Tech Editor Michael Rundle reports from CES 2015 in Las Vegas on why the digital detox might be the big trend hiding among the smartphones and smart cars stealing most of the headlines.
By outward appearance CES 2015 is not overly concerned with technology overload.
Do you want to drive your car with your smartwatch, while reading texts on your phone? You got it!
Do you want to sync your mobile to your TV so you can Reply All to work emails while watching Great British Bake Off on the greatest 105-inch telly ever made? You got that too!
But while the momentum on the stands is with the More Tech Forever brigade, if you actually listen to CEOs, innovators and exhibitors at CES, they pretty much all agree that the real story of tech in 2015 is found in the other direction.
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In fact the number one trend this year in Las Vegas might actually be learning to live… without it.
It is not just CES attendees that are obsessed with digital devices. It is everyone.
In a recent study, more than half of adults in the UK said that they would stop eating (77%), talking (60%), working (60%) and sleeping (58%) to answer their mobile phone. The same poll of 1,000 adults by Foresters found that 16% of people aged between 18-25 would use social media during a funeral. The average time spent on smartphones each day by that age group is 135 minutes.
Now Apple, Google, Samsung et al want to strap a watch to your wrist and make it buzz every time you have a missed call, email or text message. Other companies at CES want to loop your fridge, your garage and your heating system into the ‘conversation’. Someone wants to send you text alerts when your baby drinks less milk than usual. Someone wants to let your plants send you a text message, someone else wants to beam all that information directly onto your eyeballs and someone wants to strap a Bluetooth headset to you while you’re sleeping.
(Oddly enough, that last person is one of those worried about digital overload. “Sometimes you’ve just got to get away from everything too,” says Jeff Wolfe, of Acoustic Sheep (makers of SleepPhones), as he demonstrates how to stay connected while you’re literally unconscious.)
It is perhaps surprising then that the man who runs CES - practically the global showcase of digital invasion - thinks we might need to step back from the brink.
Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, says he won’t even let his kids watch TV, so concerned is he with our over-reliance on digital devices.
“It’s a natural trend that people are talking about,” he tells HuffPost. “My kids - I have a two-year-old and a six-year-old and they’re not allowed to watch television, they don’t have a computer in their room… Just because I represent several thousand companies that sell these technologies doesn’t mean we give up our obligations as citizens.”
Shapiro even likens digital addiction to those involving alcohol or gambling (apt, considering where CES is held).
“I think everything in reason - whether it’s alcohol, gambling or technology. One of the friction points in my house is that my wife is always pulling out her smartphone when we’re talking to as she says “check a fact we’re discussing” - we just used to debate it now Siri tells us who is right.”
Slava Rubin, CEO of crowd funding platform IndieGoGo, agrees that it’s time for tech companies to consider whether more is always better when it comes to digital communications.
“I would agree there is a lot of over-stimuli from technology,” he tells HuffPost.
“It doesn’t even have to be fancy technology — it can be as simple as email. Email has been around for a long time but there is question that we - the general public - have to learn how to balance our lives better.”
“It’s like ice cream - we’re exposed to it all the time but we need to have discipline. Now we have exposure to email all the time we need the same discipline.”
Of course this wider push towards a digital detox - or at the very least a simplification of our digital lives - has not passed the big tech companies by unaware. Apple has risen from near bankruptcy to be the largest tech company on the planet on exactly that promise. And at CES 2015 everyone wants to streamline and refine your digital life, whether that means building a friendlier TV operating system (LG), connecting your appliances to the web (Samsung) or bringing back the Walkman (Sony).
Take Samsung’s vision for the internet of things - it’s not to create a hideously new complex web of apps and software updates. The vision itself is precisely that of the digital detox crowd - an invisible, simple network of physical objects making our lives easier without us telling them to do it.
"The internet of things has the potential to transform our society, economy and how we live our lives," said Boo Keun Yoon, chief executive of Samsung, during his keynote at this year's show.
“It is our job to pull together - as an industry, and across different sectors - to make true on the promise of the internet of things.”
But there’s the rub, really. All of the companies wanting to sell you devices to simplify your digital life only see everyone else as the problem, not themselves. And almost all of their solutions involve… buying more technology, keeping them updated, and linking them to your smartphone. To put it another way, they require implementation. And that takes energy and enthusiasm which, for most tech users, might already be wearing thin.
For Smarter, the company which makes the iKettle and the new WiFI connected coffee machine — this might be a question of our tech not quite matching our ambition. Yet. For while their product involves linking your kettle to your phone, which for some people might sound like a definition of everything that’s wrong with modern technology, the aim is something much more profound. And potentially, relaxing.
“Our hope is that these kind of products will stop us having to be on our phones all the time,” says Isabella Lane, of Smarter.
“I know that sounds insane but eventually these products will learn how to do our jobs for us. When we speak to people about what they want it’s not that they want everything to be controlled on their phone, it’s that they want to save time and do other things. That’s the way the industry has grown.
“We’re not that far away from that… In a year’s time your coffee machine will know that you’ve had a bad night’s sleep and make a strong coffee -- that’s the aim. Right now it’s just that some people are ready for it, some people aren’t.”
So what’s to be done? Needless to say, it’s probably not wise to take every pitch and enthusiastic preview article from CES at face value. But at the same time it’s important not to be dismissive of tech’s ability to help us de-stress in the modern world. There are good ideas at CES, and products which offer some hope of reducing the weight of tech in your life.
Take Holi's Sleep Companion, which is a simple LED light designed to be placed by your bed, and train you to have better sleep. Yes, it’s WiFi connected and is controlled by an app on your smartphone. But it’s also deliberately straightforward - and the goal is just to help you to sleep.
“We know that people have difficulties sleeping well, and gadgets contribute to that. But they can also help too,” says Holi CEO Gregoire Gerard.
“It’s a discrete technology, and we have tried to design them that way… We want to give people simple tools to have the best sleep of their life.”
There are also gadgets like Withings’ Activite (above, the new Activite Pop), a fitness tracker that doesn’t actually look like a digital gadget. In fact it looks exactly like an analogue, attractive watch. It just happens to have a second dial counting your steps - and which you can sync to your phone for comprehensive activity data. You’re getting the benefits of technology, but without the blinking screen and notifications. There are also an increasing number of apps designed to help your striving toward a digital detox — including PhoneAddict, which tracks how much you use your phone in an attempt to get you to stop. You can even sign up to a course in digital meditation if you like. Or your can buy a NoPhone
Ultimately, perhaps the only way to a truly effective digital detox is… technology.
Specifically, someone making money from the idea.
“Who knows,” says IndieGoGo’s Slava Rubin. “Maybe one day there will be the Weight Watchers of digital detox? Maybe someone will make an entire business model around helping you figure out how - instead of losing weight - how to gain space in your brain.”
And if that idea exists, it’s probably here at CES, nestled between a fifty-foot-high wall of speakers, four hundred smartwatches and a hundred thousand blinking smartphone screens.