The challenge facing ‘smart’ appliances

Electronics giants must humanise their multi-task digital and WAP devices if they are to avoid switching off baffled consumers. Brian Wheeler reports

As the world is propelled into a digital, WAP-driven future, the need to humanise technology has never been greater.

Electronics giants such as Philips, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, Nokia and Ericsson are investing billions of pounds in creating a new generation of multimedia devices that combine mobile telephony with Web access and video technology.

Most are keeping their new systems firmly under wraps for fear of giving rivals a head start. But as more features are loaded on to ever smaller units, the need to make the technology user-friendly has become paramount.

Even voice-activation, which promises to cut through layers of commands and functions, can seem confusing and mechanistic to the uninitiated.

Philips, which is the market leader in professional voice systems, is investing heavily in voice-activation.

It is already planning to launch a voice-activated TV (MW May 4) which, the company believes, will pave the way for a “smart network” of appliances activated by voice command.

Users will be encouraged to talk to the network and treat it is a “friend”. It may even be possible for users to give their TV and other appliances a name, which can be used as a “wake-up” signal for it to begin listening to commands.

But the Dutch giant, which has this week completed a large scale research project into the future of mobile communications, is acutely aware that these systems can baffle consumers.

The Connected Planet project is meant to be a shop window for Philips’ vision of the next three to five years. The project, which is being shown to suppliers and potential technology partners, sets up three real-life situations and creates a multimedia device to fit each one.

The three prototypes are screen-based palm-sized mobile units, which rely heavily on voice activation to make them work.

They have a video and stills camera which allows users to e-mail pictures, and a navigational device which enables users to find their way around new cities, translate foreign languages.

They will also act as “personal minders”, unlocking the front door and switching off the burglar alarm as you approach your home, and allowing you to control heating and lighting functions remotely.

Philips consumer communications UK marketing manager Tim Mashmann says this humanising – or anthropomorphising – of the relationship between man and machine is central to Philips’ vision. “We have to ensure the technology is fun and usable.”

By contrast, Sony’s version of the future is more overtly technology-driven. The Japanese company has just unveiled its Memory Stick range, based around PlayStation 2 and music formats.

The Memory Stick, which is about the size of a packet of chewing gum, can be transferred from one machine in the range to another, like a floppy disk.

It allows users to share pictures, information and music with friends, creating an instant network. The system relies less on voice-activation than Philips’ but shares a similarly utopian vision.

Sony UK spokeswoman Karen See says: “We are running ahead of the consumer to a certain extent because we believe that is our role. We are creating devices people don’t know they want yet.

“When we researched the Walkman, nobody thought it would catch on. No one imagined people would want to walk around with headphones on.

“You can’t rely entirely on market research to shape your products. People will find their own, unexpected uses for the technology.”

But Sony is also conscious of the need to humanise technology. Its &£1,600 IBO entertainment robot – which can be trained like a dog to recognise its owner and play games – was a hit when it went on sale on the Internet.

Sony insists IBO is more than a gimmick and has been five years in development. But, for some industry observers, it is a function of Sony’s desire to cover every eventuality.

The electronics market is buoyant and the big players have the cash and the confidence to take risks, knowing that if they hit on a winning formula it will be adopted with lightning speed by the consumer and could become the industry standard.

The important thing is to get new products onto the market.

However, for all their talk of the future, many electronics manufacturers are in danger of remaining rooted in their own sector of the market.

Watchmaker Casio, for example, is keen on the idea of personal networks, but its vision is based, predictably, around a range of voice activated multimedia watches. Similarly, domestic appliance giant Zanussi is working on a personal network based around smart cookers and refrigerators.

However, the mobile phone is recognised as the best and obvious launchpad for the networked future, and each week brings a new round of alliances between mobile technology providers and traditional hardware manufacturers. Sony’s recent deal with Texas Instruments and wireless software company Symbian is the latest example.

Many of the devices that result from these alliances will share the same technology and communication protocols. But if they are to truly take the mass market by storm they may also need to share a similar vision and control systems which don’t make the user feel like a robot.

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