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12 Months Later: How Consumer Tech Has Responded to the Pandemic

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

One year on from a wave of global lockdowns, consumer tech companies around the world are beginning to reflect on how well they adapted to seismic changes in customer needs.

Many of them had to pivot their offering overnight to address heightened concerns and values around hygiene, health, home and wellness. However, in the process, some have rushed down the path of developing solutions which address short term opportunities, rather than longer term needs.

This has led to product launches which champion style over substance –failing to realize the potential in how new technologies can enhance, rather than undermine, how we will live in the near future.

Last year, we noted that technology for the home which fosters our sense of comfort, wellbeing and community was still lacking in many respects. With a totally different landscape one year on, brands are being presented with more opportunities and challenges to integrate meaning into technology than ever before. We've collected a few examples of these below, with suggestions for how brands and developers can chart the best course forward.

Can robots really provide meaningful companionship?

The Samsung Bot Handy

The coronavirus pandemic has brought new urgency and weight to the other, often unseen, global pandemic: feelings of loneliness and isolation. Whilst many view tech as being part of the problem, the last 12 months have also seen an array of brands using AI and robotics to try and solve it – with varying degrees of success.

Samsung's Bot Handy, showcased at CES 2021, claims to provide a 'trusted partner to help with household chores' and can even pour you a glass of wine. But after we've all spent the best part of a year socially isolated, never more than an arm's reach away from a device, would our first choice of company really be a robot?

Similarly, UK robotics company Moley have launched a fully automated kitchen companion that creates personalized meals from scratch. It's a novel idea, but by outsourcing the seemingly mundane task of preparing daily meals, are we perhaps removing essential parts of the human and family experience?

The MOFLIN is an example of the cuddlier side of AI pets available today

On the other hand, we've also seen new examples of robots which provide essential care and companionship for when human contact is not possible. MOFLIN, an example of a growing category of AI pets, received a CES Best of Innovation this year. It combines tactile features that provide true comfort – texture, sound and movement – with an intelligent algorithm that learns from behavior. In this instance, robots are being used in place of human contact successfully to provide companionship and comfort, in an age where loneliness affects so many.

As the capabilities of robotics expand across all aspects of everyday life, their place in human culture and frames of meaning will diversify. As a result, it's critical that brands and developers properly interrogate which features will provide genuine benefit to human life and invest in solutions that dial up the human experience, not limit it. And while the pandemic has forced many physical experiences to go online, it's also made us realize that there are some interactions that just cannot, and perhaps should not, be digitalized so quickly.

How clean is too clean for our homes?

Toto's NEOREST NX toilet sterilizes the bowl using UV light once a day

The practices of sterilization, previously reserved for surgical and clinical environments, are increasingly being adopted in the home environment. The pandemic has increased consumers' awareness of hygiene and safety, with many brands responding with materials and technologies which elevate 'clean' to a new level. One place sterility in the home is being accentuated and more broadly accepted is in the expanding category of 'smart toilets'.

Toto's NEOREST NX toilet now incorporates Actilight, a feature which uses UV light reduce contaminants in the bowl once a day, relying on a combination of light, oxygen and water rather than harsh chemicals. In future products, Toto are looking to incorporate sensors into their toilets which collect data about usage and analyse deposits, informing health and diet recommendations through a connected app.

However, it seems to cross a line for some who view it as intrusive and unnecessary, with established concerns about big data and privacy driving rejection of the intimacy these 'smart' devices demand. Moreover, there is also a growing consumer understanding of the beneficial roles different microbes play. The colonies that live in our guts and on our skin have a huge positive impact on our physical health and mental wellbeing. Is 'sterile' too clean for our homes?

Product developers need to be wary of using technology for technology's sake and be careful to suggest the right applications for cutting edge solutions. Something more suitable for a hospital environment or diagnosis application needs careful consideration before it can find a lasting place in homes.

How can smart home devices intelligently support wellness?

Another intelligent toilet example, albeit with a less clinical approach, is Kohler's Numi 2.0, which advocates for an individualized experience in the bathroom. Although some might see the Amazon Alexa integration as a step too far, it does enable mood setting features which help create bespoke bathroom environments.

However, it's additional features which enable greater levels of hygiene - think touchless flushing – which have been especially well received in light of the pandemic and seem to strike the right balance between cleanliness and comfort.

The Kohler Stillness Bath

Aware that the pandemic has impacted our mental health as well as our physical health, Kohler also unveiled the Stillness bath. Based on the concept of Japanese forest bathing, the bath utilizes multiple features to provide a calming, spa-like experience in the home. CEO David Kohler described it as providing 'a point of relaxing and de-stressing in what's been a globally stressful year', empathizing the importance of wellness and cleaning rituals as an act of self-care, not purely a quest to disinfect oneself.

When it comes to our homes, it is crucial that the real need behind new smart tech is properly considered – how does this technology support or improve who we are at home? Does it protect our privacy and security when we're behind our front doors? Are the rituals that define family culture nurtured or abandoned in the name of progress?

Too many smart home 'solutions' wrongly prioritize data collection, speed and convenience, when slowing things down, adapting to real life contextual need and enhancing human interactions are often what we really want systems in our homes to do.

The full depth and meaning of the human experience of home must be far better understood if we are to unlock the kind of innovation that will resonate with people and endure change; products, services and systems that are not only bright, shiny and desirable but culturally and environmentally vital.

Despite the huge upheavals of the pandemic, brands need to strike a careful balance between addressing consumer's increased concern about hygiene and wellness, versus our essential need for a safe, calm and relaxing home environment that soothes, rather than heightens, feelings of fear, anxiety or isolation.


Guy Who "Can't Draw" is Actually a Genius Artist, Raises $83k for Charity

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

"Rubbish Pet Portraits" isn't a promising name for a picture book. But the UK-based guy behind them is obviously more of an artist than he lets on. Hercule van Wolfwinkle (God I hope that's his real name!) writes that last year he was making some "thank you" cards with his six-year-old son. "I just doodled a couple of pictures of our dog [on them]--they were really rubbish, I'm not an artist and have never really drawn in my life."

"As a joke, I uploaded the two pictures to my Facebook page with a jokey comment about Pet Portraits being for sale for just £299. No VAT."

The images got shared…and then actual requests started coming in.

Long story short, van Wolfwinkle took all comers, using it as an opportunity to raise money for a local homeless charity. His Facebook page, Pet Portraits By Hercule, features hundreds of illustrations. And I think the guy's a brilliant artist, with a fantastic sense of proportion, gesture and style that's intentionally clownish:

To date he's raised £59,554 (USD $82,894!) for the charity, and the book comes out this May. See more of his work here.



Love Hultén's Take on the Original Apple I Housing

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

The original Apple I computer that went on sale in 1976 was essentially a single PC board.

By ArnoldReinhold, CC BY-SA 4.0

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had no employees nor design chops, so it was up to the end user to source a box to keep it in, and a keyboard and a TV to plug it into. Thus surviving examples of the I are pretty ad hoc:

By Ed Uthman

By Binarysequence - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Image source

By Cynde Moya - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

For his APLE project, Love Hultén re-imagines what the Apple I would've looked like, had he been the designer onboard:

I'm digging the pull-out drawer to access the board, but having those knobs and switches on the back of the monitor housing would drive me nuts.

Oakley Designs Facemask with Eyewear Channel to Prevent Fogging Your Glasses

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

If there's any object whose design has been significantly advanced by the pandemic, it's the facemask. But for all the crowdfunded and corporate-backed designs we've seen, none seems to have addressed the issue of fogging one's eyewear--except this design by Oakley.

Their MSK3 has been thoughtfully designed with an eyewear channel for glasses to nest in, and a silicon gasket that prevents your breath from drifting up beneath your eyewear.

Here's a video detailing the features:

As with most Oakley products, that level of design attention comes at a cost, in this case $60. Even so, the mask is so popular that it's currently sold out.


New Windowless Taco Bell On Stilts Design is Result of "Auto-Dominated Market Forces"

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

I used to live quite close to this windowless architectural oddity:

Image left: CC BY 2.0 / Image right: By Dhaluza at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5

That's 33 Thomas Street, a/k/a the AT&T Long Lines Building, located in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood. The window-free 55-story behemoth was built in the 1960s to house telephone line equipment in a highly secure environment. (Nowadays it's rumored to house TITANPOINTE, a secret NSA mass surveillance hub.)

Surprisingly, the use of windowless, visually impenetrable architecture to conceal equipment has now been taken up by…Taco Bell. As the pandemic has shifted many fast food chains to takeout-only, Taco Bell parent company Border Foods is betting that customers have grown to prefer it. Thus the new Taco Bell outpost in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, has no dining room, and is basically a windowless fast food factory on stilts:

"The building will have a contemporary look using architectural metal panels, glass, and block," reads a document submitted to the city's planning commission. "The building is designed to screen all the restaurant's mechanical equipment."

Upstairs, unseen workers will prepare the food, expected to be ordered via app. The bulk of the building's footprint at ground level is taken up by four drive-thru lanes. As customers pull up to the dispensing points, the food is delivered down to them via dumbwaiter. There is no human face-to-face contact.

However, one of the drive-thru lanes will be the traditional kind, with food ordered on-site through an intercom, and dispensed via a window by a human employee. Additionally, there is some allowance for car-free customers:

"Even though the building is responding to auto-dominated market forces, a person could easily walk or bike to the site to order inside."The first floor will have a small indoor counter for in-person walk-up ordering. There is no dining inside [nor outside]. A smaller kitchen will service this counter as well as the traditional drive-up lane."

It will be interesting to see if this pandemic-inspired, car-friendly type of architecture takes root. And I figure the bean counters will be thrilled to save on both Windex and uniforms; if no one can see the workers, perhaps they'll be clothed in branding-free, colorless, inexpensive but hygienic jumpsuits.

When MIT Engineers Design a Power Tool Accessory

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

Reekon Tools is a Boston-based company started by MIT engineers. Their inaugural product is the M1 Caliber, a measuring tool you're meant to clamp to a miter saw fence:

Here's how they envision the tool being used:

For repetitive cuts, I can't see this being faster than a stop block. For a series of non-repetitive cuts, I wonder how this would affect your average builder's workflow. For instance, the phrase "Measure twice, cut once" would not apply here, as there's no measuring and marking step; instead the builder would have to keep the number front and center in their mind as they make each cut--doesn't that mean they'd have to continually refer to notes or a blueprint, which might become cumbersome? I wonder if it truly would be faster and easier in the long run, versus having time set aside to mark, measure and double-check.

In any case, the demand for this device is apparently quite high: It was successfully crowdfunded by 25,286 backers, to the tune of $3.2 million. The device runs $130 a pop.

A Clever German Toymaking Method of Making Non-Circular Objects--With a Lathe

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

"Who…would imagine for a moment that a wooden horse, elephant, or tiger, or any other member of the Noah's Ark family, could be turned in a lathe, like a ball, bowl, or bedpost?" wrote Charles Dickens in an 1865 issue of All the Year Round, the magazine he founded in Victorian England.

The article, uncovered by writer Jeff Burks and republished on the Lost Art Press blog, details the ingenuity of traditional German toymakers in the Tyrol (which is located in present-day Austria). Dickens describes the clever trick they came up with in great detail, but the accompanying images Burks adds from an 1869 issue of The Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette sums it up nicely:

Here's a shot of the real thing from the UK's Horniman Museum & Gardens:

What's even more interesting is that the animals aren't sawed out of the piece, but are individually split, which seems a good deal faster:

Full production video below.

via TYWKIWDBI


There's a Town in Italy Shaped Like a Person

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

In the province of Enna, Sicily, lies the mountain town of Centuripe, seen here on Google Maps:


Here's what it looks like from a closer aerial view:


I wonder if the residents refer to the location of their homes as being in the torso, head, crotch, et cetera. I also wonder which they'd consider the left and right arms and legs; I see the figure as facedown, but perhaps others see it as face-up. Maybe a glass-half-full kind of thing.


Hyundai Fulfills "No Visual Continuity" Promise, Rolls Out New IONIQ 5

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

Hyundai's new design strategy, which involves having no visual continuity across models, is officially reality. This week they unveiled their IONIQ 5, an all-electric CUV that no resemblance to any other Hyundai, and sticks surprisingly close to the 45 concept car it's based on:


I'm not crazy about the design--I could've done without the Zorro slash on the sides--but I find it refreshingly clean, at least compared to the CAD spaghetti common with other CUVs.

I admire what Hyundai's trying to do. It takes guts to attempt creating a diversity of aesthetics under a single brand, at least in the auto space. And given BMW's recent strategy--they've doubled down on a maligned aesthetic, seemingly betting the entire brand on a derided front end--Hyundai's approach of spreading out the risk, so to speak, looks like a smarter approach.

One thing I should mention: The designers have given the front seats an extreme reclining feature…

…which makes me wonder if they're preparing for what front seats will do once cars go autonomous.

The IONIQ 5 will hit dealerships this fall, and we'll be watching the sales figures with great interest.


A 3D-Printed Mirror Holder to Make 3D Scanning with an iPhone Easier

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

The ScanMira is this little 3D-printed doodad that holds a mirror:

Used in concert with an iPhone that has face recognition and your 3D scanning app of choice, the ScanMira is simply meant to make holding the phone a little easier while you circumnavigate the object.

The developers, who have launched a Kickstarter campaign, are also selling a turntable and offering these 3D-printed "tracking pyramids" to make scanning objects with rotational symmetry easier.

The campaign has been successfully funded, and there's 3 days left to pledge. Buy-in starts at $28.

Rent Nightly Tiny House Getaways in Nature, With Most Items Provided

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

Assuming they're making a profit, a company called Getaway has a brilliant business to be running during a pandemic.

A lot of people living in cities will fantasize about living out in the country. And the financial lure of doing this in an affordable tiny house is strong. But what would it really be like? Here's a way to find out.

What Getaway has done is set up a series of tiny houses, out in nature, near major cities: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Cleveland, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh, Portland, Raleigh, San Antonio and Washington, DC.

They've then stocked these with everything you'd need for basic comfort: Queen-sized beds, A/C and heat, running and potable water, private in-house bathrooms with actual toilets and hot showers, a mini-fridge, a stove, pots and pans, dishes, cutlery.

Outside you've got a firepit, grilling utensils and a picnic table.

Firewood and basic provisions like coffee and tea are provided, but these are done on a hotel minibar model--where they stock it, and charge you for what you take. Additionally, basic foodstuffs like pasta, oatmeal and soup can be purchased as a kit.

Notably absent from the provided list: Internet service and a TV.

"There is no WiFi," says the FAQ, "and never will be."

Cell service is also spotty, they say, and depending on the region may not be available at all.


While Getaway doesn't refer to their structures as tiny houses, that is in effect what they are: 140- to 200-square-foot buildings with everything inside. One downside is that while the structures are standalone getaways, the sites aren't; other Getaway tiny houses are 50 to 150 feet away, and they don't say how many are on each site.

Prices vary by location. Out of curiosity I checked the prices for the outside-of-NYC location, and they ranged from $180 to $370 per night with two adults, one bed.

Check 'em out here.


Yea or Nay? An Angled Whiteboard That Goes Between the Keyboard and Monitor

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

On my desk I keep some junk mail envelopes and a stack of printouts from recent freelance gigs. I jot notes, ideas or sketches on the back of these. It's hardly an elegant system--in fact it's a bit messy--but at least it extends the utility of the already-spent paper.

A company called Fluidstance, however, is guessing you'd rather have a tidy little whiteboard front and center. Their Slope--"inspired by an open, groomed ski run," they romantically write--is an angled piece of powder-coated steel meant to live between your monitor stand and keyboard (ideally in a Russian doll configuration, at least when you buy their Raise monitor stand).


The 3-pound object contacts the desk surface on felt bumpers and has a channel up top to hold your smartphone, writing utensils and the spare cash you keep on hand to buy things like this. It comes with a dry-erase pen (and for $60, it better).

There's also a $90 version that comes with a built-in wireless charger.



I like that this is clean-looking and I can see its utility, but I couldn't bring myself to buy one. What say you, yea or nay? Useful object that you'd get your money's worth out of, or just more stuff?

Amazon Co-Opts Crowdfunding Model to Launch "Smart" Sticky Note Printer

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

Crowdfunding platforms were originally intended to let broke creators attract funding. As they've grown, the model has been hijacked by already-established businesses and even rich corporations simply seeking to minimize their risk through pre-orders.

Add Amazon to this list. Despite having a market capitalization of roughly $1.6 trillion, the company has launched Day 1 Editions, their own version of Kickstarter. Day 1 Editions is a list of product design concepts that customers can pre-order at a discount, and if the amount of orders reaches Amazon's self-set target (which is not enumerated; a vague progress bar is displayed on each campaign page), they put the object into production. It then becomes available to non-pledgers at a higher price.

The first to reach the threshold is the Amazon Smart Sticky Note Printer, which uses their Alexa digital assistant to let you dictate notes that the machine then spits out. In order to work, it must be connected to a "compatible" (read: late-model) Amazon Echo device. All hail the ecosystem.


While the able-bodied among us don't find writing sticky notes particularly onerous, I suppose the product ought have utility for those with disabilities, arthritis or similar. And at least the printer is thermal, so it doesn't require ink or toner.

The pre-ordered units run $90, jumping up to $115 after March 19th.

The other concepts Amazon's put forth for consideration are a "Smart" Nutrition Scale and a "Smart" Cuckoo Clock (I'm not kidding).



With the clock, I'm guessing some from younger generations might wonder why Amazon has designed a clock that features the Twitter logo.


Cool Mechanical Jelly Donut Filling Device

Core 77 - 11 hours 44 min ago

I don't know if there's such a thing as a "standard" jelly donut filler, but if you look at restaurant supply websites, you'll see this one pop up:

I'm sure it works fine, but I don't like the UI, where you have to stick the donut onto the sideways-protruding syringe. It seems brutish. I think a much better, and undoubtedly faster, design is this one:

Spotted (where else?) at r/specializedtools.


USPS Unveils their Next Generation Mail Truck Design

Core 77 - Mon, 2021-03-01 05:01

The last time we saw a proposed design for the U.S. Postal Service's NGDV (Next Generation Delivery Vehicle), it looked like this:

That was in 2018, and the design was so all-over-the-place that industrial designer Michael DiTullo dedicated a sketch video to revising it.

However, it turns out that the design above, by Turkish manufacturer Karsan, was not ultimately selected by the USPS. Instead, yesterday they announced that they're going with this model by Oshkosh Defense, a manufacturer of tactical vehicles:

I actually like the design--at least for its application. It's a postal truck, so it looking friendly and a bit goofy doesn't bug me. And if you look at the way the hood drops off on either side, I'd say the driver probably has an unparalleled view of the front corners, compared to any other motor vehicle, lowering the chances they'll run over the family pet. (The 360-degree camera system ought help with this, too.)

The new NGDVs are supposed to roll out in 2023. One thing they've yet to decide is what they'll be powered by; the USPS says "The vehicles will be equipped with either fuel-efficient internal combustion engines or battery electric powertrains and can be retrofitted to keep pace with advances in electric vehicle technologies." If they do go electric, I'm curious what the sound design will be--hopefully it will sound better than that Rivian delivery van does.


A Company Called Dangerous Things Sells RFID Chips You Can Inject or Surgically "Install" in Your Body

Core 77 - Mon, 2021-03-01 05:01

A Seattle-based company called DangerousThings.com sells small NFC, RFID and NTAG chips that you can inject into your body, via a syringe and a big-ass 5mm-diameter needle that they also sell.


They also offer this larger, programmable FlexMN Magic NTAG chip that can be "installed" by slicing your hand open and placing it beneath the skin. For extra bling, the chip has embedded LED lights that can be seen through your skin.

"The flexMN transponder has not been tested or certified by any regulatory agency for implantation or use inside the human body," the company writes. "Use of this device is strictly at your own risk."

While the company recommends "professional installation" for the FlexMN, they also sell scalpels, a "numbing gel" topical anesthetic and a Pain Management Kit consisting of "a collection of materials biohackers have been known to use in concert to produce a localized anesthetic pain blocking effect." The kid includes Lidocaine.


If you're curious to see photos of the "installation" process, there are some moderately graphic images here. I won't include them in this post, to avoid triggering the squeamish.

As for why you'd want to do this: The unnamed company founder--who's not just the owner, but also a client--demonstrates some usage cases below:

Unlocking a smart door:

Unlocking your computer:

Starting your car or motorcycle:

"We believe our bodies are our own, to do with what we want," the company writes. "Biohacking is leading the next phase of human evolution, and we're excited to be a part of it."

All I can say is, to each their own.


Smart Design: Sustainable "Doormats" for Construction Truck Tires to Comply with Environmental Regulations

Core 77 - Mon, 2021-03-01 05:01

The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) is an EPA initiative to keep our waters clean, by controlling contaminants at their source. To prevent pollution and debris from flowing into our rivers, lakes and oceans, NPDES regulations require municipalities, factories and construction sites "to prevent stormwater runoff from washing harmful pollutants into local surface waters."

Adhering to this regulation is particularly tricky on construction sites, which tend to get muddy. If trucks leave the site with their tires covered in mud--which may contain chemicals and other pollutants from construction processes--and track that mud all over the surrounding roads, they have violated the regulations, and can have their NPDES permit yanked.

Photo by Aubrey Odom on Unsplash

This is why you often see construction site entrances paved with gravel or even sheets of plywood; they serve as "doormats" for the muddy truck tires, cleaning them off before they take to the roads. But the gravel and plywood are single-use, single-site solutions; they cannot easily be rinsed off and taken to the next jobsite. Thus using them is wasteful.

To solve this, a Colorado-based company called FODS (Foreign Object Debris System) has designed their Trackout Control Mats, "the only durable, cost-saving, and environmentally friendly reusable construction entrance mat solution available," they write. "Our proprietary mat design works effectively to remove mud and sediment from your vehicle tires without damaging the tire or the ground's surface."

The mats are 7' x 12' sheets of HDPE with pyramids molded into the top.


"These alternating rows of pyramids are specifically engineered to open a tire's lugs as vehicles pass over, causing the mud to loosen and fall out into the base of each mat. The mud collects at the base of the mat preventing it from reaching the street. It will not come in contact with the tires of subsequent vehicles, preventing mud, debris, and other pollutants from leaving a worksite and entering roadways or stormwater systems."

Once transported to site, the mats are arranged into a roadway and bolted together with steel hardware.



After the job's done, the mats can be cleaned off with a streetsweeper, a broom attachment on a skid steer or even a pressure washer.

The ultra-durable mats--which weigh 430 pounds each and can support 250,000 pounds on a single sheet--can be used over and over again.

At the end of their life, the HDPE mats are fully recyclable.

I just wish someone made a doormat for shoes that's this effective. It's muddy season here on the farm, and I've yet to find a doormat that can keep us from tracking mud into the house.


Old Carpenter's Trick: Using Steel Wool as a Stud Finder

Core 77 - Mon, 2021-03-01 05:01

Dominic Wilbrink reveals a clever trick for finding studs (assuming they're behind sheetrock) without needing a stud finder. The low-cost, no-marks-left method uses nothing more than steel wool:

As luck would have it, the current DIY household project has me looking for studs...but in a ceiling.

Need Inspiration? Check Out This New Visual Search Engine

Core 77 - Mon, 2021-03-01 05:01

Same Energy is a new visual search engine that's like Pinterest and Google's "visually similar images" function on steroids. You drag and drop an image, then the AI-driven enginer instantly feeds you thousands of other images not just featuring the same object or environment type, but with the same "vibe." And all on an endless scroll.

"We believe that image search should be visual, using only a minimum of words," writes developer Jacob Jackson. "And we believe it should integrate a rich visual understanding, capturing the artistic style and overall mood of an image, not just the objects in it."

Because I can't full-screen an endless scroll image here, it's difficult for me to show you just how effective the site is. But here are some quick tests I did:


Try it out for yourself here.