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Mullins: To unplug or not to unplug?

Published:   |   Updated: January 5, 2014 at 11:33 AM

Did you spend the holidays posting photos on Instagram? Or did you spend a week figuring out a new “smart” TV. Do you feel so immersed in tech at home, work and shopping that you just want to unplug, but kinda feel like your brain is never unplugged?

Whew, maybe it’s time for some yoga classes. That, dear reader, is just about how 2014 will unfold. Welcome to it.

A reporter/writer/trend -tracker like me is always hunting for the deep currents beneath our lives that drive what we do, where we spend and how we look at the world. And every day I find more evidence that our lives are becoming more polar. On one hand, many of us spend MOST of the day looking at some kind of screen, yet we have an urge to unplug and we crave (and even pay lots for) chances to unwind and become “mindful.”

The opposite of “mindfulness” is having a conversation with someone while he or she looks at a phone, or you do. That tension between tech and unplugged mindfulness is driving most of the action at stores and restaurants, in movies, on TV and in cars and anything else you can buy with a credit card.

So here’s your survival guide and sneak peek at trends coming at you for this year, gleaned or outright lifted from great trend trackers like JWT, TrendHunter and the numbers geeks at Census.gov, among others.

Everything is visual. Yes, you read those actual three words, but photos are taking over our world. Dating sites, for instance. Elaborate life stories and profiles on Match.com and eHarmony.com are all made up blather. We know this. So dating sites like Tinder go right to the photos and key stats. (Tinder motto: “It’s like real life, but better.”) Just swipe back and forth to upgrade or downgrade that person’s profile. Other manifestations are the galactic rise of Instagram, selfies, Flipboard and Snapchat, not to mention commerce sites like Pinterest that are entirely built with photos.

Immersion. Along those visual lines, the coolest commercial projects out there completely immerse you in imagery. Kanye West patented a tech system (don’t laugh, he did) for movie theaters that projects floor to ceiling and all around you. Dolby has new theater audio systems that project sound side-to-side and from the ceiling to simulate the whole environment. Might want to bring a sick-sac to the next Jason Bourne movie. Beyond this, new games/novels/apps like Julian McCrea’s “The Craftsman” make you feel part of the action beyond what you read/watch by sending you text messages in real time as the story unfolds and posting appointments on your smartphone calendar. Creeeeepy.

Everything tracks you. Last month, I wrote about how companies like Best Buy and Mazda can target ads on your phone based on where you are. (Blame silly games on your phone. They track your GPS.) Get ready to be tracked even more: Red light cameras and mannequins with cameras in the eyes (that’s not a joke). Tesco deployed gas pumps in the U.K. that use facial recognition to detect your age and gender to target ads on a screen as you reach for the pump. Some of this tracking we only bring on ourselves. I’m looking at you, FitBit.

Unplugged TV. Yeah, the lingo isn’t perfect, but that’s what the industry is calling this new age of non-cable TV. Things like Netflix and Amazon Prime are where the most creative projects are on TV, hands down. And half the people I know cut the cable cord and went all Internet TV. Apple TV, Roku, Google Chromecast, etc. Sure, you might miss some live sports, unless you can find a pirate re-broadcast. (You can. It’s easy.) Still, the cable company may ultimately hold the trump card. They provide the broadband.

Your car can drive better than you. Just like airbags before, the best gadgets in cars started off in luxury brands like Volvo and Mercedes. Now even mid-level brands like Honda, Ford and Toyota have “collision avoidance” sensors, and some have automatic braking. The scenario is this: You’re rolling through a neighborhood and get distracted by your kids, the radio or the coffee spilled in your lap. But your car senses the kid who ran into the road and automatically slams on the brakes. Now that’s something worth paying extra for at the car lot.

Immersive retail. Stores are polarizing into two camps. One camp has the big places like Sears, Old Navy and Bed Bath & Beyond. They’re struggling with Amazon and their own property costs. In the other camp are the fast-evolving boutiques that immerse the customer into a brand ethos. Restoration Hardware is now basically a fully decorated house where you peruse what you want. Some stores go much further. Harrods in London made a 26,000-square-foot Toy Kingdom, complete with custom smells, sounds, trees and birdhouses. Look for more stores to start using ultra-advanced special effects like holograms and laser projection to create simulated rain or snow. The goal is to instill in your mind an entire life/atmosphere you can achieve — by buying their stuff.

Authenticity/personalization/flaws. Here, we see the appeal of anti-technology. Brands like the Shinola watch company will sell and send you a boxed watch, yes, but they also include a hand-written thank you note — to you. Look for the farm-to-table food movement to continue, plus the growing appeal of retro-style products (Crossley radios, quirky aprons.) I wrote a whole story about the rebirth of the mMason jars. An offshoot of this trend is both the “handmade” trend and “flawsome,” where the appeal of a product is only enhanced by its non-uniformity or outright oddity. Funky-shaped tomatoes. Your time is now, Florida UglyRipes.

Unplug. We have now reached the fully anti-tech realm. Almost anything that promises to help you unplug from technology is growing like mad. Yoga, for instance, is undergoing a huge growth spurt. The new David Eggers book “Circle” is all about a young woman who fights back after being drawn into a job at an omnipresent Silicon Valley company that’s a combination of Google, Facebook and Amazon. To fully embrace this idea, just watch the clip (Yes, that’s ironic, eh?) of Louis C.K. ranting about how cellphones are awful. One reason: We never actually look at anyone anymore. Another, we’ve come to fear silent moments because we might face the crisis of having to think, alone. Instead, like panicky addicts, we check Facebook or send a tweet. Crisis averted.

So that’s your year ahead in trends. Think of others? Just send them my way.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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