CES 2016: Welcome to the age of aesthetics

CES 2016: Welcome to the age of aesthetics

This is the year of design.

This is Sony's pretty glass speaker-cum-lampIt's everywhere in the show. LG emphasized how carefully thought out design and extraordinary user experience were hallmarks of a new kind of tech luxury. Sony rolled out products designed to extend your personal style (the hear.on wireless noise-cancelling headphone are not for the understated-of-dress) and to enhance your personal decor (the Glass Sound Speaker, part of their 'Life Space UX' products meant to make your spaces look pretty, is pictured at left). 

Lenovo's IdeaPads and ThinkPads come in materials that feel good to the touch, and the keypad on Lenovo's IdeaPad Y900 17" laptop clicks pleasantly as you type, each key illuminated in a wash of color you can control. The mice come in chic colors and they're designed to lay flat or peak up into your palm, depending on where they are.

This morning, Dell unveiled new laptops in its Latitude series and Kirk Schnell, vice president and general manager of the Commercial PC Group, introduced the entire line-up of new enterprise-class laptops with "what we'll show you today are some beautiful designs" before segueing into the exquisite feel of the woven carbon fiber that housed the Latitude 13.

After the press conference, as I petted different laptops, I had to concur: These machines did feel nice. Even the more mass-market line, the Inspiron, is calibrated to appeal to the aesthetically opinionated. The lightweight laptops come coated in candy-bright plastic; it's a personal computer as a fun "pop of color," as decor blogs would say.

All over the show floor, vendors are bringing in wares that show how they're striving to compete in terms of form as well as function. Gray metal computing towers, nests of grimy blue cables, grimly unstylish black ballistic nylon computer bags — your days are numbered. Nobody will weep for you.

The only question I have is: What took so long? The design revolution in American mass market products began in the late 1990s — Target began working with architect and designer Michael Graves in 1998 — and picked up full steam in the first ten years of this century. Tech was late to the game.

Back in 1995, I actually queued up for a Zip drive — yes! Nerds lined up for a $300 external hard drive! — and I remember more than one person in line admitting that one of the reasons we were there was because the drive was surprisingly cute and eminently portable. It didn't feel like a hard drive; it felt like a future where tech was pleasing to look at and easy to access everywhere. The idea was percolating across tech culture even then.

And a year later, William Gibson's novel Idoru introduced one of the most quietly prescient tech notions, Sandbenders. These highly personalized computer cases had an origin story that read like this:

"It started with a woman who was an interface designer … her husband was a jeweler … and he hated the way consumer electronics were made, a couple of little chips and boards inside these plastic shells. The shells were just point-of-purchase eye-candy, he said, made to wind up in the landfill if nobody recycled it, and usually nobody did. So, before he got sick, he used to tear up her hardware, the designer’s, and put the real parts into cases he’d make in his shop. Say he’d make a solid bronze case for a minidisk unit, ebony inlays, carve the control surfaces out of fossil ivory, turquoise, rock crystal. It weighed more, sure, but it turned out a lot of people liked that, like they had their music or their memory, whatever, in something that felt like it was there. . . . And people liked touching all that stuff: metal, a smooth stone. . . ."

Throughout the book, people who have not run across the Sandbenders computer cases are captivated by the design and the materials. Gibson was on to something: We're a tactile species and a visual one. "Look and feel" is not just a handy metaphor for desktop user interfaces.

It took another two years before Apple's iMac would debut. While it still had the plastic casing so loathed by the fictional Sandbenders founders, its gumdrop shape and bright color announced that personal technology was not relegated to the category of ugly-but-useful, but could be a part of one's decor. In 1999, the Handspring put the Palm Pilot on notice: you can be a PDA and be pretty darn cute.

Through the next decade, people consistently demonstrated their hankering for stylish tech: the Motorola Razr took off because it looked sharp and offered people a tactile experience that a plastic candy bar phone model could not. Apple set the visual vocabulary for entire classes of consumer computing objects — desktop computers, laptops, wireless networking base stations, smartphones.

But it took until now for everyone to catch on. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of our increasingly mobile-first, cloud-first world: we no longer look at computing as something we go and sit at a desk to do, so we no longer relegate our tech to the corner of aesthetic shame.

(Raise your hand if you're remembering hours spent in front of a beige plastic-cased computer system, likely stored on top of a wood veneer "computer desk," as a dot-matrix printer wheezed and clicked by your knee in the special printer drawer.)

In Virginia Postrel's excellent book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, she notes the rise of aesthetic appeal as a commercial value and writes:

Aesthetics is more pervasive than it used to be—not restricted to a social, economic, or artistic elite, limited to only a few settings or industries, or designed to communicate only power, influence, or wealth. Sensory appeals are everywhere, they are increasingly personalized, and they are intensifying.

It's a relief to see that the people who want to make our homes and workplaces smarter recognize that the people who live in them want those places to look and feel pleasing. Welcome to the age of the aesthetic in personal technology.

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