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Piers Fawkes: 6 Tech Trends Shaping Creative Business Now

PSFK founder shares key observations from CES 2013 for execs in design, marketing and innovation.

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
Piers Fawkes, PSFK on January 12, 2013. @piers_fawkes

This year, thousands of products were launched at CES and over 150,000 people traveled to Las Vegas to see what was new in technology. After I walked the floors of CES and of the warm up event Pepcom, I realized that many of the trends I noticed this year weren’t so new. What I noticed was that the trends that were mainstreaming had been emerging ones we had been following for a while. Large brands were creating solutions that a couple of years ago were on the fringes. Of the different patterns I could sense at the show, these were the most pervasive:

1. The Importance Of The Physical

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There were several examples of how necessary the tactile experience remained for people. Polaroid announced a plan to launch hundreds of stores (like the mockup above) to respond to a developing need by people to print their mobile photography. At the New York Times stand I noticed two long lines of people wanting to get their picture taken. The team there would then turn the picture into a silhouette using words from the person’s favorite NY Times section and then another team would print out the picture, frame it and bag it. The owner would go away holding their prize with a big smile on their face.

Interestingly, there was not a lot of 3D printing technology at CES. I noticed some laser etching machinery but the number of stands by printer makers was small compared to the number you would find at a Maker fair.

2. Open Systems For Better Products

I saw examples of how brands were opening themselves up to outside developers to create better products. To me, Samsung’s new wifi-enabled camera seemed more remarkable because it had the photo-sharing app Instagram pre-installed on it.

Elsewhere on the show floor, Ford announced an evolution of their thinking around their Sync system that allows them to actively engage app makers by providing a platform that shares car performance data, which could thus shape the way services work. Verizon Wireless also announced an award at the CES keynote where they will offer up to $10million to developers to help create a new generation of solutions (see PowerfulAnswers.com).

I left some of the major electronics brands’ booths wondering if our lack of embracing of 3D TV is because of the lack of openness when it comes to that hardware. Manufacturers don’t allow developers to create services that hack the 3D viewing experience – and therefore the 3D experience isn’t as complex and interactive in a way that modern tech users have come to expect from their electronics.

3. Natural User Interface

Intel showed off what they called their perceptual computing concept which is an evolution of gesture control. A 3D camera that can be fitted on top of a modern laptop can render parts of your body, like your arm, onto the screen so that it can interact with other content. When you viewed the screen, it looked like you were half-fused with the technology.

Office furniture manufacturers Steelcase showed off a video concept they were working on which responded to the growing use of video at work. They are thinking about how demands to use video connect work in an office environment – where privacy and noise control are also important.

Julius Marchwicki from Ford told me about how the motor company was conscious of natural user interface too. With Sync, they want to help app makers consider how to adapt their services so that the interaction experience is based around audio – with different voices and sounds being used to communicate with the driver and passengers.

We also saw some fun use of brain control – this is still in early development – but companies were showing how electronics can react to how focused or relaxed a user was. I wonder if some of this is trickery, and that these systems are really monitoring the motion of the muscles around your skull and your BPM, but that said, this approach would still make brain-sensors as good as health tracking bracelets (another example of natural user interface).

4. Intelligent Use Of Data To Adapt To Usage Context

To app users, the intelligent use of personal data to give tailored services seems like a pretty current trend, but when it comes to electronics I sense that it’s still an emerging theme. With all these devices now giving off data, brands are exploring ways to use that data to give users a helping hand. Belkin has connected home technology which used what-if ideas. They wanted to create systems that would do something as the result of an action – when the cat walks into the house, its bowl should be given water.

All these ideas should lead to better contextual uses of data – systems that predict what users want and provide recommendations and services based on that analysis. This was demonstrated in the auto-section at CES, where Lexus showed off the technology in one of its latest models where, with the analysis of that data it collected, the car could actually act as a co-driver.

On the same theme but overlapping into the natural user interface trend a little, at Samsung’s booth we saw examples of facial and voice recognition in their TVs in order to provide the right content to specific viewers. With these systems, it’s not that the TV is going to simply provide their ‘settings’ – the TV will recommend content based on their viewing habits.

5. Life Cacheing Accelerated Through The Cloud

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It was interesting to see how many video cameras were on the floor that were designed to be worn. Following the trend led by GoPro, these cameras are being used by people to record active lifestyles like biking and other sports – but also more sedate hobbies. These cameras can record some very high definition content and the owners are using YouTube and other cloud services as their hard-drive – skipping any desktop editing or file management. Instead, they are life-caching everything they do – often in real-time.

Ross Martin of Scratch told me that he believes that people are behaving this way because of the speed of life. They are finding life going so fast they want to just ‘get it down’ by recording their moments – so they know they can return to them later (whether they do or not is another matter).

Health tracking is in many ways a component of life-caching too. People are recording their heartbeats and steps with devices like the Fitbit and sharing that information with one another. This could be one of the drivers behind the growth in this category at the show this year.

6. The Speed Of Imitation & Under-Delivering To Consumers Expectations

One of the larger and more important themes that I noticed, was how large brands seemed to be rushing to develop the hot product of the last two years, and I felt that this was often to their detriment. It seemed like electronics was taking a page out of the fashion industry’s book: the big players in the sector seemed to have agreed upon what the ‘trend of the season’ was and then all rushed to deliver against it. For example. I was surprised how many roomba-rip offs there were vacuuming the booths of major brands.

A major issue with this embrace of imitation is that it means that electronics brands are delivering to the customer expectations of 1 or 2 years ago. As I went from stand to stand, I found that many new products didn’t meet my expectations. As an informed consumer, I expected products to take advantage of services that we’ve seen in the start-up world but the booth reps would often reply to my queries by telling me that the ideas we were asking about were being considered for next year’s product. At some point, this response became so frequent that I started posting on PSFK’s Facebook page a number of “Allie asks” updates, where I described how the simple demands of my college Allie Walker couldn’t be responded to by the electronics at the booth: the iPad infused bed that doesn’t monitor your sleep, the electronic table for cafes that doesn’t recognize the shape – or weight – of a cup.

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As consumers we are so saturated with the new, but brands don’t seem to keep up with our expectations. Their pursuit to copy means that they’re not thinking about the next big thing. I think CES is a very important event in the innovation calendar, but I also think that we should be careful about how we judge the ‘hot product.’ The secret is to look beyond the mainstreaming of the hot idea over the last 2 years and innovate, not imitate, so that they deliver something that hits next year’s consumer expectations.

Thinking...