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What does it mean to be ‘smart’?

21st January 2013
Luke Connoley

Interaxon's Muse - Brain Sensing Headband

Interaxon’s Muse headband can sense your alpha and beta brain waves… but does that necessarily make it smart?

Like the now-ubiquitous lowercase ‘i’, used as a proxy for real, fake, imitation and wannabe Apple products, the ‘smart’ tag has, during the past few years, been applied to an increasing array of products. But what does it mean? Are these devices really ‘smart’, or is it a simple marketing tool used to create a nominal difference between yours and a competitor’s products?

‘Why would I buy a phone when I could have an i-Phone?’ goes the marketing narrative – and likewise ‘Why would I buy a 55 inch ultra-high definition TV when I could have a smart 55 inch ultra-high definition TV?’. I’m being facetious, but the point I believe is a real one.

The US Consumer Electronics Association’s Chief Economist and Senior Director of Research – Shawn DuBravac – noted in his insiders briefing at CES this month that ‘smart’ has generally been used to mean ‘connected to the internet’, or at the very least ‘networked’. This definition certainly fits with our experience of smart technology – but this raises a question: If I hook up a WiFi chip to my standard kettle, lamp or fork at home, would they become smart? ‘Obviously not’, you cry out. But maybe?

We saw smart versions of all three of these domestic appliances at CES, and many more. Yet we believe ‘smart’ has to mean more than ‘connected’. Hardware cannot be by itself smart – what makes it smart is the software. A connected fork is smart if it advises us on whether we are eating too quickly; a connected lamp is smart if it changes its output based on ambient light or if it can be controlled remotely with a phone or other device.

As our lives become ever more appified, some people feel that they cannot live without their phone. But if a phone breaks, any other synced device can immediately pick up where the old device stopped. It is the app – the gatherer of information and curator of output – that they cannot live without. Is a smart TV smart if it can access the internet to play back programmes on demand? We would say no. Is a TV smart if it makes good suggestions for other programmes, services and information sources based on what you have watched – and tailors these for each person in the household? Now that’s more like it.

What does this mean for the smart workplace? The smart workplace needs more than a collection of smart devices affixed to the walls, ceilings, floors and desks. It needs more than a collection of flexible working and BYOD policies. It is the full integration of people and technology to provide measurable and useful outputs which will define the truly smart workplace in the coming few years.

Smart technologies are here today – but it is worth asking one final question; what does ‘intelligent’ technology look like?

In technology, wireless

The end of the cable?

23rd January 2012
Philip Ross

It seemed so implausible 17 years ago when I published the Cordless Office Report. Back in 1994, people had never heard of wireless technology, or if they had they were worried about speed, reliability and security. The office world was obsessed with structured cabling and the networked PC.  The talk was of cable managed systems furniture, of raised floor and intelligent buildings. Mobile phones were for the few.

Now the cable is dead, at least for voice and most data.  People are used to wireless technology – indeed they rely on it; the iPad has no Ethernet port!  And smart phones, tablets and new ultranotbooks synchronise with the cloud over wireless.  The fears over performance, speed and security are now largely gone and people have embraced the flexibility and mobility that wireless technology brings.

Applications and data from the cloud will just work in the background – unconscious synchronicity will become the new normal, and a wireless ‘bearer’ will just work behind the scenes to keep everything up to date.

But 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth are not the full story. A range of new wireless technologies are set to enter stage, from wireless display or WiDi to 4G LTE or long term evolution.  Add to this Zigbee, Z-Wave, Ultrawide Band, Near Field Communication, RFID, WiMAX, WiGig and more and an exciting future is in store.  We predict that most innanimate objects will soon have embedded wireless which, with a unique address, will let them communicate with each other over the internet – so called machine-to-machine or M2M communication.

And now the last bastion of cordless technology, wireless power, is set to become a reality as well.  A new global specification called Qi (pronounced “chee”) has been launched – Qi means “vital energy” in Asian philosophy – and there are already products emerging that can power devices from kitchen blenders, mobile phones, handbags and even cars without any physical connection.

The future is wireless…

Find out more at our upcoming briefings at

In wireless

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