January’s annual international Consumer Electronics Show, CES in Vegas, boasted 160,000 attendees, 52,000 exhibitors and 20,000 product launches.
With crowd-funded start-ups alongside household brands, a world of ubiquitous connected technology has never seemed closer – yet simultaneously more unfathomable.
Sensors are getting ever smaller and more affordable, so it’s not whether we can digitise something... it’s when?
Technology has been democratised and, while that’s great for would-be inventors, devices are now so proliferated it’s hard to see the digital wood for the trees.
Tech pundits are feeling it. The BBC’s Mark Ward asked if CES 2015 had "lost its focus", while Pocket-lint’s Stuart Miles noted the absence of blockbuster-brand activity, suggesting: "They don’t like being told when to launch."
And while CES remains a proud pedestal for firms building their digital brand, that’s an issue too.
"This show is largely about the industry talking to itself," commented Intel’s Renée James.
Fortunately, some are mindful of a vision to shape development. This is particularly relevant to the ‘Internet of Things’ – that connected network of everyday objects made smart by sensors and processors, with data piped online for access via mobile devices.
IoT varies in quality from valuable connected systems (for example, homes and cars) to more questionable stuff seen at CES this year.
Jawbone founder Hosain Rahman shared an alternative organising principle: the ‘Internet of You’, reframing the opportunity as people-centric for genuine value – connecting things because we should, not because we can.
Taking this perspective, here are five maturing tech trends that grabbed our attention this January.
Internet of Things
Still a hot topic this year, with Vegas hosting the largest ever IoT showcase. Samsung was chasing headlines, announcing that all its hardware will be connected by 2020 – qualifying that this needs to be made ‘personal’, but invoking the quantity v quality debate nonetheless.
Wi-Fi kettles that message you when they’ve boiled or need refilling may seem like tech for tech’s sake; ditto Bluetooth-connected toothbrushes.
As per Rahman’s ‘Internet of You’, we should surely start by considering an individual’s ecosystem and seeking areas where increased connectivity could add real value to people’s lives.
Although, as IoT grows, we will see a concurrent policy debate around the privacy implications of all one’s devices communicating online.
Transport innovation remains important, with urban mobility dominating and manufacturers unveiling visionary concept cars – such as Mercedes’ F015, a svelte cocoon without windows or buttons, which it sees on the road by 2030.
But such driverless cars could be a reality within five years – some delegates arriving thus at CES to report, unanimously, they began their journeys amazed but finished bored – perhaps the tech’s biggest possible compliment?
Well on the way to mainstream, wearables at CES included third-generation smart watches, fitness trackers and VR headsets, plus exotic cousins including biometric feedback garments and MOTA’s gesture-control SmartRing.
But those awaiting the Apple Watch were disappointed; like Joey from Friends, Apple doesn’t share well with others, especially as regards launches.
One innovation of note was Intel’s button-sized Curie Module, a low-powered sensing hub/processor with Bluetooth that serves as the foundation for an array of new concepts. Intel demo’d a jacket that provides environmental feedback to a visually impaired wearer.
By nature, wearables are key to the ‘Internet of You’, but the important factor is battery life. Behaviourally, few people tolerate devices that need charging as much as their smartphone – which is expected to be a problem for the Apple Watch. The focus is therefore on low-energy screens and processors.
The next generation was unveiled, from smart drones that navigate obstacles without human intervention to Nixie, the world’s first wearable selfie drone. Currently a prototype, it launches from your wrist to capture the moment, then flies straight back.
We see robots’ utility increasing as they start to serve real purposes. Designed for filmmakers, Inspire 1 is another world-first drone – it's a 4K camera that rotates 360 degrees, sending footage back while airborne.
Being the largest, thinnest and sharpest is still the aim for display manufacturers, with big, curved 4K screens dominating CES. But many were asking if we need such product development, if content struggles to keep up.
Surely TV operating systems and user interfaces must improve before we add any more pixels? Meanwhile, High-Res audio debuted, reflecting an increasing market demand for better music quality.
Charging and Wireless Power
Some of this year’s product announcements definitely solve real problems – such as incessant device charging and cables.
The ever-connective Qualcomm unveiled WiPower, which enables wireless charging through radio frequencies – for devices including wireless keyboards as well as smartphones.
And one star of the future is Storedot, which has developed a technology that can charge your phone in seconds by changing the architecture of the battery itself.
So, while democratisation is great, because it makes innovation accessible, it’s a double-edged sword precisely because it makes innovation accessible.
If we’re looking for real value creation from the application of technology, we need a clear vision to focus developments against anticipated behaviours and new solutions – and avoid simply proliferating connected things.
Future winners will focus less on products and profits, and more on people and purpose. In this light, CES 2016 could perhaps benefit from revisiting its organising principle.
Dan Machen is Director of Innovation at Brave.
For more on latest tech and innovation, watch our SXSW 2014 talks below.
Last updated 29/01/2015