As a first time attendee, I found the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming. There was the never-ending expansiveness of sights and sounds but a lack of any robust, breakthrough technology. As I methodically toured the show, I saw the popular trends–3-D television, e-readers and multi-touch devices–but also noted other emerging ideas. In fact, two trends were particularly noticeable in their attempts to fill in voids created by new technologies.
The first trend, which I have dubbed “mullet design,” is a movement to bring individual style to products that have minimal visual identities. For those unfamiliar with the term, a mullet is a hairstyle that can be described as “business in the front, and party in the rear.” Now I’m not referring to the haircuts of CES attendees (they trended more towards ponytails anyway), but rather the state of an ever-growing number of handheld touchscreen devices.
Lacking buttons and other decorative hardware, these devices have a clean, business-like front. Placed side-by-side, most of these products are largely indistinguishable from each other (see also High Definition TVs for a similar blandness).
To compensate for a lack of ornamentation, manufacturers and after-market accessory providers are assertively offering a range of design solutions to give personality to the backs of these devices. For example, companies like Speck and Case-Mate were showing off artist-designed iPhone covers. Speck’s CES booth included an artist creating cases on the fly. Even Microsoft was showing off some impressive engraved designs for its Zune players, and computer manufacturer Asus showed off an entire wardrobe for its laptop line.
The second trend, which I designate as “prosthetic design” refers to the emerging after-market of functional hardware accessories, particularly for the iPhone. One of the inherent values of the iPhone is the elimination of extra hardware–a single device takes the role of phone, media player, GPS, etc. So it might seem counterintuitive to consider adding electronics to enhance your iPhone’s functionality. But the announcement of a number of products at CES suggests a transformation of the iPhone into a powerful and versatile base computing platform to support external hardware.
One such example was Ion Audio’s iDiscover Keyboard. While there are many iPhone apps that provide an onscreen keyboard, the iDiscover provides a physical keyboard that uses the iPhone and a custom app as the engine for creating music. A sleeper star of CES, Parrot’s AR Drone is a real flying “quadricopter” that is controlled remotely via an iPhone app, letting gamers experience action off the screen.
Whether adding style to a plain touch screen, or “prosthetics” to enhance functionality, the human desire for individuality and specialization continues to drive commerce and technology. There may be a party in the back, but at least when it comes to tricking-out our gadgets, it’s still all about business.
Rob Tannen is an expert in designing
products, interfaces and systems that accommodate the complexities of
human behavior and capabilities. He has researched cockpit interfaces
for U.S. Air Force, designed trading floor order systems for the New
York Stock Exchange, and created touch screen applications for consumer
appliances. Rob is Director of User Research and Interaction Design at
the product development firm Bresslergroup. He also has a PhD in human
factors and is a Certified Professional Ergonomist.