CES hangover: Deliver us from ‘evil’ tech

January 10, 2011

Let us all now give thanks to the passage of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the tech bazaar which debuts the bizarre, the pointless and sometimes the amazing. We can finally catch our breath as tech news goes into a January lull — along with retail shopping, print ad sales and feature films with any Oscar potential.

It’s a good time to gird for the soon-to-resume bombardment of solutions in search of problems, answers to unasked questions and devices that make it easier for us to do things it never would have occurred to us to do at all. And to question some business that hasn’t been attended to either.

Tablets (about 80!), smartphones and non-existent 4G networks took center stage at CES, feeding our wont to extend the digital living room as far as we care to range. But there’s still a war going on for analog living room supremacy. Attempts to convince us to e-mail and surf on our TVs are thankfully over but that doesn’t mean the emperor isn’t being pitched a digitally-enhanced makeover that has no clothes.

“Evil” may seem a strong word. But technology is supposed to simplify our lives or introduce us to the unpredictably, impossibly wonderful. The rest is just huckstered gimmicky. That is what separates tech from everything else you didn’t know you needed, and what’s missing in my personal choices to follow.

3-D TV

Yes, I am beating this to death. At least I hope so. But it’s becoming clear that this is a very tough sell not only because everyone who wants one already has flat screen HD TV and that there are hidden costs for glasses which (apologies to Woody Allen) you wouldn’t want to wear — and you never have enough of. The tech itself just isn’t mature — it’s not so much 3-D as 2-D on different layers — and there isn’t much programming yet or much programming that would make it compelling in the mainstream that TV epitomizes. This is just one of those big screen innovations that needn’t migrate to the home, even if you don’t agree with film critic Roger Ebert that 3-D is “a waste of a perfectly good dimension.”

Phone calls showing up on the TV

Sure, it’s nice to be alerted to a call and to be able to pause the show you’re watching and maybe even see who you are talking to. But it’s called a “ringtone”, “TiVo” and “Skype Mobile.” Phone calls are inherently private and individual, and TV watching is often a group activity. It’s oil and water. And seriously — you still have a landline?

Keyboards and mice

Sorry, Logitech and Google TV. But nothing says pathetic geek more than using computer peripherals to watch a Kevin Bacon movie. Remember who even watches TV: a demographic that could never set the VCR clock. This could be avoided by putting as much thought into the design of a TV controller as into the other hardware. But it more than likely that third-parties will deliver a palatable version of Internet TV, if we let them.

While, we’re at it: Remote controls

They have been with us for 50 years. They created a revolution within the revolution of what was TV, by shifting the balance of power to the viewer. But none have ever approached perfection, and despite the existence of universals they remain ridiculously proprietary: bundled with the devices they control, multiplying like rabbits on the couch, doomed to be lost in a 5th dimension. The best remote is software, and the best device is something you wouldn’t dare lose. We’re at the early stages of remote control apps on smartphones and tablets, and not a moment too soon. Gesture control is also on the horizon. The best part? No fighting over “the” remote. Everybody has one.

Set-top boxes

Google TV has stumbled because it takes up space and doesn’t really offer any compelling extra content. Apple TV seems to have finally made a breakthrough after it shrank to one-quarter of its original size, even though it too doesn’t offer any compelling extra content either. But Apple TV invites itself into your living room as a peripheral, not the clunky battleship with the ugly LED clock that decodes your TV signal. Peripherals which extend the eco-system are welcome in the living room. But since cablecards do all the heavy lifting anyway the main box should have other super powers. It could be a master of navigation, like TiVo, or gaming system — both of which are also conduits for extraneous content from such sources as Netflix, Blockbuster, Amazon and YouTube. But the notion that TV needs to be enabled by an ugly, unintuitive, unresponsive machine that you lease must die.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s a good thing that innovation is still going on in the living room. Before HD and flat screens nothing much had changed in decades. But we need to tie up some loose ends and defend the ramparts before the next truly, impossibly wonderful thing does come along.

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/