Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


Getting it Right...January 2001

October 6, 2000 -- It is already past 11:00 pm, and I am determined to respond to a few more e-mails before retiring for the evening. I must still pack my suitcase for an 8:00 am flight that will take me by way of New York to Moscow for the FLOWERS 2000 Display Conference. Suddenly, in the middle of an e-mail that must reach my Russian colleagues before my arrival, the house plunges into darkness, followed by a deep explosion-like sound somewhere off in the distance. I momentarily ponder if this is an unexpected but effective demonstration that the speed of electric current in wires exceeds the speed of sound in air.

So much for my nearly-completed e-mail, and so much for the several others I had planned to answer.

Using a flashlight and a propane camping lantern, I finish my packing, set the alarm for an hour earlier than I had planned and retire for the night. Perhaps the blown power transformer will be repaired sometime during the night and I will still be able to get my important correspondence completed in my last-chance time slot between 5:00 and 6:00 am.

At 3:15 am, the smoke alarms let out a piercing screech, the lights flash a couple of times and then stay on. I utter a few choice words as I stumble around the house in my deep-sleep-interrupted state and turn everything off, especially the computer which is now most unhappy that it's power was interrupted in the middle of an important thought.

October 7, 2000. While waiting for my connecting flight in New York, I encounter the following futuristic description in an "EE Times" article by Bob Weber about biometrics technology:

"When she walks in the house, she notices the TV is on and wants to know if the kids have been watching the tube all afternoon or have been actively working on their homework. After touching the remote sensor with her finger, the digital broadband set-top box displays the times the TV has been on and the channels that have been surfed. With another cue, the set-top box goes out and retrieves any e-mail messages that have come in and reminds her that her husband will be arriving that night on flight 336 and that the electric bill needs to be paid. When she approves the payment, the system asks for her finger print again so that it can cross-check the authorization, and the money is then transferred from her checking account to the utility company."

Sounds great doesn't it? Another version of the electronic home -- the long-standing technologists' dream -- recently receiving renewed attention through the highly publicized efforts of several major computer and software companies.

For those of us in the display community, the "electronic home" should be a great opportunity. A display on every refrigerator door. Displays for environmental and ambiance control. Displays for interactive art works and wall decorations. Displays for ordering products and reminding us when existing inventory is about to be depleted. Everything displayed, controlled, and customized to match the wishes and habits of the inhabitants.

Can we really expect this to be our future? Or are we fooling ourselves as we did in the 1950s and early 1960s when supersonic airplanes were going to be the next important transportation development and houses were going to be built using interlocking pre-fabricated plastic panels with integrated wiring and plumbing. Instead, airplane technology ended up being driven by concerns for safety, noise, and the cost of fuel, and house construction today is much the same as it was 100 years ago, with wood, bricks, and plaster having turned out to be less expensive and environmentally friendlier than most man-created materials.

What could go wrong with the technologists' dreams of the perfect electronic home?

The first difficulty might just be that we are still some time away from computers that are sufficiently robust for us to entrust them with our important house functions. The automobile industry seems to be leading the way by developing and incorporating electronic control functions that are about as reliable and long-lasting as the mechanical components. However, the ten-year life of a car is at least an order of magnitude shorter than the typical life-span of a house. I've never even heard anyone mention an electronic circuit for a hundred-year application.

The second, and perhaps less obvious, difficulty is the assumption that we humans are predictable in our behaviors and that the process of acquiring, keeping track of, and re-acquiring various items is a simple activity. Some years ago, I learned just how difficult all this can be when I managed a number of manufacturing facilities. It turns out that inventory control and work-in-process control are major challenges even under the most carefully managed and closely supervised conditions. How will it work in a home where habits and behaviors are much more variable, and, with children of various ages, basically uncontrollable?

Let us consider the simple but often-quoted example of the computer-controlled refrigerator that automatically re-orders milk. This should be trivial, right? However, just this week we purchased a quart of milk instead of the typical half-gallon because we were about to leave for a short trip. Would I have remembered to tell my refrigerator? How? Last week the milk container had a leak and we had to throw it out. Apparently, our refrigerator didn't tell us (or didn't care) because I had quite a mess to clean up. Yesterday, I decided on the spur-of-the-moment that I wanted some chocolate milk. But my refrigerator didn't know that. It forgot to ask me to specify if I wanted 1% or 2%, the carton size, regular or lactose-reduced, and when I would be home to accept delivery.

One of the fundamentals of modern manufacturing is the accurate control of production materials. At each process step, operators are trained to enter the details of materials usage, process yield, and scrap disposition. In spite of such careful control, it is still necessary to manage the incoming materials and the storage areas with techniques such as cycle counting. Only by these redundant and strict disciplines is it possible to maintain low work-in-process and accurate materials inventories. Will future families have to undergo inventory-control and data-entry training, and abide by strict rules in order to operate their households? Perhaps not -- if the following scenario comes to pass.

January 12, 2020 -- "Sir, would you like your usual cereal for breakfast this morning?" "Yes, HAL that will be fine... By the way HAL, I'm getting a little tired of this cereal. Can you show me what else is new that I might like?" "Of course, Sir, let me call up a few interesting selections for you to view on your table display." "Oh, also HAL, I just remembered that I need to go visit that new conformable display company in Midland, Michigan. Could you show me what flights are available and find a decent fare? I'm OK with the same hotel and rental car you got for me last time." "Of course, Sir, tell me when you would like to go and I will arrange it. Would you like me to remind you by voice or on your office display desk?" "And Sir, based on my video scans and observed usage I am calculating that you may be getting low on milk. Would you like me to add milk to your grocery list?" "Yes HAL, but I think I'm in the mood for 2% this time. Let's try that." "Of course, Sir."

"Oh HAL, one more thing. You seem to have forgotten to schedule the delivery of my laundry. Could you be more careful next time?" "But Sir, I don't think that is possible. I am programmed for error free operation, not to fail... to fail... fail." X-ILLEGAL OPERATION DETECTED.

Process information and maintenance of data integrity -- achieved in the year 2020 through voice recognition combined with interconnected displays and sensors at multiple locations in the home and at work. Failure free operation? Well, maybe most of the time.

Nevertheless, I think I could learn to like such a lifestyle. How about you? Let me know your thoughts on this. However, you do not need to wait until 2020 to reach me. You can do it sooner by e-mail at Email, or, by FAX at 425-557-8983, by telephone at 425-557-8850, or by mail at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.