Bluetooth, Neural Networks and Talking Toaster Ovens
Perhaps some day soon, I will be able to access recipes from home through the LCD touch screen mounted to the handle of the grocery cart and warm dinner by simply talking to my microwave through my cell phone while walking home from the office.
There exists in my life a complex duality in my relationship to electronics. As a purveyor of Apple and IBM computers, I am, of course, interested and excited by the latest makes and models, their incremental improvements constantly narrowing the gap between the brains of the devices we, as humans, create and our own grey matter.
At the same time, I remain concerned about how quickly, mindlessly we, as consumers, purchase products without regard as to why we are doing so.
I am by no means stating that anyone should deny themselves the opportunity to simplify their life with an improved product, or to knowingly complicate their life with a completely unnecessary, but equally enjoyable, toy. However, I do believe we, as consumers, should remain cognizant of our behavior and select products based upon an awareness that is beyond that of the televised marketing or product packaging.
Yes, even before you purchase Linux, you should study the Web sites and read what customers have to say. Make certain it will meet your needs.
Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I truly enjoy interacting with other humans far more than a Web interface to an online store. I prefer to call my account manager of six years at MacMall or to chat with the incredibly positive, supportive and proactive account manager with our local distributor. It seems he can find anything, anywhere on the planet, and at a fair price. I don't mind paying for his personal attention.
Generally speaking, I prefer to shop in retail environments when time allows. Compared to the incredibly high energy environment of working at Terra Soft, it can be relaxing, even engaging, when the need for a particular product is met by a knowledgeable salesperson.
Herein lies the challenge, to find a local electronics store that employs a human being who knows more than my neighbor's dog about electronics.
Typically, I am sorely disappointed for lack of intellectual stimulation. But once in a great while, I stumble across an individual whose knowledge of USB devices is more than simply being able to differentiate them from LCD monitors.
I walked into Circuit City last week to purchase a USB WiFi card, wanting to test the readily available models against Yellow Dog Linux v4.0. And so the conversation unfolds:
Kai: Where might be your USB WiFi devices?
Salesperson: Next isle over. This way. (We walk down the main isle and exit right, into a side isle.)
Salesperson: Right here. (Pointing to the selection.)
Kai: Do you know which models are supported by Linux?
Salesperson: I run Red Hat at home, I've had good luck with the Linksys. It's pretty cool. Decent range. I borrow (smiles) bandwidth from either of two neighbors or just walk into a coffee shop and get online.
Kai: Nice. I'll try this one. And glad to hear you run a real OS.
Salesperson: Yeah. You too?
Kai: (I nod, and notice other products.) Tell me about Bluetooth.
Salesperson: Not much yet, as far as I know. Mostly cell phone kits.
Kai: No need for one of those. What else?
Salesperson: I hear it is suppose to enable all kinds of devices to communicate with each other, starting with cell phones, printers, computers -- eventually home theater, security systems, appliances.
Kai: Appliances? Like toaster ovens? (smiling.)
Salesperson: Yeah, I guess so. (playing along.)
Kai: (pause) What do you believe is the goal? What would be the ultimate implementation of Bluetooth?
Salesperson: Dunno. Maybe a more intelligent household -- you know, to make things simpler, to save time.
While I personally find that the only way to save time is to make time, I was not in the mood for a debate. I paused to read the back of the package in my hands and study the diagram of a stick figure woman connected via a dotted line to her cell phone, laptop and printer.
Kai: You think a talking toaster oven would save time?
Salesperson: Maybe. Never thought about it. Sounds cool.
Kai: If one could talk, what would it say?
In the United States and many countries worldwide, we enjoy a free market where original equipment manufacturers (OEM) move to create products new and exciting. Some promise the savings of time and effort in our daily activities, while others entice us with "Now you can do [this] without having to do [this]!"
I find Bluetooth in particular to be the beginning of something with great potential.
I recently visited bluetooth.com to learn about the consortium that is driving this international product initiative. I was surprisingly impressed. It is a well orchestrated Web site with clear presentation (and a lot of photos of people connected to things with dotted lines). The companies involved are all seemingly top notch.
It appears this is one of the more well organized and focused technological consortiums of this decade. Best of all, it is presented for the average consumer, not the geek.
If you have read my introduction to this column, and read between the lines, you will recognize that I am not one to rush out and purchase the latest, greatest electronics. In fact, I am personally rather conservative in adopting the new, driven perhaps by my grandfather's practice of conducting research, waiting for the product to stabilize, and then buying the best he can afford.
"Do it right the first time," he says, "And take care of it so it lasts a long time." While this wisdom is more readily applicable to a tractor than a cell phone or laptop whose lifespan is a few years at most, it has provided a slightly conservative foundation for my behavior as a consumer.
Some Day Soon
It appears Bluetooth will finally do what infrared data association (IRDA) attempted a few years ago, offering a less cluttered desktop and the ability to move through ones home or office without a phone in hand. I like this. Of equal interest is the ability to tie multiple devices to each other and perhaps a common, shared database.
Perhaps some day soon I will be able to access recipes from home through the LCD touch screen mounted to the handle of the grocery cart and warm dinner by simply talking to my microwave through my cell phone while walking home from the office.
But for someone who is soon to replace Teflon-coated pots and pans with cast iron, I would prefer to cook over a wood fire than have a kitchen full of appliances that require firmware upgrades or must be replaced because the new models are not backwards compatible.
What does appeal to me, however, is the reduction of complexity. Removing the memory stick from my camera and inserting it directly into the printer without having to power on my laptop is indeed a step in the right direction. What I see on the LCD screen is what I get, every time. That level of interconnected simplicity is warmly welcomed.
So where does this lead? Where will Bluetooth be in 10 or 20 years? What is the ultimate goal of any emerging technology? What could be the goal of all emerging technologies?
Gadgets and Gizmos
In general, I personally find personal electronics to be too compartmentalized. The PDA, the cell phone, the laptop, iPods and DVD remote controls --so many little boxes for so many functions. While I do not necessarily desire a single box to replace them all, it does seem overwhelming at times to keep track, tending to their proprietary batteries and charging stations.
Earlier this summer, I spent twice as much time making the cables to interconnect the components of my home theater as I did programming it once assembled. I do not desire that they dangle to the floor or run parallel to the power cables, for fear of picking up interference.
This is where Bluetooth could excel, if applied to the transmission of digital sound. But let's take this one step further.
While Bose and a few other OEMs have presented unit-wall-mounted CD changers, and the original piezo membrane speakers are making a comeback, home audio/video equipment has not changed in three decades: black boxes of identical width and height that stand on small gold ringed, felt-padded feet. They stack. They collect dust. And they produce a lot of heat. The quality of sound is by no means improved in line with the delivery of features, as the return to analog tube amplifiers a few years ago demonstrates.
I have a very reduced gadget household simply because even if the gadgets are interconnected via invisible transmissions, they remain isolated boxes with individual functions.
They sit on shelves or stands or in cases with smoked glass fronts. They are encased motherboards whose embedded operating systems offer a complex (and in many cases, amazing) series of algorithms that help to reproduce a specific sound environment. They do not gain value with age and are by no means a complement to my 1912 piano or century-old furniture.
But as Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt" proposes, there may be a not so distant future whereby the gap between our homes, our appliances and ourselves is elegantly reduced.
Let's walk into a home whose walls contain not strands of copper that conduct either 110V, phone or ethernet signals, but, instead, invisible molecular networks that may be rearranged with the simple pressure of a finger along a path between two points, or an automatic reconfiguration based upon the presence of a human in a given room.
I envision ceiling, walls and floor whose surface is painted with a thin coat of interconnected LCD cells that come to life at will and transfer the stars or the motion of the moonlit clouds and falling snow directly into my bedroom as though the shelter above were transparent.
The television is no longer a physical appliance, but a response to a verbal request independent of where I am in my home, and a 5.1 DTS surround sound system becomes the subtle vibration of any section of the house. If the hardwood floors vibrate to the rumble of thunder, why could they not create the sensation of thunder when I desire a rainstorm on a hot summer day?
This intelligent household will not only know where it's insulation has settled in the attic, but can offer real-time analysis and suggestions for how to reduce the electric bill (assuming it is not already off-grid and dependent solely upon the thermal couples and photovoltaics embedded in its shingles).
When I arrive home, I am recognized by my personal heat or voice signature, and each room I enter adjusts instantly to my preferred lighting, perhaps even adjusting according to my apparent mood.
While fixing dinner, I desire to contact a friend to plan a day of climbing and need only say his or her name. The space above the stovetop comes to life and presents a human image, the wall itself vibrating to offer the voice.
And when I arrive to the home of a friend the next morning, but forget to bring the family pancake recipe, I need only ask and my friend's home connects to my home to transfer the data from the holographic database, which is not housed within silicon wafers, but in the very stone foundation of my home.
My home itself houses an embedded, organic neural network. It monitors the moisture content of the soil, warns of radon gas (and tracks the resident mouse population), and easily holds 1,000 years of conversation, music, televised programs and data -- never corrupting, never requiring a backup.
After a good day of climbing, the evening gives way to night and I head home, craving yesterday's pizza. The toaster oven is pleased to comply with my request for warmed leftovers, its voice distinct from that of the fridge, but equally comforting: "Thank you. See you soon."
Kai Staats, a MacNewsWorld columnist, is the cofounder and CEO of Terra Soft Solutions, developer of Yellow Dog Linux for PowerPC.