3 Takeaways from CES 2014

Filed In: Experience and Engineering, News & Culture

Another CES has come and gone. This year’s show saw record breaking attendance with more than 150,000 people taking in the latest and greatest technology and product innovation across industries. If you’ve followed the news, you’ve probably heard a lot about new TVs, connected cars, 3D printing and the “Internet of Everything.” If not, The Verge did a nice job with coverage. I always enjoy starting the year off with an event like CES because interacting with new hardware and software - and watching others - leaves me with a very clear picture of where to focus my time in the months ahead. After letting my experience settle, these three things stood out.

Hardware Is Cheap: Low Barrier to Entry

It’s never been easier to create things. If you have an idea, you can bring it to life faster and cheaper than ever before. A large area of the show was dedicated to (mostly) Asian companies that produce many of the consumer electronics products we buy. It’s clear that we’re really good at manufacturing and producing high quality products in quantity.

3D printing was a big part of the show too, and the printers, both consumer and professional, have taken a dramatic leap in the last few years. 3D printing is used for prototyping, but is also increasingly used to create final products, also. A whole ecosystem of on-demand 3D printing is evolving.

Most tradeshows have areas for emerging products and companies, and often it’s a token nod to the small guys, but isn’t a “real" part of the show. At CES this year, the “Eureka Park” and “Indigogo Zone” were large, energetic, and heavily trafficked areas that had some great products to show. The crowdfunding worlds of Indiegogo and Kickstarter really impacted this, and some unique products are coming from small companies that are destroying convention. Take GoPro, who started small and now owns the action camera space. They went head to head with some of the biggest companies in the world, changed the rules, and outdid them. Oculus Rift is another incredible product that started as a Kickstarter. They saw the opportunity to take advantage of the falling price of components to finally bring virtual reality (VR) to the masses. Engadget gave this years new Oculus Rift their top “Best of the Best” award. The next rounds of these companies are at CES. Canary, FINsix, Airtame and many more startups were attracting the crowds.

The low barrier to entry to create new products has given small companies and startups the ability to bring real products to market quickly. We’re no longer limited to what the traditional giants bring us. The Maker Movement is just beginning and is already starting to have a major impact on the products and services we buy now and in the future.

The Internet of Things: A Work in Progress

“The Internet of Things” is a term used to describe Internet connected devices that allow us to monitor, control and interact with our world mobilly. We’re used to our computers and smartphones being connected, and now we’re seeing cameras, thermostats, light switches and more being connected to the Internet. The falling cost and miniaturization of components required to build smartphones means that we’ve got all of the components needed to easily create small, powerful consumer devices.

As we head down this road, we’re in for a lot of experimentation as companies seek to find out what works and what doesn’t. Just like the early days of the Internet, we’ll see some grand experiments, some amazing things, some crazy thinking, and we’ll emerge on the other side in a place that makes more sense. Gartner predicts that the Internet of Things will encompass 3.5 times more devices than smartphones, tablets, and PCs combined by 2020, so be ready to see a lot more in this area. Some of the big categories in this space are the smartwatches, appliances and home, and automobiles. The falling cost and miniaturization of components required to build smartphones means that we’ve got computers, sensors, displays, and network connectivity in small form factors at low prices.

CES was full of new connected devices.  The idea of a smartwatch has been “a thing” going way back - and now we’re at a point where we’ve miniaturized the electronics enough to make them feasible. The breakthrough product in this space hasn’t been created yet - Pebble is an obvious leader, and they’ve won by being early, and extending the smartphone experience to your wrist in new and novel ways. There were a lot of smartwatches at CES this year, many of them exist because they can, but haven’t been thought  through well, and aren’t useful or very interesting. The majority of these at CES were mini smartphones with small screens, or very limited devices meant to integrate with your existing smartphone. We’re definitely not there yet in this space.

The home application market has already gone through some of this experimentation, and we saw two very different approaches.

LG demoed a line of smart appliances that are heavy on technology and “smart” features. Their refrigerator is designed to track your food, inform you of how much you have left, when it will spoil, and even suggest recipes based on the food that’s contained within. All of this requires the owner to add and subtract the amounts of food items as they are added or consumed, something that is hard to imagine doing in the real world. LG also announced Home Chat, which gives you the ability to communicate with your appliances via LINE, a popular Japanese messaging and communication app. I could see this being useful - being able to turn things on or off remotely, or to get a status message if you’ve left your oven on, for instance, all while using apps that you already use for a bit more of a personal touch.

Samsung took a different approach this year. They released some similar smart features in the past, and they didn’t resonate with consumers so they focused on the core features of the appliances in their Chef Collection. Rather than just adding technology because they can, they stepped back to look at what makes a great appliance, and surveyed expert chefs for the important details. This is a great approach, one we always encourage with clients, and we’ll see more of this in the future as things mature.

In the broader “Connected Home” space, there are a number of really great products already in market: the Nest Learning Thermostat, Dropcam video monitoring, and Belkin’s WEMO line of home automation and monitoring devices. The success of these products has put more of a focus on this space, and we’ll continue to see more growth and expansion here. One problem area that’s increasingly becoming a focus is the security and ongoing support of all of these new devices - you’ll see this become a big discussion as the market grows. Another issue is that each of these devices are part of a different ecosystem and requires it’s own setup and apps. Companies like Rovolv and ZigBee see this, and are trying to consolidate for you to be the one center of your connected home.

Automobiles are also an area of experimentation - as autos become more technologically advanced, we’re seeing cars that can drive themselves (amazing), and we’re seeing the emergence of some important safety features. On the information and entertainment side of autos, we’re seeing many companies continue to replicate the functionality already on your smartphone: maps, directions, restaurant recommendations, and even news. Some of this make sense to me, and some of this my phone does very, very well. Mercedes put a strong focus into the user experience of their smart features and it demoed well. Audi showed of their “Virtual Cockpit” experience, and while the configurable nature and location of the display and map are great and help you stay focused on the road, much of the UI and input still needs work to be a simple and compelling experience. The Android and iOS smartphone experiences we’re used to have benefited from years of work and refinement. New experiences in new contexts will need a similar level of refinement before they are truly a transparent part of the experience.

The Internet of Things will have a huge impact on our life and our day to day activities. Over the next few years we’ll get to watch this unfold and participate in it, truly an exciting thing to be a part of. The brands and companies that win will be the ones who embrace it and solve real problems for all of us.

It’s All About the Experience

Over last few years, we’ve watched companies that produce televisions push 3D as the next big thing. This didn’t resonate with consumers, and their focus has moved away from 3D. This year brings two new hardware advances to television: 4K and curved displays. 4K, or “Ultra HD” TV is a new format that has twice the resolution of normal HDTV - they look great, and will certainly become the next standard. It’s a feature that will naturally take hold, but it’s unlikely consumers will replace existing TVs for this feature. The other new push was curved TVs, which have a slight bend to them. Better? Certainly different. Samsung even introduced a TV that is dynamic and can move from flat to curved - a nice flashy CES demo, but not much beyond that for the ordinary person.

If you look at some of the consumer electronics products and companies that have made headlines and been successful over the last few years, they have one thing in common: they solve a problem in a new, novel way, or enable you to do something better than ever before.

LG’s pitch this year was “Let’s make TV simple again”, and they showed off a whole new interface that’s helps you easily setup your TV and quickly use it once it’s setup. They looked at consumer behavior and found out that most people don’t fully setup their new smart TVs. To counter this, they created a novel and fun experience to help you through that, so you can experience everything the TV has to offer.

A lot of the innovation in this space is coming from smaller companies that employ user-centered design to create products that people really want. The incredible comeback of Apple is a testament to this type of thinking and approach. GoPro went after the action camera market with less features, but it enabled you to shoot video in incredible new ways. The Nest went head on into the thermostat market and created the first internet-enabled thermostat that you actually want to use.

Speaking of Nest, one day after CES Google purchased them for $3.2 billion in cash. With this purchase they’ve acquired strong design talent and the proven ability to create great consumer products. This shows how important the experience is, and just how much opportunity exists in the future of our connected world.

As always, it is fun to be part of this and to watch it all unfold.


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