Innovation for Whom?

New technology for our homes might make our lives easier without making them any better.

To make a long story short, the handsome Prince George was shipwrecked on a desert island, survived on bread dropped by compassionate seagulls, and was rescued by a camel swimming by. At least, that's what I think happened. . . .

I'm sitting on the floor with Zeb, who's 5, and Aimee Elisabeth, 7. They've been spinning this yarn of Prince George for the last half hour. They began with crayons, then, like a mini film crew, digitized their pictures, sounds, and words into a movie. Yet there isn't a single computer screen, keyboard, or mouse in the room.

We're in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, at the design headquarters of Dutch electronics giant Philips. And we're playing with Pogo, a jumble of tools to encourage 4-to-8-year-olds in the art of storytelling. At first glance, the room resembles the front cover of a Fisher-Price catalog--but hidden in the silver dance mat, red tables, and assorted round-edged toys is a little arsenal of microphones, cameras, projectors, and VCRs.

"The technology is fairly basic and quite old," admits Paul Thursfield, a British designer working with Pogo. "We bought most of the electronics from a shop around the corner and soldered it all together. But Pogo realizes what's magical about technology: It releases the children's creativity in a way that so-called multimedia PCs don't." It's brilliant stuff.

The Pogo project is, unfortunately, just a small subplot in an escalating philosophical and strategic battle over the future of consumer electronics. On the one hand, there's Philips and its vision of "ambient intelligence." In this nascent world, technology is everywhere, but invisible. Billions of tiny processors embedded in our furniture, walls, and clothes will communicate wirelessly with one another and manage hundreds of domestic tasks.

There are nifty prototypes of this in Eindhoven. A product called Nebula projects scenery, an alarm clock, and games onto your bedroom ceiling. Using Easy Access, you can find a favorite digital music track by simply humming the tune. Cappellini-designed beds, couches, and chairs have loudspeakers, projectors, and Web screens integrated into headboards and armrests. The bathroom SmartMirror turns out to be a TV. Emile Aarts, scientific program director at Philips Research Labs, says ambient-intelligent homes will be similar to an old English butler: able to make decisions on our behalf.

Given that much of the approximately $3.25 billion that Philips devotes to pure research every year is invested in these prototypes and trials, the company has a lot riding on its ability to invest ambient intelligence with both intellectual and practical credibility. Meanwhile, its nemesis in consumer electronics, Sony, is telling a very different story of the future. The robot freaks at Sony's Digital Creatures Laboratory in Tokyo say technology will become more visible in our homes, not less. Robots will set the table, serve dinner, and take out the garbage.

Sony's latest litter of AIBo's, robot pooches with four legs and six emotional states, can skateboard, dance in time to pop music, and transmit images to PDAs (House-sit, AIBo! Good robot!). They can even sense when their batteries are low and return to charging stations to refuel themselves, and read email to you while you're eating breakfast.

The truth is, though, Philips and Sony need this stuff more than we do. Sony's headlock on the consumer-electronics market has been broken by Asian rivals, and although gadgets account for two-thirds of overall sales, they contribute less than a quarter of Sony's operating income. At Philips, consumer electronics is a sore spot: In the second quarter, it posted an operating loss of around $47.4 million and an 18% decline in sales.

Telling stories with Zeb, Aimee Elisabeth, and Pogo makes me wonder what truly drives technological innovation. We used to invent things not to satisfy idle whims but to change our world. That's the magic of technology. Yet such firms as Philips and Sony increasingly innovate simply because they can, not because it's needed. That ethic was bumper-stickered by Stuff, a British tech magazine, which recently ranted, "We've launched missions to Mars, so why can't we build a robot to pour us a drink?"

I'll tolerate ambient-intelligence systems that make decisions for me (after all, my wife and kids already do that). And I don't find a self-charging AIBo particularly scary so long as it can't reach its own on-off switch.

But the electronics that excite me are not science-fiction gizmos but smart stuff that helps us make better use of resources we already have. Like the Web, which distributes knowledge to billions. Like Apple's iPod, which breathes new life into music I haven't listened to in years. And like Pogo, which helps children tell stories.

You won't read about Pogo in Stuff magazine because it doesn't pour drinks. But ultimately, companies that focus on the intelligence of their customers rather than the intelligence of their technology will produce the innovations that really matter.

Chatter: Save Martha!

Martha Stewart takes her act to a Manhattan courtroom on November 18 for a pretrial hearing on her insider-trading case. Here is a sampling from the 60,000-plus messages sent to her Web site, www.marthatalks.com, since June.

"I am a 22-year-old guy who is just trying to get my things together and possibly someday succeed in life. . . . Don't ever forget how superbly fabulous you are and how crazy and unpredictable life can be sometimes."
--John Bates

"My wife and I both agree that most of your current situation is caused by the simple fact that you are a very successful and talented businessperson, who happens to be a real lady."
--Jim and Beverly Nelson

"You are still my hero, Martha. Just remember . . . that when life hands you lemons, you make a delicious lemonade!"
--Bill Poe

"You have worked very hard for all you have achieved. Men in your position would be praised. How sad you can't receive that same treatment."
--Julie Trout

"Please know we are all behind you during this difficult time. At my church, a member of the Flower Guild made 'Save Martha' flower stickers and we wear them proudly. You remain in our thoughts and prayers."
--Brenda Lawson

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