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Right now I want to burn my connected home to the ground

My household is not on the bleeding edge of technology early adoption, but we’re usually in the first wave. So, when my husband switched in a new router for the one provided by our cable/internet company, I knew that we would have a lot of devices to update. At last count, those include:

  • 2 actively used laptops
  • 2 Android smartphones
  • 1 Amazon Echo
  • 3 WeMo outlets
  • 2 Nest thermostats
  • 1 Chromecast
  • 1 Fire TV stick
  • 1 printer
  • and heaven knows what else I’ve overlooked so far

Switching to a new WiFi network on a smartphone or laptop is a simple task, but connected home devices that lack a GUI are a different story. Each one follows a different process, usually involving both physically resetting the device and doing a new configuration via app or website. The Nest thermostat does have a GUI, but entering new network credentials requires the user to twist the dial back and forth like a safe cracker. It’s amusing, the first time.

I started working down the list. Laptop and phone, easy. Echo? Easy too. That’s when the fun stopped. The Nests refused to connect to the new network. The WeMo outlets, which are finicky in the best of situations, also choked. Dammit. The troubleshooting began. All have updated firmware? Check. I’m not mistyping the 10-character password? Nope. I started going through online forums and found something about 2.4 Ghz… huh? I’m not a Luddite, but my husband has taken care of our network for years and I didn’t know what I was dealing with. I sent him a message. I may have used some adult language. I asked if the new router broadcasts the same as the old one (not really having any idea what I was saying) and he muttered something about new security profiles.

Then, a short while later, he found the answer. Nest and WeMo devices don’t play well with dual band routers. In layman’s terms, they pick up both 2.4 and 5 Ghz transmissions, but their antennae aren’t “smart” enough to distinguish between them and talk back on the 2.4 band, which is the only one they can use. Tonight he’ll set up the two radios to have different SSIDs, so those devices can deal exclusively with the 2.4 Ghz frequency. Tomorrow I’ll try to move them to the new network, again, and then continue the list. [Update: phones, my laptop, and the Echo connected beautifully to the high speed band. The Nests and Kindles connected to the lower speed. The WeMo outlets? They had to be manually reset to factory default, which was a bitch, but we finally got them connected to the 2.4 Ghz band. I’ll tackle the rest tomorrow.]

There have been so many connected home devices on sale this holiday season; today I’m just grateful that my parents haven’t been tempted to buy any. No Mom, you do not need a WiFi connected crockpot. Heck, I have no idea why my otherwise awesome Anova sous vide cooker bothers having a Bluetooth connection. We don’t need to connect ALL THE THINGS.

IFTTT has great potential but is far from plug and play, and each time one technology in the network moves forward, it threatens to break every carefully constructed connection. Sometimes things that you think must work together, obviously, do not. Disenchanted with our Chromecast, I recently bought a Fire TV stick. I like its onscreen interface, but the TV is very slow to switch sources to it and the reason we replaced our router was Fire buffering. I’m warily optimistic. There is a voice controlled remote available for the Fire that contains Alexa, so I figured, gee, I bet I can control the Amazon Fire TV stick with my Amazon Echo. Silly silly me! Here is what one fellow from AFTVNews hacked together to make that work:

aftvnews-amazon-fire-tv-echo-control-flow-chart

Let’s say, that’s not mainstream consumer behavior. Full details on his set-up here.

I love technology, really I do, but I hope connected home products have a shakeup soon. A little while ago I started writing a near future science fiction story in which the main character had developed an interface layer for other devices. That interface layer operated like a true digital assistant, passing commands to the next tier of devices regardless of form or protocol. My story wasn’t very good because what I really wanted to do was daydream about that control layer. I want to be able to use natural language to control all my devices through one central AI, which can reside in a useful robotic body and also travel with me in app form. Is that too much to ask? C’mon, developers: make my story idea obsolete before I get around to writing it!

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Posted by on December 3, 2015 in Digital Devices

 

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Personal technology and temporary disability

Silver lining: while my broken leg heals, I’m in a good position to reflect on how personal technology can play a role in surgical recovery (or temporary/permanent disability, or quality of life for the elderly). Now that I have the energy to sit at my computer for a while, I’ll reflect on how that technology has changed in the past few years and the near-future opportunities, as well. I’m still taking narcotic painkillers now and then, so I won’t promise to be coherent.

Non-digital assistant: my dog is in full nurse mode

Non-digital assistant: my dog is in full nurse mode

Social contact

Having a smartphone with various messaging options and friends/family who use 21st century communication protocols makes such a difference. I’ll contrast my experience with that of my hospital roommate. She was in her early 60s and had a cell phone of some sort, but she only used it for voice calls. That’s better than only having the hospital landline, but still not the best solution. Why not?

  • Annoying in close quarters: I heard every detail of every conversation she had, day or night. While this sometimes provided entertainment — I got to hear her embellish the story of her surgery with each call and gossip maliciously about people she had just spoken with — it was infuriating when I was tired and in pain. The other side of that coin is that she had no privacy. With text messaging, I was able to converse silently at any time.
  • Phone tag vs message threads: One afternoon my roommate was bored and I think she called half the people in her contact list without getting an answer. She left some messages, sighed a lot, and then flipped on the TV. I had conversations underway with my husband, local friends, and distant friends from Oz to the Orkneys, and if there was a pause of minutes or hours while someone slept/worked/ate/did something else, it was no big deal. Asynchronous communication means you don’t always have to stop and start a conversation, but can pop back into a thread as time allows.
  • Presence indicator: In a related vein, when I was having a bored mopey afternoon like she had, I could see who was active online rather than fishing through my address book.

Part of the isolation of being housebound or in the hospital is that the ability to participate in the lives of others is reduced. It’s impossible to attend parties or go to events. Social media allows me to still have a presence in those activities. I won’t argue that watching a concert video my friend posted is the same as going along, but Liking and commenting on it shows I’m aware of and interested in her life; it helps refresh our connection. I can read and watch news to stay connected to the larger outside world, but social media keeps me connected to the more personal spheres.

There are options available that I didn’t use: Skype or FaceTime video chats, for example, or keeping up with other social media platforms, or trying to use Second Life on my phone. Now that I’m home, I can return to virtual world socializing. I don’t have much of an attention span for it yet, but I know I’ll appreciate being able to travel, dance, drive, and simply move through a three dimensional world.

Personal entertainment

I can clearly remember the first time I played an arcade game: Centipede, in Buffalo Children’s Hospital, early 1982. 33 years later I sprawled in my hospital bed and played far more advanced games on my phone. I also had access to a couple hundred CDs from my collection and limitless music streaming on various platforms. I could choose from thousands of streaming movies and TV shows.

My hospital provides each patient a television with a decent selection of basic cable channels. It’s quite nice, but at night when there was less demand on the WiFi network, I propped up my smartphone and streamed Orange is the New Black on Netflix. Being able to choose something for myself when I was dependent on others for my basic needs was invaluable. In a little way, it helped me remain me and feel less lost in the pain and humiliation.

Even now that I’m home, when I can’t sleep I flip open TuneIn Radio Pro and listen to a podcast or play a silly matching game until my eyelids are heavy. Those are much better options than staring at the ceiling and obsessing over the ache in my leg.

Home automation

My Internet of Things automation options are few right now: an Amazon Echo, two WeMo switches, and Nest thermostats. None of these were options for me a mere five years ago, however, so it’s interesting to consider whether they make a significant difference. For me, I think the answer is a firm, “Yes, but….” Yes, these devices make several things much easier and enable more independence, but there is so much potential just over the horizon.

While I can’t climb stairs easily, my bed is in our first floor dining room. The Echo and my Android smartphone give me the ability to turn lights on and off, adjust the temperature, and run the fan if I’m a bit overheated. The Echo recognizes the WeMo switches but not the Nests, which is annoying.  I can say, “Alexa, turn on family room,” to have her activate that WeMo switch, but the IF recipes that can pair Echo with Nest are clumsy hacks, things like “if I add any item to my Echo To Do list, set the Nest to 72 degrees.” There’s significant room for improvement.

—–

I’m lucky. My stupid body might injure easily, but it also heals like a champ. I expect to be walking again by Fall and my gadgets can go back to being toys more than tools.  For now, though, I’m glad I have more options than I did just a few years ago.

 

 

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The efficacy of gamification

On last week’s Drax Radio Hour [with Jo Yardley] featuring Canary Beck, there was a short debate about whether gamification would be a useful way to approach education for new SL residents. That got me thinking about the pros and cons of using gamification, so I reflected on a couple of personal examples, looked at a bit of research, and then considered that particular implementation.

Gamification

What exactly is gamification?

Gamification is more than handing everyone a trophy for things they might or should do anyway. Gartner research VP Brian Burke says, “Gamification is not about slapping points and badges onto an activity and expecting it to magically become more engaging.” Looking at the use of gamification in business, he differentiates it from standalone games and reward programs in this way:

  • Games primarily engage players on a whimsical level to entertain them
  • Rewards programs primarily engage players on a transactional level to compensate them
  • Gamification engages players on an emotional level to motivate them

I think that games and rewards can be part of a gamification strategy, and often are, but it’s fair to see emotional motivation as a point of differentiation. Mollick and Rothbard define gamification as something that “entails adopting the structure, look, and feel of a designed game with the intent of advancing instrumental organizational goals, while creating the same experience for participants that they would have if they were playing a game”. Hamari et al conceptualize gamification as having three parts:

  1. the implemented motivational affordances
  2. the resulting psychological outcomes
  3. the further behavioral outcomes

After all that academic posturing, though, the explanation I like best is from gamification expert Yu-kai Chou: Gamification is design that places the most emphasis on human motivation in the process. In essence, it is Human-Focused Design (as opposed to “function-focused design”). He explains:

Most systems are “function-focused,” designed to get the job done quickly. This is like a factory that assumes its workers will do their jobs because they are required to. However, Human-Focused Design remembers that people in a system have feelings, insecurities, and reasons why they want or do not want to do certain things, and therefore optimizes for their feelings, motivations, and engagement.

Gamification can be used to motivate us to do things that aren’t very good for us; they’re the techniques that drive huge profits for freemium games, after all. But when the goal is something useful and positive, gamification is a way to help us reach it.

Personal example: Nest thermostats

In my view, good gamification isn’t about dumbing things down or giving everyone a participant medal; it’s a way to make use of our inherent drives to promote a particular behavior. The app for my Nest thermostat shows a green leaf when I turn down the heat enough for energy savings. What do I care about a leaf icon? I don’t. Still, it triggers just enough of a reward reaction in my brain that I’ll turn down the temperature one more degree until I see it. The monthly report email from Nest uses other gamification techniques and encourages social engagement:

_Nest_leaves

The fact that I purchased a digital thermostat suggests that I had an existing interest in energy savings before using the app, which is true. The gamification of Nest’s approach helps keep me on my toes, though. I don’t set the thermostat once and then bemoan my monthly bills; I have a visible incentive to push the limits of my comfort and a tiny feeling of reward when I do so. Those are so small that I never think about them until I start doing an analysis like this, yet they motivate me. Does this mean I never give myself an extra degree or two when the house is chilly? Nope. But I do it less often and we’ve been able to get by with lower settings even with record cold temperatures outside.

That’s nice for me, but is it really effective?

Beyond introspection about what works for me and anecdotes from others, I wondered if gamification is more than hype. I turned to “Does Gamification Work? – A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification”, a 2014 paper by Juho Hamari, Jonna Koivisto, and Harri Sarsa. They reviewed 24 studies in their research and found a variety of techniques used to provide the “motivational affordances”: points, leaderboards, achievements/badges, levels, story/theme, clear goals, feedback, rewards, progress, and challenge. And yes, the studies generally found that gamification was effective. There were some caveats, however. The positive results might have been skewed by novelty. Some users hated the same motivational items that others enjoyed. Even among the majority that enjoyed the gamified elements, motivation varied: some wanted to top the leaderboard while others were content to be in the ranking at all.

In their conclusion, they mention what seems to be a key point for gamification detractors: that intrinsic motivation could be diminished from extrinsic rewards. They provide no follow-up to support or refute the statement, perhaps because it wasn’t addressed in the studies they reviewed.

Triangulating from self-determination theory [7] as well as from the traditional definitions of games [3], both suggest that outside pressures (such as extrinsic rewards) undermine intrinsic motivations (see e.g. [6]) and hence would in essence undermine gamification which is an attempt to afford for the emergence of intrinsic motivations.

Looking at my example above, I don’t feel that Nest’s use of gamification undermines my intrinsic desire to save energy. It keeps me more mindful and encourages me. I may get satisfaction from thinking I’m helping the planet or saving money, but those are less tangible than seeing that little green leaf when I choose 66 degrees instead of 68.

Another personal example: learning German with a game

I’ve spent a couple days playing a new German learning game from the Goethe-Institut, Die Stadt der Wörter. Previously I played their Lernbenteuer games on my phone and frankly, at times they were tough! My German vocabulary is not so practical: I can read a bestselling German mystery novel but I don’t know the words to apply for a job. This new game has basic tourist-level vocabulary. Hotel, shopping, transportation, food, free time. It also uses many different motivational techniques. Since they’ve been teaching German for a long time and have tried other game techniques, I wonder if their new approach is based on earlier results.

goethe_lern

The basic gameplay involves going through various parts of a city on short missions, clicking on items and typing their names (as you see the words and hear them used in sentences). You earn points as you complete each mission and are sometimes rewarded with additional gear to customize your avatar. Then, they start to pile on the gamification elements to encourage practice and engagement. You can pick up homework papers along the way; complete them correctly and you earn stars, more avatar gear, and coins toward future discounts in the Institut’s store. You are always given a visual display of your progress in the game and there is an achievement area where you can see your progress toward various goals. To add a competitive element, the top 3 players’ avatars are shown and the top 10 players are listed. You can see where you rank at any time, but it isn’t a persistent, annoying element. The game can connect to Facebook and occasionally you are offered the option to share your progress. You can also play mini-games against friends in the game.

It’s as if they took a list of gamification techniques and wedged them all in there. Maybe that is useful for some learners? For me, I feel like I ignore a lot of the options yet still practice well. I’ll admit I feel a burst of competitive spirit when I see my rank improve, even though I’m still somewhere in the 300s. I am inherently motivated to learn German and I work on it every day; if part of that practice is expressly designed to be fun and engaging, I’m inclined to do a little more. That’s not a bad thing.

Welcoming new SL residents with gamification

Gamification in learning is nothing new. A spelling bee is gamification: there is nothing inherent in learning to spell that necessitates a competition, but ranking, awards, and public exhibitions can drive motivation. So, could it be useful for something like helping new residents in a virtual world?

Well, why not?  Taking into account that some percentage of users would hate a gamified method, if it’s possible to skip ahead or use the methods that already exist (mostly self-education or through volunteer groups), I think it would be very effective. Tutorial levels are a common model in video games and using them in an open virtual world seems similar to me, and could be done in a way that doesn’t give the impression that SL is just a game.

Groups in SL have independently developed tutorial areas for new residents and when I tried the new member experience last year, it seemed that Linden Lab’s intro taught some basic skills, but there was no sense of achievement, progress, or connection. I’ve been daydreaming of an implementation that would teach those skills — giving rewards and useful items along the way — and then branch to allow users to explore specific skills, tools, and landmarks for various possible in-world roles, such as Builder/Creator, Student/Educator, Socializer, Fashionista, Roleplayer, Photographer/Moviemaker, etc. Ideally, someone who passed through that sort of tutorial would have skills to get by and pointers to answer the inevitable “So, what now?” question. (I actually gave this far more thought and went deep into the weeds, sketching out a ten level system. If someone wants my input on it, just ask, but I’ll keep my opinions to myself for now.)

When a new resident appears in SL, he has already demonstrated an inherent motivation to check it out and a curiosity about what will be found. The tutorial could be designed to use techniques to enhance intrinsic interest as well as providing extrinsic rewards, and with motivated learners in an environment where gamification doesn’t seem out of place, it would have the characteristics of the most successful implementations reviewed in the study earlier. Why not increase engagement and help new residents get off to a good start?

A final (huge) graphic

Gamification Infographic

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

 
4 Comments

Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Learning, Research

 

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