Friday, 5 September 2008

Watching You, Watching It

Anyone bored enough to read these musing with any degree of regularity will have realised that I'm no great fan of technology. Yes, it has its uses, and without it many of society's truly monumental cockups just wouldn't be possible. But there are limits, uses to which technology, no matter how ingenious, should not be put.

This article in the Sun features a perfect example - a clever new TV from Toshiba that responds to hand signals instead of a traditional remote. Now, I am not unacquainted with the difficulties presented by a missing TV remote - raging disputes over who had the damn thing last are an almost daily occurrence in the House of Seggars - but grandiose gesticulation is not the answer.

This new-fangled telly sports a small camera fixed atop the bezel, through which it watches you, watching it. When you make a hand gesture that corresponds to something it thinks it recognises, the clever little sod carries out the appropriate action. For instance, a held up palm might instruct it to pause while waving up and down might change channel or adjust the volume.

Although Toshiba claims that the technology is being tweaked to stop it accidentally responding to sneezes or stretching, I don't believe a word of it. If this dreadful idea ever makes it out of the lab, the end result will be ranks of people sat, rigid, before their TVs, terrified to move lest the all-seeing TV tyrant changes channel at the crucial moment. Armchair footy fans, long accustomed to parking their buttocks less than 6 inches away from their TV screens and cheering their lads along with the help of beer, bobby hat and rattle, will be silenced for good.

One careless whoop of joy, or head-in-hands cry of despair could see them missing the
whole of extra time as they frantically wave their arms up and down, trying to get back to Match of the Day. And what about Play Your Cards Right? Brucie fans, eager to reinforce their cries of "higher, HIGHER" with a wave of the arm could be in real trouble.

And then there's the philosophical problem. TVs are there for watching - having them watch you right back is creepy. How long before they start taking an interest in what they see - purely for our own good, of course? Presumably, it would be easy enough to monitor how often the viewer moves, and warn them that they might be nodding off. Useful in a working environment, perhaps, or maybe for the sick who might need medical attention if they don't move for a while. In fact, I can think of a few hospitals where such a TV would routinely pay more attention to the patients than the nursing staff does.

Similarly, I can see that the system might be handy, if you'll pardon the pun, for those whose mobility is impaired in some way. But for general use, the whole idea seems like massive overkill to me. The whole lost TV remote problem could be easily avoided by doing away with remotes altogether, and building a fully functional front panel into the TV - imagine how many calories you'd burn by leaping up from your seat to change channel!

Or, if we really must have remote controls, why not build in a simple pager, as are found in some models of cordless telephones (which I also despise)? A simple button on the front of the TV, probably labelled something like "find the damn remote" would send out a signal, and in response the remote would start beeping. How hard would this be to implement? Not hard at all, and, in any event, a whole lot easier than trying to teach TVs the basics of role reversal.

Yes, I understand that Toshiba's new toy can be taught to respond to things other than hand gestures, and that even the hand gestures will be customisable. But that won't do. Any user over the age of 13 is going to be utterly befuddled by the process, no matter how simple they make it, and will leave it set to default. Users under the age of 13 will figure it out and change the gestures to things only they understand, effectively hijacking the TV.

Clever though it undoubtedly is, this strikes me as a solution looking for a problem. It's technology for technology's sake, proof that people are still reading Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy (go on, find the reference if you can) and, overall, a very bad idea. Needless to say, the House of Seggars will not be playing host to one of these contraptions until they are unavoidable, at which point the gestures will probably consist largely of variations on the one and two finger themes.

Billy Seggars.

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