Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


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Not a Creature Was Stirring…

Soon it will indeed be the ”Night before Christmas” and for all of us there will be a short and well deserved lull from the frenzied activities that took place to prepare for another Christmas morning.   What will Santa bring you and your family this year?  How many minutes will it take to open all the presents that have been so carefully prepared?   Will everyone enjoy the moment or will they quickly rush to their iPhones and spend the rest of the morning texting their friends?   And how about you?   What will be the most important activity of your Christmas morning?

This past year has been especially interesting with the rapid rise of the iPad and the expanded capabilities of various eReaders.  The iPhone has also become more capable as an information retrieval device and is now leading the transition into voice communications with our gadgets that are becoming increasingly more intelligent and interactive.  This electronic evolution is also impacting the auto industry with more and more information capability being added to our vehicles.   Is all this good?
As with any technology transition there are benefits but there are also challenges that come with added capabilities.  As more features get added there has to be a way to make all these added capabilities easy for the user to access and apply.  But, it seems to me that the growth of feature-sets has unfortunately exceeded our understanding and/or ability of how to make them respond effortlessly.        

Consider digital cameras as an example.  I now own five of them.  I use several in my laboratory for recoding images from optical microscopes and a SEM.  The others are used for general photography.  In the “good old days” of film cameras there were only three things that a photographer had to remember – set the aperture, the exposure time, and the focus.  With the aid of an analog meter or a simple light bar the correct exposure was easy to set and any adjustments could be made with a few intuitively obvious observations of what was important in the scene.  The new digital cameras have presumably automated all this by letting you make “simple” choices.  However, when there are more than a dozen of these simple choices that have to be scanned from a menu and then further adjustments have to be made to compensate for variants that could not have been anticipated by these pre-selected choices -- such as focusing on the most important elements in the scene -- the automated process becomes far more of a burden than the simple three steps that were so common and so easy to learn with film cameras.  To add to the users frustrations, every camera model is different in its operation -- even when made by the same manufacturer.   I have found it necessary to always carry the hundred-plus page manuals with me to reference when I want to make a non-standard change. 

As another example of “feature frustration”, I recently had an opportunity to use a new remote TV control that is incorporated into an iPad.  There are many option choices presented on the iPad screen and some favorite TV channels can be pre-set.  So far, so good!  However, the simple task of muting the sound during an obnoxious commercial -- that with a conventional remote requires the simple push of a button -- now becomes a frustrating multi-step task.  How could that be?  Well, the problem is that to preserve battery power, the iPad goes into a sleep mode after a few minutes of idle time.  Which means that when a commercial comes on, the iPad must first be turned back on, then the menu must be accessed, and finally the muting pad can be pushed.  So an activity that with a conventional remote was a mindless and instant push of a button now is a multi-step process that takes at least ten seconds to accomplish.  In the meantime, the commercial is blaring away with its irritating and mind numbing message.  And given that most TV programs now have at least five or six commercials in sequence at each commercial break, the iPad has once again gone into its sleep mode and the whole three-step reactivation process must be repeated to return to the program.

Recently, cars have become similarly difficult to use.  Normal control functions such as climate control settings, audio selections, and navigation functions are all being integrated and must be operated from a touch screen.  This can again require a multi-step process of activating the desired function and then having to make several other choices before accomplishing what used to be the simple rotation of a knob or the push of a button.  On a recent trip, I picked up a rental car late one evening.  The emergency flashers had been turned on by the helpful staff.  I am a frequent renter and quickly adapt to a new vehicle, but with this new model in the dark parking lot, it took me many minutes to find the location of the button to turn them off.  The many added features had required the emergency flasher button to be relocated to a place that was clearly not obvious – at least not to me.   

Are we becoming a culture of touch-screen pushers and menu searchers without understanding the basic principles behind what we are trying to accomplish?  What happens then if our “magic boxes” quit working -- or worse yet -- begin to give the wrong answers?  If the GPS quits working, what is one to do without the basic skills of knowing how to read a map? 
Is it perhaps time to take stock and make sure that we don’t lose our ability to function without all of these technology aids?  Do we, as consumers, need to push back against the proliferation of features that end up making our world less convenient rather than the other way around?

I recently read about an upscale private school in Silicon Valley that caters to the children of technology executives.  The school prides itself on not having any computers in its classrooms.  No computers and no projection screens.  While most other schools are adding all kinds of computer aids, this school believes in teaching the fundamentals. Could this be the beginning of a new and useful learning approach that will serve us well in the future world of computer aided everything?  The alternative is worrisome.  If the predominant learning experience for our children becomes pushing on touchpads, watching video screens, with further immersion in texting and game playing could we end up with a world where basic survival skills are lost? 

That would not be a good outcome for Christmases to come.  So while all the creatures and children are asleep in anticipation of Christmas morning, perhaps we should have the confidence that Santa Claus -- in all his wisdom -- will bring our children those toys that will lead them into the most stimulating learning experiences.   Growing up with the curiosity to explore and understand the world around us is going to serve them, and us, well.

Should you have any special wishes for Christmas morning, I would enjoy hearing your thoughts.  You may reach me directly from this site, by e-mail at, or by telephone at 425-898-9117.            


19916 NE 30th Ct. Sammamish, WA 98074 Call 425.898.9117

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