November 21, 2014
Anyone can tell you that flying drones - and we should clarify here that we mean the four-rotor, commercial variety, not the military planes - are experiencing a moment of enormous public fascination. We've seen the gorgeous aerial videos, the inevitable local-news scare stories, and plenty of wacky drone-based ideas from a variety of companies. Amazon's package-delivery drone idea, though seriously far-fetched, continues to draw attention, and just this week TGI Friday's revealed a mistletoe-toting drone that can swoop in to inspire impromptu affection between guests.
It would appear that drones will inevitably become a part of our lives, as their technology improves and their prices drop. And yet, they also appear to be approaching a hurdle that's tripped up a few other sure-thing technologies recently. As cool as they might be, what do we actually need them for? For the moment, there's just one killer app: video. The batteries in most commercial drones aren't powerful enough to lift much more than a GoPro, after all, and they don't last longer than a quick sightseeing jaunt. This could change, but slowly-evolving battery tech has remained a persistent problem for manufacturers.
In the last few years, we've seen some legitimately exciting technologies appear in dramatic fashion, capture the public imagination, and stumble when it comes to broad acceptance. It wasn't long ago that Google Glass was inspiring Simpsons episodes and new pieces of privacy legislation, but after a very quiet year the vultures have begun circling. And alternative fuel cars continue to be an area of interest, but a field that included dozens of brands in the 2000s has narrowed down to just Tesla, and even its success with the Model S leaves it as a niche manufacturer.
It's a strange quirk of our era that anyone with some cash to burn can essentially live in the future - max out your credit card today and you could have a computer on your face, an electric (and partially self-driving!) car in your driveway, and a flying robot following you around. But most of us just don't have a sufficiently compelling reason to take the leap, and we continue on as we always have. When it comes to drones, the question remains - why?
November 14, 2014
Among foodies, pizza tends to conjure images of the kind of artisanal pies dished up at shrines to bubbly crust and leafy green toppings, like New York's Roberta's and Motorino. But conventional, classic pizza - the kind that's more Ninja Turtles than Alice Waters - is hot right now, particularly among millennials. Consider, for example, the pizza bed, or the current flood of pizza-printed t-shirts that began on Tumblr but now boasts dedicated vendors. And if all those pizza graphics are making you hungry, you can order Domino's and track your pie right from your pebble smart watch. If you need something a little more Instagram-worthy, though, consider the pizza donut - proof that old trends don't die; sometimes they just merge with new ones.
November 7, 2014
By now, Taylor Swift's 1989 has become inescapable - and so, too, have the reports of its remarkable sales numbers. Yes, sales - as in real money paid for music.
Plenty of these were digital copies on iTunes, of course, so we can't go so far as saying that Swift has revived the CD, but this instance nevertheless stands as a profound anomaly in the music world. In its first week, 1989 sold 1.287 million units - a number that would have made it a hit even in the heady days of the 1990s.
So what does this say for the much-discussed streaming model? Swift's label pulled all of her music from Spotify shortly after the album's release, in an effort to drum up sales, and the gambit worked. Perhaps easy access to music on Spotify and YouTube has atrophied the file-sharing abilities of America's youth, because their first response upon finding it unavailable in those places was to buy it, not steal it. Or maybe, as some in the industry have suggested, her deftly-managed social media presence convinced fans to buy the album as a sign of support; this might sound far-fetched, but it wasn't long ago that Justin Bieber's fans were organizing "buy-outs," a particularly extreme display of support in which fans would descend on a chosen store and each purchase dozens of copies of a single album. Or perhaps the urge to simply own something, most often mentioned in relation to the growing surge in vinyl record sales, has exerted some force on Taylor Swift's fans.
Whatever the cause, 1989's success presents a serious challenge for Spotify and other streaming media providers. Customers might flock to these services, but it's still the content that they love; when that content goes elsewhere, they'll go with it. And with artists already unhappy with Spotify's royalty strategy, Swift and her fans may have just started a major trend.
October 31, 2014
What is it about Halloween that makes this holiday, more than any other, a window into the American psyche? Every year, a new crop of news items profile our latest concerns and neuroses about one aspect or another of the Halloween experience.
This year has given us some particularly timely boogeymen. Sugar remains a big concern, now represented by a bumper crop of articles about dentists' Halloween candy buyback programs, but we're also worried about accidentally consuming marijuana-laced candy or even having that candy stolen by feral hogs in suburban Florida. Traditional brick-and-mortar haunted houses are struggling to stay relevant in the face of digital entertainment, while rumors that the Statue of Liberty would be wearing a corporate-sponsored bow-tie this year were met with public outcry.
These stories might all be about one particular night, but we think they say a lot about what's on the minds of US consumers year-round.
October 24, 2014
With all of the hype around mobile apps, virtual reality and live media streaming, it can seem like today's internet has little in common with the "information highway" many of us remember from the days of AOL and Netscape Navigator. And yet, behind the scenes, the more traditional side of the web has been growing rapidly.
The best example of this is probably Reddit, the staunchly web-1.0-styled network of message boards that has quietly expanded to massive popularity. Their "ask-me-anything" sessions have come to include major public figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson and President Obama, and Reddit members' involvement in the controversial Gamergate conflict has demonstrated the collective influence its membership can wield. In 2013, a Pew study found that a full 6% of Americans are Reddit readers.
And now, Facebook has announced a new app, called Rooms, that brings the message board format to mobile. Anyone can create a room, on any topic they choose, and in a surprising move, you can choose to post under a pseudonym. Users can upload photos and video as well as text, but the combination of anonymity, boards centered around shared interests, and a scrolling feed interface suggest that Facebook is looking to capture a little bit of that early-internet magic for themselves.