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From rockets to fidget spinning: 2017 year in review

January 11, 2018

The end of a culturally and socially tumultuous 2017 and this year’s Consumer Electronics Show provides a great reason to take stock of the previous year in the world of design. 

From a big “D” Design perspective, 2017 was a year with some notable high points – and more than a few head scratchers. Let’s take a walk through some of the ones that caught my eye.

Hear and now

2017 seems likely to be remembered as the year when the “Voice Assistant” wars really heated up with the speech recognition that’s comfortably ensconced in our smart phones escaping into some stand-alone-yet-oh-so-connected appliances. The line of Google Home products (Home, Home Mini and Home Max) and their benignly named Google Assistant are now doing battle with Amazon’s Echo products (Echo.. echo… echo…) and their cheerfully ubiquitous Alexa. Notably absent thus far is Apple, who’s HomePod entry missed a 2017 launch and runs the risk of becoming the “Window’s Phone” of the bunch. Ouch.

From an engineering perspective, the Home and Echo are a triumph. As our houses become more and more connected, we have the potential for time savings, energy savings, convenience and livability that were mere science fiction only a short time ago.

From a social and business perspective, they still give me pause. One of my co-workers relayed an interesting and disturbing trend in his household – he’s become inured to household conversations that are increasingly between family member and devices instead of between family members. Between his wife talking to her watch and his son yelling at his Google Home, fewer conversations involve dialogue with real people. As an aside, the Wall Street Journal had a humorous article on how Alexa is making life miserable for people named Alexa.

Following a trend seen in much of today’s connected world, the respective products are priced low enough that they’re both alluring and unnerving. As Scott Goodson postulated back in 2012, if you’re not paying for it you can bet you’re the product. Time will tell how successful these devices are in weaving their way into our lives – and what the cultural and privacy costs will be. So far, I’m still turning on my light switches the old-fashioned way. My neighbor’s Echo has probably already let Amazon know.

Tech and the truth

Not that most of us fully grasp the ramifications — yet — (present company included), another other big story of 2017 was the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Google released the second generation of its open source TensorFlow software library. For some reason, the fact that they released it into open source makes it even a bit more sinister seeming. If you want to scare yourself, do a quick Google search on “best quotes about Artificial Intelligence” and read what pundits like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have to say about a future under AI. And then stop to ponder that AI was probably running your search. We’ve come a long way, huh?

Paralleling the rise of AI in 2017 have been accompanying explosions in Big Data and increasingly ubiquitous bot experiences (both the ones we recognize and the ones we don’t). It’s ironic, isn’t it? We have instantaneous access to more information and analysis than we ever would have dreamed. And increasingly we feel like we know less and less and the internet knows more and more. With election-year shenanigans, poll meltdowns, and all manner of Facebook fracases, 2017 is likely to be remembered as the year we stopped knowing what or who to believe. As for me. I believe I’ll have a nice hot cup of coffee. More about that later.  

Hardware … who cares?

One interesting product trend has been driven by the increased ubiquity of cloud computing — a reduction in the level of attention we’re paying to the brand name on our local hardware. There are still plenty of diehard fans on both sides of the hardware aisle, but their arguments seem a bit less shrill in an era where our data and applications have become omnipresent. In fact, 2017 might be known as the year the Mac versus PC debate ended — not by virtue of declaring a victor but because we’ve all moved on to other areas of focus.

Apple did make its fair amount of news in 2017 with the introduction of the iPhone X. This smartphone toyed with a $999 price point — something unimaginable just a few short years ago. In unrelated related news, Apple was slapped with a $999 billion lawsuit after disclosing that it had slowed down older iPhones ostensibly to prevent unexpected shutdowns. Conspiracy theorists had a field day, claiming that the slowdown was intended to drive users to buy newer models (a claim Apple vigorously denied). Regardless of where the truth lies, it presents a fascinating reminder that in today’s deeply connected world, our relationship with a product’s manufacturer is more interwoven than ever before.

Rocket Man and alternative realities

On the more terrifying end of the spectrum but a clear winner for the most significant product introduction, North Korea continued its march towards nuclear capabilities — a product we all hope and pray sees no use. 2017 saw a steady progression of increasingly capable and increasingly menacing missile launches culminating with the Hwasong-15 — which one image analyst referred to as “a big honking missile” and the Washington Post reported “the collective response from missile experts was — not to get too technical — whoa.” A disturbing reminder that engineers and scientists can be pointed at all sorts of goals and tend to doggedly persevere through completion. Let’s all hope this is next year’s Fidget Spinner, ok? 

Increasingly we feel like we know less and less and the internet knows more and more.

Digitally speaking, there were lots of interesting developments in 2017. One that caught our eye here was Apple’s ARKit — the Apple software development kit (SDK) that allows developers to create Augmented Reality experiences on the iPhone. While the initial applications often focused on gaming, Ikea rolled out an experiment intended to allow users to bring products from its catalogue to life in their homes. While battling monsters might sound like a lot more fun, we think this application from Ikea and Apple’s ARKit shows where the real Augmented Reality battles are likely to be fought and won.

Other attempts to cross the digital and physical realm met with mixed results. I called it last year (which hardly makes me a savant), but Snap’s (formerly SnapChat) Spectacles cratered spectacularly. According to SnapChat’s (see, even I can’t bring myself to shorten their name to Snap) own data indicated that less than 1 percent of their users ever bought the camera glasses and a “sizable” percentage stopped using the glasses after only a week. Why did they fail? Where should I start? Poor execution, poor roll-out, limited styles and the fact that wearing sunglasses indoors continues to make you look like a tool. But how can it be that nobody bumped it up a level and admitted that there’s something incredibly creepy about camera glasses?

Food for (machine) thought

But I found myself pretty impressed by another product that flirted with the “do we really need this” threshold — the Ember temperature-regulating coffee mug. On the surface, this is exactly the type of product I tend to hate. I mean, we’ve been timing our coffee consumption for years and I saw no reason why future generations shouldn’t have the same infinitesimally Goldilocks period of enjoyment we have. That being said, the Ember is a lovely piece of — and engineering — and once you realize the possibility of breaking free of the tyranny of thermodynamics it really does make some sense.

2017 also saw the demise of the Juicero — the doomed internet-connected juicing machine that burned through $130mm-plus in venture capital and delivered a $400 device that accomplished principally what you and I can do slightly better with our bare hands. While it’s pretty easy to pile on what’s become the most recent poster child for connected device excess, the reality is that the Juicero is the latest in a long string of reminders that product design and innovation is really hard. With the 20:20 hindsight, we tend to make the hits look obvious and the misses look idiotic.

Gamers and drivers

2017 presented gamers with the Nintendo Switch — a hybrid console living in the previous Blue Ocean space between mobile and home consoles. Following the breakout success of the Wii in 2010, Nintendo had struggled with the financially unsuccessful Wii U and was facing a bit of an existential crisis in the onslaught of mobile gaming. It was even rumored that Nindendo was flirting with focusing on traditional mobile gaming platforms. In the end, they gambled on a pretty revolutionary platform that could have easily crashed and burned as a compromise between both fronts. Instead, they’ve found themselves with a smash success — with the Nintendo Switch becoming the fastest-selling gaming platform of all time. Congrats!

On the automotive front, what should have been a product highlight for the year was Tesla’s launch of the much anticipated and ballyhooed Model 3. By all accounts, the car itself is being very well received and reviewed with the initial feedback overwhelmingly positive. Not so positive has been the more pedestrian manufacturing ramp-up. Tesla had forecast delivering between 5,000 Model 3 Sedans each week by the end of 2018. They actually delivered somewhere between 800 and 3,000 … for the entire year (they’re not saying for sure). I took a breathtaking test drive of a Model S last month and I continue to be incredibly impressed with what Tesla’s been able to accomplish. But having burned through more than a billion dollars in cash last quarter, as well as Elon Musk’s prodigious vision and wandering attention, 2018 is going to prove a pivotal year for the electric vehicle’s bellwether.

Another new car that caught my eye this year was the spectacular and evocative Honda Civic Type R, which finally made its way to the US this fall. While sort of out of vogue here in the US, I have to confess to being a sucker for the small hot-hatch. To be candid, the “boy racer” styling on this car is really overkill — it’s the type of car I’d love to own but only if I could take all the froo-froo spoilers, cladding and plastic bits off. 306BHP out of a turbocharged 2.0 liter engine, properly constrained to a 6-speed manual and factory-limited slip differential — no doubt this car is an absolute ball to drive fast (provided you don’t have to look at it and wonder why it was styled exclusively for a 17-year-old boy).

Printing and spinning

3D printing took a modest but critical step toward mainstream manufacturing with the launch of the Adidas Futurecraft 4D featuring a sole printed using Carbon3D’s Digital Light Synthesis process. Limited to a manageable production run of 5,000 pairs in 2017, Adidas plans to ramp production up to over 100,000 pairs by the end of 2018. At a bit north of $300, they’re certainly not cheap but early accounts had pairs fetching far more than that on the secondhand market. From a design perspective, what makes the Futurecraft so cool for me is that they brilliantly leveraged the unique properties of 3D printing, resulting in a form that simply couldn’t have been manufactured using conventional processes. Whether the sole is truly functional or merely cosmetic, the resulting form is breathtaking.

But the clear winner for 2017 product of the year — everyone’s choice for the most culturally significant, technically complex and deeply influential product — is, ta da!, the Fidget Spinner. OK, I’m kidding. In some regards, it was reassuring to see the comfortably predictable meteoric rise and hypersonic plummet in retail interest for this annoying doohickey, which joins the same ranks as Crocs, razor scooters, Beanie Babies, Pet Rocks and Dutch Tulips. From must-have to has-been overnight.

What will 2018 hold? Only time will tell, but given what we saw in 2017 it’s certainly not likely to be dull.

Happy 2018 from all your friends at Design Concepts!