Viva Las Vegas: Voice Assistants, Smart Appliances and Functional Wearables Flourish at CES 2018

In 2018, Las Vegas once again played host to CES – more formally known as the International Consumer Electronics Show.  More than 180,000 attendees came out to the desert to see the newest gizmos unveiled by leading companies in the consumer electronics, consumer appliances and automotive sectors.  Over the course of the show, a few trends that are set to have a profound impact on the development of consumer technology in the coming years came into sharper focus than ever before.

 

Google Assistant makes gains in the battle for the voice assistant market

In 2017, Amazon – with its rapidly expanding ecosystem of products boasting the power of the company’s Alexa voice assistant – was easily the most buzzed about company in the convention halls and casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.  This year, Alexa was still omnipresent, and the number of companies clamoring to announce that their products now supported Amazon’s voice assistant often seemed innumerable.  Yet it was Amazon’s primary competitor in the voice assistant space that appeared to emerge victorious in the battle for buzz.

Google (a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc) towered over CES 2018 both literally – with its own three-story booth in the parking lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center – and figuratively, as Google Assistant seemed to pop up nearly everywhere one turned across the expo.  LG Corp, the industry leader in OLED TVs, made a splash with the debut its new line of Google Assistant-enabled televisions.  GE Appliances, a division of Haier Group, loudly proclaimed the Google Assistant capabilities of its new smart kitchen hubs.  Graphics processing unit powerhouse NVIDIA Corp highlighted the seamless integration of Google Assistant during product demos of its Shield streaming set-top box.  Furthermore, in perhaps the most symbolically important salvo in the turf war with Alexa, multiple companies – from LG to Lenovo Group Ltd to Sony Corp – exhibited smart displays featuring built-in Google Assistant functionality.

This latest development may be particularly galling to Amazon, as Google recently blocked the online retail behemoth’s own signature smart assistant speaker and screen combo, the Echo Show, from playing video clips from YouTube (which is also owned by Alphabet) – clips that can naturally be played on any of the Google Assistant enabled-displays.  All of this is not to say that Google has won the voice assistant battle against Amazon; Amazon still sells far more smart assistant speakers than Google, and Alexa compatibility can still be found in a greater number of third party products.  Clearly, however, Google Assistant has emerged as a more serious threat to Alexa in the voice assistant market.

 

Major appliances brands expand the smart capabilities of their product lines

One of the most visible trends at CES over the last few years has been technology companies’ inexorable march to build ever-greater levels of “smart” functionality into their hardware.  Major appliances manufacturers have helped to lead this charge by working to develop products that push the limits of automation and built-in connectivity within the consumer space. CES 2018 again saw these companies flexing their muscles to show how much smarter their appliances are than those of their competitors.

GE Appliances unveiled one of the most eye catching products in this vein: a kitchen hub that places an integrated “over-the-range” monitor and vent fan above a cooker and uses built-in cameras and voice assistant compatibility to create, in effect, a smart home focal point in the exact spot where avid home chefs would tend to spend the most time actually engaged in the cooking process.

BSH Home Appliances, a division of Robert Bosch GmbH, presented a robotic vacuum cleaner, dubbed Roxxter, which not only uses a scanning unit to create a digital map of its owner’s home, but also comes with a built-in camera, which a user can access on their smartphone via the Bosch Home Connect app to check on their home when they are away.

LG showcased a new line of major appliances featuring SmartThinQ AI technology, which LG claims will use deep learning to – for example – help anticipate a user’s laundry or dishwashing preferences based on factors, such as day of the week and time of day.

Whirlpool Corp also touted its advancements in AI.  Bolstered by its acquisition of Yummly, a recipe database, Whirlpool demonstrated how a user could take a picture with the Yummly app of several food items on a counter; the app could then find a recipe that would incorporate all (or most) of the items and send out the cooking instructions to the appropriate Whirlpool smart kitchen appliances.

Samsung Corp also made its presence felt at CES, with a gigantic booth in which the company showed off prototypes of smart home appliances featuring a built-in version of its proprietary voice assistant, Bixby.  Yet there was no firm release date given for these Bixby-enabled products.  Samsung is the only major appliance manufacturer that has so far refused to incorporate Alexa or Google Assistant compatibility into any of its product offerings.  While the company continues to work on making Bixby ready for the consumer market, it risks falling even further behind its competitors in the voice assistant space.

 

Functional wearables make the case for wearable electronics continued relevance

Since a few years ago, the high expectations of sales growth for wearable electronics may have come down to earth a bit, yet the recent success of the Apple Watch Series 3 has continued to lure new companies into the market. CES 2018 saw companies from Nokia Corp to Skagen Designs Ltd show off their new lines of smart wearables and activity watches.  The wearable electronics that stood out the most at the show, however, were those that spoke to a specific need or use case.  Casio Inc, for example, unveiled the newest version of its Pro Trek Smart Outdoor Watch, a smart watch that features GPS and other built-in apps that are unambiguously designed to appeal to the dedicated outdoor enthusiast.  Other wearables at CES promised to fulfill specific health and safety functions.  Medical Guardian LLP unveiled a new activity watch, the Freedom Guardian, which is designed specifically for elderly consumers; in case of a fall or another medical crisis, the device can be activated to alert emergency services to the wearer’s location, and – through a companion web portal – individuals in the wearer’s “care circle” can track the device’s location at all times.  Additionally, at the 2018 Wearable Technology Summit, the CEO of invisaWear Technologies LLC showed off her company’s smart jewelry, designed for women, which can be used to discreetly alert emergency services or loved ones in the event of an emergency.

Functional wearables, such as these, which can speak directly to specific target audiences, may help to blaze a more lucrative path forward for the wearable electronics market over the next few years.  That being said, it will likely take mobile carriers building the infrastructure to support 5G wireless systems before the true potential of wearables – in terms of both capabilities and sales – can be unleashed.