The UK Government has just announced its latest initiative to make us into a technology heavyweight – the ARIA project. What we don’t know yet is whether the fat lady singing the aria is destined to be a consumptive Mimi or a brash Anna Nicole? If the scheme is set up and run by the same people responsible for previous UK tech development initiatives, it’s more likely to be a cut-price Florence Foster Jenkins. Which would be a great pity, as there’s a lot to be said for having a decent funding scheme.
Just before the Christmas lockdown, we were lucky enough to get out to see a revival of Sasha Regan’s excellent, all-male Pirates of Penzance in the West End, as well as treating ourselves to a meal at one of our favourite local restaurants. Having been confined to home since then, it started me wondering what would happen if you tried to combine the two experiences?
Here’s the answer…
I obviously need to get out more…
Last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the last big technology event to take place before Covid hit. The following month, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was cancelled, heralding in a year in which the traditional platforms for product announcements disappeared. That hasn’t stopped new products appearing, not will it; the design lead times for phones and TVs are at least two to three years, so even next Christmas’ products will have started off before Covid. The design departments for major high-tech companies are a bit like supertankers – they’re difficult to stop or change direction. Where the absence of exhibitions may be more keenly felt is within smaller companies and startups, who typically use these events to gauge interest in their products and visions.
Last October, Hackney Council in London suffered a major cyber-attack, which took many of its customer-facing services offline. Three months on, many of those are still not available. The council has been coy about exactly what happened, but has just released a statement telling Hackney residents that some of the data which was stolen in the data breach has now been released by the hackers.
One of the perks of working in technology standards groups is that you get to go to meetings in nice places around the world. A more minor perk is that the standards group tends to provide gifts for the participants. They’re not generally much more than a T-shirt saying you’ve been there, or a packet of the local equivalent of popcorn or haggis, but they’re something to remember it by.
Last year, Covid put an end to international travel and we’ve been having to make do with virtual conferences. As every standards group is discovering, they’re OK, but they don’t really work as well. It’s far more difficult to have a good argument when you’re not face to face and there’s no substitute for a fight for the whiteboard markers or the reconciliations and wild flights of fancy that take place over a beer or a coffee. For most standards, the even greater casualty is in testing, where prototype implementations normally come together to check that the specifications actually work. Few companies are happy to let their prototypes out of their sight and running tests remotely, especially for wireless standards, is incredibly difficult. Every standards group is suffering from that at the moment, with the result that we’re seeing release dates pushed back and features cut down.
With the meteoric rise in the sale of earbuds, there’s an increasing amount of speculation about what this means for the hearing aid market. Most miss the fundamental difference, which is that earbuds are selling in the hundreds of millions because consumers like them, whereas hearing aids are still seen by many as a product of last resort, because there is a stigma attached to them. That means that most people with hearing loss don’t go for a hearing test until around ten years after they should. If we could get rid of that stigma, and make hearing aids as popular as earbuds, life would be very much better for hundreds of millions of people.
Hearing aids are not the first products to have a stigma. I’m old enough to remember a similar situation with glasses. A child with a sight impairment would do everything they could not to admit it, lest they were labelled “four-eyes” or “speccy” by their classmates. Most children’s books up to the 1960s had a glasses-wearing child as the scapegoat of the story. Then John Lennon came along and all of a sudden, glasses were cool. Nobody could quite explain why, but glasses changed from being something you tried not to wear to being a multi-billion dollar fashion industry, which conveniently managed to restore your sight at the same time. Whilst the arrival of contact lenses threated their existence, glasses resisted the competition and remain immensely popular. You no longer make a spectacle of yourself by wearing them, and nobody would consider them as a “seeing-aid”. So how is that changing for hearing aids?