CES 2018 Untrends
This year I am writing about CES 2018 from the sidelines, but with the number of press releases that have flowed into my inbox, I don’t feel like I’m missing much. And my feet have already sent me a thank you note from the future.
Top-line: The biggest underlying shift at CES 2018 comes from it turning into a software show rather than a hardware show, at least when it comes to coverage. The robots and driverless cars, the coordinated drone aerial acrobatics and the VR environments rely on hardware to run, but they are nothing without the software—thus AI, the generic undermining claimed by many, became the focus of coverage and the undermining for other tech (like the need for 5G). An iPhone case or a lightning cable doesn’t need software to prove useful, but everything that isn’t a case or bag or a cable at CES requires software with enormous year-over-year improvements that will eventually may make the venerable show reconsider its strategic positioning.
BTW, I call these untrends because the statistical validation for them actually being trends continues to be less than convincing. The only real provable trend comes from which technologies that pundits choose to cover. As a proof point, if the 11 million or so Amazon Echoes were all sold in the US, less than 1% of households would own one. And given the bundled sales and personal experience, many Echoes were sold to repeat buyers. My house has three. The number of driverless cars driven daily to and from work, pretty much zero.
A word of taxonomy caution. The first three categories cross-over and blur. Robots need “AI” to operate, and smart stuff embeds AI into a particular use case (like plugging Amazon’s Alexa in a car) or delivers sensor to some service in the cloud for reasoning. Smarter technology, yes. Intelligent, in very specific cases, absolutely (like the robot from Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute that plays Scrabble). General intelligence, not at all. Every solution has a hard edge and once it hits that edge, it fails. AI, robotics and smart stuff have yet to find a way to gracefully fail when the real world exceeds their pre-digested knowledge). They are, however, pretty inseparable as it is hard to talk about one without wandering into another.
Artificial Intelligence (AI). Although all the things we call AI really aren’t artificial intelligence, exhibitors sprinkle the phrase across their press releases to ensure they make the interest cut. While not AI to purists, the intelligent features of many products do increase their utility by improving their understanding of human speech, the environment in which they work or the data they collect, integrate and analyze to appear predictive. “AI” ranged from Yamaha motorcycles that come when they are called and recognize the face of their owners, to faucets that that tell you when your fruit is clean to glasses that can recognize people (in the real world) from your social media connections. Valossa showed their enhanced AI tools for video recognition.
Robotics. Robots will have their own show case and will likely just wander around this year either on their own or within WiFi reach of their human shepherds. There are of course, a wide variety of driverless cars as well, which are just specialized robots, through their makers tend to avoid calling them that.
CES 2018 featured new versions of the LG CLOi robot line which didn’t perform well in its demo. Dozens of other human robots found their way to CES, including Softbank’s Pepper, which showed up in tweets after it ceased working.
Robots offer the promise of safety and productivity, connivence and 24/7 readiness, but they also expose the frailty of current economic models built on human labor.
Smart Stuff. Smart stuff will prove a more apt description of consumer technology than artificial intelligence. And CES includes a wide variety of gadgets that embed some smartness, along with gadgets that add smartness to existing things, like cars or houses, or even cities. At the low end of smart stuff are sensors that provide data for algorithms to reason over.
The big play this year comes from smart assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant that have increasingly found their way into a variety of vehicles, from actual vehicles to television, appliances, alarm clocks, doorbells and security systems. Amazon and Google should be happy with the uptake of their devices. An Accenture report, Time to Navigate the Super Myway: Giving Consumers Exactly What They’re Looking For, dropped during CES found that two-thirds (66 percent) of consumers who own digital voice assistants said they use their smartphones for fewer applications in the home since acquiring the devices. Apple, often accused of being slow to market, didn’t invade this CES with Siri, but perhaps it will find its way into next year’s show as it senses the threat coming from people talking to Amazon and Google software agents.
5G. Because big compute isn’t distributed to the really fast devices in our pockets, we need bandwidth to push our data back to data centers where it can be reasoned over. 5G will bring more bandwidth, around 100 times faster connections, for all applications. Unlike AI and Robotics, its just going to be there, and its going to deliver or not (I still have enough of an issue getting reliable 4G in many places). Nonetheless, eventually we’ll get faster wireless on mobile devices. Oh, and all of that smart stuff in the wild will die a painful death if it is required to constantly switch WiFi networks. Smart stuff outside of homes and businesses will need 5G as a basic entry level tech to just connect before any of it does anything meaningful or useful.
TVs and displays. OLEDs and micro-LEDs are all the rage. The competition, like all electronics competitions will come down to price and performance. Suffice it to say that televisions, be they from LG, TCL, Sony, Samsung, Vizio or another makers, will get bigger, the pixels will get smaller and they will end up all confusing us by putting in features that have nothing to do with image clarity and vibrancy. The TV you just bought is far from the last TV you will ever own, which is perhaps the main point of CES being held right after Christmas.
Augmented reality sees through virtual reality. While CES 2018 attendees may be told this is the year of AR, much as 2016 was the year of VR, the similarity will come from 2018 not actually being the year of AR. Apple and Google battle for AR supremacy on devices, offering up smartphone as the portals with which to overlay virtual stuff on our everyday world. And that’s a better play that using not-high-enough-resolution screens with too few sensors and too small processors as the seat of VR. AR requires less of the device and of the user—and it doesn’t require any additional hardware like a headset to work. Point the camera in a well lit room and things will appear on or near things already in the room (Snapchat anyone?). And
As for VR, Samsung continues to do terrible things to show attendees that should not be done with low-res, latency laden VR (like spin people around and flip them upside down).
Two companies to watch with a track record around AR (plenty to watch without track records) are Vuzix and Occipital. Vuzix demonstrated their new Blade™ AR classes which are better designed for wearability that other AR wear so far. Occipital showed updated structure sensor technology which brings 3D scanning to iOS, and positional tracking to wireless mixed reality iPhone experiences with their Bridge technology.
As for VR, HTC showed off its wireless Vive adapter and a higher resolution headset, the Vive Pro. The Contact CI’s Maestro VR Haptic Glove also made a debut, offering a way for people to feel and touch in VR.
Sports technology. This one is pretty simple. Go where the money is. The vast sports industry offers dreams of high paying professional careers, and for those who don’t buy into the fantasy, the competitive human still wants to win at whatever sports obsession dominates his or her life. Sensors and data create new ways to deliver feedback, VR to provide simulated playing situations to create more opportunities for “reps” that grind in mental and physical reactions. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Wireless charging. Placing a device on a plugged in pad doesn’t change the charging equation much for frequent travelers or those with cars that don’t yet incorporate the technology. You’ll still need to bring something, plug it in and then plug in your device, or sit it atop the charging solution you brought. And besides, aren’t wireless chargers actually bigger space hogs than cables? But what if power flowed like WiFi right out the of the air and batteries top themselves off of their power spectrum like a hummingbird stealing a quick sip from every flower it flies by. Charging over the air is on the way. Look to companies like engerous and powrcast as early suppliers of the tech.
A final note: The integration trap
As technology become more integrated, the failure of any one component increasing affects the overall experience, or even the ability to have an experience. If you live on Spotify and you iPhone dies, so does your link to Spotify. At home. In the car. Everywhere.
Every night I look at a Haier 32-inch television in my bedroom. On the back of the TV sits an integrated DVD player that still whirs when I power on the TV, but eating and not regurgitating DVDs now suffices as its only function. I have replaced that feature with a Chromecast on a HD input. And that makes the point. If the Google Chromecast was actually in the TV (this is a dumb LED TV, not a smart one) and if any of the smartness failed, as it has with my aging Blu-ray player with software no longer supported by the likes of Amazon, I have to replace the entire thing to continue to enjoy my experience. In the old days, if my tape deck died, I bought a new tape deck and plugged in the existing wires to the same ports on the machine I removed. But with most features moving toward integration if any part ages out, or if a service goes under, the entire experience degrades. This isn’t a very sustainable design choice. With devices that don’t include serviceable parts and with the pace of change, people just toss out their old hardware. Sure they probably take it to a recycler, but the issues of electronics recycling in emerging economies is a horror story all by itself. Perhaps this is why there is no Apple TV that is actually a TV, despite the speculation. Putting everything into one box isn’t always the best choice.
All the “smart things” show at CES 2018 that today come as add-ons will eventually integrate into chip level implementation in cars and mirrors and phones and televisions, driving up their initial costs and the cost of maintenance over the long term. I’m not sure there is a real alternative, but it’s at least worth a conversation.