Product Design

When Smart Stuff Gets Stupid: A CES Tale

Earlier this month, I lost my CES virginity. It was, well… kinda dirty. It didn’t live up to the hype, it definitely didn’t feel that great, and it was awkward and weirdly exciting all at the same time.

CES is the largest consumer electronics tradeshow in the world. The 2.6 million square feet of show floor sprawls multiple Las Vegas venues and plays host to more than 175,000 industry pros eager to talk shop about their little slice of emerging technology. This year’s theme: “the millennium of whoa”—fitting for a show brimming with gadgets and gizmos a plenty, whozits and whatzits galore. As for thingamabobs, they had 20,000! (For comparison, iFixit added its 20,000th repair guide just last year, so imagine my whoa when I read that 20,000 new products were launching at this show alone.)

20,000 products is too much to talk about, so I’ll give you my CES TL;DR: there was a shit-ton of shit.

Manufacturers are pushing the envelope to smarten up our products—whether those products need to be smart or not. Just because we can connect things to the Internet doesn’t mean we should. CES also taught me that I don’t enjoy shouting at my appliances by a first name: “Alexa, brew my coffee,” “Alexa, buy me detergent,” “Alexa, bake the salmon.” It makes me feel like a lazy overlord—and I’m still not convinced of its wider usefulness. I’ve thought about it, and I just can’t imagine a case where I’d need a voice-powered washing machine. All the same, CES featured just that, and tons of other Alexa-powered products.

A giant alexa at CES
A giant alexa! (my boss for scale)

Amongst the dizzying slew of gadgets on display, here’s a few I found especially underwhelming:

  • Kerastase Hair Coach: The world’s first smart hairbrush! It’s packed with a gyroscope and accelerometer to assist with brush pattern identification, and a conductivity sensor to determine whether it is brushing wet or dry hair. Now, I have a ton of hair. Still, I’ve only owned maybe two hairbrushes in my entire life, so I’m probably not the target market here. But I’ve never once thought while brushing my hair—damn, I wish this brush could critique my technique.
  • Pregnancy Pro: The first and only Bluetooth wireless technology enabled pregnancy test. After you pee on the stick, the app gives you a 3-minute countdown. While you wait, you can elect for relaxing visual content, or videos of adorable puppies and fluffy kittens. No word yet if it auto-tweets your results to the world. But I’m pretty sure that you toss the Pregnancy Pro away after you use it, turning your pee-waste into e-waste.
  • The Oombrella: The smart umbrella that tells you when it’s going to rain before it starts, because traditional weather apps (or you know, eyes) are so last season.

If there’s anything I’ve learned at iFixit, it’s that everything breaks. As I wandered the show floor, I couldn’t help but scan for repairable products—if it had a user-replaceable battery, whether the components that are likely to fail were easily accessible, if you could open the outer case. Unsurprisingly, most of the devices at CES were not designed to be repaired. Sad news for anyone who cares about the environment, especially when we’re pumping out products we don’t actually need.

Electronics are in everything. By weight, they’re some of the most resource intensive products we make. When devices are designed to be thrown away and bought again next year, that’s a problem: for our wallets, for our planet, and for our economy. And if the hardware doesn’t fail, there’s only a matter of time before the software stops getting updates. Embedded software can dramatically shorten a product’s lifespan. An expensive appliance like a fridge should last you 15 years. Make it an IOT fridge and there’s no guarantee it will get the updates it needs in a few year’s time. Then you toss the e-wasted monster and get a new one. The cycle continues.

There’s no doubt in my mind that CES brought together some of the brightest minds in tech. But I also think it’s up to the next generation of designers to change the way we interact with our devices. So how ‘bout it, guys? If you can make a bluetooth pregnancy test with kittens, surely you can make products that can be repaired, too.

Oh yeah, I also met a mermaid.

Mermaid at CES booth
PowerRay underwater fishing drone made a splash at CES with a real-life mermaid at their booth.