Korea’s digital revolution

“At the third stroke, it will be ten past four pm and ten seconds. Beep, beep, beep. At the third stroke . . .” That’s what the British call the speaking clock and they’ve had it for years, but now you can buy a speaking lock. It’s the GATEMAN Silky II, made by ASSA ABLOY’s South Korean subsidiary iRevo, and it’s an example of how the world of digital locks is coming up with plenty of new ideas.

Ronny Belin, iRevo’s Business Development Manager for Digital Door Locks, Europe, Middle East and Africa, says the speaking element is “a practical feature talking you through the set-up process, for example, ‘If you want to authorize a new user, press 1.'” There’s no conversation going on: the lock just goes through a menu, like a telephone answering system, and you have to respond by pressing buttons.

“But it’s a lot easier than holding the manual in your hand, or waiting for instructions to scroll through on a miniature LCD display,” adds Belin. “And it’s more human than a beep.” The voice-prompting also deals with exceptions. For example, if you have disabled the keypad before you go to bed, and someone tries to fiddle with the lock, then the lock might tell them: “Keypad disabled.”

Perhaps it should shout, “Go away!”  That’d scare them.

Korean cool
On the other hand, Belin dreams of getting Julia Roberts or George Clooney to voice the lock. “That could be a new and more lifestyle-oriented reason for buying a new front door lock,” he adds.

When Eun-mee Kim, a professor of communications at Yonsei University in Seoul, heard about the talking lock, even without George Clooney, she said, “Wow, that’s cool!”

With that response, Kim effectively answered the question: why is Korea so in love with digital technology?  In the world of domestic locks, Koreans must hold the world record—every second domestic lock is digital. Professor Kim herself has one.

But she also had more considered answers: “In South Korea, all things digital symbolize an advanced lifestyle,” she says. “Korea may have a very long history, but people value new things more than anything else.”

Rule breakers
She thinks that enthusiasm for digital technology may have come in on the coat-tails of government promotion of the internet and mobile phones. For example, she argues, the mobile phone has met the desire of young people to break the hierarchical structures of Confucianism, under which the young knew to whom they had be subservient. “The mobile phone was a tool to break those rules,” she says.

The government has also pushed the internet, extending broadband to the very remotest parts of the country, and encouraging everyone to learn to use the web. “This familiarity with modern technology may have made people value IT and made them feel it was indispensable,” she says.

But there are particular reasons why Koreans should love digital locks, she says. “Many mothers work, and they have domestic help and nannies to help them look after their children,” she points out. “It’s easier to give them a PIN-code to let them into the house than to provide them with a key. Or it’s quite common for the grandparents to come round and leave a small present for a grandchild. There again, it’s easier to tell them the code.”

Picture-perfect memory
It was three students from Hongik University in Seoul who were responsible for another clever idea in the lock business which was shown at this year’s popular German technology show, CeBIT. The concept was displayed on the stand of the German Industrie Forum Design. It too would be useful for grandparents visiting or, even more, for children coming home from school.

The students invented the Storykeeper—a system whereby, instead of remembering a PIN-code, you just have to remember a story prompted by a selection of icons on the keyboard where the numbers would normally be.

“We chose the icons from things you can find around you all the time,” said one of the inventors, Min Su Kim. “You can choose which icons are displayed when you set up the lock.”

The story displayed at CeBIT was “In my home, I am very happy, because my lovely mother made me a tasty doughnut.” Each of the words in italics is reflected in an icon.

Meanwhile, ASSA ABLOY is leveraging iRevo’s expertise in digital locks, with one model coming out under the Yale trademark later this year. With the high penetration of digital locks in Korea, lock manufacturers there are putting a lot of R&D into the market.  IRevo sells its locks, to a certain extent, on the basis of the fact that they are very visible on the door and show that the owner is up-to-date.

Kim Eun-mee doesn’t think this is a motive. “I don’t believe that it’s really about conspicuous consumption,” she says. “People really believe that digital locks protect their homes better.”

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