed straight into a whole bunch of back-to-back meetings, followed by a short period of decompression and X-Men: Days of Future Past and now this, writing today’s episode at the late time of 11:45pm whilst crashed at a friend’s house. It’s been difficult. I’ve been lucky to have a good friend do the mental equivalent of smacking me with a wet fish in the morning and, in a way, telling me to get a hold of myself. Or to put it another way, try to get me to understand that I’m probably not best equipped to interrogate my mental state at the moment.

It doesn’t help that at the same time, I have to try and turn myself on and be interesting for all the meetings that I’m having and that I kind of collapse after them due to the effort of having to expend so much mental energy. On top of that, it doesn’t help either that being able to turn on and off that kind of mental energy makes me feel like I’m a fraud, or pretending, or some sort of imposter because it can be switched on or off. The alternative explanation, of course, is that it takes energy and that I’m actually tired. People are trying to persuade me of the veracity of the latter, with a kind of Occam’s razor argument.

1.0 Robots

I mentioned in yesterday’s episode that I didn’t think we quite had an internet of things brand yet, or at the very least, we didn’t have an umbrella cultural understanding of smart things. One of the things I’m trying to work out, for example, is why there aren’t a hell of a lot more Roombas in houses. Cleaning – vacuuming in particular – being something that I’m pretty sure most people would prefer not to do, you’d think that a relatively inexpensive robotic solution would be a bit of a no-brainer. And the iRobot Roombas start at around $350 – about as much as a sexy Dyson vacuum cleaner. And yet I suspect that more Dysons are sold than Roombas. Why is this? If iRobot really wanted to go after the home cleaning market, then they could find a way: for starters, I suspect that awareness of Roombas is practically nil compared to other vacuum brands. Why is this? Is there a reason why iRobot *don’t* want to sell lots of Roombas? Is it because they’re like a hobby to iRobot (who have a perfectly serviceable line in military-esque robots) in the same way that the Apple TV is a hobby to Apple? This might just be me with my consumer marketing hat on, but throw a substantial marketing campaign at Roombas and I bet you could shift a lot more.

Or – and you’ll have worked out that I’m essentially thinking out loud here – perhaps the deal is that what people want to buy is a clean house, and that it’s much easier to buy a cleaning service – cleaners – than it is to buy an expensive vacuum cleaner. But I don’t think that’s the full story, either.

This doesn’t apply to just iRobot either. They might be the example that springs to mind first, but they’re certainly not the only home cleaning robot. And yet the market still doesn’t seem that big when we’re ultimately talking about a middle-class labour saving device, which have historically done pretty well in the home. Is it because they’re just not good enough? Because persistent, fire-and-forget cleaning is, in my lazy mind, still better than cleaning I have to pay someone for or cleaning that I have to do myself.

2.0 Smart Things

I’m also not entirely sure that we’re quite ready for smart things, or the internet of things, in terms of a consumer audience yet. By that, I mean that I’m not sure the consumer benefits are clearly articulated. Even something like the Nest, right now, feels like a luxury, and the sharp, easily understandable story about why it’s better than any other thermostat – especially one that’s a lot cheaper – doesn’t feel like it’s being understood by the wider market. I suppose it’s difficult if you’re making a monetary play – people discount future cost savings, for example, when compared to present-day cost savings, so even though a Nest might save money in the long run due to increased energy efficiency, people still look at present-day sticker price. So perhaps there’s another story?

The counterpoint to all of that of course is the uncovering of a Google SEC filing that only recently became public[1] of the possibility of the search conglomerate serving ads on “refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses, and watches, to name just a few possibilities.” Now, such filings have to be parsed in the right way because they’re legal documents and they’re intended to be as wide as possible to make sure that any sort of liability is limited. What’s depressing about this is the sheer mundanity of the filing: refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses and watches are all screen-based devices, and Google’s covering both their bases and their asses by saying that hey, in theory, anything that’s got a screen on it that’s connectable to the Google ecosystem may well end up as inventory in their ad network.

The original Wall Street Journal article was clarified with two points from Google – one of which pointed out that the language in the filing was out of date and did not ‘reflect the Google product roadmap’, and the latter of which was an impassioned defence from Tony Fadell reiterating that Nest was not built on and is not predicated upon Google’s ad network. Fadell is keen to remind us not only that Nest’s business model is different from Google’s, but it is also a separate corporate entity.

This is all well and good – and anyway, it’s not like we’re able to hold corporations to their promises in any way other than the manner in which we use our wallets – but of course leaves open the rather wide loophole of the refrigerators and the car dashboards, for starters.

There’s the compelling argument that once cars do become autonomous and self driving (which might seem a little further away than we think, now we see that a lot of the smarts in Google’s self-driving cars reside in the network – which makes sense – rather than in the car) the environment that they offer instantly changes into a new sort of space with different affordances for entertainment at the very least. Suddenly the time – and attention – that was sucked up by cars and driving can be reconfigured into something different, and another landgrab for attention can be made.

There was one particularly good talk from Solid from Simone Rebaudengo[2], of which one part that struck me was our almost childish obsession with the first generation of smart things being simply very long fingers – that is, the idea of long-range remote control, of being able to reach out and touch or affect something in our home from a distance. That distance might be from the couch to the TV or it might be further, and the if we take the promise of smart things literally, there’s really not that much smart in a lot of them other than the ability to affect action or sensing at a distance. Which sure, is interesting, but I’m not exactly sure if there’s a latent user need that they would be satisfying. I’m entirely willing and happy to be proven wrong, of course, and am prepared to admit that there may well be incredibly interesting things that can happen when we all have very long fingers capable of spookily pushing buttons at a distance.

[1] http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2014/05/21/google-predicts-ads-in-odd-spots-like-thermostats/
[2] http://solidcon.com/solid2014/public/schedule/detail/33299

3.0 College

I did a fair bit of driving when I was in Missouri a couple weeks ago, mainly around the Kansas City area. One thing that I started to notice after a while was the billboards advertising college. It’s always interesting for me to go back to the family farm because there are simply places of america that I haven’t been in, and the middle part of America, being someone who’s lived on the west coast – and the crunchy Portlandia part of the west coast, too – is incredibly interesting. The part that I picked up on this time was that there were billboard ads exhorting high schoolers to go to college and to pick a particular college based upon its sports team or their mascot. No mention of academics or anything, merely the question: Aren’t You A Bearcat? for example. And it wasn’t just one college: it was a few. So you wonder about the role that college plays in those types of communities and the hole that it’s filling.

4.0 Wintermute

On this, the last day of my old corporate email account working, news came of Portland having to issue a city-wide boil-water notice due to e.coli being found in the water supply. The practice of issuing a city-wide boil-water notice is in part carried out by robo-dialing every single phone number in the Portland area and playing a pre-recorded message. Which had the effect, from what I could make out from the IT department email, of crashing the VOIP based PBX and not only ringing everyone’s phone (and leaving voicemail) but also disrupting extant calls and dropping them. Wintermute, it seems, is good at telling us when we might have an issue with our other infrastructure.

Okay, that’s it. I’m spent and it’s late. I hope you’ve had a good week, or one that’s been better than mine. See you on the other side.