CES 2023 Subtle Innovation: Early Impressions of Subtle Innovation
Fresh off the CES Unveiled event which highlights innovations from start-ups and major brands, I would characterize what I saw as subtle.
LG’s new Gram laptop embeds its touchpad into the wrist area, as do many laptops. The difference: no physical visibility of or for the trackpad. Move a hand along the wrist rest and two bars light up on the sides of the trackpad active area. The trackpad does the same thing, but its more subtle.
Targus is subtle in its use of recycled material in their upcoming keyboards and mice. Only a speckled plastic exterior of the Ecosmart Keyboard (a CES Innovation Award winner) hints at them being anything more than their matte black or shiny counterparts. Less subtle is the solar array above the keyboard that will keep the keyboard running indefinitely in most situations. Only extensive use of keyboard backlighting will require a proper charge. The new Targus mouse delivers subtlety in its base, which flips around to accommodate right or left-handed users.
Another subtle accessory came from LEXIP in the form of ceramic glide feet for mice called MO42. These replacement feet for mice offer much smoother operation, presenting a surface with many fewer imperfections than Teflon or plastic.
deeBee™ Audio brought subtlety in the form of replaceable earpads for headphones. Rather than make people with good headphones go through the agony of replaceing earpads, if they can be found for their model, deeBee™ makes earpads a fashion statement by making them magnetic. They will sell a range of compatible earpads that can be mixed and matched with their headphones.
Jabra’s Evolve 2 earbuds shrink down the features of video conferencing headphones into a pair of high-performance earbuds. Like all earbuds, they are subtle because they hide in the ear canal rather than on the ear and over the head, but it’s the driver, the microphones and software that really make them subtlety better than other earbuds for office work. They offer multi-point connections, including a dongle (ok, not so subtle) to enhance connections between PC and the earbuds. Perhaps most subtle is the learning from 62,000 ear scans to ensure they fit ears well.
In wearables, Nowatch epitomizes subtlety from its name right through its product. It has “watch” in its name, and it’s worn on the wrist, but it doesn’t display time, date, or anything else. But it knows about you in the moment. The point is to pay attention to your body, not to time. Many physicists are coming to the conclusion that time is an illusion, a subtle feature that emerges from physics. Nowatch seeks to redefine our relationship to time.
Ring wearable Circular brings haptics to ring wearables and offers subtle ways for the ring to offer awareness of situations and insights without sound, or without light. Like Nowatch, they want their device to help its wearer to better recognize personal rhythms and needs.
ROYBI was showing off its vision for the metaverse. While any immersive environment is far from subtle, their movement into the space starts with toys and learning, not commerce. The RoybiVerse extends physical play into a metaverse (not the metaverse as Roybi’s vision is their metaverse unto itself) of entertainment, and learning, including an interactive library. The world is not without its commercial models, but those are subtle compared to Roybi’s learning ambitions.
Abys Medical is also creating a metaverse called Surgiverse. In this cloud-based world, 3D simulation leverages big data and AI to offer a comprehensive environment to support surgeons performing their most critical work. It’s the subtlety of all of their research brought together in a cohesive way that doesn’t make the surgeon worry about the parts, just the assistance offered.
CES 2023 subtle innovation: What subtle means for technology
We live in a world driven by showiness, by competitive differentiation that points out, often in unsubtle ways, the flaws in the ideas and approaches of others. Subtle innovation seeks to define paths that augment and enhance, disappear or appear as something else—subtle technology does a job without looking for overt fanfare. But subtle technology also undermines assumptions as its use spreads, forcing users and designers to confront how they view technology and what they expect from it.
Don’t get me wrong, many of the companies mentioned above strive for recognition. They want to see their investments lauded, their designs awarded, and their teams recognized for their work. The things these people built, their subtle products, don’t shout about themselves after adoption. In a practical sense, unlike Apple, who, with each line and curve, click and tap, makes owners of watches and phones and televisions think of Apple and their relationship to the brand, these firms offer technology that just gets on with it.
Subtlety is a powerful notion that makes technology less about technological ecosystems and more about the value and results.
Much of our current mental models seek to find contrast, to point out stark differences, to pool groups into them and us. The world could use a large dash of subtle to remind us that many edges are fuzzy, many tones are graduated, and many innovations change our lives not by overturning how we live or work but by changing our experience just enough to help us see ourselves from a different perspective.
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