Dystopian Shopping Malls of the Future

Walking around Westfield Stratford yesterday reminded me of the dystopian shopping malls of the future, most memorably from Minority Report:

Glass, steel, floating displays, and not a speck of dust to be seen. Dominated by the same shops, the same clothes, and the same food you’ll see in a thousand different malls. All of your individual needs can be met here – all of your needs will be met, because all the high streets have disappeared and we have brought the best the world has to offer, all under one hybrid-glass-open-closed-roof.

And yet, it really didn’t seem that bad. Unlike most dystopian shopping malls, there weren’t armed guards with a hair-trigger mandate to shoot undesirables; in fact there was quite a range of people, rich and (relatively) poor, of all ethnicities and ages and interests. Even some of the food was really quite good and reasonably priced.

I do have problems with mega-shopping malls – they crowd out more interesting and newer shops, they’re ill-suited for rapid changes in habits, they’re corporate-owned public spaces – but like Starbucks, there’s a reason why people visit and like them, even though we know we’re not supposed to. Before dismissing malls of the future and all the people who go to them, it’s worth thinking about the differences between our dystopic visions and reality.

Brief thoughts on futile presents

There exists a class of products – DVD boardgames, TV tie-in books, themed calendars – that I believe no-one actually buys for themselves. Instead, they are only bought as Christmas presents for other people who ‘like cars’ or ‘watch 24’. There are obviously other products that are only bought as gifts, the most obvious being giftcards, vouchers, trips on hot air balloons, etc., but the difference is that these are quite obviously gifts, whereas the former class are, at least to the naked eye, potential products you might buy for yourself.

The reason why I think no-one actually buys these things for themselves is because they appear to be uniformly shoddy and awful. Perhaps I have too high an opinion of humanity, but I just can’t see even the most die-hard Top Gear fan go out and buy the DVD boardgame for himself; a book, yes, but not a DVD boardgame. But someone who’s frantically searching the shelves of Borders at Christmas and then spots this boardgame and thinks, ‘Oh, I know he likes cars’ will definitely give it some thought.

Say the boardgame is awful (it might be good, I don’t know, but usually these things aren’t). The person who receives it will obviously not be inclined to buy it in the future – not that they were ever likely to. Unless they’re particularly forthright or rude, they probably won’t tell the person who gave it to them that it was awful. So you simply end up in the situation of all these terrible products being made every Christmas, only being bought as presents, and their actual quality never being evaluated; instead, they’re bought because of the box art or the commercial tie-in or the trendiness.

Which I suppose is how most things are bought, but at least you’re doing it for yourself…

(I should point out that this is thankfully not a comment on any presents I received this year)


I have my Wii, preordered from Woolworths about three weeks ago. If I tried ordering through Amazon or Play.com, there’s no change I’d have it today. High street retail clearly still outranks the Internet, at least in some areas.


I was on my way into Marks and Spencers foodcourt today when I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of self-service checkouts. I know these checkouts are not uncommon in the US but I’d never seen them anywhere in this country until now. For the uninformed, self-service checkouts allow customers at shops and supermarkets to check out their own goods and pack them into bags themselves. Security is ensured both by placing the bag racks on a balance that cross-checks the weight of the goods in them with those that youv’e scanned, and by the presence of a highly suspicious supervisor.

Theoretically, self-service checkouts are a good solution for the shop and the customer because they drastically reduce labour costs and decrease checkout time. I put the latter part of the equation to the test today.

The self-service checkouts are about a metre and a half long and consist of a LCD touchscreen, a barcode detector and a bag rack (among other things). When you stand in front of the checkout, you can either start passing your items through immediately or press ‘Start’ on the touchscreen, which I did and launched the machine into an excessively polite and cheerful introduction into how to use the checkout. It really is as simple as you’d imagine – you scan your items and put them into the bags. As you scan items, their information and cost appear on the screen. I did have a problem in one item not appearing when I scanned it but that may have been due to it being in the wrong orientation.

When you’ve finished, you press a button on the screen and choose a payment option – credit or debit cards, or cash. Cash can be inserted into the machine, and credit cards can be swiped. There’s a signature panel on the side of the machine which you have to use in the latter case, and at the end you get a receipt printed. Throughout all of this, the instructions continue via videos and audio.

The entire process took rather longer than it would’ve if I went to a normal ‘assisted checkout’ due to the novelty of the experience but I imagine I could cut the time down quite a bit on a second visit. I doubt that I could ever be faster than an experienced checkout person but I could give a good shot at beating many of the slower ones I’ve encountered. The argument could be made that this means self-service checkouts would in fact not save the majority of people’s time, but that’s neglecting the fact that you could fit more self-service checkouts in the same space as normal ones, thus reducing queue length.

I doubt that shops or supermarkets will ever eliminate normal ‘assisted’ checkouts simply because there are some people who will not be able to use (or intensely dislike using) self-service checkouts. This suits me fine – the slow folks can go with the normal checkouts, and the quicker, more froody people can go with the self-service ones. This will save a lot of time, I expect. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before they have to replace the whole lot with RFID scanner gateways.

The Atlantic Tax

Those who are used to comparing the prices of items on the Internet will have encountered the Atlantic Tax. This is what I call the stunningly large difference in price of almost anything between the US and the UK; on average, I think I could buy any consumer electronics item in the US for a quarter less than I could here. With the dollar as weak as it is now, the tax is at an all-time high. In fact, at the rate it’s going, you won’t need a calculator to work out $/� currency conversions, you’ll just be able to divide by two.

A lesser-known but equally infuriating victim of the Atlantic Tax are magazine subscriptions. Two of the three magazines that I would consider subscribing to – Wired and Scientific American – cost over double here what they do in the US (the third one is The Economist, but that’s printed over here so it’s OK). Granted, Wired and SciAm are printed in the US so you have to consider shipping costs, but can’t these guys figure out some other way of getting their magazines into the hands of European readers? Or at least, if they can’t figure that out, reduce the cost of online subscriptions? Being at Oxford, I can access most journals for free online, but the interface is usually difficult and raises the barrier of entry.

It’s just yet another reason to get those next generation electronic book readers out to market as soon as possible. As for the consumer electronics (and everything else) the only solution is to move to the US, which is a rather more drastic solution than most people would be willing to consider.

A Faster Future

I’ve been shopping around for a TV on the Internet for a while now. After thinking about it and looking at the trends in prices, I’ve decided to buy one of the cheapest TVs possible without completely sacrificing on quality. Normally I subscribe to the belief that if you’re buying a high value, high use product, you should buy the best item you can reasonably afford. This works for cameras, computers, phones, etc.

Right now, TVs are different. Consider this: the price of plasma screen TVs is forecasted to drop by 40% this year. This means that in two years, 40+” flat screen TVs will be perilously close to the �1000 mark. At the same time, LCD panel prices will plummet due to mass production and in 2005 you will probably be able to buy a 17″ LCD TV for under �150. At those prices, it’s unlikely that anyone will want to buy a normal CRT (cathode ray tube) television. In other words, just as DVDs stole the throne of VCRs in 2003, LCDs will defeat CRTs in 2005.

There are other more unpredictable factors as well. Organic electroluminescent displays are cheaper, brighter and thinner than LCDs – the only problem with them is that they are difficult to make in large diameters. It seems that Sony and others have at least partially figured out a solution, so perhaps LCDs won’t have it all their way. I recall reading something about cheap rear-projection digital displays recently, which to the end user is a cross between a CRT and a plasma display.

Whoever the eventual victor is – and it might not be just one technology – it’s clear that CRTs are in their twilight. If you’re planning to spend a lot of money buying a TV in the next two years, don’t.

Cheap DVDs

Cheap Friends DVDs at Play.com – Seasons 1 to 4 are selling for only �18 each, which isn’t bad at all. I’m inclined to buy Seasons 1 and 2, after which the show broke my heart by making all the characters intensely irritating. Also, Virgin are running a ‘Mega Sale’ promotion at the moment on CDs and DVDs – I picked up Monsoon Wedding for only �5.

SPV vs. SE T616

There’s an interesting article been written comparing the Orange SPV Smartphone (running Microsoft Smartphone 2003) and the Sony Ericsson T616 (the US equivalent of the T610). The reason I found it interesting is because I’ll probably be upgrading my phone in a few months and I’m in a bit of a quandary as to which route to take.

Normally, choosing which phone I want to upgrade to is not a particularly difficult situation – I just get the best phone that I can afford. With the development of smartphones (phones that can do lots of PDA-like things) and the fission of the market into distinct operating systems like Microsoft, Symbian, Linux and proprietary, things have gotten much more difficult.

At the moment I own an Orange SPV, which I am reasonably happy with. It’s a bit big, and it has a short battery life, but otherwise it’s a very fully featured phone that has a great browser, email client and is highly customisable. The SPV represents, to me, the higher business-end of the phone market – it’s not quite as sophisticated as the SE P800, but it’s not bad either.

A few weeks ago, my brother got an SE T610, along with lots of other people. I quite like the look of this phone – it’s probably half the volume of the SPV, it has Bluetooth, a built-in camera and a respectable battery life. However, it’s email client and browser can’t match the SPV, and basically it doesn’t have the advanced features of the SPV (which is obvious from the comparison linked above).

Personally, I don’t feel that either phone is superior. If I had a T610, then I’d miss the quick dialling and the email and browse capabilities of the SPV (not that I use the latter two all that much). With my SPV, I’m missing a much smaller phone with a longer battery life and built-in camera.

Things will get yet more muddied very soon with the release of the SPV2 (touted to have a better screen, design, battery life, bluetooth and built-in camera) and the SE Z600. Then of course there’s the SE Z1010 and the SE P810 following shortly, and I might even have to think about moving over to Three.

While obviously this quandary is a simple result of the expansion of the phone market, and that all of this development and competition is great news for us consumers, it used to be so much simpler in the past…

Cheap Futurama

Futurama Season 1 for £15 – for those of you who haven’t seen Futurama yet or want to buy the DVDs, Play.com has just discounted the first box set to only £15. This, my friends, is nothing short of an excellent bargain. Season 1 may not have as many episodes as later ones, but it has more than a few classics.