There are years when the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) shows off major changes that will impact how people live for years to come. This was not one of those years. Instead, CES 2017 featured incremental changes, better uses of technology we already have, and a whole lot of stuff that will never (and should never) see the inside of a major retailer.
It was a show dominated by smart everything, including lots of things nobody was looking to add intelligence to. CES 2017 may also go down as the show where voice-controlled automation finally moved from rich people and technology geeks to significant mainstream adoption.
Everything is smart now
Walking through the various CES exhibition areas, it became very clear that dozens of companies want to add "smart" technology to anything you can possibly think of. In addition to the fitness trackers and smartwatches, there were also refrigerators that could tell when your eggs go bad, a pill box that doles out medicine as needed, a smart toothbrush that helps you find plaque, smart shirts, smart shoes, smart mirrors, various smart beds, and at least one smart pillow.
It's easy to see the niche uses for some of these items. The smart pillow, for example, analyzes sleep patterns and in theory helps people stop snoring. It's much harder to make a case for there being an actual market for most of these products. It's cool to have a refrigerator that can tell you when you are out of beer, but using smart technology to solve a problem where the previous solution was opening the door may not be practical.
TVs are getting thinner, better
Just a few years ago, CES was dominated by 3D television. This was supposed to be the savior for the industry and the next big thing for consumers. The public, of course, disagreed with that and in 2017 3D TV has about as much relevancy as Smell-O-Vision does in movie theaters.
In 2017, while manufacturers have given up on 3D, they continue to push the idea that Americans want better pictures and thinner TVs. But they also seem to acknowledge that most of the market for really thin 4K TVs won't pay much, if any, price premium for them.
CES was choked with new, thin 4K TVs. Sony (NYSE: SNE), LG (NASDAQOTH: LGEAF), Hisense, Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF), and others showed off impressive-looking screens. There were plenty of sets aimed at upscale buyers, but nearly every company peddling televisions also had high-feature, skinny 4K models at prices that would not seem ridiculous on the shelves of major electronic retailers.
Amazon's Alexa is everywhere
While some of the sillier "smart" items could be a punchline for this year's CES, a close second would be products integrating Amazon's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Alexa technology. This voice-controlled assistant, which was first launched as part of the online retailer's Echo, has clearly become the market leader when it comes to digital assistants.
Wired's David Pierce summed it up best when he said in a recent article that "you can't walk the sprawling floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center without tripping over a speaker, an appliance, or even a robot or two that supports Alexa." He then laid out just a small sampling of the companies attempting to integrate Amazon's voice-controlled digital assistant
Ford rolled in with a car that summons your assistant with a button on the steering wheel. Klipsch built a speaker with an Echo Dot-sized hole at the top. Whirlpool appliances respond to commands barked at your Echo. Before long you'll change channels on your Dish Hopper DVR just by yelling at it. Even your LG fridge will work with Alexa to play music, set timers, and tell you how many tablespoons are in a cup (16).
That's just a small sampling of the Alexa-enabled/embedded devices on the show floor. In addition there were countless major and minor rivals attempting to either knock Amazon out of the lead with their own platforms or at least make an Echo-like speaker/voice-controlled assistant.
There is a lot you will never see
While CES has tons of space devoted to innovation that may hit stores immediately or at least eventually, it also has a stunning amount of products that won't make a mark outside of the show floor. For the last few years that has included robots/robot-like devices that take digital assistant and tablet technology and add it to a human-like body that can move in ways an Echo or an iPad can't.
These seem about as useful as the "Happy Birthday Paulie" robot from 1985's Rocky IV. Robots may one day be useful, valuable parts of our home, but that day is not now.
In addition, CES for the past few years has been somewhat overrun by drones. And while there are commercial uses for these unmanned flying vehicles as well as hobbyist uses, your average person does not need one nor will he or she be impacted by one in the coming year.
That lack of mass market appeal likely won't stop the same -- or new -- companies from showing off robot drones that double as smart waffle makers at CES 2018. It's an odd cycle where sometimes winners emerge, but losers take years to admit that people just don't want a water bottle that tells them how much to drink or a shirt that analyzes their exercise habits (these are both real things).