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Reflecting on CES 2019

Posted 10 Jan 2019

Each year the CES in Las Vegas provides an essential guide to what’s hot in technology. Jeremy Silver, Digital Catapult’s CEO, reflects on the show and some of the exciting new technologies and products.

When, on the eve of CES, Apple announces it intends to partner with long time adversary Samsung to enable their TVs to support Apple TV and iTunes content, you know you are in for a year of incremental progress. Apple is handing power to Samsung by strengthening the range of its platform in exchange for ensuring Apple continues to compete with the likes of Netflix and Amazon in the content market.

CES is a bellweather for industry

This year, voice-control and intelligent speaker systems, real time translation services that could enable international trade particularly with China, and AI, 5G and immersive technologies as the key enablers were the strongest themes. VR and AR were everywhere, almost casually deployed across marketing and services, but without any big fanfare.

Perhaps the biggest buzz was around intelligent mobility and the future of self-driving cars. As the emphasis shifts from the driver to the passenger, so the conversation in the automotive industry moves from the driving experience to the passenger experience, as this new advert shows. The massive crowds at the Audi and Mercedes Benz stands were the most packed of anywhere in the show. Audi announced a new partnership with Walt Disney to provide new kinds of in-car experience; their chief digital officer talked excitedly about using the ride experience to power virtual reality that would amuse and distract passengers newly liberated with time and space in vehicles. Lots of manufacturers also showed off interesting looking customizable autonomous boxes on wheels, which could morph from mobile retail outlet, to mobile office, to mobile cinema.

Incremental steps rather than leaps forward on audio-visual

In the audio-visual hall the crowds were quieter, and if that is any measure of the state of the market to come, the future is more sober compared to the giddy excitement and competition in the automotive sector. That is with the exception of the Samsung stand which was by far the biggest and most impressive in the hall. Demonstrating new 8K TV screens with extraordinarily high definition (not sure if that is a technical term yet), Samsung was also showing Bixby, their new digital helper, who is competing with Siri, Alexa and Cortana to respond helpfully to our voice-instructions. Samsung also showed off a new robot, slightly disconcertingly called “bot care” – aimed at the personal well-being and health market (although presumably not intended to be targeted specifically at the incontinent).

New entrants ready to compete with major players?

There were lots of friendly mini-robots around the halls of CES this year, many of them produced by the growing numbers of Chinese companies exhibiting. In this context it is increasingly clear how important branding and presence is in these kinds of markets where copying products based on digital concepts is relatively easy to do, but where reliability and quality is less easy to assess.

The connected home was a key theme with digital versions of everything domestic, from front door locks and bells, to digitally controlled bathtubs – and sensors everywhere. Extending that connected home theme into industry was less visible, but one of the other very busy stands worth noting was from Bosch who announced the launch of the new Old Street Connectory which will be helping their intelligent mobility programme, as well as looking to collaborate with others, including Digital Catapult I hope, to help incubate and accelerate UK companies.

Bosch is emerging as a really interesting company with a very diverse strategy from the power tools and domestic white goods that we are perhaps most familiar with, to connected cars and scooters, to other IoT services. Bosch may become a strong platform for others to build around. Notable on the Bosch stand was the large number of Chinese visitors taking lots of pictures. The major players like Google and Amazon created entirely self-contained massive presentation stands outside of the main halls while others like Apple, in particular, kept to their tradition and stayed studiously away.

Distinctive startups flying the flag for Great Britain

The conference this year attracted around 180,000 visitors spread across four different locations around Las Vegas. Over at the Sands Expo site, the UK delegation supported by the Department for International Trade had made its presence felt in the sprawling lower level hall, which was almost entirely populated by startups. Secretary of State, Liam Fox, plunged into the fray to inspect the troops. While “le French Tech” continued to make a disproportionately large en-bloc showing, there were over 100 UK companies presenting albeit scattered around the show. Those on the ‘UK and Northern Ireland is Great’ stand were distinctive in being young businesses but already quite well developed, looking for real deals, particularly with US distributors and channel partners. These companies also showed off real strength in their product design and packaging presentation. I particularly liked Pigzbe, a digital wallet for kids that uses blockchain to help children learn how to save, a challenge but one parents are responding to; a Bluetooth wireless steak thermometer called Meater, beautifully designed and presented in a small wooden block, which also acts as the charger; and Doppel, a watch-type bracelet that claims to help you calm down and focus better by helping to slow your heart rate with a steady pulse on your wrist – again beautifully designed and presented.

CES is chaotic to say the least (imagine the chaos of 100,000 tired punters trying to meet Uber drivers all at the same time in a multistory parking structure with bad GPS), the noise levels and the confusion of fragmented offerings, massive marketing spends and clever jewels to be uncovered, but it represents the market at its most visceral and competitive. It is a physical challenge to attend, let alone to try to sell a product at this event, but there is no better place to get a snapshot of the state of the consumer electronics market worldwide – if you have the stomach for it. Best signage award goes to Apple whose billboard juxtaposed neatly with Hey Google signs around the place, saying “What happens on your iphone, stays on your iphone” – clever marketing to the Vegas crowd.

Making room for the digital glue

The digital glue that sticks together all these different components of our digital future still remains the most problematic. Too many companies showing at CES this year continue to promote their own platforms which are proprietary and not open to partners and competitors. It is this lack of interoperability that has dogged the Internet of Things market for many years. Perhaps, after all, Apple’s shift in strategy and willingness to play on a competitor platform is an indicator of a change in mindset, which might just extend out to other players in the market. If it does then the future for a global connected digital economy is really exciting. I hope we can do something about that ourselves and not just wait until CES2020 to find out.