REDEMPTION MEDIA BLOG

Hack-A-Loo and other stories

Big news yesterday from Japan where an app-controlled lavatory has been found to be vulnerable to ‘attack’ from potential app hackers.

The idea of the hi-tech loo is to allow control of flushing, a bidet spray, music and even ‘fragrance release’ through the use an Android app. However a flaw in the hardware has been discovered that transforms any Android phone owner into a potential toilet terrorist: just download the app and, in a flush, you can control someone else’s loo.

The potential for practical jokes seems limitless, and no doubt the manufacturers of the smart toilet, Lixil, are deploring the developer who made the schoolboy error of hardwiring every toilet pin-code to be four zeroes (0000). But this rather humorous story does raise an interesting question.

Why are there currently so few remote and app-controlled domestic devices?

It is certainly not for the lack of technology, which has been available for years. Way back in 2001, when Redemption Media MD Dave Cates worked for BT labs, engineers successfully developed an ‘intelligent’ fridge, which detected when supplies of milk, butter etc. were running low and automatically placed an online grocery order with Tesco to replenish the contents.

For a number of years it has been possible to use SMS messages to control some Sky PVRs, remotely instructing the box to record TV programmes. And yet despite the obvious usefulness of this functionality, it is not something that has caught on with other manufacturers.

There is so much potential for remote controlled devices; imagine a fridge and freezer that could send stock reports to your smartphone app so you can complete your grocery shop at work, or bedroom lights that you could control remotely whilst on holiday to make it look like you were at home. When I am leaving the office, it would be great to use an app to tell my oven to preheat so that it will be hot when I get in, or boil the kettle for an instant cup of tea. But whilst the software and communications technology is old hat, the materialization of these ideas is dependent on appliance manufacturers and their willingness to incorporate remote control technology into their products.

Development of these products also requires software developers to think creatively about the potential use of apps: we need to progress from apps that are purely for entertainment and social networking and move towards apps that can improve industrial processes and integrate with domestic machines. A move towards productivity apps will also give longevity to the app-development industry: it is clear that very few apps sold on the appstores generate any significant revenue for coders (In 2012, just 25 developers accounted for half of app revenue in the App Store and Google Play*) but partnerships with other industries have the potential to be far more profitable.

Manufacturing companies are missing a trick, but developers also need to be much more proactive in promoting the potential benefits of incorporating app-control technology into everyday appliances.

Now that smartphones are so ubiquitous, I am in no doubt there would be demand for an app-controlled version of most household appliances. Whenever you’re ready Hotpoint, I’d like to pre-order my iFridge.

If you have an idea for a connected app, please get in touch. We’d love to make these ideas into reality!

Touchscreen Generation

In our last blog, we looked at how technology is ‘evolving’ . Whether we like that word or not, we would all agree that there has been a technology revolution over the last two decades, driven in part by the massive potential of the internet.

Of course, at Redemption Media we are very excited about all things technological, but as a parent I can’t help wondering:

“What will be the impact of this technological revolution on my children?”

On the one hand, I love being able to answer a ‘how does it work mummy?’ question with an instant video on YouTube, but on the other hand it does concern me that my two-year-old takes for granted that she can watch Peppa Pig on my smartphone wherever and whenever she wants to.

A bit of screen time can be good, but no one wants their kids to be couch potatoes. Watching hours and hours of TV and playing non-stop video games are not going to produce healthy, creative, imaginative, socially adept grown-ups. In my former life as a secondary school teacher, I have seen the impact of a generation who are used to being entertained by fast-moving, high-quality TV and video games: teachers have to plan a fresh activity for each ten minute slot to keep students engaged. And on the day when the latest FIFA game was launched…well, they might as well have closed the school as there was only one topic of conversation in lessons.

And then there’s the problem of instant access for children to all sorts of damaging content online. This is clearly a huge issue for our times, and perhaps one that requires national and international legislation and enforcement (more of that another time!).

Yes, technology has its dangers. But a recent pilot project in a Welsh school (see the full BBC article here) showed that using tablet computers accelerated pupils’ learning and literacy at a dramatic rate. Kids love using gadgets, but more than this, computers allow a ‘personalised learning journey’ that is just not possible through traditional learning in a class of 30 children and one teacher. An interactive app or educational platform can guide pupils through different activities and tasks at their own rate, giving them feedback and assessment at all stages. No one else in the class gets to see when they get a question wrong but at the same time, progress can be recorded and shared with the teacher.

So where is the dividing line between technology that is dangerous to our kids, and technology that will help them fly?

I believe that the answer lies in interactivity. ‘Screen-time’ is damaging when in invites children to be passive comsumers, to sit in the same position for hours and stare blankly at the TV. I have heard that watching telly burns fewer calories than staring at a blank wall – because at least when staring at a wall, the brain uses energy in thought processes and imagination. Even internet activities such as social media and browsing are consumption-based processes requiring very little thought, imagination and creativity. Children who are constantly entertained by content that is provided for them are less likely to develop into creative, pro-active, imaginative and self-motivated adults.

But truly interactive technology is a different matter. Games and apps that require thought, reasoning, calculations, processing, planning etc. have the potential to train children in vital areas such as numeracy and literacy, problem solving and independent learning.

You can’t argue with results like the ones described in the BBC article. At Redemption Media we are excited about the potential for interactive software in education, and we believe there is an enormous potential market for projects of this type (our ‘Whizzy Kids’ interactive app for preschoolers has been downloaded over 600 000 times). We specialize in interactivity and have industry-leading experience in making interactive software for apps, websites, games and social media platforms. If you are interested in exploring the potential of your own idea, please get in touch.

Adapt or die

Here’s a question for you:

‘Is technology evolving?’

That’s a no brainer! Of course it is, I hear you say. It’s developing all the time – smart phones are getting smarter, connections are getting faster and devices are becoming more powerful.

But are we witnessing a technological evolution in the true sense of the word?

What does ‘evolution’ actually mean? And how is it different from straightforward ‘development’ or ‘progress’?

[Excuse me while I put on my A level biology teacher hat.]

“Evolution is the process by which different organisms develop and diversify from their earlier forms.”

Let’s un-pack that a little. Biologists think that every living organism evolved from a single piece of DNA. That is some development. And talk about diversification – scientists have named over 1.3 million species of organisms on planet earth and there are no doubt many thousands more.

But the process of evolution is as important as its end result. Evolution takes place through a process of ‘natural selection’ which, simply put, involves weaker, less well adapted species becoming extinct while fitter, more competitive species survive and reproduce. A change in DNA that has a positive effect (such as making an animal run faster) will make the organism more likely to survive, more likely to find a mate, and therefore more likely to be passed on to the next generation or start a new species. In other words, bad genes die out whereas good genes proliferate and cause diversity.

Back to technology.

We can’t deny that technology is developing. Look at the smart phone. In 2007 the smartphone species was born. The iPhone featured a 320 x 480 pixel display, 2 MP camera, and a 412 MHz ARM 11 processor. Connection was through Wifi or 2G. Fast-forward to 2012 and compare that to the iPhone 5 with its 640 x 1136 pixel LED-backlit IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen, 8 MP camera, dual-core 1.2 GHz CPU and 4G connectivity, not to mention inbuilt accelerometer, gyro, proximity and compass sensors. That is the kind of progress that would take a biological species a good ten million years to achieve.

Evolution also produces new species and diversity within species. The smart phone market has certainly diversified; there are now over 4000 different Android devices in use, in addition to Blackberry, Windows and iOS devices. Each has different features and selling points but all can be traced back to the founding member of the smart phone family. Species diversification has occurred.

And, looking at the process of evolution, we can see some ‘natural selection’ in progress. Great devices are popular with consumers and increase their market share (for example, Samsung smart phones, iPads), whereas devices that fail to adapt to emerging consumer demands take a nose-dive (Blackberry and Nokia). As in the wild, adaptation, effective competition and finding a niche are the keys to survival.

So we have a rather intellectually satisfying parallel between the evolution of species and the development of technological devices over the last ten years. Very nice.

But so what?

In the technology industry, the diversification of devices is known negatively as ‘fragmentation’. Industry leaders and commentators express concern about how it will be impossible to continue to develop cross-platform software that is compatible with ever-increasing numbers of devices and operating systems.

But, if a process of evolution is truly occurring, then this is a pretty dumb thing to be worried about. Evolution is a good thing; in fact, evolution is the most infallible, reliable, progressive and responsive creative process in the history of the universe. If natural selection is allowed to occur, then we can be sure that technology will get better and better and that ‘bad’ products will not survive.

It doesn’t make sense to be concerned about developing for so many platforms; if there is demand for software, it will be supplied. There is a Facebook app for almost every device and operating system because there is demand for Facebook. If an operating system is difficult to develop for, it will become extinct (original Blackberry OS). At Redemption Media, we have responded to fragmentation by using new techniques and technologies to code multi-platform apps.

My point is this. We can trust evolution to do a great job. So let’s take a positive view of fragmentation and concentrate on making sure we invest in developers and coding techniques that will respond positively to the challenge of new devices.

Ultimately, the challenge of evolution to all of us in the industry is this: adapt or die.

SMART TVs: a one-stop shop?

In just six years, the smart phone has gone from novelty gadget to a must-have of modern life. Smart phones now account for two-thirds of all mobile sales in Europe and for many of us it would be hard to imagine life without the Internet always at our fingertips. Using a smart phone has transformed the way that I shop, travel, work, plan my social life, watch TV, entertain my children and find information.

So will smart TVs be as central to our lives as smart phones in a decade’s time? According to recent research, 50 per cent of British households now posses an internet-enabled TV and the UK smart TV market is predicted to be worth around £2.5 bn in the near future. These figures certainly suggest that smart TVs will become as ubiquitous as smartphones, but will they have the same transformational effect on how we use the Internet?

Looking at the current generation of smart TVs, I have my doubts. At Redemption Media we have recently purchased a top-of-the-range Samsung smart TV (for the purposes of developing TV apps of course). Whilst the picture quality is amazing, voice control amusing and the ‘on-demand’ services outstanding, the ‘smart’ features of the TV leave much to be desired. In one month of owning the TV I have never used the Facebook app and only once tried the web browser. The pre-installed Love Film app is a favourite but I have not had the inclination to search for new apps or explore other existing apps. In short, it has affected my Internet use not a jot.

There is one very simple reason for this: I am a touch screen junky. My new TV comes with two different remote controls (one traditional, one with a laptop style ‘mouse pad’), and can be controlled by voice or motion, but all these controls are clunky, slow and frustrating compared to the ‘touchscreen’ navigation of the Internet to which I have become accustomed.

On my phone, I tap a field, a qwerty keyboard appears, I begin to type my search criteria and autocorrect fills in the rest.

On my smart TV, I have to use the arrow buttons on my remote control to find the field, select the field, wait for the alphabetized keyboard to appear, select the letters one at a time in an unfamiliar layout, enter the whole word or sentence….and that’s before I make a mistake and have to delete everything. Er…no, I can’t be bothered.

At present, smart TVs cannot compete with the touchscreens of smartphones and tablets for Internet browsing. Although tempted by the huge 46” screen, I’d never use the TV for my Internet grocery shop because it would be faster to grow the food myself.

However, Samsung have announced a simplification of their smart TV user interface (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-20942237), which should improve the user experience. But until smart TV remote controls can replicate the convenience of touch screen browsing, it seems unlikely that TVs will become the hub of family Internet use.

Unless of course the smartphone comes to the rescue. There are already a number of free smartphone/tablet apps that allow the user to control a smart TV via their mobile device. Since the new generation of smart TVs have wifi connectivity, this sounds like an ideal solution. Unfortunately, the current range of available apps are fairly poor and, crucially, do not include a qwerty keyboard. Samsung sell a ‘tablet’ remote control, but who wants another device?

If a high-quality remote control app was available for smart TV users, the combination of touchscreen convenience and family-sized screens would surely catalyse another internet revolution and make smart TVs as essential to modern life as the smartphone has become. Smart TV apps would become as popular as mobile apps and the convenience of shopping, gaming and socializing via apps would be replicated on a large screen.

Sounds like a job for Redemption Media.