Signals Versus Trends: Why we saw little real innovation at CES

Speaking about “Designing Human Technology” at CES’ WPP Terrace with Cleve Gibbon, CTO of Wunderman Thompson (Photo by Vanessa Camones)

This was my first year speaking at CES, the 100,000+ attendee strong technology trade show in Las Vegas earlier this month. I spent three days visiting companies on the trade show floor, at invite-only press events, and in hotel rooms.

CES attendee tries a “smart” mirror at CES 2020

I’m far from the only one to come away from this year’s CES feeling underwhelmed at a slew of products that were more likely to include accessories for existing technologies than innovative breakthroughs. Social media is full of snark at its cavalcade of shiny but ultimately forgotten products.

Amidst the USB charging dongles, “smart” appliances and voice-activated technologies, only two technologies really drew my attention:

A legitimately portable MRI scanner created by Hyperfine Research. MRIs are enormous, costly, and unscalable. Anyone working on shrinking or improving this technology has my vote. And although I’m waiting for the wearable MRI (currently under development by Mary Lou Jepsen), this portable MRI seems to fill that innovation gap.

Augmented reality contact lens from Mojo Vision. The Mojo Lens can help people with glaucoma or difficulty seeing in low light. The lens can detect the edges of objects, making it possible for people to drive in low light conditions and extend their vision. I was so happy to see that the product was simple. It wasn’t snazzy or high color. The lens was a product designed to be mundane and fit into your everyday life.

These were among the few companies I saw that were really trying to go beyond the norms of technology. But why? Why did CES have so little transformative invention to offer, and such a fixation on current technologies?

Signals vs. Trends — And telling them apart

I’ve been doing research on the challenge of innovation with the Institute for the Future. And Marina Gorbis of IFTF puts it best, when she writes that “futures thinking is about seeing new possibilities”.

In contrast, most of the exhibitors at CES demonstrated how well they could remix the present. I believe that product development which only focuses on trends, hype and FOMO makes it impossible to make any breakthrough products capable of ushering in the next generation of technology.

In my last year with Institute for the Future, I learned about the distinct difference between a trend versus a signal. Those who follow trends will always be behind. Those who watch signals have a chance at building, succeeding and working with multiple futures.

I’d characterize the innovation gap seen at CES caused by an emphasis on trends versus engagement with signals. Here’s what I mean:

Trends are easy to follow because they reflect pre-existing technologies that the market is currently excited about. At this year’s CES, for example, many or most of the products on display reflected a growing interest in 5G. The specific product or application is based on this interest, but doesn’t necessarily reflect what people need.

Signals, by contrast, is far more subtle. Typically it’s a small or local innovation or disruption that has the potential to grow in scale and geographic distribution.

A signal can be a new product, a new practice, a new market strategy, a new policy, or new technology. A signal can be an event, a local trend, or an organization. It can also be a recently revealed problem or state of affairs. For instance, if we consider how the signal of climate change might impact the fashion industry, we’d consider how increasingly warmer Summers could shift our tastes toward styles already favored by countries with hot climates.

In short, a signal is something that catches our attention at one scale and in one locale, and points to larger implications for other locales or even globally.

Searching for Signals at CES

5G was a huge buzzword at CES. Most of the products and presentations were created under the assumption that 5G would enable even higher bandwidth applications (for instance, streaming video communication and high-end games to mobile devices) meant to be taken outside the home.

But all this misses an important signal: How 4G is being used now. Our mobile carriers are already struggling under the burden of heavy demand from so many mobile devices, a problem that becomes even more obvious and pronounced at the local level. When major cities fully transition to 5G, everything we already know about current usage habits suggests that applications, when given the chance, will soak up all available bandwidth. This implies that we should not expect 5G to be broadband nirvana, but is destined to be, for many users much of the time if not more, a modest improvement to 4G.

Instead of assuming we’ll have infinite 5G bandwidth and infinite chips to use that 5G, the real product design winners will focus on constraints. (A recent ARM report suggests we are steadily running out of global resources to sustain our current chip production output.) A better approach to 5G is design products that work within the home and on home-based servers. It only means focusing on being creative with limited power and resources with the chips we have.

With Qoobo

Technology Minimalism

I saw some fantastic minimalist approaches at CES from companies based in Japan, where there is a cultural tradition on creating systems in harmony with people, nature and technology.

Kaz and Akiko from Mui, a company blending principles of Japanese design and Calm Technology

For instance, Qoobo, a robot cat pillow (above) ideal for people unable to own a real life cat, such as seniors in assisted living. Or Mui Lab’s award-winning wooden smart display, which uses Calm Technology design principles.

CES did offer me a chance to observe a signal for future technology that wasn’t even featured at the conference: Rideshare vehicles going to and from the convention center were taking 20 minutes to arrive, so people were resorting to the city’s monorail system. We see a similar problem in San Francisco (one key reason its aging BART rail line is still quite popular.) The fact that this signal echoes elsewhere strongly suggests we’re going to see renewed interest in trains and light rail.

However, I did see a signal that CES itself is facing this gap in innovation: Someone snuck a “smart potato” into CES, and not everyone there got the joke.

Trending Toward Signals

In an era where trend-based futurism can lead us astray, I encourage us to look at signals, not trends, and to look back to see forward. Using the past to predict the future involves becoming more versed in history, instead of marketing. With a deeper understanding of larger forces, multiple possibilities, futures and outcomes can become clear.

For years I’ve watched “futurists” from the advertising industry sling 500-slide Powerpoints with the same buzzwords they know their clients will respond to. Although robots, AI and self-driving cars might get people excited and into a constant state of FOMO, I’d encourage everyone to consider the calm, quiet person at the back of the room. The person who isn’t interested in throwing the future of the company away for, say, the FOMO of blockchain. Those companies that are rooted in history, reality and an understanding of time can make large advances in a stable way.

For more about signals versus trends, and the idea of multiple futures, I strongly recommend Five Principles for Thinking Like a Futurist by Marina Gorbis.

Design advocate, speaker and author of Calm Technology + Designing With Sound. Research Fellow at Institute for the Future.

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