Every year I circulate a summary of what I discovered while at CES to a group of friends and colleagues who couldn’t make it this year. As the number of readers of this have grown significantly over the past few years, so has the length of this summary, but I do my best to stick with more of the headlines. This is written from the viewpoint of one person walking the show floor and it’s taken me a month to both compile my notes from walking the isles and cross reference what I saw with the show’s CES Daily magazine and the pile of literature I bring home each year.
Keep in mind, describing CES is like describing a city. Two people could go to CES and have entirely different points of view about where technology is headed and both could be right. I also have to point out as I write this that so much is going on behind closed doors these days as each company tried to get ahead of the curve and sway customers so it’s impossible to be on top of everything that’s happening. CES has become the place where consumer electronics politics is in full swing and much of it happens in in these meetings.
2016’s CES was once again at capacity. The organizers made an attempt at capping attendance by adhering to their admittance criteria and checking registrations against websites. According to someone at the registration desk, they wanted to limit attendance to 150,000 people and had to increase it by 20,000 just days before the event started. I’m guessing they overestimated the number of attendees who they assumed were just tourists who attended in prior years. Crowds felt about the same size as last year, if not a little lighter, in spite of the rainy dreary weather and much tighter security. Gone were the roller-bags in tow that were forever something to trip over and block the isles. That may have made the difference, combined with more people spending time over at the Sands in Eureka Park.
The trick to attending CES while covering a lot of ground is wear comfortable shoes and remain out of the flow. This means to first of all plan ahead, and have some sense of what you want to see, then get up early for breakfast, get further prepared in a group, use a side entrance when the doors open, leave a bit early, dine early, go to bed early if at all possible, then repeat every day. And above all, avoid center hall on the first day. Do that, and you get to see a lot more of the show. Save the big attractions for the last two days.
I arrived a few days early for fun and decided to pay attention to the press briefings this year and immediately noticed something that’s generally known but was in full swing. The press is kind of lazy at CES. They prefer to go to the briefings where everything is spoon-fed and they can gather up enough talking points and other industry information to cover their stories for the week. It’s why there is a consistent pattern to the same stories year after year and with that, they never seem to get it right. While they are always looking for that interesting feature, trends are often fed to them rather than exploring the floor and drawing their own conclusions about where technology is going and why. The press briefings are like political spin in an election year.
As I’ve written in prior years, it’s impossible to get your arms around everything in the show. It’s simply too big. Here are just some of the facts. There were 3,631 exhibitors last year and more this year, yet the total show time from open to close, all four days was 33 hours or 1,980 minutes, allowing you just 32 seconds for every booth if you walked from start to finish without a break. This would not include the time to walk between halls, and get through crowds, etc. The point is, it’s completely impossible to see everything.
The show covers well over last year’s 2.2 million square feet, estimated at 2.4 million square feet this year, taking up both the convention center and the Sands Convention Center. To put that in prospective, that would be like walking booths on every floor of Columbia Center’s 76 floors twice. This does not include trying to attend the hundreds of product demonstrations held in hotel rooms and small meeting spaces around Las Vegas.
Here is one really interesting point. Last year there were 375 startups in Eureka Park showing off their ideas. This year there were over 500. I’ll circle back to this point further down.
This year’s catch phrase that was now seen everywhere is the, “Internet of Things” or IoT, which is now dominating the show. I’m not yet convinced that it will have a lot of meaning to end consumers just yet as I think they will be slower to adopt the concept as having real value in their daily lives. While its nice that devices have a voice, we’re still in a phase where some of these interfaces are still a bit clumsy and not all that useful to consumers. More on that further down as well.
The TV race for image and technology supremacy is always fun to watch because it’s so easy to see who’s leading and who’s falling behind. Curved screens on production units did not dominate the show and thus I think they are going the way of 3D but will still at least find a slightly larger audience. Curved technologies were everywhere because of OLED thin sheets making moving images warp around just about anything. While this is a cool concept with some applications, there are drawbacks to curved screens in a home environment.
Just three years ago, 3D was everywhere. Now it’s almost a footnote. As I pointed out in prior years, consumers don’t want to wear special glasses to watch 3D TV. I’m not sure they care about curved screens either, given the decreased number of curved screens on display at CES this year. Just because they can make a curved screen doesn’t mean consumers warm up to the concept. This doesn’t mean we won’t see screens wrapped around curved walls, light poles, etc. We will and it will be cool!
Each year I try and pick the best TV in the show and this year it goes to LG who demonstrated an OLED TV in very thin glass to show off how thin they could go and still have a rigid display structure. LG demonstrated a two-sided thin flexible image that was impressive. I think thinness has reached a point of diminishing returns for most installations because there is still a need for dimensional integrity.
The shift from 480i to 1080p was visually significant, so was the shift from 1080p to 4K, but now it’s reaching a point where it’s harder to see the differences unless you’re very close to the image. There was some 8K on display, but the problem remains the slow growth of content. Content production is still very slow to catch up and while Netflix is offering some 4K content, we’re still in the early days of content. When I download a 1080p movie on Apple TV, it consumes about 4.5GB of space. 4K is four times that size. There is your problem. The size of 8K movies will be twice that.
When it comes to buying TVs, 4K is now the standard while 1080p is relegated to very low end devices and tiny special purpose cameras. Everything is otherwise 4K.
I think there will be a lot more production-ready 8K next year and they will be mainstream in about two to three years, assuming content delivery is close behind.
Sony recently released their 4K UHD Blu-ray players, but I’m thinking there will be only limited uptake in the market. My reasoning is that more and more people have switched to streaming content and the prospect of running to the store or ordering UHD Blu-ray discs online will be the limiting factor. Content acquisition habits have already changed. While an UHD DVD is a simple solution for 4K, and it will be especially important in a rural environment where data rates are still incredibly low, I don’t see it growing at the same speed as original DVD to Blu-ray. In fact, there was very little buzz around CES about UHD Blu-ray when compared to prior years when HD and Blu-Ray were fighting for dominance.
Samsung showed off a 170” 8K TV. Of course, the picture was outstanding but at that size it’s a bit impractical for home installation. I didn’t see as many projectors as I was expecting, but I’m sure they are there. Canon displayed an 8K projector in a small theater that was very impressive. Sitting close to the screen, felt like you were there because the image didn’t fuzz out as you sat closer. It looked like a real window to the outside world. What is interesting is that the ability to roll up OLED screens means they can eventually go into very large installations and get through the door.
Sharp as a brand disappeared from CES completely and just two years ago they were looking like they were making strong strides to dominate TVs once again. They are now licensed to Hisense, who doesn’t inspire brand confidence with me in the US. In prior years Hisense had terrible fit and finish at CES and their booth was usually lightly attended when compared to others. While Sharp had strong technology, their industrial design left them far behind Sony, Samsung and LG. Those three remain the strongest and all have nice products. Hisense plans to release a 43” 4K TV for less than $400.00 and somehow I doubt it will have fit and finish that’s comparable to Sony and the other top three.
TVs in my opinion, have sort of reached a point where their advancements are not as newsworthy as they once were at CES. It’s just not as easy for consumers to see the difference between 8K and 4K from 20 feet away unless you’re looking at a split image. While pictures are better and better every year, the wow factor is decreasing and I noticed that their booths were not as crowded as they once were. TVs are no longer the big focus of CES anymore, in part because consumer behaviors have changed and more and more people get their content from a tablet, laptop or phone. While still the biggest booths at CES, and everyone flocks to see what’s there, the three top TV manufacturers look like they are having a harder time wowing attendees at CES. I remember when 1080p was on display in demo mode and how captivating it was to see something that much better than conventional TV.
I tend to think of TVs in practical terms. Thin isn’t going to change my viewing habits and it will have little to do with TV placement in my house and I’ve got eleven TVs in my house that are not on very often as it is. What matters is my ability to get the content I want, when I want it, and where I want it, and the TV manufacturers are thinking more and more about streaming as the primary way people will look at content, regardless of device. Sony is addressing this by building their TVs with the ability to stream 4K content to their Android TVs from Sony as it becomes available. The cable companies have a lot to worry about as the TV manufacturers compete with Apple in the streaming game.
This ability to wrap OLED is important for automakers who are somehow stuck in the form of screens resembling TVs in such brands as Audi and BMW. They need to think of thin film as the dash itself. Screens don’t need to have picture frames and they don’t need to be flat.
Drone On…and on
What’s now capturing so much attention are drones and drone-related technologies. I think we’re just scratching the surface of where they are going. I’m guessing they occupied between 50k and 75k of floor space at CES in total. It’s hard to tell because they sometimes shared space with other products. While I use the term “drones” there are two general types- those with multi-blade methods for lift and those who use a wing and must remain in constant motion to remain aloft. Multi-rotor drones are far more popular at the moment but they have range limitations.
CES reported that there was 200% growth in this segment over last year, while robotics grew by 70% over 2015. They also pointed out that the drone category alone is likely to employ 100,000 people over the next ten years. This will be a big industry and I think it will have a lot more influence on us than we think.
Multi-rotor drones were just about everywhere. You’d see a company’s booth with a display primarily focused on other technologies, yet they would have a drone somewhere. Qualcomm and others had separate booths in the drone section of South Hall to showcase their contribution to drone technologies using their Snapdragon processor. These things are becoming incredibly sophisticated and the relationship between drones and autonomous driving is getting very close. It was obvious when you saw who was promoting their silicon in both the automotive and drone sections of CES.
There was one drone maker, Ehang 184 who claims to be making one suitable for human travel, but don’t hold your breath. Drones become inefficient as weight increases and humans combined with safety redundancies make them far less practical than helicopters.
When it comes to safety issues, the challenges are significant. Small spinning fixed blades don’t have the ability to transition from lift to glide similar to a helicopter reducing pitch in the blades to enter into an autorotation. Consequently, on a drone, when the blade stops spinning under power, it stops flying. Building redundancies for multiple motors to ensure a safe flying envelope would be a huge challenge and besides, who wants to be anywhere near eight high speed spinning blades when there is a ground strike of any kind, and these blades are down low, not up high like on a helicopter. The chances of not experiencing something coming through the cockpit in that situation seems rather low. This would be like playing roulette while dangling over eight giant Cuisinarts or a riding mower without a blade cover. It seems to be far less challenging to make an autonomous Robinson R22 or R44 and have something safe, and cheap.
In spite of all the press, multi-blade drones are not likely to become an efficient payload transport system anytime soon, in spite of the free press Amazon receives for claiming to be considering it as a practical delivery system. Still, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) claims there will be 2 million drone flights a day in twenty years. While I don’t dispute that estimate, I don’t think that small cargo will be the primary industry.
Another significant challenge to overcome is flight time. The larger the battery, the more weight you carry and the more power you consume just to remain aloft. Thus the average multirotor drone will only fly for about 20 minutes, which isn’t enough time to be really practical. Fixed wing have some considerable advantages because they are far more energy efficient in forward flight, but they lose practicality when needing to remain in a fixed spot in the air for a stationary event. I do think that fixed wing drones will be a better cargo solution small air strip to small air strip.
Still, this is an exploding category for a variety of reasons and it’s not just enthusiasts who are driving the industry. There is a very high demand for commercial use in everything from police, utility, to agriculture applications, including applications nobody has thought about yet.
Not including the Ehang 184, the ranges in size were just a few inches across, to almost ten feet and just about every configuration imaginable. I do believe the use of drones will damage the helicopter industry in a big way. It will be something for Bell and Robinson and the others to ponder.
One of the most interesting booths at the show was a company called Flymotion Unmanned Systems. They build command and control centers inside Mercedes Sprinter Vans that look like something out of an action movie. From the outside, the van looked like a typical mobile remote TV broadcast vehicle, with the 50’ telescoping mast and various antennas. Inside were two large monitors broken into four separate images each with two flying positions with a bench seat behind. They rent the whole service out to police, fire, rescue, and any other commercial entity that needs professional services on short notice. They also sell the complete setup to anyone who’s ready to spend $300k. They solve the flight time issue by swapping drones between the two stations.
I could see the immediate practical application replacing the incredibly expensive HH-65 Dauphins the Coast Guard uses to run up and down the coast on normal patrols. It’s far cheaper to use fixed-wing drones combined with a nearby mobile command center. The reason this all matters is because there will be a point when the images we receive of maps, events, etc., will all be in real time via some type of drone technology.
We watched the Mercedes presentation about the challenges when considering autonomous vehicles. They were hammering the point in their presentation that the big challenge isn’t self driving as much as it is the conveyance of intentions when any vehicle interacts autonomously. They were taking huge jabs at Tesla by showing the still photos of the car that was about to run into someone.
This point isn’t lost on drones who have all of the same issues when navigating on their own when there is a sudden signal loss and they have to land without harming people or property. More on the challenges of autonomy further down.
When it comes to robotics, I didn’t see a lot of really useful solutions this year. They are coming, but the form is not what people traditionally think. It’s going to be a continuation of special purpose applications such as Roombas and window cleaning robots, devices that actually save time. I didn’t see anything truly compelling in robots this year that were actually useful. The most interesting was Segway’s Hoverboard Butler, but even that is still in it’s infancy and it’s not practical because of speed and functionality limitations.
Suitable Technologie’s Beam now completely dominates telepresence robots and it’s still the very best solution on the market today, even though it’s very expensive for what it is. Double was there this year with their iPad version, but it’s lame by comparison. I’m a big believer in Beam but their acceptance in the market is a perfect example of consumers not keeping up with technology. Beam is an extremely useful tool yet so many people don’t understand how it can radically change productivity in the workplace. Like so many technologies, you have to experience it first. I have one at home and use it frequently.
Speed of Innovation -Why the number of startups is such a strong indicator of things to come.
To make a point, GoPro had a huge booth this year. It rivaled some of the biggest booths at CES in recent years. It was in Center Hall in premium space. It was dominated by very large digital snap-together panels that were showing various action shots taken with their products. As a side note, I can’t help but wonder how many daredevils have been killed or injured taking huge risks in the name of GoPro action content. I digress.
GoPro came to life in 2002 yet it currently does about a billion a year. Think of all the companies it beat; Sony, Panasonic, Canon, Nikon, Kodak, Samsung, LG, JVC, and so many others because of a simple yet innovative concept of a ruggedized disposable camera with strong removable mounts. Logic would say that in the early days their chances of beating the giants was rather low, but here they are, a start-up beating the best of the best. Lately, they are not doing as well, however they are still a force.
In 2015 there were 375 startups in Eureka Park, the subsection of CES at the Sands Convention Center dedicated to small companies looking for that first customer or initial round of VC funding. This year there were well over 500. That’s about a 45% growth rate in one year. Between 2014 and 2015 Eureka Park grew by 50%. According to CES, Eureka Park exhibitors have raised over $1 billion in investment funds since the concept opened in 2012. The implications are significant. Innovation is occurring much faster than the electronic giants can keep up. This was not lost on Sony who held an internal competition resulting in seed money with crowd funding bringing the employee driven products to market. It’s called the Seed Acceleration Program “First Flight” and the first product to emerge is a product called MESH which is now available on Amazon.
Many recent successes are the direct result of both low startup costs and the ability to crowd fund an idea. We saw numerous products that were touting the amounts they raised via crowd funding as a market validation on the show floor. It’s one more example of the elimination of gate keepers in tech. While these companies almost always need additional investment capital, the beauty is that it’s often on their own terms and not some outsider defining the terms of additional investment.
If there is one big lesson from CES is that innovation is happening faster than companies are currently structured to keep up and somewhat faster than consumers can absorb. The more companies can draw in innovation from outside sources, the faster they will be to implement. If I were a CEO running a large company, I’d be looking for ways to implement innovation at a much faster pace to take advantage of new ideas and move them through the process of commercialization with a lot less bureaucratic friction.
360 Camera Technologies
There is a growing variety of 360 camera solutions on the market and I believe this category is still in its infancy and that it will be huge. As the image density increases, so do the options to increase the lens form. Consequently, one 360-degree lens can capture more in real time and the user can then determine which images from various directions are most relevant from a single shot. This has huge implications for industrial applications for everything from drones to automotive, security and recreation. Imagine driving down a road with a 360 camera, then editing front shots, side shots, all separately, yet shot in real time, then editing them together as if you took multiple shots.
Kodak has a solution called the Pixpro 360 that records in 4K covering 180 degrees in all directions with two cameras back to back required for a complete 360 image covering every dimensional plane. Nikon is about to release a camera called the KeyMission 360 which looks a bit similar than the Kodak solution and is much thinner with a lens on each side to resolve the problem with the Pixpro that would require two cameras. Another 360 camera at CES is the 4K Ricoh Theta 360 which isn’t as ruggedized as the others and seems to be aimed at indoor use.
Reassembling images to eliminate distortion all a matter of software and thus one drive with a camera on top of a vehicle would give an editor the content to produce a very compelling production. I see this as somewhat of an endless direction for camera technologies.
I attended the 5G conference on the morning of the show’s opening. There was a panel of five experts from the wireless industry all giving their opinion on the future of cellular. All the carrier’s representatives on the panel were claiming that the new 5G standards would wipe out current existing wireless standards such as Bluetooth, Zigee, Z-Wave etc., in favor of one standard that would work in all situations down to every aspect of IoT. While we will see some pre-5G, soon we will not see full 5G rolled out until 2020, so I’m not holding my breath about the implications just yet. They are talking about speeds up to 20Gbps, which will solve that 8K pipeline problem. I think what struck me most about the conference was how little anyone seemed to really know about how this new speed would impact our lives on a daily basis. Everyone knows that speed improvements are always better, but how it actually impacts what we do didn’t seem to produce much discussion. It was a lot of arguing about who would dominate the standards, so there is a lot that still needs to be sorted out.
Roost Smart Battery was something of particular interest and one of the few things that I thought was truly clever at CES this year. It’s in the form of a 9V battery however in addition to providing power, it is also a WiFi transmitter capable of sending a signal to your phone that your smoke alarm is going off. I bought one but I’m having trouble getting it to work properly. CES is always filled with clever ideas that ultimately go nowhere because they were only a partial solution to a problem, or they merely displaced one problem with another or in this case, a flawed implementation. As an example there were numerous technologies that replace a lightbulb with no light. My house doesn’t have spare light sockets and I’ll bet yours doesn’t either.
Rather than list everything I thought was cool, I thought I’d just put what Engadget said right here. If you Google “Best of CES” you get the idea. Everyone has a list.
VR and Oculus
The Oculus Virtual Reality demonstration line was as long as ever and opening day coincided with the pre-release of their Rift product on opening day of the show. The $599 headset will ship in July and in making a quick glance, the minimum price for a desktop machine to run the Rift will be about $1,300. I think the technology is promising in a wide variety of applications from games, to training, to home and destination previews. While we saw some VR in other areas of the show and we attended other demonstrations, they all seemed a bit premature, and closer to the level of early digital animation. Gaming in general is still a big part of CES and one area where I know very little, so I’m not writing all that much about it. The cost of creating deep VR content will be enormous, but it’s well on its way.
There were some interesting products demonstrated on the 3D printing side of CES and the technology is in a constant state of improvement. Last year I wrote about materials printing such as metal, wood, fabrics, all generated from 3D printing and the race continues. As I said last year, 3D printing is about where dot matrix printing was in the early 80s. As such, there is still a long way to go in both resolution and practicality outside of rapid prototyping, however the day is fast approaching when we will 3D print everything we need rather than run to the hardware store. It’s already taking hold as Home Depot has 3D printers in their stores. There will be room for a whole new class of printable materials that will allow for greater useful function. Eventually almost every home will have a 3D printer to cover many hardware needs.
3D printing won’t be simply a matter of building objects, but also a solution to address labeling and marking products. One product addressing this problem is Mcor Technologies with their ARKe printer that can print in multi-colors on all sides. The printer uses a combination of paper and ink to create an endless color spectrum to help aid in the overall look of the finished product. I wasn’t super-impressed by the resolution in person, but I do think it will find a market.
When you combine these printers with some of the new 3D scanners, you have the ability to step in, and get a small image of yourself reproduced, in color in a matter of hours. Rapid, relatively cheap prototyping is adding to the wave of new technologies emerging faster than consumers can digest.
One of the most interesting printers at the show was a printer that produces 3D PCBs (Printed Circuit Boards) using a silver conductive and an opaque dielectric using a standard PCB Gerber file. The DragonFly 2020 is very expensive and not practical for a startup, but someone will produce something that will be cost effective in the coming years. While the circuit boards were only 75% as conductive as copper PCBs, they still provide another way to rapidly test a new hardware design. When I say expensive, they were talking six figures. Ouch!
Wearable technologies have exploded as much as drones in the past few years. Cheap wireless sensors have made many devices affordable however the big hurdle remains that they require a change in habits over an extended period of time and their acceptance in the market seems to come and go in waves. I’ve got lot of friends who own a FitBit or something comparable but only wore it a few weeks before it was no-longer convenient and a regular part of their daily habits.
This section at CES was full of fitness models working out using various sensor technologies to monitor just about everything imaginable. Guys just stood there ogling. Some of the data, while interesting, loses its novelty once you know the initial info. If you were training for a specific event where you’re working towards goals, the devices make sense, but from a daily use prospective, I think there will be a high churn because it’s one more thing to charge, and one more device to deal with over time. This is the same problem people have with so-called “smart” watches.
There wasn’t much focus on new watch solutions at CES. While there were some new ideas at CES, they are not yet truly practical and outside of Apple, the sales numbers haven’t been overwhelming. I do believe this remains a huge category with lots of promise, but the human interface has to be completely non-intrusive to not just catch on, but sustain themselves as a habit. I did notice that thousands of people at CES were wearing an Apple Watch, but CES attendees are a unique group.
Automotive technologies have become a very big part of CES. There were 115 companies listed as automotive tech at CES this year along with nine automakers, including Audi, BMW, Chrysler, GM (Chevrolet), Ford, Hyundai, Mercedes, Toyota and Volkswagen. They took on over 200,000 square feet of space. It’s nice to see the automakers coming out yet some of the technology on display has me scratching my head, why CES? Toyota announced their $1 billion in spending on autonomous vehicles. Almost all were showing some type of autonomy from drivers but that direction is still in it’s very early infancy. There were some V2V demonstration (vehicle to vehicle) something we were working on at OI in early 2004.
One of the most unique approaches at the show was Mercedes taking shots at Tesla. As I mentioned above, Mercedes was making a point of the importance of showing any autonomous activity in the form of vehicle intentions.
They used still images of various Tesla failures, which I thought was interesting that they view Tesla to be such a significant threat. They bring up an important point about all technologies that are growing increasingly autonomous and their ability to convey their intended actions. Think of drones hitting objects.
They even showed images of the Tesla driver climbing in the back seat while his car was racing down the freeway, completely unaware of the dangers it presented. They pointed out that he foolishly had no idea that he car could do anything at any moment.
So much of what we saw at CES in the automotive section was not all that compelling or even interesting. So many of the companies were merely there to try and convince consumers that they were somehow a technology leader. Showing how many sensors you have in a car isn’t all that impactful to the audience at CES and those displays were not getting a lot of attention. Overall I saw a lot of talk about future autonomous driving and now that the point has already been made that it’s coming, promoting it at CES just falls flat unless you’re close to production. As I looked at some of the automakers, and looked at their booths, I kept asking myself, why are you here? They were not making a compelling point about anything.
As a side note, I strongly encourage anyone working in automotive to watch this video of Steve Jobs announcing the iPhone in 2007. Steve Jobs talks about the 40% of the face of a smart phone at the time and how it was devoted to buttons. He makes the point that you can’t come up with something cool if you suddenly have to add a button after the product ships. It was a point that was revolutionary for phones and automotive has to think about interfaces the same way in order to take advantage of the rapid changes in technology. With tech moving as fast as it is, industries have to think about how to best sustain their form factors so they can take advantage of these new applications as they become available. This will mean assignable buttons and knobs to both meet software upgrades, but to also tailor the diving experience to meet the specific needs of the driver.
Audiobooks and other Productivity in Automotive
What I think the automakers need to think about is how to compress more productivity into the task of driving without making it a distraction. As just one example, one of the missing elements in luxury cars is the ability to get, manage and listen to audio books while driving. Seems simple enough. To me this is such an obvious application yet it’s still rather cumbersome on iTunes and Audiobooks.
What auto manufacturers are slow to pick up is that buyers, especially as you move up in price are extremely busy people who are looking for greater efficiencies in their lives, for everything from finding parking spaces, to receiving, listening to, and responding to text messages, email, and any written document including audio books. If I’m heading any distance, I want to know the weather in route in real time. If I’m driving from here to Portland, will I be in bad weather in route? How are the passes? I want to quickly make hotel reservations and plan meals, etc.. If you’re a luxury car, make me more efficient.
Most of the senior managers and business owners I know find it difficult to sit down and read a book because they just don’t have the gaps in time to read a book. Consequently, audiobooks, news aggregators, etc., become a way to pass the time on long commutes. There is no reason the automakers can’t create their own media content to create their own captive audience and control the experience.
This is in part why autonomous driving is important and why so many elderly and senior executives will find it useful. This is why they have drivers now. For them it’s all about the most efficient use of their time and this is something the luxury automobile market has missed, right down to efficiency at the service department.
This is slightly off topic, but one thing I noticed this year, and it’s worth nothing. The art of the presentation appears to be getting lost and it’s one big area where there needs to be lots of work for those companies that want to grow, and it doesn’t matter what size company was presenting at CES. We all seemed to notice the very low quality and lack of pithiness of various presentations around CES. I painfully sat through a lot of really vague presentations where the company failed to make anything sticky with attendees in a reasonable amount of time. Those that were breaking through knew how to get their point across in all their messaging.
So many products never make it in part because they don’t have a compelling sale pitch and the audience drifts, especially at an event where there is so little time to see each product and traffic needs to keep moving. We saw this same lack of clarity again and again and it surprised me that so many companies would spend huge dollars to be at CES then never connect with their audience. What so many booths fail to do is have a unified, clear messages that make their products stand out from the others, including pulling it all together into a memorable idea that is sticky so that consumer walking the floor move on with a clear thought.
At CES, we keep seeing the same tired slogans again and again. Slogans such as, “Industry-leading,” “revolutionary,” “game-changing,” or “a new paradigm,” should never be used again by anyone, yet it’s use was everywhere. I could go on and on about jargon and yet these marketers use it over and over and you could see the audience just drift off to see something else at the next booth.
The one word most overused at CES was definitely the word, “Smart.” It’s the most worn out term in tech and should be monkey-stomped into history. I’m begging you marketers, please don’t ever, ever, ever use the word in any product literature. It’s a bit disappointing and slightly alarming that marketing departments are not more creative than this, as if it means something anymore as people forget it’s original use was to describe a device that could do more than one thing. Now most devices can do more than one thing.
While technology is taking off, it seems like our descriptive vocabulary to explain whole categories of devices isn’t evolving anywhere near as fast as the technology itself. Besides, if you think about it, there is no such thing as a “smart” device. Just because something has the latest capabilities doesn’t make it smart. When it can think on it’s own and beat me at chess, (not hard to do), then the we can reconsider the term. Marketing needs smarter people.
I’ve noticed that the culture of CES attendees never changes from year to year. It’s the one constant. The mix of suits to casually dressed remains about the same and the ratio of men to women about the same. About the only change you see in addition to technology is the speed of change from year to year.
CES itself is a very slick operation from the moment you arrive in Las Vegas and check into your hotel. I’ve never attended any trade show that is better managed than CES. Think of the complexity of cramming 170,000 people into one place, getting them badged, fed, and to the right locations and how much coordination that must require. It’s amazing that it runs as smoothly as it does, and all like clockwork, and every year it’s even smoother than the year before. My hat is off to the organizers who always do an outstanding job of making the whole week work with tremendous efficiency, except for street traffic.
The iPad-influenced shakeup is still very much underway as it’s cannibalized so many devices that were once popular at the show. One thing both the iPhone and iPad have done is created device categories where the hardware itself does more than one thing extremely well. Consumers are now expecting a lot more from devices than ever before. Yet, what Apple also did was to never puke button solutions into their devices. Instead, Apple was relying on simple elegance with ease of use. This has permanently shifted how people look at virtually everything at CES. People now expect multiple applications in each device and thus you can’t just sell a still camera without it shooting video, or sell a TV without internet connectivity, or even a watch that just tells time. Consumers expect a lot more from technology these days.
Gone were the hundreds of iPhone and iPad cases, and chargers, and instead were replaced by hundreds of hardware solutions that need an iPhone or Android device as an interface. Almost completely gone are devices such as radios and bookshelf stereos, while headphones were everywhere. Headphone solutions took up 20% of the show’s CES Daily ad space. The market is completely saturated with headphones, all wishing they were Bose and Beats.
There were the usual small booths that sell junk and solutions to problems people don’t really have, which makes up about 10% of the noise at CES. These booths are there every year often selling products under the table. The convention floor was much quieter than in recent years when audio and video was blaring from every booth. We noticed at times how quiet it was except for the white noise of people talking. It was a very different feel than prior years, with stereos in the past so loud you could hear them from one end all the way to the center of a hall. It made me realize that electronics have become a lot more personal, which also explains the smaller crowds around TVs.
CES is no longer about just consumer electronics. It’s like one giant TED Talk. CES is now to technology what Fashion Week is to design trends. It’s the only place you can go and see the future, what’s coming and get some sense of how fast it’s all moving, and where it’s moving, especially if you are a regular attendee.
In my early years of CES there were typically just a handful of surprises and we’d talk about who’s going to win; Blu-ray or HD DVD? When will Wi-Fi work at CES? It was much easier to see where the industry was moving than it is today, especially because of the speed in which these changes are occurring and the lack of a unified direction. The challenge at CES is to now navigate what is and isn’t relevant for the future as it’s moving in multiple directions all at once. This isn’t easy. Nor does the press do a compelling job explaining how it all relates to someone going about their everyday lives. It’s a hard thing to explain.
As I pondered what I saw at CES 2016 and what made the biggest overall impression on me, it was that technology is moving faster than we can keep up and faster than consumers can absorb and faster than product realization specialists can gain experience in the use of new components and materials as they come to market.
Consequently, the relationship between device and human, especially because of autonomy has become somewhat clumsy as we as humans interfacing with these autonomous devices work through device behavior issues. Part of the challenge is that humans are the most unpredictable component and therefore ever scenario of human interaction hasn’t been worked out just yet. As one tiny example, in recent weeks there have been dozens of well publicized hoverboard and drone crashes, along with a whole list of unintended consequences from these new technologies interfacing with humans. The Kirkland police just posted photos of a drone they found that got away from someone.
This is not to suggest that technology needs to slow down but rather we need to find ways to adapt, and to keep up, without banning whole categories before the bugs are worked out and that’s the real challenge. My one sentence summary is that it felt like technology is surpassing our ability to absorb at the moment. My fear is that regulation will be used to slow technology down before it can sort itself out. Adaption is now the bottleneck.
In closing, I’m never disappointed by attending CES and it takes me weeks to take it all in, and I always come home excited about what’s coming, including the list of things I’d like to buy when they are finally released. It takes me weeks to absorb it all and draw some conclusions, which is why this is so late. Yet, I can’t wait to see what’s new next year, and I’m sure once again it will all be different.