Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mirror mirror on the wall

One of the more interesting aspects of my recent trip was a visit to the Microsoft House. This is a long standing initiative of Bill’s redone every year or so, and meant to play with ideas of how technology can grow. The concept the current house is arranged around is there being no standard computers. No big box with a big screen and keyboard. It plays with a lot of ideas that are both exciting and a bit scary at the same time.

Some of the technologies will never make it out of the lab. Some will in ten year’s time, some are very close indeed. Take the smart mirror. One of the rooms in the house was a teenage girl’s room. It had a big floor length mirror in it. The mirror was actually just a big LCD screen with a reflective surface.

Now, you may not know this, but most cloths sold by the big retailers these days has imbedded in it a small RFID tag. This is a little microchip, flexible, washable, that activates when in range of a radio broadcast of a certain frequency. This frequency gives the little chip just enough power to broadcast back a small snippet of information. Retailers are starting to use these to track inventory both during the logistics process from factory to store, but also in tracking what’s in the store. Effectively all the cloths in a shop tell the shop they are there. These days the little chips effectively go silent once out of the shop, their job done.

However, that doesn’t mean they stop working. The premise of the smart mirror is that it knows all the cloths in your wardrobe. So, you hold out say, a blouse. A picture of the blouse then appears in the mirror. Below it suddenly appear a number of pictures of matching trousers and skirts. All which she owns, all of which are currently clean (the mirror can query what’s in the wash basket, or sitting drying in the laundry (useful things those RFID tags). What the “girl” of the room has done is told the mirror her preferences for colour or pattern matches, or accepted the manufacturer’s recommendations for matches. It could also know what she has recently worn, and only make recommendations based on cloths not used in the last week thus saving the girl the sin of overly worn goods. You could also bring up an image of the girl dressed in the various combinations. She doesn’t even need to try things on to test the recommendations.

Cool huh? I told LL about this and she wanted one right away, yesterday if possible. It’s a piece of technology that makes sense, adds value, brings usefulness to its owner’s lives. It’s a good thing.

Or is it? This technology also has a dark side. There are many scenarios for its use. The mirror could, quite easily, also show the girl matching options of what’s for sale in the shops. It could, properly networked, even allow her to order any of those cloths and have them show up the same day. This might be very cool for the girl, not so cool for the parents who have to shell out the money.

That also allows the shop to know about the girl’s wardrobe. They could know down to the last sock exactly what’s she’s got. With full access they could even know which one’s she’s worn, how often they’ve been washed, what they’ve been paired with. Very useful from a retail point of view. Suddenly you could have very rich data on what’s in or out, how it gets worn, how it gets washed. From a retailer point of view this is mana.

Washing machine manufacturors could know what clothing is being washed and how (oh, did I mention the washing machine that could automatically choose the right washing setting by knowing what cloths had been put in it). That would help them build better washers, understand what its users wanted.

Or, it could be interrogated by the police. They could find out everyone who was wearing a certain piece of clothing at a given time. Invaluable from a crime solving point of view. The list goes on and on.

To be fair to Microsoft, part of the role of the house is to invite debate. Not only in how the technology should be used, but also in the privacy debate. At what point is enough information too much? How and when should people be able to determine what the outside world knows about their lives. Its all well and good to have a mirror that knows about your cloths, but is it really that good to have the outside world know as well? Worth thinking about before you go out and buy one. Worth thinking about before you buy one, this is technology that will almost certainly hit the markets soon.


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