Motion detectors: say hello, wave goodbye and… flushhhhhh

Some things are better left without a video greeting

165 Reg comments Got Tips?

Something for the Weekend, Sir? How did Ernest Hemingway get his scar?

Come on, everyone loves a quiz. Bored stay-at-homes play them. Pubs boost their weekday profits with them. Facebook influences the voting patterns of the feeble-minded with them.

So, that scar on Hemingway's forehead, how do you think it was acquired? You don't even need to be well-read in American literature for this quiz as I am going to let you pick from multiple-choice answers. Just conjure up a vision of boisterous, macho, womanising, big-game-hunting Ernest in his prime and choose from one of the following:

(a) it was given to him during a duel with a girlfriend's irate husband

(b) it was inflicted while on safari by a pouncing wild animal just as he fired his shotgun

(c) it was the result of a bare-knuckle fight that broke out in the middle of a boozy late-night card game

(d) a toilet window fell on his head while he was having a shit

Given that Hemingway himself always went out of his way to avoid answering the question in public, I think you can guess which one to pick. Legend has it that he was in Paris and wasn't fully accustomed to the old European pull-chain flush cistern, so accidentally yanked on the cord for tilting open the window to let the "bad air" out (A Farewell To Arse, if you like). The sheer force of his muscular man-pull – ooh matron – brought the pane crashing down on his boorish bonce.

Mind you, this has a whiff of fantasy about it – as well as a whiff of something else – and might be as true as the many ludicrous stories comedian Dave Allen invented to explain his missing right forefinger, ranging from being hit on the head while biting his knuckles to a freak arse-scratching incident. But since vast swathes of otherwise intelligent people believe any old conspiracy crap they watch on YouTube, I don't feel so bad about putting my trust in Wikipedia.

Besides, regular SFTW readers will have guessed where this train of thought is heading. To which subject do I return every few weeks, without fail?

Ah yes. Toilets.

I sympathise with Hemingway. He found himself in a foreign town with strange lavatory customs. I remain emotionally scarred from my first encounter with a Turkish toilet 30 years ago. The incident has since taken on epic proportions in my nightmares, in which the bog is dimly illuminated by a flickering, unshaded, yellow lightbulb as an unutterable stench arises from the bottomless well and someone leans heavily onto the keys of a church organ.

This week, I have been tiptoeing my way though restroom etiquette in Chicago. Now I know why it's called "the windy city". Perhaps it's the fine hotels, restaurants and airports I tend to frequent when accompanied by Mme D but every toilet I encountered was fitted with a hands-free flush trigger.

Now while I can appreciate the utility, not to mention apt naming, of installing a "motion-detector" in a toilet, I do wish they'd work consistently. With some, the action of standing up is enough to trigger a flush. In others, you have to wave your hand, which is funny because that's actually what other people do if I exit a toilet, especially if I leave the door open.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no consistency in how the waving gesture should be performed. I experienced particular trouble with the in-flight toilets there and back on American Airlines. I tried passing my hand across the sensor over and over again until I looked like a failed Tommy Cooper impersonator. I tried twiddling my fingers Al Jolson-style. I tried throwing some shapes like I was Marcel Marceau voguing. I waved buh-bye. I shook my fist. I flicked Vs.

Eventually, I gave up and left the compartment, whereupon the bowl flushed.

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It would seem that in the customer-facing sector of the excrement processing industry there are no standards by which manufacturers abide… and therefore none for you or I to learn. Nor is the problem limited to log rollers: modern interface designers in all industries display a cavalier attitude to common convention or life-learned skills. Thanks to disruptors, a total lack of standards is the standard that defines the tech era.

Delivery company Hermes recently announced a cute option for individuals sending parcels to friends and family, in which a package can be accompanied by a personal video message. With Hermes Play, the sender records themselves (or their kids, you get the idea) saying hello and happy birthday or whatever, and the recipient gets to watch the video when the parcel is delivered. Like I say, cute.

Except… there's no greeting video in the package, obviously: there's a 2D barcode printed on the label that links to a video that has been uploaded to a Hermes Play server. So the recipient scans the barcode with a smartphone. Oh, and it's not just bog-standard HTML video, it's going to use augmented reality, so the smartphone will need to install and run a specific scanning app and media player.

Somehow the recipient will know they have to do all this.

"Hey look, I've received a package! I don't know who it's from because the return label is smudged and caked in grease, like all package labels! I spontaneously feel compelled to open Google Play to browse for an app branded by a specific delivery company I'd not heard of before and wait for it to install so I can scan one of the 17 different and randomly torn barcode stickers adorning the box to call up a video that AR technology will, by design, play back in wonky perspective while I frantically try to un-mute my handset before the video ends! This is my best birthday EVER!"

And developers wonder why AR still hasn't caught on. Let me make it simple: if there was a universal AR standard and a universal AR app, or if it just ran in a web browser without proprietary plugins, everyone would be using it, every day, for everything.

Perhaps the sender of the parcel could record another video of themselves explaining to the recipient how to play the first video, then stick it on YouTube.

Better still, wouldn't it be fun if less reliable delivery companies than Hermes tried to offer video greetings with deliveries?

Hi there! Now that you've opened your package, you will have realised it's actually for a neighbour who has a penchant for fluffy slipper porn! Just take it round to their house in your own time whenever it's convenient (i.e. for us). Thank you!

Hi there! I bet you're wondering why your package was tossed over the hedge during a rainstorm two days ago and left to be torn apart by foxes! Thank you!

Hi there! We're sorry you were unable to answer your front door within 1.5 seconds of us considering but not actually ringing the bell. We have returned your package to the nearest depot for collection (distance from recipient address: approx 74 miles). Thank you!

No doubt you can suggest some other messages.

I'd better leave you to it as I have a busy day ahead scouring the internet for instructions on how to operate the unfeasibly complex assortment of levers, pulleys, wheels and gyroscopes required to turn on the shower in my hotel bathroom. Disruption has its place, I suppose, but interfering with how I wash my arse should not be one of them.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He apologies to Hermes for hijacking their friendly video-greeting product announcement for use as a clumsy analogy for criticising disruptive interface designers, as well as ridiculing their competitors – an easy win, let's face it. @alidabbs


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