The annual Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, is all about bigger, better and faster. But away from the 80-inch TVs and intelligent fridges, consumer technology is changing business too, as Paul Caris, chief information officer at law firm Eversheds, discovered.
The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is as famous for demonstrating cutting edge technology, as it is notorious for its hiked-up hotel prices and interminable taxi queues.
And no wonder. It is a massive show; I was overwhelmed by its sheer scale. The raw statistics, impressive as they are, fail to do it justice.
CES takes up 1.9 million square feet of exhibition space – including all of the Las Vegas Convention Centre as well as two other venues. There are 150,000 visitors, all from the trade, and 2,500 exhibitors. It is incredibly difficult to navigate and to see everything, more like a theme park than a trade show. Really, it would need two or three people, for two or three days, to see it all. And there is a real buzz, taking in everything from amazing innovation to the very weird indeed.
But why would a chief information officer, working in London for an international law firm, make the journey to this geeks’ playground? Over the last two years consumer tech has had such an impact on my business that I wanted to see more. I wanted to have little bit of an edge on any consumer technology that our lawyers might bring to the office, or technology I could deploy in the firm. Putting consumer technology into our business, over the last couple of years, has been successful. But it wasn’t a plan. For 2012 I wanted more of an opportunity to predict the technology trends.
And it is interesting to see how some consumer tech businesses are beginning to target the business-to-business market, looking for growth. Samsung, for example, predicts a 40 per increase during 2012 for their business-to-business sales. And innovative firms like mine see the potential for adopting consumer technology, to improve the overall user and client experience, all whilst delivering better value.
At CES, all the big boys were there, but I loved the fact that there are hundreds of small inventor-style businesses either showcasing new ideas or adapting existing technology in new ways. There was a large Chinese presence, and though some of the stands may have lacked originality, they certainly showed plenty of ambition.
But CES is not about this year’s technology, but technology that will be on the shelves in 2013, and beyond. From what I saw in Las Vegas, 3D was not as big a draw as was last year. I don’t see this having much of an application in business, at least until glasses are no longer required. Among the vendors, only LG really majored on 3D whilst Samsung and Sony and the others pulled back this time.
Touch screen technology was everywhere, and on everything. And there is evidence that gesture technology is emerging too, in devices such as Samsung’s new universal remote control and Microsoft’s Kinect. This is not as far from the business world as it might seem. Eversheds has recently been experimenting with Kinect. Although it has emerged from gaming, we have been adapting it for gesture-based document navigation. That might be one of our more “way-out” experiments, but it looks like the consumer technology companies see this as an opportunity too.
Another key trend is for technology to look for new homes, such as in cars, furniture, and televisions.
The connected car will be big. In the past manufactures aligned their in-car technology development with their new car model life-cycle. Often, the result is that in-car technology looks very primitive, by the time it hits the street. And the unreliability of much consumer technology has made the manufactures nervous. Who wants to reboot their car at 70 mph?
Soon, though, consumers will demand the connected car, giving the manufactures upgrade opportunities and quicker times to market with new models. Expect cloud-based data synchronisation with your car, taking your music, contacts, and schedule everywhere you go. You car will remind you of an appointment and offer you directions. It could even suggest where to stop for a break, whilst avoiding traffic and speed traps.
And vendors also seem to be packing as much as possible into TVs. Their goal: to make the smart TV smarter. Early smart TVs have a few additional apps, such as the BBC’s iPlayer, and maybe, if you’re lucky, YouTube. But the next generation of smart TVs offer full web browsing, touch screens and even, gesture and voice recognition. Expect fewer set top boxes – the intelligence in the TV – or systems like Samsung’s plug-in electronics module that can be upgraded every year, leaving the main investment, the screen, untouched.
In other areas, though, CES showed less innovation. There seemed to be little new to see in notebooks, for example. Nothing radical has happened in this space for at least five years now, and it was disappointing just to see them become thinner and lighter.
There was a plethora of ultra-thin ultra- portable models on show at CES, in a desperate attempt by the vendors to keep their market share away from the tablets. There was certainly nothing to concern Apple, or to rival the iPad.
Last year, of course, several tech companies had their fingers burnt by rushing out poor competitors to Apple’s tablet, and this year I still did not see anything that will threaten Apple’s dominance. Samsung and Sony both had new products on show. To my mind they had little in the way of obvious appeal to the iPad demographic, although Samsung’s ‘Note’ tablet might grab the attention of the stylus junkies.
Where the consumer electronics companies will do well is where they play to their strengths, rather than when they try to play catch up with Cupertino and Sir Jonny Ive.
The killer product for me from Samsung, to take just one exhibitor, is its displays. The newest OLED models are unfeasibly thin and the company is packing them full of clever features. It will not be long before a smart TV has the same functionality as an Android tablet. At CES, Samsung and Microsoft announced a partnership to ship the impressive SUR40 model, running Microsoft’s Surface operating system. It is much thinner and faster than previous models and will be popping up all over the place — including the client floors’ at Eversheds.
The smart TV will have a real impact on business. Soon we could replace our video conferencing systems with super-thin, super bright TVs with all the technology built in. And you can download new apps straight to them, just as you do on a phone.
Combine that with touch or gesture-based interfaces and it is easy to see how a humble domestic appliance can morph into a business tool. As a firm, we already use video conferencing and and touch screens, so I am looking forward to TVs that are as smart and fast as a tablet.
Another stand-out product was Depth Sense by Soft Kinetic. Resembling Microsoft’s Kinect device, it plugs into a PC allowing gesture controls. What differentiates it from Kinect, apart from the native PC compatibility, is that it can operate whilst the user is just a few centimetres away allowing it be used whilst sitting at a desk.
The connected fridge from LG, which picked up quite a bit of press coverage, was well-designed but not that radical: these ideas have been around for some time and it relies on RFID (radio frequency identification) chips in groceries to work. That is still some way off.
The robotics, also a big crowd puller at CES, were also slightly disappointing. There were no new humanoid androids, paranoid or otherwise, that I saw. But I did notice a bizarre electronic fluffy seal from a Chinese firm, which is designed to go into old folks’ homes to help people with Alzheimer’s or dementia. It responds to petting and so stimulates the brain; it is thought to regenerate brain activity in people with Alzheimer’s.
This type of technology is set to become more important, as health services look to save on labour costs. But it will be some time before these health products are launched, not least because of the recession and the very same healthcare budget constraints they could help with. There were, though, a lot of very consumer-based health products, for example for Nintendo’s WII, or ones that promote personal health regimes. But I still think we will soon see an explosion of health products, connected firstly to phones or other smart devices, and later to health networks and to your doctor or surgery. But that means they need very reliable connections; perhaps another reason they’ve not yet launched.
And tying a myriad of technologies together was another key theme of CES. The smartphone and tablet vendors tend not to use the show to unveil their latest wares, saving that for the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. But it was interesting to see what the chip designers are doing around connectivity.
British company CSR, for example, has a Bluetooth-equipped chip that can deliver indoor navigation. It may not be in products for 2012 but it may well be for 2013. It is a device that combines GPS, outside, with an incredibly clever pedometer. When you enter a building it guesses number of steps you have taken, and cross-checks that with WiFi and GPRS and any other radio signals it can pick up. It uses that to work out where you are in building; businesses as well as consumers will want to use that, perhaps at concerts and exhibitions.
This kind of technology does, of course, raise security and privacy concerns: do we want to be monitored, wherever we go? But connectivity moves more quickly than security. Judging by CES, the consumer electronics industry is beginning to recognise that they have to consider security more carefully, especially if they want to sell their wares to businesses. But businesses will still have to look under the bonnet to see if those gadgets really are as secure as their makers claim.