At CES, Smart Products and Privacy Concerns Remain King

Attending the Consumer Electronics Show is always an inspiring way to start a new year, let alone a new decade.  Major tech companies showcase their shiniest new products (and—let’s face it—concepts that will never make it to market).  Start-ups try to create buzz, sometimes with brilliant new solutions, but often with ideas that are simply bizarre.  Threaded throughout, the titans of Google and Amazon continue to integrate deeper across appliances, cars, and any other device that has evolved to be “smart.”

After many hours spent meeting with companies and exploring the showroom floor, I came to the conclusion that this year’s event was a time of incremental evolution.  Sure, there was plenty of jaw-dropping tech on display—Samsung’s “The Wall” television was every bit as incredible as you’ve heard—but the overall sense I got was much different from past years.  It seems as though every major player is rethinking alliances and re-evaluating their position in the market, perhaps due to the arrival of CCPA (the California Consumer Privacy Act) and increasing consumer concerns over privacy.

That’s not to say there were no fascinating trends at CES 2020. Below are my top five take-aways from both the showroom floor, and the conversations with key players throughout the week.

The Smart Home Bandwagon:  Solutions in Search of a Problem

Connected smart home products continue to be a big focus for brands exhibiting at CES.  Some solve for a specific need, like The Motion Pillow, a pillow gently adjusts head position when it detects snoring in order to improve airflow (and potentially improve marriages).  Some products are more like interesting novelties, like Kohler’s Smart Speaker showerhead.

CES: motion pillow 

Other products on the showroom floor feel more like a solution in search of a problem.  For example, the SimpleHuman smart trash can, which doesn’t sound like too bad of a proposition until you realize that it utilizes proprietary trash bags (which is either the “printer and ink” merchandising model or, if you’re feeling less generous, the Juicero approach).  Or if that’s not wacky enough, how about a $13,000 smart toilet?

CES 2020 the more efficient way to trash 

Connected smart home devices will continue to be a major part of CES, but for many consumers the novelty of the basic concept has worn off a bit—meaning manufactures will have to level up their storytelling in order to truly demonstrate the value their products bring to everyday life.

The Battle for the Smart Home Ecosystem

In the spirit of the classic format wars of VHS vs Betamax and HD DVD vs Blu-Ray, Google and Amazon have been battling to stake a claim as the central hub for all the connected devices in a smart home.  In addition to those two titans, power users have a handful of other home connectivity options—but based on my personal experience, none of today’s solutions play nicely with the devices on the market today, let alone the new concepts showcased at CES.

So, it’s fascinating to me that these companies (Google, Amazon, Apple (!!!), and more than ten others) have partnered to begin constructing a standard communications protocol to enhance device compatibility and cross-system integration.  This partnership is called Project Connected Home over IP (the unfortunate acronym “CHoIP”).  A universal standard would not only make smart home devices easier to set up and use by consumers, but since it is built on IP-based networking it would offer end-to-end security by default.

However, CHoIP isn’t the only new solution on the horizon.  Smart home solution provider Z-Wave, a competitor to CHoIP partner ZigBee, is opening up their previously proprietary specifications to other chip manufacturers.  Many smart home products, including those by Amazon and Google Nest, already include Z-Wave radios as part of their connectivity.  Confusingly enough, Z-Wave’s parent company, Silicon Labs, is actually a participant in the CHoIP partnership.

Lost yet?  Don’t worry—the space is incredibly confusing, primarily because unlike the format wars mentioned at the start of this section, this battle is over intangible network communication protocols, not physical media.  However CHoIP, Z-Wave, and other solutions wind up playing out, increased standardization of smart home connectivity is purely a good thing for consumers—and for the manufactures building products they want to sell (like, for example, that $13,000 toilet mentioned above).

Surprising Exhibitors

One of my favorite things to do at CES is keep an eye out for companies that seem like an odd fit for the showroom floor at the world’s largest tech conference.  Both Oral-B and Colgate unveiled new smart toothbrushes with features like detecting plaque in the mouth and connecting to your phone to track and coach good brushing habits.  AARP had a booth showcasing how they plan to use artificial intelligence to help improve elder care, but it felt very conceptual.

Delta Airlines was the biggest surprise of the show for me.  Every time I stopped by, there was a long line outside their space, and inside they demonstrated a new smart display that tracks an individual’s location in a room and displays personalized information about their flight on a wall-mounted monitor.  The impressive part is that it does this for multiple individuals at a time, and each person sees only their information on the monitor, as it adjusts in real-time based on their movements—two people walking next to each other would see two totally different things on the monitor.  For a proof of concept product, it worked very well, and was even more impactful than the man outside the Delta booth demonstrating a powered exoskeleton that enables baggage handlers to move heavy luggage efficiently and without injury. 

Delta powered exoskeleton that enables baggage handlers to move heavy luggage

New Takes on Old Music Experiences

As a musician, I’m always curious to see what the Roland Corporation brings to CES, and this year’s booth didn’t disappoint—a live band featured the latest electronic drums, digital amp modeling, and a “concept piano” that takes the mechanics of a traditional grand piano and wraps them in a futuristic package.Victrola showcased dozens of new takes on the classic turntable, integrating wireless connectivity into a record player with a variety of looks that were both classic and modern.  It was interesting to see how many other companies showcased record and cassette players with upgraded connectivity as well.  However, the most confusingly ubiquitous products scattered around the showroom floor were light-up speakers.  I saw at least a dozen of them at different booths, and outside of professional DJs looking to streamline their equipment cartage I’m not sure who the target audience for these strange devices is.

Speaker at CES 2020

The Looming Privacy Concerns

Google didn’t have many gigantic announcements to make at CES this year, but one particular feature launch was quite telling.  Any time the Google assistant activates at a time when a user didn’t speak to it, users can now simply say “Google, that wasn’t for you.”  The Google Assistant will then apologize and delete the request from its history.Giving users this quick, real-time way to respond to smart devices triggering accidentally is a savvy move in a time when major tech companies are struggling to find the balance between privacy and personalized utility.  Over the next three years privacy is going to become one of the key differentiating features consumers look for when purchasing connected devices and choosing which framework to connect them through, yet privacy is one of the hardest features to showcase in the flashy way brands typically approach CES.  Throughout 2020 all of the major players will be navigating evolving legislation, but they should view adherence to the law as the minimum required action.  As our lives become even more interconnected with our devices, the companies that win will be those who actively showcase to their users that privacy is a priority, not just a legal requirement.