Focus on ‘gadget fatigue’ as tech fest starts

Launch pad: For 50 years, CES has been a showcase for new technology that has changed the world

The Consumer Electronics Show begins tomorrow. Tech giants and self-starters will wow viewers with their gizmos. But amid this frenzy, some are asking whether we have reached ‘peak gadget’.

A camera that shows owners what is in their fridge and suggests recipes based on the contents. A pair of jeans whose legs vibrate, left or right, to tell the wearer which way to turn. A flying selfie-stick. A huge range of futuristic super-cars and robots.

These are just some of the 20,000 new products which will be launched this week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2017. Technology’s elite, along with hundreds of tiny start-up companies, will flock to Las Vegas for the most famous tech trade fair in the world; it lasts from Thursday to Sunday.

CES started in 1967. Back then, the new wonder of the age was a ‘Portable Executive Telephone’. It cost more than $2,000 and weighed 19 pounds. In later years the DVD player and the Walkman dominated the event.

This year’s widgets include: the Blitab, a tablet which has been described as ‘the iPad for the blind’ — it uses liquid bubbles to instantly generate Braille text or relief images in an area above its touchscreen; or ‘Olly’, a voice-controlled robot assistant that adapts its ‘personality’ to suit the user.

Cars have taken on greater prominence in the show over the last few years. And after advances in AI (artificial intelligence) were made in 2016, all the talk will be of driverless cars. Several companies are pitching processors and 5G chips in preparation for a driverless future, but it will still be some years before the human driver can really ignore the steering wheel.

But some are now wondering whether we have reached ‘peak gadget’. The growth in smartphone sales dropped from 10% in 2015 to 1.6% in 2016. Vinyl has made a surprise comeback: in a reaction against the age of digital download and storage, and in favour of physical objects you can see and hold, vinyl album sales are back to where they were in the early 1990s.

The technology market seems to be plateauing: instead of new ‘wow’ products, companies are focusing on improved versions of old ones. Writing in The Times, Nigel Powell dismisses gizmos like Olly the Robot as ‘delivering a ten-second buzz and then languishing in a drawer’.

Tired of tech

For many consumers, the myriad gadgets, platforms, formats, restrictions, conflicts and privacy concerns have become too complicated. Most people just want something that works. This is what keeps analogue attractive.

‘Nonsense’, reply millions of tech enthusiasts. All ground-breaking inventions start off as one person’s unlikely vision, dismissed by many as unnecessary. People are constantly looking for ways to make life easier, and this is the goal of technology. Human progress means that we will never reach ‘peak gadget’.

You Decide

  1. Does owning an iPhone make a person happier?
  2. Are trends like the rebirth of vinyl going to become more or less frequent in the next decade?

Activities

  1. Design and draw an original gadget and give a five minute presentation about it to your class.
  2. Imagine that, for one week, the internet was down all over the world. Write 300 words on how it would affect you and the wider world.

Some People Say...

“Technology is evolving at a faster rate than humanity.”

What do you think?

Q & A

These shows are just for geeks, aren’t they?
No. While geeks will certainly be enthralled by what is on display, most products are designed for the widest possible use. Many of the inventions, such as the Fridgecam, use relatively simple technology in original, ingenious ways. You do not have to be a geek to imagine what the world might be like if all the products at the show became mainstream.
But surely most of them will not catch on?
You are probably right. But if every inventor had that attitude no progress would ever be made. Creativity breeds creativity, and one person’s flawed idea might pave the way for another person’s stroke of genius. That is why CES is exciting: it is where ideas that might change the world are exchanged.

Word Watch

‘Portable Executive Telephone’
Mobile phones, as they are better known, started to become consumer items in the mid-1980s. By 2011, it was estimated in the UK that more calls were made using mobile phones than on wired devices.
Braille
A writing and reading system for blind people, named after its inventor, Louis Braille. Braille characters are small rectangular ‘cells’ that contain tiny bumps called ‘raised dots’. The pattern of the dots distinguishes one letter from another.
Advances in AI
Uber’s driverless cars, which are being trialled in Pittsburgh, and Amazon’s ‘Echo’ robot, which answers questions when spoken to, were both launched in 2016.
Vinyl album sales
In the UK, 3.2 million vinyl albums were sold in 2016, compared with just 205,000 in 2007. In addition to the physical properties of vinyl records, some audiophiles find the analogue sound fuller and warmer than the digital equivalents.

Subjects

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