Last week, more than 100,000 people from around the world arrived in Las Vegas like usual for CES to see the latest in smart devices, smart screens, and smart everything else. However, marketers in attendance at the annual trade show said new innovations on display seemed more focused on the present than on a future utopia.
While more than 4,000 companies exhibited a host of technologies promising a bright future for 5G, augmented reality and the Internet of Things, CES 2020 was “less of a bright and shiny object year,” said Whitney Fishman Zember, managing partner for innovation and consumer technology at Wavemaker. To her, it seemed like some of the most impressive tech was about making the world better than simply impressing the crowds.
Think internet-connected diapers (a real thing), smart canes for the blind, augmented reality-enabled toy blocks, rather than yet another flying car (also a real thing).
“I always tell my clients when they see something on the floor: ‘what’s the point?’” Fishman Zember said. “There’s a lesson because everything came from a human insight…Does someone need it? Most likely no. But is there a lesson or an insight? Most likely yes.”
Others also noticed the shift. Michael Miraflor, senior vice president at MediaLink, said subtler tech also stuck out to him: air quality devices, technology for the elderly, and sensors for improving edge computing were all part of this year’s move from maximalism to minimalism.
“Half of the stuff is in your face and it’s screaming at you,” he said. “But the more interesting booths were the ones where you had to take it a step further than what was displayed.”
And yet, other unexpected innovations were also sniffed out. Miraflor said scent technology seems to have become a bigger trend: companies like Moodo allow users to control a blend of smells with a smart phone app, while Procter & Gamble’s Aria device was on display at the CPG giant’s booth. These devices could hotels and restaurants to help people recreate positive emotions from a vacation or create new opportunities for auto manufacturers.
“Scent might be the new branding device,” he said.
Some of the most unexpectedly useful innovations came not from a tech company, but from other types of brands. Delta Air Lines became the first travel airline with a keynote slot to debut new content partnerships, a robotic exoskeleton for workers, and a machine learning platform for improving customer service.
“Certainly as Amazon demonstrated you can sell a lot more than just books, Delta can do a lot more than just get people between two points,” said Delta Chief Marketing Officer Tim Mapes.
Perhaps the most interesting was a new screen technology for airports that will let as many as 100 travelers simultaneously see personalized information about their travel plans. The tech, developed with Misapplied Sciences, is called Parallel Reality and will debut in Detroit this summer. As travelers walk by the screen, Misapplied Sciences’ technology will use sensors to know who is standing in front of the screen and show them itinerary and other info in their own language.
“The person who is standing next to you might be from China or Korea or the Netherlands sees in their language their information on the same screen,” Mapes said. “It’s not like it’s 50 screens, it’s one screen and it’s absolutely mind boggling.”
Delta wasn’t the only brand with a keynote focused on personalization. While P&G debuted a range of products to personalize personal care, LG was focused on adding more artificial intelligence to household appliances. The company’s ThinQ platform, which debuted at CES 2019, uses AI to help personalize settings for each owner. For example, a ThinQ-enabled air conditioner can adjust air flow and temperature based on who’s in a room or a ThinQ-connected laundry machine can sense what clothing is inside and set controls accordingly.
David Vanderwaal, senior vice president of marketing for the U.S. division of LG Electronics, said internal research over the past few years found consumers weren’t entirely ready for smart home devices—at least not yet. That’s because the benefits didn’t seem compelling enough or the price seemed too high, but he said that sentiment has started to shift.
“AI has been a B to B approach,” Vanderwaal said. “A lot of consumers have said that’s good for businesses, but in their everyday life, especially for health care and personal fitness, it’s starting to show now.”
Petco CMO Tariq Hassan had similar observations at CES when it came to AI.
“Things were moving beyond ‘coming soon’ to we are trying, testing, applying real data and AI solutions across their ecosystem in such a more meaningful way than even a year ago,” Hassan said.
Alan Parker, chief innovation officer at Energy BBDO, said that in addition to some of the improvements in 5G and TV screen technology, he was especially interested in technologies that might improve the future of retail. For example, he saw a booth that scans a person’s entire body to let them virtually try on clothing and different colors. This type of scanning, he said, could also be used for understanding the mood of visitors or demographic information about foot traffic.
But there was another area that Parker saw a lot of improvement: consumer health. For example, he saw a smart watch band that tracks hydration, muscle mass and other information that could be helpful in democratizing personal health monitoring beyond what’s already available.
“Yes, it’s data and isn’t it great that I can find out what my hydration level is,” he said. “But when you start thinking about whether this is something for when I see my doctor when I have a problem or need a check up, you get this always-on health care…It helps you make a better daily regimen of what you do.”
Dara Treseder, CMO of the 3D-printing company, Carbon, said she noticed how data from the past decade is now being used to drive innovation and business growth.
“It was amazing to see the symbiotic relationship between data, design, and digital manufacturing,” she said. “And how this is unlocking next-generation, breakthrough products that advance human health, transform industries, and pave the way forward for a more sustainable future.”
Of course, one returning trend was voice tech. Last week, Lamborghini announced a new partnership with Amazon to integrate the Alexa voice technology platform deeper into the car. For starters, it built the AI software into the 2020 Huracan Evo, which was inside of a car on display at CES to show how Alexa can help drivers stay hands-free when controlling air conditioning, music and other tasks.
According to Lamborghini Chief Technology Officer Maurizio Reggiani, that required working with the acoustic engineering team at Lamborghini to make sure Alexa could distinguish sound within the car from outside of it. So why Alexa, and why now? Reggiani said it helps to make adoption easier, and integrating voice AI into the car helps the Italian auto brand stay ahead with emerging technologies.
“If you look at it from a statistics point of view, the distribution of the Alexa system at home,” he said. “A majority of houses have an Alexa system at home. In terms of familiarity and understanding, we use a system that everyone has already experienced. So for us it was important that you don’t need to learn a new experience.”
Other marketers experimented with using emerging tech to demonstrate different types of vehicles. To show off the newly unveiled Hypersport Pro electric bike from Damon Motorcycles, the companies used a VR experience that let people sit on the bike to both feel and see how the AI system helps detect cars in back, in front, and to the side.
According to Blackberry CMO Mark Wilson, placing someone in VR while they’re sitting on the bike makes them more “emotionally connected to that value proposition.”
“This bike is so incredible in terms of being all-electric, in terms of all the software that goes into it from a safety perspective,” he said. “But then how do you bring that to life? You can’t just show it on a stand because that doesn’t bring it to life. So if you can use something like virtual reality, now you’re giving someone a more immersive experience to figure out what is that bike like and what does it mean.”
Despite all the promises of the future along the Las Vegas strip, another company was there to spark a more dystopian dialogue in an era increasingly aware of data privacy: HBO used CES to promote ‘Westworld,’ the hit sci-fi show that will release its third season in March.
Working with the creative agency Giant Spoon, the company invited dozens of tech reporters and tech executives to an immersive dinner hosted by the fictional company, Incite. The mystery firm, expected to play a key role in the new season, promises to help people make better decisions with their life based on data they’re willing to share. (Actors at the dinners talked with attendees’ mentioned undisclosed aspects of their personal lives as a way of showing what happens when a company knows more about a consumer than they might prefer.) The underlying question: do we really want companies making decisions for us based on the data they have access to?
“I think Las Vegas as a city adds this element,” said Giant Spoon Co-founder Trevor Guthrie. “The city itself is a place where you question your reality and it’s nothing as it seems. There’s another system that’s working behind you—the house always wins.”