Modern life is time consuming and stressful. Technology has improved productivity, but some studies claim that the average American spends 44% more time working than a medieval serf. So while tech has come a long way since the scythe, working folks aren’t exactly reaping the benefits.
But have things gotten better away from the office? Surely after a long day toiling away like a pair of dirt-covered peasants, you want to put your feet up and let someone, or something, take care of the rest.
“Smart” products are just one example of an area where technology strives to make everyday life easier, and a lot of the products involved do exactly that. The functionality of a modern cell phone is amazing, when you consider something that could play Snake 2 and an 8-bit ringtone that sounded vaguely like “We Like to Party” by the Vengaboys was the absolute peak of technology 20 years ago. Now you can do everything from video chatting with people around the world, to managing a stock portfolio you’ve built up with your spare change, to playing a weird 3D version of snake that has none of the nostalgia or charm of the original.
Home assistants are also very useful. No more messing around with alarm clocks; timers, facts, and recipes just a request away. Lost your phone? Alexa will find it for you. It can’t do the same thing with the TV remote, but it can turn the TV on for you. You can play around with the lights in your house, speak to people in other rooms, listen to music, it’s almost the future we were promised!
Sadly, reality is closer to the Tex Avery Home of Tomorrow Cartoons than it is the Starship Enterprise. The developers of the following “smart” products really failed to solve real problems and either ended up adding extra steps or, at best, creating something that requires just as much effort as the “dumb” equivalent. Worse yet, often with a hefty price tag and more potential issues.
Just examine a few of these, and you’ll start to see what many bad smart home products have in common.
Let’s take the Wi-Fi Toaster, for example. It’s the perfect product for the modern man or woman on the go. Who has time for breakfast? You do. Just one tap on the app, or a few words to your smart speaker, and boom, it’s toasting time! You don’t even need to adjust the settings, just link the new SmartToaster™ to your social media accounts and it will find the hottest trending toast images that month before replicating the exact grill style and done-ness on a bread of your choice.
One thing though, don’t forget to preload the bread. And unless you want your toaster to double as a penicillin production facility, don’t forget you’ve preloaded the bread and decide not to eat toast for a couple of weeks. Oh, you want bagels now? Best unload the bread, find somewhere to put it, then load the bagels. You need to adjust the settings for bagels as well.
As far-fetched as the idea of a “Wi-Fi toaster” sounds, toaster manufacturers have actually thrown their hats into the smart tech ring. One listed on Amazon features a touch screen and “over 60 toasting algorithms, with heat variations on the front and back of the bread.” It also costs more than most ovens.
One app based toaster that does actually serve a purpose is the Toasteroid. It allows users to toast an image of their choice onto their bread, which is unique and something standard toasters can’t just do. Other image based toasters will leave you with just one image, so the novelty might wear off early. The Toasteroid’s novelty will stick around a bit longer, but it’s just that, a novelty. It’s something that will make you go “oh, cool!” for the first week before you simply stop bothering or, worse yet, crave a piece of bread that has been toasted evenly.
There’s a line between actually useful products, like a smartphone, and novelty items that look great on paper but awful on your kitchen counter. Juicero was a good example of a “useless” product. It was a $400 “juicer” that could only squeeze a particular brand of juice from a particular pack. You know, like your hands can only with more limitations.
As well as helping in the fight against fruit juice piracy, Juicero’s scanners could also check if a pack had expired and then subsequently refuse to do the one thing it was designed for. Because as well as not having access to hands, Juicero’s target market is also incapable of reading an expiry date, or just too soft to risk drinking out-of-date juice.
Juicero was widely ridiculed and taken off the market in 2017, with its manufacturer claiming they were unable to achieve an “effective manufacturing and distribution system” before pledging to “focus on finding an acquirer with an existing national fresh food supply chain.” To their credit, Juicero did offer a full refund to anyone who purchased their press as they threw in the towel.
Add a “smart salt shaker” into the mix and you would be forgiven for thinking innovation is being driven by a combination of random phrase generators and people who’ve watched a few too many Shark Tank rejection compilations, but somehow still haven’t grasped what the phrase “no, that’s ridiculous,” means.
We live in an age where someone was eating dinner, looked at a salt shaker, and actually thought what that simple, functional, item needs is a Wi-Fi connection, speakers, an app, and another 400 ways it could go wrong.
It was actually marketed as a “centerpiece,” something to take pride of place on the dinner table and spark conversation. Despite limited sales, it may have actually achieved the latter—though, “what did you waste money on that for” and “why do I need to borrow your phone to put salt on my food?” may not be the exact conversations the creators intended to start. Oh, and unsurprisingly “Smalt” also works with Alexa.
There is of course a back-up in place with the Smalt. If Alexa and your phone let you down, you can twist the top of the device to dispense some salt. What an amazing breakthrough.
The cherry on the cake is, Smalt is an “upgrade” for your salt shaker, not the slightly more advanced salt grinder. Rock salt and that fancy, pink, Himalayan stuff is out of the window, unless you find it pre-ground or grind it yourself before popping it in your new $200 salt dispenser. Salt shakers usually have no moving parts and tend to be some kind of vessel with a few holes in the top. And they do the job better. That’s what Smalt is, an expensive, worse, version of a box with some holes in the top.
All of these products are the result of companies trying to answer a question no one asked and just making things more difficult and complicated in the process. It’s easy to see why they do this. Sometimes there’s a lot of money flying around and it’s easy to get investment, just look at the dot com bubble. Maybe the people creating these products could see the smart home boom coming, and desperately developed whatever they could together. Trying and failing is better than missing out completely, right?
And these products did sell. Despite the ridicule and subsequent embarrassing collapse, Juicero claimed to have sold over one million units. Less impressively, but perhaps more honestly, Smalt received less than $10,000 in funding from fewer than 65 backers before it became obvious the world wasn’t quite ready for a salt-dispensing smart speaker.
So, why is there seemingly some kind of market for these products? Overenthusiasm plays a considerable part. If you’re setting up a smart home, it takes a lot of restraint not to try and hook everything in your property up to Skynet.
You’ve splashed out on a hub, a TV, some smart speakers, lightbulbs, a thermostat, a Keurig, and some plug adapters in case you still have a lame pre-smart home air conditioner in your wall or something. What’s an extra couple of grand on a fridge that will text you when you need to buy milk? Every other bit of your life is smart, why would you want a dumb fridge? What’s wrong with you?
Ultimately, it all comes back to the dream of the robot butler. You grow up seeing things like C3PO, Kryten, whatever that was in Rocky IV, and picture how wonderful it would be to have something which will bring you beer, cook you food, clean your house, and not have to be treated with any dignity or respect like humans keep demanding. These also exist but are extremely limited, expensive, and like the objects mentioned above, far more trouble than they are worth.
Think about it—when you’re still loading bread into a toaster, a juice bag into a machine, salt into a salt shaker, you’re already doing 99% of the work associated with these tasks. Add a couple of app menus and you’re actually adding steps to what was a simple push of a lever or pour of a carton.
As bleak as some of these devices make things look, it isn’t all bad and a lot of products do either nail it or at least point towards a promising future. Products like the Roomba inhabit the same universe as the Juicero and the smart toaster but actually do their job pretty well. With the higher-end models, you just need to set it up then get on with your life for the most part. It will vacuum every bit of your house it can reach, empty itself, and recharge after each session.
Stairs are a problem, but Daleks couldn’t manage them either and they’re from the future or something. You also have to empty the container it deposits the dust and debris into, but that’s a twenty-second task once a week, as opposed to a light vacuuming session once a day. It has improved your life, ever so slightly.
The same applies to the light bulbs and smart Keurigs, which are just a continuation of things like light timers, dimmer switches, and any coffee maker with a built-in timer.
Each of these items is a welcome improvement on something functional, with the added bonus of making your home look like the twenty-first century ideal instead of the dystopian hell we’ve actually found ourselves in. They all expand on actual issues and save us time instead of answering questions no one asked because it turns out no one was really bothered.
So while Alexa may be supplementing your knowledge, don’t let her and things like her do your thinking for you. It’s your money, at the end of the day. Use it wisely and ask yourself, “is this piece of tech I’m buying adding something to my daily life, or am I just wasting $300 and somehow managing to inconvenience myself in the process”