Three separate demos in the last three days point the way to the next subtle yet pervasive shift in technology.

The first demo: I talked with the people behind PicoBrew at CES Unveiled on Tuesday night. They were showing off the FreeStyle PicoPak BrewCrafter, an $800 appliance that users then fill up with mixes of different beer-making ingredients (custom-mixed by PicoBrew and available for a separate fee) and make their own regional microbrews. The idea is that small-batch beer devotees can experience geographically-specific concoctions from San Francisco (21st Amendment Brewery) or Ashland, OR (Rogue Brewery), all without leaving their house. The experience of making the beer and the experience of sampling a different city's wares are available for less than $1000.

The second demo: Yesterday at Intel's press event, I was one of 200-some people who put on an Oculus headset and marveled at the demos. What struck me as I watched footage of a water buffalo chillaxing in front of a Vietnamese waterfall was how the virtual tourism experience seems like a logical extension of the Instagram age: we can move from gawping at the experiences professional Instagrammers sell when they do yoga on Balinese beaches to buying simulacra of those experiences for ourselves.

The third demo: Today at the U.S. Postal Service booth, I played with a tech set-up that included an app and a small label printer the size of a grapefruit. The experience was simple: use the app to scan the bar code on a USPS-brand box, pull up an address from your phone's contacts, pay for the package's postage using ApplePay, then print out the postage-paid, addressed label and schedule a package pick-up from the USPS. My second demo showed how I could use a kiosk inside a retail store (like, say, a bookstore) to purchase something and mail it off.

On the surface, making beer at home, checking out the Ban Gioc waterfall with a VR headset, and printing an address label to send my brother a package don't seem like they have much in common. But the technology that powers them has one common denominator: They allow the user to control an experience. Sure, there's gadgetry involved, but the final product as users understand it is not "Hey, check out this cool thing I own!" The final product is "Hey, check out how I'm spending my time! Pretty great, no?"

The notion of experience as a product to be packaged and sold isn't new -- there's a reason guided tours and cruise lines are so popular. But cultural currents are shifting to push people away from a consumerism rooted in acquisition of objects and more toward a consumerism rooted in acquisition of experiences. Retailers have been tracking a consumer spending shift away from clothing and household goods and toward streaming services. The e-commerce experience now includes prettier shipping containers so as to make unboxing more aesthetically pleasing -- surely a response to the rise of unboxing and haul videos on YouTube. Online retailers are now battling for consumer loyalty by crafting hands-on retail outlets to give consumers a distinct experience beyond clicking and abandoning a shopping cart.

As the Economist reported last year at this time, luxury restaurant and hotel spending has risen at several times the rate of luxury-good sales. It concluded, "To captivate new clients and keep the older ones on board, brands will have to invest shopping with a sense of occasion."

So what's driving this impetus toward experience as the ultimate consumer good? You can credit a few things.

  • We tend to look at the experiences we purchase with rose-colored glasses, so we're happier with how we spent the money in the present and later on. By contrast, material purchases are susceptible to something called "hedonic adaptation," meaning that we soon adopt that nice new goodie as the baseline of what we think we deserve; it ceases to bring us pleasure for the sake of being a nice thing.
  • Experiences are tough to compare. You can always compare your tricked-out smartphone to someone else's, but it's harder to directly compare your vacation to someone else's. Therefore, it's harder to lose a sense that you got a good value from your experience.
  • Experiences tend to get incorporated into our sense of self and our way of relating to others. Think about running a marathon -- not only can you make "I trained for and ran a marathon" part of your personal identity, you can also connect to other people via the experience.

It's no wonder tech companies are poised to sell their products as the conduit to a life full of efficient, frictionless, low-frustration, high-variety experiences.

Note how I said "frictionless." The beer brewing kit promises the satisfaction of creating beer without the bother of acquiring too much hands-on skill first; it also promises the satisfaction of being able to taste the difference between a San Francisco IPA and an Oregon lager without having to actually go to either place. The virtual tour does not require the financial outlay, the time investment or the logistical labor of a real-life trek to a waterfall. And the post office tech promises to eliminate the tedium and aggravation of trying to get to the post office during the holiday season.

These three companies and experiences are indicative of a larger tech trend. As you do your own electronics shopping, keep an eye toward the companies, apps and gadgets that are selling the promise of optimum experience. How well you spend your time is the newest tech spec.