As CES winds down, attendees start to digest what they saw on the show floor and walk away with different stories and understandings of the tech landscape today. For us, five major trends emerged from the boisterous show floors and various keynotes and panels this year. Together they paint a picture of where consumer technology is right now and signal its general direction for 2019.
FYI, if you’re curious about what the trends from this CES mean for the Latin American markets, check out this wonderful trend recap written by our LatAm lab ambassador team!
A Smart Assistant War At Home
The headline-grabbing rivalry at CES 2019 is still Google Assistant vs. Alexa. Determined to catch up with Alexa both in market share and public perception, Google tripled its show space and announced a myriad of new features and compatible devices. They even built a whole Assistant-themed roller coaster ride. The launch of Google Assistant Connect is particularly significant, as it allows third-party manufacturers to add Google Assistant to their devices. And the decision to add Assistant to Google Maps could prove fruitful in recruiting iOS users.
Amazon was clearly not going let Google have all the fun, as the company also upped its presence on the show floor this year, thanks to a wide range of partners incorporating Alexa into their products, from Alexa-enabled clocks by Lenovo to an Alexa-enabled toilet. An entire booth dedicated for demonstrating Alexa in cars took up a premium slot in the North Hall at the LVCC, with BMW and China’s Byton demonstrating how Alexa can help improve their driving experiences.
Beyond the continuing duel between the two market leaders, Apple made a surprising move by enabling AirPlay 2 support for some of the major TV brands, including Samsung, LG, Sony, and Vizio. This addition means that iOS users will be able to control their TV via Siri on their mobile devices without having to buy an Apple TV, thus giving Apple’s voice assistant an entry into many living rooms. Of course, this is primarily a content play for Apple right now, designed to increase distribution for their forthcoming streaming TV service, as evidenced by its decision to unleash iTunes onto Samsung smart TVs. It certainly lays the groundwork for Apple to integrate deeper into the smart home.
Besides TV, smart displays also made a strong showing at this year’s CES, especially in the kitchen. Appliance makers such as Whirlpool and GE followed Google and Amazon’s lead in releasing smart displays and came out with some interesting voice-enabled kitchen products with screens, primarily for cooking assistance. It remains to be seen whether this trend will extend into other rooms.
Overall, the home is becoming a consolidated platform battle between Amazon, Google, and Apple, and most device makers are staying agnostic and working with all three for the sake of compatibility and scale. IKEA’s connected window blinds, for example, will work with all three voice systems. That said, Amazon and Google both have first-party hardware solutions (Ring and Nest) that are expanding their lines, so Apple will still have a lot of catching-up to do on in terms of platform-tizing Siri and getting it into more connected devices. On the other hand, if Amazon and Google continue to expand their first-party solutions, Apple may be the most favored player for independent hardware makers.
In contrast to the hardware overflow, it looks like brands are only slowly figuring out real use cases for voice and connected screens in the home. Some brands, such as Koehler’s Alexa-enabled kitchen faucet and Whirlpool’s smart oven powered by Alexa and Yummly, found better user cases than others, but the complimenting services for those voice-enabled smart home devices remain scarce. For brands, such a void presents a big opportunity to supply the right kind of services that are needed to unlock new use cases on these connected devices. Understanding your customer’s needs, pinpointing where voice fits into the consumer journey, and working out the best way to deliver that service should be the top priorities for brands exploring the smart home in 2019.
Automation Expands Beyond Mobility
Automation powered by artificial intelligence is underpinning some of the biggest innovation on display at CES 2019. From auto brands and auto tech exhibitors that took up a show floor the size of three American football fields, to the robots and drones that are popping up all over the convention halls, it is clear that the dawn of automation is here, and it will have far-reaching market implications for the mobility and service sectors.
Some joke that CES has become half an auto show, and that is certainly no exaggeration. Following Toyota’s e-palette mobility concept unveiled last year, auto makers came this year ready to show off their own vision for the future of mobility services, from clinics on wheels to on-the-go fitting rooms, covering all kinds of in-car experiences that one could think of.
One thing that stood out centers around the video time that autonomous cars will free up for drivers, and almost every automaker has their own interpretation of what the future of in-car entertainment will be. Notably, Audi announced a partnership with Disney to develop VR entertainment tailored to autonomous cars. Similarly, Intel also demoed its version of in-car entertainment with Warner Bros., where it wrapped the backseat in screens to create an immersive viewing experience.
While immersive experiences may lend themselves well to car rides, it is too early to conclude what form future in-car entertainment experiences will take. Content owners will have to continue to experiment along with automakers to figure out the right format and distribution for video entertainment in autonomous cars.
Beyond cars, automated mobility was also on the show floor, in the form of a giant autonomous helicopter by Bell, a handful of underwater scooters, as well as other kinds of vehicles such as Whill’s LIDAR-assisted wheelchairs for navigating in tight spaces. More importantly, however, automation also manifested in the service sector, as drones and robots for delivery and hospitality gather momentum. Samsung and LG both made a concerted push for their respective service robots meant for not only domestic use, but also for automating tasks in retail stores, restaurants, and hotels.
This indicates that AI-powered automation is no longer a disruptive force that only the auto industry needs to deal with, but a force that will transform the customer experience of several vectors. The important thing for brands to remember is that automation doesn’t always take the shape of an actual robot. For example, the Rover cart that automatically follows users around golf courses is a simple form of automation that could significantly improve the playing experience, and easily extend to retail in the future. Even the voice assistants are now capable of automating some simple tasks for users, such as Google’s Duplex feature that enables Google Assistant to call up business and make appointments on user’s behalf in natural speech.
It is up to brands to figure out where they can leverage automation in its varying forms to improve the customer experience. It is too early to let robots take over humans for most consumer-facing services, despite how cute they are or how much the millennials allegedly don’t want to talk to another human. But, there is definitely an opportunity in using AI-powered automation to supplement the human touch and improve efficiency. Many warehouses already do this to take care of the heavy lifting for workers, and perhaps the services can try a similar strategy as well. For example, Google unveiled a smart display with real-time translation powered by Google Assistant, and the company will pilot the device in select hotels for assisting front desk services across language barriers.
5G Gets A Reality Check
With its imminent arrival, 5G was understandably a big topic at this year’s CES. Different from previous years when the 5G chatter leaned towards its vast potential to unlock new innovations, this year, the conversations around 5G were much more realistic and practical, with many panelists acknowledging the tough reality ahead for the gradual rollout of 5G.
During his keynote address, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg enthusiastically listed off eight transformative capabilities of 5G while also conceding that some of the amazing things likely won’t become reality for another three to five years. In that sense, 5G shares something in common with the 8K TVs — they’ve both arrived, but only technically. It will take plenty of time before both deployment and consumer adoption catches up to expectations for either of these two technologies.
Much of the 5G talk this year started with AT&T’s controversial decision to rebrand the faster packets of its 4G LTE network as 5G Evolution and switch the network icon on some handsets from “LTE” to “5G e.” During his appearance, AT&T Wireless CEO John Donovan brushed off competitors’ objections and defended the misleading move by framing it a matter of marketing.
Make no mistake, the 5G war has started in earnest, and it is about to get ugly. Confusing terminologies and fractured definitions of 5G will only stunt consumer adoption. Moreover, the battle is not only between the mobile carriers (although they will very much be the ones driving the conversation) but also between wireless carriers and cable companies. 5G services, such as the one Verizon started rolling out last fall, are also threatening cable companies as they enter home broadband market. An unrelated campaign for “10G broadband” recently launched by big cable only confuses the 5G message further.
At the end of the day, brands need to keep in mind that, as an “enabler technology,” 5G cannot become successful and realize its full potential until parallel technologies like AI and AR mature and hit critical mass of adoption. Of course, we need to be aware of all the opportunities that 5G promises to unlock for media and marketing and change the way we reach and engage with consumers. Nevertheless, 5G is not here yet, and we likely won’t see its full impact for perhaps another three to five years.
Therefore, it is important to recognize that and separate the immediate benefits of implementing a faster wireless network from the long-term promises of 5G, and more importantly, be patient with seeing the transformative results. In the meantime, brands should actively experiment with parallel technologies such as AR and automation to gather data and insights in preparation of the 5G revolution.
The Consumerization of Digital Health
Continuing last year’s trend of wearables dipping into the healthcare market, this year we saw an explosion of health-oriented devices and services on the show floor. Various biometric sensors are being deployed for both general-purpose health monitoring and niche use cases such as tracking specific diseases. Accessibility tech and digital tools for managing elder care continue to show up in spades, further expanding the targeted markets of digital healthcare.
There is no doubt that digital health products are going through a phase of rapid consumerization as they become readily available for various sectors of the healthcare market. For example, following Apple’s addition of ECG capability to Apple Watch Series 4, a handful of wearable makers such as Omron and Withings have come out with their own heart rate-monitoring devices. Even for something as clinical as an ultrasound or a brain scan test, there are now startups like Butterfly and Sync Think, respectively, coming up with consumer-facing personal solutions.
With all these new devices, we can quantify and collect a whole lot of physical health data without setting foot in a clinic. But the consumerization of digital healthcare doesn’t always include a related service, and consumers need help interpreting all the data our devices are capturing. We did notice an uptick in startups facilitating remote patient monitoring and diagnosis by doctors, such as Tyto Care, but there is still a big opportunity for brands to come in and leverage their expertise to help users interpret the collected data and turn them into actionable suggestions.
As a highly regulated industry, healthcare is a market that has proven quite resistant to technological disruption. However, that has not stopped the tech companies, especially big platform owners like Google and Apple, from looking to enter the market and upend the status quo. As the consumerization of digital healthcare continues, brands in this industry need to stay one step ahead of the tech companies and leverage their established brand trust with consumers, as well as their experience in dealing with regulators, to their competitive advantage.
Data Privacy Concerns Bubble Under The Surface
Everywhere one goes at CES, the word “data” will inevitably turn up in conversation, for data is the fuel that many technology companies depend on to improve their products and optimize their services, if not outright using it as a revenue stream. Given that, it is perhaps no surprise that few companies on the show floor addressed the concerns over data collection and privacy that has been dominating the news cycle for the past few months.
But, take a close look and you will find that those concerns are very much bubbling under the surface of the techno-cornucopia. Apple may not have an official presence on the show floor, but it made a point of bringing privacy and data security to the front of every attendee’s mind with a strategically placed billboard touting its own privacy practices. This rather unorthodox move shows that Apple is doubling down on its key talking points on privacy and data security, which sets itself apart from the likes of Facebook and Google, in order to further foster consumer trust. It was also quick to clarify that it will not share user data with Samsung when news broke that it is putting iTunes on Samsung TVs.
Besides Apple, there are a couple of startups that made privacy a key selling point of their products. For instance, Orig3n is a company that offers a privacy-focused DNA testing service, promising to never collect or share user’s personal and genetic data outside the necessity of DNA testing. Then there are companies like Orcam that are moving most of the data processing that is traditionally done via cloud computing to on-device computing for the sake of keeping user data local and secure.
While data security and privacy may have been underrepresented on the show floor, it was certainly a hot topic amongst the panelists, with many calling for more careful and mindful management of consumer data and a better way to utilize user data in order to justify collection. Outside CES, AT&T and T-Mobile announced on Thursday they will stop selling customers’ location data to third-party service providers by March amid calls for a federal investigation. As CES wraps up, the backlash against tech companies’ mishandling of personal data will no doubt continue to set the tech narrative for the rest of the year.
For brands, this presents a learning opportunity to listen to consumers, identify the necessary data needed to deliver personalization and other add-on value, and take active measures to eliminate risks in data security. Only through such conscious efforts can brands make use of the digital tools in an ethical and respectful way that preserves brand trust.
Overall, CES 2019 marks a continuing acceleration in technology advancement and productization. Things like foldable phones and rollable TVs are real products coming to market soon, while the consumerization of the smart home, 5G, and digital health continue to set new consumer expectations. Beneath those achievements, however, privacy concerns and lack of service support looms large, threatening to thwart the unbridled growth of the tech industry but also offering established brands a valuable opportunity to learn from the missteps of the tech companies and do better.