Tag Archives: technology

Next-Generation Battery Technology

I have written about a range of emerging technologies. While the devices and apps I’ve featured were designed to accomplish very different things, they do have one thing in common—they all need power. In some cases, power limitations are holding us back from achieving even greater performance and options. What’s happening in the world of battery technology? It would be great if we could charge our devices in under a minute and the charge would last for two weeks. It would also be great if our electric vehicles could travel more than 500 miles on a single charge and recharge in only 5 minutes. How close are we to that? Read on.

Basic Batteries

A battery is made up of a positive and negative electrode with an electrolyte that allows for the flow of ions between the two poles. It is possible to make a basic battery out of a copper penny (negative anode), a galvanized nail (positive cathode) and a potato or a lemon (electrolyte). Energy is created as electrons flow from the anode to the cathode through the medium. This basic technology has existed since the first electric battery was invented in 1799. The only problem was that no one had yet thought of electric cars (or cars at all for that matter) or drones or handheld devices that need batteries we wish lasted longer. The requirements for the original battery were simple in contrast.

Battery Developments

Current battery technologies have settled around alkaline, used for household tools like flashlights; lithium-ion, used in cell phones, laptops, portable tools, and even electric vehicles; and lead-acid batteries, which power the starters on gas and diesel  vehicles. These all use chemicals like cobalt, lead, nickel, graphite, manganese, and aluminum that are available in limited supply on earth and can pollute the environment when disposed of. Tesla, for example, is betting on lithium-ion technology as it completes its gigafactory in Nevada. The company will produce batteries for their cars and to store energy for home solar collectors, among other uses. Tesla is betting that large-scale production and intensive research will allow to improve battery life and sustainably source or create components.

The next generation of batteries may include graphene, which was discovered in 2004. Graphene is a single-atomic layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern. It is stronger than steel and diamonds and has the highest electrical and thermal conductivity ever recorded. Battery manufacturers are introducing graphene-enhanced batteries, but a full graphene battery is still in development. Companies, including Graphenano in Spain, are working to bring graphene batteries to market. One positive development is the availability of graphene filament from Graphene 3D Lab, which can be used in 3D printers (including home models) to print batteries. That could spawn a lot of new applications for the technology.

There is also active research in nanowires, which would store electrons and could be recharged more times than a traditional battery. Material scientists are searching for a substrate suitable for these fragile wires so that they can be used in a commercial product.

Thoughts

Battery technology research is marching ahead but demand for more efficient battery materials is adding pressure to speed the pace of development. Cars, electronic devices and sensors all require power that can be stored and used at the push of a button. I will be keeping my eye on new battery technology as we try to find the right blend of sustainable materials and modern efficient manufacturing.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Nurturing the Seeds of Innovation

I have been preparing to teach the summer AIM Program course on creating business solutions and have been thinking about the seeds of innovation. Where exactly do these seeds come from and what helps them to germinate? What forces stifle them, preventing them from growing and maturing? We will explore all of these points in the course and this post reveals some of my thoughts on the early stages of the innovation process.

Nature vs. Nurture

Ideas can come from many places but I have found they sprout from well-cultivated soil. Nineteenth century chemist Louis Pasteur said, “chance favors only the prepared mind.” Innovation may seem to spring up in unexpected ways and in unique places but it comes as a result of preparation, observation, and hard work. It comes from days, months, or even years of thinking, pondering, and studying a problem.

Are innovators born or made? A 1973 study of fraternal and identical twins showed that while there is some genetic predisposition toward creativity, most of it is learned. That is good news for people who don’t think they are natural innovators.

Creative Ecosystem

How does an organization foster creativity and innovation? How do they build an ecosystem that allows and encourages everyone to think beyond the immediate issues? Companies such as 3M and Google allow employees time to explore ideas outside the scope of their job. But it takes more than time to foster creativity, it takes an atmosphere or ecosystem that encourages experimentation and allows failures. Thomas Edison is purported to have said, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” It is not easy for an organization to allow time and effort for “ways that won’t work” but this is part of the preparation necessary for that big breakthrough idea.

Barriers to Creativity

We often place barriers to innovation and creativity. These may come in the form of hardened ideas about “how we do things around here” or inflexible rules and regulations. Examples of companies fighting barriers are Tesla and Uber. In March 2014, New Jersey, among other states, banned direct sales of Tesla automobiles in the state because they did not comply with the decades old “dealership” model. Tesla traditionally sells cars directly through small storefronts and not through the conventional dealer and service center model. New Jersey reversed that ban a year later. Uber faces similar barriers. Traditionally, taxi companies are highly regulated and limited by municipalities. Drivers work for a taxi company that pays franchise fees to the city. Uber drivers are not full-time employees, they are only contractors, so the whole regulation and fee structure begins to fall apart. Several cities initially banned Uber from operating in their area because its business model did not conform to the traditional standard. Tradition can often be the greatest enemy of innovation.

Thoughts

To those who will join me in the business solutions course this summer, I look forward to an exchange of ideas on ways to promote and stimulate innovation for individuals and organizations. With proper preparation and dismantling of barriers, creativity can flourish and can lead to invention and new revenue sources. Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

STEAM: Adding Arts to STEM Education

I have written in the past about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education for young people. I am a big advocate of STEM learning and participate in events when possible. I think it is important for everyone to be grounded in the sciences and math to be able to work in our increasingly complex world. It is nice to know how to use an app or a particular software but it is even better to know how it works, especially when it mysteriously fails and you need to try to fix it.

Lately, I have been seeing the term STEAM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math. In other words, arts inserted into STEM. To be honest, I was skeptical when I first started seeing this term because it felt like the arts were jumping on a bandwagon they were not supposed to be part of. In this post I will explore the origins of STEM and how we got from STEM to STEAM and the value of adding arts education.

Origins of STEM

The Russian satellite Sputnik launch in 1957 started a rivalry with America for technical superiority on earth and in space. America thought that it should be first in terms of smart scientists and mathematicians. The U.S. developed plans to place a man on the moon and in July, 1969, realized that vision and regained superiority in the space race. Growing up in the 1960s, we all wanted to be astronauts and we studied the necessary disciplines to get us into space. Science and math were fundamental. Computer development in the ‘80s and ‘90s kept technical subjects in the forefront. Programming, math, and electronics were important and exciting.

The National Science Foundation coined the term STEM in 2001 to refer to a renewed emphasis in teaching technical disciplines. Surveys showed that American education was slipping compared to other countries and we were losing that superiority we fought so hard to gain in the 1960s. STEM renewed the emphasis on science education in order to stay on top.

STEM to STEAM

The Rhode Island School of Design championed the term STEAM in an attempt to include art and design with the traditional STEM subjects. They are working to promote this transition with educational institutions around the country. A recent article in the Tech Edvocate did a good job of advocating for this move. Traditional STEM subjects are analytical or left-brained by nature whereas art and design and creativity and spatial awareness all come from the right hemisphere of the brain. In order to create a holistic or whole brained approach to teaching STEM subjects, we need to call on our powers of analysis and visualization. This makes sense to me. A recent conversation with school-age youth brought up the same points. Instead of arts trying to tag along with STEM, this is a way to actively incorporate other methods of learning into technical subjects.

Thoughts

If we are deliberate and thoughtful about adding art, design, and visualization exercises into traditional STEM curriculum, then I think it can be a plus for the student. It will help them navigate both hemispheres of the brain in order to turn out a more creative product. What are your thoughts? Is STEAM a good idea or will it detract from the STEM emphasis.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Robot Companions for Seniors

Photograph of smiling elderly woman using a tablet computer.Medical technology is allowing us to live longer but increased longevity also means more of us will live alone. Our average life expectancy is rising but we will not all live to be 100 or older. For seniors living alone, there are now solutions to help with basic living, scheduling, and social tasks that can help keep them independent.

Robot Companions

Isolation is a problem for many people living alone. They may be unable to get out to interact with other people or they simply may have no desire to do so. This is where robots could help. Intuition Robotics has recently introduced ElliQ, an artificial intelligence (AI) robot that interacts with seniors. While this robot does not have traditional arms and legs it is designed to keep seniors in touch with others and help them track appointments and even suggest activities. Most importantly, it works through a natural speech interface. It communicates through a combination of lights and sounds and voice. Because it incorporates machine learning, or AI, it learns habits and preferences and helps set and remember daily schedules and routines.

ElliQ is designed to be a fixed robot but other robots, such as Softbank’s Pepper, are mobile. At this time it can only carry the built-in tablet which acts as its interface, but it can follow or get to people who are less mobile. This is a relatively new device that is starting to be used in retail shops to interact with customers.

Robokind has developed Milo, which is a combination of ElliQ and Pepper but with more humanlike limbs and facial expressions. It accepts voice input and interacts with people through natural voice output and body language. Milo is being touted for seniors and those living alone and for people on the autism spectrum who can benefit from his personal interaction.

Possibilities

I can think of other benefits of these robots. They could aid and encourage music practice. For example, they could be programmed to be a metronome while I practice an instrument. Better yet, they could provide another part of the music that I am playing. For example, if I play the guitar, perhaps the robot could play bass violin or another part to accompany me. Another use could be practicing or learning a foreign language. With the right programming, the robot could provide many components of good language learning courses—lessons, immersion, repetitive practice, immediate feedback and correction.

All of these things keep the mind active and hopefully slow the inevitable aging process. Repetitive tasks such as music or language lessons can increase brain activity and general life satisfaction. With the aid of technology, those extra years can be rich and rewarding.

Thoughts

Can you think of other applications that would help seniors, particularly those living alone? Will robot apps become a new industry? Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Planned Obsolescence in Technology: 1930s to Today

Planned Obsolescence in Technology: 1930s to Today

There is a light bulb hanging in a fire station in Livermore, CA that was installed in 1901 and has been glowing almost nonstop since. It has a carbon filament, unlike incandescent bulbs of today, which use tungsten. It was originally a 60 watt bulb but now gives off the glow of a night light, but the fact remains it has been going for over 115 years. Incandescent bulbs of today have a rating of 1,000 hours and LED bulbs have a life expectancy of 50,000 hours. How did we get from a 115 year bulb to a 1,000 hour bulb to a 50,000 hour bulb? Is the life expectancy planned or completely arbitrary? How does this apply to other technologies?

Lightbulb Cartel

In the 1920s, light bulb manufacturers banded together to create the 1,000 hour limit. Sales of bulbs were flattening since no one had to replace them so, to stimulate sales, alternative materials were introduced to reduce the life expectancy. This created a new avenue for manufacturers, the replacement market.

The term “planned obsolescence” can be traced back to a 1932 business pamphlet. Bernard London proposed to end the depression by taxing people who used goods beyond their life expectancy. This included clothing, automobiles, tires, etc. In his treatise, he explained:

“I propose that when a person continues to possess and use old clothing, automobiles and buildings, after they have passed their obsolescence date, as determined at the time they were created, he should be taxed for such continued use of what is legally ‘dead.’”

Fortunately, this idea was never legislated but the concept seems to have caught on in modern consumer culture.

Old Before Its Time

There are many examples of goods that are discarded because of functional, natural, or style obsolescence. General Motors introduced the “model year” in the 1920s to entice people to purchase a new car to keep up with frequent style changes. In reality, the greatest functional automotive innovation came from the electric starter, which replaced the crank. Clothing styles change frequently as well in order to entice people to purchase the latest fashion.

The stage was set years ago for our current technology obsolescence cycle. Some would argue that our consumerism fuels a growing GDP or spurs innovation and new technological breakthroughs. Others would argue that it fuels mountains of electronic waste and discarded toxic chemicals and minerals.

Operating system upgrades create obsolete products by overloading hardware and firmware. This renders the product, whether it be a smartphone or a smart TV, obsolete and useless. Obsolescence also occurs when someone replaces one piece of technology, such as a computer or operating system, but not the associated printer. This creates a situation where drivers are no longer compatible and components either don’t work at all or work in a diminished functionality. Either scenario is frustrating.

Answers

Unfortunately I do not have the answers to the need for constant technology refresh but I am hoping to start a dialogue here so that together we can come up with a solution. I am the person still running Windows XP on one of my home computers. I understand the security and supportability implications in my decision, but it serves my needs just fine and I don’t think I am keeping any state secrets on my system.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about sustainable production and highlighted projects such as Google’s Ara which is a modular smartphone with replaceable components. I am heartened that there are people and companies that are tackling this issue but I think we all need to understand the potential outcome of our purchase decisions.

Thoughts

Let me know if you have ever been frustrated by a sudden lack of operability because of an upgrade or planned obsolescence. What is your answer? When you purchase a new product do you think about its total lifecycle? How does that affect your choice? Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Education Trends in 2017

Image of a student walking a road labeled 2017 with a question mark on the horizon.I try to follow higher education trends to make sure I know what is coming and can gear my teaching appropriately. This blog highlights some of the strategies and technologies I think will emerge in 2017. We will see in 12 months if I was right.

Improved Distance Education

I think technologies that create a shared classroom experience will improve distance education in 2017. Students will increasingly enroll in distance education,  so it is important that we improve the virtual classroom.

Immersive virtual reality is growing in popularity. I was one of the first to try out HP’s Halo telepresence system, now a Polycom product. Each of the teleconference rooms were physically identical, right down to the wall coloring and furniture. The idea is that you see your colleagues across the country or the world on the bank of monitors in front of you and feel like they are just on the other side of the table. It is a good idea and it works great but is expensive to purchase and maintain. Imagine if you could take this same technology into distance education using virtual reality. You could hold debates, work on shared projects, and hopefully improve the overall education experience to the point where it approximates an in-person experience. A September article from the Center for Digital Education highlights some of the specific developments in this area. The experience won’t change overnight but it is an important tool to improve distance education and an area that I will be monitoring.

Industry Partnerships

I believe that we need to do a better job of matching curriculum with skills needed in the workplace. In ancient Greece, students attended Plato’s Academy to learn thinking skills and become philosophers. Today we also need to equip students with applied skills they can use to further the mission of an employer. Rather than guessing what skills employers need, it is important to form partnerships and allow input into curriculum design. This could also lead to more internship opportunities where students could practice newly-learned skills. A strong partnership will help schools meet the needs of industry.

Standardized Certification System

Particularly in information technology and information management, there are a large number of available professional certificates. They range from security to advanced networking to systems administration. As an employer, how do I know whether a new or current employee presenting these certifications can really do the job? How do I know whether organizations offering these certifications are legitimate? Author Matthew Meyer, in a 2016 article, argued for a national certification system. This would be a certification system for certifiers, if you will. With the rising popularity of certificates this is an idea whose time has come because it would add some legitimacy to a certificate and assure quality and rigor to an employer. As I write this however, the American Commission for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) is fighting for its survival in the courts after the federal government cut off student aid for people attending those certified colleges. It could take several revisions to work out an appropriate certification body similar to the current regional accreditors for non-profit universities.

Political Changes

The political climate in the United States changed with the election and that could mean a shift in direction for post-secondary education. There could be more focus on vocational education, research, or toward non-degreed education such as skills-based certifications. The government influences the direction and emphasis on higher education through federal funds and guaranteed student loans. I believe that there will be a split emphasis on advanced research and skills-based education as we focus on current and anticipated workforce needs.

Thoughts

There is a lot changing in higher education and it’s an exciting time to work in this field.

What changes are you seeing in education? Are we taking advantage of technology and ideas on improving learning? Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Technology Trends: 2016 Year In Review

Image of a butterfly on a robot's finger.This blog post is a review of 2016 technology trends and their impact on how we will work and live in the future. Many of the advances are continuations of work from years past, but we are getting ever closer to a different world.

Communication Technologies

MIT Technology Review publishes a Top 10 Technologies list and this year it included research from the University of Washington on passive wi-fi devices. The UW team has developed breakthrough ultra-low power devices that reflect the signal or backscatter from a nearby connected wi-fi transmitter. This is important because it will allow Internet of Things devices to be embedded in areas that can’t always rely on a traditional wireless signal. MIT suggests that this will be commercialized in two or three years and will help spread the popularity of small, connected devices.

Another emerging communication technology is the conversational or natural language interface. With the introduction of Amazon Echo, Google Home and other devices, it is common to have a spoken interface as opposed to typed instructions. We are finally moving away from text input thanks to innovations in speech recognition. In a recent report in the MIT Sloan Management Review, vendors are taking this one step further and capturing chat or speech conversations via bots in order to offer associated services. For example, your next pizza order could be through natural language input to an app while conversing with a bot recording your instructions. Surely with your pizza and bread sticks you must need a salad or soda that just happens to be on sale right now. The bot processes information from the context of the conversation and makes decisions and offers on the fly.

Cognitive Computing

Artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning is a technology that data scientists have been developing for many years and will continue to develop. Cognitive computing combines AI, natural language processing, speech, vision, and advanced data processing. These systems take input and match it to massive databases to form responses and learn new pathways. By learning and creating new algorithms, the system and applications are better able to serve you in the future. Examples of cognitive computing are IBM Watson and Google DeepMind. In the case of the pizza order above, cognitive computing is an example of how a computer can learn preferences and build responses appropriately.

Autonomous Technologies

Robotic and autonomous technologies have made strides this year as they move closer to mainstream adoption. Robots have been used for some time in industrial and assembly applications where consistency and precision is important. They also play a big role in areas where there are life and safety threats, such as search and rescue or in an area contaminated with toxic chemicals. We don’t have the same regard for the “life” of a robot as we do for humans. In that sense, they are very much welcome into our ecosystem.

Autonomous automotive technologies also made progress in 2016. Automakers are introducing applications like steering assist or autonomous steering and adaptive cruise control. New vehicles are slowly being equipped with technology that will eventually render them completely self-driving. Makers such as Volvo and Mercedes are testing more autonomous vehicles on public roads. Self-driving vehicles require advanced vision and learning systems provided by improvements in cognitive computing mentioned above.

Thoughts

Advanced communications, cognitive and autonomous technologies have all been in play in 2016. These are all interrelated advancements that often benefit each other. While exciting, these developments also bring worries, including economic and safety concerns with robotics and privacy concerns with learning systems and communications. It is important that we march into the future with a balanced perspective.

What do you see as the upcoming technologies in 2017? Will we see any breakthroughs? Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Can Technology Help to Feed the World?

Aerial view of the tractor spraying the chemicals on the large green fieldThe world population is expected to exceed nine billion people by 2050 from an estimated 7.3 billion today, according to various sources. How will we be able to feed all of those extra people? Water is already in short supply so it will be difficult to create additional arable land. Forests around the world are being plowed under to meet this growing need, but in the process we are changing the balance of fragile ecosystems. A National Geographic author asks: How can the world double the availability of food while simultaneously cutting the environmental harm caused by agriculture?

The answer may be farms capable of increasing food production through technology while also reducing their environmental impact.

So Many Cows

Three Mile Canyon Farms in rural Boardman, OR combines a dairy operation with cropland dedicated to potatoes, onions, carrots, and various organic crops. The sheer size of this operation sets it apart from other private or even corporate farms. The entire ranch covers 93,000 acres and houses 24,000 cows that produce 165,000 gallons of milk each day. There are milk trucks lined up 24 hours a day to haul the milk to a nearby cheese processing plant. This farm is set up to be a closed loop system in terms of waste management. The manure is used to fertilize the potatoes and the potato skins and culls from the processing plant are used as feed for the cows. Any excess methane from the waste collection is used to create electricity for the operation. Automated milking machines collect the milk, which is how they are able to run such a large operation. The water for the potatoes and other crops comes from the nearby Columbia river but is used judiciously by employing computerized hydrology maps, which I wrote about in a recent blog. The farm has set aside 23,000 acres as a preserve for wildlife and endangered plant species. They are trying to reach a balance of feeding an increasing population while still being good stewards of the land and environment.

The Science of Crop Production

Another technology that is available is the controversial genetically modified organism or GMO. These modified seeds can achieve increased yield through built in drought or pesticide resistance. The manufacturer often controls the seed so it may not be widely available or affordable for emerging nations. The controversy surrounding GMO is that there are many unknowns. How will the genetic modifications affect the health of the consumer in this generation or in generations to come? How do we keep GMO seeds in one field from cross-pollinating with non-GMO seeds in another field? Will crops from GMO seeds have the same nutritional value as their unaltered counterparts? As with any new technology, there are initial barriers, but GMO is one potential solution for feeding a growing population.

Low Tech Solutions

In a Nature Journal article earlier this year the authors compared yields between organic crops and those raised with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  Studies show a consistently lower yield for organic crops but when grown in drought conditions, the organic crops came out on top. This is due to the fact that non-chemically treated soils better retain moisture. Organic farming is potentially one piece of the puzzle for feeding a growing population.

Thoughts

Eighteenth century cleric and philosopher Thomas Malthus suggested in his book “An Essay on the Principle of Population” that prosperity would bring about population growth but that growth cycle was not sustainable and would eventually end in famine and starvation. It remains to be seen whether technology will help us forestall his predictions or whether his ideas are no longer valid. It is certain that we will need to produce more food for a growing population and technology is one way of achieving that. Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Geek Gifts for the Holidays

Hand emerging from laptop, holding wrapped gift.I am compiling my gift list for the upcoming holiday season and paying particular attention to my tech friends. New devices are being developed to provide comfort, efficiency, or just plain fun. What would be the perfect gift for my geek friends?

Smart Devices For A Smart Home

Google introduced Home last week, just in time for the holidays. It is similar to Amazon Echo as a home device that accepts voice commands and can queue up a music play list, answer questions or interact with other smart devices in the home. It is basically a voice activated internet device that is paired with home wifi to connect to cloud storage or various web sites to check weather, traffic, answer trivia questions, or activate audio from sites such as Spotify or Pandora.

Home can be paired with Nest products which are home control devices. Nest, like Google, is a subsidiary of Alphabet so devices are compatible. The internet connected Nest Learning Thermostat replaces a traditional home thermostat and can maximize energy efficiency and comfort at the same time. Indoor and outdoor cameras can also be integrated into the home system to be controlled via an app while away or Google Home while in the house. OK, Google, it’s cold in here, and what is that noise outside?

You can go one step further this holiday and add TP-Link Smart Light Bulbs to your home system. These are wifi LED dimmable bulbs that you can operate via a smartphone app, Amazon Echo and presumably the new Home. Check to make sure your lights are turned off or turn them on remotely to greet you upon return. You can also establish a timed schedule. Home automation devices have come a long way to ensure security and comfort during the holidays and the rest of the year.

Just For Fun

For the geek on your gift list there are some fun new toys. Nanotips makes a conductive paint you can apply to the fingertips of your favorite gloves so you can operate smartphones and tablets without exposing your hands. This would be great for my ski, motorcycle or biking gloves, but I still need to figure out how to make a sharper fingertip so that I can text.

The Tap A Tune Musical Gloves sound like a lot of fun. These are musical gloves that play like a piano on any surface. There are sensors in the fingertips that are fed back to the speaker/controller so you can practice the piano or compose a new tune anywhere.

Finally, for the geek on your list who also happens to be a Harry Potter fan there is the Kymera Magic Wand Universal Control. It works through gestures instead of boring buttons and provides haptic feedback so you know whether you are casting the right spell or changing the channel up or down.

Thoughts

Technology is constantly evolving and entrepreneurs are innovating exciting designs they hope will enhance our lives. Some are practical and some are just for fun. There are many products to help automate our lives and some to bring a smile or a laugh. What are you going to get the geek on your holiday list? Let me know of great potential gifts you have found.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Blurring the Boundaries Between Work and Vacation

Image of day planner with work x-ed out and "day off" written in.I was recently at a car museum full of beautiful automobiles from the last 100 plus years. In one of the exhibits I noticed a gentleman on his cell phone conducting what sounded like a business conference. If he had a family with him, they had already moved on to another hall. I thought about that. Amongst all of these fantastic cars, he saw the need to divert his focus. Was he multi-tasking or was he truly missing out on the opportunity that surrounded him? I wonder if we haven’t blurred the lines between work and non-work until they are undistinguishable.

Two Weeks to Infinity

A number of companies, mostly high tech giants like Netflix, have introduced unlimited vacation time. Software developer Hubspot, has gone one step further and coined their vacation policy “two weeks to infinity,” which means they encourage their employees to take at least two weeks off each year, more if necessary. Software maker Buffer takes it one more step by offering employees $1,000 to actually use their vacation time. In other words, the company is paying employees to make use of a benefit they already have. No wonder we’re so tired.

The caveat behind most if not all of the unlimited vacation policies is the unspoken phrase “as long as you get all of your work done.” In a Harvard Business Review article last year the author argued that whether an unlimited vacation policy succeeds or not depends on trust within the company. Some companies have found that an unlimited vacation time policy actually resulted in employees taking fewer vacation days because they feel pressure to work more without the traditional boundaries. The Tribune, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, rescinded their unlimited vacation policy in 2014 just a week after implementing it. With no vacation bank employees could no longer cash out their saved vacation hours when leaving the company, which turned out to be a coveted perk. Workers preferred the cash to the vacation. It can be hard to keep up with work, and vacation time suffers.

There’s an App for That

While we need an incentive or a reconstructed vacation policy in order to actually take time off, we also have more tools for conducting business while away from the office. Tools such as WhatsApp, Cisco Spark, and Facebook Messenger allow people to receive e-mails, texts or video communication on any device. Some of these apps also provide for screen sharing. They make use of the cloud by providing dedicated rooms for conversations and document sharing. At the same time, security is also important, often through message encryption. So, now we are afraid to take vacation in case we get behind in our work and even when we do take vacation, we are accessible to colleagues back at the office. If we are never offline, is it really a vacation? Is this the new norm?

Thoughts

I would love to hear your thoughts on the value of time off. Does a working vacation provide the same recharge as one where you are completely unplugged? Is the idea of “time off” going to go the way of the flip phone now that lines are blurring between work and non-work? Perhaps we need a new definition of work? Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.