The beginning of a new year is a great time for reflection – and what better to reflect on than the last year in design and innovation?
When it comes to innovative new stuff and trends, 2018 brought us its fair share of home runs and a few dramatic foul balls. And a couple of things that have left us scratching our heads for the time being.
So, what are the things I think we’ll remember from 2018? Take a look and let me know where you think I’m right and where you think I hit a foul ball.
Cool stuff we worked on
Let’s start with a few projects we were involved in that made my list of some of the cool stuff from 2018:
G6: Diabetes is hard. Dexcom makes it a bit easier. In March of this year, our long-term partner Dexcom introduced the revolutionary G6 continuous glucose monitoring system. As the name implies, continuous glucose monitoring (or CGM) allows uninterrupted observation of a person’s blood glucose level, allowing diabetics to observe and account for trends in their readings over time. The G6 represented a quantum leap in the user experience for CGM, providing accurate glucose readings without the need for painful finger sticks. It also lasts longer, is less expensive, smaller, more comfortable and less obtrusive. The G6 also debuted an “outstanding new one-button sensor inserter,” something our team was particularly proud of. Worldwide, the number of people with diabetes has risen from 108 million in 1980 to over 400 million people and is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes and lower limb amputation. CGM and the G6 represent important advances in monitoring and treating this terrible chronic disease.
SafetyNet: With more than 40 percent of all American adults reporting that they wouldn’t be able to come up with $400 to cover an emergency expense, our partners at SafetyNet introduced a simple, affordable and transparent “rainy day” insurance product. SafetyNet is an online service providing peace-of-mind support to individuals suffering from layoffs, business closing, job cuts or injury/illness. Since its launch, membership has grown 30 percent month-over-month.
Scout: On the more whimsical front, our team really loved being involved in the Scout - an almost-magical ride-on pony from Kid Trax. Released through Walmart in July, Scout got some serious love from the toy press and was on many lists to be the "hot toy” of the holidays. I wasn’t sure how an animatronic pony would stack up, but I personally watched an enchanted four-year-old girl fall in love with Scout. And for her, and those of us watching her, the experience was sweet and wonderful.
Hits and misses
Turning our attention beyond Design Concepts, this year brought some real winners – and a few that perplexed us as well.
Hit: Catching me a bit by surprise, I think 2018 will be remembered as the year e-bikes really took hold. They’ve been around for a while, of course, but 2018 saw them cement into the urban commuting market. As usual, Trek does it really well with their CrossRip+. Here at Design Concepts, we LOVE our bikes and I was skeptical they’d catch on with a group that can be – how do I say this – a tad elitist on their biking experiences. But this year I’ve watched as some of our most hardcore bikers have adopted e-bikes as a way of making an otherwise impractical commute healthier, more enjoyable and more accessible. As a not-yet adopter, I’ve had to grow used to watching some silver-haired biker effortlessly cruise by me while I puff up a hill on my commute to work. Maybe in 2019 for me?
Foul Ball: If e-bikes were a hit on the personal front, 2018 brought two-wheeled electric controversy to many cities in the form of a crush of dockless e-scooter services. Taking a cue from Uber and Lyft’s “let’s beg forgiveness versus ask permission” playbook, these scooter services descended on a host of unsuspecting cities, appearing virtually overnight in a quasi-land-rush (wheel rush?) for first-adopter supremacy. Loved by some, loathed by others, the scooters became either an important, sustainable part of the city transportation ecosystem or a menace, depending on your perspective. It will be interesting to watch and see whether 2019 brings hockey-stick adoption or if municipal e-scooter services are the next hoverboard.
Hit: Clearly surviving the transition to mainstream adoption, robotic vacuum cleaners are now part of many people’s lives. My personal favorite, iRobot, introduced the self-emptying i7. As the name implies, the i7 will tirelessly rid your house of dust and dirt every day before returning to its charging station where its onboard contents are transferred to a larger storage bin. As effortless as assigning the kids to sweep the house every day – and to be frank, quite a bit more reliable.
Hit: I’m an automotive junkie and 2018 was certainly a banner year for auto enthusiasts. After an interminable wait, and an excruciatingly difficult launch, Tesla finally introduced the much-anticipated Model 3. Notwithstanding some hideous (in my opinion) front-end styling, the Model 3 has been a huge hit, blowing past the elusive 100,000 cars-per-year mark and prompting Dan Neill of the Wall Street Journal to predict the looming end of the internal combustion engine car. Last year, the chief financial officer for Continental, the Tier 1 global automotive supplier, predicted that car makers are likely to stop developing new internal combustion engines within six years. If so, Elon Musk is certainly going to be one of the primary reasons as another home run from Tesla continues to defy the naysayers.
Hit: Before we completely give up on the IC engine, there are still a few interesting things happening on that front. The engineers at Nissan developed the KR20 Variable Compression Turbo Engine, introduced in the 2019 Infiniti QX50. Variable Compression has long been a bit of a technical Valhalla – oft imagined and never really seen. Until now. High compression can be a desirable thing in an engine. It enhances thermal efficiency. But it comes at the expense of higher temperatures and pressures that can cause detonation, which is exactly what you’d think it is. From a practical perspective, engineers design a conventional engine to dump in extra gas to help cool the combustion and avoid detonation – coming at the expense of fuel economy and tailpipe emissions.
Engineers have long understood that if you could ‘just’ adjust the volume in the combustion chamber, you could have the best of both worlds. The key here being ‘just.’ I liken the technical challenge of variable combustion to trying to switch the size of a sealed pot on your stove at 120 times each second – all while under tremendous heat and pressure. As it moves through your kitchen at 70 mph. In the snow. And somehow, the geniuses at Nissan figured out a Rube Goldbergesque mechanism that can do just that. Frankly, it’s crazy-cool. If you’re an engine geek like me, here’s a pretty nifty video describing how it works.
Hit: NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe that reached 153,454 miles per hour, moving faster than any other man-made object. It’s also going to do a lot of other science stuff. But did I mention it goes 153,454 miles per hour? Cool.
Hit: On the gaming front, the monster success of the year was clearly Fortnite, the free-to-play, third-person shooter game with cross-platform (first of its kind), multiplayer function. In May, the New Yorker magazine described it as having elements of “Beatlemania, the opioid crisis and eating Tide Pods.” The Wall Street Journal pondered “How Fortnite Triggered an Unwinnable War Between Parents and Their Boys.” Over 125 million players have tried it with more than 40 million estimated monthly players. Be it harmless fun or the bane of your spare time, you can’t argue with its impact. Banking $3 billion in profit in 2018, Fortnite has driven the value of its creator Epic Games close to $15 Billion.
Strikeout: The PlayStation Classic. From my coworker Michael Hammond: After Nintendo nailed with both the NES and SNES classic mini consoles (and sold a zillion of them), Sony released a halfhearted attempt at a mini PlayStation 1. While they nailed it on the physical design details, they blew out on the games and display quality. In an age where consumers can reproduce a better experience on a Raspberry Pi and play they games they love, the PS1 Classic forgets that it's what’s inside that counts.
Strikeout: It would be hard to find a bigger bomb in 2018 than SnapChat’s much ballyhooed redesign. Following up on last year’s disastrous “Spectacles” this is the second year in a row SnapChat has made my list for stubbing their toe. Apparently inspired by some trends seen during a trip to China, founder and CEO Evan Spiegel set a “punishing” timeline and chose to ignore poor user feedback during initial testing. The result? It was a debacle, with Snap losing users for the first time in its history, with even its most hardcore users complaining bitterly and its share price tanking by more than 75 percent since the redesign. But take heart Snap – Instagram just pulled back from their new redesign after a bitter backlash from their users too. Be it physical or digital – innovation is never easy. But that’s what makes it so fun.
Strikeout: Neighbor-spoofing Robocalls. ‘Nuff said.
Strikeout: Turning from higher-tech to no-tech. 2018 will probably also be known as the year of the demise of the disposable plastic drinking straw as the movement to ban them spreads amid growing awareness of the environmental toll they cause.
Hit: With every crisis comes opportunity and 2018 saw a dramatic uptick in the sale of reusable straws. Our family has a handful of nifty stainless steel ones in our cupboard. No word yet on any replacement for blowing the paper wrapper at your sibling though.
Not sure yet: The jury’s still out on this one for me, but as smart phones insidiously weave their way into every moment of our lives, 2018 saw a plethora of sanitizing systems like this one from PhoneSoap. If you’re a germophobe, I’d strongly suggest NOT clicking on the “Why Phonesoap” link on their web site. Yuck.
Not sure yet: As we’ve been saying for years now, Virtual Reality is the next big thing this year. 2018 saw some progress I guess – with Oculus introducing it’s $200 Oculus Go – and some turmoil – with Facebook firing Oculus co-founder Palmer Lucky. The Go is cool – but still lacks that “killer app” that drives VR out of niche status into the mainstream. Now next year….
Hit: We have more than a few drone fans here at Design Concepts and the new Mavic Air made a couple of their lists. As my co-worker Ryan Braunstein put it: As a ‘dronie’, IMO the clear winner is DJI’s latest miniature fold-able drone Mavic Air. The tech packed into these pocket-sized flyers is simply amazing. Range is beyond two miles, it can track objects (people, cars, surfers, skiers, bikers etc.) selected on screen, it returns to home and lands on its own, it can detect and avoid objects (buildings, trees etc.) in front or behind on its own, and all this while shooting video in high def... which you can see live on your smartphone via the app. And it’s smaller than a digital SLR camera.
Not sure yet: Likewise, on the technology front, I think 2018 will be the year that smart technology literally invaded our dreams with the advent of the smart mattress. Entrants like the ReST Bed™ from Rest Performance sense pressure and automatically respond, making automatic real-time adjustments in firmness. And the accompanying sensors collect sleep data, sending critical information on your sleep habits to your smart phone. And God knows where else. OK, I made the last part up. Sort of. Because…
Strikeout: 2018 is clearly going to be remembered by many of us as the year that the implications – and limits – of our digital privacy really came front and center. Oh, we’ve always known that these nifty technological innovations came with some quid pro quo. As my coworker Corin put it: This year was the first year I purchased anything from an ad on a social media page (Instagram). I purchased the Timeular for tracking my hours more easily/accurately, an (aftermarket) Apple watchband from Untold, and a Quip toothbrush. I didn't know about any of those brands outside of Insta. If you asked me last year if I would buy anything from an ad, I would have said, no way! The ads have become much more attractive to me on Instagram and have introduced me to products I didn't know I wanted. Sneaky and creepy, but also more pleasant somehow.
The year when something changed ...
So we certainly understand the cool. But 2018 also peeled back the curtain on the sordid side of social media and technology. This year found just about every large technology company embroiled in significant regulatory, legislative and public relations pressure – if not having to answer some very painful questions in front of congress.
Clearly, much of the stew we rest in is of our own making as we all grapple with trading off the promise and convenience of technology with the implications of exposing the most intimate details of our lives. We’re still in the early stages of figuring all this out and I suspect that 50 years from now the pragmatic and psychological ramifications of these trade-offs will be far better understood.
But I do think that 2018 will be remembered as a year when something changed, and the rose-colored glasses came off many pairs of eyes when it came to the more worrisome implications of the amazing social media and data innovations that have made such a profound impact on our lives.
So that’s what I remember – or at least think I’ll remember from 2018. What do you think?
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