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Driverless Cars, Wearable Tech 2.0 and IoT dominate CES 2015

The biggest annual gathering of consumer tech professionals saw the Internet of Things take centre stage as brands vied to demonstrate their keenness to connect, meanwhile, driverless cars and drones endlessly circled the auditorium…

Photo: A big eye on consumer electronics: Mercedes-Benz’s Cambot.
A big eye on consumer electronics: Mercedes-Benz's Cambot.
Photo: A big eye on consumer electronics: Mercedes-Benz’s Cambot.
A big eye on consumer electronics: Mercedes-Benz's Cambot.

From 4K OLED TVs to smart homes and curved smartphones, innovation was everywhere at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), considered the largest gathering of consumer tech professionals in the world. The real star of the show, however, was the Internet of Things (IoT) – the technology that allows devices to connect with each other digitally. For many, it is now clearly set to bring a whole new dimension to the lives of many of us.

In his keynote address, Boo-Keun Yoon, the President of Samsung and the Chief Executive of the Consumer Electronics Association, told delegates: "The Internet of Things is about people. Not things." Tellingly, he revealed that, by 2017, some 90% of his company's devices would be IoT-enabled.

His digital evangelism was reflected across the showfloor. Overall, there were few brands failing to explore the opportunities this technology brings for true cross-industry collaboration. As a result, many brand new categories of products all jostled for attention, including self-driving cars, enhanced wearable tech offerings and the ever-ubiquitous drones.

Connected Cars

A number of leading car manufacturers stole the spotlight with their take on in-car electronics and self-driving prototypes. Mercedes-Benz, for one, was at the show to introduce its F 015 Luxury in Motion concept car. It's a vehicle that looks more like a four-seater lounge, complete with swivelling chairs and hands-free entertainment controls, than a family runabout. Perhaps reassuringly, though, it did feature a token steering wheel should nostalgia grip you.

In his keynote address, Dietrich Zetsche, Mercedes' Chief Executive, said: "Cars will turn into mobile homes in the very best sense of the word. Soon vehicles will allow passengers to work, play games or catch up on much-needed sleep."

Not to be outdone, Audi sent its own concept car – the A7, but more commonly known as "Jack" – on a trip from San Francisco to Las Vegas to drum up excitement about its level of driving competence – from 0 to 70 mph. BMW, meanwhile, showed off the self-parking features of its own range, all managed by a smart watch and gesture technology.

Do consumers actually want IoT taking over their cars, though? Frank Haertl, Global Head of Automotive for GfK, an international research firm, believes they are far from convinced.

He said: "In the US, consumers want entertainment. Autonomous driving is low on their list. People don't trust the technology to make decisions for them. Maps need to be 100% accurate. Legal and ethical issues need to be addressed. They will be solved in the future, but consumers haven't bought into the concept just yet."

GfK's research also suggests that automakers are wise to cater to the needs of Generation Y. According to its findings, some 46% of drivers aged up to 34-years-old across Germany, the UK and the US, as well as more than 50% in the developing markets of Brazil, Russia and China, find the idea of a fully integrated in-car entertainment system either very or extremely appealing. They want it to stream music from their homes and communicate with their mobile devices.

Haertl said: "What the industry needs to do is find ways to let Gen Y drivers experience connected cars right now, and that means outside of the direct purchase cycle. They can then discover that these cars deliver all the emotions of excitement and pride of a car that they actually aspire to."

Smarter Wearables

For a while it seemed like activity and sleep trackers were likely to prove the peak for wearable tech. That may not be the case, however. A number of companies are now actively addressing many of the issues – notably battery life, privacy and cost – that have previously stopped the category from moving from 'fun' to 'must-have'. Several sustainable variants on old favourites are also said to be in the pipeline.

For some, the future lies with wearables moving to become fully independent smartwatches, while others see them settling down as limited-function, low-cost devices. With the development of a variety of new health applications and the introduction of some overdue fresh thinking, it's still possible that these devices may enjoy a second coming.

One clearly not ready to write them off entirely is Jim Feldhan, President of Arizona-based Semico Research. Speaking as part of the Wearables Panel of the Sensors and MEMS Technology Conference (part of the CES), he said: "The current penetration rate for wearables is only about 7%. In the next five years, if we have a must-have device, it will go up to 20%." Will the highly anticipated Apple Watch be that magic bullet? The industry is ready to be convinced.

Photo: Budgee: Your robotic personal helper.
Budgee: Your robotic personal helper.
Photo: Budgee: Your robotic personal helper.
Budgee: Your robotic personal helper.
Photo: 360° selfies courtesy of the Hexo+.
360° selfies courtesy of the Hexo+.
Photo: 360° selfies courtesy of the Hexo+.
360° selfies courtesy of the Hexo+.

In terms of major growth areas, the panel was unanimous in backing smartwatches, particularly in light of their adoption of many of the functions of activity trackers. Hearables also got a special nod as a category ripe for exploitation. Looking at the untapped potential here, Kevin Harwood, a Consulting Architect at Texas-based Mutual Mobile, said: "The wrist is a very competitive piece of real estate." Other panellists noted that consumers are already familiar with earphones, making it relatively easy to piggyback onto this existing market.

For many, the biggest obstacle facing the sector remains power and battery life. Assessing the current state of play here, Harwood said: "You have to make the sensor draw less power. As we get more wearables in our lives, people won't want to plug in five things every night. We need to look at alternative ways to charge  kinetic energy, body heat, and fabrics that passively draw solar power for instance."

As to the wearables of the future, a number of experts had their own opinion. While many expect them to become thinner and lighter and be primarily of use for health monitoring and authentication, Marwan Boustany, Senior Analyst for MEMS and Sensors at Colorado-based IHS, has a very different view. He said: "I would like to have a smartwatch that is basically a processing hub that can work with a flexible display." No doubt there will be many willing to meet his requirements. Or at least try.

Robots, Drones and Virtual Reality

If you love the Rumba vacuum cleaner that autonomously cleans your house, you'll love the rising generation of robots. CES 2015 featured a dedicated Robotics Marketplace, designed to introduce consumers to a range of intelligent machines that vary from the unbelievable to the outright eerie.

The advances here have been driven by improvements in the technology required for generating 3D models of any given environment, which has, in turn, facilitated better reach perception. Cambot, a one-eyed robot, for instance, made for a natural co-host for the launch of the Mercedes-Benz driverless car. On the showfloor, Budgee, a clear cousin, took to the Five Elements Robotics booth to display its skills as a personal helper, skills that allow it to carry up to 50lbs of supplies and to communicate with its owner via a smartphone.

Wendy Roberts, Chief Executive of the New Jersey-based firm behind Budgee, said: "We envision robots becoming part of the family, much like pets are today. Currently, robots are made to perform very specific functions. As the prices of the components drop, we expect that robots will start to have more functions, similar to today's cellphones."

Drones also merited a dedicated display area at CES 2015. Despite issues over regulations and concerns about sharing air space with commercial aircraft, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) designed for commercial and personal use are still clearly taking to new heights.

Always wanted to take a 360°-selfie but couldn't spin fast enough? There's a drone for that. The miniature Hexo+ is controlled via a smartphone app and programmed to track the user. Explaining its appeal, Medhi Mugnier, co-founder of manufacturer Squadrone Systems, said: "The real game changer today is the combination of the computing power of smartphones, affordable drones and very compact, high-quality cameras."

Should you prefer to capture a bird's eye view of your house, Canada-based Trace's Quadcopter may provide the solution. In essence, a miniature helicopter that can live stream footage, it will inevitably be coming to a neighbourhood near you soon. Is it a precursor of the long-mooted drone that will deliver online purchases to your door? CES 2016 will certainly answer that question.

If most attendees expected to be impressed by the TVs, cars and even robots, one product that generated a less-anticipated level of wow was the Oculus Rift and Crescent Bay virtual reality system. The 3D headset has long been coveted by gamers but, judging by the wraparound line to the booth, stepping into another world is now a mainstream consumer aspiration.

A clear convert was Leon Charles Farmer with Los Angeles-based Ynot/SinPelo Entertainment. Fresh from his own trip to the booth, he said: "It's amazing. You look around and our galaxy expands around you. The sun was literally spinning in my hand. I didn't want to leave."

Photo: Panasonic’s TV-intensive CES stand.
Panasonic's TV-intensive CES stand.
Photo: Panasonic’s TV-intensive CES stand.
Panasonic's TV-intensive CES stand.

The Consumer Electronic Association's 2015 International CES took place in Las Vegas from 6-9 January. This year's event broke records with 2.2 million square feet of exhibition space, 3,500 exhibitors and 170,000 attendees.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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