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The Digital, Voice-Commanded, Driverless Future Arrives at CES 2018

Everywhere you looked, tomorrow's technology was on display today at this year's CES show, the annual consumer-electronics event regarded as a window on the innovations likely to shape the 21st century and far, far beyond…

Photo: Flights of fancy no more: Personal air taxis truly took off at CES 2018.
Flights of fancy no more: Personal air taxis truly took off at CES 2018.
Photo: Flights of fancy no more: Personal air taxis truly took off at CES 2018.
Flights of fancy no more: Personal air taxis truly took off at CES 2018.

From wall-sized TVs to smart mirrors and truly autonomous vehicles, CES – the world's largest consumer-electronics show – offered a window into a future ruled by 5G connectivity and "smart" pretty much everything. Always a hotbed of innovation, this year the show again demonstrated just how quickly technology is transforming every major industry, as well as the everyday lives of countless consumers.

Reflecting this continuing trend, the show added three new areas for 2018 – Smart Cities, Design and Source Showcase; CES Sports Zone; and Artificial Intelligence. Outlining the thinking behind these latest additions, Gary Shapiro, Chief Executive of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the organiser of the show, said: "CES 2018 has more new dedicated technology areas than we have ever had in one year. That alone shows that technology now has an impact on every aspect of our lives."

New specialist zones aside, another notable debutante at this year's show was Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant. The company had made the 23,000km round trip from its Shenzhen base as part of the US roll-out for the Mate 10 Pro, its new flagship smartphone.

Despite being the world's third-largest smartphone manufacturer, the company has yet to crack the US market. Most recently, security concerns on the part of the US Congress scuppered a deal with the wireless carrier AT&T, which would have seen the Mate 10 offered as a sign-up option to all of the network's 134 million subscribers. As a fallback position, Huawei is now offering an unlocked GSM version of the phone via Amazon and a number of other selected retailers.

Self-Driving Cars

While just an idle dream a few years back, real, actual self-driving cars were a major feature at this year's show, a clear harbinger of change for many businesses and commuters. For its part, Ford announced it was investing US$11 billion in self-driving cars over the next five years, more than doubling its current commitment.

Emphasising the role that such vehicles could play in the era of the smart city, Jim Hackett, Ford's Chief Executive, said: "How do we combine vehicles and technologies so they become more than a sum of their parts? In short, we redesign the world's transportation systems so that they are built around the needs of communities."

Clearly conceived with this mission statement in mind, among the company's latest innovations was the Autonomic, a cloud platform capable of organising the transportation ecosystem via the deployment of cellular vehicle-to-everything communication systems. The platform is 5G-ready and factors in driverless vehicles as a key element of its protocols.

Making such prospects seem ever more imminent, this year attendees had the option of being shuttled around town courtesy of a fleet of self-driving taxies, jointly provided by Aptiv, a UK-based specialist in autonomous vehicle software, and Lyft, a San Francisco-based on-demand transportation company. Although a rudimentary version of the service was offered in 2017, this year, for the first time, passengers were not confined to specifying only pre-approved routes.

For those for whom autonomous automobiles are already a little passé, there was Intel's VC200 air taxi – basically a big drone capable of carrying a single passenger for up to 17 miles between charges. Sadly, for those hoping to wing their way into work, the US Federal Aviation Administration has yet to approve these copter cabs for civilian use.

Photo: Driverless cabs hit the Vegas streets.
Driverless cabs hit the Vegas streets.
Photo: Driverless cabs hit the Vegas streets.
Driverless cabs hit the Vegas streets.
Photo: A kidney-shaped sleep robot: Yes, really.
A kidney-shaped sleep robot: Yes, really.
Photo: A kidney-shaped sleep robot: Yes, really.
A kidney-shaped sleep robot: Yes, really.

Voice Integration

While virtual digital assistants (VDAs) having proved they offer far more than just the chance to vocally prompt your speaker system into belting out the latest Kylie, Google's Assistant and Amazon's Alexa are now duking it out to see which will offer the ultimate in add-on services. For its part, Amazon chose the CES to announce that Alexa will soon be bundled with the Windows 10 operating system. As a result, "Hey, Google!" signs proliferated across the showfloor as exhibitors competed to boast of their own system's compatibility with Google's VDA.

Commenting on the explosive growth in this particular category, Jonathan Collins, the Research Director of ABI Research, a New York-headquartered technology market intelligence specialist, said: "Voice is proving a strong driver of smart home adoption and expansion. Voice, however, is just an interface and, as its adoption grows, there is huge potential for a broader range of smart-home devices and systems to similarly access this interface."

Not to be outdone, South Korea's LG and Samsung had both added voice command 4K TVs into their 2018 ranges. Wisconsin-based Kohler, meanwhile, had gone several better with the launch of Konnect, a proprietary voice-command platform that allows users to turn on taps, run showers and flush toilets without ever having to touch a single knob or lever.

While voice interaction can clearly make it easier to get things done, the real race now is to perfect voice shopping, a development already familiar to many Amazon subscribers. By the end of this year, though, Steve Koenig, CTA's Senior Market Research Director, expects it to be a far more ubiquitous option.

Predicting the vector for this particular system, he said: "This year, we will see voice established as the go-to interface for consumer tech and see voice shopping confirmed as the fourth sales channel. Back in 2001, e-commerce was clunky and novel and that's about the point we are at with voice shopping right now. I would, however, expect it to grow far faster than online shopping did."

Fun Finds

Not all of the innovations on show at the CES, however, were set to transform society as we know it. There was, for instance, a kidney-shaped sleep robot on offer from Netherlands-based Somnox, which matches its breathing to that of its user, apparently making it easier to drift off to sleep. Should that not work out for you, the handy little fellow can also play lullabies, generate white noise or, if all else fails, fill the lonely nocturnal hours with readings from your favourite audiobook.

Hugging the Somnox might prove just a little more appealing after a glass of two of wine, kept in tip-top shape, of course, by Coravin's wine preserver / opener. Manufactured in Massachusetts, the system pours wine without the need to uncork the bottle, thus ensuring the contents remain pristine.

Unveiling the latest upgrades to the system, Sales Rep Beth Tuck said: "The new version features digital icons and connects to a wine experience app via Bluetooth, which has been designed to help wine lovers select and savour their favourite bottles, factoring in moods and music to make for a truly unforgettable experience."

One of the most heart-warming finds, however, was a solar-powered bike that allows you to print and mail a postcard. Explaining the thinking behind the system, Gregory Sequeira, the Founder of Luxemburg-based Postmii, said: "I had the idea while I was on holiday in Hong Kong. I wanted to mail a postcard to my parents, but I couldn't find a post office or a mailbox. So I ended up bringing my postcards back in my suitcase, which was a real shame.

"Now, though, our bikes are available at a number of tourist attractions. Travellers can then choose from a range of postcards on screen, print them and mail them on the spot. It's making money for us because email just doesn't convey the same emotional content."

Photo: This way to the future: Showgoers get a taste of tomorrow at this year’s CES.
This way to the future: Showgoers get a taste of tomorrow at this year's CES.
Photo: This way to the future: Showgoers get a taste of tomorrow at this year’s CES.
This way to the future: Showgoers get a taste of tomorrow at this year's CES.

CES 2018 took place from 10-12 January at multiple venues across Las Vegas. The event attracted more than 170,000 attendees and featured 3,900 exhibitors.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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