CES 2017: voice, automation and emotion

This piece is a 500-word round-up of CES written for Campaign.

This year’s 50th-anniversary CES was the biggest yet, and reprised some familiar themes: TVs were thinner and bigger. Cars were digital platforms and autonomous driving was almost here. Virtual reality was more realistic, with flying rigs and haptic shoes. Sustainability had some prominent examples, from food recycling in the kitchen to slashing the environmental impact of making vehicles with 3D printing and local assembly. There was a connected/artificially intelligent everything: toothbrush, hairbrush, wearable breast pump, walking cane, bath tub, cot, bicycle, pillow and desk lamp, to name a few.

Voice was big news. Amazon’s Alexa was prominent even though Amazon stayed away from the show floor. It turned up integrated with Whirlpool’s domestic appliances; with Ford and Volkswagen cars; in the Nucleus intercom; in Martian watches. Although Amazon dominated (adding Alexa to your product is really easy), other vendors appropriated Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, or built their own, like Mattel’s “Echo for children”, Aristotle.

Home automation was also bigger than ever, in part driven by the availability of reliable voice control. Professional lighting vendor Lutron showed a customer-installable domestic product (controllable by Alexa, naturally). As well as voice control, Digital Strom showed clever use of cameras. For example, a camera linked to Microsoft’s cloud services for image recognition allows the sink to see your hands and give you water at a pleasant hand-washing temperature, or see a cup and fill it with cold water, stopping when it’s full. Domestic robots continue to mature: vacuum cleaners are well established; laundry aids like Laundroid and Foldimate are yet to prove themselves; appliances like Whirlpool’s washing machines use Amazon Dash Replenishment to re-order their own consumables, silently and unobtrusively.

Voice and automation create a new environment at home. The interaction is ambient: we may check our phones 150 times a day; ambient voice eliminates the barrier of taking out the phone. The more successful interactions we have, the bigger a habit it becomes. Last year Google revealed that 20% of mobile searches are through voice. Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s SVP of Ads said that “one thing that we are all clear about is the days of three top text ads followed by ten organic results is a thing of the past in the voice first world.”

Riding on the back of these two, the biggest new wave at CES was emotion. The same research that has allowed companies like Affectiva to give marketers real-time analysis of people’s gut responses to their content is in a raft of companion robots (like Buddy, Yumii, Tapia, Woobo) whose main function is to be present in relationships with people. Honda’s HANA and, even more, Toyota’s Concept-愛i showed visions of deep, long-term relationships: Toyota’s car becomes part of the family.

The traditional creative craft of emotional storytelling in a short space and time has remained at the core of digital marketing, even as channels have proliferated and targeting improved. A world where machines are long-term individual actors in people’s social lives creates a genuinely new canvas.