Commentary

Why Are Electronic Devices So Blinking Obnoxious?

Our precious attentions are bombarded not just by email spam and untargeted advertising. Electronic devices are guilty as well.

Venture capitalist Albert Wenger recently described the overkill of bright lights and LEDs. He said: "It seems that every device these days comes with one or more LEDs to announce its presence. Between a couple of laptops, some cell phones, some cordless phones, several powerstrips, a TV and a cablebox our bedroom looks a bit like Times Square."

I know exactly what he's talking about, and nowhere is this more evident than in my family's home movie room. I take pride in our movie room because it's full of high-tech gadgets to accentuate our viewing and listening pleasure. We've got a big plasma television powered by a DVD player, a DVR, a cable box, a Roku, a dedicated PC, a powerful receiver, surround-sound speakers and a speaker selection panel. We've also got an Internet router, high-voltage power strips and an Internet radio tuner. I'm probably leaving a few things out, but you get the idea -- there's a lot of electronics, and they all lead to a discreet entertainment console.

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And there lies the problem: While I try to hide as many devices as possible in console cabinets, it seems every one violates the sacred darkness in which we prefer to watch our movies. Some blink, while others emit a steady glow. Some are single LEDs, while others are complex visual displays. It's a sharp and dull pain all in one.

The solution? Albert suggested duct tape to cover the LEDs. But I've long found black electric tape to be far more elegant, and it really works well. Through this method, I've also found that most LEDs and displays are superfluous. I don't miss the blinking lights from the Fios router, the ambient glow from backlit logo of the Samsung television, nor the blinking time and channel indicator on the cable box -- and so on.

All this points to a major, common design flaws. If a home-entertainment device is supposed to work in the background, it shouldn't kick and scream for attention. It should do its job flawlessly and subtly, so I can focus my attention on the intended experience (video and audio). That means LEDs and displays should remain dim, if not invisible, when idle or unneeded. I shouldn't have to invent ways of hiding or filtering their annoying status updates. It's bad enough with email spam and most advertising. This is one reason we limit the electronics in our bedrooms.

If electronic devices must include a display or status indicator, they should take a page from the Amazon Kindle. The Kindle uses electronic paper, which requires no backlight, and is much easier on the eyes.

This seems a trivial rant, but a solution will become more important as more electronic devices enter our lives.

9 comments about "Why Are Electronic Devices So Blinking Obnoxious? ".
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  1. Gerard Mclean from Rivershark, Inc., August 7, 2009 at 12:03 p.m.

    Not a trivial rant. The best thing I like about my Netgear router is the ability to turn the blue LEDs off.. but the second best thing I like about it is to watch those LEDs blink.

    Way back when I was selling horse products to vets, we had a product that was an electronic box. No LEDs. Rough sales. We added some LEDs that pulsed with the electronic current, sold like hotcakes. (that all we did and called it version 2) I suspect the consumer electronics industry is the same way...

    But, maybe they should have a "Movie Mode" that kills the LEDs.

  2. Simon Cohen from Bell Canada, August 7, 2009 at 12:14 p.m.

    I hear you Max, but I think you're tilting at windmills to a certain extent. Indicator lights, when done correctly, provide a vital feedback mechanism as to a device's status. Clearly a glowing logo is an example of a poor design choice - especially on a TV.
    But I'm not with you on the e-paper idea. If a device needs an indicator to ensure correct operation e.g. the input setting on an AV receiver, it needs to be visible (and readable) from across a room.
    I much prefer Gerard's suggestion of a Movie Mode that could be user-configured, much like the dimmer mode on most decent bed-side-table alarm clocks.

  3. Cynthia Harrington from Transition Technologies, August 7, 2009 at 12:17 p.m.

    I study brain development and may have some insight to share. It's possible the answer lies in the likely designers. 23 year old men?
    "Newborn girls spend more time than newborn boys maintaining eye contact with adults. At four months, infant girls have better face recognition than boys. Conversely, infant boys are better able to track a blinking light across a TV monitor (a portent of adolescent video fixation?), and will gaze as intently at a blinking light as at a human face."

    http://www.homeeducator.com/FamilyTimes/articles08/88-2.html

  4. Malcolm Doak from KORG USA, Inc., August 7, 2009 at 12:21 p.m.

    Gotta hand it Olevia. The blue LED is a "Standby" light; Once the LCD TV is "on", the light goes off.

  5. Linda Lopez from Independent, August 7, 2009 at 1:45 p.m.

    Light at night, especially in the bedroom, is actually worse than annoying. Check out this article http://harvardmagazine.com/2005/07/deep-into-sleep.html and take note of this passage in particular:

    Mangelsdorf professor of natural sciences J. Woodland Hastings has shown that even a split-second of light exposure can shift the circadian cycle of a single-celled organism by a full hour. Light interferes with sleep, at least partly because it inhibits melatonin secretion and thus resets the biological clock. For this reason, those seeking a sound sleep should probably keep their bedroom as dark as possible and by all means avoid midnight trips to brightly lit bathrooms or kitchens; blue light, with its shorter wavelength—and its resemblance to the sunlit sky—has the most powerful resetting effect.

  6. Leon Thomas from Flashy Trends, August 7, 2009 at 2:33 p.m.

    Good post Max but the solutions is a simple one for electronic manufacturers. They just need to do what’s done in advanced cockpits around the world.

    In the past, pilots had to deal with lots of flashing lights. Now, they only see a light when there is a problem. If the equipment is operating normally, it’s dark.

  7. Max Kalehoff from SocialCode, August 7, 2009 at 3:44 p.m.

    @Linda: I read that research and other like it, and that's why I strongly object to television and devices in the bedroom.

    @Leon: Great point. I'm a sailor and the same goes true for navigation equipment. Pilots and captains are not the only ones who need NOT be distracted by obnoxious blinking.

  8. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., August 7, 2009 at 8:36 p.m.

    Second that. Sub-red lights on all at-sea equipment are a must. I guess that extends to in-car stuff as well.

  9. Don Ackerman, August 8, 2009 at 10:05 a.m.

    Great points. It's a perfect reminder of design and use. Are the lights needed? What is the purpose of the lights? I love the idea of a silent/dark or sell it as a "green" mode.

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