CES 2018: A Wave of Humanization

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CES, in its many iterations over the past 50 years, has been about devices. The VCR debuted there in 1970, the camcorder in 1981. As the pace of technological development hastened, so did the proliferation of devices. The DVD, HD and then plasma TVs, the Xbox, mobile devices and tablets, 3D printing. This year’s convention was no different: booth-to-booth devices packed so tightly that the main showroom ran out of power.

What stood out, though, is an important shift happening in tech. The hallmark breakthroughs mentioned above were all answers to questions the average consumer was not asking. They created their own need. This year CES moved into a maturation phase, showing incremental improvement on existing systems. This meant that, rather than solving problems you never thought about, a lot of devices that debuted were about solving problems you think about all the time. CES got more human.

Now that we all carry computers in our pockets and are packing computers into pretty much everything else, it stands to reason that eventually we’d start seeing what kinds of cool things that helps us to do. This is what I mean by CES being more “human” – we’ve had the “hey, stick a computer in that fridge!” shows, and now this year we have the show that says “here’s how your fridge makes shopping and cooking dinner easier.”

And while the devices this year were the same basic set of devices seen in years past, the systems set in place to support them are where the rapid innovation was most clearly apparent. 5G, blockchain, machine learning (and AI generally); these are the types of systems that are powering devices to answer basic human needs.

Communing with machines

The connected home section at CES featured some of the most vibrant and varied entries. Kohler fielded smart showerheads and interactive mirrors. The Laundroid washed and folded t-shirts (slowly). Home-brew device company PicoBrew launched their PicoStill. But what came through most strongly was the rapidly changing way we as consumers are interfacing with machines.

For most of the relatively short time we’ve been telling machines what to do it’s been through a visual language. We pull a lever. We scroll a menu and click a command. But this isn’t really a natural human way to communicate. AI work in language processing has unleashed language as an emerging interface. While Amazon’s Alexa was the most popular girl at the dance in 2017, Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and even Samsung’s Bixby were all competing for attention this year.

When the connected home’s ecosystem of devices began to emerge, there was a big question about how a consumer would command such an army of smart bulbs and modular alarm systems. Increasingly the answer seems to be that voice will be how users access their home’s many devices.

Technology doeth good like a medicine

The health and wellness section of the CES floor was enormous. Historically, the first big combination of health and tech was the Fitbit-style wearable: strap this on and we’ll give you information in terms of distance, time, heartbeats, etc. And this year featured a fairly dizzying array of similar. Some had better tech, sleeker design, or specialized in specific activities.

But “health and wellness” is such a bigger part of your life than just when you go jogging, and this year’s range of devices spoke to a much larger range of needs. Samsung dedicated a section of its space to showing how their technology can provide healthy eating recommendations. Indoor vertical gardening systems sprouted up everywhere. But maybe the biggest area of health to be featured at CES was sleep.

There were installations from traditional sleep experts like Sleep Number who offered the booth-weary (or hungover) the chance to test out their biometric sleep-tracking 360 model. But there were new entrants to the space as well. The Nokia Sleep slips under your mattress and records sleep patterns, including snoring. AI-powered headphones and smart masks made for efficient napping abounded. Show fave: a cuddly robot called Somnox, whose lifelike breathing movement and solid weight trigger relaxation when held tight after lights-out time.

Stay safe out there!

Of course, there is a natural tension between the benefits of so much technology and the risks. The regular drumbeat of hacks and leaks has repeatedly reminded us of the vulnerabilities that exist in online data storage. And yet spending on data security is still lagging behind what is estimated as needed to address the rapidly growing problem. Industry projections anticipate 2018 spending to grow only 10% from 2017, a year that saw Equifax, Yahoo, and Uber hacks (among others).

While not as visibly defined by the news cycle, the introduction of connected devices exponentially increases the number of potential entry points for hacks. CES this year featured a number of companies looking to address this concern, including Bitdefender which aims to create a secure mesh network on top of a home’s connected devices.

Not all security solutions were focused on the digital, either. The entrenched space of in-home alarm systems has seen a lot of new entrants over the past few years, and many devices at CES were continuing this disruption. One novel solution came from mitipi, which uses acoustics and intelligent device control to create the impression that an empty house is instead occupied. While you’re on vacation, mitipi watches TV, listens to music, even makes it sound like showers are being taken. No word yet on how mitipi will remove the newspapers piling up on your doorstep.

Certainly, CES featured its now-typical smorgasbord of TVs, cars, and drones. And many of these are responding in the same direction as the innovations above – looking for ways to improve their user’s experience by addressing fundamental problems that have existed for years (it was interesting to see so many devices, for example, focusing on heads up displays in cars). To me this was the most interesting trend to see at CES. Tech for tech’s sake is exciting, but it is most fitting when tech can solve problems we’ve been wrestling with for decades.


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