Feature Idea: Blackout Mode in Consumer Electronics

This is a bit of a trip though time. In my past life, involved with broadcast technology, I travelled extensively. One of my many trips involved an evening driving from Boston up to Burlington, Vermont with a sales associate. It was a nice ride in his Saab 900S, and my first experience with Saab.

As the afternoon wore into evening and we lost the light I came to appreciate a particular feature of the Saab dashboard. It had a “Blackout Mode.” With the press of one button all the dashboard and console lights went out. That is, everything but tips of the tachometer and speedometer.

With blackout mode engaged driving the dark, empty highway was a lot easier on the eyes. It was a nice feature. It spoke to a thoughtful design team.

A few years later, my former employer introduced broadcast graphics system called “Clarity.” It was basically a custom 5 RU server chassis loaded with their specialized video hardware. Bestowed with an array of DSPs and FPGAs, it cost a bundle.

One aspect of its mechanical design was a two-part front molding with an elliptical status display. The elliptical area was lit by an array of bright blue LEDs, which were brand new at the time and very costly.

Clarity 5000 Lid open

The blue LEDs were also very bright. So bright that when the user flipped up the top of the font panel to access the DVD drive the system automatically turned off the blue LEDs. There was an ambient light sensor that triggered the LEDs to fade out when the upper font panel was lifted.

This was necessary since the hardware was typically mounted in a darkened rack room,. The bright LEDs were annoying to a user standing in front of the box. It was a thoughtful bit of hardware design.

In contrast, some years ago I noted my annoyance that my Blackberry Bold 9700 had a message waiting LED that was annoyingly bright in a darkened room. Unnecessarily so I though. And not user adjustable.

Jumping forward to today, I wish that most consumer electronics devices had a blackout mode. That is, the ability to turn off the myriad LEDs that indicate status. In truth, they most often indicate nothing at all.

Let’s consider just a few of the gizmos that we have around our home today.

1. The Philips Hue Bridge

The Philips Hue System is a very recent addition to our home, and well received during our annual Halloween festivities. The color starter kit and Hue Halloween app were a big hit.

Philips Hue White starter kit

The little Hue Bridge box is small and Apple-esque in it’s basic design. It lives on the wall in our hallway, right beside an Ethernet jack field.

Philips product photography, by using a white background, doesn’t adequately illustrate how the device appears in a real installation. The blue LED ring and a trio of status LEDs are really bright. They act as a nightlight…one that we don’t need or want.

Further, they don’t do anything useful most of the time. The status indications are only necessary when diagnosing a problem. I wish that they could be turned off using the Hue app.

2. The Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo is really very good in this respect. It’s black, well at least ours is back. When idle it has only a tiny white LED at the bottom rear of the device. It’s pretty inconspicuous in a room.

Amazon-Echo-Dot

That is, until you use it! Then the LED ring at the top of the device comes to life. In a darkened bedroom it can be very bright. Very bright indeed.

It seems odd to me that I can ask Alexa to set our Hue or Belkin WEMO lights to any arbitrary brightness, but I cannot ask it to dim its own LED ring.

I’m not sure why Amazon didn’t include an ambient light sensor. That would allow the Echo to dim it’s LED ring based upon the conditions of the room.

Incidentally, the smaller Echo Dot (2nd Gen) (pictured) that graces my office doesn’t have the little white power LED.

3. Ubiquiti Power AP N

Back in 2011 we installed a Ubiquiti Power AP N. This device is actually a WiFi router, but we used it in bridged mode as an AP with a built-in switch.

It’s physical location, right under our TV, was less than ideal. It not only looks vaguely like an alien, but it had a string bright blue LEDs on the front. These were plainly visible under our TV. The LEDs were bright enough that I covered them over with electrical tape to avoid the distraction of the continuous blinkety-blink.

4. Ubiquiti AC Pro WiFi AP

In general I’d had been pretty happy with the Power AP N, but it was getting flaky. Some devices were routinely losing connection. Further, it lacked for a 5 GHz radio. So this past summer I decided that it was time for an upgrade.

Referencing the all-knowing Karl Fife, and backed by a great Ars Technica review, I selected the Ubiquiti UniFi AP AC Pro as our new access point. It had the right mix of features, performance and price.

The AC Pro is a simple white disk with a blue LED ring. It will eventually be wall mounted in the same hallway as the Hue Bridge, but for now it sits on a book case.

Ubiquiti UniFi AP AC Pro & Android App

The blue LED ring is cute, but largely pointless. It does indicate the device state with several blinking modes and color shifts from white to blue.

However, when the AP is operating normally it’s pointless. It’s just another source of light, when at night we’d rather have dark.

In this case, it the UniFi controller app does permit a user to turn off the status LED. In fact, it’s the very first setting offered in Ubiquiti UniFi app (pictured.)

Hallelujah! They have seen the light and recognized the value of letting us turning it off!

Close

These few devices are typical of consumer electronics. They’re made to look cool on a trade show floor or in a store.

While many people justifiably cry out for good, technical things, like forcing people to change the default logins, I’d like to see this one aesthetic issue addressed. I’d like to see more manufacturers allow users to opt for visual simplicity by diming or turning off all of the status lights. Most especially for devices that target the home or home office.

2 thoughts on “Feature Idea: Blackout Mode in Consumer Electronics”

  1. New Linksys routers (owned by Belkin) have a dark mode that turns off most lights, including the ethernet ports on the back.
    Some monitors, like Asus ProArt monitors have a lights-out mode.
    It’s rare, but there are some out there

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