Teetering On The Edge Of Innovation

The last couple of weeks have confirmed to me that there is a lack of compelling innovation in the consumer electronics space… at least right now. Phone and smartwatch launches have become small iterative enhancements rather than substantial innovations, while IFA, the large European consumer electronics show, was a muted affair with little to set the world on fire. Indeed, one of the most interesting product launches at the show was Sony’s fortieth anniversary Walkman, which tugged at everyone’s nostalgic desire by wrapping a digital MP3 player in a veneer of old-school cassette imagery. It was neat, and I’d like one, but it’s hardly new tech, especially in a world consumed with streaming music rather than owning it.

At IFA there were interesting innovations to be found on the show floor, if you could make it past the seemingly endless array of electric scooters. Amazon’s booth highlighted the future of Amazon Dash services, with sensors built into washing machines so that the machine – and Amazon – would know the precise moment to order your next bottle of washing detergent. That’s a smooth integration and a major step forward from having a Dash Button to manually make the purchase. But it’s hardly a mainstream innovation: the majority of consumers will not make a new washing machine purchase based solely on that technology.

And that seems to be the challenge for the consumer technology market right now. The next big innovation seems to be just out of reach. Is it virtual reality? Perhaps not, as interest in that tech seems to have risen and collapsed again in the past couple of years (a case of VR once again being brought to market a little prematurely, with oversized promises). Augmented reality does still feel like it could be an exciting enhancement but the technology was noticeably absent from the show. Yes, there were “smart glasses” to be found, but the definition of “smart” was the addition of small speakers into the frames, allowing the wearer to listen to music without earbuds. I tried those 10+ years ago when Oakley launched them and there is little in the new products to justify a ten year gap. But still, I feel optimistic about the AR opportunity… and perhaps this is a technology that can also leverage some of the benefits of a 5G network, freeing the glasses from the smartphone connection and making them a standalone device.

Or perhaps I’m grasping at straws, hoping that someone in the the tech community will drop a product that reinvigorates the market once again. In the meantime, we all need to be satisfied with small, subtle innovations that make the human-computer interaction smoother, even if we barely notice the improvement at the time.

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