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Katy Burns

Katy Burns: Glorious gadgets – how smart! Now, to figure out how to use them



Every January all the really with-it people turn their eyes to the international Consumer Electronics Show (henceforth known as the CES), held with great fanfare in Las Vegas. So of course I stopped in.

Figuratively, that is. My Monitor expense account doesn’t quite cover a flight to that water-hogging gambling paradise in the desert. Okay, strictly speaking, I don’t have a Monitor expense account. So like the rest of ordinary humanity, I spied on the CES via the wondrous consumer electronics in my very own home.

The exposition sprawls over 2 million square feet. It provides, according to a writer for Business Insider Australia (told you the show is international), a wide array of “devices that improve and enhance tech-centric consumer lifestyles.”

Or, to translate, there are a great bunch of gadgets and gizmos for gadget-and-gizmo-obsessed Americans!

How about a door lock that records every user’s comings and goings? Even takes pictures of them! That was a favorite of the Boston Globe’s tech writer Hiawatha Bray, who in addition to having an absolutely splendid name clearly does have an expense account that allows him to go to Las Vegas.

Bray wrote about kitchen stoves with built-in android tablets that download oven settings for the perfect beef roast, and about colorful headbands that come with removable headphones for fashion-conscious runners. And he noted the abundance of 3-D printers enabling folks to build their own tools and toys and spare parts. Spare parts for exactly what isn’t clear, of course.

A couple of other writers were fascinated with little electronics-packed gizmos one can attach to a golf club or a tennis racket that will analyze and help to correct the techniques of the golfer or tennis player.

Other expense account-entitled reporters were enchanted by various “wearables.” That’s tech-speak for electronically enhanced garments and accessories sporting computer chips, sensors and the like that are a growing market. Presumably they include those headbands as well as a bracelet that somehow analyzes the sunshine and tells the wearer how much sunscreen she’ll need that day or those wrist watch-like contraptions with ever-expanding capabilities and equally growing prices.

There are wearables for your bed, even. Yes, you can stick some kind of electronic pad on your bed, and after a few nights of observing you while you sleep – how’s that for creepy? – it can analyze your sleeping patterns and build your own personal sleep records, eventually learning enough to wake you up at the appropriate time. Maybe even with music blasting from your smart phone!

Told you it was creepy.

Speaking of creepy, another device that’s a hit in Las Vegas is something called Mother. It is small, white and pear-shaped with oddly glowing eyes and a smirky smile. Appropriately, Mother comes with Cookies – snoopy little sensors that, once affixed to something, report relevant activities back to Mother, who in turn tattles to your smart phone or tablet. Put a Cookie in your pants pocket and it will let Mother know the number of steps you take. Stick one on Grandma’s pill bottle, and Mother will know whether she’s taking her medicine or not. You get the drift. This is a Mother who happily reads her kids’ diaries.

In fact, snooping seems to be in vogue at the CES.

Take the blue tooth-enabled toothbrush. Not only will it monitor the user’s brushing habits – for example, is he brushing up or down or back and forth? And how long is he brushing? – but it can alert that user to errors: Hey, buddy, you missed a bit of plaque behind that left molar!

Better yet, one can program up to six toothbrushes on it. Parents can monitor their kids’ brushing habits. Although when you think about it, kids being kids and parents being, well, old, it’s more likely the parents either won’t be able to figure out how to program the toothbrushes to begin with or that the kids will quickly disable their Big Brother toothbrushes – or counter-program them.

These get-togethers always add to our national vocabulary. This year a big buzzword is “connectivity,” as in creating a world – a “personal network” – in which formerly inanimate household objects suddenly develop relationships and communicate with you and with one another. Ovens, washers, vacuums, refrigerators – all work together in harmony, waiting for you to text them with instructions.

You remember that stove with the android tablet imbedded? Insert a meat probe into that beef roast, and you can check on the progress of the meal from the comfort of the family room – or even the car, should you have to make a last minute dash to the corner store for dinner rolls.

Just let your personal network know that you’re on your way home, and the thermostat cranks itself up, soft music starts playing and the entryway light glows welcomingly. Amazing, eh?

Especially when you consider that for these things to work in concert, they will presumably have to be programmed by folks who are the direct descendants of those benighted souls a generation ago who could never figure out how to program their VCRs, which sat mutely blinking “12:00” for years.

The sad truth is that we are a people who are often as technologically inept as we are enamored of the very technology we can’t figure out how to use.

The more wondrous features that designing wizards manage to pack into their ever smaller gizmos, the more we want them. And the less we can figure out, when we get them, how exactly to use them.

I can write this with some assurance as a person who for eight years has had a fabulous oven that can be programmed with up to 10 favorite recipes. If I could only figure out how it works.

But I did master the tricky task of resetting its clock after a power failure, and so I have no doubt I can cope well with a lot of the doodads that are being unveiled this year. Just – please! – not Mother. She – it – can stay in Vegas.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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