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Solutions in search of a problem

One of the challenges we face is that we frequently get really interesting solutions in search of a problem. Or put it another way, there is some cool technology but we don’t know how to put it to use in a productive way. This is a common problem with invention. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph (at the time, a wax cylinder capable of recording sound). He thought that the target market for this idea was for terminally ill people who could record their last will and testament. (you can tell he was an engineer and not a marketing person: not much of a repeat customer base here). :-) Sometimes you just need to come up with the better problem (e.g. people want to listen to music on-demand).Here are some others that we’ve come across. Any ideas on what problems they’d solve?Home automation: I can turn off appliances, measure their energy consumption, automate certain activities (e.g. turn off all the lights at night). But given that it’s often much more effective to add insulation, buy double-glazed windows, or replace an old appliance with a newer one (more energy efficient)-why bother with automation when I can do the things I just mentioned and can turn things off when I’m done?Thin client computing: Not that the problem of complexity and data loss on PCs aren’t real, it’s just that as the PC keeps getting cheaper all the time, are people really willing to give up on a fully-featured PC vs a terminal?RFID: Bar codes work pretty well in controlled environments (like warehouses), and RFID read accuracy is not (yet) good enough to make it in noisy places. Active RFID (with batteries) works better--but batteries wear out so then the tags go dark.I’m not trying to appear as a doom-and-gloom naysayer--I’m by nature a technology optimist and believe that sooner or later some (or all) of these will ‘pop’. Feel free to ask my opinion on any of your favorite ‘unloved’ technologies!

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3 Comments.


  1. I think home automation is very interesting. There seems to be two perspectives, 1. to make things more convienent and 2. to save energy. I think about the things in my home and where I could use the automation. I already have a set back thermomer on the heating system. What if that could be coupled to remote probes that could open and close dampers to regulate the heat more evenly? Now tie in a RFID tag or infrared sensor to detect where people were and make those areas more comfortable and other areas less heated. This could also draw upon heat stores created as a result of extra heat generated from refrigeration or heat of the day. These would be stored in insulated tanks of water and called upon to augment the heat system. If time of day pricing where used also, optimum heat and cost models could be maintained.Some household appliance consume energy even when not in use. Shutdown of these through non-use and then reactivation when used could be a savings. If your heating costs could be used as input and linked with insulation providers to show the time to recover the investments, this would provide needed information to make the decision to do the work. If a standard procedure where used and economic incentives where provided, overall consumption could be reduced thus reducing the costs. These savings would then become the repayment of the loaned monies.

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  2. WRT Home automation. I see this as a supporting technology that won’t take off until we can get some intelligence into the whole thing. I mean intelligence beyond turning the lights on when you are in the room. I think iRobot is on the right track, with a robot that can be programmed to vacuum at a certain time on a certain day, but that is just convenience. Energy producers have differential energy pricing for industrial clients, if this moves into the consumer market then I think that might drive home automation. For example, if the producers price energy consumed during low-demand cheaper for consumers, then it would be nice to be able to take advantage of that by having your pre-loaded washing machine, or dish washer, start when prices are lower. I’m hoping that energy pricing might drive new technology in home automation, and move us partially from an on-demand power need to a more balanced load in the home.

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  3. My power company just started offering incentives to customers, for reduced power consumption. The catch is that you must have reduced consumption on the specific days they designate, but the dates aren’t set. The power company is only giving a couple of days notice when they decide to have a reduced consumption day. For me, it’s too much of a hassle to keep track of it, and change my air conditioning settings, shut down computers, shunt my Tivo recordings and downloads to another day if possible, etc. However, if I could automate the process, and use an RSS feed or an email from my power company to trigger it, I would definitely cash in on the incentives.

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