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Digital Dumpster diving: A trashcan that reports on what you throw away

Evan Schuman | May 6, 2015
GeniCan scans and figures out almost everything you are throwing away or recycling and wirelessly transmits that data back to the mother ship.

Every now and then, a product comes along that is either genius-level brilliant or celestially clueless. To get the CC award, product designers must force themselves to not only ignore the bad ways the product could be used or to naively believe that minimal safeguards would prevent them. For your consideration: the GeniCan, which scans and otherwise figures out almost everything you are throwing away or recycling and wirelessly transmits that data back to the mother ship.

With that plan, what in the world could possibly go right? By the way, if, against the odds, this proves to not be an NSA front, some government worker isn't earning his salary.

GeniCan is a smallish device that attaches to any garbage can (metal or plastic; round or square) whose owner can be talked into shelling out $179. These presumably intoxicated consumers agree as part of the app download to share this information, in exchange for possible coupons and other goodies as well as an automated shopping list.

The device scans nearly every barcode on packaging that is thrown away or recycled. (Oh yeah, you'll probably want a second GeniCan for your recycling bin.) You can also talk to GeniCan, since it is outfitted with a speaker and microphone. When GeniCan can't read the barcode on something you toss out (or because it's something like an apple core and simply doesn't have a barcode), it will ask you to say the item's name. For the paranoid among us, you can interpret this as the ability of your trashcan to listen in on all your conversations. But look at the bright side: Company officials rejected installing a tiny camera for image recognition of discarded items, according to CEO Rob Griffin, because "the actual image recognition is not there yet." Even without the camera, it is one very nosy trashcan.

But useful, certainly. Because how else would you be able to tell that your trashcan is full? Yes, GeniCan will send an alert to the mobile app to tell you that it's time to take the garbage out. Asked the value of this, Griffin said it would be helpful in a family where some members might top off the garbage without emptying it. Maybe someday it will be able to rat out the person who walked away from the full trashcan.

As we move toward the Internet of Things, we are going to see the introduction of a lot of devices that bring technology that have always been low-tech, if not no-tech, like garbage cans. This is not necessarily a great thing, and the GeniCan sort of proves this. Besides there being a host of potentially disastrous privacy issues with the GeniCan, its fundamental premise — that a precise cataloguing of tossed items will create a usable shopping list — is flawed. First of all, anything that you throw away that doesn't get read by the GeniCan scanner — at work, say — isn't going to show up on your shopping list. And some of the things that are scanned and do show up on the shopping list are items that you never want to buy again. (Bacon-flavored kale chips sounded great when I was in the store.) So you end up fixing the list with a lot of manual additions and deletions. Not a big deal, but how is that an improvement over existing shopping apps? When I run out of something I want, I grab my phone and hit one button to put it back on my list. Maybe it's just me, but I prefer that to carefully editing an automated list of everything my family has thrown out. (Or nearly everything. I should note that you have the option of putting something in your GeniCan-equipped trashcan without letting the device read it. So if you don't want to buy those kale chips again, you can just sort of sneak them into the trash. But the onus is on the consumer, who has presumably trained himself to throw things away in a scannable fashion, to throw those chips away in a non-scannable fashion.)


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