When the leaders of the tech industry get up on the big stages at the Consumer Electronics Show, you can learn a lot. I’m at the big tech trade show in Las Vegas, where face-to-face interaction can still yield some insights. I’ve collected some of those insights and looked for trends at CES 2017, which remains the best crystal ball to see the future of technology.
It’s easy to miss things amid the 165,000 people, and no one can cover all of the 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space. But after more than 20 of these shows, I’ve trained myself to look for patterns. Here’s a list of 10 memorable moments, gadgets, ideas, and trends that made me think during the show.
A.I. is becoming pervasive
John Curran, managing director at Accenture, predicted that A.I. had the chance to become the story of the show. And he was right. Hundreds of companies announced integration with Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant — two technologies that use A.I. and the cloud to create a better voice recognition — to create a more natural human-machine interface.
In 1995, the error rate for speech recognition was 100 percent. By 2013, it was 23 percent. And now, in 2017, we essentially have parity between humans and computers with speech recognition, said Shawn Dubravac, analyst at the Consumer Technology Association, during at talk at CES.
Jen-Hsun Huang, CEO of Nvidia, credited the advance in A.I. and voice recognition — after decades of failures — to the graphics processing unit (GPU). Before the programmable GPU (which debuted in 1999), he said that central processing units (CPUs) were like sports cars, and they were good for processing a lot of instructions.
But they were not useful in solving A.I. problems. The GPU came along and Nvidia made it programmable for tasks behind graphics. It was now more like a truck, able to process an enormous amount of data at once. The machine-learning software creators recognized this, and they used GPUs to process a huge amount of data necessary to teach a neural network to learn. This truck paid off in huge improvements in neural networks for tasks such as voice recognition.
“Part of it was destiny. Part was serendipity,” Huang said in a small press gathering. “The deep neural network is computationally a brute force solution. It is simple and elegant but only effective if you use an enormous amount of data. When the GPU and deep learning came together, it was serendipity.”
He said in a small press gathering that his company is working with more than 1,500 A.I. startups now. Those startups have a chance at life because it is possible to train neural networks for many different kinds of pattern recognition tasks in many different applications using powerful GPU technology and machine-learning software. They can layer better A.I. across one problem after another, from the smart Nvidia Shield TV set-top box to self-driving cars.
Voice control is only one of the new interfaces
The triumph of better voice controls is only one of the ways that humans can better interact with machines. Rick Bergman, CEO of Synaptics, the maker of touchscreen sensors, believes his company’s larger job is to be a visionary for the human-machine interface. And he foresees some big advances as each company figures out how to best apply technology to solving problems for consumers, who want cheap and practical solutions.
It’s easy, for instance, to appreciate the value of the touchpad on a laptop. You can swipe across to move your mouse cursor. But how many of us know that you can use two fingers to swipe down and scroll down a page? We can appreciate the basic value of a touchpad, but few of us will ever take the trouble to fully exploit it.
“We found it’s hard to train people to do new things,” Bergman said.
I thought about that as I used my eyeballs to control the cursor and targeting in a series of new computers with Tobii’s eye-tracking technology built into them. This is a neat trick for targeting multiple zombies at once in a shooting game. But it’s going to be quite hard to change my habits and use my eyes instead of my hands to interact with a computer.
On the other hand, Synaptics has a cool technology that allows it to identify a fingerprint and authenticate a user through a touchscreen glass. That means that instead of pressing the Home button on your iPhone, you can press any spot on the touchscreen to authenticate yourself on your smartphone. With this technology, Apple could get rid of the Home button altogether, and we could all get used to interacting with our smartphones in a slightly different way.
The non-tech companies take technology to the masses
A.I. is a tool that can be used by everyone, and that’s one reason why the non-tech companies are showing up at CES. Car companies were the first ones to show up. The appliance makers are out in force to trot out Internet of Things products. And now we had a keynote speech from Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival, the world’s largest cruise ship company.
He introduced the Ocean Medallion wearable at CES as a platform for everything including unlocking your cabin door, paying for goods aboard the ship, and keeping track of your kids. Donald isn’t from a tech company, but his presence at CES shows how technology has spread into all forms of business. Once the tech companies create the foundations, it’s up to the non-tech businesses to make it mainstream and use it to affect the lives of billions of consumers, said Gary Shapiro, CEO of the CTA, in an interview with VentureBeat.
The Internet of (insert adjective here) Things
I’ve come to believe that the Internet of Things is an inevitable trend, where companies uses processors, sensors, and connectivity to make everyday objects smarter and more useful. But that doesn’t mean that every one of them is going to be useful. As Samsung and LG described their new washers and dryers, I loved how these connected devices could let you know when your load was done or you needed more laundry detergent.
I also knew that I wasn’t going to buy them anytime soon. That’s because the reality today is that this is the Internet of Expensive Things. I’m not going to pay hundreds of dollars more to get these appliances, at least not as long as they add extra costs. I don’t want a smart pet feeder, if it means it costs $200 compared to the $5 pet bowl it replaces.
I can foresee a consumer disconnect for many things the Internet of Things vendors are trying to solve. We don’t want the Internet of Hackable Things. We don’t want the Internet of Stupid Things.
Chip competition thrives in 2017
In chips, you can compete with a better manufacturing process (which can make your chips smaller, faster, and cheaper) or with a better architecture (which allows your chip to do more things at the same time in an efficient way). Those are a couple of good rules to remember, and it means a lot when one company says or doesn’t say something about either one.
Lisa Su, CEO of Advanced Micro Devices, believes her company has a rare opportunity to take on the competition in 2017 as it launches two new architectures in both processors and graphics. Nvidia is busy transforming itself into an artificial intelligence company, maneuvering to stay ahead of Intel in new battlegrounds such as processors for self-driving cars. In doing so, will Nvidia take its eye off the graphics chip market? In that market, Nvidia competes with AMD, which unveiled its Vega graphics architecture at the show.
Vega-based graphics chips will appear in the coming months, but Nvidia’s Huang did not announce any new chips or follow-on to last year’s Pascal architecture during his keynote speech at CES. Huang believes Nvidia will stay competitive, but Su thinks that AMD has a chance to regain market share in graphics.
And AMD’s new Ryzen processors, based on its new power-efficient Zen architecture, are poised to launch in the first quarter. Intel debuted its Kaby Lake processors at the show, but those are only slightly faster than last year’s Silver Lake processors. Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, did not describe any new architectures during his press event. And he said that Intel would debut its 10-nanometer manufacturing process by the end of 2017. That’s late. Qualcomm said at CES its contract manufacturing partner (believed to be Samsung) had begun making 10-nanometer Snapdragon 835 processors.
That means that, possibly for the first time, a mobile processor company might take the lead in switching to a new manufacturing process ahead of Intel. The result: Intel can’t use a process advantage to stay ahead of AMD this year. Su and her colleagues expressed this hope for a rare opening at a dinner at CES. I find it to be plausible. And overall, it means that the market for processors and graphics chips will become more competitive in 2017.
Virtual reality goes mainstream at CES
Last year, vendors such as HTC and Facebook’s Oculus carried the torch for virtual reality. This year, the technology has gone mainstream. 70 VR vendors are on the show floor among the 3,800-plus exhibitors at CES. Many are showing headsets, and a lot are also showing 360-degree cameras. Giroptic created a tiny 360-degree camera that can convert an iPhone’s camera into a VR camera.
The exhibitors include big companies such as Samsung, Sony, Haier, Qualcomm, and many others. But VR got its biggest endorsement when Intel’s Krzanich held his CES press conference in virtual reality.
The CEO of the world’s biggest chip maker had more than 260 VR headsets and laptops for the press to show off the wonders of VR travel (like experiencing a parachute jump or visiting a waterfall in Vietnam) and live sports events, such as checking out the action in a live NCAA game.
VR has a long way to go. Krzanich proved that when he showed Project Alloy, which gets rid of the connection to the PC and puts all of the processing power in a stand-alone VR headset, with no wires to hamper your movement. Project Alloy is working and it will likely hit the market in the fourth quarter of 2017. This means that our current headsets are merely stepping stones on the way to a mass market.
This means a lot of the 70 companies are going to die. This does not mean it’s a bad idea. I remember in the 1990s when we had 70 graphics chip companies. We wound up with Intel, AMD, and Nvidia as the survivors. But that doesn’t mean the graphics chip was a bad idea. Far from it. Such a Darwinian evolution is how we wind up with the best consumer products. VR is only part of the way down this path, and a lot of people at CES are betting that it will find its way.
A little near-apology goes a long way
Tim Baxter, head of Samsung Electronics North America, didn’t directly apologize for the disastrous Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone, whose battery was at risk of exploding or catching on fire. But at the beginning of Samsung’s CES press event, Baxter addressed the elephant in the room.
“It was a challenging year for Samsung,” Baxter said. “Many of you saw media coverage about the Note 7. We continue to work with third parties to understand what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Very soon we will share the root cause report on the Note 7. We have not, nor will we ever stop, innovating.” He later added, “Yes we are reflecting, and yes we are listening.”
It wasn’t too much, and it wasn’t too little. I appreciated the directness of it, and I expect that this incident will create lessons for every tech company when the matter is said and done.
Innovation hides in the corners
If you look hard enough at CES, if you put in the miles, you’ll find some hidden gems. That’s the way it is with innovation. You can find it in unexpected places.
I visited the booth of Changhong, a big Chinese electronics company that had a lot of me-too products. But in one of the corners, it had something that no one else had: the H2 smartphone with a built-in Scio sensor from Consumer Physics. That material sensor can be used to scan any object and identify its molecular make-up.
Scio used the H2 to show me which of two apples was sweeter. And it showed me which of two pills was a real Viagra pill, and which was a fake. Diet Sensor showed how the H2 (and an accompanying weight sensor) could identify how many calories were in the food that you are about to eat. This new kind of sensor and app — which was brought to market by Changhong, Consumer Physics, Analog Devices, and Diet Sensor — can have virtually limitless applications.
Shapiro said he was amazed to see the odor detection device from France’s Aryballe Technologies. The NeOse is a portable smell detector that uses optical technology to identify smells and tell you whether they are dangerous or can otherwise be identified.
These two sensors were refreshing reminders that you don’t always find the most interesting technologies on the big stages.
Porn is always a part of tech
Naughty America was the only porn company allowed into the show. It had a lot of restrictions, as CES is still very sensitive about the days when the porn companies took over the show and offended a lot of people. The company couldn’t show off its meeting room, where it demoed not-safe-for-work virtual reality videos, said Ian Paul, chief information officer at Naughty America. But the company’s admission to CES served as a reminder that tech and porn can drive demand for each other.
Paul said Naughty America has learned how to shoot VR porn properly, after releasing more than 100 titles. And he says the company has learned a lot about users. Among the most popular states for VR porn: California, New York, Missouri, and Utah.
Always assume gamers are nuts
Razer has made its name creating technologies that cater to extreme gamers. That has paid off well with a loyal following for its products and crazy ideas that appeal to the hardest of the hardcore.
At CES, Razer showed of Project Ariana, which takes a game and projects it onto an entire wall of your room, and Project Valerie, which is a laptop with three screens. Two of those screens fold out and give you an immersive view of the action in your games. Both projects are experimental for now, but they’re great crazy ideas.