Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


 Smart Appliances – In Search of a Problem…

With the advent of smart phones and tablet computers, we now find ourselves in the midst of a revival of the “electronic home”.  The Electronic Home concept had its birth at about the same time that personal computers became widely used as a consumer product.  Fortunately, most of us realized that connecting a home to a PC might not be such a great idea.  Since typical houses have a lifetime of roughly a hundred years and computers are lucky to last for five, having a home built in the late 80s now being controlled by an obsolete IBM PC running DOS really doesn’t make much sense, does it?  Living here in Seattle, we used to hear many stories about the mansion Bill Gates was having built on the shore of Lake Washington and how everything in it was computer controlled and automated.   I wonder how many times he has had to rip out and redo all of the electronics in his now more than 20-year old lakefront abode.  Of course for him that is not a problem but for most homeowners such obsolete and no longer useable control systems certainly would not enhance the value of their properties.       

The new wrinkle that smart phones and tablet computers now offer is remote access.  So the new idea is that we may want to check up on our houses, control various appliances, and be able to manage what is going on in our homes from wherever we happen to be.  And as long as we don’t make these devices an integral part of the house itself this could provide some useful benefits.  Perhaps some of us would like to be able to look in on our homes while out shopping or at a restaurant dinner to see how our pets (or kids) are behaving.  But do we really need to be able to set the furnace thermostat, turn on the oven, or activate the toaster from a remote location?  Would we do that very often and how important is that to most of us?  As for me, I can do without those capabilities just fine. 

The quest by manufacturers for “improving” our lives seems to be exceeding our abilities to appreciate and accept all these wonderful new features.  Among home appliances, the refrigerator seems to be a favorite for attempts to add capabilities of dubious value.  A few years ago a major manufacturer added an LCD screen on the door of their premium model.  I think it was supposed to have access to the Internet and have ideas for meals and how to prepare them.  Now the new concept is that the refrigerator will keep track of its contents and notify the user of expiration dates and help make shopping lists.  What seems to be lost in all this is that inventory control requires a careful recording of what goes in and out.  Will this process be automated by RFID tags?  And how important is it to have this information?   I can find out everything I need to know about what is in my refrigerator with a visual scan that takes no more than a few seconds.  And even with the use of RFID tags how will the refrigerator keep track of partially used items?   These eager-to-please manufacturers seem to be missing another key societal change.  Many of us have virtually given up on cooking at home.  We are either eating out or taking advantage of pre-prepared dishes that are now sold with increasing popularity in grocery stores.   

The way we use our appliances is changing.  We are actually using them less and not more.  We need simple functionality and not more features that take more time to implement than performing the functions we are already accustomed to doing – and in the future doing them even less.  The question is really a simple one.  Is there a problem that can benefit from a new approach?  Or are manufacturers simply adding capabilities hoping that they will somehow appeal to the buying public. 

There is something else to consider when introducing all these new capabilities.  Human behavior studies have shown that when we are presented with too many choices we may go into a decision making paralysis mode and basically give up, i.e. do nothing.  Or we may be dissatisfied with whatever choice we make. 

There is a personal example of this I can readily share.  I have an SLR digital camera that has about every feature that anyone could possibly want.  Among these features it has about a dozen shooting modes from which one can choose.  And within each shooting mode there are many additional choices to “optimize” the results.  Well, after many attempts to use these wonderful “features” I gave up.  I realized that with a rudimentary knowledge of the simple concepts of aperture, shutter speed, and focus I could do much better by using the manual mode with the built-in light meter.  This is what I always did with film cameras and for me it’s still the easiest and most convenient way to do good photography.  I’m not quite sure who benefits from using the multi-layer menus of the pre-selected modes, but all they did for me was to cause both user paralysis as well as dissatisfaction.  I had pretty much given up on using this camera until I delved into it to learn what works for me -- and what doesn’t.  By eliminating all the superfluous choices, I’m now a happy user.    

Elegant simplicity should not be lost in our quest to add ever-more capability.  Maybe there is a good reason why in earlier times these additions were called “bells and whistles”.  

How are you coping with all these new capabilities that are being offered up to us?  Do you really need more than one finger to select a TV program?   Well, if you do then perhaps the new gesture recognition capability is just what will make your life a joy.  As for me, I’m going to wait and see just how much better this capability appears to be before bringing it home. 

Should you wish to let me know your thoughts on this topic or others, you may reach me directly from this site, by e-mail at, or by phone at 425-898-9117.  


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

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