Gigaom

What Do Future Products Look Like? Personal, Sensual, Intimate


IFA, Europe's largest consumer electronics and home appliances fair runs until September 5, 2012, with more than 1,400 exhibitors taking part.

Photograph by John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

IFA, Europe's largest consumer electronics and home appliances fair runs until September 5, 2012, with more than 1,400 exhibitors taking part.

You can normally describe any new consumer electronics device or service with one of four words: bigger, smaller, smarter, faster.

Just looking around last week’s IFA event in Berlin, you’ll see what I mean—a whopping great 4K television set from Sony that comes in at 84 inches across; a Windows handset from Samsung that’s a “crazy thin” “powerhouse.”

But is anything else out there? Are there any other ways to understand what’s happening?

Unpicking was the idea behind an IFA fringe event I spoke at called the Zeitgeist Project. Over the course of an evening, a group of speakers—including Richard Seymour of design firm Seymourpowell; Tom Uglow of Google’s Creative Lab in Australia; and Michael Wolff, co-founder of legendary branding company Wolff Olins—discussed new ideas in design, unpicked new trends, and found hero products that we thought represented a new future.

My trend was intimacy, something I explained through a short polemic you can see on the Zeitgeist Project site, but that’s worth elucidating here, too. I think it’s one of the driving trends of innovation right now, even if we can’t always see it.

Basically I think product designers are becoming much more aware of the need to foster intimacy between the things they make and the people who use them—and we’re seeing a new vocabulary of ideas and services emerging that do precisely that.

Why? We often feel ambivalent and distanced about mass manufactured goods and try to find different ways to make them feel special, intimate, and personal. Now we’re developing new methods (in both design and manufacture) to capitalize on that desire.

There are obvious, little ways that we can forge a closer bond with products—the way we use them, the small things we do to customize or personalize them, the memories and personalities we imbue them with. But those are all after the fact and not really designed into the product itself. Consumer electronics are not like a chef’s pan, which is expected to improve as it becomes battered and bruised with age—the most desirable state for most electronics is fresh out of the box.

At a design level, I think we’re learning lots of new ways to foster intimacy before customers can even get their hands on the end result. We’re finding new ways to involve people.

That’s one reason Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have been successful—they create a level of intimacy between the product and the customer. Partly people are buying into a dream, supporting people they are fans of, or just paying for the entertainment value of being part of a movement—but they’re also joining in because they want to have a personal relationship with a product (and the product’s creators). They want to imbue it with a story.

Crowdfunding is really about a method of service design that creates intimacy while the product is still on the drawing board.

But we’re also learning new ways to make things in ways that can foster intimacy. The craft and artisan movement has had a big impact across lots of areas — food and drink, for example — but it’s now starting to move, in a fashion, into the way we manufacture some more complex goods. And not in a hokey way, either.

At one end, you have small batch manufacturing. The way that Web platforms such as Alibaba have helped democratize access to the resources for building products, particularly from the Chinese manufacturing base, is helping change the economics of many products. Not long ago, it would have taken huge capex and big teams. Now you can outsource it as easily as e-mailing a design.

I think the zenith of this trend may be something that’s been around for a little while, 3D printing. What started out as a way of producing rapid prototypes and three-dimensional models is now starting to bleed into the world of real products. It’s the ultimate small batch, because each product is made individually, automatically, and so can be built in a fashion that is both crafted and manufactured at the same time. It’s opening the door to a level of intimacy and personalization that we haven’t seen before in products like this.

Now, I’m not claiming 3D printing will save the world. Plenty of people seem to be saying that, and they’re overestimating it. As it is, 3D printing won’t change everything. But if you agree with me that fostering intimacy is a way of making better products, then you may be able to understand why, in the right circumstances, I’d encourage a product printed individually, personalized to your needs, and tailored to your requirements. Imagine a pair of glasses designed to fit you and nobody else, or a handset that was actually made to fit the dimensions of your hand.

I think the combination of those things—being able to make people part of the product before it ever goes on sale and being able to develop and produce goods that are individually tailored and made in the smallest possible batches at the right price—is the herald of a new sort of storytelling in products, an intimacy that could change the way we think about what we do.

The product I picked that best explained that trend was the Makie doll, a 3D-printed doll that I’ve written about before. It’s one of the first applications of this technology in a real way, and it is all about the story—all about the relationship between you and your personalized product.

I wasn’t alone in thinking along this road: Some other suggestions were about ways to feel closer to products—through sound or manipulating our brains (Oxford neuroscientist Charles Spence had a great presentation); through the act of making; through emotional resonance. If you want to hear more about their ideas, you could turn to Adam Tinworth’s comprehensive liveblog or this post by the organizers, Freestate.

Will we see more of it? Perhaps not on the floors of trade shows, at least not very soon. But in the sheds, the garages, and the dreams of people all over the world, I think there’s a quest for intimacy we should all take notice of.

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Johnson is a writer for the GigaOm Network

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