The annual vapourware games – otherwise known as the International Consumer Electronics Show – took place last week in Las Vegas.
As ever, it brought fascinating glimpses inside the fevered imaginations of marketing and engineering executives.
One of the most hilarious was LG of South Korea, which promised that we would be able to text our washing machine or dryer to ask how it's doing.
Pause a moment to let that sink in, and then ask yourself: when was the last time you actually cared how far through its wash/spin/dry cycle your washer and/or dryer was? Personally, if that does happen, then I get up and go and look at it. It's not as if my home is so large that it requires a special expedition.
The nonsensical belief that people will text their appliances is typical of what emerges from a technology industry that simply tries to answer "What can we…?" As in, "What can we add to this toothbrush?" To which the answer, apparently, is "Bluetooth", plus a smartphone app so that your toothbrush can tell your smartphone how well you're brushing your teeth. (Depending on the definition of "well".)
Or, of course, add texting capability to your washing machine.
Whereas the question that you really want your new piece of technology to answer is "I wish I could…" For example, the original Sony Walkman granted "I wish I could listen to my music while I'm walking about." I recall trying one of the very first models, and while the sound wasn't amazing, the fact of being able to walk around with music was.
You might say that LG is answering the calls of all those who think "I wish I could text my washing machine," but that's not how this game works. Really successful technology fulfils a desire, not a specific function; it fulfils the need through its functions.
Viewed through this sort of prism, it becomes easier to analyse some of the technology that's flying towards us like space shrapnel in the film Gravity. Does in-home 3D printing answer any desire that you can fit around "I wish I could…"? If it's "I wish I could have small globs of plastic that I will discover in odd places," then job done – although for that purpose you can already just get some children to bring their Lego over, at far less expense.
Similarly with "wearables" – those devices that strap to your wrist, head or other body part – the question again becomes, what is the need that these things are fulfilling? I'm happy to own a Pebble smartwatch, which for me fulfils a simple set of functions: tell me the time, and tell me if someone rings or texts my phone by vibrating and showing the caller details. Not very big, and definitely not demanding. I'm still uncertain that there's a large constituency out there saying: "I wish I could monitor how many steps I've taken every day and put it into a graph, which is then shown to all my friends and nags them to get one too."
There are whole classes of things that we wear that don't serve any useful need: jewellery (or "accessories", as they're known in fashion). That's the real chasm that wearables need to cross.
If they can answer "I wish I could…" with "…wear something that looks attractive," then it won't matter how functional they are.
The executives departing from Las Vegas this weekend should take a look at the advertisements along the airport walls, especially for the expensive watches. All those do is tell the time – yet they sell.
Sometimes it's not about the answers you provide – it's about the questions you ask in the first place. "Can I text my washing machine?" isn't a good one.
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