CES 2018 – The Magnificent Seven (things we learned)

As 185,000 people descended on Las Vegas, booked up all the hotel rooms and clogged up all the roads, here are a few thoughts from CES 2018 (and thankfully it wasn’t just about yet another big TV screen!)

1. Is it a tech show or an automotive show?

Some of the biggest players at CES weren’t tech companies, but car companies. Ford, KIA, Mazda and others had gone to town with some impressive technologies. It really felt that these companies had thought through the user experience for self-driving cars (I can now watch the football in the car rather than having to drive and I can have a drink when I go out) and how that can make people’s lives easier (I don’t need to go looking for a parking space, I can get out next to my house and the car can find it’s own parking space). It was also noticeable how different companies presented their approach – Byton was all about bringing your digital life from outside of the car into the car (well, that’s what they said in their presentation and is not surprising when you consider how many ex-Apple employees are there), whilst KIA was all about making your life easier which they showed through a very compelling use-case demonstration in a rather unnervingly clean and perfect world. Mercedes on the other hand felt very German – slick, all silver and black, cars going faster – and a little out of place.

However, I couldn’t help thinking about how this all works in the real world where it’s not such a controlled environment. I trust that the sensors will be good enough to pick up the kid running into the road and that the flow of traffic should be efficiently managed. But what happens when 40,000 self driving cars all turn up at a sports stadium – how do you manage them all, what connectivity is required for such a peak, where do they all go whilst the game is on? These are going to have structural implications for buildings and cities that were designed long before anyone thought of a self-driving car.

2. Voice is where it’s at

It seemed that voice controlled personal assistants were everywhere. Whilst the “Hey Google” branding was pretty impossible to miss, Amazon’s Alexa seemed to be cropping up in most of the conversations – whether with startups, amongst VCs or with established companies. Nowhere was this more evident that at the sessions Amazon held about Alexa – the ones I attended were standing-room-only and I had to employ my best British accent to sweet talk my way past the lady on the door!

Alexa seems to have moved beyond the gimmicks into genuine use-cases that would actually start to have benefit for people

Thankfully the world of Alexa seems to have moved beyond the gimmicks into genuine use-cases (many of them wonderfully simple) that would actually start to have benefit for people – saving them time, giving them more access to information and making them more productive. This is then creating whole new opportunities (and challenges) for media companies, retailers and brands who now have yet another way to engage consumers. In the content world, it will also create a whole new set of assets that can then be further commercialised.

It will be interesting to see what impact the voice assistants have on mobile usage.  Much of my iPhone activity is spent checking weather, if the train is on time and where my meeting is – could Alexa do it quicker for me? Why bother taking 30 seconds to check the traffic on an app on my phone in the morning when Alexa can tell me the answer whilst I’m eating my toast. Those slides about the world being “mobile first” might start to look very dated very quickly ….

3. There are some gems amongst the unnecessary crap

If you’ve never been, then the basic thing to know is that CES is huge. Really huge. There are thousands of exhibiting companies and the reality is that most of them aren’t that interesting (I lost count of the amount of fitbit rip-offs), are wonderfully ridiculous (the bot that folds your clothes for you and the AR toothbrush – the first I want and the second my kids need) or genuinely unnecessary (AI for dog food?) but in amongst all the rubbish are some absolute gems. If you are prepared to push past all the people, have some comfortable trainers and are willing to be patient it’s worth the effort. For example, in the “Eureka” startup hall there were 800 companies – I found 2 that really interested me. But they have the potential to be really, really good!

4. Long live experiential marketing

It feels a bit weird to say that one of the biggest take-aways from a tech show, was the enduring sense of the power of experiential marketing. Putting aside the investment made by car brands, the money spent on their stands by the likes of LG, Panasonic and Intel must have been eye-watering. But for the firms that invested, they really got their message across.

 

For example, LG’s Canyon experience was made up of walls of OLED screens. It was seriously impressive and had people queuing up to walk through with their cameras filming. (I admit it, I did it too and it was very cool). Ultimately, CES may have been a trade show, but there were thousands of people who all love a bit of tech – the prime audience for a company like LG. It really re-enforced that any event that can provide large numbers of people who are the right audience, should be a serious experiential option for brands.

5. Sport is now a tech player

Given that many of the people I was meeting at CES were in the sports / media / tech industry, I wasn’t surprised that sports was well represented. I was however surprised at just how big it was – with a significant stage run by Turner Broadcasting and the Sports Innovation Lab sports had its own distinct feel – just as automotive, smart homes or drones did. It certainly helped to have Turner present their “Inside the NBA” programme from there, but with Samsung’s sports-focused activations (heavy on the skiing and snowboarding for the winter games) and the sports use-cases from Intel, sports genuinely felt that it belonged at CES.

6. The importance of brand

The amount of fitbit and Apple Watch rip-offs was very noticeable – but it also really emphasised the importance of building a great brand that consumers buy into. The reality is that most of these products (generally from Taiwan or China) are not technically any better or worse than the original products, but Apple and fitbit have built brands that people want to be a part of and that reflect a desired status on the user. Yes, Apple has created an eco-system that locks you in but it was no surprise that these stalls were very quiet whilst people crammed in to see their favourite brands – because people will pay a premium for the brands they connect with.

Apple and fitbit have built brands that people want to be a part of and that reflect a desired status on the user

7. Technology shows don’t work without power

You may have heard that the lights went out on the second morning – for quite a while too. Whilst this was only in one of the halls, so the majority of exhibitors were unaffected, it did show how vulnerable any technology is to somebody just pulling the plug out (or in this case, just too much rain apparently!). We were left with the glow from people’s laptops and mobile phones – and at the Intel stand, a lady took to the stage and played a violin (which was a bit spooky) to great applause. I want to know why she decided to bring a violin with her to CES!

Written by Charlie 

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CES is the world’s gathering place for all those who thrive on the business of consumer technologies. It has served as the proving ground for innovators and breakthrough technologies for 50 years — the global stage where next-generation innovations are introduced to the marketplace. Owned and produced by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), it attracts the world’s business leaders and pioneering thinkers.

Top image © CES

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