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.
Making a minimally-invasive washing machine that does a good job on our clothes, while desirable, could be much harder than developing GPS.
There is an argument that many of the domestic functions you allude to...cooking, washing ...are visceral and in a way humans like to be "in touch" with the process.
I am willing to accept help but not at the expense of quality or control.
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