At the start of every year, the consumer technology industry descends on Las Vegas for arguably its most important conference of the year: the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Traditionally, CES is the place for the world's biggest brands, and most innovative startups, to showcase the latest groundbreaking technology. It's a place where attendees can witness entire industries being born.
In 2013, I contributed to the start of the Smart Home industry, showing off our new innovation: the video doorbell. We won a CES innovation award and joined a few other startups (Nest, August, SmartThings, etc) in putting the nascent industry on the map. Now in 2020, the Smart Home has its own hall at the show.
This is the power of CES: it provides a platform for entrepreneurs to use consumer hardware to change the world. Yet as the world shifts to software, social media and AI, one could question how the companies and innovations seen at CES will change.
I attended again this year, and I walked away with a number of conclusions from my time at CES. This article presents those conclusions, and highlights why they are important for the consumer electronics industry, consumers and society as a whole.
1. Robots and AI are taking over
If there was one central theme for this year, it could be robotics. I couldn't walk more than a few booths without seeing another robotics startup or demo. From healthcare AI applications (lots of prosthetics) to computer vision, the floors were dominated by startups and brands looking to plant the seeds for the burgeoning consumer robotics and AI industry.
The dominance of robotics and AI reminded me of the Smart Home emergence a few years ago. For me, it set the tone of the show and implanted a discernible feeling that the future of AI is here. I've written about artificial intelligence, and just how pervasive it will be. I felt that first-hand at this year's show.
2. Smart Home has hit an innovation plateau
After spending six years building the Smart Home industry along with other leaders, startups and big brands, it's clear that the Smart Home industry has reached a peak. There have not been any significant innovations for a year or two now, and the same trend was on display at CES.
On the leadership side of things, most of the panels and industry events featured conversations around recycled talking points: the need for standards and consumer privacy. Most of the conversation is taking place in an echo-chamber of our peers, without much innovation spilling into the real world.
On the product side of things, the show floor was filled with more "evolution" than "innovation." Products received upgrades to cameras and radios, yet not many products sparked a new level of excitement. A walk around Eureka Park, the area known for exciting startups and innovations, was full of connected products that will likely never see adoption.
3. Self-driving cars were everywhere
One of the most exciting segments of the show was the emergence of self-driving cars. The big show floors featured prominent brands displaying prototypes or showing off new features.
A few brands were offering self-driving tours around the Las Vegas strip, and new entrants made big announcements. Even Sony highlighted a concept car (Sony Vision-S), showcasing promising new technology. Volvo, BMW and Qualcomm frequently emerged in my conversations with peers and attendees about smart cars and their experience at CES.
This is certainly an area to watch if you're an entrepreneur or business leader. The opportunities are not just in the technology, or the cars. The opportunities will emerge around the services that are possible inside the car now that the driver does not need to focus on driving.
4. Are we solving real problems?
There was a feeling this year that consumer technology isn't solving real customer issues. While this is subjective, it was nonetheless felt by me and others, especially amongst my peers in the millennial age group. Over the course of a number of candid conversations, we felt that startups and companies are focusing too much on products that we (society) don't truly need.
As an entrepreneur striving to shine light on the importance of mindfulness in the tech community, my opinion is that the hardware industry could be spending too much money on TVs, new iterations of smartphones and connected products that aren't advancing the human experience, or at least on a level that that warrants all the money and energy invested.
I understand that companies will invest in whatever consumers buy, yet I was disappointed not to see a bigger focus on innovations in sustainable technologies, reforesting or other innovations that could help recycle the materials we use every day.
However, I did see a few startups focusing on wellness, which was encouraging. One such startup, Core Wellness, presented a hand-held device that uses haptic feedback and biometric data inputs to improve a user's meditation experience.
5. Hardware is ubiquitous
Yes, there were brilliant displays that made TV and computer screens looks as real as our own eyes. Yes, there were new features with laptops and smartphones that sparked the eye. Yet, outside of robotics and autonomous vehicles, there wasn't anything that felt truly groundbreaking.
On the Smart Home side of things, a sea of copy-cat locks and doorbells continued to flood the showfloor. There were also dozens of connected products that prove the idea that just because you can put a Wi-Fi chip in something, doesn't mean you should.
Everything changes, so this is not a long-term doomsday prediction for hardware. It's an observation that hardware becomes ubiquitous over time and software and services become the source of differentiation. Smart entrepreneurs understand that dynamic, while others stubbornly focus on iterating hardware.
6. Baby wellness is heating up
Another emerging product segment that made an impact on me was baby wellness and new parenthood. A number of major consumer brands, along with a number of startups, showcased products and services designed to help make healthier babies and happier parents.
There is also an important trend to watch, declining birth rates in the US are putting pressure on consumer brands to create stronger relationships with customers, find new revenue sources and shift from product-based models to service-based models with recurring monthly revenue.
In fact, the emergence of this new category reminds me of the race to be the "hub" of the Smart Home. Big brands and innovative startups will converge on platforms to support new parents beyond the core functionalities of their products, apps or services.
7. 5G was everywhere, and nowhere
While 5G was on the tips of many tongues, there was less certainty around when the technology will be making an impact. Exhibitors and technology leaders constantly referenced the potential of 5G, yet few could answer when it will happen and how the industry will protect consumers from potential health risks.
Despite the fact that we might be in a short-term innovation lull in hardware, there's no question that CES is still an important conference for the industry. Presenting at the show changed my life in 2013, and the conference provides that same potential for anyone bold enough to create a new vision of the future.