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The Control Boom

If necessity is the mother of invention, we clearly need quite a bit. The U.S. Patent Office this year has been flooded with applications. Inventors and marketers keep churning out great — and some not so great — new gadgets and ideas. Every year, these new entries in every category intrigue, delight, and take a healthy chunk out of our pocketbooks. Plenty has been written about best practices in the innovation process. But what is it that draws consumers to the Next New Thing?

Iconoculture looked at the innovations of 2005 and explored what really drives consumers to look for and celebrate new products. We thought it might be simply the appreciation for good old American ingenuity, or the endless quest for cool or status, or just plain fun. We found something else: the need for control.

The "media anywhere and everywhere" movement got a huge boost with the video iPod, meaning we don't have to spend even a nanosecond disconnected from favorite music videos and mini-TV shows. Reading the writing on the iPod, NBC/Direct TV and CBS/Comcast each made fast friendships and headlines by announcing entirely new delivery channels and monetizing their assets in an entire new business model. Consumers could stay home and watch TV for free, but the lure of "where and when I want it?? has them coughing up $1.99 to watch their faves on a 3" screen. Forgot to set your Tivo for The O.C.? Yahoo and TiVo announced Internet-enabled programming. Add in torqued-up parental controls, and viewing is never going to be the same.

Self-scanning checkouts have been getting shoppers in and out of stores in short order. The Container Store in Manhattan takes it one step further with its GoShop! service. Register your credit card, take a scanner through the store to zap your choices, sign out, and the selections are delivered to your home. No pushing a cart, no hauling stuff home, no hassles.

In transportation, gas prices have been the headline grabber. 50-plus MPG hybrids that are affordable and stylish (geek factor begone!) are no longer the stuff of green dreams. But experimentation in personal mobility is going to give commuters even more choice. Toyota's i-Swing and i-Unit single-person vehicles represent advances in stability, agility, safety, and small footprint that show off the new thinking and technologies likely to impact the future of transportation.

On the other end of the spectrum is on-demand jet travel. No more torturously long security lines, crowded terminals, and interminably long delays. Budget conscious but demanding corporations and high-flying execs are measuring lost time against productivity and taking matters into their own hands. Upstarts like DayJet, POGO, and Linear Air are answering the demand to get us where we want, when we want to be there.

In-store retail health clinics and set-fee clinics are empowering healthcare consumers who are time-starved, need simple services, or are cost-conscious (think of the too-many uninsured or underinsured Americans). Minute Clinics led the charge. Both Rite Aid and Wal-Mart have created their own in-store services, offering everything from strep tests to tetanus shots with the same convenience as a trip to the grocery store. Set-fee clinics like QwikHealth in California are walk-in, free-standing clinics that offer simple medical care without the heart-attack bill at the end.

In financial services, Latinos' needs are driving the newest innovations in the money-transfer industry. AmigoMoney gives users the flexibility of transferring funds via a secured cellphone text message and reloadable prepaid money transfer cards that can be given to family abroad. Debit-like cards from No Borders enable immigrants to pay for video teleconferencing with family back home, store and send cash, and join medical discount programs. For the unbanked, no extensive credit checks, monthly payments, or account requirements put these hardworking consumers in the driver’s seat.

Tired of no-result fad diets and questionable pharmaceutical solutions, consumers are turning to functional foods and natural superfoods. More stores are stocking them, and we're getting smarter about how to use them to create a nutritionally sound and sustainable diet. Flavonoids and polyphenols (antioxidants found, among other places, in dark chocolate) are not mainstream terms yet, but bestselling books are giving foods we’ve always taken for granted (like blueberries and walnuts) new luster. Leading-edge thinking in nutraceutical gums and candy are putting a health punch in grab-and-go snacking. Chew, chow, be healthy.

Gaming innovation has put gamers in charge of their worlds, taking on identities of choice and buying and selling what they need to create their own environments. Wireless developments give new freedom to play wherever, whenever, with whomever. The MMORGP (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) economy is grabbing economists' attention. Videogames have overtaken films as the dominant force in the entertainment economy.

The innovation list can go on, but the theme is the same: control. In political, social, economic, cultural — and environmental — climate hammered by uncertainty, a little control goes a long way. Consumers are seizing on this opportunity to get the access and choice that leads to empowerment. Everyone from busy parents to stressed-out business people to multitasking kids are driving the success of new products and services that answer this 21st-century call.

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