Separating the screens

Despite technology’s trend towards all-in-one, multifunctional electrical devices, Hugh Pearman thinks many of us have a visceral desire for individual ‘pet’ gadgets

How do you design a product when you don’t know if that product will continue to have an independent existence? In consumer electronics, for example? Because you have to somehow work out how the two very different strands affecting your work – technological advance and social trends – are going to move and intertwine.

There is a historic difference, for instance, between TVs and radios, TVs and computers, and any of these and hi-fi audio systems. They have, or had, different functions. So people keep designing them as different, standalone objects. But now we all know, even if we don’t put this knowledge into practice, that there is no need for these to be separate objects at all. Remember the old days, when all you had to decide was whether you got the sort of electronic game that played on your computer, or the sort in a console that plugged into your TV?

Through the Internet connection to the computer on which I write this, I can receive almost any radio station I care to specify. Broadband obviously helps. Television is trickier – all you can really get are blurry video feeds you click on to from, say, the BBC news website. But that’s looking at things from the wrong perspective. The computer has a broadcast-quality flat screen. I can watch a Hollywood movie on it if I put a DVD into the drive. I often write to music emanating from its CD-Rom drive. It’s no different from slotting the same DVD into the equivalent box under your telly, or the same CD into the equivalent dedicated CD player. Similarly, it’s becoming commonplace for your TV input to offer radio stations as well as TV programmes, for you to be able to send e-mails from your TV, and so on. Talk about convergence… and I haven’t even mentioned getting radio or TV on to your mobile phone along with e-mails, or the handheld computer-cum-phones, or the ones that double as cameras, or…

But hang on. Every cheap computerised object sold today can bundle lots of these activities. Every service provider can offer a wide range of media stuff. That doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the individual product is nigh. And this is where the social aspects play a bigger part than the technological ones. Yes, everyone could easily have just a single object – call it a communications node rather than a computer – that combines all the functions of all the previously individual objects using screens and speakers. So far, so obvious. Why buy a dumb telly any more, even one with a £4000 plasma screen?

Many factors start to apply: The human activity broadly defined as ‘work’ – people use PCs for that; ‘Leisure’ – which may involve watching a TV programme; humans also tend to form groups (let’s call them families, or students) – who want to do different things at different times in different places. Sound-only things can play in the background while you work, but not when you’re TV-watching.

Given that it’s rare for everyone in a family to want to watch the same TV programme, TVs proliferate in most houses. Given that no-one carries radios from room to room – despite their extreme portability – so every room tends to have its resident radio. Given that many people in a family may want to use computers, you acquire several computers – networked or not. And while I have a car with a CD player, it’s rarely used, as often several children are sitting behind me, each listening to their own CDs on their personal players. Unlike radios, those certainly are carried about.

So what kind of future is the product designer looking at? We know everyone will go digital, that most people will work from home more, and that schoolkids are already heavy home computer users. We know everyone carries an electronic device that used to be just a phone but which is now so much more. And we know all about the possibilities of technological convergence. Or we think we do.

But, actually, we know nothing beyond people’s need to communicate; using eyes and ears. That’s all. It may not be much to go on, but it’s everything. And you can add one other thing to the mix: whatever you design has to be transparently simple to use. Something you can work out in a minute or two.

You must consider all this. And you must also realise that, for some odd reason, people will continue to buy Roberts Revival wireless sets. Because some electrical household objects are more like household pets, or household gods. Which means this: along with convergence, expect a healthy backlash of technological divergence.

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