This past week, a tech trade show called IFA took over a large swath of Berlin. The usual assortment of look-alike smartphones and ultra-thinner laptops made their appearances, as did any number of forgettable headphones. Were there smartwatches? Probably. Amid all the same-olds, though, a core group of wait-whats shined. This year, gadgets are getting weird again. Thank goodness.
It’s true that every season has its technological curiosities. But they’re often relegated to the sidelines, the outer halls of the conference center, the punchline posts at the end of a long week of sober coverage. The strange beasts of IFA this year weren’t a sideshow, though. They were the show, to whatever extent it was worth following to begin with.
IFA in Berlin saw more fun gear in four days than we’ve seen in months.
This week’s breakout star wasn’t even more Samsung smartwatches (the company’s seventh and eighth, unless you count its watch-like fitness trackers). It was Lenovo’s Yoga Book tablet, a device that wants so badly to be thin that it ditched a traditional keyboard for a touchscreen version. You can get it in Android or Windows 10. It doesn’t cost a ton. And unlike so much delightfully goofy tech, it’s actually going on sale in October.
Please understand, in case it’s not apparent: Everything about that is crazy! It’s nuts, in the best possible way. It’s not dipping a toe into the future, it’s doing a 10-foot cannonball into a pool with precious little water. New input paradigm? Sure, why not. Never mind that Toshiba and Acer both tried something similar to disastrous ends a few years back. Never mind that it’s not clear anyone really wants a clamshell tablet, no matter how thin. Those concerns barely register next to the real moral of the Yoga Book: The only way we’ll ever get to the future is for big risks to get us there.
Gaming laptops too small and flat-screened for you? Here you go: A 21-inch behemoth from Acer with a curved display and a dedicated dang wrist rest. It incorporates eye-tracking technology, meaning you can control some applications literally just by staring at it. It has not one but two flagship Nvidia graphics cards. There’s more overkill in this one laptop than there was in five seasons of Breaking Bad. Its name (Predator 21 X) is over-the-top even for a category stuffed with sobriquets like Blade Stealth and Ghost Pro and Raptor Z. Only one of those is made up.
These products are all saying ‘No’ to the crushing sameness that makes gadgets dull.
The Predator 21 X loses some points for not having an official release date, and a few more for the strain it’ll put on the power grid, but you can’t say Acer didn’t go for it. Here’s nearly everything you can cram into a laptop given the limits of our current technology, without any care for whether any individual component is practical, useful, or sane (the curved display, for instance, is none of the above).
Let’s keep going! HP made a desktop, but don’t let those eyelids droop just yet. The HP Pavilion Wave ditches the standard cold plastic shell for a softly curved, fabric exterior. It looks like a high-end speaker, and also is one, with Bang & Olufsen-approved audio internals. It also has two on-board mics so you can shout commands at Cortana, Microsoft’s answer to Alexa. A desktop computer designed to sit on top of your desk? Dig it. Dig, also, HP’s modular desktop computer, the Elite Slice (!!!), which lets you pop a speaker or a disc drive under an Apple TV-looking puck of a PC like a giant, high-tech Lego brick.
And that’s just the computers. At IFA there was also an Internet-connected robot vacuum that has a “Find Me” function in case you lose your robot vacuum underneath the couch cushions again. It’s a super niche vacuum innovation, but it’s also a super fun vacuum innovation.
We haven’t even gotten to the 3Doodler Pro, a 3D-printing pen that works with wood, copper, bronze, nylon, and polycarbonate. A wood-printing pen isn’t 2016, it’s 3016. Or on the more practical tip, DJI’s Osmo Mobile, a video stabilizer for smartphones that’s going to do wonders for Facebook Live production values.
All of this has been announced just this week. That’s more fun gear in four days than we’ve seen in months. Will a lot of it turn out to be garbage? Yes. Will you actually end up buying any of it? Probably not. That’s not what matters, though. What matters is that these products are all taking risks. They’re saying “No” to the crushing sameness that makes gadgets dull. They’re defying commoditization. This was the week the tech industry shouted, maybe there’s a better way. Having the answer isn’t nearly as important as asking the question.
So here’s to the goofy, the absurd, the sublime of IFA this year. Here’s to the mad tinkerers who dreamed them up. And here’s to hoping that the portend a future that’s more exciting than slightly thinner phones.