As part of the Precipice design team, I’ve been following and translating our internal trend reports safely from behind a desk for a good few years now, but for one reason or another, I’ve never actually made it to IFA in person, but this year was different. This year, I hopped on a plane and joined the masses in Berlin for a day at Europe’s largest consumer electronics trade show to experience it first hand – unedited.
My plan was simple. I was going to spend the day wandering in amazement at the latest life changing gadgets I can only dream of affording, and absorb as much inspiration for our clients as my brain could possibly retain. Within a couple of hours my brain was frazzled!
I was immediately blown away by the sheer calibre of industrial design on show. A lot of the products and ranges were already familiar to me through design blogs and news articles etc., but nothing can replace feeling surface textures with your own hands, seeing the colours and finishes with your own eyes and getting in close to appreciate the care and attention to some of the finer details.
As I delved deeper into the exhibition, it started to become more difficult to differentiate between the bigger brands. Yes, each brand has its own registered smart tech systems, colour palettes and features to define its brand identity, but to the average consumer this can become very confusing and difficult to navigate.
By lunchtime, thoughts of beautiful forms, subtle details and captivating colour palettes were being replaced by, ‘where are the big innovations?’. Where are the giant leaps, the game changers?
Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of amazing products here. A lot. All the manufacturers have obviously been working hard in their quest of perfecting their products and technologies and this year’s exhibition clearly showed a superior level of design and engineering brilliance, but for some reason I wanted more!
It did feel this year’s show was less about innovation, but more about perfecting design aesthetics, material choices and optimising smart connected systems.
Home appliance design has always been about getting the job done quicker and more efficiently, saving time to allow you to do the things you love. But what I did found interesting was the shift from just getting the job done, to enjoying getting the job done. This was less about innovation per se, but about intelligent design details. Essentially, the products are doing the same job as they have always done, but they are doing them better and err… more beautifully.
We have all seen smart connected technologies, fridges with cameras that talk to your freezer, washing machines you can turn on from the bus, but it hasn’t quite yet hit the main stream. With the introduction of faster, cheaper and more reliable data networks the smart home is now within reach. This is where it started to get interesting for me.
As a concept ‘IOT’ and the connected home has been there for many years and all the big players have their own unique take on the system. You have Siemens Home Connect, AEG Connect and Haier’s Link Cook series and all have been chipping away, slowly but surely, to figure out how best to make the tech fit seamlessly into our lives. It’s evident at IFA that the manufacturers are now realising they cannot do this alone and are tentatively opening their systems to third-parties to make it more relevant to our lives and make it something we cannot live without.
Voice of the show
This leads me to one of the main standout themes of the show for me. With all this lovely smart home tech, we surely need a smarter way to control all our lovely new connected devices. No matter how awkward it feels now, voice activation is poised to be our preference over buttons, dials and touchscreens before we can say, ‘put the kettle on’.
I’ve not personally bought into the home assistant category myself yet, but I spent most of a recent holiday shouting ‘GoPro, take a photo’ so I am fully aware of the importance of how this category will map out the future of AI in our homes and lives. One of the reasons for my reluctance is I could never really decide between Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, but after my visit to IFA, I would put my hard-earned money on Alexa as it has gained so much more traction than Google’s Home Assist, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana or Samsung’s Bixby. Without a doubt, Alexa was the voice of IFA.
After a quick currywurst and pretzel, I was recharged and ready to take on the as much of the consumer electronics, audio and visual stands as my legs could take (by this point my Fitbit was registering 12,000 steps) For me, this was going to be the main event, not only as a designer, but as a massive home audiovisual fan. At this point I did have to skim through a lot of the stands as it seemed to be mostly full of me too products aimed at buyers visiting the event.
As an avid runner, I also wanted to pass by the connected health stand to see how the wearable category has moved on. After its emergence, a few years ago, this category has clearly settled into a rhythm with some brands on their 3rd or 4th generations. Fitbit clearly have the market covered and they continue to do so with their latest releases, the ionic watch, Aria 2 scales and Flyer headphones.
Sony, LG and Samsung dominated the show just by sheer size and showmanship, but looking past the glitz and glam all three did not disappoint. It was interesting to see the main exhibitors each supporting their own ‘incubator’ projects and proudly sharing some of the concepts which have not, or will not make it to market.
Sony’s show stopper technology was definitely the 3D scanning capability within the new flagship Xperia phone, the XZ1. I had read about this before hand and was intrigued to see it in action. It was impressive, but I have to question how many of us would actually use it in our daily lives beyond having a play around with your family and friends, but maybe that’s the point. Its just a bit of fun that brings people together.
There was also a lot of attention around LG’s flagship phone the V30 too, but I was more interested in the brands intriguing levitating speaker, the PJ9, which promises 360 degree sound. It would certainly be a conversation starter and add the element of theatre to you audio system.
It was also on the LG stand that I stumbled across the new ‘wallpaper’ TV in its Signature range. It’s not very often something stops you and your colleagues in their tracks, but this did. It wasn’t the fact that it was a mere 2.75mm wide and flexible, it was the supporting power unit which houses the TV’s engine and connections that caught our eye. The unit doubles as the TV’s sound system and has the best example of ‘hide and delight’ I’ve seen outside of the automotive industry. The unit has two hidden speakers which magically reveal themselves from flush sliding panels and then discreetly disappear. I Googled the cost and not surprisingly this will set you back around £8K, so I guess I better start saving.
So, what does it all mean?
Even after at least 17,000 steps there was no way I was going to be able to see everything in one day and there was so much I missed and haven’t covered in this piece. IFA is HUGE. This is purely a snapshot of the information gathered by myself and the Precipice team in a very short period of time.
What I do know is, now the real work begins. That being the behind-the-scenes analysis of all the photos, rationalising our observations and, without a doubt, debating our different opinions - especially on colour (colour is a hot topic in the Precipice studio). This will ultimately help form our and our clients’ design guidelines for the forthcoming year and no doubt inspire the design team to help shape IFA shows to come.