2016: Year in review

December 21, 2016

As an eventful 2016 draws to a close, it’s a great time for me to take stock of the most interesting and intriguing design, innovation and technology stories of the year. 

Once relegated to must-have holiday lists, Design (often with its pretentious and annoying capital ‘D’) seems destined to weave its way deeper and deeper into every corner of our lives and 2016 brought more than its fair share of examples. Beyond skin-deep aesthetics, I’m much more fascinated with the technologies and products destined to reshape the way in which we experience life – or those that try and somehow come up just a bit short. Either way, it’s great sport to look back through the year at the ones that caught my eye.  

Choose your reality

2016 was the year when the ‘reality’ part of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) started to catch up to The Hype (TH). While the hysteria has abated – a bit – Pokémon Go melded technology and nostalgia into a cultural phenomenon and bought AR to the forefront of our attention. 

Likewise, after years of knocking on the door, its more aggressive cousin VR finally entered the consumer market in a dramatic way. Virtual reality headsets are definitely the techy must-have Christmas present of choice, although it’s hard to tell what’s more popular and engaging – the VR experiences themselves or watching someone staggering around blindly gesticulating like a drunken sailor on a heaving boat deck. Great fun at your holiday party, either way. 

A hunka, hunka burnin’ tech

Speaking of hot holiday gifts, last year’s smash hit - hover boards - were hot hot hot. Literally. Building on the trend of spontaneously combusting Boeing 787 Dreamliner batteries, we had all manner of combusting consumer products, culminating with the spectacular immolating (also literally as well as financially)  Galaxy Note 7 phone. You know things are bad for a company when a government agency mandates a humiliating anti-advertisement announcement at the start of every airline flight, eulogizing the technical deficiencies of your flagship product. They say all press is good press but I’m not so sure. This one’s going to leave a mark. 

Battling Samsung neck and neck for PR disaster of the millennia (thus far), VW continues to reel from the fallout of their emissions-cheating scandal. Recent articles have estimated the total cost to VW at over $18 billion. Eighteen. Billion. With a ‘B’. $18,000,000,000.00. Ouch. I suspect designing their diesel engines to comply with emission standards rather than fraudulently skirting their way around the tests is beginning to sound like it would have been a bargain.

The biotechnology world was filled with intrigue, distress and perhaps a bit of schadenfreude with the extraordinary and precipitous decline of Theranos. Once the darling of the investment and technology world, Elizabeth Holmes seemed poised to inject a fresh bolus of Silicon Valley swagger and innovation into the staid world of diagnostic testing when a not-so-funny thing happened. Whether it was merely high-tech hyperbole or old-fashioned fraud will probably be for the courts to sort out, but Theranos provided a very sobering reminder that the increasing intersection of technology and our health remains one of the most vexing and serious of all design challenges.

I decided to throw reusable rockets on this list because rockets are cool and outer space is cool and landing them on a heaving boat deck is really cool. A few of them burned up, which wasn’t so cool, but hey, burning stuff is all the rage this year. I’m sure they’ll get that sorted out.

Not all of last year’s products landed with a thud, though. Drones continued their progression into more mainstream applications, providing increasingly novel and fascinating perspectives for everything from car commercials and bike races to hail damage inspection. 

Design seems destined to weave its way deeper and deeper into every corner of our lives and 2016 brought more than its fair share of examples.

Sitting at work is so 2014 

Here at Design Concepts, we’ll be moving to a brand new office in downtown Madison next year and trends in the business environment certainly caught our attention and my eye. This past year saw a pretty pronounced backlash against the “open office” approach. Stow the Nerf guns and Razor scooters – a more balanced approach is de rigueur now with plenty of high-energy collaborative teaming spaces and quiet areas for focus and head’s-down work. Another trend that made us stand up and take notice – pardon the pun – was the proliferation of standing desks, standing chairs, sit-stand desks and sit-stand desk adaptors.  In the office environment, sitting has truly become the new smoking. 

Drivers? We don’t need no stinkin’ drivers!

Much to my amazement, autonomous cars continue to roll closer and closer towards a quasi-sentient reality  with Tesla’s ‘no-it’s-not-really-an-autopilot’ autopilot feature. Uber’s launched an autonomous taxi service in Pittsburg. Those cute little Google pod-cars are often seen tooling placidly around the Bay Area and Otto delivered a truckload of beer over the Rockies. We certainly have our deployment priorities worked out.

For my own part, I spent a couple of hundred miles terrifying my wife as I experimented with letting her new Subaru’s lane guidance feature bounce us off the highway dividing stripes like a bowling ball off children’s bumpers at the local alley. Always the engineer, it’s probably not what Subaru had in mind but I came away pretty impressed. A week later, the system shut down after a thick layer of ice coated the windshield and hood of her car and the lane lines were all but obliterated by drifting snow. We’ve got a way to go before I can type this article on my way home from work.

Obelisks and watches

Our continued de-evolution to an utterly sedentary lifestyle was given a gentle nudge this year with the increasing ubiquity of voice-controlled assistants. Ceaselessly cheerful, unflaggingly helpful and consistently female - disembodied Siri-like automatons escaped the prison of their cell phones and took up residence in all manner of home-based obelisks such as Google Home and Amazon Echo. The march into home automation continues although, to be honest, I’m not sure if my home’s become a more peaceful sanctuary or not. Siri turn off the internet. I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave!

Another one of last year’s can’t-miss wonders – the Apple Watch – is looking like a miss  as sales of smart watch devices dropped pretty dramatically. A cool idea still in search of a killer application or perhaps more wannabe Dick Tracy’s, I suspect. I’m sure we haven’t seen the end of the smart watch form-factor yet but for my money, the old-fashioned Shinola analog watch, built in Detroit, is the product I’d much rather find in my stocking. 

Reduce and reboot

It’s been said the essence of great design is eliminating all the unnecessary details. If that’s true, then Apple certainly took that to heart – enraging an entire cross section of its customers by removing the headphone jack from its phones. Now I guess I get to decide if I’m going to furtively ignore the call for airplane mode as my flight takes off or charge my phone in lieu of being able to listen to the in-flight entertainment – which increasingly is ONLY provided through my own mobile device. Sort of like the in-flight snack and free baggage – I guess they’ll keep eliminating all the unnecessary details until only wings and seats remain.

Another tech product rebooted this year. Building off Google’s nascent but ultimately unsuccessful Glass experiment, Snap (formerly SnapChat, they dropped the ‘Chat’ part. You know… that whole eliminating unnecessary details thing) launched Spectacles (capital ‘S’, mind you), allowing you to surreptitiously and voyeuristically record about 15 seconds of video through your glasses. We’re reaching the point where we’re legitimately surprised and frustrated if we don’t have video evidence of just about every event in our lives, but I sort of think the creepy factor remains with this product. 

Speaking of rebooted, 2016 brought us the brilliant resurrection of one of my favorite cars –  the Acura NSX. Technically, I guess I need to point out the mid-mounted twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 coupled with three electric motors making a combined output of 573 HP along with a nine-speed dual-clutch automatic and all-wheel drive. Or you can forget all that stuff and just look at the damn thing. ‘Nuf said. 

Engineered hair is so much better

Rounding out the year, Design (with a capital D) luminary Dyson released the gorgeous albeit hyperbolically named Supersonic hairdryer. Never one for understatement, Dyson excels in design, user experience, self-promotion and hyper-aggressive patenting.  They raise more than a few eyebrows with the engineers I know by occasionally creating new, self-aggrandizing and PT Barnumesque names for their spin in some actually pedestrian technologies. The hair dryer is a brilliant example in those regards and, in retrospect, a logical brand extension that I guess we should have seen coming. As someone who’s been follicle challenged for quite a while, I have to confess some difficulty in relating to a $400 hair drier, but a quick survey of the students in my product design class this year confirmed that they’re pretty impressed. They weren’t exactly sure why (“It’ll be quieter… “it’ll be more powerful… It’ll be heavier???), but they all predicted that that Dyson’s got a winner on their hands.

Or do they? That’s half the fun. Only time will tell but that’s one of the great things about being in this field. We’ll get a front-row seat to the latest in design once again. Let’s see how 2017 plays out. Happy New Year and I hope you find just what you’re looking for in your stocking this holiday season.