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I’ve written to a lot of topics at ET, from CPUs and semiconductors to archaeology, but cataloguing bad Internet of Things devices has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s not because I hate the IoT — I genuinely don’t — but because so many Internet of Things devices are more properly classified as belonging to the Internet of Shit or Internet of Shitty Things:
The Internet of Shitty Things is here. Have all of your best home appliances ruined by putting the internet in them!
— Internet of Shit (@internetofshit) July 3, 2015
The IoST has delivered quite a few gems over the years. Here are a few of the best. Some of these we’ve talked about at ExtremeTech before and some are new to this article.
#5. GE Smart Ovens That Require WiFi to Cook
When it comes to the …”as a service” model that’s become increasingly popular, legacy brands like GE are at a disadvantage. Many of these manufacturers cut their teeth in an era when a company’s quality was measured by how little the customer interacted with it post-sale. “You know why I buy Whirlpool?” I remember my grandfather telling me as we drove past a local manufacturing plant a few decades back. “Because they never break down. You never have to deal with the company.”
I can’t speak to the merits of Whirlpool appliances circa 1985, but GE’s decision to ship ovens that require mandatory internet connections before they’ll cook reminded me that companies used to literally compete on how rare your future contact with them would be. These days, not so much. This particular “optimization” came to light earlier this year, when David Barnard discovered his brand-new oven wouldn’t use the “Convection Roast” option if he didn’t connect to the internet first.
Merely being connected wasn’t enough. According to a later tweet, his oven wouldn’t unlock convection cooking unless he agreed to share its exact location.
??♂️ @GE_Appliances won’t let me use convection roast on my new oven without connecting the oven to wifi. After a string of profanities I reluctantly downloaded the app and sat on the kitchen floor 10+ minutes trying to get it connected… unsuccessfully. The app is complete garbage pic.twitter.com/Omold25XKP
— David Barnard (@drbarnard) March 5, 2022
Whenever someone asks me what a phrase like “late stage capitalism” means, I think of moments like this. I haven’t bought an oven recently, but I’m pretty sure “Wanders around the neighborhood when not in use” is the kind of information that makes it into the ad copy. Presuming the oven isn’t ambulatory, it’s going to be in the exact same place at all times — which means the customer who uses it is also likely to be in the exact same place.
In an earlier era when computers were dumber and humans less so, the exact location of the oven is the kind of thing the company inferred from warranty cards and service calls. Now, you’re expected to turn over private information for the privilege of using buttons that physically ship on the machine. As Consumer Reports notes: “Our test engineer received a similar message saying the feature requires a WiFi connection, despite the range having a physical Convection Roast button.”
I actually disagree with Barnard on this one. He writes “They did warn me,” and highlights a section of ad copy that reads “Unlock More When You Connect.”
To be fair to @GE_Appliances, it’s a nice oven. I thought we’d hate the touch screen controls, but they’re surprisingly usable. It pre-heats quickly and the convection bake is fantastic (the convection roast will probably be nice too once I get it working). And they did warn me: pic.twitter.com/oE70TnX1gB
— David Barnard (@drbarnard) March 5, 2022
Phrases like “Unlock more when you connect” are what companies usually use to try and con you into signing up for an online account with dubious benefits. This option should’ve been marketed as “Unlock basic features of my oven that everyone assumed you got for free before 2020,” but that’s not as positive-sounding.
A GE spokesperson told Consumer Reports, “Our ovens and ranges produced since then have included some features that came already loaded and ready to work on the oven/range, some that update after a one-time connection that enables the unit to check for ‘enhanced’ features, and some that require a constant connection to access the ‘cloud.’ … The Convection Roast mode, along with some other modes, such as air fry and dehydrate, is an enhanced feature, meaning the oven needs to connect to the internet at least once to make sure it’s using the most up-to-date software for that mode.”
It’s become more common lately for companies to force you to interface with a device through a mobile app even when said hardware never previously required it. I wound up using a Spectrum-provided router recently and was surprised to discover there’s no way to log into the device except through the MySpectrum app. There’s nothing wrong with offering people the option to control devices from an app, but forcing people to use a separate device to communicate with their router (and limiting admin options to those easily available via a phone interface) only results in an inferior product.
This is an excuse to force people to connect products to the internet for no reason. GE is aware that once you’ve gone to the trouble to set up WiFi on your oven, you’ll likely leave it on. If the oven can’t support a function out of the box, don’t ship it with a physical button for that function. This isn’t device enablement, it’s locking features you paid for behind an arbitrary online gate for data monetization purposes.
#4. Full-Screen Ads on Grocery Doors
The ability to turn large panes of glass into an advertising display is, on some level, a remarkable achievement. In order to make any kind of financial sense, displays like this need to be (relatively) cheap and easy to maintain. A door that can display full-length advertising is a door that’s benefited from decades of improvements in semiconductor power consumption, chip yields, and precision manufacturing.
— ??Bastian for Squirrelcatcher?? (@SneauxMiaux) May 20, 2022
Not pictured: Progress
It may seem counter-intuitive to prevent customers from seeing the food they want to buy by covering it with giant ads for other food or featureless, broken displays, but that’s because you aren’t seeing the big picture. You’re still thinking of the grocery as a place you go to buy food as opposed to a destination you travel to for an acquisitive, aspirational food purchasing experience. Forcing you to open 37 freezer doors reminds you that we are all people together, on this great journey called life, on a little planet called Earth. And hey, look! Here’s some of Earth’s finest water! How about a little refreshment?
None of this is going to make it less annoying when you can’t tell if you’re in front of the frozen pizzas or the ice cream, but I want that annoyance to come with some perspective. This didn’t happen by accident. A lot of engineers worked very hard for decades to invent the technology that allowed someone with twin degrees in Marketing and Evil to bring this beautiful advertising dream to fruition.
#3. Mobile Interfaces Made From Human-Like Skin
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an engineer in possession of an idea for a device interface based on the manipulation of realistic human skin must be in want of a life. However well-explained the justifications of such a man may be upon his first unveiling of the cursed skinterface, this truth is well fixed in the eyes of all who view it.*
This is one of those projects that I would desperately like to believe is a joke, despite all evidence to the contrary. Several years ago, creator Marc Teyssier and a team of other collaborators unveiled Skin On to the world, writing: “Human skin is the best interface for interaction. I propose this new paradigm in which interactive devices have their own artificial skin, thus enabling new forms of input gestures for end-users.”
It’s easy to understand why humans would look to biology for inspiration. Biological power efficiency is far better than any silicon system. Supercomputers can’t simulate a human brain in 20 megawatts, but the soggy sack of fat and cortices stuck inside of our skulls gets the job done in just 20W. So far, so good, but when it comes to skinterfaces, I feel like a little Goldblumian humility might be in order. Designing a physical covering that allows robots to feel sensation is pretty interesting, but could we get it in a form factor that feels more like our theoretical high-concept sci-fi future and less like something Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs would’ve used in lieu of a mouse?
I first wrote about this project back in October 2019, and while I’m not blaming its existence for the events we’ve all enjoyed these past three years, I would like to point out that I ended my original story by asking people not to contact its creator because “There are reports that placing five of these products in a pentagram may cause the formation of a Hellmouth.”
* – With apologies to Jane Austen
#2. Smart Toilets Debut Personal Butthole Tracking
When I wrote about this topic back in April 2020, there was just one group of Stanford researchers working on this idea. A few more shart-ups have debuted since then, including Coprata and a company named Toi Labs. Toi Labs manufacturers a smart toilet they call the TrueLoo, which they advertise with what may actually be the world’s worst shtat counter:
The researchers who develop these excreting new technologies often emphasize their utility when it comes to tracking medical conditions and overall health. While I have always acknowledged this very real benefit, events of the last two years have given me a newfound appreciation for the idea. In early 2021, I developed the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease. This went on for five weeks and it radically transformed both my diet and my life.
My issues were eventually resolved with medication and nothing similar has happened to me since, but it was an eye-popping example of how a digestive condition can upend daily existence. I couldn’t eat until 2 – 2:30 PM for over a month because once I ate, my workday might be over. My official medical diagnosis after multiple tests and doctor visits was: “Well, you feel better now, right?” It wasn’t a particularly satisfying outcome. I can understand why doctors want an additional way to analyze and track what’s happening with a patient “at the source”, as it were.
But — IBD symptoms or not — I’m still weirded out at the idea that the toilet might record my personal logs. The benighted Stanford research team we covered back in 2020 decided that their smart toilet needed what I described as “a stoolproof method for detecting even the stealthiest deuce dropper.” They found it.
I must now regretfully inform you that your butthole contains a unique set of stains, creases, toilet paper flecks physical characteristics that allow researchers to identify you, like the world’s most horrifying fingprint. The original research team imagined patient data being uploaded to a private cloud server for every individual who used the toilet. Toi Labs appears to have a similar idea.
While the idea of a cloud-connected analyzer with personal butthole scanning is objectively horrifying, the smart toilet is Number Two on our list for a reason: It’s the only product on this list that has even the slightest chance of improving the life of a human being.
#1. Juicero, the DRM Bagjuice Company
Different people answer a question like “What can I do that can have the greatest impact on humanity, on human health?” differently. Edward Jenner invented vaccination. John Snow pioneered the use of anaesthesia and helped found epidemiology. Jonas Salk had a bit of success against polio. Doug Evans — well, when Doug Evans asked himself that question, his answer was to build a $700 machine to squash pre-pulped vegetables into slurry. Then he slapped a DRM system on it that would’ve made Keurig blush.
Juicero — that was the name of both the company and its chief product — billed itself as a life-changing way to deliver nutrition via the power of beet squeezings. If you think I’m exaggerating, check out this amazing ad the company cut. Anyone who can explain why the woman makes a “baah” noise like a sheep at ~1:43 gets a cookie.
One of Juicero’s mistakes was building a core market around people who think drinking juice starts with going to a farmer’s market to buy fresh produce as opposed to digging the Tropicana out of the back of the fridge. However annoying it is to make juice — and this interview between Evans and Kara Swisher does make the process sound genuinely bothersome — there was always a limited market for a $700, purpose-built home appliance with an onerous DRM system.
This genuinely does not seem to have occurred to Doug Evans, who told Swisher: “I knew too much. Like at that point I knew too much about quality. I knew that the best juice was juice made in that moment. And so I became obsessed.” … I said, “I’m going to do what Steve did. I’m going to take the mainframe computer and create a personal computer, I’m going to take a mainframe juice press and I’m going to create a personal juice press.”
You can tell a person has a healthy sense of their own potential achievements when they start out by comparing themselves to Steve Jobs.
Juicero’s DRM system was a nontrivial part of its problem, and what separated it from every other expensive juicer aimed at the kale-and-cauliflower-smoothie set. The Juicero wouldn’t squeeze just any packet of carrots, you see. Every single-serving sack had a QR code with an expiration date. Packs typically didn’t last more than 5-7 days, and the machine refused to process expired packets. Individual servings of juice cost between $5 – $8 depending on what you wanted, so the window between purchase and consumption was small.
Juicero raised $120M and launched at $700 before cutting the price to $400 when demand failed to materialize. It’s not clear if the $400 price cut helped much or not, but the kiss of death for the company came when Bloomberg released a video of someone compressing a Juicero package by hand. As the video shows, human hands could crush produce just as well as the machine could, no DRM check required.
After Bloomberg’s video, the company attempted to defend itself by doubling down on the idea that meat-squeezed plant matter was infinitely inferior to Juicero. Doug Evans had stepped down by this time, but then-CEO Jeff Dunn stepped bravely to the plate.
“The sum of the system — the Press, Produce Packs and App — working together is what enables a great experience. However, you won’t experience that value by hand-squeezing Produce Packs, which to be clear, contain nothing but fresh, raw, organic chopped produce, not juice. What you will get with hand-squeezed hacks is a mediocre (and maybe very messy) experience that you won’t want to repeat once, let alone every day.”
This line of thinking convinced absolutely no one.
A follow-up story put a final bit of polish on the tale. Juicero always argued that its $700 machine was sold at a very reasonable price relative to what it cost to make. According to a teardown analysis of the product, that was probably true. The machine used customized machined parts and was engineered for maximum beauty — at maximum price. The pressure plate used to crush the various fruits and vegetables was incredibly expensive. As Ben Einstein wrote: “If the primary mechanism could apply force in a more focused way it could easily save hundreds of dollars off the shelf price of the products.” (Emphasis Original)
Juicero spent so much money designing a juicer, it designed itself right out of a market and became a cautionary tale. It wins top billing in the ExtremeTech IoT Hall of Shame because it’s a near-perfect incapsulation of everything we love to hate about the IoT. A product no one needed with an integrated DRM solution no one wanted, launched to solve a problem that didn’t exist. As sustained forays into bad ideas go, Juicero is the act to top.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our tour of the best of the worst IoT devices. If you’re looking to read about some Dishonorable Mentions, I’d recommend bricked shoes, remarkably stupid smart locks, and an adult sex toy that threatened to turn a night of novelty into a much more permanent situation.
Original image by Dominic Smith, Flickr, CC BY 2.0