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Two weeks later: What caught my eye at #CES2018, and where tech is really headed
by Olivier Blanchard | January 29, 2018
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I have been wanting to write about the 2018 Consumer Electronics show for about two weeks now, but work and other commitments have conspired to put this article on the back-burner until now. Sitting here finally getting around to it, it occurs to me that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. Time has a way of bringing clarity and order to impressions and insights. Some of what I need to share is about CES itself – the show, the booths, the sessions, the experience of it – but most is just about the tech: Where is it going? Where is it not going? How fast are we getting there? Which companies should you be paying attention to? What’s next? And so on. Those tech insights are more important, I think. Being able to write about them without the frenzy of the show buzzing on in the background is probably a net positive.

Today won’t be an novella, by the way. Too many points to cover. Let’s just go with bullets.

Ready? Let’s get to it.

Positive Impressions:

 

  • Most of the real value of the show was concentrated into the pre-CES analyst and press briefings just ahead of the official start of the event. If you didn’t participate in those, you probably didn’t get to see where tech is actually going in the next 5 years, let alone how slowly or how fast. If you did get a chance to participate in that day of announcements, however, (or you diligently followed those announcements online), you probably know who is doing the work, who isn’t, and how everything is shaping up.
  • Among the companies you should be paying attention to in the next 2-5 years (in no particular order): Microsoft, Amazon, Huawei, Dell, Xiaomi, Lenovo, Sonos, Oculus, IBM, Samsung, Qualcomm, Baidu, Dassault Systemes, Intel, and… pretty much every car manufacturer.
  • Technology categories you should be paying particular attention to in the next 2-5 years: Wearables and fitness trackers, smart apparel, smart homes, Augmented Reality, Machine Learning, Voice tech, Smart Audio, in-car entertainment.

  • A small number of consumer-focused use cases are showing promise when it comes to creating real value through tech integration (as opposed to just useless hype). Some of the areas I found particularly clever and promising were:
    • AI-assisted baby health monitoring
    • AI and AR-assisted eldercare
    • AI and AR-enhanced retail (apparel, accessories)
    • AI and AR-enhanced learning (education, job training, culture)
    • VR-enhanced retail (cars, real estate, travel, tourism)
    • Frictionless retail (AI, sensors, AR, payment systems)
    • Smart vehicle environments (entertainment, cockpit, telematics)
    • Smart homes (security, lighting, entertainment, appliances, resource management)
    • Remote patient care

  • Some of the announcements that should have received more attention than they did touched on massive improvements in battery life for wireless devices (laptops and smaller devices), significant improvements in performance for wireless download speeds (that will lead to not only better smartphone experiences but also open the door to untethered AR and VR experiences), much cleaner, smoother, frictionless integration of digital technologies into our everyday lives (a promise that has yet to come true), and improvements in voice tech (especially in noise cancelling and natural language processing).
  • Baby boomers, more than millennials, seem to be the target of companies selling home automation products, health trackers, and AI-powered services (from health management and security to entertainment and financial management), indicating that a number of consumer products and services companies aren’t just riding a wave of technology adoption for the sake of it, but have actually done the math and worked out ambitious revenue models to maximize return on investment.

 

 

Negative Impressions:

  • Depending on the year, CES can be a soul-crushing reminder of how very few truly original ideas companies bet on, even in tech. I must have glimpsed over 50 companies selling wearables and fitness trackers, and I couldn’t tell any of them apart. Same with “smart apparel” companies. Same with smart lights companies. Same with most categories, really. As a former brand management guy, it irks me to the core whenever I see companies selling the exact same product and the exact same features in exactly the same way, and expecting their company logo to be the principal differentiator.

  • There is no short supply of really dumb business ideas that make remarkably poor use of otherwise very cool technologies. For instance, I bumped into several companies that had decided to put health sensors in cat beds so that pet owners could track the sleeping habits of their cats. That may sound great if you’re a cat person, but none of the product managers I spoke with could explain to me why being appraised of your cat’s sleeping habits was worth $400, let alone how they were supposed to train their cats to only sleep in their $400 cat bed and nowhere else… since allowing cats to only occasionally sleep in their $400 cat bed would make the data it collects and analyzes pretty much useless. Likewise, a frighteningly high number of companies with booths at CES were pushing products that should have never made it past the first round of informal product ideation. Beware Shiny Object Syndrome. It is still a business killer. 
  • “Booth babes” were still de rigueur with far too many companies that legitimately aim to market their products to women. In 2018, with the #MeToo movement in full swing, I can’t wrap my mind around how tone-deaf this is. Annoyed eyerolls aside, the message this sends to me is that people at those companies are out of touch with 1) at least 50% of their customers, 2) major cultural shifts happening right under their noses, and 3) their own identity as a company operating in 2018 (as opposed to 1958). And so, if thesethree things are true, how can these companies be expected to realistically perform as design leaders, user experience leaders, and product innovation leaders in a consumer-facing market that they are not finely tuned to? Answer: They can’t. Hiring booth babes to represent your brand at CES in 2018 signals to everyone that your company is painfully out-of-touch. And in the competitive, fast-paced, highly adaptive, and intuitive world of consumer tech, being this out of touch with who you design products for doesn’t bode well.

  • Virtual Reality is great, it’s fun, and it can even be useful, but it’s also very limited. Ergo: It is not scaling fast, the install base is always going to be much smaller than AR, and it’s time tech journalists stopped overselling VR, especially as it pertains to its growth between now and 2024. Wireless, untethered headsets will be helpful in this next adoption phase, but as they are only now starting to turn up, it will take a few years to see if the public bites. On the mobile side, longer battery life, faster modems, and faster LTE networks should also help smartphone users spend more time playing with VR content, but that content has to be there in the first place.
  • If you’re being paid to demonstrate a product and answer questions about it, and especially if your badge says “Product Manager,” but you have never used your product and/or never sat down with people who would use it in the real world, the company you work for isn’t ready for CES, and neither are you. Yes, this happened several times, and in very large, very well-funded booths. How this still happens in 2018 is beyond me.
  • Tech and technology-focused companies really need to start getting serious about embracing and promoting diversity.  
  • Privacy and cybersecurity concerns were mostly glossed over while I was there, and I found the lack of discussions about this critical aspect of our growing ecosystem of consumer electronics more than a little disconcerting. Granted, maybe I just missed those expert panels and SME discussions, so part of that could be on me, but the topic was mostly brushed aside, when mentioned at all, on the expo floor itself. Not good enough, especially when half the products and services on display capture private data and information about their users.

Other observations (neither positive nor negative):

  • Makers of electronic toilets were out en force this year, so there’s obviously a push to make them happen in the US now that the smart home movement is in full swing. It is too soon to tell if the biggest challenges to electronic toilet adoption (pricing, perceived complexity, and cultural resistance) can be overcome by good marketing and PR, an effective retail plan, and the right kinds of install/service partnerships, but we will soon find out.
  • Bed, mattress, and pillow manufacturers are embracing sensors, machine learning, and other smart technologies. Expect to see a bigger push towards “smarter sleep” starting this year.

  • Passenger cars are the new content and entertainment frontier, so expect to see a lot more voice integration, high quality touch-screens, smart sound, and LTE connectivity built into car entertainment systems starting in 2018. 
  • Interest in drones isn’t what it was last year.
  • Interest in smart watches isn’t what it was last year.

  • Except for a few niche verticals, interest in VR isn’t what it was last year.
  • AR goggles still aren’t something most people want to wear as fashion accessories.
  • Laptops are changing. Expect 20+ hours of active battery life, touchscreens, voice capabilities, and LTE connectivity now, especially in 13-14″ laptops. Let’s see if larger ones follow this new trend. (I don’t see why they wouldn’t.)

  • Autonomous vehicles are still 3-5 years away from becoming a mass market reality, at least in the US. Not because the tech isn’t there, but because legal, regulatory, and infrastructure hurdles are forcing car manufacturers to tap the brakes (pun intended) on their plans to commercialize autonomous cars. Expect limited releases, but we aren’t quite ready to open the floodgates just yet.

 

  • Parenting and the now increasingly common combination of sensor, tracking, data analysis, machine learning, and AI technologies are a match made in heaven. Whether “helicopter parenting” is a term you hate to love or love to hate, the digitization of parenting is here, and it is already shaping up to be a massive business opportunity for companies that understand its potential.
  • Despite my annoyance with the smart cat bed company I briefly mentioned earlier, the digitization of pet parenting (yes, I went there) also has the potential to become a successful category for companies that manage to create concrete value for pet owners.

  • Sports technology is also looking like a segment with solid growth potential, with products catering to runners, golfers, gym enthusiasts, cyclists, skiers, soccer players, equestrians, adventure racers… the list goes on.
  • Personal health management, through the combined use of embedded sensors, personal digital devices, AI-managed monitoring services, human-managed monitoring services, and real-time analytics, is already shaping up to be a massive revenue opportunity for technology-driven companies.

That should about cover it. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to drop them into the comments section.

Cheers,

Olivier

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