Iteration not innovation – what CES really showed us

The much-talked about autonomous drone
The much-talked about autonomous drone

You could say it was a slow year for news at CES 2016. There were no big announcements, no revolutionary products unlike anything we’ve ever seen, no new modes of transport revealed that by Christmas will be populating Santa’s list everywhere from New York to Cairo. Wearables, drones, the connected home, virtual reality – we’ve seen it all before.

So did I and 170,000 other attendees just waste a week of our lives travelling thousands of miles to get there?

Certainly not.

For whilst there were no obvious shooting stars, this was perhaps a year that showed better than any other where technology might be taking us – or arguably where consumers are pushing technology – in the very near future. The flatter, curvier, bigger and better TVs were still there, but now they are being manufactured at a price point where they are not just for the realms of the super-rich. The wearable tech on display didn’t just support marathon runners wanting to train hard – it helped answer more holistic questions to empower anyone to live better. Even the drones had more utility, with artificial intelligence to fly in real life situations for distances that can provide real commercial application.

whirlpool smarthome
Whirlpool’s collaboration with Amazon.

One area where this iteration, not innovation, approach was highly evident was smarthomes. The Internet of Things has been discussed for years at CES and was more visible than ever in 2016. From all types of sensors to be programmed ‘if this, then that’ to smart appliances and even cars, connected living took another step forward. But to do so it arguably took a few steps back, for what was on display was often simpler, easier and involved more mundane moments in consumers’ lives than previous years. The washing machine that talked to Amazon to re-order your detergent based on the washes it had completed, the sensors that plugged into Nest thermostats to give more temperature reading points and optimise efficiency. Simple solutions that had demonstrable value to a consumer – avoiding jobs that are chores or making a real monetary difference. Adoption of such devices doesn’t call for fundamental changes in consumer behaviour – but they are meaningful in terms of outcomes. Not just technology because we can.

You see it’s not hard to fall into a trap of having unrealistic expectations about innovation – I know as I’m the first to do so. Walking the 2.5 million square feet of floors at CES it was easy to think ‘more connected homes – sigh’. Technology that is more possible, real and refined doesn’t dazzle when we live in an era where we expect an exponential rate of change. But we should remember technological advances are fleeting and in some ways tell us little – for until the first break through piece of tech made in a new area is joined by the second there is no real battle to turn the invention into something commercially viable, truly meaningful and to be adopted by the masses. And yet even when that success is imminent, change will not happen overnight.

virtual reality
Another example of VR on show at CES.

We have been hearing for some time that virtual reality has reached the tipping point and CES 2016 certainly supported that assertion, you couldn’t move without tripping up on headsets and demos. Yet in the marketing world only a few brands are dipping their toes into possibility – many want to wait to make any plans until we’re past the early adopters phase and into the masses. The real question is though, is there time for such caution? At the show’s conference, leading experts discussed how adoption of VR is occurring at a rate of six times faster than the iPhone, with mobile VR referred to by Google as a ‘gateway drug’ to the hardwear of Oculus, HTC and Sony. In a period of months last year, Google moved from creating partner campaigns distributing tens of thousands of runs of cardboard glasses to millions, with a stand out campaign for the New York Times enabling 1.3 million shoppers to experience VR for the first time simply by buying their regular paper. We’re on the path to adoption, and with the support and backing of the mighty Facebook and Google – can any brand really afford to wait?

So in actual fact CES 2016 was perhaps the most exciting year yet, one of iteration, refinement and useful application. One that didn’t just offer a glimpse of a future that will never happen, but one that brought it so close we could see it, touch it and experience it. The trends are there to see. The gauntlet has been passed. As marketers it is our job to pick it up and realise the commercial opportunities.