Tech for tech’s sake? The highs and lows of CES – From VCRs to fitness-tracking forks

As another CES drew to a close, the marketing community was abuzz with excitement over the tech on offer. But with thousands of products launched every year, each promising to be more disruptive than the last, only a handful stand the test of time while others nosedive faster than you can say ‘fitness-tracking fork’. Gillian West reflects on some of the CES highs and lows from over the years.

Over the years the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has launched numerous life-changing products, from VCRs and CD players in the 70s and 80s to the Xbox and drones in the 00s, but for every great piece of tech there are thousands of gizmos and gimmicks that fail to hit the spot.

“It’s fairly rare to get these seminal products coming out of CES; you could probably count them on one hand,” says Matt Round, creative director at Tangerine. “The Walkman in the 80s changed the way we could listen to music, but big changes like that don’t come along all that often.”

Described by product designer Clive Grinyer, who currently serves as Barclays’ customer experience director, as “a celebration of what technology can do, but people don’t really want,” it’s now been 14 years since the last ‘earth shattering’ CES announcement, when in 2001 former Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates took to the stage and revealed the Xbox.

The Drum takes a stroll down memory lane to relive some of the triumphs and tragedies of CES.

FLOPS

Year after year CES unleashes thousands of products that fail to live up to the hype. The saying ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ springs to mind when it comes to these technological duds.

Apple Newton

Apple no longer appears at CES and there could be a good reason for that, with well-publicised flops including Apple Pippin and Apple Newton under its belt.

Introduced in 1993, the Apple Newton was a personal digital assistant (PDA) device that required users to write out messages with a stylus. It could take notes, store contacts, and manage calendars and – admittedly – was ambitious for the early 90s.

It was clearly a little too ahead of its time as Apple chose to cease development in 1998.

Microsoft watch

CES 2014 was awash with wearable tech, from Swarovski encrusted fitness trackers to smartphone reading glasses, but wearables are nothing new and back in 2003 Microsoft failed to set the world alight with its SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) Watch.

Revealed to the world by Bill Gates during the keynote speech, observers claimed Gates himself was embarrassed by the device’s “clunkiness”.

Though Microsoft’s vision for a wearable device that would personalise household electronics and objects was ahead of its time, development stopped in 2006 and the project was officially shut down in 2008.

Palm Pre

The only high in the short history of the Palm Pre smartphone’s existence was winning the Best in Show at CES 2009.

Praised for its WebOS operating system, consumers found issues with the hardware and it was quickly overshadowed by Google’s Android phones by those looking for an alternative to the iPhone.

In the UK O2 shelled out on a short-lived exclusivity deal with Palm, hoping to emulate the success of a similar agreement it had with Apple in 2007 for the iPhone, but following customer complaints the mobile operator shunned Palm’s follow-ups. Palm’s WebOS was killed off three years after HP acquired the company for $1.2bn.

Hapifork

In 2013 HapiLabs launched a Bluetooth connected fork at CES that could monitor and track eating habits.

Soon after the Hapifork was unveiled, Esquire magazine deemed it “an annoying utensil that you will never buy” relegating it to the ranks of CES “infomercial duds”.

Mariel Brown, associate director and head of trends at Seymourpowell, says that despite the publicity afforded to the product it was a “concept that did not quite find an appetite with consumers”.

3D TV

Big news at CES in 2010, 2011 and 2012, Grinyer deems 3D TV “one of the greatest disasters of mankind”.

Panasonic’s TC-PVT25 series kicked things off, winning the Best of CES in 2010, with a slew of manufacturers following suit. By 2013, however, the BBC had called it quits on 3D broadcasting despite 1.5m UK homes owning a 3D TV set. Sales of 3D TVs in the US fell to an all-time low of 4.2 per cent at the end of 2014.

SUCCESSES

Every so often CES throws up a revolutionary product that finds its way into the hearts and minds of consumers. For manufacturers, creating that diamond in the rough is the ultimate goal of CES.

Videocassette Recorder

Phillips N1500 Videocassette Recorder (VCR) arguably put CES on the map when it debuted at the trade show back in 1970.

Though technically around since the mid-1950s, the Phillips VCR allowed households around the world to easily record TV shows for the first time, gaining mass market appeal in 1975 when more major firms got involved in their development.

VCRs fought off competition from Betamax and remained a household staple throughout the 80s and 90s. In the 00s the VCR was eventually toppled by the DVD player, which also launched at CES in 1996, and then the Blu-Ray, another CES success that first appeared in 2003.

Xbox

Numerous games consoles have been launched at CES and though many have failed – the Atari Jaguar and Apple Pippin, to name but two – Microsoft had a hit with the Xbox in 2001.

Something of a slow burner to begin with, Microsoft’s patience paid off when a decade later the console became the world’s number one game system, with Xbox Live (first launched in 2002) leading the charge to seamlessly connect gamers online.

Currently behind Sony’s PlayStation 4 as the world’s number one console, the future looks bright for the Xbox One, the latest evolution.

Drones

At CES 2010 French company Parrot was one of the first to debut consumer-centric drones. Tipped for great things, AKQA’s Jones recalls Parrot’s AR drone at the time of launch when it was “ultimately an expensive toy”. “Wind forward to 2015 and CES has an entire hall dedicated to drones and, most importantly, various business models alongside them,” he comments.

“The fact is with the advancement of technology, drones are set to disrupt many industries and open up more opportunities for humanity.”

Amazon announced drone delivery service Amazon Prime Air in 2013, while last year saw Google demonstrate the potential for automatic deliveries through its Project Wing trials. Brands have also started using drones in campaigns, such as Coca-Cola’s ‘Happiness from the Skies’ campaign in Singapore.

Smart Homes

Smart homes have been around the block a couple of times at CES first appearing in 2012 with the likes of Sony, Samsung and LG all showcasing ways to integrate smart capabilities into the home.

Despite little take-up over the last three years the smart home is back with a bang and Seymourpowell’s Brown predicts 2015’s more “accessible and approachable route” to be a winner.

“Belkin’s WEMO range of smart accessories and plug-ins allow users to transform dumb objects into smart ecosystems,” she adds.

With 25bn devices predicted to be connected to the internet in 2015 and the internet of things taking shape, this time smart homes “may just live up to the hype” says Brown.

4K TV

4K TV arrived at CES in 2014 and was an “unexpected win,” according to Seymourpowell’s Brown.

Though many predicted the technology would fail to “excite” consumers and that adoption would be slow due to lack of content, 4K commitments from Netflix and Amazon have created healthy sales figures.

Ben Jones, chief technology officer at AKQA, adds that 4K creates “the FOMO (fear of missing out) moment” amongst consumers, encouraging them to “upgrade out of the normal replacement cycle”.

Recent predictions show 4K TVs are likely to be part of 10 per cent of US households by the end of 2018, and data from HIS shows that 4K TV shipments reached over one million per month in March 2014.

This issue was first published in the 21 January issue of The Drum, which you can purchase at The Drum store.

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