CES 2018: The year when the voice-activated IoT lineup finally spoke to me

Photo: YouTube/Kohler
Photo: YouTube/Kohler

From faucets that listen to TVs that watch you back, even smarter appliances are on the way.

This year’s CES brought the usual fare of gadget porn, and even a little blackout drama. But what probably stuck out most to me wasn’t the plethora of new devices. It was the iterations on ideas from last year that took shape into product features that were actually useful.

Take Voice for example. Last year, everything was Alexa-enabled. The footnote on every cool new gadget was that it came installed with Alexa, whether it seemed to need it or not. In most cases this ubiquity felt like it had more to do with Amazon claiming territory over Google than it did well-thought-out product features.

Last year, Google was catching up to Amazon with their Home product. Amazon was taking advantage of their position as a first mover to put Alexa everywhere. The results were things like Alexa-enabled refrigerators, but no one could really explain why you needed a Voice AI in your fridge, especially when you probably have an Echo or Dot around your kitchen. 

This year, voice-enabled products felt a little more neutral to the Amazon/Google war. Many of the home gadgets I previewed included support for either Google Assistant or Alexa, or even their own set of Voice AI developed just for their product.

The standout here for me was Kohler, and its range of smart bathroom and kitchen fixtures. If you would have told me that showers or a kitchen sink could be made better through voice and machine learning five days ago, I would have thought it a stretch. But Kohler’s products make a ton of sense.

Their shower not only learns my preferences, but will limit water waste by coming up to temperature, turning off, then waiting for me to step in before coming back on. This kind of smart feature is especially promising in a period where swaths of the country are susceptible to drought. 

And the kitchen sink? You can specify exactly how much water you want. Need two and a third cups of water for that recipe? Just ask for it, no measuring cup required. 

Unlike last year, where Voice felt like a bolt-on to new products, these use-cases add real value for consumers (though I’m still skeptical of their smart toilet). 

Similar leaps in utility were on display with products that employed computer vision. 2017 was a big year for advancements in GPUs, and you could see that through a jump in the capabilities of machine learning and computer vision.

eyeSight, an Israeli machine learning/AI company, was a standout here. Using a simple living room setting at its booth, attendees could sit on a couch in front of a television, and a camera on that television would sense who you were and suggest your favorite shows. If it didn’t already know you, it could make assumptions about your preferences given what the camera could see (age, gender, etc.)

You could then control the television through a series of simple gestures that felt very intuitive, like putting your finger to your lips to mute the sound. This felt like a big step forward from other gesture-based controls of the past that often required you to learn what felt like a new form of sign language. And never losing my remote again? Big plus!

Whirlpool showed a similarly great use of computer vision in the 2.0 version of its recipe app, Yummly. The new app lets you use your camera phone to scan the contents of your fridge and pushes recipe recommendations based on the ingredients you have on hand. The app is connected to new Whirlpool smart appliances, so you can control your kitchen from the recipe itself. No more forgetting to preheat the oven. And Yummly integrates with Instacart, so you can re-up on groceries once you’re done. 

Many kitchen products have tried to achieve these use-cases, usually through scanning bar codes on packaged goods or manually entering produce into some kind of app, but they’ve always fallen short due to a clunky user experience. 

The success with all these examples is that they remove friction for consumers. Either friction that they know about—"What can I cook with these groceries tonight?"—or some that they don’t—"The sink can’t measure water for me." In all cases, considering the value these features bring to the consumer experience, versus the optics of leveraging the latest digital trend, is the root of their success.

And next year, expect to see some new innovation on the flashlight, which at least some conventioneers could have used during the great blackout of 2018. 

Gabe Garner is SVP, Business Planning, at New York-based design and innovation company, Firstborn. He is also one of Campaign US' 2017 Digital 40 Over 40 honorees.

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