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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

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Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics


Home Automaddening Patrick Mannion

As an engineer and cautionary gadget freak it’s hard to not be excited by the recent activity around the Internet of Things (IoT) and home automation. It gives me hope that we’ll soon be able to connect the dots and make all these systems work together in concert so we can orchestrate a beautiful, harmonious symphony of technology. Then I wake up.

I return to a world where I have been conditioned by experience to distrust claims about ease of use. I can set up my own pretty complex home theater system, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why my receiver switches from the main HDMI 1 input setting to TV/STB for no apparent reason. It’s an intermittent problem that I can’t replicate; it just happens. I can switch back easily enough, so it’s not really a problem as such. But I make it a problem sometimes because my ego can’t stand that I can’t fix it.  “I got this, darnnit.” I used to say. But alas, I didn’t, and I still don’t. I have moved on, at least until it happens again.

A few weeks ago I got a call from my brother-in-law. I had set up a truly sweet home theater system for him. Likely the first in the country with Atmos 11-channel surround sound. It worked beautifully after some tweaking. He called to say that he’d had to bypass the receiver and go directly from his components to the TV because sound was no longer coming out of the receiver.

He was frustrated. I was curious. I got to his home that weekend and spent the first 20 minutes checking formats, outputs and inputs after first checking power was fine. Nothing. Everything should have worked. Finally, I applied my 30 odd years of computer and technology experience and unplugged the receiver for three minutes, and plugged it back in. Everything worked beautifully again. Voila. I’ve gone from zero to hero in three minutes flat. “That’ll be $600 please,” I joked. He kind of laughed, and shook his head belatedly.

How many tech neophytes shake their head every day after purchasing a new gadget that should work out of the box, and doesn’t? More often than not they do work, but then there’s a glitch. It’s funny how the troubleshooting guides never seem to have your particular problem. In truth, if it weren’t for the Internet’s ability to connect questions with answers, none of this stuff would last a month. It would be in the garbage heap. In many cases it’s the Internet that’s keeping this tech revolution going, not good code or great product design. Except for my Sonos. That works beautifully.

I do malign our cars though. My wife’s car automatically locks the doors 15 seconds after it’s been opened remotely from the house. I can’t count how often we’ve unlocked the car door thinking we were ready, only to find we had something else to do. The kids get impatient, so we yell in frustration, “Go out to the car and wait.” They go out, and yell back, “The car’s locked.” Aaargh! Who set that bloomin’ timer to 15 seconds? Don’t they have kids? Don’t they ever have to go back inside to get something after leaving the house? Do they have real lives?

On my own car, my cellphone automatically calls out whenever I sit in it. No one, not even the dealer, can figure out why. So I just turn it off when it dials out. Accept it, I say. The price of progress. I’ve also accepted that the Bluetooth will never play audio back from my Android phone nor will the front AUX input work to the car’s system. It’s a new car. It should work. I’ll bring it to the dealer, again, someday.

I am excited about my microwave though: it ‘bakes’ the potatoes perfectly. Nice and fluffy. No nutrition left, of course, but salt, pepper and butter are nutritious, right?

Apple, Google, Cisco, Samsung, Intel, Qualcomm and almost everyone involved in technology or software are all eager to make our homes and lives easier. There will be many successes to cover up the many failures, and many users communing online into the wee hours of the morning or calling family to figure out the problems.

It’s exciting to watch it all unfold; I was writing about how exciting it was earlier today when I had to do a reinstall of Office on my Mac. Easy enough. I downloaded the file and went to install, but it couldn’t. Two files were active and they wouldn’t shut down. I went to a Mac forum and got the two magic lines of code that had to be entered in ‘Terminal’ mode to get the files to stay inactive and then reactivate after the install. Whew, just two hours wasted. Could have been worse.

I am still excited though. Excited, but also a bit sympathetic toward those who truly don’t know the first thing about technology and the home auto-maddening that’s coming their way. No pain, no gain!

 



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Patrick Mannion is Founder and Managing Director of ClariTek, LLC, engineering and editorial services company. After graduating with a National Diploma in Electronic Engineering from the Dundalk Institute of Technology, he worked for three years in the industry before starting a career in b-to-b media and events. He has been analyzing and writing about engineering, technology, design and the electronics industry for 25 years.

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