If you ever needed a reminder that progress comes in fits and starts, last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was surely it. For all the media hoopla that always accompanies it, this year's event lacked much of the excitement of years past. I've been trying to put it in perspective in the month of unexciting technology news we've had since.
Was CES a sign of a bigger innovation lull, as some have speculated? Has the tsunami of progress hit a giant trough? Maybe. Or maybe we've just entered a new stage of evolution.
A recent study on early mammal development out of Oxford University might also help explain our current state of innovation. During the mid-Jurassic period, the authors state, "a profusion of weird and wonderful bodies" and "an explosion of new adaptations" appeared, which were then "winnowed down" in the late Jurassic era, so that only the most successful survived.
Replace the word "adaptations" with "applications" or apps, and it sounds a lot like modern times, with CES as a consumer-electronics mid-Jurassic swamp.
A year ago, there'd be some concept or prototype every so often at CES that would make you pause because it presented a different way of looking at things--advancements for 3-D printers, for instance. But this year, aside from some holographic images and a toilet that cleans itself with ultraviolet light--I'm a toilet aficionado but even I thought that was a bit wild--the show offered little to slow you in your tracks except the crush of humanity.
It was definitely a year for piling on the bandwagon of smart-home technology, with exhibitors thinking they can just slap an app on something and proclaim it connected and innovative. What I saw were a lot of coders and technotypes who've probably never had to think about what works with what, or something as basic as how air-conditioning and heating systems affect electric bills. They're still talking to the Crock-Pot. They don't yet qualify as crackpots, but maybe someday, if they keep at it.
There was an explosion of phone-related products. A lot of apps and a lot of fancy remote controls. There were even remote controls for the remote controls. People think they're creating a connected home like the one in The Jetsons. But what they're producing is closer to The Flintstones.
This same kind of thing happens all the time at trade shows. One year at a conference on home building, a couple exhibitors had fans that sprayed or misted. The next year there were dozens. The year after that they all disappeared because everyone recognized the market's not that big. Hopefully the same thing will happen next year at CES, after we've all come to realize that apps alone aren't enough, and that people want real products that make their lives less complicated, not more.
If we're seeing our own mini-Jurassic era playing out in consumer electronics and smart-home technology, it's now time for consumers to take care of the natural selection.
The period of winnowing down can't begin soon enough for me.