State of the Nation


Dick Hobbs - new TV-Bay Magazine
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I sometimes think I pay too much to get my hair cut.

On the most recent occasion I was trimmed, my hairdresser had just returned from a holiday in Hawaii. Where she thought she was going to die.

She thought this because the state’s emergency alert system was triggered, sending messages across all available platforms, for 38 minutes, that a ballistic missile was about to strike. That, I suspect, is the sort of thing that casts a pall across your holiday.
Why did it happen? Essentially it happened because an operator selected the wrong menu item. “I feel very badly from what’s happened,” he is quoted as saying, in a somewhat mangled version of English which may at least in part explain his difficulties with menu items.

Picking the wrong option from a list is the top-level reason why it happened. The immediate context is that a supervisor launched an unplanned exercise as the day shift was clocking on. And while his instructions included the word “exercise” three times, he also said “this is not a drill”, which was the part the man with his finger on the mouse actually heard.

I want to take another step back. The emergency warning system used in Hawaii appears to be software provided by a company based in Idaho called AlertSense, which has sold its software to a number of states. It looks, from the screen shots I have seen, like a typical Windows interface, with drop-down menus and the ability to create templates.

There are the usual “are you sure you want to send an entire state into panic” check boxes. It would appear that it actually took three clicks to send this message.
Randy Grohs, CTO of AlertSense, was quoted in The Verge as saying “If you don’t follow best practices, the difference between sending live and a demo can be configured to be a small difference.”

So rather than worry about why my hairdresser and her husband can afford a holiday in Hawaii, instead I took to thinking about user interface design. And how you have to think about what could possibly go wrong, not what it likely to go wrong.

Very many years ago, when I was working on a very early computer-based broadcast technology system, I remember a recurring discussion with the lead software designer who had a tendency to say “why would anyone ever do that?”. The point is that, if it is possible to do something really stupid, then sooner or later someone will do that stupid thing.

The essence of interface design, then, must surely be to help people make the right operations and stop them making the wrong ones.

To take a simple example, from the dawn of time routers have been controlled by rows of buttons. In the early days buttons were allocated to specific sources and destinations, which were marked with Letraset under the button cover. Now they are dynamic, and Oled panels under the buttons tell you what you are controlling. For trendy go-ahead people, you can mimic a row of buttons on an iPad.

But there is still no better way of manually controlling a router than pushing buttons to select source and destination. It is simple and intuitive.

Voice recognition is a big thing in user interfaces right now, and it may well be that there are people working to allow operators to talk to routers rather than push buttons. Can anyone explain why controlling a router – or pretty much any piece of professional equipment – using voice control is a good idea?

If you read the techno-fan magazines, one current consumer trend is to move to smart light bulbs, which means you can simply shout at Alexa (other voice recognition systems are available) to turn the light on.

Or you can get up and push a light switch.

Is a voice-controlled light bulb a technological advance worth having? Given that the bulb alone costs four times the non-smart version (I’ve just looked them up on Amazon: £11.89 for the best seller smart bulb; £8.99 for a pack of three manual equivalents).

There was a great article in The Washington Post, wrapping up on CES this year. Journalist Geoffrey A Fowler made what was for me a wonderfully telling point. He suggested that we have all got ourselves bound up in the idea of the “internet of things”, when what we should be thinking about is the “internet of services”.

Because it is not the things that we care about. According to Fowler, this year’s CES include “smart” (ie connected) versions of “pillows, air fresheners and even toilets”. Do we need our toilets to have their own IP addresses? Somehow I doubt it.

What we do want are better services. And when being connected makes that service better, then that is great. But how is my life improved by a service which connects my toilet to big data analytics in the cloud?

Taking this idea to its extreme, at the end of last year the BBC news website reported that “a smart sex toy maker has acknowledged that a bug with its app caused handsets to record and store sounds made while its vibrators were in use”.

The essential point of all these anecdotes is that the internet of things – or the internet of services – by definition collects information on your bathroom and bedroom habits, which lights you leave on when you are out of the room, and whether your connected fridge thinks you are running low on yogurt. And it sends this information somewhere else, where that data is out of your control.

You may not care whether a Russian hacker knows you have a guilty love for Muller Corners. But big data analysis can be useful for the bad guys, even if it is as simple as knowing that (1) you have run down the contents of your fridge and (2) your phone says you are at Gatwick Airport. Safe bet your home is going to be empty for a while.

Using the internet and the cloud as a way of adding intuitive control to a broadcast installation is a very attractive path. It can make a real difference. At ITV in the UK, for instance, channel marketers commission trailers, which are largely produced automatically. As soon as they are ready for sign-off, the commissioner gets a ping on his or her iPad: they can view them wherever they are, add notes and clear them for transmission. That is neat, effective and fast – a service which improves the way they work.

The internet offers a standardised, universally accessible means of control, whether you want to move a lighting hoist from the studio floor or you want to see what is on a server in PyeongChang from a gallery in Salford. Connected equipment will make our lives better, our operations more reliable and our outputs high quality.
Provided we make user interface choices based on services not things.

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Contributing Author Dick Hobbs - new

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