My iPhone, My Self: Fumbling For Life's New Remote

I was aghast -- stupefied -- gobsmacked. As we left the nearby Super Fresh grocery store, after another run in between my phone and the Scan-It self-checkout app, my wife fully expected my ire to be targeted at the in-store technology yet again.

But no. this time I was beside myself over the checkout clerk that had to come help us when the product scanning app failed to synch properly with the checkout terminal…again.

“I had to scold the checkout lady,” I fumed in the parking lot.

“Because the checkout screwed up again?” she guessed.

“She asked me if the iPhone I had on the counter was a 6 or a 6 Plus. When I told her it was the Plus, she snatched it off the counter and started flipping it over in her hands gushing, 'ooh I want one' like a five-year-old. I asked her to please put down my phone.”

At this my wife just gave me that patented “I-want-to-support-you-in-your-rage-but-I-am-not-sure-I-get-you” look. She waited politely for me to fill the obvious void.

“You don’t see it.”

“I would have picked up the phone too. After all, it is the size of Rhode Island. Seems like a natural human reaction.”

The idea that the cell phone is an extension of the self is about as old as the device itself. We all recall the hackneyed “pass your phone to the person next to you” thought experiment at trade shows four or five years ago. It was designed to make the point of how “personally” we take these devices.

And now the extraordinary and unprecedented intimacy of these media devices is a part of legal precedent. The recent Supreme Court ruling limiting searches of cell phone contents grounded the unanimous opinion on an extraordinary observation. Chief Justice John Roberts described these devices as being “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

We are only beginning to understand the extent to which these devices are blending the functionality of media with that of real world tools. And it is in line with one of Marshall McLuhan’s core observations in his "Understanding Media" book decades ago. “It is the persistent theme of this book that all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed,” he wrote.

Well, the trick will be getting the phone and its various wireless control systems to really work with a realm of connect objects.

The results have been mixed for me of late, as I have been testing out this idea of phone as all-in-one remote for living model.

The new Pioneer audio head unit in my car does indeed detect my BT connect well enough and can handle calls hands-free. But for the life of me, its voice command integration with Siri is useless. The deck keeps telling me “I’m listening” when it really isn’t.

I got into a fight with the Logitech Harmony universal remote system a couple of weeks ago as I tried to get its too-complex setup to synch phone app with laptop app with dedicated remote with the various pieces of the home theater. It is waiting in a corner for a rematch after we both settle down and let bygones be bygones.

I love the idea of using these super-processing cell phones and tablets as media bugs that “throw” games, movies and images to TV and PC screens. This is a model I am sure will be commonplace in years to come. But getting all of your devices on the same network  and then getting sufficient bandwidth across all the chokepoints is daunting at best. In my home theater set up, AirPlay is more a good concept than a reality. I have been trying to find a router that successfully pushed robust signals through walls, stairwells and doors reliably enough to make me a one-touch master of my media domain.

According to reports, Apple is exploring with partners a number of new use cases for the embedded NFC chip now in iPhone 6 models. Apple Pay is the only operation allowed to access NFC currently, but like Touch ID before it, the technology is likely destined for use by third parties. 

But it turns out it is in the little things where the phone-as-Swiss-Army-Knife model comes through. A new device called The Tile is a personal beacon you can attach to keys, purses, or any object in order to find it nearby via your phone. In our house, we tried it on the neediest case -- my wife’s keys.

“Honey, have you seen my keys?” is the lament initiating the big quest in our house. She has been known to leave them in all manner of places -- from bathroom to basement washer, under any number of cushions to the door keyhole itself (sometimes for extended periods of time). This weekend the search went on so long she started accusing me of testing her.

“Listen, tell me the truth. Did you hide them to teach me a lesson about losing my keys?”

“No, actually I don’t think as deviously as you. It never occurred to me until this second to do such a thing. But now that we are into fifteen minutes of searching, I think you can count on a pop key quiz sometime in your future.”

We found the keys in an obvious place we hadn’t considered. But on the spot I installed the TheTile on her key ring. All you need to do is download the app, press a spot on the Tile itself as it rings and let it synch with the phone. You can use as many Tiles as you like, tag them with names in the app, and even take a photo of the object to use as an icon for activating the audio beacon. Lo and behold, this is one non-media phone utility that works as easily and as well as promised. No more lost keys. Just tap the icon in the app to make it chirp for you.

Well, except for one thing.

“Honey, where is my phone?”   


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