I Spy: Will High-Tech Holiday Gifts Fuel Family Feuds?

Xconomy San Francisco — 

This is the time of year when marketers bombard us with holiday gift lists to promote their products—and foremost among them are technology-enhanced gizmos to dazzle the family as they tear off the wrappings and ribbons.

But do these electronic device makers ever wonder how such gifts might alter the atmosphere at the annual family gathering, which is often a minefield of seething tensions under a light veneer of holiday merriment?

Take for example, the Parrot Rolling Spider, a toy that looks like a mini-acrobat suspended between spindly wheels. The little acrobat, however, contains a video camera. And the wheels can climb your walls, or even crawl across your ceiling.

Tell me if I’m crazy: What we have here is essentially a remote-controlled household espionage puppet. This alarming toy seems like an unfair temptation to at least two types of perennially annoying relatives: the kid who peeks through keyholes, and the adult who feels entitled to know everything about everybody.

Electronic toys and gadgets have long had the potential to amp up the holiday stress, with their high-pitched beeps and scratchy recorded jingles. But fresh horrors may await if new generations of these electronic gewgaws add an uneasy twist to the festivities: recreational snooping. Flying toy drones can already hover outside bedroom windows: will high-powered microphones be their next invasive feature? It’s just my opinion, but I strongly believe there are very few long-festering family grudges that can really be healed by a surveillance drone.

You may scoff that you’ll simply stay out of range, but these Web-connected, video-equipped contraptions come in all sorts of innocent-looking shapes and sizes. You can hardly rely on the manufacturer to label it “Surveillance Robot” in big letters. Set one on the kitchen counter, and two young cousins trading top-secret confidences as they wash the dinner dishes could mistake the thing for their host’s weird juicemaker. Guess what? A snickering relation is monitoring the heart-to-heart on a smartphone in the next room!

Paris-based Parrot also makes the floor-based, video-equipped MiniDrone Jumping Sumo. Something like this might be casually left in the bathroom, allowing Junior, with the speed of a few keystrokes, to immortalize a family member’s quirks in a viral video called “My Grandpa Takes An Hour On The Toilet.”

As a gift-giver, therefore, it’s a good idea to consider carefully whether your tech offering will strengthen or strain the family bonds. If you’ve ever been called on the carpet for showering your grandchildren with treats like the candy forbidden by their parents, tread lightly before presenting the same little kids with a tablet computer that ushers them straight to the wide-open Web. You can always check ahead to find out if the parents have some finicky prejudice against pre-K playthings that require a porn filter.

The treacherous waters extend well beyond toy gifts for the kids. But your intimate knowledge of the foibles of your adult relations can guard you against provoking an all-out family brawl with your tech gift. You yourself may find Palo Alto, CA-based Nest’s Dropcam an excellent way to keep tabs on your dog while you’re at work. The Dropcam not only has a camera, but also contains a microphone and speakers that allow you to scold the pooch remotely if he starts to gnaw on the furniture.

It might be rational to assume that your in-laws would love a Dropcam too. But if, by any chance, “nagging” happens to be a longstanding bone of contention for this couple, try to picture the consequences: A weary spouse sinks into the couch to snatch a few moments of rest, only to be startled by a cry from the invisible partner who’s still at work.

“How can you just lie there? You could be starting dinner!” Gratitude for your gift is not likely to be foremost in the mind of at least one of the recipients.

If you’re really unlucky, one or both of them will be Google-phobic privacy nuts. Google bought Nest early this year—prompting speculative visions of Google harvesting data about household activities through Nest devices so it can sell the information to advertisers. Imagine the fun if your in-laws start getting e-mails from Amazon about the new book, “How To Stop Bickering.”

This is not to say that any tech gift will invariably escalate family resentments. For example, if you’re exasperated by someone who can never leave the house on time because they can’t find their keys, perhaps the gift of a Tile set could actually calm the waters. San Mateo, CA-based Tile sells little white squares, about the size of a gift tag, that can be clipped on a keychain or tucked into a wallet. Using the company’s mobile phone app, the frantic searcher can always hunt down the crucial items, thanks to a Bluetooth signal. (There’s no guarantee, however, that this gift won’t be perceived as a passive-aggressive form of “nagging” by a giftee who fiercely denies being absent-minded.)

On another pro-technology note, there are robot toy kits that teach children skills much more valuable than invading the privacy of their parents’ unwary visitors. Redondo Beach, CA-based Ozobot makes little dome-shaped desktop robots that can be programmed to dance as kids learn basic computer coding skills. The Danish company LEGO‘s Mindstorms EV3 31313 kit contains the parts needed for kids to build five different robots, which can be programmed and then propelled around via  smartphone commands.

Such absorbing toys may deliver hours of blessed peace to a group of adults nearly anesthetized by gorging at the holiday table. Be prepared, however, that youngsters are easily frustrated, and may assume that their parents can take over if they get stuck on Step No. 37 in the robot construction booklet. (Have a wallet full of $20 bills on hand so you can palm that chore off on the otherwise brain-dead teenager who laughs nastily at your attempts to back up your hard drive.)

Indeed, the sheer complexities of 21st-century gifts, compared to the bicycles that parents used to assemble after midnight on Christmas Eve, offer fresh openings for holiday disaster scenarios well beyond tech-induced outbreaks of familial friction.

Hollywood screenwriters should really be working on a new tech-themed sequel to the Holiday Hell genre films like 1989‘s “Christmas Vacation.” If actors like Chevy Chase could milk hours of drollery from the perils of demonic outdoor Christmas lights, what greater hilarity could they evoke with the soaring toy drones that are deemed a safety concern for the national airspace system by the Federal Aviation Administration?

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  • Christian Habermann

    Hey Bernadette, great post and some of these gifts will indeed be great for relationships that lack trust lol. Otherwise, I think the Rubix cube needs to make a comeback:) What a simple gift and truly genius in design. Funny, I never thought that I would look back at the ’80s and say it was a simpler time. Anyway, hope you have a nice holiday.

    Christian

  • Christian Habermann

    Hey Bernadette, great post and some of these gifts will indeed be great for relationships that lack trust lol. Otherwise, I think the Rubix cube needs to make a comeback:) What a simple gift and truly genius in design. Funny, I never thought that I would look back at the ’80s and say it was a simpler time. Anyway, hope you have a nice holiday.

    Christian