NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, England Ė The best electrical and electronic systems are the ones we donít even realize we are using.
GPS, for instance, has become an everyday tool that to most people is just their location on a map. Its ubiquity now overshadows its extreme technical complexity. Just stop and think about it for a second, with a $99 smartphone it is now possible to locate yourself almost anywhere in the world to within a couple of meters. It wasnít long ago that this would have been science fiction, and now the possibility of becoming lost is a rapidly diminishing prospect.
The technological aspect of GPS is so integrated, so deeply embedded and pervasive that you forget you are using it.
Consider the less exciting sector of home appliances. While useful, these devices have in the main simply replicated something we once did by hand, with a machine. These appliances have allowed us to save time and enjoy a better quality of life. But they still need our decision-making capabilities and guidance and so we canít help but feel we are interacting with a machine. Thereís no magic.
It is however, just the beginning. The next phase of electrical systems and appliances needs to get out of our way and become minimally invasive. The next phase of consumer electrical devices needs to remove the human element from a system, and make it so that my home and the devices in it have made as many of the decisions as possible for me.
Take the humble washing machine for example. When I use a washing machine I donít really want to interact with it, all I want is clean clothes and really don't want to be bothered with the intricacies of setting F with the fast spin or setting H with the anti-crease option. What I want is to put my clothes in, shut the door and let the washing machine decide what is best.
Washing machines currently solve the low-level problem of washing clothes. Instead it should be solving the higher-level problem of turning dirty clothes into clean ones, without involving me in the how.
One can imagine that the use of sensors, microcontrollers and waterproof RFID tags included within clothing should make this possible. Surely it must be easier than global positioning by satellite?
The next generation of electrical equipment should strive to get out of our way, make decisions for us and not simply replicate an old human behavior with a machine. To achieve this they will need to be minimally invasive and solve higher level problems than they current are. But for the companies that can get this right there are likely to be large returns.
Simon Barker is chief technology officer of Radfan, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.
Older people losing high frequencies in their hearing usually do!
Although sometimes older people don't perceive their lack of hearing.
Towards the end of her life my mother had a 5-year battle with BT, including several engineer visits, to try and work out why her land line quality had declined and become indistinct.
The conclusion was that regardless of whether it had declined or not, there was nothing BT could do to improve it, and mother's main problem was old-age hearing loss.
So it seems that where technology is introducing something essentially new, such as outdoor location-finding to within a few meters, it has an open field (pun intended) and its solutions are readily accepted.
BUT where technology is trying to automate and push in to the background familar functions, such as cleaning clothes, dishes, preparing food.....it is rightly held to account and the changes/compromises that are frequently necessary are examined in detail.
An interesting approach but is there a risk that the same radiation that gets rid of the dirt will also harm the integrity of the clothes, which have traditionally been made from organic materials?
The solution of making clothing from materials specially tuned to resist the radition is one of the compromises I am not keen on.
The food example is a good one as is sacrificing voice quality - the improved voice quality still freaks me out when using Skype on a smart phone, I don't think people realise jut how bad voices are over a mobile phone line.
I think the lack of a Moore's law for motors etc means we just need to think more about the problems instead of just waiting for the next expected reduction in transistor density.
It may also be that any solution as unobtrusive as what I want will be too expensive for most people. As you mention, things have an economic barrier
I like the ambition of simply nuking our clothes clean - it would certainly speed things up.
I see your point about RF and chips but don't forget, we had to actually get satellites up in to space as well.
I think it will be a combination of material, process and use that makes a lot of these things ubiquitous. Take food, for example. There was a time, when I bet the food problem would have been thought to be every bit as difficult as the laundry problem.
Who would have thought that you could put turkey, corn and a brownie in the same container and cooked them for the same time? And that was done without electronics. Of course, your comment, Peter, about quality control would come in to play here. A TV dinner is nothing compared to an actual cooked meal.
The quality compromise happens a lot too. a number of years ago, we compromised on phone voice quality to get wireless. More recently, we compromised on battery life to get smart phones. We compromise on the quality of our clothes (and many other things) to get lower prices.
I'm thinking that in a few decades, much of our mundane tasks will just happen without intervention. But, we'll still have cause to complain about quality and service level.
Many years ago I remember reading about a closet that cleaned the clothes while they hung there. I believe the method was conventional (chemical) dry cleaning. Both that method and your idea about using radiation have the same economic barrier of high cost compared to the conventional washers everyone uses today.
Excellent point about GPS involving only RF signals & silicon. The biggest obstacle to Simon's dream of less intrusive appliances might be simply that there is no equivalent of Moore's Law for electric motors, plumbing systems, heating elements, magnetrons and so on. Through the use of sensors and software, we can make appliances smarter and more autonomous, and maybe for the the time being, that will have to suffice.
Sometimes, to make real innovations, you need a paradigm shift. What makes GPS easier than washing clothes or cooking meals is that GPS use involves only RF signals and processor chips. Anything that can be accomplished with these ingredients alone is going to be easier than having to deal with water, bulky objects, large moving masses, and so on.
I'd go further with this clean clothes problem. Forget using water. That's a big impediment. Forget havig to move the clothes to a machine. Heck, that alone is the biggest part of the job anymore, isn't it? Having to carry the lohes tothe machine, and then having to put them away? I mean, who cares about RFID tags that tell the machine to use warm water? That's a trivial aspect of the job.
I say, irradiate the clothes while they're hanging in the closet, or in the drawer. Vaporize the dirt on them. And make better se of that laundry room.
I think the idea of loosing control or quality comes from previous interactions with bad machines doing a job poorly - I bet the design engineers will have set out with the idea of solving a low level problem and then feature creep led them down the path of attempting to solve the root cause of the problem (dirty clothes) instead of just the symptom (deciding how to wash said clothes) which is where they started.
It's a design problem as much as an engineering problem - with GPS it used to be about longitude and latitude but now, with the growth of google maps, it's about street names - some would perceive that as giving up quality and control for convenience (probably hikers and sailors) but most of us prefer it that way
Join our online Radio Show on Friday 11th July starting at 2:00pm Eastern, when EETimes editor of all things fun and interesting, Max Maxfield, and embedded systems expert, Jack Ganssle, will debate as to just what is, and is not, and embedded system.