The Consumer Electronics Show always starts the new year off with a bang. It packs roughly 170,000 extra people from around the world into Las Vegas for a seizure-inducing week of stimulation.
And, of course, autonomous concept vehicles and voice-enabled products still dominate much of the show. Concepts featuring Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and Augmented Reality all twirl promising futures in front of attendee’s eyes. Some of the products actually work or are reasonably feasible. And a lot of it is shiny fantasy (at least for now).
But CES is also a reflection of the times – the preoccupations of consumers and culture at large. Outside of the happy world of Las Vegas for a week in January, the tech industry is taking its lumps. Fears (and anger) about privacy, climate change, and social injustice are issues dogging the industry and increasingly being talked about (if not seriously addressed) at CES. Here are some bigger themes:
Even a couple years ago, you didn’t hear all that much about privacy at CES. In fact, CES has been a cheerleader for connecting everything from your toothbrush to your doorbell. Having your TV or Alexa watch and listen to your every move and anticipate your every need is great, right? Consumers are increasingly saying “no, thanks.” The ability to turn off that camera (or select camera-less technology) and opt out of facial recognition was more openly addressed for products ranging from security systems to educational robots. This year, CES used facial recognition at the badge pickup for the first time. If CES points the way to the future, expect your face to be known just about everywhere.
And then there were panel discussions with bigwigs from Apple, Facebook and Amazon, talking about how they are working to protect their users’ privacy. But they were alarmingly vague on details. Remember when the term “green-washing” was big to describe products that claimed they were environmentally friendly but really weren’t? Well, now the buzzword is “privacy-washing.”
Beyond the flashy electric concept cars and the Hyundai-Uber “air-taxi,” mobility is becoming a more inclusive, broader discussion at CES. There were autonomous wheelchairs that could help disabled individuals and their baggage navigate airports more easily, a plethora of e-bikes, scooters and electric motorcycles, autonomous shuttles, and bold new systems of urban transport. Fully autonomous vehicles is still the goal, although there are still a lot of challenges to overcome.
CASE (Connectivity, Autonomy, Shared mobility, Electrification) technology that would be the support system for all this driverless, safe and efficient transportation was also increasingly on display at CES. The expensive R&D involved in CASE is driving auto manufacturers to look at new production methods and materials to shift costs as consumers so far seem to be unwilling to pay extra for all these cool new features.
Small, useful things
Amid all the flashy technologies and products at CES, there were some quiet innovations aimed at improving daily life. And these were some of the most interesting products to consider. Pampers introduced a smart diaper that notifies parents when their baby needs changing (sounds better than exploratory sniffing). On the other end of the bathroom spectrum, there was a sensor to alert people with incontinence of when it’s time to use the bathroom. A smart cane for the blind won an innovation award as well as a unique coding toy designed to help visually impaired children learn the valuable skill.
There were products aimed at improving health and lifestyle for the elderly, approachable air purifying technology for a world affected by wildfires and climate change, robots and exoskeletons to make burdensome tasks easier or provide comfort … many of it seemed useful.
Has the tech industry finally shifted from creating stuff because they can to products that address real pain points in people’s lives? There was still a lot of silly stuff at CES, but it did seem like things might be heading in the right direction.
Sexual health and wellness
After the blowback last year caused by stripping an innovation award from Ose by Lora DiCarlo (the award was eventually reinstated), the Consumer Technology Association (CTA, the trade organization behind CES) opened its door to sex-tech for the first time. The category is on a one-year trial with a lot of restrictions (no VR porn or anatomically correct dolls, for example), but it opened the door for a lot of female-led sexual health companies to display their technologies this year. The trial run seemed successful, so expect to see more in 2021.
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