Episode One Hundred and Sixteen: The Material (3); Odds

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m still getting the hang of the freelancing thing after having unilaterally declared yesterday and today to be vacation days. Which mean that most of today was spent with my son, looking for exactly the right kind of bathtime boat. Most boats that we saw today, we both agreed, did not exhibit the right kind of “boatiness” and instead were a bit too yachty or dinghy-like. We finally settled on one that was tugboaty as well as boaty. Also, we discovered that bathtime boats really do need to be made out of plastic and not of wood, and shouldn’t come with rubber bands.

1.0 The Material (3)

The distinction between smartness (a property of a thing) and wearables (a class of thing, that is also smart) seems to be one that needs to be emphasised. When I asked the other day “what would it take for wearables to go mainstream” one of the lazy answers would be: when it would be too cheap for them the materials they’re made out of to *not* include smartness.

This is part of what I mean when I’m thinking about what the material of software is and how it interfaces with hardware. There’s a distinction between sensing and interface, and there’s also a distinction between different types of interface. Again, the more I think about it, the more I’m interested in non-screen based interfaces, and the things that we can do when regular objects – ones that haven’t been smart, or smartified or ensmartened or uplifted into network intelligence – gain that capability.

Because adding a screen *is* lazy, and it adds a whole bunch of other problems. You suddenly have to drive that display, you need the OS to run it, you need the battery to power it and, well, it needs to actually work as a good display and not simply something that can work sometimes, in some places, but not all.

And so this is the distinction and why, I think, I remain so interested in the Withings Activite. The current crop of Android Wear devices – and other smart watches, like the Galaxy Gear – see wrist as interface. Wrist as interface that necessitates brightness emitting attention sucking screen. This feels like a sort of tech industry myopia akin to the video game console wars when, faced with not being able to compete on performance, Nintendo pretty much went sideways with the Nintendo DS and later the Wii by ignoring the flops-per-pixel race and going somewhere completely different. Sure, they ended up with the world’s most expensive indoor tennis simulator, but they shifted a lot of units and managed to re-situate gaming’s overton window into an area the industry still hasn’t quite recovered from.

But anyway. My intuition is this: the set of wearables-with-screens is but a tiny one subsumed inside of “wearables” which are just “things that people will adorn their body with”. One of the questions around the latter will be: how small can they get? What can you put inside them? If you suppose that the baseline of a smart wearable is something that can a) sense something and b) tell something else what it’s sensing then all you need (say) is something like your regular three-axis accelerometer and a Bluetooth LE chipset and a bit of power. If you’re thinking about it a bit more, you might decide that *this* is the moment for induction charging because when you’re talking about gorgeous bracelets (not wristbands, please), jewelry, brooches, buttons or anything else, even a Lightning port or a mini-mini-mini-nano-USB plug is going to be too big. And yes, even a 3.5mm headphone jack is going to be too big too, for those following at home with the ipod Shuffle bingo cards.

You’re essentially talking about tiny, hermetically sealed lumps of metal, ceramic and plastic that are, say, marginally expensive (we’re talking the jewelry industry here, of course) with a battery life of days, if not weeks, with a just-throw-it-on-the-nightstand and it charges, and a pick it up and put it on in the morning.

That’s what smartness is, I think. Not a smartness that draws attention to itself. But a smartness as material, as a property, as a “this thing happens to be made out of it”.

And for that reason, I’m not entirely persuaded that convergence is the key here because sensing and display needs are different. The fact that Apple’s M7 has been incorporated into the iPhone 5S is a red herring from my point of view. They thought they wouldn’t be shipping that many of them, and it was a way to test out new technology. It still hasn’t, I don’t think, gotten that much of a deal or that much attention (and nor should it, really).

M7 though, once it hits *scale* – that’s when it becomes material. When every object can, for a cent or less, know which way up it’s facing or how far it’s moved, and can tell something else? That’s rudimentary smartness. And doing that whilst only sipping battery life?

Because whilst there are the occasions that we have our phones with us, there are still the occasions when we don’t. And just because we happen to have seen sensing and display and computation all in the same box doesn’t mean they have to be *especially* when we’re talking about a smart environment filled with smart objects. In this sense I’m advocating more for distributed smartness, for sensing everywhere, in numerous form factors, and for concentrated, converged computing, sense-making and interface. And as I write that, there’s a silly thought: all of these objects, none of them are self-aware. They’re just sensing, storing and forwarding. But it takes a concentrated amount of computing power to understand them.

This kind of explains the whole Target double-shelving thing. One aisle is talking about the material – the electronicsness and smartness – and the other is talking about the job-to-be-done, the fitness and health and wellness. It’s a good sign that whatever product category we end up calling wearables have moved out of the electronics space and into the “what do you want to achieve” space.

2.0 Odds

– it turns out that Finnish, Swedish and UK/GBR passports are “the most powerful” in terms of where they allow you to travel, visa-free

– I saw Snowpiercer the other day and I’m not the only one to be instantly struck by (spoilers) how BioShock-y it feels. There are a few things wrong with it – the dialogue, especially at the beginning, is a bit clunky and there’s a lot of telling and not showing. In fact, we’re literally hit over the head and told that our reluctant leader is indeed a reluctant leader. Also that he is a hero. And at the same time, I’m struck by how video-gamey the entire experience of the movie is: the linear progression from one end of the train to the other, mediated by a series of gates (Doom keys, right?) combined with a bunch of fetch quests and, ultimately, cut-scenes. But altogether, an interesting movie.

– more ammunition for technological illiteracy and lack of transparency, not ethics, in criticism of Facebook’s recently disclosed experiment