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Learning Lessons From the Zenith Space Phone: An Early Example of IoT?

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Learning Lessons From the Zenith Space Phone: An Early Example of IoT?

A look back at the tech of the 1980s reveals an important lesson: Just because you can connect devices doesn't mean you should. That has implications for IoT.

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When I was a kid, I remember my dad having a new television delivered to the house. It was the early 1980s and the TV he selected was a Zenith System 3. While the TV screen was probably not more than 27" in diameter, it was encased in a large wooden assembly and probably weighed 200 pounds. In addition to treble and bass controls for the multiple speakers, this TV came with Space Phone technology.

When the television was connected to an open phone line, it became possible to make and receive telephone calls directly from the television. I am not sure why it was called Space Phone technology, because it did not allow any form of interstellar conversations, just normal telephone conversations.

While watching, the TV would ring along with the other land-based phone lines in the house. There was a button on the remote control, labeled Space Phone, that allowed the call to be answered while watching the TV. In doing so, the sound for the television program was muted.

Here is one of the commercials I was able to find for the Zenith System 3 with Space Phone technology:

There were a few key problems with the Space Phone idea, at least in my view as a consumer:

  • Quality: While I could understand the other party without any issues, everyone told us we sounded like we were "talking through a tunnel" and they found it hard to understand what we were saying during the Space Phone conversation. So, there was a lot of repeating going on during the conversations and the most spoken phrase from the other party was "what did you say?"

  • Interruption in Service: There was nothing like being focused on your favorite program or sports event and having to pause the sound in order to answer the incoming phone call. Remember, this was before DVR technology existed, so pausing live TV wasn't an option back then.

  • Speakerphone: The conversation was basically a speakerphone conversation. I think everyone realizes how painful it is to hear someone talking on their speakerphone. Imagine where that is the only conversation going on in the room, while trying to watch a muted television.

In a very small way, the Space Phone idea was kind of like an entry into the Internet of Things concepts that are available today. I mean, this was years before the Internet became mainstream, but the idea of having a connected telephone network served a similar purpose in this regard. The Zenith System 3 became a hub to allow communication with friends and family without having to get up from your favorite spot in front of the television. However, like I noted, there were drawbacks to the technology.

IoT and Today

With the memories of the Space Phone still on my mind, I see similar drawbacks with some of the IoT devices today. Recently, we received a couple gifts for the holiday season. One is an Amazon Echo and another is an Ecobee3.

Both are really cool devices that were pretty easy to get setup and working. Well, the Ecobee3 required a call to support and a follow-up email but was a result of how our HVAC system was configured and not related to the Ecobee3 itself. For the record, the Ecobee3 support team were awesome in getting my issues resolved.

My biggest issue with these devices are with the voice recognition side of things. Don't get me wrong, it is really cool to say "Alexa, play some Eric Church music" or "Alexa, set main floor temperature to 72 degrees." My issue is that I have to make sure everyone is quiet so that Alexa can fully hear and understand what is being asked.

Just last week, while visiting family in Las Vegas, their Echo told us to take a break, when Alexa could not comprehend what was being asked, due to too many people talking in the area.

So, in a way, it is kind of like the bad parts of the Space Phone technology. Everyone has to stop talking, so that the technology can do what is being asked. Where it doesn't make sense is when I am trying to say "Alexa, turn off the light." To me, the effort to have everyone be quiet so that I can tell the IoT device to turn off a light is far greater than simply getting up and turning off the light myself.


With the Space Phone my dad bought, it wasn't too long before the novelty wore off and we disconnected the telephone cable from the back of the television. We realized the benefit in using the technology outweighed the cost of using the technology, especially when others were in the room and trying to watch the television.

I wonder if some of the IoT coolness will fall victim to a similar fate in time. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of IoT technology and think a lot of greatness will happen as a result. It just seems like the novelty may wear off quickly for some of the tasks that are possible.

Remember, just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

Have a really great day!

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amazon echo ,iot ,connected devices ,iot app development

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