A Few Big Themes from CES

CES is one of those shows where we analysts have to filter through the noise to find what we believe to be sustainable and realistic industry trends. CES is not the kind of show that you can look broadly at everything happening and come away with where the tech industry is heading. A great deal of vaporware and stunningly invalubale technology shows up at CES. Wisdom comes in separating the wheat from the chaff. Here are a few things I believe will continue to gain momentum.

Bigger, Brighter, Thinner TVs
Buzzwords coming from the show – HDR, 4k, 8k, Quantum Dots, 240hz, and more – are nice features to have but not the things that will sway consumers’ TV purchasing decisions. As great a visual experience 4k and eventually 8k are, they are no where near the drastic improvement HD was to standard defintion experience. The one thing I believe will continue to entice the market is bigger screens. For the past few years, we have slowly seen average screen sizes of TVs sold increas. This has everything to do with higher resolution formats, since those higher resolution and greater pixel counts mean you can sit much closer to a large display and not see distortion or pixelation of the image as it is compressed. Most consumers don’t have a living room large enough to sit 10-12 feet away and this is where bigger screens at closer distances comes into play. Consumers will likely buy the largest TV they can find and afford. The upgrade in resolution means they can sit as close or as far as their space allows and still get a great experience.

The interesting innovation, from a hardware standpoint, is the move to make super thin displays. This again is because space is an issue in most people’s homes and the elegance of a super thin display that looks like it is embedded in your wall has a much better visual appeal than a enourmous ugly TV. The elegance of the design is starting to play a larger factor in the design of these TVs but that poses serious engineering challenges. I expect this element to continue to be an engineering objective. Along these lines, Panasonic and Samsung have been showing off some interesing displays that are just planes of glass but, when activated, have full resolution displays. In the future, I can see there just being a plain sheet of glass on our walls that is transparent while off but becomes our high resolution display/TV when on.

Finally the year of the smart home?
I understand as well as anyone how far the smart home still has to go. This entire market has been primarily early adopters and do it yourselfers. The smart home is in no way, shape, or form mainstream yet. Few people can wire an outlet, rework their sprinkler controller, replace circuits at the electrical panel, or connect and set up a starter smart home kit which requires a small hub in the shape of a set top box. The smart home has been a mess. But I have a sense we have finally cracked how to get it into the mainstream, thanks to things like the Amazon Echo. As I articulated yesterday, Amazon is making a move with Alexa as the smart assistant for the home. While nearly everything they are doing with it today revolves around the home (with TV, and smart phones to follow), there may very well be something to be said about the strategic nature of the home and why it is important that tech companies battle for the platform. Winning the home could lead to paths of winning elsewhere in computing. But there is no question voice will play a key and primary role as an interface with our smart homes in the future.

This why I think voice hubs like the Echo and Google Home are central to moving the smart home into the mainstream. I, for one, finally found a set up that is both easy to use and consistent, as well as one my non-techie wife actually enjoys and uses. I’ve been in the process of connecting many parts of my house and objects we turn on and off regularly with Belkin WeMo remotes. I choose these because they do not require a hub as so many other solutions do. By hub, I mean a small square set top box the whole system runs through. With these WeMo plugs and switches you just plug them in, connect to them via the WeMo app and you are done. No hubs necessary and I can use the app to turn on and off many parts of my house even remotely. Where this really shined this holiday was with our Christmas tree and outdoor Christmas lights. These WeMo plugs also seamless work with the Echo as it autodetects what I named them and are instantly supported by Alexa. “Alexa turn on the Christmas tree” was a daily, frictionless activity that also demoed extremely well with friends and family when they visited. I’m pretty sure I sold them all on the Echo. It seems like a little thing but, after you start controlling and automating with your voice, you can truly appreciate how fundamental this will be to how we interact with devices in the future.

Voice Everywhere
As much as I see pundits and commenters lashing out at voice interfaces, my gut tells me we can’t ignore what we are observing around the voice UI. Again, as I stated yesterday, voice is not going to be the primary UI for many things for a long time, if ever. It will have to be with devices that don’t have a screen. No one thinks we are going to talk to computers for eight hours a day in the future like we interact with touch and keyboard systems today. A visual element is necessary, whether that is a fixed screen, mobile screen, or some screen embedded into glasses or contacts. In the future, the visual medium matters. But this is the key point I want to make: there will be times voice IS the primary interface and the only one I have available to me, and I’ll need to be able to extract as much value from that computer at that time, using just my voice and my ears.

The exercise companies who care about interaction mediums with computing devices need to develop these UI paradigms under the assumption I can extract full value from the device, whether its by my voice alone or touch alone. The consumer needs to be the one in charge of what is primary and what is the best interaction at the time. If either one is limited in scope, it will lead to frustration. This is why I endorse the screenless voice UI exercise. Those who do it well will learn important lessons for the future.

Cars are Interesting Again
We have Tesla to thank for the automotive industry finally starting to take technology seriously. While the main challenge these companies have is their roadmaps are 4-5 years long (they decide on tech today to be in their cars in 4-5 years). More often than not, the decisions they make today will be obsolete in five years. But this is where better, more powerful on-board computer systems can help these cars to be updated via software and stay relevant in 4-5 years. In essence, cars are finally becoming more like computers where, even after they are a few years old, the software can be updated to keep features as current as my hardware allows. This was always one of the most interesting things about Teslas to me and now we are seeing other car companies embrace it.

This, will unfortunately, move rather slowly. It takes time for an entire industry to embrace these things and then get them in any kind of critical mass onto the roads. However, CES, and even main autoshows around the world, are making it clear manufacturers are moving in this direction. Component and computing providers like Nvidia, Qualcomm, NXP, Intel, etc., are all racing to win designs in automotive as the battle for the car’s brain and operating system is on. I’d keep a keen eye on Nvidia in this space.

Overall, 2017 is still going to be a year where we watch these trends develop and gain steam. We are not going to see any major or profound shifts happen. We are watching the building blocks of things like machine learning and AI, transformation of the home, the city, and the work place as more technology invades and semiconductors contine to eat the world. Which, at the most fundamental level, is the most important observation to make.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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