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Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

CES 2012: A New Era of Simpler Gadgets

Better technology and improved design will make tomorrow’s gadgets less confusing.

  • January 9, 2012

If anyone can predict the future of gadgets it should be Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association, which organizes the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this time each year.

CES sets the tone for the year of consumer tech ahead and yesterday DuBravac opened the show’s first press event with a reassuring prediction: gadgets are going to get easier to use.

After years of stuffing in new features just because they could, consumer electronics companies are learning to prioritize a smooth experience over adding more buttons, said DuBravac, who is also an adjunct professor at George Washington University.

“I think 2012 will be the year of the interface,” he said, and that it would represent the culmination of an “evolutionary” process, which I’ve illustrated left.

Gadget designers in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the industry got started, couldn’t make things complex if they’d wanted to. The necessary technology either wasn’t available or was too expensive to commercialize. The result was simple interfaces like the Zenith model from the early ’60s.

That changed after high volume electronics manufacturing slashed the price and pace of gadget innovation, though. It was easy to add features and buttons and be seen as a good differentiator. Device builders went wild. Some of them still do, as with the Sony TV remote in the image, which launched last year.

Fortunately, cultural and technological shifts appear to be saving us from the march of the buttons, says DuBravac. The Magic Wand made by LG, on the right above, shows evidence of both. The designer purposefully went easy on buttons, and was aided by the availability of accelerometer technology that allows detection of hand gestures.

“We have this evolution not just in remotes but across a variety of products,” said DuBravac. If he’s right, the influence of Apple can’t be denied, but the availability of new technology is also driving this along. LG is rumored to be adding voice control to the Magic Wand next, technology that is only just maturing.

DuBravac opined that all the big trends of CES (see my previous guesses at them) would show evidence of a new species of more evolved gadget maker.

Web-enabled TVs, most notably Google TV, were big news at CES last year but have failed to gain traction, in no small part due to over-complex interfaces (like Sony’s remote, above). Those TV sets were often shown off browsing websites like Twitter and Gmail. “Anyone’s that actually checked email on a 50 inch TV knows it is not a nice experience,” points out DuBruvac.

Tablets and PCs are sure to be big this year and both show evidence of an urge to simplify. One of the most alluring features of tablets has always been their simplicity compared to a regular PC. CES this year will see regular PCs strive to become more simple themselves. Some 50 ultrabooks—very lightweight, thin laptops modeled on the MacBook Air—are expected to launch. They get their sleek looks in part thanks to designers channelling Apple, and also from throwing out USB and other ports, optical drives and large screens. Looking further ahead, PCs and tablets will also start to use voice and gesture recognition, said DuBruvac.

Simple good. More buttons bad. I don’t think I’m alone in saying this is a welcome trend.

Image credit: Locomotive8 / Sony / LG / Spidermandragon5

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