Las Vegas’s yearly tech kick-starter, CES, ended last weekend. The annual showcase - which sees some of the globe’s largest brands line up against the freshest of start-ups - allows all to flex their technical muscle. It also gives the digital industry and the public a glimpse of the year ahead. Based on the exhibitors, it looks like this year is going to be an interesting one, building on the trends from last year (AI and IoT predominantly), ideas are more refined, prototypes a little tighter and concepts bolder (or more pointless - depending on your view).
TV reaches a technology intersection
Last year, cars dominated the headlines, thanks to the likes of Faraday Future’s FFZero1 and 10 major car manufacturers debuting their latest innovations – primarily the potential of driverless vehicles (see last year’s article Four Tech Trends from CES You Need to Know About). This year it was TV’s turn to take the limelight. With customers’ palette for everything streamed, millions being poured into glossy productions by the likes of Netflix and Amazon, and a battle between two industry giants to set the visual standard, TV is enjoying a much-welcomed resurgence.
Samsung have been promoting their Quantum Dot (QLED, actually) option whilst LG have their OLED powered Signature 7. The choice between pursuing Quantum Dot and OLED technology has lead the industry to somewhat of a “technology intersection” according to Liu Hong Xin, President of Chinese manufacturing giant Hisense. Essentially, Quantum Dot is powered by inorganic material which glows R/G/B when light hits it, whereas OLED electrifies organic material that glows R/G/B itself. This means that Quantum Dot could potentially be much cheaper alternative to its OLED counterpart.
This technological dilemma for two of the category’s pioneers – Samsung and LG - is likely not down to picture quality alone, as they’d like us to believe. It feels as if Samsung have some catching up to do with LG and that Quantum Dot technology could help them achieve this.
But it’s not just image quality that the manufacturers have had to focus on; they’ve also had to contend with another of the biggest talking points of the event - AI - Artificial Intelligence and, in particular, VA - virtual assistants.
Amazon takes the lead with Alexa
Once upon a time, it was rare to find somebody with a ‘friend’ called Alexa. Nowadays, she’s rapidly becoming everyone’s best friend.
Amazon’s virtual assistant, accessed predominantly through the Echo and Echo Dot devices, seems as if it’s only going to explode, with multiple brands cramming the capability into their products this year (check out all of the new Alexa devices at CES 2017). From TVs to fridges, lamps to alarm clocks, Alexa’s frequency of appearance at CES proved that Amazon is clearly leading the way with AI assistants and one of its main rivals, Google Assistant and the Home device, staying surprisingly quiet. Similarly, Sonos (amongst others) chose to leave its latest AI endeavours back at the office. Are they simply biding their time or letting Amazon establish a market for them before leapfrogging the Echo with some smarter solutions?
Whatever happens, we think the industry is in for an interesting time over the next couple of years when it comes to defining marketing strategies. Although AI/voice-activated integrations are in their infancy – currently only 1% but predicted to rise to 30% by 2020 - the implications of this technology are huge and fast approaching. With consumers’ growing reliance on the recommendations and advice of their own virtual assistants, who should a brand be marketing to – the assistant or the consumer?
IoT: Using digital to solve problems that don’t exist…
…which is what a vast number of those showcasing at CES 2017 appeared to do.
It’s worth noting here that empowering an everyday object with an internet connection (also known as the IoT) without any meaningful purpose isn’t innovation. Great experience is built around addressing the needs – unmet and known – of consumers. Prime example from French firm Spinali design and their (wait for it) Essential Vibrating Connected Jeans. These jeans connect to your phone via Bluetooth and, through vibrating sensors, ‘steer you in the right direction’ - wearable GPS, basically. Why? We asked the same question. But if we look a little closer perhaps we can begin to see the potential in this technology. What about, for example, directions to an unfamiliar place without the need to expose your phone under potentially risky situations e.g. late at night or on cramped public transport? Or even an aid for the visually impaired? Other ‘niche’ IoT technology to feature at CES 2017 included smart belts, smart water bottles, smart standing desks and even smart hairbrushes.
Look for yourself and decide if you think Wi-Fi radiation-blocking y-fronts really are the future.
Gamers love the next-big-thing (and the last-old-thing too)
Talking about stuff that people don’t think they need but very clearly do, here’s Project Valerie – Razer’s triple screened, 12K (kinda), laptop. Amidst a sea of dribble-inducing kit, it was Project Valerie that seemed to pique the gaming community’s curiosity, most likely due to radical design thinking intended to satisfy a key behaviour amongst the target market - dual / triple screening. Another reason for all the commotion surrounding this submission was that, upon closure of the tradeshow, both Razer prototypes were stolen. Some have even speculated that this could in fact be a PR stunt by Razer.
The most interesting observation for us however comes in the form of gaming YouTube channel, gameranx, and their 10 Best Things for Gamers at CES 2017 video which has amassed just shy of a quarter of a million views in the space of 2 days. Surprisingly, the next next ‘big thing’ for gamers – Acer’s Predator 21X – ranked at number 10, whilst a Nintendo Gameboy remake by Retrobit ranked 8 places higher in at number 2. This feels all too familiar: it was only in our most recent blog post that we expressed our surprise for a “lo-fi piece of tech making it to the top”. Nostalgia is, and will always remain, an integral part of our human makeup; we shouldn’t forget that.
VR goes beyond visual-only environments with haptic feedback
We are beginning to see Virtual Reality technology become more refined with further sensory enhancements beginning to emerge, the most notable at CES being HTC’s Vive Tracker. This claw-puck hybrid is an accessory designed to fix itself to a variety of different objects (from weapons to firehoses) and breathe VR life intro such objects through motion-tracking technology. Other notable entries included Cerevo Taclim VR shoes, which use haptic feedback to simulate different walking surfaces, and Tanvas Touch, which again uses haptic feedback but this time to simulate different surface textures, from cotton to wood (this screams accessibility benefits to us and, indeed, Blitab who revealed their ‘world-first’ braille-ready tablet). These developments are suggestive of an increasing desire to mimic reality and, ultimately, create as immersive experiences as are technically possible. Expect additional ‘traditional’ sensory manipulation – hearing, taste, smell – and don’t be surprised by ‘non-traditional’ sensory manipulation – balance, temperature, pain – in the not-too-distant future either. Innovation in this space could present, for example, massive opportunities for retailers seeking to promote their latest fashion pieces or perhaps restaurants wanting to ‘give a taste of’ their menus. The possibilities are endless and up for the taking.
Major players distance themselves from wearables
Wearables have been one of the most popular topics for the past couple of years at CES but this year’s excitement was a little more subdued. This may have been down to the fact that the major players had very little to say on the matter combined with the disappointing news last year that Android’s Wear V2.0 update was delayed.
However, with the likes of Google out of the way, this presented an opportunity for those wearable-focused organisations to step out and showcase what they’ve been working on. From Innomdle Lab’s Sgnl (the watch wristband that turns your hand into a handset) to Proof (a band that monitors how drunk you are), there were some clearly interesting executions but nothing that really seems to be turning heads.
All this begs the question: will wearables be left for smaller companies to develop whilst bigger brands turn their attention to the likes of AI and VR?
What did we learn?
As ever, CES provided an insightful and somewhat slightly strange view on the world of consumer technology. Whilst there wasn’t anything particularly revolutionary announced, 2017’s conference left us with a feeling for ‘the future’; exciting times ahead for both consumers and marketers alike. It appears we’re finally at a stage of real change, with mass-market breakthrough of AI and VR (et al.) technology that has dominated industry talk over the past few years. Thanks to this, experiences are becoming much more visceral and much more sophisticated, allowing brands to connect with consumers in new and exciting ways.
Put simply, there is much fun to be had with ‘tomorrow’s consumers’ but there are also glimmers of emerging technology that will drive real purpose and meaningful change in peoples’ lives. It will be up to marketers to ensure the delivery of experiences that satisfy consumers on a more individual level, even if that means booking an appointment with their virtual assistant.