The Illusion of Control

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As regular readers of these tirades know, I write here with a sense of levity, not gravity. Recognizing and appreciating that most people don't take these ramblings seriously, I worried, let me start again. I always worry—I worried long ago, I worried recently, and I currently worry. I will, no doubt, continue to worry today, tomorrow, and for the rest of my life. What I meant to say was, one of the great many things I recently worried about was, because I'm usually flippant in this space, people might think that the editor, Victoria, who I mention frequently, is fictitious. Let me assure you she is real.

If you don't believe me, check out the editorial staff listed in the serious sections of MC Press Online publications (i.e., just about everything other than these rants). Victoria figures prominently on the list. In addition, I've talked to Victoria numerous times on the telephone and met her once. I can confirm her existence. That is unless I was hallucinating. In which case, I'm probably not writing this column and you're probably not reading it.

But I digress. I wanted to get that out of the way because I want to credit the, I think, very real Victoria with directing my attention to an item that got me started on this week's column. The link she forwarded was to a BusinessWeek slide show featuring some cool gadgets that are expected to hit store shelves within the year or that are in the concept stages and may take longer, possibly infinitely longer, to become available. One concept-level gizmo or, more accurately, a suite of gizmos that particularly intrigued me was a home entertainment system that Philips, its designer, has dubbed Illusion.

The BusinessWeek slide show included only two paragraphs on Illusion, primarily discussing its unique remote control. Wanting more information, I surfed to the Philips Web site and found a dozen or so paragraphs on its concept.

In addition to the remote control, which Philips has branded Wand, Illusion includes a television that's called Vision, a Music Explorer that does what the name suggests, and something called Mercury that provides access to the various media. From the sound of it, the components are at least a step or two ahead of contemporary devices performing similar functions.

Some Philips televisions already include a technology, branded Ambilight, that projects tinted light from the sides of the TV in order to alter the ambient light color, making the room a part of the viewing experience. Ambilight is in the Vision concept, but Philips is planning much more. For example, when switched off, Vision, which will hang on a wall, will transform itself into a mirror rather than just a blank screen. That's great, but if they also give me a button that will transform a crappy television program into a good one, then they'll really have something. Then again, just about any program is better than looking at myself in a mirror.

All of this sounds impressive, but what's really cool is Wand. Rather than pushing buttons, you point Wand in the direction of the component you want to control and make a hand motion to indicate what you want to do. Motion sensors detect your actions. Illusion then interprets them and transmits the necessary instructions to the appropriate device. For example, if you're watching a DVD, point the Wand at the player and motion to the right. The DVD will fast-forward. The faster you move your hand, the faster it will fast-forward.

Wand is intended to control more than just Illusion's components. The plan is to have it also direct other electric or electronic gadgets in the room. For example, you will be able to point it at a light and move your hand downward to dim it.

I think the Wand concept is amazing, but I worry (see, I told you I would) that Philips' designers and engineers, brilliant though they may be, will not have adequate imagination and foresight to allow Wand to reach its full potential. So, in the hope that they'll read this, the following are a few of my suggestions for motion signals and the responses I think Wand should provide, but which I fear Philips might otherwise overlook:

Your signal (S): Furiously shake the Wand randomly in front of your face.

Interpretation (I): A bee or some other flying insect is attacking you.

Illusion's response (R): Flood the room with insecticide.

* * *

S: Hide the Wand inside a piece of clothing or behind some furniture.

I: You've spotted an insurance agent or political campaigner walking toward the house.

R: Immediately turn off all lights and audio/video equipment, making it appear as though no one is home.

* * *

S: Motion toward your mouth.

I: You're hungry.

R: Use the built-in speed dialing to call for a pizza.

* * *

S: This one requires two Wands. Place them side-by-side in your dominant hand. Use your middle finger as a pivot in order to keep the tips touching but open a slight distance between the back ends of the two Wands. At this point, the tips of your thumb, index finger and middle finger should surround a point on one Wand (call this the "first Wand") about halfway down the Wand. A point approximately the same distance along the other Wand should be between the tips of your middle and ring fingers. A portion of the first Wand will naturally rest along about half the length of your index finger. In addition to the second Wand being held by the middle and ring fingers, it will, at a point about two-thirds of the way down the Wand, lightly rest on the juncture between your thumb and index finger. Using the tips of your thumb and index finger, with your index finger providing most of the motion, manipulate the first Wand so that the tips of the two Wands repeatedly separate and then touch again. This signal may take some practice to perfect.

I: You want something you can eat with chopsticks.

R: Call for Chinese food instead.

* * *

S: Tuck your hands under your armpits and flap your arms.

I: You'd rather have chicken.

R: Call for chicken.

* * *

S: Make skewering motions.

I: You'd prefer shish kabob.

R: Call the neighborhood Greek food delivery place.

* * *

S: Stick the Wand partway down your throat.

I: The program you're watching is so bad you're going to gag.

R: Switch to something else. Anything else.

* * *

S: Make a sharp motion toward your chest.

I: You're having a heart attack.

R: Call 911. Now!

* * *

S: First, point the Wand toward the heavens. Next, make a sharp motion toward your chest.

I: The people you are with are so excruciatingly boring that you're praying for a heart attack to put you out of your misery.

R: Disable the controls after turning all of the media devices up to their maximum volumes in order to send everyone blindly running in different directions out of the house and out of the neighborhood.

* * *

S: While watching a video or listening to an audio recording, place the Wand in front of your groin and make nervous, quivering motions.

I: You've got to pee. Bad.

R: Pause the video or audio device until you come back from the washroom.

* * *

S: Turn the Wand upside-down, place a five cent piece on it, and point it at the Music Explorer.

I: You want to hear your favorite rock band, Nickelback.

R: Play their latest CD.

Note: If you want to hear Alicia Keys, the Wand can be in either the normal or upside-down orientation, but substitute some keys for the nickel. If you prefer Eminem, use an M&M's chocolate instead. A lance, or preferably two or more lances, will work for Britney Spears. For the Barenaked Ladies, well, send the children out of the room first. Be creative. Your children can come back when you've finished signaling. If you want to hear any other performer, you're on your own.

* * *

S: Throw the Wand up into the air, allowing it to do a few loops before you catch it.

I: You just remembered that the baton-twirling championships are on.

R: Search the online program listings database to find and switch to the channel that's carrying it.

* * *

S: Point at each component in turn, then at the system's clock, and then at your empty pocket.

I: You're broke because, after spending your life's savings on all of the system components, you became so engrossed in watching and listening to them that you couldn't find the time to go to work.

R: Email a form letter to the cable company explaining why you won't be able to pay your bill this month. The cable company will likely then offer a rather brutal suggestion as to how to cut down on your viewing and listening time.

* * *

S: Throw the Wand at any component of the entertainment center.

I: The stupid component doesn't work worth a damn.

R: Call customer service and automatically press the requisite one for this, two for that, and three for the other thing until you can finally convince a real, live human being to come out and fix the component.

* * *

S: Throw the Wand on the floor.

I: The stupid Wand doesn't work worth a damn.

R: If at all possible, initiate the above process. If not at all possible, it will just do the best it can. That's all we can ask of anything.

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. He is also the author of BYTE-ing Satire, a compilation of a year's worth of his columns. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He normally regrets being single, but writing this article gave him reason to rejoice in it. At least he won't have to fight to get control of the Wand.