The trouble with marketing niche products to average consumers

Products designed to make technology more accessible are becoming socially disruptive in their own right.

Internet Culture

Published Jan 31, 2014   Updated May 31, 2021, 7:44 pm CDT

Several weeks ago, I came across a nifty little product called Vigo. Basically a Bluetooth headset that counts blinks, Vigo gauges your wakefulness and issues tips and alerts to help you stay sharp. That’s a clever use of modern technologies and behavioral research, and I hope it finds a market. Do I envision myself using one, though? Not unless a sudden change of fortune pushes me into a new career as a long-haul truck driver.

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That’s one industry where a product like Vigo could quickly become an essential tool of the trade, helping spur drivers during overnight stints and letting them know when it’s no longer safe to be behind the wheel. Vigo could also become a standard feature in air traffic control towers, letting supervisors know when it’s time to give an employee a break before life-or-death details start slipping past.

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There are any number of professional contexts where that technology could essentially pay for itself. Curious, then, that I should find Vigo on Kickstarter, a site that lets creators crowdfund their projects by inviting investments from just about anyone.

Not that I doubt that there are people who would use the device in casual situations. Indeed, more than 600 have signed on with the campaign, donating more than enough to clear the $50,000 goal. Still, in the long run, I expect that consumers are less likely to adopt it than professionals in industries that require long stretches of consistent focus. So why not seek funding there, rather than among the masses?

Mistaken or not, Vigo’s strategy is hardly novel. The tech industry is awash with niche products marketed to a broad consumer audience. With the rise of crowdfunding and open beta tests, it’s become common practice to build hype for in-development gadgets by pitching them as lifestyle enhancers, even when they’re just as likely to change our lifestyles by disrupting how we relate to others.

Life, interrupted

To date, the most visible example of that strategy is the Google Glass “Explorer” campaign. Essentially a pilot beta, the Explorer program distributed the wearable computer to 10,000 early adopters.

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Ostensibly, one goal driving the development of Glass was to correct the disruptions caused by smartphones. “We wondered, what if we brought technology closer to your senses?” Google product director Steve Lee told The Verge. “Would that allow you to more quickly get information and connect with other people but do so in a way—with a design—that gets out of your way when you’re not interacting with technology?” Based on reports, though, many Explorers are finding that Glass disrupts their lifestyle in other, unexpected ways. Detractors have taken to calling them “Glassholes.”

The reasons may not be quite as obvious as some critics have supposed. Current styles of Glass may look ostentatious, making its users appear smug or even classist, but that’s a design problem, and like most design problems, it’s surmountable. What’s more unsettling about Glass is that it actually achieves what its designers set out to do: It makes digital interactions less obtrusive.

That’s significant because the obtrusiveness of technology can actually be valuable. It’s a lesson Google’s engineers might have learned from a technology that’s held a socially precarious position for nearly 20 years now: the Bluetooth earpiece.

Can you hear me now?

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By tethering a compact headset to the user’s phone, Bluetooth allows hands-free calling, a convenience that also obscures the social cues that help onlookers recognize when a person is on a call and makes it difficult to tell who a Bluetooth user is addressing when they talk. Even when they’re not talking, a persistent ambiguity hovers over the public Bluetooth user, keeping them always partially removed from the social situation around them.

What we failed to appreciate until Bluetooth began invading our public spaces is the way in which a handheld device also functions as a social signal. The person who whipped out their phone to check Twitter in the middle of a conversation indirectly told you, “I’m electing to divide my attention.” The soccer dad holding his phone a foot in front of his face indirectly announced, “I’m recording this.” The obtrusiveness of their technology was valuable because the signals it sent were relatively clear. They may have been rude, but at least they were unambiguous about it. 

What Bluetooth does for hands-free calling, Glass does for myriad other smartphone functions, shifting them around the temple and into the user’s visual field. Because the digital action takes place so close to their senses, it’s no longer clear what part the Glass user plays in his or her immediate surroundings, even when the device isn’t in use.

That, more than the look of the device itself, is what has shaped responses to Glass. There’s an implicit furtiveness that makes it unsettling for the people who encounter it in public spaces—so much so that even Google employees are reportedly hesitant to wear Glass where others can see them. Designers of wearable tech, take heed: That’s an issue that’s likely to plague most devices designed to render the broad range of smartphone uses practically invisible.

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Though Google has been eager to promote Glass as a consumer technology—one poised to correct the social faux pas to which digital tech has made us prone—it may end up being too socially disruptive for most consumer uses. Not to worry, though: There are plenty of industries that would benefit from having a hands-free digital display in a worker’s field of vision—auto repair, for example. With Google’s billions backing it, Glass shouldn’t need the public to succeed.

Big plans at small start-ups

For small start-ups like Vigo, on the other hand, money is much tighter. Google’s example may help explain why Vigo made its appeal to the broad consumer base of Kickstarter, rather than to investors in a relevant profession. Whether it makes sense for any given product, the market relies on how companies sell the possibilities of new technology to middle-class consumers of personal devices. It’s done so, in fact, since at least the 1970s, when Apple sold consumers on the idea that computers belonged as much in the home as they did in the office. 

By taking personal computing out of the den and putting it into your pocket, the smartphone revolution made technology even more personal. Decades later, we’re still sorting out the social consequences of that shift. So while there may be no shortage of consumer interest in products like Vigo and Glass, absorbing them into polite society is bound to be a struggle.

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Given how well they seem to fit into certain professional contexts already, maybe we need not struggle so much. The future doesn’t necessarily hinge on whether a technology wins broad support from the middle or leisure classes. For the present, at least, we can let work take the lead again.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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*First Published: Jan 31, 2014, 11:00 am CST