As 2019 winds to a close it’s time to make my annual appraisal of some of the more noteworthy products and events shaping world of design and Innovation. And the last year certainly saw its fair share of significant steps and missteps. So, let’s wade in with a few things I’ll remember that helped define 2019 for me.
Boeing 737 Max: A terrible disaster
This isn’t the first time Boeing has been on my end-of-year list and sadly, it isn’t the first time they’ve been on the list for all the wrong reasons. But it’s hard to imagine a more significant product of the last year than Boeing’s tragically flawed 737 Max. The awful loss of life from two terrible crashes overshadows the reality that the design and decisions surrounding this product have left a proud and storied company irreparably and – in my opinion – justifiably damaged.
The Verge had a superb story breaking down what’s known, but in short strokes, Boeing felt threatened by Airbus’ release of the more fuel efficient A320neo and pushed to leapfrog their competitor with a rapid redesign their immensely popular 737 platform. Problem was that the 737 Max ended up being a collection of unfortunate compromises with fatal consequences. Engineers were constrained first by physics – trying to fit more fuel efficient but dramatically larger engines without significant redesign to the airframe - which changed the plane’s flight characteristics.
If that wasn’t enough, they were also constrained by policy and regulation – which limited the amount of redesign and retraining the Max could absorb without needing to recertify existing 737 pilots. Part of Boeing’s solution included the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) – essentially a combination of hardware and software designed to help stabilize the plane and make it easier to control under certain rare circumstances. All well and good in theory, but in practice the MCAS suffered from some truly terrible oversights. It relied on a single sensor that could fail with unpredictable consequences. In other words, something intended to enhance safety instead became a fundament risk. And to compound this, pilots were never trained or really even informed about the MCAS under the rationale that under normal operating circumstances, it should have never even been actuated.
There are so many lessons and cautionary tales to be spun from the 737 Max, not just for Boeing but for any product faced with increased levels of automation and autonomous control. As a society that values self-reliance and independence, how do we view ceding control and independence? As an engineer and a bit of a geek I’ll staunchly defend the benefits increasing levels of control have provided society. We see this perhaps most dramatically in our cars with innovations ranging from seat belts, airbags and ABS which have undeniably and demonstrably increased the safety of our transportation. Even with the 737Max debacle, air travel is safer than it ever has been. But Boeing’s latest and most tragic mistakes demonstrate the perils when we turn our fate over to an algorithm.
Tesla Cybertruck: Bring on the dystopian apocalypse!
Also in the transportation sector, but on the other end of the spectrum, was the highly controversial Tesla Cybertruck, unveiled in somewhat spotty fashion by Elon Musk. Some of you may know I have a bit of a love/hate view of Mr. Musk. His hubris and PT Barnum-like showmanship sort of drive me nuts, but I think the impact of Tesla on the automotive world has been profound and positive. I think Tesla’s chief designer – Franz von Holzhausen – is a genius and notwithstanding the somewhat pedestrian Model 3, his previous work on the Saturn Sky / Pontiac Solstice and Tesla Model S has been uniformly gorgeous – all featuring sinuous lines and flowing curves.
Which is what made the release of the cubist-like Cybertruck just a bit jarring. Not too surprisingly, the Cybertruck’s styling has been pretty polarizing and that might be being charitable. So, what do I think of the Cybertruck? You might find it surprising that I really think Tesla’s going to have a hit on their hands. From most accounts, it doesn’t look like the styling has compromised the layout, ergonomics or utility of the truck. In fact, as a truck, the specifications of the Cybertruck stack up remarkably well. So, for most, the visceral reaction to the Cybertruck boils down to a love/hate view of the styling. But the history of other visually progressive products ranging from the Scion XB to the Herman Miller Aeron Chair has shown how people’s tastes are fickle and evolve. And I’m willing to bet there are enough buyers out there who would gladly drive a Cybertruck just to stand out. I’m sure the Cybertruck design will evolve but if – and it’s a big if – the Cybertruck survives through development into production with anything like the specifications, features, price, and, yes ,even the styling – I think they’re going to have a hit. Time will tell.
Juul: When good intentions run amuck
The subject of one of my earlier blogs, Juul brough the vaping phenomena to the fore. This included a fresh round of debates surrounding the merits of providing an avenue for smoking cessation at the risk of providing a new avenue for nicotine addiction. Layered on top was the tragic and vexing outbreak of vape-related lung disease. We probably shouldn’t be surprised, but when any business grows so big so fast (think Facebook, Google, Uber, etc.), there are likely to be unexpected, unintended, and undesirable consequences. Juul became the latest poster child for the risks associated with exponential unicorn growth based on a controversial product.
Not so much an innovation as a cultural phenomenon, 2019 was the year the CBD craze hit the nation. There are now more than three CBD shops for every man, woman and child in the United States. OK, I’m kidding – it just seems that way. Ironically, illegal to sell as a food, medicine, dietary supplement or animal feed under federal law, evolving state restrictions have given rise to a host of CBD-related products along with extravagant claims of all manner of suspicious benefit. Also interesting considering a study showing that 70 percent of CBD products were mislabeled with different CBD content than stated on the product labels. Yup, it’s the wild west of CBD right now. Will we really be surprised if the CBD craze goes stale or worse next year?
Here are a few other interesting products from 2019…
LG Signature Rollable TV: Witchcraft!
On the high-end consumer electronics front, the LG signature rollable TV is a singular bit of witchcraft. How the LG engineers pulled this one off is pretty amazing. Nothing like providing a bit of home theater to your home theater.
Ring Doorbell Camera: I see you. Creepy, huh?
The technology isn’t new, but in retrospect I think 2019 will be thought of as the year when the Ring Doorbell Camera truly grabbed hold and integrated into our lives, launching a million creepy package theft videos but also redefining our expectations for neighborhood surveillance. And aside from recent instances of hacking, we’ve now moved from worrying that our government is spying on us to assuming our neighbors are. For good and bad, we are truly reaching the point where if something newsworthy happens and there isn’t a video of it, we’re legitimately surprised and disappointed.
Blind Sport Elimination System: Coming soon, I hope!
I have cynically gone on record in the past as saying it’s brutally hard to truly innovative in the automotive space, but 14-year-old Alaina Gasser proved me delightfully wrong with her remarkably innovative system for eliminating blind spots from the windshield pillars.
Casper: You’re getting very sleepy…
Mattress making Casper introduced a lovely new connected product (a verbal combination I never thought I’d utter) with the Glow – a novel night light designed to help you transition more comfortably to sleep. I think the Glow further demonstrated a truly seamless integration between a novel physical and digital interface – with a series of intuitive gestures to help new users control the light’s many features.
Oculus Quest: Not magical but finally usable, affordable VR
VR continues to hover in a weird zone, somewhere between promise and disappointment. But I think the whole technology took a significant step forward with the introduction of Oculus’ Quest. The Quest demonstrates reasonable VR performance in a fully stand-alone configuration so no more pesky base stations or strangulation-inducing wires.
Disney+: Is there room for one more?
In 2019, content is king and NOBODY has more meaningful content than Disney. The Disney juggernaut debuted with 7,000 TV episodes and over 500 movies from Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox and, of course, the Disney Studios themselves. Launched on November 12th, Disney+ had claimed over 10 million users by the next day! The battle for viewers in the streaming wars seems likely to continue with some great content being served up for the time being.
Boxed Water: Can’t we just turn on a tap?
I’m not exactly sure what I think about this, but I’ll remember 2019 as the year Boxed Water made its first appearance in our office. Purportedly more environmentally woke than bottled water, Boxed Water even has a section on its web site on “Why Boxed Water Is Better.” Yup. Of course, you could always just turn on a tap. And speaking of drinks, 2019 saw the virtual demise of the plastic drinking straw, which makes sense when you consider an estimated 8 billion plastic drinking straws pollute the world’s beaches. Yikes!
Ciari Ascender: Rock on!
Here at Delve, we had a ball working on the Ciari folding travel guitar – a gig-ready, pro-level travel guitar. It’s pretty crazy cool and has had some amazing reviews as a solution to a long-standing problem.
Huge Moto x Zero
A pretty cool collaboration between Huge Design and Zero, this all-electric futuristic electric motorcycle based on Zero’s FXS platform turned some real heads.
The boundaries continue to blur
So, how will we view 2019 from the perspective of design and innovation? Lots of bunts and singles – a few that might prove to be home runs and a couple that marked disaster for users and the companies that produced them. But it’s a brave new world – both in terms of the nature of our product experiences and the ecosystem where we choose and consume them.
Digital products and services formed the most obvious innovation front, but integrated physical / digital products showed perhaps the most impact on our lives – for good and bad. Products like the Boeing 737 Max, Ring Camera, Casper Glow, Oculus and many others define 2019 by the continued convergence of digital automation and our physical lives. Those boundaries, already heavily eroded, have become blurred to the point of confusion.
What will 2020 hold? I, for one, am hoping for a bit more Cybertruck and bit less Juul and 737 Max.
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