There‘s a fascination most people have with technology and gadgets that‘s both optimistic and concerned about what‘s next. Are we heading towards robots that will take away our freedoms, AI systems that will know what we‘re thinking before we do, or smarter homes and self-driving cars that make our world a better place?
There‘s no better place to see this full range of future tech than the International Consumer Electronics Show, and every year I trek to Las Vegas and spend a week with 180,000 fellow tech enthusiasts exploring over 4,000 companies spread across a staggering 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space. And the exhibits! Some companies have taken over parking lots (BMW) or erected massive circus tents (Google), while others have exhibit spaces the size of football fields (Sony, Samsung). Other companies are just starting their tech journey and their modest exhibit spaces aren‘t much bigger than a fold-up table and laptop for demos.
An Everest 4 humanoid series educational robot by Abilix “dances” during CES 2018 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 11, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. ()
All told, however, CES offers a vision of our technological future that‘s powered by optimism and naivety: Products and product categories that are really cool, gear I want to take home with me immediately, and tech that‘s clearly dumb and makes no sense when compared to everything else on the market.
Everything‘s listening now
It‘s surprising just how pervasive voice activated systems have become in just a single year at this CES. Amazon‘s done a masterful job of licensing its popular Alexa voice system and at just about any spot on the trade show floor if you yelled “Alexa, what time is it?” you‘d get a prompt, albeit mechanical answer. This includes tons of speakers, ranging from some great new budget gear from iHome and similar to high end audio gear from companies like Harman and Klipsch.
Oddly, though, it doesn‘t stop there. You can get headphones with Alexa built in, and I‘m still trying to wrap my head around that one, frankly. I wear headphones so other people aren‘t bothered by my music; why would I want to talk to my headphones and then bother everyone around me with “Alexa, play next track” or “Alexa, call Steve”?
And cars. Car companies are racing like mad to integrate Alexa into their vehicles. For example, Toyota joined Ford, Volkswagen and Hyundai in adding the increasingly ubiquitous voice system. In this case, it makes sense because it‘s a lot safer to say “Alexa, play Kate Bush” than fiddle with your smartphone or sateliite radio while driving.
But then again, who‘s driving their car? Autonomous vehicles continue to be a huge trend in the tech world and this year even has self-driving cars from Lyft zipping up and down The Strip as this segment matures. And be prepared a la the horror film Duel too: there are a lot of companies showing 18-wheeler truck autonomous tech too. Won‘t be long before that drive up through Wyoming will involve you having a nap, not wondering where you‘ll next see civilization and a gas station.
What‘s interesting about CES, however, is that the technologies that power autonomous vehicles are on display too, so it‘s a crash education in LiDAR systems, for example. What‘s LiDAR? The radar-like device that allows the vehicle to know what‘s happening around it even as it‘s traveling at zippy speeds. Not to be outdone, companies as diverse as Nvidea and Pioneer are showing off their concept cars alongside big players like Mercedes, Ford, Toyota and Nissan.
Hydrogen is less prominent and there turn out to be a lot of companies that recognize the promise of electric vehicles won‘t be possible until the entire infrastructure is built out, so they‘re offering fast charging, electric power pumps, and other ways that we can move into a cleaner transportation future.
Attendees walk under an augmented reality sign during CES 2018 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 11, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. ()
Virtual reality is everywhere
But then again, perhaps you won‘t need to drive anywhere as the goggles and headphones of virtual reality become more and more immersive. There are a startling number of companies now selling virtual reality rigs, ranging from a health product company showing a prototype of a massage chair that includes a full audio and visual meditation (Note: it‘s quite pleasant!) to dozens of companies showing ready player one-style immersive gaming, complete with haptic feedback gloves, body suits and walking platforms.
Much more interesting to me is the rise of the far more practical “AR” or augmented reality. If your kids caught on to the Pokemon Go craze a year or two ago, you‘ve already been exposed. I attended a party where there were plenty of fellow journalists and analysts I wanted to meet and it would have been truly fantastic to wear a pair of glasses and have their names and industry affiliations floating above their heads in neat little graphical boxes. That‘s AR and it‘s going to be far more impactful in the long run than VR.
One area where AR is starting to show up is with vehicle windshields. We already have simple little heads up displays in the latest generation of vehicles (including my own 2017 Mazda) but next gen heads up displays will explicitly superimpose directions and geographic information over what you‘re seeing out the windshield. Sounds weird, but it‘s really splendid stuff.
And oh are we going to be healthier
With the rise of low cost and increasingly accurate sensors, health is becoming a great marketplace at CES too. Tech ranges from toothbrushes to scales to pillows to even toilets that track, measure and analyze so you can gain more insight into your health and well being. You can even ask your fridge to analyze what foods you have on hand and suggest recipes. Oh, and then pre-heat the oven so it‘s ready to cook your next gastronomic masterpiece.
Then there are products like the HiMirror Mini which includes Alexa (I mean, doesn‘t everything at this point?) and has a built-in camera that can analyze your skin, track your personal skincare goals and record the results of the products you use. Other smart mirrors let you “try on” different clothes and track the efficacy of your anti-wrinkle regime.
Sensors are also no longer limited to clunky watches and bracelets that many people stop wearing after a while; you can be tracked by smart shoes, smart clothes, smart jewelry and there are even tiny UV sensors you can apply to your fingernail to keep track of sun exposure. Whether we‘ll be healthier in 50 years is debatable, but we‘ll sure know a lot more about what‘s going on.
There are robots galore, a huge new exhibit area for the “smart city” and taxi queues that snake around buildings, and a constant buzz of dozens of languages being spoken and vloggers, live streamers, and media outlets from around the globe recording every inch of this massive trade show. It‘s mayhem and madness, and rather a whole lot of fun too.