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CES 2019: The future hiding in plain sight

Enabled by DPP’s CES Partner: Covatic 

At the HPA’s Creative Tech event in London on 27 June 2018 the DPP’s Mark Harrison presented his predictions for the next Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. This is the third successive year in which Mark has worked with the HPA to look ahead to the next year of consumer trends. Here are his key predictions. And watch out for his CES report in January 2019 to see if he was proved right.

In 2016 the DPP successfully predicted that voice search would be the big theme for 2017. Last year we predicted specific technologies would be overshadowed by broader attempts to create intelligent environments around the home, work, car and public realm. We were right again: CES 2018 was notable as the gadget show that was low on gadgets but high on business to business technologies.

So what can we expect in 2019? Before revealing the answer, it is important to understand the strange paradox that now overshadows the world’s biggest and best known trade show.

The CES paradox

Around 4000 companies exhibit at CES. But there is a case for saying only eight really matter – and many of those eight don’t even have a stand.

First there are the five American technology giants: Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. These are now officially the five most valuable companies in the world, and only Google is likely to exhibit at CES. Then there are the three Chinese technology giants – Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent. Tencent, for example, is now the global leader in gaming revenues – earning as much as Sony and Microsoft put together.

What is extraordinary about CES is that, for all the 4000 exhibitors making their claims to be building the future, it is actually the eight global tech giants who are pulling their strings. One glance at any of the major areas of consumer innovation, such as hardware, smart assistants, e-commerce and payments, entertainment, communications and messaging, search, smart home, smart car, business operations and so on, and you will find at least one, and often several, of the big eight tech companies dominating the landscape. These major players also dominate crucial areas of technology development that don’t feature strongly at CES because they are rather more services than products – such as gaming, media, and consumer services around food, travel, fashion, and so on.

The future of technology will be shaped by how this handful of companies choose to direct their spend – and how they shape their already intimate relationships with consumers.

The need for simplicity

But while we wait for the strategies of the giants to unfold, CES will still make its annual noise. So amid the cacophony of hype, how can we spot what matters? The answer is to stay focused on consumer need. The technology that technologists want will always lose out to the technology that ordinary people actually need.

And what do we need? The answer is technology that makes our increasingly technological lives feel less technical. As technology gets more and more sophisticated, we need it to feel more and more simple.

In mobile, busy lives, in which many of us are trying to achieve more than is sensible, we need all our environments – home, commute, work, leisure, entertainment – to be joined up and easily accessible – preferably through our smartphone. We need this to happen with the least friction, and the least decision making. The very idea of having to set up new devices to work with other devices is anathema. It isn’t the job of the consumer to be a systems integrator. The promise of personalisation has to involve the least possible personal effort on our part. And – perhaps contrary to popular perception – personalisation is something that most people do want.

Voice control, enabled by machine learning, has the potential to deliver highly personalised experiences that bring continuity and convenience almost without us knowing it. Both machine learning and voice are sufficiently advanced for us to get glimpses of what this truly transformational development could be like. But there is still a long way to go before such glimpses join up into a full picture.

Putting the things into Internet of Things

What we will see at CES 2019 are plenty of small scale integrations of different parts of our lives – reflecting the fact that to be effective machine learning needs very narrow problems to solve. Often these integrations will be in specific, relatively controllable environments in which technology can offer a clear utility – such as in the car, retail environments, the workplace and public spaces. And this means that, just like last year, we will see plenty of prominence for business to business technologies, and far more confidence from infrastructure specialists than from gadget makers.

Say what you want 

The soundtrack for the show will be the human voice. We will see it integrated into everything. Smart speakers will be very present again, and there will be much overclaiming for ‘intelligent assistants’, but almost every device will have basic voice control. CES 2019 will bring into sharp relief the difference between a voice activated device and a smart assistant – though it might also raise questions about just how smart those assistants currently are.

An example of this will be the smart home. Once again it will promise more than it delivers. As a market, smart home tech is set to grow rapidly – not least because so many appliances are now being made with smart apps built in. But at present the public are proving reluctant to use voice assistants to control their heating or turn on the lights. It’s the clearest example of a technology want not matching a consumer need. Just 3% of Alexa’s 30,000 ‘skills’ are related to the smart home, compared to 25% devoted to games and trivia. Google Assistant does a little more for the home – at 9% – but it’s games applications that are dominant for Google too. 

Looking after number one

CES 2014 was very focused on personal tech; 2019 will be too. But, sadly, it will be a well-meaning but incoherent mix of supposed AI led personalisation, personal security, data privacy, wellbeing, and self-control tech (devices that tell you off if you use them too much). The sell will be that we can now control how much technology controls our lives, if only we buy the right technology. And of course even in our patterns of abstinence we are still providing data to the technologists.

Well made in China

Last year we predicted that Chinese companies would have a stronger presence than ever. Not only did this prove true, but Chinese companies showed themselves able to compete with the West when it comes to innovation and quality. The most highly valued start up in the world is SenseTime – a Chinese AI specialist.

We expect the presence of China to be even stronger next year. The major players, Alibaba, Baidu and TenCent will make statements around connected infrastructure, while the big device manufacturers such as Huawei, Hisense and ZTE will be where some of the best quality products are to be found.

The first signals of 5G

5G has been talked of for years as the breakthrough technology that will bring high speed connectivity on the move without the need for ubiquitous Wi-Fi. The standards have been defined, but the technology isn’t yet ready. We expect 5G to be a major theme in 2020; but in 2019 we’ll see it gaining pockets of attention from some of the bigger infrastructure players.

AR on the move

The media industry became unnecessarily distracted by Virtual Reality a few years ago. It always seemed more likely that the experiential offer of Augmented Reality, brought together with the ubiquity of the smartphone, would be where the immersive technology breakthrough would actually happen. We’ll see that breakthrough this year with plenty of AR apps focused around personalised shopping, travel, games, messaging and specialist training. High quality AR apps will become standard in upmarket smartphones. VR meanwhile will only have a minor presence – though we may see further developments in lightweight headsets.

The hot spots

It’s unlikely the popular reporting of CES2019 will pick up on many of these themes, with the possible exception of voice control. Such reporting will tend to focus on specific technologies. Many will simply be gimmicks. But there will be some that are more significant:

  • 8k displays will be prominent ahead of the 2020 Olympics, which Japan has pledged to deliver in 8k resolution
  • Robotics will be stronger than ever – particularly around desktop robots for the smart home and small business
  • Smartphones with high end features won’t be high in numbers but will create attention
  • Augmented reality apps in smartphones and in specific implementations such as retail, health and the public realm will provide the visuals for the show that voice control will fail to deliver
  • The Eureka start up zone will feature a number of blockchain based start ups

Most of the ingredients for the CES of 2021 or 2022 will be present in 2019. They won’t be particularly appetizing as yet. But put together they will provide a taste of the future.

There are two perennial CES truths that will persist through 2019. The first is that media and entertainment make the world go around; and, though it will remain under the surface again next year, the evolution of intelligent, personalised, voice led, content search remains the really big development that many of the CES trends are pointing towards.

The second truth is that CES 2019, like every CES, will be at once infuriating and captivating.

This blog was written by Mark Harrison.