CES 2018 was huge. How huge? If CES had been its own municipality it would have ranked as the 127th largest city in the U.S., as if the entire population of Tallahassee, Florida had convened in Las Vegas to talk consumer tech and IoT.
The booths themselves have grown in both size and complexity, so much so that the word “booth” no longer really applies. Samsung’s was as large as a couple of city blocks. Many had floor-to-ceiling walls carving out rooms designed to provide context for the technology on display. This was true of other major brands, too — Sony, Intel, Panasonic —and it speaks to brick-and-mortar retail’s increased focus on the buyer’s experience.
The enclosed rooms (like the one pictured below) could also be related to the prevalence of voice-driven demos at this year’s CES, revealing one downside of voice UI — namely, the necessity of a quiet environment for guaranteed success.
We perused the show, giant city-booths and all, took plenty of pictures (of products and our fingers), and made note of trends in product design and major technologies. We saw a proliferation of smart sleep, sensors to detect our every breath, robots galore — and it seemed that wearables are (still) everywhere. Here are some product trends to highlight:
1. Plastic Fantastic Best Friends for Every Application
Whereas 3D printing and drones seem to have consolidated and shrunk as categories, personal assistant robots for a huge range of applications were on display for kiosks; information; security; pet monitoring; entertaining and assisting kids; delivery; portage of sports equipment and packages (even by air); photography and videography; logistics; etc.
Facial recognition, tracking, and gestural interactions have grown more sophisticated in CES’s robotic offerings in the last year. A good camera and plenty of smart processing has replaced the need to wear a lot of sensors. For example, in the pet tracking category, Sony’s robotic Aibo dogs can now recognize their owners, and PetWALK exhibited pet doors that connect to intelligent outdoor video intercoms enabled with pet recognition.
The most interesting robots were for niche commercial applications, such as a logistics robot (pictured below, left) to move packages around the warehouse floor; and a robotic standing wheelchair (pictured below, right).
Many of the robots were person-sized and obviously intended to interact with us in a social way, providing information, products, or services at kiosks or around the house. We saw soft, friendly shapes and benign faces (see Buddy, a personal robot pictured below, top left) — strategies, perhaps, to ease users who are skittish about interacting with robots.
At the other end of the adoption arc are autonomous cars, which are doing away with the conceit of an invisible driver. And robotic cars and motorcycles with humanoid drivers (pictured below) take that one step further.
Now that Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have set the expectation for consumers, voice command control was everywhere. New to CES, though, were robots who can understand gestures and react precisely. We think this will lead to gestural becoming as or more popular than voice control. Users will prefer to wave a hand at Alexa as opposed to shouting, with voice coming in handy as an alternative when hands are full or messy. Gestural control is (pun intended) the wave of the future.
As might be expected when there’s an explosion of innovation and new ideas, not all the robotic concepts on the show floor were thoroughly baked — many bots, such as the one that folds your clothes or the connected robotic umbrella, seemed to lack a solid rationale.
Alongside smart, sophisticated devices, there were plenty of ‘just because we can’ robots that seem unlikely to be able to demonstrate the ROI they will need to thrive — at least not yet. There will definitely be a shakeout in this sector over the next couple of years.
2. Sweet Dreams Are Made of These … Tech Products
Sleep and relaxation were popular themes at this year’s CES, possibly because all those screens we’ve been staring at are increasing our anxiety levels and keeping us awake. This is the second year in a row sleep tech has had its own section, and this year’s was even bigger.
The sleep section is an intriguing expansion of the health sensor technologies we’ve been seeing in the Internet of Things. The smart pillow was back, but now entire beds are smart, with movable surfaces, vibration, massage, and temperature control. Some have even morphed into all-in-one sleep pods designed to promote an atmosphere conducive to good sleep. Brain wave monitors, sleep quality monitors, and headsets with audio systems were everywhere. NuCalm’s ReNu eye mask, which claims to deliver the effects of two hours of sleep in twenty minutes, drew huge crowds (pictured below) to its demo.
Many of these products have sensor technology integrated, and supposedly it can do some sophisticated things. The Dreamlight Sleep Mask for example, has an optical heart rate monitor, infrared sensors, accelerometers and a gyroscope. And it claims it can link to your 23andMe profile to match your genetic information and sleep data to make a customized sleep prescription. Sounds neat, although the science on this is dubious.
3. The Death of Wearables Is Greatly Exaggerated
There have been plenty of rumors about the imminent demise of wearables, but this section was as strong as ever. If anything, the personal health and data sensors pioneered by wearables have spread to other sectors, like what we saw in the sleep area. The category may be smaller, but people are finding their niche.
The increase of specific applications, such as wearables to control nausea (Reliefband) and a connected saddle to track your horse’s performance (CDS iJump), are evidence of a maturing market with more purpose. There is an increasing number of smart fabrics, sensors, processing power, and methods that are adding to the utility of wearables, and it shows.
The increase of specific applications are evidence of a maturing wearables market with more purpose.
There were plenty of exercise monitors and android watches around, but we were particularly intrigued by assistive wearables and wearables for seniors. MobileHelp Smart, a watch that combines fitness monitoring features with an emergency ‘help’ call interface; and Hip-Air, a wearable airbag that senses when you’re about to fall, are two examples of wearables for the growing demographic seeking to age in place.
The OrCam MyEye glasses recognize gestures to read digital or printed text aloud to the user once they’ve pointed at it. Glasses (pictured above, left) for seniors send an alert when they’ve detected the wearer has fallen, and the Dot Braille Smartwatch, (pictured above, right) converts texts to Braille.
There was also noteworthy innovation in wearable fitness tech. Under Armour’s new line of athlete recovery sleepwear uses bioceramics to generate infrared light and supposedly help the body recover from a workout. The Spire Health Tag (pictured below) offers a compelling alternative to wearable fitness trackers, whose users are known to lose interest after six to twelve months.
Part of the reason people lose interest is their unwillingness to invest time in managing yet another device, particularly if it’s not providing a great experience. Spire counters that by being low-maintenance — the washable, dryer-safe tag attaches to the inside of the clothes you wear daily. Set it and forget it for as long as its battery lasts — up to a year and a half. It sends data to your phone via Bluetooth, and a recycling program for used tags provides discounts on replacements.
4. Let My People Talk To Your People
One odd note at CES was the proliferation of startups seeking to provide solutions using big data but few have devices to show, or testing that shows the accuracy of collected data and the potential inferences. Without a tested, accurate collection device, where will they get the data from?
These startups will have to convince larger companies with a vested stake in controlling their own ecosystems to share data with them, which can be a tough sell for both liability and privacy reasons. The IoT is still about things collecting data, and that ecosystem is still being built; there seem to be a lot of software-only companies looking to capitalize on a sea of data that may not yet exist, or they may not have access to.
Moving forward for IoT, one stumbling block is that we don’t yet have a universal language for the IoT. Collaboration across ecosystems is still in the early stages of development. There were encouraging developments in that direction — the Open Connectivity Foundation is one such effort, and Samsung showed off devices that could be controlled by Alexa, Google Home, and Samsung’s own Bixby. But many devices only integrate with one or two virtual assistants (Google Home, Alexa, Cortana, Siri), and to make things more complicated Nvidia announced software specifically for autonomous vehicle assistants.
Will 2018 be the year we all agree on communications standards? We’ll watch this closely. When we’re not tossing sticks to our Aibo or tucked away inside our sleep pod, catching up on some zzz’s after this year’s CES excitement. (Check out Chris, pictured below, giving a talk on UX during CES in Core77’s Design Lounge.)
What made this year’s bots so canny? Read our 2018 CES Tech Trends post.