A takedown of smart hairbrushes and other silliness at CES, but also, a look at why we want them in the first place
Vanity, thy name is IoT!
Alright, that might be a bit much, but you can basically ask a device that now and get an answer. (You may not like it, though.)
At least, that’s the impression I have gotten from some of the beauty tech on display at CES this year. I’m reminded more of the cursed furniture in Beauty and the Beast or the queen’s evil looking glass in Snow White, but honestly, that’s to be expected with our smart devices, and not just the ones we use to get ready for work or a party.
With all the research into machine learning and integrating AI into IoT, even into cameras that will check for you when the milk on the fridge door is expired, I think less of The Jetsons and more The Flintstones, on account of all the personal devices that actually talk back and mimic human behavior.
Some of the products are odd, some of them a little mean – not that the technology can actually be “mean,” though, but people being people, we act like it can be – and the rest, well, there is a reason why beauty and fitness tech are worth billions together, and IoT as a whole close to a trillion dollars. There’s real demand for these products: The “aspirational beauty app” Meitu cleared a $692 million IPO in Hong Kong at the end of 2016, for example, and overall, the global wellness industry is worth over $3.4 trillion.
As much as we may chortle at some of the concepts, it’s no surprise then to see beauty tech going this way because what’s more intimate, meaningful, and potentially upsetting than musing on our physical appearance, whether we are looking in the mirror in private, or scrolling through the feedback on selfies?
The first such device that caught my eye was the smart hairbrush. That’s a thing now. Cosmetics giant L’Oréal showed it off at CES, and has sufficient sensory power not just to tell if your hair is too dry or oily, and if you’re being too rough on split ends, but match that data with the ambient weather before you go out. Its designer, Withings, is now part of Nokia and specializes in environmental and health monitors, so this is no mere gimmick gift for under $200.
But if hair, then why not also teeth? Dentists would sure love to know if we’re actually brushing two times daily, and yes, a “smart toothbrush” is on display at CES that tracks the state of your mouth. In fact, the maker, Kolibree, has been around since 2014 in the personal healthcare tech market, so the idea is not even new at this point.
(Oral-B is also showcasing such a device at CES that links to your smartphone.)
As for the rest of your face, that’s where the smart mirror comes in. For $259, you get a screen with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi access that tracks your facial features, skin care needs, and suggests styles while also providing lighting and storing photos: HiMirror Plus. Your own personal makeup artist – the company also makes a smart scale – and it’s worth noting that even as people are reluctant to fully leap into a world where human interaction is reduced in favor of chatbots, being told you have crow’s feet might be a little less dispiriting if it comes from such a machine.
And, based on Samsung’s own skin care offering, perhaps okay with it treating them, too.
That’s what we want, being human, after all. Yet it is not so much a demand for a series of clamps and hooks and nozzles that dress us in silence for the a.m. commute, but a coffee machine that sings, a direction finder that replies with emojis, and a Siri that sasses us over stupid questions.
And all of this is still “artificial” enough we don’t entirely anthropomorphize it and feel the same as we would about another person offering tips about our appearance.
Lastly, I’ve covered facial recognition technology a lot here, whether it’s the tech itself or countermeasures being deployed. What came out at first in that latter respect – geometric facial coverings, odd hairdos, light-up glasses, and specially treated fabrics – was limited in that it’d only become truly inconspicuous if most people wore it, because then it’d be the new normal and the outliers would be the people who didn’t dress like extras in The Fifth Element.
However, more recent advances have done away with some of that crazy-quilt look in favor of accessories that look indistinguishable from their more common brethren for both eyeglasses and clothes. It’s not quite beauty tech, this, but it is its close cousin, fashion, making this a bit like a makeup kit for your privacy. Because as much as we might want to look good for someone, we don’t want everyone to always be able, all the time, to look at us as well.