Why the Most Important Word in 2017 Will Be ‘Experience’

Brands need to find the space for differentiation

The new year always brings promise and hope with a big dash of anxiety, and my anticipation for a sneak peek at the "new" in Las Vegas for CES is usually a mix of those three feelings. It's not about a single big launch anymore, but an array of ideas around a theme of making things more convenient for the consumer.

David ShingIllustration: Alex Fine

Last year, the theme was disruption. In 2017, the word we are looking for is "experience." I'm not saying there's anything wrong with disruption. The quest to disrupt has become Silicon Valley's crusade, an almost sacred raison d'etre that seems to drive the industry. Nor am I saying disruption should stop now or ever.

But what about the experience? The unmentioned side effect of disruptivity is that it temporarily blinds us to the quality of the experience we get from those technologies. The novocain of novelty will eventually wear off and suddenly the magic glasses in our hands revert to an inert lump of plastic, dull circuitry that will now live, uncharged, in a forgotten drawer.

We have the technology. This year, let's answer the question of what we do with that technology. What new experiences does that technology offer? How does it make older experiences better?

A long time ago, CES showcased quite a few products built in garages, held together by duct tape. It's lost a bit of its charm. The sprawling halls now seem to hold so many versions of the same smartwatch, one for businesspeople, one for athletes, one upscale, one downscale. The polish is impressive, the packaging pristine. I'm happy for advances in physical production, but I do miss the days when I looked at some VR goggles and thought: "This looks like a diseased plant"—but put it on over my eyes anyway and had one of the most mind-blowing experiences I've ever had.

Brands will find the space for differentiation in the experience. For example, in a world where 2 billion smartphones occupy our visual attention, we have evolved to include other senses that aren't limited to AR, VR, MR or RR. Sight is joined with sound and motion like never before. More than just wearable, it is hearable, feelable and experiential technology—powered by data, intelligence, sensors and more.

Though my own hair resists order, I encountered a smart brush that uses a sensor to help you care for your 'do. On the tactile side, Tanvas is developing touchscreens with real textures on them, a sci-fi leap in experience: We can feel our fabrics, digitally, before buying them. On the audio side, a reaction to too much noise: a headset designed to muffle the voice of the speaker.

Consider old tech meeting new experiences. Do you remember The Lawnmower Man? The point is, VR/AR is definitely not new. Hopefully, it will look better, but this is a concept we've had around for decades. Talented makers and dreamers are already finding ways to enhance the experience, from some unexpected angles, like the blood- and horror-scented candle—that's right, a candle—suggested as part of the Resident Evil VR gameplay experience. Taclim adds some tactile feedback for your feet with their VR boot, letting you feel what you are stepping through (or kicking) on your VR journey. This is the type of thinking that excites me for 2017.

IoT has been buzzy for few years, but it seems like just now we're starting to get an idea of what a connected life might look and feel like. In automotive, we see both Honda and Toyota equipping cars with AI that have more personality. They've rightly figured that IoT is IOE—Internet of Emotions. Presaged by bots with personality like Rosie the Robot Maid and Jarvis, the real unifying "software" of all our smart objects might be exactly those types of personalities.

Amazon is on the path to actually unify the connected household with Alexa, but you wouldn't have believed me two years ago if I told you they would use voice to do it. Here, the IoT concept is intact and the hardware is incrementally better, but the experience of interaction is new and unexpected.

In many cases, the products and experiences we see at CES are having their "now or never" moment: either we'll see them on the shelves in months, or we'll never see them again. So, here are some predictions for the future on marketing trends around experience:

The screen is becoming the unscreen: transparent interfaces will be a major feature of IoT and consumer goods this year. Particularly around the home, smart objects will have to earn their places of efficiency and usefulness without a focus on the phone. They will be easy to interact with when needed, and quickly blend back into their stylish backgrounds.

Screens are not going away completely, but they are changing their sizes, form-factors and functions, from Samsung fridges to various automotive interfaces and more. OLED tech will enable these screens to be literally flexible, curving to fit contours; and used like actual wallpaper.

But imagine how any surface, whether it be in a home, hospital, business or public space could easily become an interactive experience appropriate for the surrounding environment.

A final note on experience, even more than consumers express enjoyment for great experience, they punish bad experiences.

The maelstrom of ad-blocking and distrust of content has been worsened by this cycle's endemic fake news problem. I believe many will reset their fundamental relationships with social media and how they want to participate. Although I didn't see anything directly addressing this at CES, prepare to see new platforms emerging as a response to this foundational breach of trust.

David Shing (@shingy) is AOL's digital prophet.