Converting to a smart home might seem expensive and complicated at first, but do the benefits outweigh the cost and hassle? Letâs check out why setting up a smart home is a good investment of your time and money.
Convenience for (Nearly) Everyone
When you install smart lights, plugs, thermostats, and more, you add a great deal of convenience to your home. It isnât that youâre incapable of getting off the couch and flipping a light switch, itâs that youâve given yourself the option of not heading to the light switch.
We all accept a certain level of convenience in our lives. People generally donât need electricity and light switches. Yet, you donât often hear the argument that electrical lighting is the product of laziness, and people should use candles instead. Smart lights and other smart gadgets are just a natural extension of that progress.
When you start watching a movie, only to realize youâd prefer the lights to be dimmed or turned off, youâll appreciate the convenience of making that happen without having to interrupt the film. Likewise, the first time you answer the doorbell from your office, or even when youâre away from home, youâll appreciate the convenience of video doorbells.
If youâve ever tried to teach a family member how to operate your complicated entertainment system, youâll see the relief in their eyes when you can tell them, âJust say, âAlexa, turn on the TV.’â Thatâs so much easier than, âHit power on this remote, then that remote, and then this remote,â or handing them a universal remote with dozens of buttons.
Convenience might not be a necessity, but that doesnât make it a bad thing. Smart homes provide creature comforts you might not otherwise have, and, thanks to routines, they even offer peace of mind because you donât have to worry if you remembered to turn off the lights in the living room.
Smart Homes Solve Problems
Smart home technology can help you overcome some daily challenges.Â Take the classic example of asking a child to deliver a message, only to watch them shout it from two feet in front of you.
With voice assistants, you can communicate with everyone in the home, no matter where they are, via theÂ intercom features. Google Homeâs version of this isÂ Broadcast, and itâs brilliant. While the initial message goes through every speaker in the home, Google Assistant sends the response to the originating speaker. Sure, you can buy intercoms, but they often cost at least as much as an Echo Dot. Besides, voice assistants offer you more functionality.
As a bonus, when you set up voice assistant speakers in several rooms as intercoms, you also get whole-home music.
Having voice control over your lights and plugs solves some problems, too. For example, young children are capable of saying, âAlexa, turn on the lights,â before they can reach a light switch. People with disabilities will also appreciate it. If you addÂ smart sensors to the mix, you can even program lights and plugs to turn on and off when you enter or leave a room. With just a few devices, your smart home can go beyond solving problemsâit can provide independence.
Smart plugs can have secondary benefits, too. Rebooting your router is still the best starting point to troubleshoot your internet. But routers are often tucked away in inconvenient places.
You can buy smarter routers, like Mesh kits,Â which feature apps that reboot the device. However, those are expensive (Googleâs new Nest Wi-Fi starts at $170). Alternatively, if your current router works fine, you can connect it to a Z-Wave plug and reboot the router from anywhere in the home.
If you wake up only to see that every light in the house was left burning all night (again), then youâve discovered the easiest problem a smart home can solve.
The more people you have in your home, the harder it can be to train all of them to do sensible things, like turning off the TV or lights when they leave a room. If you have children, that challenge often only grows.
It would be best if everyone learned about and remembered the importance of energy conservation, but weâre only human and prone to forgetfulness. So, any extra bit of help to overcome that absentmindedness is most welcome!Â With basic routines, you can program smart lights and plugs to turn off overnight, or even during the day when everyone is at work or schoolâwhich saves you money on your electric bill.
Even if you always remember to turn off the lights and electronics, smart plugs can still cut back your energy usage. Even when theyâre turned off, many devices still draw power. For example, modern game consoles use more power than other devices when turned off because they still update in the background.
Vampire energy isnât always worth tackling, but you canÂ use an electricity usage monitorÂ to find out. Itâs best to check either devices that frequently turn on (like dehumidifiers) or areas in which you have multiple electronics plugged into one power strip (like your entertainment center).
You might be surprised how much you can save when you prevent those devices from drawing power. Especially when you consider the eight hours you spend asleep, and the six to eight hours you spend at school or work.
Smart home technology isnât always easy to set up, and more work needs to be done to bring it into the mainstream. Still, if you go into it with the understanding that youâll occasionally have to troubleshoot problems, the benefits do outweigh any downsides you might encounter.
What Are the Downsides?
When it comes to smart homes, instability is definitely a problem. For example, your smart home might stop working, and thereâs not much you can do about it.
We once praised Wink Smart Hubs for all they were capable of, butÂ we canât recommend that anyone buy Winkâs hardware anymore. This can happen with any smart device.
Even if a company is successful, many smart home products are challenging to install. You might find yourself troubleshooting the worst aspects of owning a smart home.
Still, despite all the downsides, smart homes can provide convenience, solve problems you regularly encounter, and even save you money. If that sounds good to you, itâs worth the investment.
How the Dumb Design of a WWII Plane Led to the Macintosh
The B-17 Flying Fortress rolled off the drawing board and onto the runway in a mere 12 months, just in time to become the fearsome workhorse of the US Air Force during World War II. Its astounding toughness made pilots adore it: The B-17 could roar through angry squalls of shrapnel and bullets, emerging pockmarked…
The B-17 Flying Fortress rolled off the drawing board and onto the runway in a mere 12 months, just in time to become the fearsome workhorse of the US Air Force during World War II. Its astounding toughness made pilots adore it: The B-17 could roar through angry squalls of shrapnel and bullets, emerging pockmarked but still airworthy. It was a symbol of American ingenuity, held aloft by four engines, bristling with a dozen machine guns.
Imagine being a pilot of that mighty plane. You know your primary enemyâthe Germans and Japanese in your gunsights. But you have another enemy that you canât see, and it strikes at the most baffling times. Say youâre easing in for another routine landing. You reach down to deploy your landing gear. Suddenly, you hear the scream of metal tearing into the tarmac. Youâre rag-dolling around the cockpit while your plane skitters across the runway. A thought flickers across your mind about the gunners below and the other crew: “Whatever has happened to them now, itâs my fault.” When your plane finally lurches to a halt, you wonder to yourself: “How on earth did my plane just crash when everything was going fine? What have I done?”
For all the triumph of Americaâs new planes and tanks during World War II, a silent reaper stalked the battlefield: accidental deaths and mysterious crashes that no amount of training ever seemed to fix. And it wasnât until the end of the war that the Air Force finally resolved to figure out what had happened.
To do that, the Air Force called upon a young psychologist at the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Paul Fitts was a handsome man with a soft Tennessee drawl, analytically minded but with a shiny wave of Brylcreemed hair, Elvis-like, which projected a certain suave nonconformity. Decades later, heâd become known as one of the Air Forceâs great minds, the person tasked with hardest, weirdest problemsâsuch as figuring out why people saw UFOs.
For now though, he was still trying to make his name with a newly minted PhD in experimental psychology. Having an advanced degree in psychology was still a novelty; with that novelty came a certain authority. Fitts was supposed to know how people think. But his true talent is to realize that he doesnât.
When the thousands of reports about plane crashes landed on Fittsâs desk, he could have easily looked at them and concluded that they were all the pilotâs faultâthat these fools should have never been flying at all. That conclusion would have been in keeping with the times. The original incident reports themselves would typically say âpilot error,â and for decades no more explanation was needed. This was, in fact, the cutting edge of psychology at the time. Because so many new draftees were flooding into the armed forces, psychologists had begun to devise aptitude tests that would find the perfect job for every soldier. If a plane crashed, the prevailing assumption was: That person should not have been flying the plane. Or perhaps they should have simply been better trained. It was their fault.
But as Fitts pored over the Air Forceâs crash data, he realized that if âaccident proneâ pilots really were the cause, there would be randomness in what went wrong in the cockpit. These kinds of people would get hung on anything they operated. It was in their nature to take risks, to let their minds wander while landing a plane. But Fitts didnât see noise; he saw a pattern. And when he went to talk to the people involved about what actually happened, they told of how confused and terrified theyâd been, how little they understood in the seconds when death seemed certain.
The examples slid back and forth on a scale of tragedy to tragicomic: pilots who slammed their planes into the ground after misreading a dial; pilots who fell from the sky never knowing which direction was up; the pilots of B-17s who came in for smooth landings and yet somehow never deployed their landing gear. And others still, who got trapped in a maze of absurdity, like the one who, having jumped into a brand-new plane during a bombing raid by the Japanese, found the instruments completely rearranged. Sweaty with stress, unable to think of anything else to do, he simply ran the plane up and down the runway until the attack ended.
Fitts’ data showed that during one 22-month period of the war, the Air Force reported an astounding 457 crashes just like the one in which our imaginary pilot hit the runway thinking everything was fine. But the culprit was maddeningly obvious for anyone with the patience to look. Fitts’ colleague Alfonse Chapanis did the looking. When he started investigating the airplanes themselves, talking to people about them, sitting in the cockpits, he also didnât see evidence of poor training. He saw, instead, the impossibility of flying these planes at all. Instead of âpilot error,â he saw what he called, for the first time, âdesigner error.â
The reason why all those pilots were crashing when their B-17s were easing into a landing was that the flaps and landing gear controls looked exactly the same. The pilots were simply reaching for the landing gear, thinking they were ready to land. And instead, they were pulling the wing flaps, slowing their descent, and driving their planes into the ground with the landing gear still tucked in. Chapanis came up with an ingenious solution: He created a system of distinctively shaped knobs and levers that made it easy to distinguish all the controls of the plane merely by feel, so that thereâs no chance of confusion even if youâre flying in the dark.
By law, that ingenious bit of designâknown as shape codingâstill governs landing gear and wing flaps in every airplane today. And the underlying idea is all around you: Itâs why the buttons on your videogame controller are differently shaped, with subtle texture differences so you can tell which is which. Itâs why the dials and knobs in your car are all slightly different, depending on what they do. And itâs the reason your virtual buttons on your smartphone adhere to a pattern language.
But Chapanis and Fitts were proposing something deeper than a solution for airplane crashes. Faced with the prospect of soldiers losing their lives to poorly designed machinery, they invented a new paradigm for viewing human behavior. That paradigm lies behind the user-friendly world that we live in every day. They realized that it was absurd to train people to operate a machine and assume they would act perfectly under perfect conditions.
Instead, designing better machines meant figuring how people acted without thinking, in the fog of everyday life, which might never be perfect. You couldnât assume humans to be perfectly rational sponges for training. You had to take them as they were: distracted, confused, irrational under duress. Only by imagining them at their most limited could you design machines that wouldnât fail them.
This new paradigm took root slowly at first. But by 1984âfour decades after Chapanis and Fitts conducted their first studiesâApple was touting a computer for the rest of us in one of its first print ads for the Macintosh: “On a particularly bright day in Cupertino, California, some particularly bright engineers had a particularly bright idea: Since computers are so smart, wouldnât it make sense to teach computers about people, instead of teaching people about computers? So it was that those very engineers worked long days and nights and a few legal holidays, teaching silicon chips all about people. How they make mistakes and change their minds. How they refer to file folders and save old phone numbers. How they labor for their livelihoods, and doodle in their spare time.” (Emphasis mine.) And that easy-to-digest language molded the smartphones and seamless technology we live with today.
Along the long and winding path to a user-friendly world, Fitts and Chapanis laid the most important brick. They realized that as much as humans might learn, they would always be prone to errâand they inevitably brought presuppositions about how things should work to everything they used. This wasnât something you could teach of existence. In some sense, our limitations and preconceptions are what it means to be humanâand only by understanding those presumptions could you design a better world.
Today, this paradigm shift has produced trillions in economic value. We now presume that apps that reorder the entire economy should require no instruction manual at all; some of the most advanced computers ever made now come with only cursory instructions that say little more than “turn it on.” This is one of the great achievements of the last century of technological progress, with a place right alongside GPS, Arpanet, and the personal computer itself.
It’s also an achievement that remains unappreciated because we assume this is the way things should be. But with the assumption that even new technologies need absolutely no explaining comes a dark side: When new gadgets make assumptions about how we behave, they force unseen choices upon us. They donât merely defer to our desires. They shape them.
User friendliness is simply the fit between the objects around us and the ways we behave. So while we might think that the user-friendly world is one of making user-friendly things, the bigger truth is that design doesnât rely on artifacts; it relies on our patterns. The truest material for making new things isnât aluminum or carbon fiber. Itâs behavior. And today, our behavior is being shaped and molded in ways both magical and mystifying, precisely because it happens so seamlessly.
I got a taste of this seductive, user-friendly magic recently, when I went to Miami to tour a full-scale replica of Carnival Cruise’s so-called Ocean Medallion experience. I began my tour in a fake living room, with two of the best-looking project staffers pretending to be husband and wife, showing me how the whole thing was supposed to go.
Using the app, you could reserve all your activities way before you boarded the ship. And once on board, all you needed was to carry was a disk the size of a quarter; using that, any one of the 4,000 touchscreens on the ship could beam you personalized information, such which way you needed to go for your next reservation. The experience recalled not just scenes from Her and Minority Report, but computer-science manifestos from the late 1980s that imagined a suite of gadgets that would adapt to who you are, morphing to your needs in the moment.
Behind the curtains, in the makeshift workspace, a giant whiteboard wall was covered with a sprawling map of all the inputs that flow into some 100 different algorithms that crunch every bit of a passengerâs preference behavior to create something called the âPersonal Genome.â If Jessica from Dayton wanted sunscreen and a mai tai, she could order them on her phone, and a steward would deliver them in person, anywhere across the sprawling ship.
The server would greet Jessica by name, and maybe ask if she was excited about her kitesurfing lesson. Over dinner, if Jessica wanted to plan an excursion with friends, she could pull up her phone and get recommendations based on the overlapping tastes of the people she was sitting with. If only some people like fitness and others love history, then maybe theyâll all like a walking tour of the market at the next port.
Jessicaâs Personal Genome would be recalculated three times a second by 100 different algorithms using millions of data points that encompassed nearly anything she did on the ship: How long she lingered on a recommendation for a sightseeing tour; the options that she didnât linger on at all; how long sheâd actually spent in various parts of the ship; and whatâs nearby at that very moment or happening soon. If, while in her room, she had watched one of Carnivalâs slickly produced travel shows and seen something about a market tour at one her ports of call, sheâd later get a recommendation for that exact same tour when the time was right. âSocial engagement is one of the things being calculated, and so is the nuance of the context,â one of the executives giving me the tour said.
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It was like having a right-click for the real world. Standing on the mocked-up sundeck, knowing that whatever I wanted would find me, and that whatever I might want would find its way either onto the app or the screens that lit up around the cruise ship as I walked around, it wasnât hard to see how many other businesses might try to do the same thing. In the era following World War II, the idea that designers could make the world easier to understand was a breakthrough.
But today, âI understand what I should doâ has become âI donât need to think at all.â For businesses, intuitiveness has now become mandatory, because there are fortunes to be made by making things just a tad more frictionless. âOne way to view this is creating this kind of frictionless experience is an option. Another way to look at it is that thereâs no choice,â said John Padgett, the Carnival executive who had shepherded the Ocean Medallion to life. âFor millennials, value is important. But hassle is more important, because the era theyâve grow up in. Itâs table stakes. You have to be hassle-free to get them to participate.â
By that logic, the real world was getting to be disappointing when compared with the frictionless ease of this increasingly virtual world. Taken as a whole, Carnivalâs vision for seamless customer service that can anticipate your every whim was like an Uber for everything, powered by Netflix recommendations for meatspace. And these are in fact the experiences that many more designers will soon be striving for: invisible, everywhere, perfectly tailored, with no edges between one place and the next. Padgett described this as a âmarket of one,â in which everything you saw would be only the thing you want.
The Market of One suggests to me a break point in the very idea of user friendliness. When Chapanis and Fitts were laying the seeds of the user-friendly world, they had to find the principles that underlie how we expect the world to behave. They had to preach the idea that products built on our assumptions about how things should work would eventually make even the most complex things easy to understand.
Steve Jobsâ dream of a âbicycle for the mindââa universal tool that might expand the reach of anyoneâhas arrived. High technology has made our lives easier; made us better at our jobs, and created jobs that never existed before; it has made the people we care about closer to us. But friction also has value: Itâs friction that makes us question whether we do in fact need the thing we want. Friction is the path to introspection. Infinite ease quickly becomes the path of least resistance; it saps our free will, making us submit to someone elseâs guess about who we are. We canât let that pass. We have to become cannier, more critical consumers of the user-friendly world. Otherwise, we risk blundering into more crashes that weâll only understand after the worst has already happened.
Excerpted from USER FRIENDLY: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant. Published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux November 19th 2019. Copyright Â© 2019 by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant. All rights reserved.
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A Tesla Cybertruck Mishap, a Massive Data Leak, and More News
Hackers are stealing and Elon is squealing, but first: a cartoon about subscription dreams.Here’s the news you need to know, in two minutes or less.Want to receive this two-minute roundup as an email every weekday? Sign up here!Todayâs NewsMeet the Tesla Cybertruck, Elon Musk’s Ford-fighting pickup truckTesla CEO Elon Musk last night unveiled his newest…
Hackers are stealing and Elon is squealing, but first: a cartoon about subscription dreams.
Here’s the news you need to know, in two minutes or less.
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Meet the Tesla Cybertruck, Elon Musk’s Ford-fighting pickup truck
Tesla CEO Elon Musk last night unveiled his newest baby, an all-electric pickup called the Tesla Cybertruck. He demonstrated that it can take a sledgehammer to the door with nary a scratch, and he also accidentally demonstrated that it can’t take a ball to the window. But behind the showmanship and Elon’s audible disbelief at the onstage mishap is a truck with a 500-mile range and the torque that comes from an electric motor. It represents an important new market expansion for Tesla. Now it just has to actually put the darn thing into production.
1.2 billion records found exposed online in a single server
Hackers have long used stolen personal data to break into accounts and wreak havoc. And a dark web researcher found one data trove sitting exposed on an unsecured server. The 1.2 billion records don’t include passwords, credit card numbers, or Social Security numbers, but they do contain cell phone numbers, social media profiles, and email addressesâa great start for someone trying to steal your identity.
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