For a decade, Silicon Valley was focused on building better slot machines: hardware and apps that were so dazzling users couldn’t put them down—and while we were in this distracted daze, they collected our information and served it back to us as ads.
This is still the reality we live in, but there are signs of change on the horizon. Google and Apple have both built “digital wellness” tools into their phones, aimed at helping people cut back on technology use. Twitter and Instagram now notify you when you’re caught up with the latest content. And now, Panasonic is teaming up with Benjamin Hubert’s Layer design studio to release a series of concepts dubbed Balance of Being for the “near future” of self-care.
The products range from practical to fantastical, from earnest to silly.
There’s a neck band called Tone, which uses steam and LED light to nourish your skin and psyche with vitamin D (such light therapy products already are popping up everywhere.) A cooking device called Lift analyzes your food and uses AI to determine the most nutritionally optimal way to prepare it (which is probably always just steaming? But swallow some of the cynicism for just another moment). A personal massager called Wave looks . . . like a personal massager. But its back is made out of ceramic, which means it probably feels more like a stone in your hands than metallic plastic.
On the more fantastical—and, okay, idiotic—side of the line is a headband called Grow, which promises to regrow hair with LEDs (as other products already on the market claim to do). There’s also a smoothie maker called Shot, which scans your skin to spot the nutrients you’re short on, then mixes a complementary drink to fix you right up. Honestly, Shot is the best theoretical idea in this whole pile. But practically speaking, we still understand very little of the science of nutrition, and a machine the size of a K-cup coffee maker won’t succeed in filling those gaps where the giant Juicero already so epically failed. Shot would only be possible through magic, not design.
Panasonic isn’t the only company thinking about wellness.
On a recent trip inside Google’s own secret design lab, I laid on a sensory bed that’s built to calm you down and refresh your mind. These beds were installed by Google’s VP of hardware design Ivy Ross, who has expressed interest in exploring how technology and your environment will fuse for your well-being. At Milan, Google even set up three rooms with differing lighting, scents, and sounds. Visitors donned biometric wristbands, while Google’s software visualized how their bodies reacted differently to these spaces to demonstrate how the same space wasn’t necessarily optimal for everyone. The main promise of the Apple Watch seems to be, increasingly, that it will make you healthier and one day even save your life.
However, it’s worth noting that the industry’s pivot toward wellness isn’t entirely out of virtue. While many designers—like Google’s own VP of Material Design Matias Duarte, who is largely responsible for the design of Android—have expressed a guilt for addicting the world on tech, Silicon Valley almost certainly has a new business plan in the works here, too. When Instagram notifies you that you’re caught up with your feed to negate so-called “zombie scrolling,” it’s likely not simply to get you to bed a few minutes earlier at night. Because as any analyst will tell you, an unengaged customer who might scroll past an ad isn’t as valuable as someone who is mentally invested into the platform. Who would have thought? Treating customers with humanity is actually good for the bottom line!
In any case, I suspect we’re on the precipice of a complete Goop-ification of the connected world. Expect to see a lot of terrible ideas as the tech industry chases a wellness market posed to reach $200 billion by 2022, along with a greater healthcare market posed to reach $12 trillion by the same year. At least once we reach the other side of this particular fad, we can hope that the world will be better off for it.