‘Hot’ New Gadgets Anybody? No Thanks, We’re Good

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Every year, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas promises to unveil all sorts of gadgets that’ll not only make our lives better—but that we simply won’t be able to live without. Instead, what we get is stuff like the $99 “smart” fork.

Said utensil—the HAPIfork, also available in spoon format—is one of the most-discussed new products at this year’s show. As the Associated Press explained, the fork is equipped with a motion sensor and measures the frequency that the utensil is lifted from plate to mouth. If the user is shoveling in the food too rapidly, the fork vibrates and a light blinks as a warning to slow the munching down. Data collected by the utensils can also be uploaded to a smartphone or computer so that the user can track and analyze his eating habits. Yet, the AP noted some limitations:

The fork has no clue about the nutritional content of your food or how big your forkfuls are. It can’t tell if you’re shoveling lard or stabbing peas individually.

In which case, the utensils may actually steer users into getting as much food each time the fork is lifted to the mouth. Might as well make the most of it before that forks starts pulsating embarrassingly!

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Like so much of today’s tech, this gadget purports to make consumers‘ lives easier. Does it even come close? In some cases, it’s just plain dumb to infuse “smart” technology into everyday products. One expert said as much to the Los Angeles Times in a story about the CES:

The irony, though, is that as products become packed with more features and can connect to one another and to the Internet, they often become more confusing to consumers, said Scott Steinberg, an innovation consultant at TechSavvy and longtime CES attendee.

“Just because we can add these features doesn’t mean we should, because many consumers are confused by the poor user experience provided,” he said. People are used to passively interacting with their products, so “the key challenge is to educate the consumer on what the benefits are.”

In a world filled with hyped, “must-have” products and services that ultimately underwhelm or seem unnecessary— witness the struggles of 3-D TVs and mobile payments—it’s harder for electronics manufacturers to convince consumers they need anything that they don’t already own.

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Data from the research firm NPD Group cited by the San Francisco Chronicle reveals that the majority of consumers (68%) say they’re “just fine with the gadgets they now own,” and that “most saw no urgency to spend more cash on newer devices.” Nonetheless, the endless parade of devices appears like clockwork at the CES, and in “crying wolf” fashion, the electronics innovators and marketers unconvincingly announce that all of our lives will be changed. An NPD executive offered some analysis to the Chronicle:

“We focus on the bigger, better, faster and we don’t innovate enough on what devices mean to consumers — how does it make their lives better,” said Stephen Baker, NPD vice president of industry analysis.

“The next greatest thing may already be sitting in front of us,” he said. “We probably already own it.”

What’s more, if a product truly does hold potential as the “next greatest thing,” it’s highly likely that it won’t be introduced at the CES, which the Los Angeles Times explained has “shifted in recent years from a focus on new products to one on deal-making and industry schmoozing.”

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Many of the biggest players in tech, including Google, Apple, and Amazon, have no official presence at the show. Given the 24/7 nature of news spreading via the Internet and social media, it’s unnecessary and arguably old-fashioned to unveil your hot new product at a convention, or perhaps even to bother showing up. Reuters columnist John C Abell listed a few of the reasons why this is so:

A company will usually let a product that sells itself go right ahead and do so. Or they’ll balance unpredictable reviews with huge marketing campaigns.

You want buzz? Give Wired’s Steven Levy, the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg and the New York Times’ David Pogue an advance copy and I guarantee if you’ve got something, the buzz will cause genuine production delays. (Also, I’m reviewing tech now for Reuters, so you know…)

Ultra-HD TVs, with four times as many pixels as today’s perfectly impressive regular HDTVs, were expected to be among the hottest products to show off at this year’s CES. Yet because of high price and limited demand for Ultra-HD, actual sales of such tech are expected to be very limited for quite some time. Analysts told the Associated Press that these “televisions aren’t likely to account for much of the market even four years down the road.” And perhaps even longer, considering that predictions about what consumers want has been way off in the past—like in 2011, for instance, which was supposed to be the year that tons of consumers were supposed to upgrade to a 3-D TV.

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For the most part, consumers didn’t swallow the idea that they just had to have a 3-D TV. It’s pretty unlikely many of us will buy into the idea we’re not “smart” enough to eat with a standard fork or spoon either.