Saturday, January 25, 2014

Consumer Electronics Gone Haywire

The 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show has unplugged from Las Vegas, leaving TV news to look beyond trendy wearable devices to fill their tech voids. There’s no shortage of other electronics-related stories. We’re still hearing shoes dropping after Target’s hacked credit card debacle, with Neiman Marcus admitting they, too, have been breached. At least three other major retailers are rumored to be untying their wing tips to prepare for an announcement.

I decided to take a closer look at the personal relationship we have with technology, beginning at the CES and those wearable devices. Things you put on your wrist—fitness trackers, health monitors, tricked out watches—were especially popular.

Scott Stein of CNET tells us the Fitbit Force excels at counting steps, but Nike’s FuelBand SE works better as a watch. The Force retails for $130 and the FuelBand SE for $150. The Pebble Watch, on the other hand (no, really—worn on Stein’s other hand), is a “smart watch.” It also costs $150, but needs the release of new apps and features to achieve Mensa status. The next-generation Pebble Steel will supposedly accomplish that for just an additional $100.

Since I have a perfectly serviceable Seiko watch, let’s turn our attention to health monitors. These can be useful for seniors, but manufacturers are still shaking out the bugs. Some Fitbit wearers developed skin rashes due to allergies to the nickel in the band. Another device provided invalid information on some health condition. I don’t recall the details, but I remember thinking it wasn’t trivial. Those are just two reasons to have trust issues with these items.

If hackers can get into retailers’ systems and pilfer personal information from your credit cards, imagine what a determined hawker of “medical” products could do with your health monitor. That wristband that provides regular readings of your blood pressure? It will recommend a pricey salt substitute to get things under control. Once you buy it: Surprise! Surprise! The band congratulates you on miraculously getting your pressure down overnight, thus assuring repeat purchases.

The website Zensorium promises that their Tinké health monitor will help you “Find Your Zen,” but you’ll need a smartphone app to get there. Speaking of finding things using your smartphone, what may be the best new gadget for seniors is the StickRTrackR. It uses sensors ($30 each) that alert you if your keys get too far from your phone. I have no clue how you find your smartphone if you’ve lost that. Maybe you put a sensor on your own body to get an alert if you wander too far from the phone.

Another popular category was Home Monitoring Devices. Belken’s WeMo is on the simpler end. They describe it as “a family of simple, ingenious products that make life easier, simpler, better.” WeMo controls your home electronics via your smartphone. Sounds simple enough, provided one has a smartphone, which I simply don’t.

ISmart Alarm claims to have “the best smartphone-enabled home security and home control system.” It has contact sensors and motion sensors, an ICamera (for “real-time monitoring and picture notification”) and Remote Tags. The tags seem like a sophisticated version of StickRTrackR. You can use them to control the system remotely and to track children and pets. If I had one of those, I’d use it to find out where my husband had fallen asleep. It would save a lot of stair climbing.

The new consumer electronics offer everything from the proverbial sublime to the ridiculous. (Did I mention the Petbit fitness tracker for your dog or cat?) You may think I’m overreacting to worry about consumer electronics going haywire, but I’m not the only one who envisions this. (Stay with me here.)

One of the more unusual new movies is Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely introvert who is in the process of getting divorced. He falls in love with his computer’s talking operating system. It’s not just any computer; it’s artificial intelligence that responds to his psychological and emotional needs (and in Scarlett Johansson’s voice). Think Siri on steroids. Or mood enhancers. Her gives new meaning to “software.” It also serves as a cautionary tale about the consumer electronics in our lives.

Who can say where we’re headed with all these devices? One thing’s for certain: our government isn’t the only place that Big Brother lurks. We can’t stop that train, but we can figure out the best way to use it to our benefit. I suppose I’ll have to invest in a smart phone eventually, but staying dumb has its advantages. It’s like having a hearing aid that you can turn down when you want to tune out. There’s a lot to be said for disengaging and sitting back with a good book and a nice glass of wine. On that note...

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