Desert Companion

A pain in the tech


Illustration by Brent Holmes

Last month’s CES show revealed a lot of “smart” tech — but where’d the cool factor go?

You couldn’t get near it. In a convention made for thronging hordes, they made the usual amount of thronging look like a Sunday walk. It was an order of magnitude of throng, is what I’m trying to say here.

To see a smart hairbrush.

Not “smart” in the British “stylish” sense, either. I could have bought into that. “Smart,” here, meaning it was a hairbrush with a sensor in it and a companion app from noted tech firm L’Oreal to, among other things, teach you how to brush your hair the right way.

It wasn’t far on the floor from the smart toothbrush, the smart dog collar, the smart shoes, the smart locks, the smart beds and the smart pill dispenser. Betty White was hawking that one through a video. At least she was smart enough to take Philips’ money for whatever bullshit they were dishing out.

Some of them, like the sneakers from Under Armour, plugged into corporate ecosystems, designed like Amazon and Google and Apple’s death-struggle of competing networks to lock you into their services. Most of them just had their own apps, so you could clutter your phone with vital information like how many steps your Doberman took that day.

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I would rather wait for my dog to evolve into walking upright than spend 20 minutes a day drilling down menus and syncing apps and trackers to find out how active an animal that’s fooled by palming a tennis ball and pretending you throw it is on any given afternoon.

Yes, this was CES 2017: The year we got thoroughly overwhelmed by crap. Cheap satire would demand a Seinfeldian hypothetical about a smart toaster — except Griffin Technology was pimping a smart toaster. I’ve had toast pretty well figured out since I was 4, and unless I’m living in the black-and-white part of every infomercial ever, I can probably make do without a more convenient way to get pumpernickel crispy. Even the tech blogs started sounding like Andy Rooney. TechCrunch, one of the most relentlessly gadget-positive sites on the internet, had to concede some ground. “Sure, a smart toaster is the epitome of connected appliance ridiculousness,” wrote Brian Heater, with what I desperately hope is a pseudonym reserved strictly for toast-based stories.

If all of this sounds like a collective, exhausted sigh from the tech industry, well, you’re probably not wrong. Inventing problems for unnecessary products to solve is a time-honored tradition (James C. Boyle’s automatic hat tipper U.S. Patent 556248, March 10, 1896, represent!), and there’s no shame in reimagining a classic scam for the 21st century. But the collective shrug from those of us unwilling to add 45 minutes of work to our day futzing with pages of apps to find out how the sole tread on our shoes are holding up can’t come as a surprise.

The end of ideas (or at least the stall of ideas) this year was a question of function. But form? Form didn’t have a bad CES at all.

Apple, for better or worse, has dominated tech’s design vernacular since the late ’90s, with its ever-increasingly minimalist and sterile lines. Johnny Ive is definitely the kind of guy who comes to your party and rearranges your bookshelves by width and height when you’re not looking.

But it’s crushingly dull after almost 20 years. What we’re seeing the first signs of, if CES 2017 was any indication, is a move away from minimalist plastic rectangles and toward well-designed pieces with heft, where aesthetics matter as much as the tech inside. You combine that with iterative improvements, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for all but the most ardent Apple fanboys staying home instead of lining up for the iPhone 10s-Plus Director’s Cut outside the Apple Store like Grand Funk Railroad tickets just went on sale in ’74.

There were a few entries that were ambitious, if not quite there. German outfit Elgato demonstrated its app-controlled, indoor/outdoor mood lighting system Avea, and French shop Deconnect was pushing the Gloo, a decanter-shaped mood lighting unit that doubles as a charging station, aimed at giving bars and hotels a classy way to let customers top off and continue to spend every waking moment in public staring at their phones. App-controlled, color-changing lighting is undeniably cool, but the frosted plastic both products use still looks mediocre.

Samsung, though, swung for the fences with its forthcoming Lifestyle TV, a paper-thin screen that mounts flush enough to the wall that Sammy will be selling custom frames that snap on. That’s because when the TV is off, it turns into always-on artwork drawn from an online repository curated by the company.

Pair that with Panasonic’s induction cooktop built into an artificial marble countertop and complementary glass that displays a touchscreen when engaged — the idea of making utilitarian tech invisible when not in use is the ultimate minimalism, really, freeing up living rooms and kitchens to start looking nice again.

There’s also something charmingly throwback about it. Remember those bulky sets your grandparents had? That was built as furniture first, tech second. And they had roller doors so you didn’t have to look at a dark screen staring back at you.

Audio company Klipsch had the prettiest products on the floor, with lines of speakers and amps and headphones all in real wood, leather, rich dark hues and knurled copper knobs. It’s weep-for-joy gorgeous, and Matt Sommers, creative director for the Indianapolis-based company, knows it.

“One of the things you see in the market is the loss of aesthetic quality,” he said. “Technology can integrate in your environment. It doesn’t have to be this one thing, a black plastic box on the wall. Let’s not make a space that’s clinical. What I think people are starting to realize is you don’t have to live surrounded by boring objects. People were interested in that very futuristic, ultrasmooth look. All of that is very functional, and it’s very nicely designed, but at some point, quality matters and the design of something matters. You can go all the way back to Charles and Ray Eames’ designs for furniture. That’s the ultimate form and function, high design and high functionality. That’s where we’re trying to get.”

Now, if we can combine that aesthetic with something better than a smart chair that details how many pounds per square inch of pressure your left butt cheek puts on the seat, we’ll be getting somewhere. 

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