Connected door knobs are lying to us

This week’s podcast was all about security and how we can design things to tell us more about how connectivity changes them from mere appliances into networked computers — and all the risks that can bring. John Kestner, a principle with Supermechanical, a design firm that builds connected devices including the Range thermometer (pictured above) and the Twine sensor, was my guest for the show, and we chatted about how he designed those products with security in mind.

But it got far more interesting in the latter half of the interview (around 48:30) when he started talking about how to design products that convey their new status as a connected device.

“Consumer electronics are magic. There’s really no transparency. It’s really hard to gain any kind of mental model as to what’s happening, Kestner said. “At least when we used Ethernet, we knew when something was connected to the network or not. We could physically unplug it if we wanted.”

But now we don’t have any sense that a device is different with the exception of maybe an LED or that it runs out of batteries every now and then. Kestner wonders if that makes people less likely to wonder what makes the device different and makes them also less likely to want to educate themselves about those differences, such as the security implications. He then wondered how and if we should change the design to offer a sort of warning to consumers that the new, connected version of their old fixtures had different capabilities.

“Maybe there’s a bit of disconnect in making objects look exactly like the objects they are displacing. That’s of course, doing its job in making the customer feel comfortable with its replacement. ‘Oh it’s a familiar object,’ but you don’t want them to feel too comfortable because there are dangers that come with this,” he said.

As to what that is, though, he wasn’t sure. LEDs might make sense, or perhaps an entirely new form of design sensibility and vocabulary that we implement for connectivity that becomes synonymous with conveying the kind of information consumers should know about connected devices. If you guys think of it, please let Kestner know.

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The first silicene transistors promise more powerful electronics

If electronics stalwart silicon and futuristic graphene had a child, it would be silicene. And silicene is growing up. A University of Texas-Austin engineer has made the first transistors from silicene, moving the material closer to its potential to create more powerful devices.

Silicene is made of an atom-thick layer of silicon that, like graphene, can move data much faster than the silicon found in current electronics. While it lacks some of graphene’s other impressive qualities and is still extremely difficult to make, researchers are interested in it because of its relationship to silicon. Modern electronics rely on a highly developed silicon-manufacturing industry. Once silicene production is more reliable, it wouldn’t be as complicated or expensive to switch to silicene as it would be to switch to graphene.

Deji Akinwande, the UT-Austin researcher behind the new transistors, had to overcome some nasty hurdles. After growing silicene on a wafer, he had to store it in a vacuum to prevent it from degrading. That probably wouldn’t be possible in a commercially available device.

It’s unclear if silicene, graphene or some other two dimensional material (or none at all) will win the war among the most newfangled materials to become the future building block of the tech industry. But Akinwande’s silicene transistors did confirm the material’s impressive electrical properties: Electrons move through it with seemingly no resistance. With data moving that fast, you can make some powerful computers.

3D Printing: hype, hope or threat?

Anyone who reads the new Gigaom Research report, 3D Printing: hype, hope or threat?,  will be taken through a deflation of the hype to the hope of the technology, likely wondering:

  • Is the technology and the market really that problematic?
  • Is the impact really that far off, if so many industries have already found practical application?

But after he awakens his readers to the scope of the disruptive threat with actual examples across industries (after general prototyping, he sees logistics, toys, apparel, autos and electronics among the sectors being hit first), analyst Adam Sinnreich ultimately rewards them with insightful concluding recommendations, including the following:

  • Embrace the makers. That is, be like Nokia and offer the early 3-D geeks in on the potential to include your products when possible in the 3-D hackers’ world. Further, if possible, try to hire such a geek internally, as part of your technical team.
  • Give consumers the best of both worlds. That is, look to use the technology to enhance and augment your traditionally-supplied products.
  • Don’t just sell. Look to the experience in the entertainment sector to realize that you will likely no longer be selling products as much as services and experiences, with a transformation of what business you are in.
  • Protect (and grow) your assets. 3D printing creates all sorts of opportunities to lose–or gain–control over your branding and image.

Acer’s shakeup runs deeper as president resigns, founder takes over

Earlier this month, Acer announced a hard reset: With unexpected, staggering losses in Q3, the company would move forward without CEO JT Wang. At the time, it was understood that Acer President Jim Wong would take over Wang’s responsibilities, but a report from Reuters says that Wong has stepped down, to be replaced by founder Stan Shih. Shih has also been elected the new chairman, and will likely oversee the company’s promised “Transformation Advisory Committee” in hopes to get back on track. The role of CEO has apparently gotten the axe as well — concentrating all the power to Shih for the company’s next moves.

Intel to open brick-and-mortar pop-up stores this month

Perhaps in an effort to gain a little more buzz (and holiday sales), Laptop Magazine reports that Intel will be opening a series of pop-up stores this month, starting in New York City’s Nolita neighborhood on November 23. Intel has yet to disclose exactly what will be shown off in the stores, but the company has already stressed that the locations will be temporary — they are all set to shut down on January 14 of next year. It may be just a publicity stunt, but it’ll be interesting to see how another computer company does retail.