Each year almost 200,000 journalists, investors and fans flood into Vegas, but not for slot machines or wacky bachelor parties; they’re there to see the latest in consumer technology at the International Consumer Electronics Show.
More than 4000 companies are spread across 2.5 million net square feet of exhibition space, across 11 official venues. It’s massive, and if the salesmen are to be believed, every product there is going to change your life. Sure, a lot of it is so specialised and esoteric it probably won’t.
Other gadgets are just plain ridiculous, like the Qoobo, which attempts to mimic a headless, limbless cat.
But if you look closely, there are patterns of change and trends that are worth taking note of.
Maybe the biggest trend of 2017 was blockchains, so it’s no surprise to see it emerging at CES either. An entire day of talks was even set aside for the subject.
For those needing a catch-up, blockchain is the technology behind creating cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and has massive potential for creating smart contracts and decentralised spreadsheets that can’t be tampered with. Miners are the people facilitating the encrypted transactions. With this technology, fraud becomes all but impossible. It’s not just theory either; Estonia already uses the technology to handle its national ID cards.
It’s an exciting space for people who understand it, but plenty of brands over the past few months have discovered that just adding ‘blockchain’ to the end of their name is enough to see their stocks skyrocket in value, even if they aren’t in the tech space. One notable example is The Long Island Ice Tea Corporation changing its name to Long Blockchain Corp., and immediately seeing its stocks shooting up in value by 200 percent. Bizarrely enough, another fruit juice company, SkyPeople Fruit Juice innocently changed their name to Future FinTech, with the aim of looking into e-commerce and commodity trading. Investors on Twitter heard an unfounded rumour that Future FinTech MIGHT be interested in blockchains and that’s all it took for their stocks to spike. Two takeaways from this story: be wary of any companies taking advantage of blockchain hype, and don’t take investment advice from Twitter.
It’s as if nobody has learnt from the early 1990s, when companies were adding .com to their names to get a quick boost from the market.
At CES, the most notable attempt at cashing in on the trend was by Kodak, of all companies, with its KashMiner. KashMiner looks like a bulky power supply with its fan on one side and the Kodak logo on the other. The technology was put together by its licensee Spotlite.
The mining rigs are able to be rented for 24 months with an upfront investment of US$4000. Kodak expects profits could be about US$500 a month. The advantage of renting one rather than taking one home is Kodak’s on-site generators from its heyday, which still have spare capacity. Kodak reckons it can power each rig for four cents per kilowatt hour.
This almost-guaranteed investment has seen the 80 miners available instantly being rented, and Kodak is now scrambling to bring in 300 more.
Not only is Kodak making miners, it’s giving people something to mine while it’s at it. Dubbed a ‘photo-centric’ cryptocurrency, KodakCoin will also involve a blockchain-backed image rights management platform called KodakOne.
This is being done in partnership with Wenn Digital, whose chief marketing officer, Bruce Elliott, was at CES explaining what it was all about.
“We can get a photo, lock it into our blockchain, then we can sort of assign the IP [intellectual property] to the individual, then we can look through the entire internet and find where that photo is being used, and if it’s not being used correctly, then we can reach out to them with an automated system that says: ‘hey, you might not have known that you’re using this photo without a licence, why don’t you get a licence fotthat?’, and then that money comes back and gets paid back to the photographers, and that whole transaction happens with that KodakCoin cryptocurrency,” Elliott told media at CES.
Following the announcement, Kodaks shares jumped 133 percent, of course.
While it seems like an amazing idea at first, Kodak hasn’t mentioned how this system is any better at stopping image theft than standard copyright law or signing up with Getty Images or Shutterstock.
Other Showcases of Blockchain at CES:
Guardian Circle uses blockchain to send an instant alert to family, medical professionals or security in the event of an emergency. At the same time, it shares your location with the alerted people, who are able to coordinate together to deal with the situation.
Impact PPA is a power company with 35 generators around the world. Blockchain is allowing consumers to pay to have power delivered quickly without waiting for bank processing and power companies to get their business in order.
A massive amount of power goes into processing all the videos we watch every day, but a venture by Minor called VideoCoin wants to decentralise that processing power to all our idling computers. Opting in your computer’s processing power and storage rewards you with VideoCoins.
Your Personal Assistant
Moving on from blockchains, one of the most popular gadgets on display is the Vuzix Blade, a pair of smart glasses that fulfills all the promises Google Glass made five years ago. Unlike Google Glass, which couldn’t do much without a phone nearby, Vuzix is a standalone wearable with its own CPU, 4GB of storage and running a customised version of Android. It’s also done its best to not scare away consumers with dorky clumsy bits sticking out everywhere. They have achieved this by placing a projector inside the frame that throws images into the lens. From a distance, you can’t even tell they’re smart glasses until you get close enough to see a glowing tint around the edges.
As well as touch support and phone integration, Vuzix comes with Amazon’s Alexa Virtual assistant built in. So just talking to your glasses can make complex tasks a breeze.
While glasses are all well and good, it’s Alexa that proves to be the more interesting link in seeing where tech is going. As technology becomes more and more hands-free, AI like Alexa will become essential. From there it isn’t hard to see that the ease of usability and intelligence of a virtual assistant will make or break the products that rely on them.
Amazon is determined to get Alexa permeating the Internet of Things, and is making no secret of this. It hosted nine presentations and workshops over the course of CES about the assistant, one of which was called Amazon’s Quest for Alexa to Be Everywhere.
It’s not just Amazon’s Alexa either, Google Assistant is being shoehorned into almost everything.There are a few others on the scene, but it’s already looking like a two-horse race between Amazon and Google.
Apple’s Siri is struggling to compete with its HomePod, a lacklustre effort at keeping up with the Amazon Echo. But that’s more than we can say for Microsoft’s Cortana, which is nowhere in sight. Samsung’s Bixby is hanging out in its brand’s walled gardens, but at the end of the day, specialising in a single product won’t be what wins the largest market share or create the environment for a flexible AI.
Google Home and Amazon already have 27 million devices in the US, and this brave new world of being able to talk to your toaster has led to a gold rush of start-ups looking at ways to cash in.
“Because Alexa has gotten such traction, [brands] are saying: ‘how do I bring voice to my experiences? How do I bring conversational interfaces to existing products?’,” David Hewitt, vice-president and global mobility lead at SapientRazorfish, told Adweek. “We’re seeing the enterprise-class investments starting to be made that allow brands and companies to think about configuring and scaling a lot more services.”
This sort of mentality will lead to a lot of duds over the next couple years. Adding Alexa to a product won’t be the secret sauce to success every time, just like making an app for your bike shop isn’t going to magically send your profits through the roof.
Start-ups trying to winch digital assistants into everything are similar to the companies following the app boom; the devices that will persevere through this period will be the ones that add actual value to our lives.
Google is rolling out Google Assistant the same way it did Android (which consequently comes with Assistant), which is currently in 81.7 percent of new smartphones sold. The war for phone operating systems is effectively over, for now at least, as new upstart Chinese brands like Oppo and Xiaomi default to Android. This gives Google a home field advantage, as the first touchstone with a connected home is usually through your phone.
With the battle lines drawn, the home assistant Alexa and Amazon Echo are squarely in Google’s sights. It’s releasing a raft of smart displays to rival Amazon’s, but instead of doing it in-house, they’re leaving the heavy lifting to Altec Lansing, JBL and LG. So far, Amazon has been keeping its smart displays to itself, while only letting third parties make smart speakers. Amazon is trying to monopolise itself, but can it afford to when Google swamps the market with comparable products?
As Google is doing this, it’s also slowly removing its support for the Alexa-powered Echo Show. Recently, in a not so subtle power play, they started blocking YouTube, the biggest video site in the world, from being used by the Amazon-powered device.
It’s seriously a race, with Alexa finding its way into everything from headphones to laptops to shower heads. Microsoft’s Cortana looks like it’s capitulating, as Alexa is getting integrated into PCs made by Acer, Asus and HP.
Google is keeping pace as it merges with car entertainment systems as well as Sony and LG. Although, LG has put itself in an interesting position as Switzerland in this battle. Alongside a number of other pieces of tech, such as Jabra earbuds and C by GE line of smart lights and switches, the choice of which assistant you interact with will be up to you, as the products let you decide between Alexa, Siri and Assistant.
Experts seem to agree that Amazon has had a good head start at getting into people’s homes and proving itself useful, but this growth may not be as sustainable if Amazon can’t get more language support fast. This is an ace that Google has up its sleeve – complete global reach and constant improvement through people’s interactions with Android.
Interestingly, being able to talk to our tech may answer future questions surrounding compatibility with our smart homes. It may be for the best that a single company doesn’t have complete control over our homes. A monopoly that strong may be convenient for you, and Five Eyes on a day-to-day basis, but would ultimately be detrimental to consumers.
Unless you can get everyone to agree on an API that all tech can tap into, perhaps the answer for full compatibility lies in allowing our tech to literally talk to each other. It makes sense, as it’ll be the one thing they can all understand and act upon.
To leave this story on a dark note (pun only semi-intended) one of the most notable events that occured during CES 2018 wasn’t anything any of the 1200 speakers said, but rather a two-hour power cut that plunged the expo into darkness.
There’s a sort of delicious irony about a tech show not having electricity. As the attendees filed out, using their phones to light the way, you can’t help wondering what happens when those batteries run out? How much of the tech we were shown is nothing more than a paperweight without its daily power up? How much of it is totally unnecessary for daily life and how many man hours have gone into clunky solutions to problems that didn’t exist, like offloading the task of changing the shower temperature to Alexa.
Criticism has been leveled at the event over the past couple years, that Silicon Valley has completely lost touch with what normal people need. I’m not sure any of the problems the world faces today can be fixed with voice-activated trash cans, but I’m willing to be proven wrong.