What really happened in Vegas

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Las Vegas is crazy – and the CES tech show is even crazier. I needed a long drive through Death Valley and Yosemite afterwards to work out what on earth I’d witnessed.

CES is full of ideas and new, shiny gadgets – but, just like Vegas, not all that glitters is gold. Here are some of the major themes that struck me walking the stands, and some of the little touches that maybe provide real innovation:

1. Measurement – we’re going to measure everything! The first overwhelming slap in the face is that the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) is really here. It was hard to find products that didn’t provide some kind of internet interaction or capture data for someone. Is all of it really useful? Does all of it really link to a user or system benefit? I couldn’t help thinking of The Circle – a futuristic book by Dave Eggers about the IoT, where convenience, supervision and feedback rule over common sense and broader human needs. Many of the ‘innovations’ at CES (mentioning no names) seemed to be traditional devices with a comms module to provide some simplistic single data route. Some of the more interesting devices have begun to incorporate multiple functions as a result of the connection – for example, the LG Hom-Bot vacuum cleaner that integrates cleaning with home security and home monitoring. But this is not exactly an obvious combination of functions – and I can’t help wondering whether there aren’t other, more relevant, tasks the vacuum cleaner would be better suited to.

Although I found many of the connected concepts a little over the top, I was very impressed with Qualcomm’s running shoe sole with a promised ‘life of sole’ battery performance – very exciting.

2. Smarter products – having used a sleep monitor last year, I Iearnt how badly I sleep sometimes. Well, at least that’s what the data told me. At CES there were endless sleep gadgets. There were rooms full of connected pillows, mattresses, headbands, headphones and monitors, all to improve sleep. But I can’t help feeling we are responding to the symptoms of a connected world with more connections and data. As an innovator, I’d like to explore a different approach to the very real issues of sleep and look at the root causes – stress, diet, exercise, daylight – to see if smarter tech really can help with these.

A refreshing development away from the typical so-called ‘smart’ technologies was a breakthrough in clothes washing. Xeros Technologies, a developer of polymer technologies,  demonstrated three technologies which drastically improve sustainability – water-reducing beads, ‘in-drum’ technology and improved filtering to prevent microplastics entering the water cycle. This technology has been around for many years – the ‘innovation’ at CES was a move from the commercial to the consumer market. It’ll be interesting to see whether this will be the future of laundry in the home.

3. Maturing user interfaces – I love the phrase that products are magical when the technology gets out of the way. The explosion of voice recognition and the battle of Google Assistant vs Amazon Alexa was hard to miss. Below is a fraction of a display showing the proliferation of Google Assistant into hundreds of devices. Almost as many as the hundreds of white boilersuited minions they sent to the show.

But I was excited to see more ways we could interact beyond the touchscreen. Two examples of this were an incredibly robust demo from Osram on eye monitoring and face metric monitoring. I have seen this technology before but never from such a neat sensor which provided incredible robustness for eye direction monitoring and facial recognition. The potential to improve driver safety by monitoring microsleep could clearly save lives on the road, with no obvious user interaction needed. Imagine a yellow warning light on the dashboard that says the driver is falling asleep!

Another neat implementation of improved user interface – and technology getting out of the way – was a toothbrush using optical markers and a ‘magic mirror’ phone app to track these markers to help kids brush longer as they ‘kill the monsters’ on the screen by accessing and brushing different parts of their mouth.

4. System products – my final observation was the increasing number of products that were packed with multiple technologies to solve multiple issues. A simple example of this was a cycle helmet by Coros winning a Best of CES award. Its integrated lighting and bone conduction speakers help riders maintain road awareness whilst enjoying calls or music on their bike. To my mind, this is a useful application of technology – in contrast to the LG Home-Bot, where the combination of features seems somewhat forced.

The ‘innovations’ on display at CES were a really interesting demonstration of how technology – and our use of it – is advancing. However, the products that I believe will make the most impact in the next few years are not the ones with the greatest combination of technology. The winners will be the ones where the glitzy technology seems to disappear behind the crystal clear consumer need – whether that is saving time, saving water or saving lives.

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Jez Clements