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The next wave in design: Gadgets that won't bug you

blog Intel's chief in-house anthropologist says people want more control over their lives and that means owning devices that you can turn off.

Genevieve Bell, who has been Intel's chief in-house anthropologist for a decade, says she's noticed an interesting phenomenon in recent studies. People want gadgets that don't keep them up-to-date.

The concept for this is Techno-determinism, she said during a brief meeting on Friday. People want more control over their lives and that means owning phones, notebooks and other devices that you can turn off. Quiet time--whether it is reflected in prayer, meditation or nap time--has been a concept in virtually all cultures around the world throughout history. The influx of technology has intruded on these domestic moments of peace, but field studies around the world seem to indicate that people want it back.

TV actually fits somewhat well with the concept of quiet time: you can turn it off in a flash.

As a result, Intel and consumer electronics manufacturers may have to change the way they approach design. Now, the underlying ethos is to make devices that play a fairly active role in organizing your life.

"Our (current) vision of the technology future may be inaccurate," she said. Quiet "is a really different technology vision to design to."

The idea percolates from a series of studies that Bell and her team conducted on how people use technology on vacation. They studied student backpackers crossing Europe and America, observed people in their vacation homes in Brittany, and spent time in caravan parks in Australia. They even rented an RV for two weeks and drove around the Pacific Northwest to hang out with and observe people in Winnebagos.

They found that people restructured their usual relationship with their gadgets when on vacation. They watched a little more TV, but typically used their laptops, less. Often, laptops went on only to organize photos. (Some RV drivers, though, rigged up their own broadband systems with their laptops by linking them to the GSM cards from their cell phones.)

"People wanted to carve out time that wasn't driven by their technology," she said. With vacation homes "what they are effectively doing is buying themselves a rest."

Like in Britain and Australia. In those countries, one of the favorite places for quiet time is the garden shed, where the men folk keep a radio and beer (in Australia) or a supply of sherry (in the United Kingdom).

In some cases, though, technology could become part of a vacation hobby, if it was similar to a more traditional hobby. Bell met one 75-year-old woman in France who wanted to convert her albums and family photos to digital, and was partitioning a hard drive. Her behavior, though, was similar to people who build scrapbooks for fun.

Some national differences exist. The French often found it easier to completely get away from gadgetry than people from the U.S. Part of that is a reflection of the French vacation system: they take whole months off at a time. Men and women in the U.S. also argued more over when to turn off or turn on gadgets.

So other than being easier to use and/or ignore, what other attributes might the gadgets in the future have? They have to be robust. "People do not put up with broken televisions," she said.

Bell also saw an interesting illumination of globalization during the project. While visiting a home in Brittany, she asked a resident why there were holes in the window shutters of a centuries-old home. Those were English holes, the resident said. They were put in the home so that the residents could see the invasion from the channel and sound the alarm.

Did they work? No, the resident said. The English came over quietly and bought the house next door.