CES 2016 Diary: Our tech-enabled future

From hyperreal to fantastical, our environments will surround us with immersive technology, says the worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson's Innovation Group

LAS VEGAS — Two big themes emerged at CES last week. First: the impact technology will have on our global infrastructure as the "Internet of Things" tranforms our kitchens and cars into computers. Second, tech immersion: how technologies such as virtual reality and digital interfaces from our walls to our cars are enabling entertainment and retail to be more immersive.

There seems to have been a collective awakening at the conference this year on the subject of self-driving cars. For years, tech and auto brands creating clever vehicles capable of parking, making reservations and washing your hair at the same time. In 2016, companies finally moved beyond function to consider the bigger picture: how these cars could and should fit in to our lives, but how they will fit within the urban environment.

Are these cars safe? How will they integrate in to society? What do they mean for future city design? Which is better: single or shared use of autonomous cars? Who is better placed to lead this revolution — tech brands or car companies? And how can government keep up with regulations for moving objects that will not be controlled by humans?

All these questions were raised in several talks at the conference this week, including "Beyond Smart Cities: The Future of Urban Mobility," led by Kent Larson, director, of MIT Media Lab's Changing Places Group. The talk featured panelists US Secretary of Education Anthony Foxx; Dr. Volkmar Denner, CEO and CTO of Bosch (which produces a lot of technology for leading car brands); Steve Mollenkopf, CEO of Qualcomm; and Professor Amnon Shashua, co-Founder, CTO and chairman of Mobileye, a tech device that allows vehicles to sense their surroundings.

Drawing on the changing landscape of cities in general — the fact that we’re seeing the rise of megacities and urbanization; the move towards cycle-first cities; and millennials are buying fewer cars—the discussion looked at what the future of vehicles should be in this space. "The future car is connected, electrified, and automated," said Denner, adding that he sees the future vehicle as a new form of personal assistant to consumers. Though totally autonomous cars in cities are a way off, he said that their introduction would come in waves: highway driving, self-parking, and then introduced into more congested urban spaces? Watch, and wait.

The idea of tech immersion was everywhere at CES this year. When he wrote The Art of Immersion in 2013, Frank Rose considered the influence of technology on storytelling, entertainment and retail, and its power to be immersive. I thought of him many times while walking around the stands showcasing new advanced, speaker systems built into the indoor environment; virtual reality devices; speakers designed for 360 virtual reality experiences; 360 and curved TV screens. We’ll increasingly be able to submerge ourselves in technological environments that will run from hyperreal to fantastical.

I spoke with John Vary, Innovation lead at UK retailer John Lewis, and he was most excited about the potential of these immersive technologies for retail, particularly VR. "It will have a massive impact on how we sell to people. People will be able to place themselves in environments and experience what they will like, which will be much more compelling in terms of selling," he said.

Among the health-tech extravaganza at the Sands Expo, a few more interesting concepts stood out, including Mio Global, a sports wearable that focuses on meaningful fitness and long-term improvement. The fitness wearable says it can extend a user’s life by 10 years. It does so using what it calls "Personal Activity Intelligence" or PAI, which it says is much more accurate in measuring steps.

"Steps aren’t very conclusive on an individual level without taking intensity into consideration," Liz Dickinson, CEO of Mio Global, told us. "My steps around the trade show floor are nowhere near the same as someone’s steps hiking up a mountain, for example, and it also varies by individual." As the wearable health tech category becomes increasingly crowded, I believe bringing real, proven, tangible benefits, while also integrating into people’s lifestyle habits long-term, will be the differentiator of success in future.

Finally, the day ended with some glamour — or at least what passes for it at a consumer electronics trade show. YouTube Chief Business Officer Robert Kyncl delivered a keynote at the Westgate to a packed audience, in which he predicted the dominance of online video in entertainment going forward. Video platforms like YouTube, he said, will only continue to grow because of their fit with mobile, because they allow for diversity and a full spectrum of different tastes and identities, because they are well-suited to music sharing, and because they’re immersive. Outlining YouTube’s influence on entertainment and music, he bought up music mogul Scooter Braun (who discovered Justin Beiber) to the stage to talk about his use of YouTube to promote and create artists including Psy and Carly Rae Jepson.

Speaking of immersion, Kyncl also said YouTube was expanding its collaboration with GoPro to create 360 YouTube video with the newly launched GoPro Odyssey and virtual reality films with VR filming company Vrse. Prophetically, on everyone’s seat was a free Google Cardboard to take home.

Watch out, world: The future is immersive.

Lucie Greene is worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson's Innovation Group.

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