Leaving Las Vegas: 7 takeaways from CES 2020
CES—the largest consumer technology show on the planet—peeked into the future this week by displaying gadgets, gear and gimmicks that may or may not ever make it into the mass market. From Uber Air Taxis from Hyundai to Samsung’s “Ballie,” a small rolling personal robot that the electronics giant says “understands you, supports you, and reacts to your needs to be actively helpful around the house,” CES offered a little something for everyone.
But amid the hype, brands and platforms must confront some cold, hard realities: How will they unleash all this wizardry without violating consumer’s privacy? Or how will they make use of the much-discussed (but still far away from widespread implementation) upgrade to 5G high-speed networks in a way that actually improves people’s lives?
Those topics garnered some discussion during panels at the show, which drew more than 170,000 attendees and 4,500 exhibiting companies to Las Vegas, including countless marketing and agency execs that have turned the show into one of the biggest networking weeks of the year. But CES, at its core, remains a giant, sprawling and congested hype show where brands and vendors compete for attention about how they are supposedly solving for the future needs of consumers.
Below, a look what stood out this year.
Everyone loves privacy, but details bite Apple
Privacy has become a topic that brands, platforms and agencies must check off in their presentations, usually with solemn declarations of how seriously they take it. Such promises were abundant at CES, including from Apple, which made its first appearance in 28 years. Senior Director of Global Privacy Jane Horvath used her time on a chief privacy officer panel to further the company’s marketing position as a staunch privacy defender. But the first audience question was from a Washington Post tech columnist who alleged that Apple’s “What happens on an iPhone stays on an iPhone” billboard during last year’s CES wasn’t backed up by action. He said he found thousands of third-party apps sucking in his iPhone data. Horvath said Apple regularly reviews app developers and has strong permission controls for location data to prevent problems.
Procter & Gamble Chief Privacy Officer Susan Shook said the company wants marketers and platforms to join in creating a “nutrition label” for privacy, clarifying for people exactly what data they’re giving up for what purpose. She acknowledged things have changed a lot from the days when her company was “ostracized regularly” by developers for insisting on privacy details. “When I sit down with tech companies now,” she said, “they come prepared.”
5G is here, but now what?
As in previous years, 5G was a big topic. But with carriers now putting the higher-speed networks in market, the conversation took on more urgency as brands touted how they will take advantage of the technological leap. But much of what was discussed still seemed like futuristic hype. Samsung, for instance, at its exhibit ran regular presentations called “5G and vehicle to everything” that touted how 5G will enable cars to communicate with pedestrians, traffic lights and buildings, so that, for instance, a child waiting for a school bus would get instant notification if the bus ran into traffic and was taking a new route.
Inseego Corp., a provider of 5G tech, took its message to the sky, using planes to skywrite “5G is taking flight” on Tuesday morning above the Strip. But once 5G becomes widespread, all the hype might fade as 5G providers and proponents grapple with consumer expectations that it fulfills its promise. “It will become like oxygen. You’ll only talk about it when it sucks,” Doug Rozen, chief media officer at Dentsu-owned agency 360i, predicted in an interview.
Flying taxis and a ‘woven city’
Self-driving cars were again a topic at CES. Attendees could hail a self-driving Lyft—the company has been operating self-driving cars in Vegas since 2018 as part of a pilot program that includes humans riding shotgun as a safety measure. But auto brands at CES seemed intent on touting how their futuristic solutions will move way beyond cars. Hyundai, which announced its aerial rideshare network concept in partnership with Uber, showed it off at its exhibit by using VR headsets that allowed attendees to see what it would be like to summon the on-demand aircraft—which look like glorified helicopters—to take a trip from Oakland to San Francisco. Toyota announced plans to build a city-of-the-future at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan that will be filled with automated technology that it says will “liberate the residents from basic tasks.”
Beware of ‘Scare tech’
The show floor was filled with plenty of technology designed to capitalize on people’s fears of just about everything, which was dubbed “scare tech” by Pete Blackshaw, CEO of Cincinnati startup champion Cintrifuse and former chief digital officer of Nestle.
For instance, Wazo Security displayed facial detection, weapon detection and fall detection technology (an Ad Age reporter caught in the gaze of a live demo camera, appears to be face number 254606 in the database). There were also purveyors of deepfake detection and voice anti-spoofing tech and H-Bots “redefining surveillance.” The best (or worst) name in the crowd of products was SeizeFace, promising face identification made easy.
Watching for a ‘social recession’
Seemingly nothing can slow the growth of social media and influencer marketing. But some CES panelists were worried it might happen, with a few bringing up the prospect of a “social recession”—the idea that marketers might get sick of shoveling ever larger piles of money into social media. One panelist brought up the notion that we may be nearing “peak influencer,” though there’s no sign yet that marketers are getting tired of hiring semi-pros and content creators of various follower sizes to spread the word. Indeed, there’s no sign consumers are getting sick of it all either.
Tania Yuki, CEO of Shareablee, which tracks the content created by thousands of brands and influencers, says that while 2019 data isn’t final yet, preliminary numbers indicate brand content on Instagram increased 10 percent last year, and people’s engagement with that content—likes, shares, etc.—increased 20 percent.
Sex tech breaks through, but cannabis still banned
CES let sex-toy companies exhibit on the show floor for the first time in its 53-year history. Lora DiCarlo—who got a CES Innovation Award last year, only to have it revoked and then returned a few months later—was among them. Her company’s Ose “hands-free robotic massager designed for blended orgasms” (of both the clitoral and G-spot varieties) got to show off in the “Sleep Tech” area, not far from the P&G LifeLab. DiCarlo was also on a panel discussing the difficulties sex-tech startups face raising venture capital.
Still, cannabis tech remains banned from the show, even though recreational pot is legal in Vegas, with dispensaries and their ads plastered all over the Strip. The ban did not stop Keep Labs, which sells “smart storage” devices for pot paraphernalia, from winning a CES innovation award. But as TechCrunch reported, the company declined an invitation to appear on the show floor because it did not want to go along with CES rules prohibiting it from using the word “cannabis” on the show floor. “There are no cannabis or e-cigarette products on the exhibit floor at CES, as the show does not have a category pertaining to that market,” a CES representative said in a statement to Ad Age.
IoT: ‘Internet of Things’ … or Intelligence of Toilets?
The “Internet of Things” is now officially passé. The Consumer Technology Association, which runs CES, pushed “intelligence of things” as the newest interpretation of the “IoT” buzzword. It refers to tech that anticipates your needs, beyond just connecting all your devices, cars and appliances.
For example, one of the more intriguing, and scary, exhibitors was DnaNudge, which promised to help you “shop with your DNA.” This means taking a cheek swab, having your DNA extracted and analyzed and loaded into your “personalized capsule,” then downloading the info into the DnaNudge app to get personalized product recommendations. This is meant to be more about healthy eating, supposedly, than car or fashion choices. But at what risk?
L’Oréal showed off Perso, a prototype not expected to hit market until next year that can custom blend at home single-use batches of hundreds of lipstick shades, skincare preparations and ultimately foundations based on artificial-intelligence-aided skin analysis, atmospheric conditions, or color preferences you find using augmented reality.
But, really, it always tended to come back around to toilets. Bathroom tech was a big thing, both seriously and in fun. Procter & Gamble Co., confident enough to poke fun at CES hype in only its second year as an exhibitor, touted the satirical Charmin GoLab, including such “concept products” such as the RollBot, a Roomba-like contraption that fetches a roll of toilet paper for you when activated by an app in the event you run out while you’re on the can. The GoLab also had a SmellSense detector that can warn if it’s safe to enter a recently used bathroom without offending your sensibilities, and V.I.Pee, a virtual reality headset you can use to keep following a concert if you have to take a break to use the bathroom.
Potty humor aside, Japan’s Toto showed off a $12,000 smart toilet that’s also a bidet, delivering a stream of differentially sized water particles for optimal cleansing. Realizing people may be reluctant to put down that kind of money without trying the thing, Toto has launched Good2Go, an app that helps users find high-quality public restrooms using its toilet, installed in about a dozen San Francisco locations already.
In the end though, the conversation at CES has not substantially evolved from last year’s event. 5G is coming, gradually. Privacy is on everyone’s mind, still. For all the hype and hoopla, the perennial takeaway at the consumer electronics boondoggle once again tends to be “so what else is new?”