January 18, 2019

CES 2019: Consumer Electronics Innovations. The Promise of 5G, Winners of Voice and Future of Health (plus Smart Toilets and Creepy Robots)

by Robert Acquaotta

I have run out of superlatives to adequately describe the excitement of CES. While walking towards the Sands Convention Center, it struck me that it is hard to tell where the casino ends and the show begins. The environment is similar - same frenzy of seizure-inducing bright lights and same loudness of the crowd - except instead of a sea of slot machines, it is a sea of products and booths.  The magnitude of this event is hard to describe:  three geographical areas across the strip (Tech East, Tech West and Tech South), 11 official venues, more than 4,500 exhibiting companies and an estimated 188,000 attendees.  Las Vegas hotel rooms sell out. 

It’s BIG.

The challenge here is to absorb all that we can from CES. In four short days, we need to understand the state of consumer electronics industry and how it will impact consumers and their behaviors in the coming year.

It’s been a week since the show, and with time and perspective, here are our picks for the top three consumer electronics industry trends from CES 2019:

 

1. The promise of 5G is here. The products?  Maybe next year.

5G is possibly the next most important consumer electronics innovation that continues the build-out of infrastructure necessary to power our internet-dependent lives.  But considering that we wrote about 5G following last year’s show, it’s disappointing that there was nothing new to report that furthers the vision. Development is not moving at “internet speed” and it still feels like we are in the same place.

In layman’s terms, the three main points to know about 5G have not changed:

  • It's faster, so you will be able to download HD movies in seconds (vs. minutes or hours) and it will allow the continued proliferation of internet-connected devices
  • 5G will be less of a battery drain, especially for IoT devices, enabling even more connectivity
  • It will minimize latency – the speed with which things move back and forth – especially important for applications like autonomous cars where decisions of a vehicle’s movements must happen quickly based on proximity to other vehicles and people

Apparently timed to coincide with opening day of CES, AT&T began updating smartphones to display 5Ge icons (instead of 4G LTE) when users were connected to areas where their 4G LTE network had received speed-boosting updates (AT&T calls it 5G Evolution, hence the “e”).  This was immediately picked up on by the many expert speakers at CES and derided as “fake 5G”.  T-Mobile fed the buzz with a humorous video tweet showing someone pasting a sticky note with a handwritten “9G” to cover the LTE icon on their i-phone.


Expect more marketing noise and confusion for 2019. With “real” 5G available only in limited deployment among select markets from Verizon and AT&T, it is unlikely we will see actual consumer benefits and behaviors impacted by this technology in the coming year. Standards are still being determined around what exactly constitutes 5G.

Takeaway:

The hype around 5G is justified given the tremendous changes we see ahead in the way it will transform everything.  We will just have to suffer through another year of misguided and confusing marketing claims ahead of real availability of the technology and products that will begin to realize its potential.  

 

2. Amazon and Google Have Won Voice.

Two years ago at CES, “works with Alexa” was the prominent product theme, and last year, Google bought their way into prominence by plastering Las Vegas with “Hey Google” ads.  This year, many marketers promoted their voice command integrations with Amazon AND Google.  Notably absent was any reference to Apple HomePod.

This year’s “new” entrant is Samsung Galaxy Home, Samsung’s first smart speaker.  We note “new” because it was actually at last year’s CES, on a pedestal in the Galaxy Note display, with a Bixby tag (“Bixby” is Samsung’s “Alexa”) and little else in the way of info. This year’s splashier introduction included a wall of speakers on display along with a product demonstration and little else in the way of info.  On-sale date?  Maybe later this year.  Price?  Not set.  What is apparent is that this is a speaker with high quality sound that will be great for playing music. It can also function as a hub for Samsung smart devices and appliances, but it will not seriously do battle with Amazon and Google.  Which brings us to our conclusion: the battle for voice is already done and the victors decided.

Amazon and Google have both approached the home speaker market as a means to further their core primary businesses (e-commerce and search, respectively), and they are laser focused in their mission to be your go-to personal assistant.  Each want you to outsource as much of your daily life tasks to them as possible.  And they have been engaged in a land-grab for consumers by sharply discounting and/or giving away speakers.  Indications show both companies are succeeding.  Various sources show Amazon owning anywhere from half to two-thirds of the market and Google quickly gaining 20-25%.  Apple…?  Not even a contender.


Samsung Speaker


I noted in last year’s report that we were all part of a giant beta test to determine how consumers want to use voice commands to replace the ways we are used to doing things. Home speakers have since had a blistering rate of consumer adoption, with an estimated 25% penetration of the U.S in 2018.

Takeaway: 

Forget Cortana, Bixby and Siri, the battle for leadership is between Alexa and Google.  Apple’s opportunity for relevance in home speakers is fading fast.

 

3. Health and Wellness: New devices not only collect data, but help you turn data into action.

Most healthy folks may visit a doctor as little as once a year, getting an annual assessment of their health. The less healthy among us may see doctors more frequently, but those exams are visits that capture only a snapshot in time. The true promise of wearable and other smart devices is not just to track fitness activity (steps or heart rate) but to monitor a range of conditions and aggregate data to identify trends that can be used to maintain and improve your health.

For a glimpse of what’s possible, we highlight three disparate devices as examples that caught our attention:

  • Omron Heartguide and Heartadvisor - A device that can take your blood pressure and track the data for you over time. Yes, the bulky cuff that gets velcroed around your upper arm has been miniaturized to fit inside a watch band device that looks like, well, a watch.  The tracking of data is helpful here. Is your blood pressure elevated at the same time on the same day every week - say, when you have a meeting scheduled with your boss?  The data can help you begin to understand activities or things that contribute to your condition by aggregating the data over time. 

 

Watch
   

  • Lumen - A brilliant example of how technology and data can combine to approach old problems in a new way, in this case to get fit and lose weight. Lumen claims to help you “Hack Your Metabolism”.  Breathe into this device and it will measure whether your body is using fats or carbs for fuel.  The science seems solid:  it measures CO2 concentration in your breath to indicate the type of fuel your body is using to produce energy. This form of metabolic measurement (known as respiratory quotient) has been used to help world-class athletes reach peak fitness for years; Lumen’s innovation reduces the measurement from a 60-minute process with a team of practitioners to a single breath through a kazoo-like device.  The companion app uses this data to provide daily personalized meal plan based on where your metabolism is.  No need to track food intake, just breathe.

Man

  • Pillo and PRIA - As anyone involved in elder caregiving is aware, a whole host of health issues can arise simply from medication being taken incorrectly or not at all. AARP was at CES to show off the results of their work with start-ups to develop products that will help people live as they age. 

    The stand-out star of these products is Pillo, a home care companion and medication manager that dispenses the proper pills at the proper time they should be taken. The device is integrated with a smartphone app which allows a caregiver to monitor their loved one’s medication and healthcare schedule while helping them maintain an independent lifestyle. 



    PRIA by Black+Decker is the same Pillo Health device with different branding. PRIA will take on the heavy lifting for marketing and retail sales.

Takeaway: 

We have already come a long way since the original Fitbit.  It is not much of a stretch to imagine a combination of devices like these (and future ones in development) to be part of the comprehensive solution to solving our seemingly irreconcilable national health care challenge of expanding coverage while reducing treatment costs. 

 

Some other observations of note:

  • 8k? You cannot really cover CES without mentioning TVs.  And the TV buzz continues to be 8k (as it has for the last few years.)  Never mind that the difference in quality between 4k and 8k is not as dramatic to the naked eye as the upgrade to 4k has been.  Forget that most content is still not available in even 4k.  The ongoing rapid decrease in price to a level of affordability for 4k dictates that we are getting 8k. 
  • Rollable screens. Sticking with TVs, LG showed off a TV screen that retracts and rolls up into its base, which includes the soundbar.  Perfect for the design-conscious who do not want to have a large black screen dominating their living space.  You will stand in front of this thing transfixed by the screen, watching it emerge and rise to full height before disappearing back into the base, and your inner child will scream “again!”



  • Foldable screens. Moving to mobile, Samsung was rumored to be debuting a foldable phone, but this did not materialize. What did turn up was a device from Royole, a Chinese brand unfamiliar to us. Their FlexPai foldable smartphone unfolds to form a tablet. The folded form factor is balky; the fact that it unfolds to form a full screen is way cool.



  • Apple made an appearance. Not in the splashy manner that Amazon or Google did in the past two years, but perhaps notable just in the fact that they even acknowledged the existence of CES (Apple famously does not participate). The buzz started with news that Apple purchased a billboard near the convention center.  The sign reminded attendees about its stance on privacy, with a play on Las Vegas’ longtime marketing slogan.  (“What Happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.”)  

    building

    Then came the somewhat surprising announcement that Apple will partner with Samsung to offer an app for iTunes movies and TV shows through its smart televisions.  Samsung TV’s will also support AirPlay2.   (Yes, this is the same Samsung that only recently settled with Apple over a huge and long-running patent dispute.  Maybe this was part of the settlement?)  Next came the announcement that Apple’s AirPlay2 and HomeKit are coming to televisions from LG, Vizio and Sony.  Apple’s newfound attention to CES coincides with iPhone sales hitting a wall in terms of growth in the U.S. and internationally.

  • Blockchain and crypto currency? All the rage this time last year. This year, we did not hear anyone utter either term, not even once.

  • Electric Hog. Harley-Davidson, a brand not normally thought of as leading edge, showed off the LiveWire, the brand’s first battery-electric cycle.  While seemingly not as large as their traditional motorcycles, the LiveWire has an undeniable presence and a reported 0-60 acceleration of 3.5 seconds.

    Bike

  • Virtual Reality. To quote a CNET headline: “At CES 2019, VR feels like a dream gathering dust.”

  • Connected Home. The concept of the connected home felt fully realized across the CES floor this year. Voice commands are now incorporated into a wide array of products in a way that is very natural. Whirlpool lets you turn on your oven or set the oven timer using Alexa. Moen gives you the capability to have Alexa not only turn on your shower, but adjust the water to a precise temperature setting. Hisense includes Alexa compatibility into every new 4K smart TV so that you can control every compatible device from lights to thermostats from the epicenter of your living room.

  • Toilets. While this is really part of the connected home, we felt obliged to consider it separately, because really, a smart toilet? Yes, really. Kohler’s new Numi 2.0 Intelligent Toilet includes personalized cleansing functions, drying functionality and a heated seat. And to create the right environment for this functionality, you can ask Alexa to set the lighting and music to suit your mood. Me? I just like the fact that the toilet cover raises up as you approach, as if to say “Hi!”

    Toilets 

  • Robots. There appeared to be a bumper crop of lovable/creepy robots at the show this year. Samsung unveiled Bot Air and Bot Care, trash-can height robots that help perform air purification and health monitoring respectively. If you are already comfortable with a robot vacuum scooting across your floor, we suppose these household helpers will fit right in and would likely score them as (potentially) lovable. On the flip side, there was likely nothing creepier than these other robots singing “Happy Birthday to you.”



  • Nostalgia. We can’t talk about this year’s CES without mentioning the throwback. With all of the high-tech gaming gear crowding the aisles at CES, what was our favorite thing on display? Pong. A fully analog version of a (digital?) childhood memory. We want it now please.

    Nostalgia

 

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