Let's remake the world for tech

Consumer technology changes our behavior. Shouldn't it also change our homes and cars?

internet of things smart home
Credit: Thinkstock

Apple's epic product rollout last week brought into focus how unready our man-made world is for mainstream consumer technology.

Apple always waits until a product type is ready to go mainstream before entering that market. Fans can praise Apple for great business timing. Critics can slam the company for following, rather than leading. Either way, if Apple sells it, it's mainstream.

That's why Apple's announcement makes it clear that our man-made environment -- our homes, offices, cars and clothes -- have not been adapted for the way people live now.

Take the Apple Watch in particular and smartwatches in general. Apple executives spent a conspicuous amount of time during their rollout talking about very serious medical uses for the Apple Watch. They clearly envision a world in which both patients and doctors use smartwatches as a central part of how healthcare works.

But our homes could prevent that vision from becoming a reality because they aren't set up to accommodate our use of smartphones.

Consider your typical bedside table and nearby electrical outlet. This arrangement was set up in a pre-smartwatch age. The outlet has the capacity for two devices. This was about right when you might have had a lamp and an alarm clock. Now, you still need a lamp but you also likely need to charge your phone, which is used as an alarm clock, and perhaps a smartwatch, and maybe even an e-book reader or a tablet.

You need a multiplug power strip to handle all the stuff you're charging. But that's just a clumsy kludge, a workaround for the fact that our homes' electrical systems aren't ready for the modern world.

And neither is the table. All the chargers and docks clutter up the table, and the cables run every which way. The Apple Watch's induction charger is awkward, and the watch is easily nudged off it, resulting in a dead watch in the morning -- not a good situation if your health depends on it.

A night table designed with actual modern behavior in mind would itself be a universal induction charger that could accommodate all of your electronics. Or it might also have compartments that house the devices to hide their lights while keeping them easily retrievable. Such a table would automatically charge devices without fail and without cables, cradles and docks. Another solution could be to come up with an entirely new docking table for all your devices to keep at your location of choice. (Of course, Apple's phones and tablets would have to be upgraded to support induction charging.)

Apple's new iPad Pro, which has a 12.9-in. screen, also lays bare how unready the world is for mainstream large tablets with soft-cover keyboards and pens -- or, in Apple's case, "Pencils."

For starters, women's purses aren't ready. The typical purse was designed for a world before large tablets. It can handle keys, makeup, sunglasses and other random stuff. But a tablet with a soft cover needs to be kept separate from other items in a special compartment -- one that can be secured with at least a zipper. Sure, there are some purses that have such features, but given the mainstreaming of tablets, most purses should be designed that way, not just a small percentage of them.

A soft keyboard cover is a nice convenience because it's easily removable and provides the dual function of screen cover and keyboard. But you can't use a tablet with a keyboard/cover like a laptop, which is to say you can't put it on your lap to type. In a world where a large number of people are using tablets with soft keyboard covers, the armrests on couches would have flat, table-like surfaces. Or purses might provide flat surfaces. Airline tray tables might be redesigned. Cars would have built-in docks where tablets could be either used by passengers or secured safely while driving (Right now, tablets and laptops are a car safety hazard because they can fly around inside the vehicle during an accident and injure people.)

The world isn't even ready for large smartphones, like Apple's new iPhone 6S Plus, even though such big-screen devices are now massively popular. Many people, especially men, carry their phones in their pants pockets -- and neither the size nor the location of those pockets are right for large phones.

Apple also finally got serious about the Apple TV, with major improvements -- especially in the voice interface and accompanying Siri Remote. The new Apple TV is optimized for apps and games. While TV-screen gaming in the living room is almost mainstream these days, with heavy console systems like Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation, Apple's new product may usher in a new world of truly mainstream gaming -- one that will involve mostly casual games of the type people currently play on smartphones.

The next level of gaming is virtual reality (VR). Apple is behind on that. Facebook has acquired five companies related to virtual reality, including Oculus VR, maker of the Oculus Rift system. Google offers its open-source Cardboard platform, and its Jump VR creation system will likely first be supported later this year by GoPro, which last week announced a $15,000, 16-camera rig for capturing 3D VR video.

Apple will no doubt catch up just when VR is ready to become very widespread. The evidence that Apple is working on VR is its acquisition of a company called Metaio, which holds virtual reality patents and employs VR engineers. Apple even poached the top audio engineer from Microsoft's HoloLens project.

But our homes aren't ready for VR. We're going to need a dedicated VR room, or at least a redesign of our existing living rooms. Specifically, VR requires some unobstructed open space  -- an area devoid of items to trip over, like coffee tables. VR rooms would also need doors that can be closed so people who aren't using the systems can't walk in unannounced, because VR applications and games will be so immersive that you could easily startle a user if you, say, tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention.

Apple is also working on a self-driving car. And who isn't? Google has been working on one. Uber is poaching Carnegie Mellon researchers by the dozens and has set up two research centers to develop self-driving technologies. And, of course, all the car companies are working on self-driving vehicles.

Self-driving cars will probably be just like today's cars but with the ability to drive themselves. But what they should be is completely reimagined living spaces. A four-seater, for example, should have front seats that usually face backwards. People are going to want to sleep safely in their cars while being driven around. And there will have to be room for screen-related activities like video calls, game-playing and more.

Our kitchens need major overhauls to become what they're meant to be --- the control center of all home-related activities. They'll need not only cooking equipment and smart appliances, but also a computer assistant that connects you and all members of your family to the home and to one another.

The need to remake the world for technology involves design solutions to first-world problems to be sure. But it makes no sense to continue designing anachronisms into consumer products.

I still encounter public bathroom sinks with separate spigots for hot and cold water. Cars are still made with electrical outlets that were designed for cigarette lighters. Most jeans still have tiny pockets that were designed to hold pocket watches -- they're little square ones above and partly inside the right front pocket.

We largely accept the existence of human spaces and objects designed for a bygone era. And we tolerate homes, offices, cars and clothing that don't accommodate the technology we use today -- or the ways in which that technology is changing how we live.

It's time to consider how technology changes human behavior and then design our spaces accordingly.

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