CES 2014: More science fiction than strategy

CES 2014: More science fiction than strategy

Following yesterday’s CES Debrief, Nigel Walley, managing director of Decipher, looks at some of the most interesting trends from the Las Vegas gadget-fest – and says one of the biggest problems is that we just don’t want to live in the worlds many of these companies envisage.

Having had time to pause and reflect on my visit to CES this year I have come to the conclusion that this was one of the most divisive consumer electronics events in recent years. By divisive, I mean that it split the audience.

On the fourth night of the show, I went to drinks event full of British TV people and we stood around in a general mood of ‘hurrumph’! We had come a long way, and put up with a lot of Las Vegas’ normal shenanigans and didn’t feel that we had got much out of it. There was very little new about the future of TV there, beyond some silly bent TV screens and a lot of posturing about 4K.

It felt that most of the serious stuff around the immediate future of TV was being developed elsewhere – in the back rooms of Sky, Dish or Comcast – and that the stuff on display was really just tweaks on what we had seen last year.

‘There is a new connected TV home revolution coming.’ Yes, we know. ‘A new generation of super-STBs will be at its heart.’ Yes, you told us last year. ‘There will be apps and devices connected to every screen in your home and your life, allowing your STB to control your complete TV future.’ Yes, you showed us the demo last year. Can you hurry up and launch the bloody things.

The next night, I had a chance to catch up with a broader group of analysts from the technology industry and they were absolutely buzzing: ‘The best CES for years’. I am sorry? ‘So many different things to see!’ Really?

The big difference between the two groups was perspective (and the fact that about three people in the second group were wearing Google Glass(es)). In the absence of a really transformative story this year, CES had reverted back to being a bloody great nerd-fest and the techies were revelling in the science fiction.

There were zones focusing on Auto-Tech, Health &Fitness Tech and the rather patronisingly named ‘Mommy-Tech’. The big theme behind all these zones was that miniaturisation of connectivity now means that you could stick an IP connection into just about any device you can think of, and have it send data back on just about any part of your life you can think of.

Some were sensible announcements of stuff we have been waiting for. I can see the benefit of a 4G mobile chip in my car. Some of it will be an acquired taste. For instance the number of health-tech wrist bands was astounding. But they only seem to be worn by annoyingly tech-savvy, good looking, young fit people? They seemed to be positively salivating at the idea of another tech device to annoy the rest of us with. Show me a bunch of obese retirees with diabetes wearing them and I will be convinced.

Central to lots of this stuff was the focus on the ‘connected and intelligent home’. Two presentations tried to set the tone. Cisco and Qualcomm both attempted to present their vision for an ‘internet of things’ or even an ‘internet of everything’.

Interestingly, some of the more compelling demonstrations involved entertainment content. And it was here that most people found a vision of the future that was believable and compelling.”

Many of the people I was with during these demos found the objectives and outcomes technically clever but positively creepy. There was a big emphasis on ‘monitoring’ (ourselves, each other, our kids, and so on) which felt out of place in the current era of NSA revelations. We just didn’t want to live in the worlds these companies envisaged.

The consumer upside of some of the weirder stuff is such a long way from being proven. I like a toaster that can swap emails with my car as much as the next man, but there was a certain needy feel to the whole thing. CES featured a huge number of solutions looking for a problem from companies wanting to be seen to be clever.

But just because some bloke with poor social skills who wears GoogleGlass(es) and drives a Segway likes it, doesn’t mean I have to. I do expect my domestic appliances to get gradually more intelligent, but right now I have something at home which does the vacuuming and sends me annoying texts.*

With lots of the consumer electronics normally shown at CES you can plot a quick route to consumer adoption. The connected home stuff just feels a long way out because so much of it requires the consumer to retro-fit stuff that is already in place. In the UK, we know that a combination of consumer apathy and a generally Victorian housing base means that most of this stuff won’t be mainstream for years. We just can’t be arsed.

In the week that Google bought Nest, the I keep coming back to the idea that a simple round plastic knob on the wall does 95% of what I want a central heating control to do. The other 5% is great, but the upside doesn’t outweigh the pain of setting it up and programming it. I could be playing with the kids instead.

Do I believe these systems are the future? Of course, but they will be led by US ‘new builds’, not UK retro-fits. In the US they have an average of 1 million new housing units built each year. That is enough of a market to get excited about. But in the UK there just aren’t enough new housing starts or willing nerds to make a lot of this stuff mass.

Interestingly, some of the more compelling demonstrations involved entertainment content. And it was here that most people found a vision of the future that was believable and compelling.

Having simpler, ubiquitous access to the entertainment content we own has been a consistent theme for the last few years. It is an area where the consumer seems willing to buy new equipment and install software, because the upside for them is immediate and compelling. Sonos is just more believable than Nest.

This is where we come back to TV because the organisations making the most compelling case to control this first-stage leap into the connected home are the pay-TV/triple play platforms. Control of the next generation wireless router and STB puts them into the driving seat for the next few years and the outcome will be ‘video’ not ‘vacuum-cleaner’ focused.

But it would help if they just bloody got on with it.

*My cleaner Raoul.

Twitter: @nwalley

This article originally appeared on Decipher’s blog.

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