Keeping Consumer Electronics Simple
January 3, 2011
By John Dodge
As you can imagine, CE 2.0 aims to take consumer electronics to the next level in simplicity and functionality. More specifically, CE 2.0 strives to make devices “radically simpler to use, seamlessly interoperable, highly-connected and more situation aware,” according the MIT Media Lab, which is overseeing the effort.
Devices can be anything from dishwashers to vacuum cleaners and of course, smart phones which are consumer electronics’ de facto poster child.
“They provide us with information, entertainment and communications and assist in accomplishing our daily tasks. Unfortunately, most are not as helpful as they could and should be and for the most part, they are dumb, unaware of our situations, and often difficult to use,” according to a description of the initiative.
“We were very concerned as things get added, they generally make devices less approachable and harder to understand.”
At this stage, CE 2.0 is a loose confederation of about 25 companies that meet quarterly to discuss the design principles and identify examples of what to do and not to do. The effort has been led by the MIT Media Lab whose sponsors are the CE 2.0 members.
“We were very concerned as things get added, they generally make devices less approachable and harder to understand,” says Henry Holtzman, CE 2.0 co-director and chief knowledge officer/research officer at the MIT Media Lab. “We wanted to do the opposite and create this new generation of consumer electronics devices that were very simple to use, not simplistic in their functionality, but rather simple to use. We felt that adding networking and context awareness in the right way was an achievable goal.”
To the best of Holztman’s recollection, CE 2.0 began in 2006 with “two or three” members and “pre-dates Apple’s iPhone.” It has since grown to 25 retailers, component and device makers and content providers, which are broken into subgroups that focus on issues such as connectivity, privacy, and simplicity.
“We met every couple of weeks and set design rules in the first year. We have not put them out and have shared them with our members,” he says. The group, he adds, has not been intentionally secretive, but has largely operated under the radar.
He also declines to provide a list the CE 2.0 members, but you can guess who they are by perusing the Media Lab’s sponsor list, which reads like a who’s who not only in consumer electronics, but in academic institutions and corporate America as well. CE 2.0 members Intel and Seagate are examples of component makers; Time Warner a content company; Target and Best Buy retailers; and Samsung a device maker.
CE 2.0 has no official web site to gets it message out, but at the 50,000 foot level, its mission was clear from the outset.
“Infinite” memory and micro-processing power – the domain of supercomputers a few short years ago – is cheaply available to the everyday consumer. This immense power is a blessing, but poses a huge design challenge in dealing with so-called feature creep that’s turned into a stampede.
Boundless resources lets consumers store and manage immense libraries of photos, songs and videos, giving rise to a host of issues usability, legal and ownership issues.
Case in point: Walmart markets a common one terabyte hard drive as being able to “store 666,000 photos, 285,000 songs or 526 hours of HD video.” Indeed, today’s hard drives are super powerful, but easily sorting, searching, managing and consuming all that content requires a lot of design consideration.
“Consumers are having to deal with more data sharing ownership issues,” he says. “I am kind of curious what’s going to happen when some family invested in iTunes goes through a divorce. What happens a large enough collection is worth litigating when iTunes is not transferrable.”
Inspired by the flashing 12 on VCRs as what not to do, the CE 2.0 group will convene for its annual meeting at the International Consumer Electronics Show Jan. 6-9 in Las Vegas.
“We’ll have our little best and worst discussion and try to identify trends,” says Holtzman.
Indeed, CES this year will be the usual mashup of gadgets. The emphasis at the massive show this year will be on “`Internet-enabled everything (namely, TVs); `applification’ of TVs, tablets and mobile phones; 3D TVs again this year; and 2010 as the “year of the tablet,” according to the show sponsors.
One product that reflects the work of the CE 2.0 group is the experimental Google Calendar clock from Ambient Devices. Google Calendar overlays the clock’s and offers a “glance-able view of your day’s events.” The dial changes colors as an appointment gets closer, providing a “subtle” and non-intrusive reminders
“By putting things in your Google calendar, the clock automatically (via wireless data) shows your appointments. It’s mashing up devices to give you something simple and powerful,” he says.
The Lab also conducts CE 2.0 research projects. One product called “bar of soap” approximated the size and feel of a mobile phone except sensors and displays were embedded on each side. The experimental product resembled a bar of soap, hence its name.
“The device came up with a profile of how the device was being grabbed which would indicate what the person intended to do with it. It was reading your mind,” explains Holztman.
If bar of soap was grabbed in a way that was used to take pictures, it would learn to automatically revert to camera mode. Therein lies part of CE 2.0 vision – easy access to features you want amid countless choices.
Holtzman is understandably politic when it comes to exposing recent examples of poor design for fear of offending a CE 2.0 member. But he quickly recalls a TV that came with three remotes, each specific to a different mode. The product was a classic example of feature creep.
“It was an advanced television one of our members put on the market. It had a television, Blu-ray player, wireless system and app engine. Depending on part of the system you were in, you had to use a different remote,” explains Holtzman. “You could get yourself into states where the remote in your hand could not get you out of that state. You had to put that remote down and find one of the other ones in order to get back to where you were. If you pushed the wrong button, you suddenly found you have to get another remote to do anything about it. That’s an example of where we do not want to go.”
Apple, pre-eminent in usability, can also stumble.
“The iPhone 4 in the latest release (of software) has added folders to organize your applications. Now, there two completely different was of organizing your apps, one where you go page-by- page and another one where you go hierarchically into folders,” he says. “I don’t think most of their customers know how to use the folders. Even Apple is not keeping it simple.’
As for hot selling Android phones, he acknowledges they are getting more complex, but believe they are “definitely getting better.”
From the infrastructure perspective, faster networking such as 4G will be critical as cloud computing matures and becomes even more pervasive. For instance, the cloud can help battery life. “Devices that are well-connected rely on cloud computing and storage devices that are not on the device. What can be offloaded to the cloud can save battery life.”
Design actions in one part of the device usually have ramifications elsewhere. More display intensive apps are great, but quickly drain batteries.
All that said, consumer electronics have come long way. But consider how much further they have to go – and can go.
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OnProcess Technology Take: Increasingly complex consumer electronics are causing high frustration and remorse returns – all of which has costs in service, reduced revenues and loyalty. A significant improvement can be made not only in product design, but in proactive post-purchase customer education.