How Grandma Saved Democracy

Visiting my 90 year old grandma a couple of weeks ago, I saw the opportunity for a product that I think would have a lot of success in the marketplace.  Like the iPhone though, it’s not so much the idea — I’m sure someone is working on or already has the idea — but rather in the implementation and interface.

My grandma has one of those electronic picture frames that sits in her living room, is connected to a proprietary service via a phone line, and can be updated with new pictures remotely by her family members.  She gets incredible delight in discovering new photos and watching old ones go by as she drinks her tea in the morning or before bed at night.  The key to this whole product for her (and for many others) is that it works completely without her having to lift a finger. Her family set it up and they take responsibility for updating the photos.  If grandma had to intervene somehow, her lack of any technological familiarity would be a show-stopper.

Every year these picture frames get better.  Currently there are ones that connect to the internet via wi-fi instead of a phone line, and link up to open photo-sharing sites like Flickr.  Clearly, it won’t be long before other functionality is added, like web-browsing, email and instant messaging.  But I don’t think these extensions will catch on, mainly because the ergonomics for typing are bad, and if you had to add a physical keyboard you might as well just go use your laptop.

The extension that will catch on is a well-integrated video chat system.  Imagine Apple’s iChat system with the following front-end tacked on.  The frame gets a switch at the bottom that toggles between Picture Mode and Video Chat Mode.  When in VC Mode, a set of onscreen buttons pop up, as follows: “Chat with Bobby”, “Chat with Dr. Rosen”, etc.  Each option is pre-programmed on a central server so there is no typing for grandma.

I can imagine such a system becoming an important way for extended families and distantly located friends to stay in touch.  It also may be useful for emergency services.  For instance there could be a physical panic button on the frame that dials 911 and activates the camera and microphone (one-way) so that the police can monitor what’s going on and decide how to respond.

Hey, while we are dreaming, why not extend the system eventually to a become a secure and private voting machine for local and national elections?   In the wake of voting machine fraud in 2000 and 2004 this may seem a long way off.  But the problem with secure voting systems has never been due to a lack of actual technological solutions.

At first we will all use our home picture frames to respond to unofficial polls, like exit polls or American Idol voting. Next time around, it’s used for pseudo-official polling to let our elected representatives know how we feel on certain topics.  After that, it shouldn’t be long before we are comfortable dipping our toes in the personal democracy waters for real, first with local referendums (like city and state ballot propositions).  And once the training wheels are off, it will be hard to stop the groundswell of support for the whole enchilada.