There’s a question I always ask vendors at CES, the sprawling tech expo now underway in Las Vegas: Is this new?
Increasingly, the answer is no. The product has been shipping, in some form or other, for a few months or even years. I’ve long ago given up any hope of spotting a unicorn here — the life-changing product everyone will be talking about. The big companies are now focused on introducing initiatives and projects that will help define future products instead of actual products themselves.
CES 2019 is like an entertaining Broadway musical that lacks a hit song.
Still, I can usually count on smaller discoveries — a handful of products that everyone agrees were the most important introductions of the week. But even that consensus is hard to find this year. CES 2019 is like an entertaining Broadway musical that lacks a hit song. I can’t think of a single gadget anyone has talked about for more than a few hours before moving onto the next thing.
What we have here is CES in an off year. In Intel’s “tick-tock” development model, this would be known as a tock year. A bigger year, a “tick,” introduces fundamental processor changes while the “tock” year sees only the implementation of those changes.
There’s a new smart lock. And there’s another. And another. When I found the fingerprint-activated BenjiLock at one event, the inventor explained he sold his two-year-old idea to Hampton Products (after surviving Shark Tank). They’ve made the lock smaller, sleeker, and reliable, but it’s not new.
Did you hear about LG’s incredible rollable TV? Yes. Last year. The packaging is prettier, but it’s not new. Nor are the 8K TVs: They’re just bigger. Samsung has MicroLED for fully configurable displays, just like it did last year.
There’s a fake doll with a baby monitor wrapped around its toe, staring at it through a camera eye or sneakily sliding under its crib-sized mattress. Creepy? Maybe. Familiar? Definitely.
What about Google? Nothing that it’s showing off is new. The company is trying to add the “OK Google” voice command to everything, but it’s playing catch up to Amazon. Alexa really is everywhere, from big cars to tiny clocks.
I saw a lot of interesting robots, but even my favorite, Kiki from Zoetic AI, is really a better version of the old Jibo. And those creepy flex-face robots reminded me of something I saw almost a decade ago.
Even all the car tech — smart cars, all-screen dashboards, augmented reality in the windshield — is a synthesis of everything that’s come before it. I’ll grant that a walking car is new, but it’s also ridiculous.
The peaks and valleys of innovation I enjoyed at previous CES events have flattened into a general hum of “more.” Thanks to easier access to 3D printing and prototyping services in China, there are more ODMs (original device manufacturers) than ever, but they all seem to be focusing on the same things. There are now many masks for your faces to calm snoring, sleep trouble, and even dry eye. There are wearable bands to help you calm down and devices to help you breathe.
But there are no category-defining product innovations like the digital camera, the VCR, the MP3 player, the self-driving car, or the robot vacuum. New products are derivative of what’s come before. The innovations are largely on the software side, with traditional consumer electronics leveraging better silicon and sensors for more artificial intelligence and machine learning.
It’s an issue that’s writ large across the entire tech industry, where innovation more often now is measured on a nanoscale, and breakthroughs are usually hidden behind a flat screen.
Disappointment aside, CES still plays an important role in the technology ecosystem. Products that return year after year to showcase updates are inching their way closer to consumer availability. They can’t do so without the energy of the retailer who might hope to one day stock their shelves with a visionary product or the wordsmithing of a tech journalist who can’t wait to share their discovery with a wider audience.
But that support doesn’t guarantee that any of these products will make it. Those entrepreneurs will go back to the drawing board to cook up their next big ideas, ones that I hope are ready in time for CES 2020.