The future is here: a look back at CES 2018

Some of the technologies and trends that were greeted with awe in years past are now maturing, finding their place and providing real-world value in the here and now, says AKQA's head of emerging technologies.

There are always exciting things to see at CES—it’s a fantastic and fascinating opportunity to look at the very latest developments at the cutting edge of technology, such as Sophia the robot, LG’s huge roll-up OLED screens, the impressive Hypervsn hologram system from Kino-mo and the increasingly sophisticated autonomous vehicles that so many of the automotive companies are showing off this year. Awe-inspiring and thought-provoking though these things and many others are, we are always very aware that they are unlikely to have a large impact on our everyday lives right now, being either aimed at large events and retailers or even existing right now merely as prototypes and concepts.

On the other hand, much of CES 2018 is much the same as you might have seen at CES 2017, just one year on. Smart homes, VR headsets, connected cars, voice assistants and drones in abundance can create a feeling of "here it all is again." Mundane as this sounds, it is actually interesting to see some of the technologies and trends that were once greeted with awe now maturing, finding their place and providing real-world value in the here and now.

The smart home is a case in point, with some impressive appliances on show that are very much of the present rather than the future. The Samsung Family Hub Fridge, Somfy intelligent outdoor security camera system and the Kohler Konnect smart bathroom range are all evidence that the truly smart home made up of genuinely useful smart appliances really is within our reach in the here and now, rather than existing purely as a future aspiration. Of course, these appliances are not cheap, but as more manufacturers add to the availability of smart appliances at different price points we can expect to see the smart home become the norm and not the dream. 

One particularly desirable smart home appliance is Laundroid, the first artificially intelligent laundry sorting and folding robot created by Seven Dreamers. The rather blurry live feed direct from inside the machine while it worked didn’t exactly make for compelling viewing, but this is definitely on the wish-list. However, at $16,000, the wish-list is where it is likely to remain.

Staying with AI, the battle between Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant for smart assistant domination was well and truly on at CES 2018, and has quite possibly been the biggest story of the event. The original form factor—where these smart assistants are housed in their own smart speakers, Amazon Echo and Google Home respectively—was only ever an introduction to the world of voice interaction, and it has been reported that Alexa has been integrated into 4,000 products at CES 2018, with Google Assistant in around 1,500, including dishwashers, laptops, televisions, AR headsets and cars.

The rapid rise of the voice assistant over the past couple of years has taken us to the point where talking to an inanimate object that talks back to us is now a completely accepted, normalized mainstream behavior, and this mainstream acceptance has opened the door to this explosion of adoption by manufacturers of all kinds of products. This has also led to some of these manufacturers effectively taking sides, and some, like Whirlpool, quite sensibly, providing the option for either. 

While voice assistants quickly became mainstream, the adoption of virtual reality rather stalled.  A lot of this is due to the cost of the high-end headsets and laptops required for a premium experience, leading to an audience comprised largely of gamers and tech enthusiasts. There is some light at the end of the tunnel on the computer front, however, with a number of high-spec gaming laptops unveiled at CES that will be far more affordable, notably the Dell XPS 15 and HP Spectre machines, among others.

On the headset front, CES 2018 contained many pretty generic Google Cardboard-esque headsets that were generally fairly uninspiring, but it was good to see an upgrade from HTC to its Vive headset, the Vive Pro, boasting far superior image and audio. It is slightly disappointing that it is still a wired headset, so we’re going to have to wait for the HTC Wireless Adapter to resolve that one.

A company bringing something different to the VR headset arena is LuxidLabs, whose LooxidVR headset includes both eye tracking and EEG sensors (for reading brain activity). Being able to respond to eye movement and recognize emotional changes creates new opportunities for interaction, and could also prove useful in academia. In the field of AR, where perhaps immediate applications in the mainstream world have been more obvious, it has been interesting to see in the new Vuzix Blade glasses a realisation of the potential offered by Google Glass a few years ago.

At least as exciting were developments for creators for VR and 360 content. Only a short time ago, the equipment required to produce high-quality 360° video content or create true stereoscopic VR was expensive enough to limit such endeavors to production companies, but we have seen products at CES 2018 that bring these capabilities within the reach of many enthusiasts. Point-and-shoot VR180 cameras developed by the Google Daydream team in partnership with Lenovo, LG and Yi will be available soon, democratizing the creation of immersive VR content. For 360 video, the Kodak range of cameras are particularly impressive, with even the top of the range professional kit coming in around the $700-800 mark. Indeed, the reborn Kodak had a number of beautifully designed products on show. 

The big wave made by Kodak was, of course, it’s cryptocurrency announcement. There had to be a cryptocurrency announcement from someone at CES 2018, but I’m not sure anyone saw it coming from Kodak. In the wake of recent stories of companies using cryptocurrency announcements to create PR and affect stock prices there was some initial skepticism here, but actually the problem of managing the rights of photographers seems like an appropriate one for a blockchain ledger solution, and so KodakCoin may well turn out to be a successful application of these technologies to solve real problems, rather than merely jumping on the bandwagon.

CES 2018 was crowded, hectic and almost impossible to get around to see everything, but he themes were many and varied. As always at CES, it’s easy to come away with an inspired vision of the future. This time however, it is the possibilities available in the present that really made an impression.

Andy Hood is Head of Emerging Technologies at AKQA.