Recapping the Answers to My Pre-CES 2018 Questions
Before heading out to Las Vegas to attend my third CES, I posed a couple of challenges to four different consumer tech markets. Rather than setting out to find the coolest product in each of those categories, there were a couple of trends that we’d been noticing (in our CE Retail Confidence Index research) that we wanted to follow up on.
To quickly recap those challenges, we wanted to find out if A) the VR industry was on the way out, B) AR could make a case for being the platform of the future, C) if connected home products could sell themselves better to consumers, and D) if digital imaging was truly experiencing a resurgence. The answers that we received were a mixed bag of good and bad, but let’s run through them all.
VR Still Struggles
Having gone into CES 2018 with lagging confidence in this space as a whole, the VR companies that were on hand this year did little to convince me that the industry was working hard enough to turn itself around.
One of the most telling points I heard about the VR industry at CES: According to one analyst who was privy to the info, CES 2018 saw 50 percent fewer VR companies exhibiting in Las Vegas than just last year. In 2017 people couldn’t get enough of the technology, but in the year since, it’s turned rather lackluster, consumers have stated loud and clear that they’re unwilling to buy into the market while price points remain so high, and the smartphone experience just isn’t good enough to carry VR forward.
There was only one company on hand this year that I saw that made a play for the “middle ground” in VR—i.e. those between the full VR rigs and a simple smartphone. ZEISS’s VR ONE Connect allowed users to access games from SteamVR (one of the most popular VR gaming platforms) right on their smartphone. You still need a gaming laptop capable of running the applications, but you can connect your smartphone to your gaming PC, and use the two ZEISS VR ONE Connect Bluetooth controllers to play those games on a “mobile VR headset.” It was a unique application of the technology, but ZEISS alone isn’t going to save this industry.
The positive spin on the reduction in VR exhibitors is that the industry might be right-sizing. We don’t need several hundred manufacturers working on a product that can hold a smartphone in front of our faces. I support that theory, but as those companies get out of the headset game, they ought to be focusing on content and use cases to actually make VR worthwhile. That’s what this industry craves, and I still didn’t find the answer I was looking for at CES this year.
AR Has So Much Promise
This might be the space in consumer tech that we should be most excited about moving forward. There were a number of different products introduced this year that overplayed technology onto the world that we see—be it through mirrors, glass walls, and, of course, actual glasses.
The price points remain rather high at this point, but if we’re already living in a world with $1,000 smartphones, who’s to say that $1,000 glasses would be unattainable for the average consumer? That seems to be the mark that most companies are aiming for in the smart glasses space. We saw two smart glasses in particular that stood out. But for me personally, it was the Vuzix Blade that left me feeling like I’d have no problem strapping a pair of these things on my head and walking around in public with them on. Using the company’s proprietary display technology, the wearer has access to a wide variety of functions that they’d normally complete on their smartphone, they can receive notifications, and there’s a built in 8MP camera that can capture video and photos. The product is an extension of the smartphone, but it has the capability of running some standalone apps, and—like all things introduced at CES—it has voice control functionality with Amazon Alexa built into the device.
As with all products in this space, they’ll continue to be innovated upon, but if the starting point for this next wave of smart glasses looks like the Vuzix Blade, I’m sold.
Beyond the visual version of augmented reality, we saw plenty of products that use the aural method of overlaying data to augment the user's normal sense of their surroundings. The prime product in that space, at least that we've had the opportunity to experience, is Bragi with their The Dash Pro hearables. The in-ear computers integrate Alexa, have sensors out the wazoo, and offer an entirely unique in-ear experience that's unlike anything we've ever come into contact with. The Dash Pro also provides proof that augmenting someone's reality doesn't have to come in the form of glasses or a digital overlay on someone's vision. There are plenty of options when it comes to AR, which only further solidifies its potential as the platform of the future.
Connected Home Comes Together
It wasn’t a specific company or product that did the trick for me here. Rather, it was speaking with (and hearing other companies talk about) the Open Connectivity Foundation that convinced me the connected home space is going to have an easier time selling itself to consumers in the near future. OCF, an organization that we profiled not long ago, has long worked to simplify the smart home for consumers by breaking down the walls of connectivity. Through efforts with their certification process and various working groups comprised of member companies, OCF is slowly bridging the interoperability gaps between products and protocols, creating a seamless ecosystem of smart things.
But simplicity alone isn’t the only thing preventing consumers from buying into the smart home market. Security and data privacy have been the main hurdles companies have had to overcome. And it’s those same concerns that OCF has been working to address, Brian Scriber, the chair of OCF’s security working group, told me during a meeting at their booth at CES 2018. All of the work OCF is doing sounds and is important, but it would mean nothing if companies in the space weren’t buying into it. That’s something OCF has spent the last year-plus working on, and that work has paid off in a major way. At CES 2018, the company announced that more than 400 manufacturers in the connected home space have joined the organization.
Despite the inherent competitiveness of brands in the tech space, there’s nothing more important (and, honestly, inspiring to see) than them coming together to address consumers concerns and ensure that the IoT space progresses in an efficient and effective manner.
Imaging Makes an Imprint
There were no groundbreaking or awe-inspiring announcements out of the digital imaging space at CES, but that doesn’t mean we were any less impressed by the space. Prosumer cameras were on display, as you’d expect, at the Canon, Nikon, and Sony booths, along with plenty of mid-tier models. The presence of the cameras were understated as opposed to what you might expect in years past, but they were still there, which tells me these companies believe they still have staying power.
But beyond the traditional products in the digital imaging space, imaging products could be found across the show floors at CES. Despite our lack of confidence in VR as an industry, there were plenty of 360-degree imaging products on display along with cameras intended to help users create VR-ready content.
One set of announcements that was particularly of interest came from Ricoh regarding their Theta V 360-degree camera, which we recently reviewed. Ricoh announced plans to launch a plug-in developer partner program, which will enable developers to create new and unique ways for the consumer to use and interact with their Theta V, effectively turning the camera into a digital imaging hardware/software platform. Some of the potential applications that were talked about include implementing facial recognition to enable auto capture, voice activation, cloud storage, and more. Additionally, the platform could lead to new hardware accessories for the camera that would be developed by third parties.
That type of out-of-the-box thinking is what could help the imaging space evolve past the old point-and-shoots into a viable market moving forward.