As technology pervades more devices, the assumption is that these gadgets should have some form of internet connection. But some of my favorite gadgets this year have been devices or services that don’t require a connection back to the web to work. Instead, they apply sensors and other technology in novel ways to deliver a tech-enabled product that I view as smart, but not connected.
Examples include the Casper Glow table lights and the recently released Illumiknobi doorknob. I’m also heartened by silicon and machine learning models that are trying to bring intelligence to devices without a connection. Companies such as Qeexo and even Synaptics are pushing the envelope here. The machine learning and specialized chips they develop let designers use voice interfaces or other novel modes of interaction that makes devices feel “smart” without requiring connectivity.
Rob Martens, futurist at Allegion and the person responsible for the Illumiknobi, calls this style of design “techno-functional,” meaning design that pulls technology into things in ways that are scalable, secure, and simple. “Connectivity is a hammer and everything else is now a nail,” he says of the current obsession with “smart” products. “Things can be functional without connectivity.” (Allegion is the parent company of Schlage and sponsor of the newsletter and podcast.)
Given the price, security woes, and complexity associated with setting up connected devices, as well as how ambivalent the response to many of those products has been, perhaps 2020 will be the year of techno-functional products. For example, Illumiknobi is an indoor doorknob that has a motion sensor and lights. When you approach the door, the knob senses it and turns on the lights, throwing a pretty pattern onto the door. It’s battery-powered, so you don’t need to have a smart phone app to appreciate the mix of function, art, and high tech.
Illumiknobi is a limited run device made by an experimental design group at Allegion called Pin & Tumbler. Martens created Pin & Tumbler to bring creative ideas to the market. But he isn’t alone in the pursuit of using tech to build smart products that don’t have an internet connection. Another of my favorite products to launch this year was the Casper Glow. The $129 light is designed to sit on a bedside table and follow the ideal lighting for humans’ circadian rhythms. It can fade up in the morning to help wake you and gradually dim at night so you can go to sleep. It also has an accelerometer inside so you can turn it over to turn it off, or use other gestures to control it intuitively. If you pick it up at night, it will glow very dimly to light your way without disturbing others.
When the device launched in February, Casper’s Chief Experience Officer Eleanor Morgan told Wired, “We feel like there’s this interesting opportunity in ‘fuzzy tech,’ where tech isn’t gadgety but disappears into your environment.” I agree. And whether we call it fuzzy tech or techno-functional, I think we’re going to see more of these devices as companies stop focusing so much on wireless connections to the internet and start using sensors and local machine learning models to put a new spin on familiar products.
These new products might even have voice capabilities, thanks to chips from Synaptics. As I wrote in May, the company is cramming natural language processing onto cheap chips designed for controlling everyday products. You won’t be able to have a conversation with this style of natural language processing, but you could tell a lamp to turn on, and have that happen even though the lamp doesn’t have internet connectivity. In a few years, as training gets easier, you might be able to buy a “dumb” picture frame, pop in an SD card with your family photos, tell the frame to show pictures of the dog, and get a slideshow of your dog photos. All without ever putting any of the images or the frame online.
We might also see new ways of controlling everyday devices arrive in our techno-functional future. A startup called Qeexo is building local machine learning models for low-power embedded chips. In a video demonstrating the technology, a person knocks on a wall to turn on a sconce and moves her hand in a circular pattern to dim the sconce’s light. In other demonstrations, the Qeexo models can determine if a box has been tossed, moved, or if it hits the floor. I can imagine a sensor tag running a movement model affixed to a pill bottle to help track medicine consumption.
Because these features don’t depend on an internet connection, we may be able to see futuristic features faster than we have seen the smart home develop. With connected devices, the ecosystem has to work together to build a smart experience around a device (or set of devices). So far, that’s been a sticking point. With a mess of sensors, some local machine learning, and a creative designer, futuristic products are only a development cycle away.