CES 2018 & The Adolescence of Consumer IoT

Image taken on site at CES 2018

Over its 51 years of existence, never mind the reinvention of the consumer electronics market itself, Vegas’ annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) continues to be a coming out party for intriguing interfaces and frivolous gizmos. Although many found this year’s event relatively underwhelming, CES offers an important glimpse into the broader consumer tech market trajectory.

From the floors, discussions, announcements, and analysis of CES 2018, we found the show actually suggests the broader consumer IoT space is entering a new phase: adolescence. Consumer IoT is no longer nascent; it is growing a mind of its own, aggressively experimental, and while far from mature, showing indications of maturity.

Consumer IoT is Gaining a Mind of its Own

Consumer IoT is getting smarter, but real device ‘intelligence’ remains years out. Once,  ‘smart’ meant internet-connected with a mobile app. That definition has evolved rapidly in recent years: ‘intelligent’ products don’t just “have AI,” they are interoperable, contextually aware, proactively improving, and constantly evolving. Despite the intense activity and buzz around artificial intelligence, this year’s CES did not offer examples of truly intelligent devices. While there was no shortage of products and platforms marketing themselves “AI-driven”, we found many applications are either piggy-backing on technology giants for their APIs, or just piggy-backing on the hype.

Consumer IoT may not be autonomously self-actualized, but it’s gaining a mind of its own, albeit slowly. We saw three trends underlying these indications of intelligence:

  • Talking back. Voice interfaces, specifically Amazon and Google voice integrations, were ubiquitous across wearables, smart home, auto, and beyond at CES
  • Jack of all trades, master of none. “AI” at CES was much more about feature automation than larger unstructured data analysis for decision-making
  • With a little help from friends. The majority of “AI-driven” products were in fact using third party APIs or other off-the-shelf data interfaces

Consumer IoT Gets More Experimental

Experimentation using AI techniques is rampant, but it remains to be seen what’s just a phase. Although “AI-driven” devices are still in the early days, the fundamental technological enablers of bigger data, better algorithms, and faster compute are breathing new life into consumer tech. CES offered plenty of impressive examples of machine learning, deep learning, computer vision, natural language processing, and robotics, all narrow applications. Below we round up a few of CES 2018’s “AI-driven” consumer IoT. Ingenious or inane?

Image source: Sony

Sony’s Aibo, the adorable $1,800 robotic dog, was the talk of the town, using facial recognition and object detection to distinguish its users from toys.

GE’s (now Haier’s) washing machine demonstrated it can read wireless tags sewn into garments’ care labels in order to select the right laundry cycle.

Nuheara earbuds allow users, with and without impaired hearing, to adjust ambient noise, music, amplify speech, and analyze individual hearing profiles. Voice commands and mobile data introduce a new interface alternative to mobile.  

Image source: Digital Trends

L’Oreal’s fingernail wearable(!) incorporates biometrics and UV sensors to alert users when they’ve had too much exposure from the sun, and suggest other less intense times to be outside.  

Nissan teases a “brain-machine-interface” [concept] using a headset of electrodes and electroencephalography (EEG) tech to recognize when a driver is about to brake, swerve, or make an otherwise evasive move and preempt the action .2-.5 seconds faster for semi-autonomous driving.

Image source: CNET

Vivo’s in-display fingerprint sensor doesn’t just use AI to analyze 300 characteristics of your fingerprint, it represents a big step for biometric software in smartphones and beyond. What has hitherto required handset hardware can now be built into the display.

The Foldimate live demonstration, in which clothing must be manually placed in on top, and picked up (already folded) on the bottom. Image taken on-site at CES 2018

The Foldimate was one of TWO robotic laundry folding machines showcased at CES, alongside the Laundroid which uses computer vision and deep learning to analyze the garment against 256,000 images of different clothing items to determine the best way to handle and then fold the clothing.

Like a teen trying on new styles, AI opens up novel and exciting worlds for brittle devices. As technology learns to see, to speak, to perceive, to learn, and automate accordingly, we will look back on this as a formative phase.

Consumer IoT is Under the Influence

The world’s largest tech companies are heavily influencing the consumer IoT market. Even if Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and especially Apple have been relatively late entrants to the smart home market, the reality is they are redefining consumer expectations and user experience more than ‘traditional’ providers (smart home and beyond). Instead of focusing on hardware, these companies are differentiating through software, services, and content in the cloud.

  • We have to talk. Voice interfaces like Alexa, OK Google, and Cortana have quickly become ‘table stakes’ integrations (CES showed us voice in everything from mirrors to microwaves, from glasses to pianos, and of course cars
  • Getting better all the time. New features via over-the-air (OTA) updates; users are becoming accustomed to products improving after purchase
  • Can’t we all just get along? App/skill ecosystems, in which brands and third party developers can build or integrate on top of core software and hardware

 

CES of 2018 will be remembered as what one journalist called “Google’s media blitzkrieg, papering the whole of Las Vegas with Assistant ads to rival the likes of Celine Dion and David Copperfield.” Image taken on-site at CES 2018

We expect these advancements not only to become the de facto expectations of consumers, but to have a huge influence in the competitive landscape for the consumer IoT market, away from the “things/hardware” and back towards the “internet” and software side of the value proposition. Influence in consumer IoT is not about controlling devices, it’s about rolling their data into massive cloud-based personalized AI for each of us. For businesses, the same familiar giants become necessary vehicles for mass market adoption; For consumers, connected stuff just does what we tell it to do.

They Grow Up So Fast

Although smart home adoption was estimated to be about 15% at the end of 2017, we are still a ways off from mainstream. That said, the space is moving more quickly than it may appear, both technically and economically. CES 2018 was also contemporaneous with:

  • Smart home subsidy. Comcast’s announcement it will now include home automation in all Xfinity internet customers’ package at no additional cost
  • Living on the edgeNXP showcased device processors for edge-level processing and intelligence, key technical hurdles for other consumer IoT issues like latency, security, and privacy
  • Finally interoperable. Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF), after recently uniting several formerly disparate standards organizations, demonstrated a fully interoperable open-source network layer for devices to discover and communicate with one another, regardless of manufacturer, operating system, chipset, or physical transport

As time goes by, the consumer IoT space will mature, but it won’t manifest at future CES shows. Instead, as often happens with technology once it works, it will become invisible, fade into the infrastructure and interfaces of our lives. Like an adolescent, consumer IoT’s fragmented truths and continued awkwardness are just signs its evolving.

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