Product Design

The Smartest Thing at CES Doesn’t Have Electronics In It

Manufacturers are really pushing the envelope to “smarten up” their products, whether or not those products actually need to be smart. And since I’m currently at CES—the largest consumer electronics trade show in the world—I’m at the heart of the world’s feverish effort to connect all of our stuff to the internet.

I kicked off my adventure last night at CES Unveiled, a media-only event where manufacturers pitched their newest gadgets and gizmos. As expected, the majority of the products were not incredibly innovative‚ and instead, they were repurposed products that were simply “smartened up.” Smart mirrors, smart kitchen faucets, AI-enabled children’s toys—seems like startups are connecting everything they can to the internet and rebranding it as revolutionary.

That’s not revolutionary. For the most part, it’s not even evolutionary. Instead of solving real problems, it’s creating new ones. Will my smart faucet get the security updates it needs in two years? Probably not, which means that you’ll have to either put up with a botnet slowing down your ‘net connection or throw it out and get a new one in a few year’s time. Is that what manufacturers want? Perhaps. The cynic in me wants to think this is wanton planned obsolescence. But after wandering the floor talking with these companies, I’m not so sure that’s it.

They really don’t seem intent on making a product that will break in two years—they just haven’t thought about it. The failure rate in this space is so high that it’s all most companies can do to come up with a product, design it, build it, and market it. One bluetooth headphone maker I spoke to freely admitted that their headphones only lasted about 14 months. When they won some design awards last year, no one asked them about how long they would last. At the time, they probably didn’t know! But now they do. And this year, I was the only reporter asking the question.

Codi the robot at CES
Codi is a robot made for children that debuted at CES this year. It sings songs reminding your kids to brush their teeth and clean up, made possible by its connection to the internet, of course!

The more pragmatic part of my brain wonders if this is just tunnel vision, with designers desperately trying to find a way to pay their salary this year. They’ll figure out what to do next year when they need to. And their customers? Well they’ve hooked us alongside a mad runaway freight train with PROGRESS graffitied on the side, hellbent for who knows where. Were your headphones working just fine? Well we’re going to take away the headphone jack on every flagship phone. Enjoy the upgrade!

Now, not only does your phone’s battery wear out every eighteen months—your headphones do too.

So imagine my surprise that the one product I found the most interesting on the show-floor didn’t have electronics in it at all. Designed by two guys who got tinnitus from going to nightclubs, Loop Earplugs is simple and effective: an earbud with a round acoustic channel and a 20 decibel filter to eliminate sound. I tried on a pair and found that their rubber tips were a lot more comfortable than competitive earplugs. (I have a boyfriend that snores so I’m somewhat of a self-proclaimed expert on this.) According to Loop, they maintain the frequency integrity of the music better than foam earplugs, too. “This acoustic resonator has the same length as your ear canal and has a quarter wavelength resonance at 2700 Hz.” I haven’t had a chance to try out their performance at an—ahem—performance, yet, so take that with a grain of salt.

Loop earplugs at CES
These Loop Earplugs are our favorite gadget at CES so far—and they don’t contain any electronics!

The idea of a high-fidelity earplug isn’t new—Etymotic already has a similar product with good acoustic performance. But it’s far less hip. Loop is relatively unobtrusive—if someone was looking you dead-on in the face, you couldn’t even tell they were wearing them. And for the fashionably inclined, they offer 5 different colors to choose from—they even one-upped Apple with a flirty rose gold option.

There’s a lot to like about this product. And the fixer in me was most excited about how easily recyclable they were. No embedded circuitry. No integrated lithium-ion battery. Just simple materials that can be easily separated and recycled.

As courageous manufacturers have proven, the brave new world of tech is coming whether you want it or not. Manufacturers are innovating for innovation’s sake, pumping out more and more products that don’t solve real-world problems. We need to break the cycle—and Loop is a refreshing step in the right direction.

I asked Loop if they realized that they were the only exhibitor at CES Unveiled whose product had no electronics in it. They replied, “Is that so bad?”

I certainly don’t think so.