The Finns may be resourceful, but can they crack the challenge of a lift capable of understanding the Scottish accent?
In a memorable sketch in the BBC Scotland comedy Burnistoun – viewed online 2.5 million times – Iain Connell and Robert Florence attempt in vain to communicate with a “voice-activated elevator”. The pair become increasingly frustrated at being unable to get the lift’s female American voice to take them to the 11th floor.
But potentially tempting fate, Finnish firm KONE, one of the world’s biggest lift companies, is about to have a crack at voice recognition.
During my visit to its head office in Helsinki last week, executives said they would be making an announcement this autumn about talking lifts.
Laughing as she confirmed she had seen the Burnistoun clip, sales director for maintenance in Finland Anna Wäck, admitted such technology was unlikely to be a big hit in her homeland.
“I’m Finnish and we’re not big talkers. The social code in lifts here is to walk in and look at your toes.”
However, this advance for one of the most mundane forms of transport is not so far fetched, as KONE has already developed software so you can “listen in” online to lifts communicating with the computers that monitor them.
A “conversation” – shown live – might go like this. Male-voiced lift: “Slight vibration on my way up.” Female-voiced cloud (computer): “Measured. Hardly noticeable.” And so on.
You might treasure a lift ride for a moment of quiet reflection, a few seconds’ breather between meetings or heading in and out of the building.
But just as there are few places left out of reach of the ubiquitous mobile, KONE sees a future where some lifts are as connected as your smartphone. It is trialling the world’s first “social media elevator” at the Myyrmanni shopping centre near Helsinki.
One side of the lift is an electronic screen displaying Instagram and Facebook posts that carry the #myyrmannin_somehissi hashtag. These have featured shoppers’ holiday photos and adverts for the centre’s shops. When there are no posts, the wall becomes a mirror, while the lift’s lighting changes to match the season, such as red at Christmas, and blue and white to mark Finland’s independence day – 100 years ago last year – on 6 December.
The innovation could be repeated in museums, galleries and conference centres.
While lifts are becoming funkier, they are also travelling further. Previously, 500m was seen as the height limit because of the weight of the steel cables, but new materials have been developed to considerably lengthen that.
For KONE, it’s ultra-light carbon fibre called UltraRope, which will be used for a 660m lift to take visitors to an observation deck on the 1,000m Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, the world’s tallest building when it opens in 2020.
However, the firm said UltraRope could also be used for lifts as high as tower itself.
It’s also on the cusp of piloting new “smart” lifts in the UK, where residents could summon theirs via a mobile app so it’s there as they enter the building.
But isn’t there a danger that making lifts more convenient will further reduce the number of people taking the stairs instead – which health experts have pointed to being one of the best forms of everyday exercise you can take?
Marika Tuomikoski, KONE’s sales and operations director for new services and solutions, agreed it could be a problem. She said insurance companies in Asia put a cost on lift use, with residents given a quota because of the health benefits of taking the stairs. She said: “It could be a case of people being told ‘No elevator today’, perhaps along with weight monitors!”