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Are these the most useless ’smart’ devices yet?

Tuesday, October 24th 2017 by Dan Howdle

In nature, nothing evolves without a reason. Animal, vegetable or fungal, everything either consumes, is consumed by something else, or shares some sort of symbiotic relationship with something that does. There are no exceptions. Nature is brutally efficient in allowing things with useful traits to endure and those with useless ones to expire. Technology? Not so much.

Don’t get us wrong. When it comes to so-called ‘smart’ devices, there are a lot of genuinely useful ‘things’ out there: Smart speakers, smart heating controllers, smart cutlery designed to enable Parkinson’s sufferers to eat without help and so on.

But for every one of these there are a hundred designed not to fulfil a need, but an investment objective. Not to make things better, but to be needlessly expensive. Not to solve a problem, but make one up. We wouldn’t, therefore, recommend spending actual money on any of what follows. They are, however, rather fun to talk about…

Smart vents, from Keen Home

Keen home’s smart vents are a neat idea so long as you live in a household that always remembers to shut every door

Deciding what to make of these was a four-stage process. Stage one: Oh my god they’ve made wall vents that have an app. Hilarious! Stage two: Share link among team, much laughter ensues. Stage three: Reading the blurb about them and conceding that, actually, they’re not as daft as they sound. Stage four: Getting to end of blurb and realising that actually, no, they are as daft as they sound.

It’s been quite the journey.

You have a house, right? In this house there are rooms, right? Right. And sometimes, even though you set the thermostat to your favourite temperature – ours is 23 degrees, year-round – there are still hot bits and cold bits. The temperature’s not as uniform as you’d like it. Maybe your reading chair is in a cold bit? Maybe your poltergeist likes reading?

Our first issue with these is a scale of problem versus expense/destruction ratio. Are there cold spots in your house? Maybe there are, but is experiencing air that’s slightly cooler in one spot than it is in another a good enough reason to stab great big hole in your walls and spend hundreds of bucks on ‘smart’ vents? We would argue probably not.

And then there’s the whole ‘sensing’ thing. If there’s a cold spot across the room from where the vent’s installed, how is it going to know about it? And doors. What about doors? You can imagine these vents going absolutely berserk trying to keep heat in or out of a room – meanwhile the door to that room has been left wide open. Another feature sees it not heat (or rather shut the cold into) unoccupied rooms.

The problem here then is that tech like this assumes we’re all perfect, that we’ll all remember to add all those little rituals required by the introduction of new technology to the home. We won’t, and short of adding door closers to the system it’s never going to work as it should, especially in a household containing children.

Smart smoke alarm battery, from Roost

Looks like a battery, is a battery, but it’s also so much more… useless

A classic case of attempting to solve a problem that’s not a problem, the selling point of the ‘smart’ battery is that it’ll send you an app notification when your smoke alarm is running low on juice.

Of course, alerting users to a failing battery is something smoke alarms already do. It’s something you’ll have experienced for yourself, most likely – an annoying, high-pitched ‘chirp’ that won’t stop till you change the battery.

More specifically, then, the Roost smart battery will let you know before the commencement of chirping. So you don’t have to hear the chirp. That’s its selling point. No chirp. For a battery costing £40.

But the chirp is supposed to be annoying. It’s supposed to be something you may be able to ignore for an hour or two, but that you’ll have to do something about long before the battery actually dies. That noise. There’s just no way to get away from it.

A notification that pops up suggesting you might want to change the battery on your smoke alarm some time soon? That, you can easily ignore. We imagine ourselves irritatedly swiping it off into oblivion, safe in the knowledge the chirping will let us know when we really need to change it.

Smartphone breathalyzer from Bactrack

The Bactrack smartphone breathalyzer offers the ability to get really, really close to the drink-drive limit

You’ve been out with your friends, in a pub maybe or having a boozy dinner, and you’re not sure whether you’re still safe to drive. So, being the socially conscious citizen you are and not wanting to accidentally kill or maim someone with your car, you pop the breathalyzer in your mouth and… woah, wait, wait, stop. No, this is all wrong.

Here’s another idea: If you’re the one driving the car home, if you’re the so-called ‘designated driver’, wouldn’t it be a better idea not to drink any alcohol at all? Because FYI, if we were out with you, you were driving, and you started downing pints while intermittently blowing into the breathalyzer that you brought with you so you could push to the edge of legal drink-driving limits, we’re not getting in the damn car.

We put it to you, Bactrack, that you know whether you’re safe to drive or not without such a device. Just ask yourself ‘Have I been drinking?’ – If yes, don’t drive, if no, drive.

Other features include a countdown to when it’ll be safe to drive based on your breathalyzer result (yet more encouragement to have that third pint if you’re not leaving for an hour or two), and the ability to graph out the number of times you drove your car dangerously close to the legal limit over the preceding days, weeks and months.

Hair Coach from Nokia

How exactly does a person brush hair? It’s long been a mystery, but now you can find out

If the idea of a ’smart’ hairbrush sounds utterly ridiculous to you when you first hear it, hearing more about it will only double down on your initial instinct.

The pitch is this: What if your hairbrush could measure how tangled your hair is? How weak or strong it is? How damaged it is? How dry it is? What if it could compile these scores and give you an overall percentage labelled ‘Hair Health’? What if it could employ some form of ‘Gesture analysis’ to ensure your hair-brushing technique was by the book? What if it could map your hair health over time?

Like so many ‘smart’ devices appearing on the market these days, it’s not so much that the results won’t be interesting. They will. In the same sort of way it’s interesting to measure your resting heart rate or figure out your porn name. It’ll be interesting once.

Moreover, aren’t these hair metrics things we’ve always been able to measure without a hairbrush crammed full of mercury switches and microphones for ‘listening’ to your hair?

What sort of muppet can’t tell how tangled their hair is? How strong is it? Well, look at the brush. How much came out? How dry is it? Touch it, look at it. It’s almost as if the faux-reasoning behind this thing’s existence pretends we don’t have muscular feedback or eyes or ears or hands or mirrors or simple hairbrushes that, combined with those senses will probably do a better job. You, after all, are always going to be the more qualified critic of your own hair.

Our prediction is you'll switch it off after a week while uttering the words 'Don't judge me'.

Oh, and it’s £200.

Smart Wallet from Volterman

Are you more or less likely to lose a wallet that costs this much?

This wallet has a built-in ‘Powerbank’ you can use to charge your phone, either wirelessly or wired, a distance alarm that goes off when you’re too far from it, global GPS tracking (for when you’re really, really far from it), a worldwide wi-fi hotspot, and a thief detection camera. None of which are useful.

The Powerbank, like most of the features here, is paradoxical to the type of user it’s aimed at. Think about it. Does the sort of person who blows nearly two hundred and fifty bucks on a smart wallet seem like the sort of person who would leave the house without a charging cable?

Granted, this sort of thing is for emergencies, but these sorts of emergencies are user-created: You forgot to charge your phone overnight or didn’t plug it in when you had the opportunity. Is someone who’s forward-thinking enough to carry 5,000 mAh of spare power in their wallet really the sort of person on whose conscious brain phone battery levels rarely intrude? No.

There’s not a lot said about the distance alarm, but presumably it’s something you can set up to alert when the wallet has exceeded a set distance from the user. What that means is in the rare instances you leave your wallet somewhere other than your inside jacket pocket, or your jacket is stowed in a cloakroom somewhere, you’ll get an alert. If we were to guess at the ratio of false alarms versus actual thefts, we’d hazard it’ll be in the many thousands to one. So you’ll switch it off.

Then there’s the equally paradoxical ‘thief detection camera’. The way this works is that once you’ve told the app your wallet is lost, it’ll snap a photo of the next person to open it. It seems like a cool idea till put under the least bit of scrutiny.

There are two ways you’re going to have your wallet stolen: Pocket theft or mugging. In a pocket theft the camera is going to be useless because the thief will have emptied the contents of the wallet, and probably binned it, before you can tell the app it’s ‘lost’. And what if someone subsequently finds the wallet albeit emptied of any contents which might identify its owner? What are you going to do? Stick their mug on a wanted poster?

In a mugging, it’s likely you’d be handing over the wallet for fear of being hurt. In this instance the robber is going to be looking for cash. After all, unlike pocket theft there is no time during which they could potentially abuse your credit cards. What reason, then, is there for the thief to open the wallet anywhere beyond the scene of the crime? None. And what sort of thief takes your wallet at knifepoint, but lets you keep your £1,000 iPhone anyway?

The wi-fi hotspot the wallet generates is a duplicate of the functionality of your smartphone. Don’t have a smartphone? Then why are you buying a wallet that charges smartphones? And the global GPS tracking, well… if your wallet has been kidnapped to Azerbaijan is knowledge of that really going to help?

The Volterman reminds us of that old joke about the golf ball. One golfer says to the other: “Check out my new golf ball. It’s really cool, it has GPS tracking, a strobe light for locating it in the dark, and if you don’t hit it for more than ten minutes a flag pops out the top and it starts belting out Greensleeves.”

“Where did you get it?”

“I found it.”

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