Tom Goodwin: what a skeptic thinks you can learn from CES

Tom Goodwin is head of innovation at Zenith Media. A writer and speaker, Goodwin is the author of Digital Darwinism: Survival of the Fittest in the Age of Business Disruption. Previously, he has spoken at leading conferences and industry events around world, including Cannes Lions and CES.

Tom Goodwin’s take on CES. Picture by Celeny Da Silva.

If the pace of change is so fast, why does CES seem to change so little? If it’s a guide to the future, then why has nothing shown here in my memory ever taken off? If these companies are so smart, then why do they make so many stupid things?

Here is what I took away from CES this year.

Just the Facts

For a start ignore most things you read today. Voice may be an interesting way to heat food or listen to the radio, but does it really mean that much for what we do? Artificial intelligence may indeed be the future, but it’s a marketing term to mean “rather smart”, not something of any precision. And if you want a see a proper thread on what most people see, the new screens, new mobility, the future of interaction, my piece here still works well, it’s from four years ago incidentally.

CES is less of a light that shines into the future and more a mirror that reflects the corporate agenda of technology companies, it’s what happens when people believe the nonsense spouted by certain consultancies, and make what people in white coats are proud of, rather than doing the boring job of listening to and observing consumers.

Digital Serenity

We seem to be more stressed, tired, overwhelmed and distracted than ever. We’ve added more media and choices to our life and feel somewhat transfixed by the allure of the screen at the rush of notifications.

From brain wave radiating massage chairs and brain calming headsets to apps to aid mindfulness, there seemed to be a huge line of products of all natures trying to help us retain serenity or sanity.

It seems in this environment the role of brands and communication that help us decide, that help us navigate choice and complexity, are more important than ever.

Design and Integration

For a long time, CES has been about products and not solutions. We’ve had smart-fridges with cameras inside, $100k TV sets with ugly remote controls and terrible on-screen menus, we’ve had disparate devices looking for use cases. Slowly this year I saw a bit more thought and some amazing design.

Changhong made a range of stunning TV sets, some built into beautiful furniture, Panasonic showed a smart-mirror which seemed to augment the morning routine beautifully and empathetically. The Smart Sofa was made by Milliboo which shakes, heats up and makes sounds to create an immersive experience and all while wirelessly charging your phone.

In fact, from mural digital art frames to Samsung’s larger and stunning The Frame TV, I finally saw aesthetics in technology and it made me happy. One thing to note was how involved Chinese companies were in this.

We’ve long felt that many Chinese companies cheaply copied what was developed elsewhere, then we saw rapidly produced parity products, but this year saw many Chinese companies offer the most outlandish but considered products. It’s time we look east for inspiration.

Modular Upgrades

We’ve become used to the ability of software to improve products overnight. Sonos speakers sound better, Tesla cars drive further and faster, TV’s get more channels, all thanks to firmware upgrades over the air. For hardware makers, life has been hard, but this year we saw an array of physical add-ons to older devices to make them better.

From parking sensors and adaptive cruise control on cars to SatPaq - a device that makes cheap phones become satellite phones, to Fibaro that makes dumb devices smartly connected via Z-Wave, to Tom-E that makes cyclists feel the power of navigation on the go. Now all brands need to think less of what you buy once, but more in terms of what is the long term feeling of ownership.

Assisted Living

Technology has always focussed first on those who are young, healthy, wealthy and curious. It’s what’s easiest to sell but most frivolous. As changing demographics mean the planet gets older, wealth spreads to emerging economies as tech companies slowly see the value to be added in helping those who need more help, we’re finally seeing solutions to problems that add massive value to those who are more fragile.

CES this year saw a plethora of wearables for the elderly and vulnerable, it saw a huge array of devices for personal safety, for helping those who may fall.

From smart canes for those with poor sight to Hyundai's walking car to help those with difficult access issues, even the huge rise of voice as an interface is a promising way for people with different mobility to get the most from the modern age. Brands need to rapidly work around technology to help solve problems faced by the many, not the lucky few.

Some smaller things to note

Touchscreens are everywhere, especially where they shouldn’t. Carmakers appear to be especially stupid when it comes to removing the buttons we all love because the road is a good place to look.

Rooms on wheels abound. We’ve now assumed that self-driving cars will take over and that this means we want a living room on wheels. Few companies seem aware of the reality of how far away this will be. More promisingly are autonomous delivery pods. The clear stupidity of drone delivery is behind us as is using two tonnes of a car per pizza. I’m excited about this development.

Complexity. I’ve had a smart home in five different forms for eight years and it’s the dumbest thing I’ve done. I’m now part-time tech support to 12 plugs and my weekly schedule is now software upgrades and security patches, all so I can have Alexa not know what I mean. I continue to see systems that are based on us speaking in complex ways to systems likely to fail, be insecure and sell our data.

Please, can we make things simple again? Automation can be a part of this.

I love coming to CES, I love the energy and above all else, I love the optimism. It now seems anyone with a dream and no garage can get funding, leverage shared code, dropshipping and Squarespace, but a part of me feels miserable.

To run a startup you have to think you can change the world. But you also need good friends to tell you if you’re idea is crap. Perhaps startups are too easy, perhaps barriers to entry make us think, perhaps skepticism and optimism are good, but we need to get better at saying no. Constraints are a marvelous thing.

Tom Goodwin is the executive vice president of innovation at Zenith

The Drum is on the ground at CES 2019. Read our coverage of the event here.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.