It’s standing room only in a swirly-carpeted room at the conference centre attached to the Mandalay Bay hotel – yes, that one – in Las Vegas. There’s a sea of technology journalists, mostly men, with name badges dangling from lime green lanyards and clear plastic backpacks (a conference freebie) reminiscent of a 1990s Gwen Stefani. Dubstep starts playing.
“CES 2017 brought the whoa,” appears on screen, followed by a sequence of fast-cut shots of robots, drones and VR headsets. “This year we’re turning things up. So get ready for more whoa than ever before.”
If this year’s Consumer Electronics Show is anything to go by, it’s less “whoa, that’s awesome” and more “whoa there, do we really need this?”
The annual tech trade show seems less about real innovation breakthroughs solving unmet needs and more about incrementally improved nice-to-haves for the 1%.
The technology industry does not appear to have learned from all of the soul-searching it did last year in the wake of the demise of companies like Juicero, which made a $400 internet-connected juice-maker that attracted $120m in funding. The company folded six months after Bloomberg showed that its pre-portioned fruit and veg packets could be squeezed just as effectively by hand.
Given the other scandals that rocked the industry in 2017, including sexual harassment, poor factory working conditions and exploding batteries, and mounting evidence that people should spend less time glued to their devices, one might have hoped for a more cautious or conscientious display of mass consumerism. Here’s hoping for 2019.
Among the exhibits at CES Unveiled, a curtain-raising showcase of products ahead of the main show, were wifi-connected showers, skin-analysing smart mirrors, and a clothes-folding robot.
“If you’re lying in bed and want to get into a hot shower you can either use an app or talk to Alexa and have your shower start up at your favourite temperature,” said Lindsy Argenti, marketing communications manager from Moen, demonstrating internet-connected showers, which solve the apparent problem of having to manually turn the faucet.
Another stand features a water bottle with a large electronic base with three replaceable pods to squirt in different supplements depending on your activity data.
“If you went on a 10-mile cycle in Las Vegas in the summer we would know the weather, the level of activity and intensity, so the bottle would know you’d need to hydrate and would dispense electrolytes,” said Rob Lawson Shanks, co-founder of Life Fuels, whose water bottle needs charging once a week via USB.
Forward X was one of several companies to have built a robotic suitcase that follows the owner around the airport so he or she doesn’t have the inconvenience of holding a handle. It’s a neat idea in theory, but in demos the prototype was slow and inconsistent in its ability to follow its owner. Plus it requires a heavy battery that must be removed to go through security and needs recharging after four hours.
There were some attempts to tackle difficult problems with clunky solutions. Two products designed to help the elderly in the event of a fall included Helite’s bulky $800 airbag belt that inflates to protect the hip bones and E-Vone’s smart shoes that alert a loved one if the wearer trips. You subscribe to the footwear (and their accompanying alert service) for around $30 per month. It’s shoes-as-a-service.
“I really feel like CES is becoming fairly irrelevant to the actual innovation that matters. It’s no longer a place that leads,” said Ankur Jain, founder of Kairos Society, an organisation that helps entrepreneurs solve societal problems.
“It used to be a place where you would see an Alexa [Amazon’s virtual assistant] being announced and everything would follow throughout the year. Now all of the products follow and are not meeting any unmet needs, they are just ‘nice to haves’.”
In recent years, many of the large tech companies have focused on creating their own events to launch their products, which has dampened the impact of CES’s annual extravaganza.
For those that were making announcements, including South Korean giants Samsung and LG, it was less about any particular product but more about the AI glue binding them together more seamlessly.
“Last year we announced that all of our home appliances would be wifi enabled. In 2018 we’re adding AI to all of our appliances,” said LG’s David VanderWaal on stage on Monday morning as he walked through a host of smart refrigerators, washing machines and ranges.
What did this added intelligence bring to the table? Well, in one promo video the company showed a man trying to work out what to have for dinner. His fridge told him what food was soon to expire: chicken, mozzarella, lettuce and tomato. What on earth could he make with these ingredients? It’s impossible to tell.
So he pulls out his smartphone app, which automatically identifies the ingredients and searches for an appropriate recipe. This gets sent to cute voice-controlled robot Cloi (pronounced Chloe) who not only reads the cooking instructions out loud but sets the oven temperature.
So far, so futuristic. But what was the net result of this AI-powered assistance? A chicken, mozzarella, lettuce and tomato sandwich.
Things took a turn for the worse during Cloi’s live demo on stage. The desktop device, which can control other LG products in the home, was introduced as the “ultimate in simplicity when managing your smart home”.
“She’s so cute … talk about innovation that makes you smile,” said VanderWaal.
Minutes later, the robot stopped responding to VanderWaal’s questions, making for a disastrous debut for the presentation’s centrepiece.
“Cloi, what recipes could I make with chicken?” he asked in one of three failed attempts to elicit a response from the robot. There was awkward laughter in the audience.
VanderWaal continued with his script: “This smart kitchen is changing the game, it’s doing it all for you seamlessly and effortlessly.”
That is, provided the robots choose to cooperate.