From rockets to fidget spinning: 2017 year in review

The end of a culturally and socially tumultuous 2017 and this year’s Consumer Electronics Show provides a great reason to take stock of the previous year in the world of design.

From a big “D” Design perspective, 2017 was a year with some notable high points – and more than a few head scratchers. Let’s take a walk through some of the ones that caught my eye.

Hear and now

2017 seems likely to be remembered as the year when the “Voice Assistant” wars really heated up with the speech recognition that’s comfortably ensconced in our smart phones escaping into some stand-alone-yet-oh-so-connected appliances. The line of Google Home products (Home, Home Mini and Home Max) and their benignly named Google Assistant are now doing battle with Amazon’s Echo products (Echo.. echo… echo…) and their cheerfully ubiquitous Alexa. Notably absent thus far is Apple, who’s HomePod entry missed a 2017 launch and runs the risk of becoming the “Window’s Phone” of the bunch. Ouch.

From an engineering perspective, the Home and Echo are a triumph. As our houses become more and more connected, we have the potential for time savings, energy savings, convenience and livability that were mere science fiction only a short time ago.

From a social and business perspective, they still give me pause. One of my co-workers relayed an interesting and disturbing trend in his household – he’s become inured to household conversations that are increasingly between family member and devices instead of between family members. Between his wife talking to her watch and his son yelling at his Google Home, fewer conversations involve dialogue with real people. As an aside, the Wall Street Journal had a humorous article on how Alexa is making life miserable for people named Alexa.

Following a trend seen in much of today’s connected world, the respective products are priced low enough that they’re both alluring and unnerving. As Scott Goodson postulated back in 2012, if you’re not paying for it you can bet you’re the product. Time will tell how successful these devices are in weaving their way into our lives – and what the cultural and privacy costs will be. So far, I’m still turning on my light switches the old-fashioned way. My neighbor’s Echo has probably already let Amazon know.

Tech and the truth

Not that most of us fully grasp the ramifications — yet — (present company included), another other big story of 2017 was the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Google released the second generation of its open source TensorFlow software library. For some reason, the fact that they released it into open source makes it even a bit more sinister seeming. If you want to scare yourself, do a quick Google search on “best quotes about Artificial Intelligence” and read what pundits like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have to say about a future under AI. And then stop to ponder that AI was probably running your search. We’ve come a long way, huh?

Paralleling the rise of AI in 2017 have been accompanying explosions in Big Data and increasingly ubiquitous bot experiences (both the ones we recognize and the ones we don’t). It’s ironic, isn’t it? We have instantaneous access to more information and analysis than we ever would have dreamed. And increasingly we feel like we know less and less and the internet knows more and more. With election-year shenanigans, poll meltdowns, and all manner of Facebook fracases, 2017 is likely to be remembered as the year we stopped knowing what or who to believe. As for me. I believe I’ll have a nice hot cup of coffee. More about that later.

Hardware … who cares?

One interesting product trend has been driven by the increased ubiquity of cloud computing — a reduction in the level of attention we’re paying to the brand name on our local hardware. There are still plenty of diehard fans on both sides of the hardware aisle, but their arguments seem a bit less shrill in an era where our data and applications have become omnipresent. In fact, 2017 might be known as the year the Mac versus PC debate ended — not by virtue of declaring a victor but because we’ve all moved on to other areas of focus.

Apple did make its fair amount of news in 2017 with the introduction of the iPhone X. This smartphone toyed with a $999 price point — something unimaginable just a few short years ago. In unrelated related news, Apple was slapped with a $999 billion lawsuit after disclosing that it had slowed down older iPhones ostensibly to prevent unexpected shutdowns. Conspiracy theorists had a field day, claiming that the slowdown was intended to drive users to buy newer models (a claim Apple vigorously denied). Regardless of where the truth lies, it presents a fascinating reminder that in today’s deeply connected world, our relationship with a product’s manufacturer is more interwoven than ever before.

Rocket Man and alternative realities

On the more terrifying end of the spectrum but a clear winner for the most significant product introduction, North Korea continued its march towards nuclear capabilities — a product we all hope and pray sees no use. 2017 saw a steady progression of increasingly capable and increasingly menacing missile launches culminating with the Hwasong-15 — which one image analyst referred to as “a big honking missile” and the Washington Post reported “the collective response from missile experts was — not to get too technical — whoa.” A disturbing reminder that engineers and scientists can be pointed at all sorts of goals and tend to doggedly persevere through completion. Let’s all hope this is next year’s Fidget Spinner, ok?

Increasingly we feel like we know less and less and the internet knows more and more.

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