Illustration: Dale Edwin Murray

Your nephew Johnny has just one word on his holiday wish list: Minecraft.

Now, you know enough about Johnny’s after-school habits to realize that Minecraft is likely a video game, but in the world of today’s digital screens, you’re as lost as a hitchhiker with no guide to the galaxy. So you search online, go to the Minecraft website, and click on “store.” There, you see Minecraft for Xbox One. Minecraft for PlayStation4. Minecraft: Pocket Edition. There are Minecraft Handbooks, T-shirts, and something called an Ironsword Belt. Does he want Minecraft’s Light-Up Redstone Ore? Or is it the Pickaxe Touchscreen Stylus?

Johnny’s mom has no clue. Johnny’s dad wishes the kid would play baseball instead. You’re creeped out by the very thought of wrapping a Minecraft Creeper Face Beanie as a gift. You desperately need a “cool aunt” way to figure out why Johnny is so excited about the video game, so you can buy the right Minecraft present in time for the family’s holiday celebration.

Enter IBM’s newest brainstorm: Watson Trend. It’s been in fast-track development at the tech giant since it was conceived this past summer, on debuted ahead of Black Friday. Its goal is to help every cool aunt (and everyone else) understand not only which gifts are trending this holiday season but also why they’re trending, to make shopping easy.

Watson Trend stems from the power of cognitive computing, which gathers massive amounts of data, analyzes and understands it, and then displays it in a useful way. IBM’s Watson computer—which you may remember from Jeopardy!—has the ability to sort through millions of online conversations, including those taking place on social media, blogs, product-rating websites, and forums where people are discussing things like the latest video games. Cognitive computing then does its thing by analyzing the many millions of data points in all those conversations. In the end, Watson Trend produces a score that rates the strength of a product’s trend on a scale of 1 to 100, along with information about what Watson thinks is driving the trend.

Minecraft is an actual example from IBM’s Watson Trend, which would allow anyone to decipher Johnny’s one-word wish list request with a single click.

“When you peel back the layers and look at what Watson was able to find, it’s actually a new accessory called the Gameband that’s driving the Minecraft trend right now,” says Justin Norwood, who conceived Watson Trend and is now its product strategist at IBM. “It’s a wearable, like a Fitbit. It lets you sync your Minecraft worlds to your wrist and take them wherever you go.

“We foresee people kicking back on the couch, using our app to inform their shopping this holiday season and year round,” he adds.

The Watson Trend app currently shows trends in three categories, all chosen because of their popularity during the holiday shopping season: consumer electronics, toys, and health/fitness. (More categories will be added in 2016 and beyond.) The main screen displays the top 100 trends in those three categories, scoring each trend based on what Watson sees as its strength.

“The score is the secret sauce behind it,” Norwood says. “With Watson, we can go in there and understand the meaning, the context, the sentiment behind the trend, so we can quantify the strength of each trend.

“There can be vast differences,” Norwood adds. “One trend can be a 100, and one can be a 40. If you’re trying to buy for a white elephant gift exchange, and you want to buy either an iPad or a Roku, you can see quantifiably that one is 100 and one is 68, and I have a 30% better chance of having a better gift if I go with the 100.”

At the bottom of each trend’s page are a few Tweet-length snippets of what people are actually saying about the trending product, “so you can see it come to life in people’s own words,” Norwood says. “The level of detail is usually a level above make and model.”

The mission for Watson Trend is that it may not only help people do their holiday shopping but can also help stores promote the right products at the right times to the right customers.

“If I am an e-commerce leader at Best Buy, for example, I have to decide what I’m going to feature on the main page at,” Norwood says. “I’m a marketer, and I’m sending out those daily promotion emails that we all get between Black Friday and Christmas, and I have to figure out what to feature in them. Retailers can use this app to inform those choices in a prescient way.”

In a shopper’s hand, Watson Trend is an easy-to-understand tool, one whose results—like anything else these days—can be saved or shared via text message, email, or social media. But the cognitive-computing power behind it is enormous, and seeing its abilities is something IBM hopes will help the public understand a little more about what the system is capable of doing.

“We thought it would be a fun way to introduce Watson,” says Norwood, especially “to the average individual, the average shopper who, perhaps for the first time, can touch and feel and use the power of Watson.”