Your run-of-the-mill 4K television is a remarkable totem to human progress. The display is made from 8 million separate pixels, each rendered in 1 of 1,024 different colors, each firing 30 times or more a second. These images are coordinated with a tiny brain, a microprocessor that contains as many as 100 million transistors per millimeter.
Amazing. But also futile. Because if you’re sitting more than six feet away, you probably can’t tell the difference between a cutting-edge 4K TV and an HD one from a decade ago. Companies are investing untold millions each year to make improvements on electronics that are beyond the limits of human perception. Every mainstay genre of gadget has hit the ceiling of meaningful evolution. When was the last time you bought a computer for its speed? Or a microwave for its wattage? We can no better see the difference between an HD TV, a 4K TV, and an 8K TV than we can the portraits taken by the iPhone X and the Pixel 2. Perceptually, it’s all a pile of the same.
That’s not actually an insult. There’s just so much competence in building gadgets now. Everything is, honestly, pretty good. So what’s left to do?
Next week will bring us the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where companies debut new TVs, refrigerators, gadgets, and anything and everything else that runs off of electricity. Most years, CES is an ostentatious display of incremental progress. Samsung, Sony, and LG line up a thousand identical TVs and a slew of marketing to convince the press and public that they really do look better than last year’s crop, simply because the hardware has been subtly improved. CES inundates us with an onslaught of stat sheets–megahertz and megapixels, wireless transmission speeds, and color gamut charts. Ultimately, the trend line is the only thing that really matters: faster, thinner “progress.”
That was the old way of thinking, at least. This year’s CES has the potential to be quite different. The true opportunity for companies isn’t in hardware; it’s in UX–the user experience of a product, in all its forms. That’s what I’m looking out for next week.
Last year we got an early taste of this. The biggest trend at CES was Amazon Alexa integration across the many actual electronics. You could suddenly talk to every new Bluetooth speaker or high-end kitchen appliance. Actual user engagement may not have caught on in the way Amazon and many gadget-makers had hoped, but it illustrated the emerging focus on user experience at the world’s biggest gadget show. And it echoed the fact that CES isn’t just about safe trends, it’s about a mass of weird ideas coming together in one spot and letting consumers thin the herd with their wallets.
I’m excited to see that Samsung is thinking about the UX of sound. In an experimental new line of speakers from its concept-making C-Lab, Samsung enables a directional speaker to zoom in on one person’s ears in a crowd. Samsung can allow that one person to listen to music or a show without bugging anyone else, but without closing out the world with headphones, either. We may not see the company’s actual products built with directional sound this year, but the seeds are being sown.
I’m excited to see that the FCC just approved the first truly wireless power system by Energous. These concepts have been floating around research papers–and CES–for years, but this is the big moment where regulators have deemed it safe enough to actually sell. A system called a WattUp Mid Field transmitter can transform electricity into radio waves to beam power to a gadget within three feet away. No, that distance is no longer than an iPhone cord. But imagine setting up your next desk, or home theater, without running any wires at all. Imagine how we could rethink not just gadgets, but furniture and architecture, if cords didn’t exist. We’d live differently.
I’m excited that auto manufacturers are showing up en masse with new electric cars. Whether it’s a mainstay like Kia or a Chinese startup like Byton, the companies are differentiating themselves not through performance, but through UX. Kia’s new car “features a never-seen-before human-machine interface (HMI) and an advanced new ‘motion graphic’ lighting system,” according to the company. Byton wants charging to take no longer than brewing a cup of coffee, and it will change the design of its infotainment-friendly, dashboard-wide LCD screen based on the driving mode you’re using (though what exactly that looks like, we don’t know yet). To car companies looking to steal some thunder from Tesla, interface design is the new horsepower.
I’m even excited–if skeptical–to see that augmented reality is expected to be a big trend at CES. Will anyone get it right? Probably not! But the potential of AR is that it’s not just more incremental progress–it’s a whole new interaction modality for using just about any product, or any screen. Consider how silly companies have looked in the past for sticking a screen onto the inside of their refrigerators. Do I really need to see the weather report while getting ice? No. But imagine how useful it could be if your fridge glowed blue because you hadn’t shut one of the doors all the way. AR can provide all sorts of extra information layers to a product, sure, but it can also present notifications in an omnipresent yet casual way that current screens do not.
So yes, CES will again bring us 20,000 new TVs and phones and appliances that promise to be better than last year’s. But old-guard electronics companies are smarter–and more opportunistic–than you might think. We live in a world that’s grown bored by the iPhone revolution, a world that’s beginning to value mindfulness over screen time and spending money on experiences over things. And if it’s experiences people want, trust me: These companies will learn how to stick that experience in a box, put a bow on it, and sell it to us once again.