Tech trends from CES in Las Vegas: Drones, phones and Automobiles
It’s the world’s biggest technology show, attracting thousands of companies and over 150,000 executives and delegates to Las Vegas to witness what will make the tech trends over the next 12 months. Our technology editor is in the thick of it, checking out the latest in connected cars, smart homes and flying gadgets. Here are six of the themes emerging from this year’s show.
1. CARS, CARS, CARS
One might be forgiven for thinking that the 'C' in CES stands for 'cars' this year. With many automobile manufacturers in expansion mode, the 2016 show has a huge car presence. And so it must be, right now. Because the fundamentals of the car industry look like they might change quite rapidly in the next five years. In particular, car manufacturers are facing a threat of becoming commoditised services. This is due to the rapid rise of car-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. The status quo is also being stretched by the very real development of self-driving cars. And that's not to talk about the lurking ambition of Apple, which is widely understood to be tooling up for a foray into electric car manufacturing. ("We have no plans to announce," Apple chief executive Tim Cook told this newspaper on that question in a November interview.)
Looked at this way, this may be a make-or-break era for car manufacturers in protecting their long term value and not becoming commoditised transit services.
By and large, the goals of Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota and others here is twofold: make cars more connected to other personal devices and make the vehicles themselves useful in ways not previously considered. "Mobility as a service" and "transportation as a service" are some of the most-used industry catchphrases from car company executives at present.
But there are bigger strategic events, too. General Motors announced that it has invested $500m (€454m) in Lyft, the 'ride-sharing' service that competes with Uber. The gives the company just under 10pc of Lyft's valuation and an inside track into a new division of motoring. As part of the hook-up, GM is set to provide Lyft with a fleet of self-driving cars that are exclusive from Uber. The car giant also says that it will have its first self-driving electric cars (in the form of the Chevrolet Bolt) on US roads by the end of 2016.
Ford also has a huge presence here, with several announcements, including expanded compatibility with Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto platform.
The car giant says that it plans to triple to 30 the size of its fleet of self-driving test cars as part of an effort to accelerate autonomous vehicle development. In a reference to Tesla, Ford chief executive Mark Fields said on Tuesday that the company plans to introduce self-driving cars that are "affordable" and not just for the wealthy
Separately, Ford said it is exploring ways to link in-home automation devices such as Amazon.com<http://Amazon.com>'s Echo to the Sync communications systems in its cars to allow consumers to control lights or thermostats inside the home from the car, or start up cars and check fuel levels from inside the house.
It's not much of a surprise that Ford is going all out into apps and connectivity. At the Web Summit last November, the car manufacturer held a €100,000 app-coding competition for cars that attracted developers from all over the world. Its own AppLink system will soon be able to give third party apps access to some vehicle data for practical purposes, like expensing mileage automatically. Toyota is also set to adopt this Ford software soon as an independent buffer to the threat of Apple and Google taking over car entertainment systems, while Peugeot-Citroen and others are said to be considering it.
The bigger picture is that car manufacturers such as Ford are keen not to become subservient box makers relegated to the lower-value elements of car manufacturing while tech companies such as Apple and Google come in and take over the more profitable engine brains of the vehicles.
"We don't have any interest in becoming contract manufacturers," Ford's Mark Fields said when asked about how far his company would go with Silicon Valley firms intent on making the car industry the next 'disrupted' business.
Toyota opened its CES pitch with the pledge that it wants to develop a car that is "incapable of causing a crash".
The company's chief executive of research, Gill Pratt, said that autonomous vehicles could save 30,000 lives annually. He also pitched self-driving cars as being boons for the elderly and people with disabilities.
Volkswagen's big announcement was around its concept car, apparently called 'Budd.e'.
One of the conference's wild cards is an electric car startup called Faraday Futures, a company backed by Chinese internet billionaire Jia Yueting. It unveiled a concept car that looks to all intents like a roadworthy version of the Batmobile. Its claimed acceleration of zero to 100 kilometres per hour in three seconds is marginally faster than Tesla's best effort, 3.2 seconds by Elon Musk's 'X' model.
2. MAKE OR BREAK FOR SAMSUNG
Times have been better for Samsung. Although second only to Apple in the world's consumer tech hierarchy, it appears to have lost its mojo in recent years. As CES was kicking off, Samsung's chief executive, Kwon Oh-hyun, warned that it would be a difficult year for the company. Formerly the masters of the 'quick adopters' on products such as smartphones, a plethora of competitors has now made it difficult for Samsung's main consumer products -- particularly phones and tellies -- to stand out. Indeed, research firm IDC recently called out low-end budget devices as Samsung's profitable segment, leaving its strategy of being an "aspirational" brand somewhat adrift.
In one sense, Samsung's struggles reflect a surge in affordable consumer technology for everyone. One of the reasons that the Korean giant is set to struggle this year is because of falling prices for chips and LCD displays. Put another way, it's never been cheaper to make HD-screen devices with powerful processors. This is being seen in Irish shops, with 32-inch HD tellies under €250 and 5-inch smartphones for €99. Samsung's brand, while very strong, cannot fully make up the difference between a €399 TV and a €799 one.
Nevertheless, it once again occupied the biggest display area in CES and did not come to the show empty handed.
Samsung's big theme right now is the connected home, a real-world manifestation of the 'internet of things'. It has announced, for example, that most of its new TVs this year will have the capability to hook up to other smart home devices. In this vein, it launched a new USB gadget that can co-ordinate your smart home through your telly. It also unveiled its latest attempt at an internet fridge, compete with giant, 21-inch, web-connected HD screen and cameras. But whereas previous web-connected fridges struggled for practical purpose, the cameras in Samsung's Family Hub Refrigerator let you check, via your phone, what you need to top up on when you're in the shop. It aims to answer the problem of "do we have enough milk?" It might also tell you when the leftover bolognese is starting to get a little whiffy.
Perhaps the most talked-about Samsung device at the show was one that is still weeks or months away from an official launch: the Galaxy S7 phone. A leak this week (whether strategic or not), suggests that Samsung's next phone may be a 5.7-inch device that cuts back on its megapixel count. This could mean that Samsung may be revising its pricing strategy for its high-end phones downwards in line with consumer demand, as current S6 Edge Plus costs over €800.
Meanwhile, its Gear S2 smartwatch will soon be compatible with iPhones, the company announced. There will also be a gold version of the device.
The company is also still the top TV seller worldwide and new models announced at the show include a 170-inch telly and 8K models.
3. THE LAND OF NEW TELLIES
It's hard to remember the last time the world got excited about a new TV. 4K? Curved? 3D? Despite the fanfare from manufacturers, these are usually received tepidly. Nevertheless, TVs remain one of the biggest parts of the CES show, year after year.
And some of the new technology is now seeping through to mainstream audiences. 4K, also called 'ultra HD', is just starting to become a usable technology for sports and movie fans, despite its introduction at CES three years ago. (There is still merely a minute amount of 4K programmes and content available from broadcasters, though.)
While year has seen the introduction of '8K' televisions (which, at present adoption rates, will hit broadcast standards sometime between 2025 and 2030), the biggest updates were in 'smart home' compatibility, ever-thinner screens and slight improvements in picture quality. New models from LG and Samsung almost disappear when viewed from the side, such is their skinniness.
Samsung has announced that all of its new TVs this year will become part of its 'connected home' strategy. In other words, it wants its tellies to talk to your sound system speakers and maybe even your home appliances.
One of the most interesting things about CES's vast television display halls is just how many Chinese and Asian manufacturers of scale there are. Some of them - such as HiSense, TCL, ZTE and Haier - are big brands in their own right now, too, even if they are unfamiliar names to Irish shoppers.
4. DRONES AND ROBOTS
Just three weeks ago, the Irish Aviation Authority introduced new rules requiring all drone-owners to register the flying machines in a new official registry it intends to keep. But there is no let-up in the pace of drone launches. They may not be as common as phones or cars, but the remote control quadropcopters and UAVs are still a force when it comes to mapping 2016. The biggest talking point at CES, where the drone zone has doubled to 25,000 square feet, is around GoPro, the action cam manufacturer that is to release a drone model in the near future. GoPro needs to move fast to get ahead of arch rival DJI, the top-selling drone manufacturer which unveiled updates to two of its models (the Inspire 1 and Phantom 3 4K) on Monday. It also needs to do something to shore up its share price, which is flagging badly after stagnant sales of its Hero series of HD action video cameras.
Domestic robots are also closer to reality, with scores of assistants and cleaning cyborgs on the convention floors. Attention on the robots will have heightened this week after it emerged that Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wants to make his own robot butler to help around the house and assist in co-ordinating his busy life.
5. VIRTUAL REALITY
While virtual reality is (by some distance) the most-tipped expansionary technology of 2016, there remain only a handful of companies actually building the equipment. At CES, there are few new pieces of hardware being announced, with all eyes still on the main players of Oculus, Facebook, HTC, Samsung and Sony. There is no shortage of accessories, though. Products like the 3D Rudder 'VR Edition' is a foot-based VR motion controller, used while seated. It lets the user move in VR or 3D environments while seated, for hours, purportedly without fatigue. It will cost approximately €175 when it starts shipping in March. Other gadgets, like the Vuzix iWear Wireless, provide a stopgap experience. This pair of "video headphones" gives users the impression of a wireless personal cinema, in a similar way to Samsung's Gear VR. It extends the small mobile screen into one that seems 125 inches in size to the gadget's wearer.
It's worth bearing in mind the hurdles that virtual reality still has to overcome to make it to the next adoption curve. The computer graphics company Nvidia reckons that only 13m PC worldwide have the kind of computing power that VR applications will need to really shine. There are also sartorial and aesthetic considerations that still challenge more widespread usage. "Right now, VR is big and bulky," said Oculus founder Palmer Luckey in Dublin in November. "If you were to put on a headset like that and go out in public, people are going to laugh at you."
Nevertheless, anyone who has tried a few full-powered virtual reality applications will see just how powerful they are.
Despite representing around half of the entire consumer electronics now, few big smartphone announcements will be made at this year's CES. Huawei, which is one of the fastest-growing brands in the Irish market, launched its new flagship Mate 8 phone here.
We know that Samsung is likely to launch its new Galaxy S7 handset soon, but the Korean manufacturer will probably wait until next month's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The same is likely for Sony, Motorola and LG. Microsoft (which now brands Nokia's Lumia phones as Microsoft Lumia), also has no announcements, it appears, while Apple never marches to the drum of any external convention.
7. THE IRISH AT CES
While Irish tech companies tend to specialise in software, there were more than a few Irish delegates on hand to announce deals or show off their technology. Dublin-based Cubic Telecom announced a large deal with Audi (which is one of the company's financial backers), that will see Audi vehicles offer entertainment and data services using Cubic's mobile broadband connections and software integration.
The deal is expected to lead to more business for Cubic from other car manufacturers, chief executive Barry Napier (pictured above) told the Irish Independent. Cubic Telecom has €37m of investment funding from heavyweight backers that include Audi and Qualcomm. A number of Dublin-based startups, including Logograb, were in attendance as was Cork's 'Mr China', PCH founder Liam Casey.