The good, the bad and the 5G: tales of an ad industry exec’s first CES

Having been to Austin for SXSW interactive for the last six years, this was my first visit to the CES and indeed my first to Las Vegas – a chance to compare and contrast. I don’t need to describe Vegas but one observation you might not expect: it’s increasingly catering to the Chinese market. The latest hotel casino to open, Lucky Dragon, is the first dedicated to this market and was backed by Chinese investors. All front of house staff speak Mandarin & Cantonese, all five restaurants serve primarily Chinese cuisine. A sign of the times.

Onto CES, the Consumer Electronics Show. Now in its 50th year, in recent times and with technology eating the world, it has broadened its remit to cover tech more widely and as such is attracting a less trade-specific audience. It has 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space and around 180,000 people attend. About five times as many as SXSW Interactive.

It is very much a product expo with a conference attached. Dozens of talks rather than thousands. But thousands of exhibitors rather than dozens. There’s no other way to immerse yourself than to hit the halls – my buddy and old CES hand, Will Harvey from VCCP clocked up 25,000 steps on Saturday alone.

There is a vast amount of product chaff to cut through. Instead of pitching TV shows – Cooking in Prison, Monkey Tennis, Inner-city Sumo - imagine Alan Partidge inventing tech products: vibrating underpants, robot cat litter trays, an AI desk lamp, Connected Hairbrush, levitating stereo speakers, underwater fishing drone.

Joking aside, it is powerful to see blue chip manufacturers bet heavily on tech that only a year or two ago at SXSW felt bleeding edge. Hearing Ford’s Global Head of Strategy talk about their shift from car manufacturing to mobility service provider is a little grittier than Elon Musk unveiling the Hyperloop concept, but will have an impact on our industry a little sooner.

Transportation transformation was a key CES theme. Automakers dominated an entire exhibition hall, competing to showcase their connected cars and autonomous concept cars, and there was even a 3D printed car thrown in for good measure. Whilst on the surface the most eyecatching partnership was probably Nissan teaming up with Nasa to develop self-driving cars, we also saw VW on stage for the Qualcomm keynote and a Qualcomm Snapdragon-branded (more on that later) Massarati. Leaving cars behind, the transportation of goods competes with aerial image/video capture as the key purpose of the plethora of drones on display. Amazon completed its first UK drone delivery in the UK last month and has even patented a fantastical floating airship warehouse from which an army of drones would descend to deliver goods. How will drones navigate? Well Qualcomm’s mobile processor, Snapdragon, allows autonomous onboard navigation via computer vision and machine learning.

These are forms of Artificial Intelligence which was a second key theme at CES. These themes overlap rather than being discrete with autonomous car and drone transportation reliant on AI. AI generally infuses other technologies and services making them smarter and more self-reliant in working on our behalf. You can find further examples of this in as disparate products as fridges, wearables and lamps.

One specific area of AI is worthy of being a CES theme in its own right: digital personal assistants with voice as an interface. From the beginning of modern voice recognition research in 1995 to as recently as 2013 ‘word error rates’ of software had risen from 100% to only a still significant 23%. Now however, WER has dropped to a human equivalent level of 5%. While there are a number of players at CES including an award winning UK DPA called Olly, it’s Amazon Echo / Alexa that is the stand out winner of this year’s shpw. With 1,500 apps integrating Alexa before the show, CES announcements are estimated to have increased this to 2,200 now. Here is a little cross section of what Alexa integration can now do for you.

One further key theme that left me underwhelmed was augmented and virtual reality. Without doubt there is progress and unit numbers shipped are starting to accumulate: 5 million Samsung Gear headsets have been sold. But these are tethered to high spec PCs to deliver any kind of immersive experience, and content experience is relatively weak and narrow. The processing power and latency (the lag between instructing something to happen and it actually happening) issues are a massive limiting factor for AR & VR. But this brings me on to what I’ve concluded is the single most significant development presented at CES: 5G.

It is not simply about faster mobile download speeds. 5G, which will likely begin roll out at soon as 2018, is being built with reliability in mind. There will be a trusted mobile connection that is secure, private and reliable – essential for mission critical services like trusting your car to drive itself (and you) home. In addition uplinking data will be as fast as downloading – think Facebook Live in 4K. Finally, 5G will deliver a latency of 1 millisecond – effectively no lag at all – VR/AR will only really come into their own when this is available. This is the world that the aforementioned Qualcomm Snapdragon processor has been built with in mind. By 2020, 5G will provide the backbone to pretty much every near sci-fi tech we’re seeing launched now. Until then we’ll have to make to with Alexa taking over.

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