26 Observations From CES 2018
This year, much like Devin from TechCrunch, I spent all my time at Sands, where the cool kids are. Eureka Park (the startup zone) broke a new record with over 900 startups. Rather than focus on specific startups I’ll share my general impressions. Comments welcome!
- There was no dominant theme. As for classics: basic smartwatches and trackers were barely there (those markets are too mature already), AR/VR seemed to be entering a new phase, with practical applications (mostly B2B, from surgery to manufacturing), and drones are… too 2015.
- Every booth looked pro. Compared to previous years, most booth designs and brands looked neat.
- More B2B. CES is the Consumer Electronics Show, but B2B was definitely on the rise. Products tend to be less flashy but address a true business problem.
- No “wow”. At least for me. Note that “wow” products are not necessarily good business. In fact, as investors we tend to like “boring” and B2B. One reason there is less wow is below:
- It’s the software, stupid! Hardware is only a means to an end. Many of today’s products deliver value via software. In fact, the cheaper / more generic the hardware, the easier and cheaper it is to build.
- Several countries made a good showing. France had tons of startups under “French Tech”. Holland, Israel, Taiwan, Singapore and Italy were also noticeable. South Korea and Japan were present, but in back alleys. China, whose country brand is not yet on par with others (despite its size and technological prowess), was not very visible. More on this below.
- France might be over-represented. I cheer for my country’s entrepreneurial enthusiasm, but the number of products on display suggest a low bar in terms of innovation and business maturity. Someone is overspending here. I hope for a tighter filter next year.
- China is there, but doesn’t look Chinese. Last year the back alleys of Eureka Park were filled with rows of shoddy booths of companies with “Shenzhen” in their name, displaying nearly identical OEM products. This year, some booths were still quite obviously Chinese, but a fair number could not be distinguished from other international players. This means that the originality, quality, design, branding and general presentation of the products and companies had improved a lot. I’ll only mention here the smart piano TheOne as an example. At some point, “Shenzhen” or “China” might stand for quality and will warrant being under a “La China Tech” umbrella.
- Beyond trackers. A number of health products now offer treatment rather than mere tracking. We started investing two years ago in “digital therapeutics” and the category is growing. Some might challenge soon pharmaceutical companies for sleep, anxiety, concentration and more.
- Less pointless companion robots. We love robots, but the consumer robotics space has been a graveyard. Even Jibo, which received an award, hasn’t convinced many so far. Glad to see those go until they start to make sense.
- Some robots did make sense. When they have a clear purpose: toys and STEM robots, even a robot toy for cats. The toy space is hard as it requires engineering repeatable fun. I worked in gaming for a while and even the best companies can’t guarantee fun.
- The support ecosystem for hardware startup is better than ever. The very professional presence at the very entrance of Eureka Park of Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Avnet and HAX (yours truly) was proof.
- Oh yes, A.I. was there. While Sophia-the-robot and Sony’s Aibo reissue caught lots of attention, they are far from mainstream. A.I. is rather coming to you in the form of voice assistants, machine learning in various mundane-looking consumer products.
- 3D printing is expanding slowly. As a result, there were very few startups in that space. I saw two printers: one tiny 3-in-1 engraver/printer/CNC mill and one larger ceramic printer (which managed to print very fine detail). Low end and high end.
- Some serious science. A handful of startups had developed new sensors or new materials and were building products around them.
- Lots of niche gadgets. Including some returnees like the scent-based alarm clock. I like to witness the variety and creativity but as a VC, those were of lower interest.
- Less investors. The usual suspects with a hardware focus were there but it felt that generalists were not. It’s good news for early stage investors (less competition) but makes life harder for founders (less investors, and possibly less follow-on, as investors who don’t build expertise tend to avoid the category).
- Quite a few corporates. Many tech and non-tech companies are scouting for startups, as hardware finally connects the software to the physical world. There were numerous executive groups and innovation tours walking the floor.
- Brain Tech is getting real. Several products made use of EEG sensors, and some were closing the loop with either light, sound or electricity to do (good) things to your brain.
- Haptics are coming. I’ve had an interest in touch-related interfaces since when the word teledildonics was hip. There are a variety of approaches, from ultrasound waves to bionic gloves.
- Electric Vehicles. Scooters, skateboards, bicycles, cars... Incrementally better, and here to stay.
- Self-driving stuff. From Toyota’s e-Palette to autonomous grocery stores.
- Spectacular PR machines. Sophia-the-robot is half-way there, but some others are quite clearly PR things (at least I believe so). The massive ping-pong robot chassis which apparently can’t serve nor spin (contrary to the much more practical Trainerbot) and the Furrion exoskeleton (an improvement of last year’s machine, but still highly questionable beyond PR).
- The usual anecdotal coverage of pointless things. Most media focus on the entertainment value and look for spectacular/ridiculous/strange things. They tend to ignore the underlying trends of what actually has a chance to become a real business and break into the mainstream. One click today is better than two clicks tomorrow!
- Did I forget Google? They had ads all over the place and a giant candy machine giving away stuff. Anyone who was sent to CES to work and waited in line for 1.5 hours to get something should probably be fired. The fact that Google put so much effort in puffing up its Home product shows how nervous they are against Amazon and Alexa. My bets are on Amazon for the home, maybe because I trust Amazon with my data more. Google knows enough about me already.
- Booth babes (or lack thereof). Employing the entertainers of Las Vegas, who work hard at perfecting their appearance as a tool for attention, is now frowned upon. Thinking of which, I don’t quite recall seeing any in Eureka Park… ever.
PS: I wrote the title first, then filled in impressions. Glad I made it to 26! If you have more, please share.
PPS: To see products, for entertainment or else, here are some lists:
Most Absurd Technologies To Come (Futurism)
10 products I would buy today (USA Today)