February 2014 Trend Briefing:
The digital culture of constant upgrades and iteration comes to the world of physical objects.

The old model of physical consumption – purchase, use, declare obsolete, discard – is being overturned by a new model: one founded on constant improvement, upgrade and iteration.

Are you ready for the era of UPGRADIA?


UPGRADIA: Driven by consumers' thirst for quicker, more seamless access to the new (in ways that are cheaper, more sustainable and more participatory) and facilitated by emerging technologies, the constant stream of upgrades and iterations typical of the digital ecosystem is coming to the world of physical objects.



The digital-inspired expectation of perpetual, instant upgrades meets new physical world technologies

In the digital space, endless consumer desire for the new is served by a never-ending stream of updates. One example? Twitter’s iOS app saw an upgrade on November 19 2013 (version 5.13), a further tweak on November 21 2013, another upgrade on December 10 2013 (version 6) and another tweak on December 13 2013.

In this light, standard iteration cycles when it comes to physical products increasingly feel super-slow and uninspiring: “Six months, and all they’ve added is a slightly better camera?”.

At the heart of the UPGRADIA trend is the shifting of expectations that have been cultivated online – of constant upgrade, iteration and improvement – into the physical world.

Every Object Connected

Yes, we’re talking Internet of Things. The emerging network of physical objects – which is fast blurring the boundaries between ‘online’ and ‘physical’, and creating a combined digital/physical space – is both fueling the expectation shift outlined above, and facilitating the arrival of ‘digital’-style constant iteration in the realm of physical objects.

In 2009, there were 2.5 billion connected devices, most of these were personal devices such as cell phones and PCs. In 2020, there will be up to 30 billion connected devices, most of which will be products.
(Gartner, October 2013)

No wonder so many examples of UPGRADIA are variations on a single theme: dumb object turns smart (and so turns perpetually UPGRADEABLE via software upgrades and new, digitally-enabled functionality).

Relentless Product Evolution

But don’t think that means UPGRADIA applies only to digital devices and other consumer electronics.

New, more democratic manufacturing technologies and distribution platforms – which can be applied to almost any object – are also facilitating the constant and relentless upgrade and evolution of products. Two key dimensions here:

  • INSTANT MAKERS: As the 3D printing ecosystem spreads through retail spaces and homes, consumers will come to expect that brands use this maker network to serve them new ‘bolt-ons’ to their existing products. Indeed, the same network will allow consumers-turned-makers to push out their upgrades and hacks (see HACKER CHIC, below).
  • PRETAIL: Our PRETAIL trend looked at how the crowdfunding revolution is changing the consumer experience, by enabling a near-limitless stream of new products to be offered to consumers, at little cost or risk. Dive into the range of crowdfunded examples below to see how almost any gap or ‘missing’ feature will be quickly filled by a clever hack or upgrade.
3 million funders pledged USD 480 million on crowdfunding site Kickstarter in 2013.
(Kickstarter, January 2014)


How upgrades satisfy consumers’ deepest desires: less money, less guilt

More For Less Money

Also pushing consumers towards UPGRADIA innovations? The thrill of getting a whole ‘new’ product for a fraction of the cost.

Multiple forms of access and peer-to-peer sharing are ways consumers have been satisfying this urge (see TRANSUMERS written waaaay back in 2006, for our early take on that, or OWNERLESS for our 2011 update).

But now, UPGRADIA promises something those consumption models can’t deliver: the joy of endless ‘new’ products at a fraction of the typical cost of purchase AND the autonomy of outright ownership.

More For Less Guilt

For rising numbers of consumers, unthinkingly getting more and more (functionality, design, status, etc) for as little money as possible is no longer meaningful enough.

In GUILT-FREE CONSUMPTION we outlined how many consumers are seeking to escape the spiraling guilt they feel over the impacts of their consumption on the planet, society and self.

UPGRADIA offers a potent form of GUILT-FREE CONSUMPTION, by delivering the new and improved while incurring fewer of the negative impacts associated with discarding a product and buying a replacement.


The status and excitement of DIY upgrades

For some consumers, the UPGRADIA trend serves a deep need for a more hands-on, participatory relationship with their own consumption. Think the excitement and status that comes with opening, improving, reshaping and/or hacking a product.

Of course, that’s only a minority. But the online space and (increasingly) 3D printing will make it easy for these makers and doers to push their upgrades and hacks into the arms of peers who only want easy, seamless solutions. Meaning a few makers can have a large effect on the development of the UPGRADIA trend.


Every Object Upgraded

The impulse towards UPGRADIA can be applied to any object, to make it more efficient, add entirely new functionality, improve design, and more.

Copenhagen Wheel
Wheel turns any pedal bike into hybrid ebike

the copenhagen wheel

The Copenhagen Wheel–first announced by MIT’s SENSEable City Lab in 2009 – became available to the public in November 2013. Cyclists replace their rear wheel with the Copenhagen Wheel, which then automatically assists with pedaling via an on-board motor. Battery power is generated from braking and cycling downhill. Users can adjust the assistance rate via the Superpedestrian cellphone app, which also collects information on congestion, air and noise pollution and road conditions. The wheel is engineered by Massachusetts-based firm Superpedestrian.

The Floyd Leg
Add-on turns any flat surface into table

floyd leg

Surpassing its goal on Kickstarter in January 2014, The Floyd Leg turns any flat surface into a table. Each leg has a clamp at the top, which can be adjusted to fit a variety of surfaces, including doors and reclaimed wood. Made from lightweight steel, The Floyd Leg was developed by two Detroit-based designers and is available in two lengths: a 29-inch high table or 16-inch coffee table.

Pour Mason
Add-on turns Mason jar into coffee maker

pour mason

Securing Kickstarter funding in September 2013, Pour Mason is a pour-over coffee attachment, designed for Mason jars. The aluminium funnel, lined with disposable paper filers, fits into the lid and filters coffee when it is poured through, allowing users to make the beverage in the jar. Pour Mason was developed by Intelligent Design Co., a New York-based design studio.

Renault Kangoo Camper: TravelPack
Modular kitchen unit converts vehicle into camper van


Developed by Spanish design studio Ovicuo in collaboration with Renault, the Kangoo Camper TravelPack converts the automaker’s Kangoo vehicle into a camper van. The expandable pull-out unit fits into the trunk and includes a sink, a small stove and storage, a collapsible table and foldable seats. A foldout platform extends across the unit to create a sleeping area. The prototype vehicle was unveiled in September 2013.

Every Object Connected

While any object can get the UPGRADIA treatment, much innovation around this trend is being driven by the evolution of a combined digital/physical space, with the smartphone as its control center.

Right now, turning ‘dumb’ objects – think TVs, cars, and more – smart is the key UPGRADIA innovation. And of course, once an object is connected, it is forever amenable to the kind of constant upgrade and iteration currently typical of ‘digital’ products.

Samsung: Evolution Kit
Add-on hardware upgrades smart TV


In May 2013, Samsung released a hardware kit upgrading its 2012 smart TVs to the same interface as the brand’s 2013 models. Costing USD 299, the Evolution Kit plugs into a proprietary port on the rear of compatible televisions. It allows the viewer to access an updated interface including an improved web browser, and a TV recommendation feature which ‘learns’ viewing preferences, in order to make personalized suggestions.

Google Chromecast
Dongle turns ordinary TV into a smart TV


In July 2013, Google launched the Chromecast: a device that can be plugged into a television to connect it wirelessly to a laptop, tablet or cellphone. Priced at USD 35, the dongle allows users to launch videos on platforms such as Netflix, YouTube or Google Play via their devices, and view them on TV.

Sony: BRAVIA Smart Stick
Dongle integrates TV with Google Chrome web browser


In September 2013, Sony launched the BRAVIA Smart Stick, a dongle that can be plugged into Sony BRAVIA TVs. The device enables users to access Google’s Chrome browser and comes with pre-installed entertainment apps including Netflix, YouTube and Google Play. Via the Smart Stick, users can browse the internet and watch programs in two independent windows on their TV screen. Priced at USD 149.99, the dongle comes with a voice-activated TV remote.

Dongle and app provide driving metrics


Launched in the US in May 2013, Automatic is a system which tracks driving habits via a smartphone app and dongle. Priced at USD 99.95, users plug the dongle into their car’s data port to wirelessly connect the vehicle with their cellphone. Automatic gradually learns about individual driving style, alerts users when they’re wasting gas via behavior such as rough braking or rapid acceleration, and generates a weekly driving score. Other features of the system include Crash Alert, which notifies emergency services of a car’s location in the case of a crash, and a function that remembers where users have parked their vehicle.

App connects drivers to data from their car


Successfully reaching its target on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in November 2013, Fuse helps drivers take advantage of the data from their car. After plugging a small device into their vehicle, car owners can use the mobile app to view information such as fuel consumption and maintenance issues. The app can also track journeys for costs and other information. All data is kept securely in the cloud. Fuse is slated for release in March 2014 with a price tag of USD 199.

Smart bike lock enables location tracking


Successfully reaching its target on Kickstarter in November 2013, the USD 179 LOCK8 is a keyless, smartphone-enabled bike lock and tracking device. Once the lock is in place, users can use their smartphone to engage the lock, or set the lock to engage automatically when they move away from their bicycle. Integrated GPS allows owners to check on their bike’s location, while a smart cable automatically activates an alarm if cut. Users can also give others access to their bike by sending an ‘e-Key’ via Facebook.

Smartphone-enabled blocks turn any appliance smart


digitalSTROM connector blocks attach to the power source of home appliances to turn them into intelligent devices, which can be controlled by a smartphone app. The block acts as a switch that allows users to switch appliances on and off via their smartphone, and control other factors, such as the brightness of their lighting for example. digitalSTROM blocks were exhibited at Swissbau, a construction and real-estate trade show in January 2014.

auris skye
Device adds AirPlay or wifi connection to older music docks

auris skye

Surpassing its initial goal on Kickstarter in October 2013, the auris skye plugs into music docks and allows users to stream music from iOS, Android and Windows devices, via a wifi connection. Music can be controlled via an app, and also be streamed using AirPlay or DLNA. The auris skye retails at USD 79.99.

Connected Objects Upgraded

Already connected objects can get the UPGRADIA treatment too. Think bolt-ons that add an entirely new dimension to the device.

Structure Sensor
Clip-on sensor turns iOS device into 3D scanner

structure sensor

Surpassing its crowdfunding target in November 2013, Structure Sensor is a 3D sensor that clips onto iOS devices. The battery-powered sensor allows users to create accurate 3D scans of interior spaces, play augmented reality games, and create apps that interact with real-world objects. Structure Sensor was developed by Occipital, a US-based software company.

Plug-in turns smartphone into digital light meter


Reaching its funding target on Kickstarter during July 2013, Lumu is a digital light meter that plugs into a cellphone's headphone jack. The Slovenia-created device allows photographers to obtain a light reading using their cellphone, before inputting appropriate light settings into their camera. Lumu functions in conjunction with a mobile app, which also allows users to make notes and save light or location information. The device is priced at USD 149.

Device enables time-lapse photography


Surpassing its initial goal on Kickstarter in December 2013, Michron plugs into DSLR and point-and-shoot cameras to allow users to shoot time-lapse photos. Once plugged into the camera’s trigger port, Michron takes photos at intervals previously set via a smartphone app. Photos can then be turned into a time-lapse using photography programs such as Timelapse or Lightroom. Priced at USD 50, Michron was developed by San Diego-based Vivo Labs.

Shaka Weather Station
Device converts smartphone into weather station


Available for pre-order from November 2013, the Shaka Weather Station plugs into a smartphone’s headphone socket to provide real-time, local weather readings. The results, including wind speed, temperature, humidity and pressure data, can be shared with friends, family or community members using Google Maps. The Weather Station is priced at USD 103 and is compatible with iOS and Android devices.


Another powerful form of UPGRADIA: open products that allow consumers to devise and implement their upgrades/improvements/iterations. Sure, only a few will roll up their sleeves up and create. But many will benefit!

Open source, modular smartphone


Unveiled in September 2013, Phonebloks is a fully customizable smartphone made up of interchangeable ‘bloks’ that slot into a base, with replaceable modules including the camera, processor, battery and screen. An open-source development model means anyone can create and sell new bloks. Following a successful social media campaign to encourage large mobile manufacturers to develop the product, Motorola announced that it was working with the Phoneblok community on Project Ara, a similar open-source, modular cellphone.

Open source digital devices for parents


September 2013 saw parenting brand BleepBleeps launch Tony Tempa, a digital ear thermometer for children with integrated Bluetooth. The device sends information to a companion app, which offers guidance based on the readings. BleepBleeps shared the thermometer’s design and technical specifications on their website to encourage users to redesign and 3D print new individual components. Tony Tempa is the first of a range of connected products for parents; others include Ultra Stan (an ultrasound scanner) and David Camera (a baby monitor).

Open source, upgradeable phone


Securing its initial pre-order goal of 200 devices in December 2013, the Neo900 is an open-source phone with a customizable motherboard that is built to fit inside the Nokia N900 handset. Consumers can purchase complete devices, or buy a motherboard separately. The phone, which was created by German-based Golden Delicious Computers, features GPS, an accelerometer and a LTE modem.

Open source coding kit for children


Reaching its target on Kickstarter in November 2013, Kano is a computer and coding kit for children. The UK-designed toolkit, which is powered by Raspberry Pi, lets kids build their own computer before teaching them how to make games and write code. Kano surpassed its Kickstarter target of USD 100,000 in just 18 hours and went on to raise USD 1.5 million. The toolkit was available to any backer pledging USD 119 or more.


What changes in a world where almost any object is upgradeable? And where consumers expect this as a matter of course?

  • Desire for the new will never fade. But the meaning of ‘new’ can shift. Not an endless stream of new physical objects; instead new functionality/capabilities.
  • No more products, development cycles or campaigns built around planned obsolescence. Instead, smart brands will plan, build and sell for constant iteration.
  • The true emergence of every product as a (constantly evolving) service, with a supporting ecosystem to help consumers get the most from constant upgrades.
  • A world of new information for consumers to track, share and then act on (such as the driving data made possible by Automatic, above).

Four big ideas that should ensure your next trend brainstorming session* is a productive one, for sure.

* Don’t forget to use our free Consumer Trend Canvas to help structure your session and lead you to compelling new innovation ideas.

And the logical conclusion of all this UPGRADIA for consumers? Expect them to increasingly look to upgrade themselves, with smart, wearable tech that lends them superpowers (from total awareness to instant choice to perfect information).

But that’s a truly HUGE subject, best left for another Trend Briefing ;) Don’t want to miss it? Just make sure you’re subscribed. trendwatching.com logo