Viva la TiVolution!

I never used to watch television. My work hours are long. By the time I get around to turning it on, the only things to watch are infomercials and “The 5th Wheel,” a show about couples going out on a group blind date. Then came TiVo, the first successful use of personalization in a home appliance, and my life changed forever.

For those who don’t know what TiVo is (it’s just starting to enter other countries), it is a hard-disk recorder for television that replaces the VCR. It’s much more than that, however, because it allows you to watch the show it is recording from the beginning while it is still recording. That means that you can do things like watch live TV and pause it or watch a program at 8:15 even though it started at 8:00.

TiVo has its own television guide onscreen and lets you select the shows you wish to record. You can opt to have the machine record an entire season of a particular show. TiVo accounts for time and schedule changes, always making sure it records what you asked it to with no further assistance or input required.

What really thrills me, though, are the personalization features in TiVo. The remote has “Thumbs Up” and “Thumbs Down” buttons you use to tell TiVo how much you like the shows you recorded, the live show you’re watching now, or any show listed in its program guide. This gives TiVo an idea what you like. That’s where the magic starts. TiVo starts recording other shows it thinks you may like and displays a special icon next to them to make it clear they are TiVo-selected shows. Additionally, you can tell TiVo who your favorite actors, directors, and artists are. The machine will record anything broadcast involving that person.

For years, the wired household has been an idea in our minds. Most people embrace it. A few cynics have imagined kitchen appliances starting a mutiny against humans. What makes TiVo a great wired appliance is it puts its users (you and me) in control over things we didn’t have control over before. Personalization at its best is a way to increase a user’s control over the environment. TiVo succeeds in doing that.

Though TiVo isn’t presently Bluetooth– or Internet-enabled (it uses a dial-up connection to update itself), I’m sure the next generations will be. I also hope TiVo will be able to wirelessly “talk” to other appliances as well (including my computers). That will enable me to change TiVo settings via a Web browser and hopefully even remotely, using a wireless PDA, such as my Blackberry or a Palm Pilot. If I travel and learn of a show I want to watch, I would love to be able to send an email to my TiVo or pull up a configuration screen on my handheld and tell TiVo to record the show. Of course, TiVo might already know I would like the show and would probably record it anyway.

Now that Bluetooth is catching on, the reality of the wired home is not far away. Because Bluetooth permits a low-powered small network of wireless devices, one can easily imagine any kind of device being connected wirelessly to another.

One day, I hope I can sit down and watch a movie TiVo recorded for me only to be interrupted by the microwave beeping, because the popcorn it thought I would like is ready. If my laptop retrieves email that’s urgent, TiVo could display a little mailbox onscreen showing the first few lines of the message (so I don’t need to go over to the laptop). It could ask me if it should pause playback so I can attend to the urgent message.

Science fiction or reality? Since the ’50s, we have been waiting for the days when robots and “thinking machines” would work for us, talk to each other, and make our lives easier. Every time there’s a mini breakthrough in technology, some idiot proclaims, “This is the year it all happens!” I don’t want to be that idiot this year. Indeed, I don’t think it “all” will happen in the immediate future. But I do think the building blocks we need for the creation of smart, personalized, interconnected devices are coming together. More important, the technology isn’t that expensive. So many cell phones already come with Bluetooth, and many laptops have wireless Internet built in.

I lectured this week at the University of Southampton in England. A lot of research there is focused on agent technology and agent frameworks. (An agent is an intelligent piece of software that acts on behalf of something else. A user agent acts on behalf of a person and can make decisions in the best interest of that person.) This is the work that will translate my dreams into reality. The university’s research concerning how agents talk to one other and communicate will prove essential in the creation of home appliances that understand each other and work in concert to perform a single, complex function.

Though we may never achieve the goals shaped in the ’50s of artificial intelligence, automata, robots, and super intelligence, we may be able to achieve a lesser but nonetheless practical goal. Devices such as TiVo are a glimpse into a not-so-distant future, where home appliances put us in more control of our environment and allow us to live our lives on a schedule of our own choosing.

What Do You Think?

What appliances do you think should be next to be “smart” and Internet enabled? How would personalization be used in these appliances to put you in more control and help you with your daily life? Write to me and let me know.

Until next time…


Jack will speak at ClickZ Email Strategies in San Francisco, November 18-19.

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