CES 2016: Top trends at the show

By Megan Anderle, Editor and Contributing Writer

The annual Consumer Electronics Show is here, and we’ll see the newest products from virtually every major player in the tech industry.

Last year, connected cars stole the show. And we saw a plethora of Internet of Things devices, 3-D printers, wearable health trackers, 4K and 8K ultra-high-definition televisions, drones and smart home devices at the conference, which drew more than 176,000 people from all over the world. There were more than 3,600 exhibitors, both big and small, at CES 2015.

This year, CES is capping attendance at 176,000, but like last year, there will be no shortage of announcements and surprises.

The Power More team attended a few CES preview events in New York. Here are a few interesting trends and tidbits we can expect to hear about at the 2016 show.

Meet your smarter smart device

Smart devices are gaining a better understanding of users, and programs are becoming more interoperable. For example, when prompted, voice recognition software can now pull information from deep within mobile apps rather than just surface-level Internet searches.

Anticipatory context-awareness is beginning to really take off, with software becoming more predictive of what we’ll want to do in the next few seconds.

The Consumer Technology Association predicts that virtual assistants will become more heavily used, especially since major tech companies have announced that the technology programs have gotten more advanced.

In terms of the user experience, there will be fewer taps, clicks and swipes as virtual assistants begin to make more tailored recommendations rather than merely supplying a list of links from a search engine.

Changing the face of retail and mobile payments

A few barriers prevent mobile wallets from gaining traction, one of which is every major technology company is creating a separate system that works separately with retailers. So a consumer with Google Wallet might go to a store that accepts mobile payments but not Google Wallet specifically.

“There’s a lot of fragmentation, because each company believes they have to own it, but one unified system is really where the market is,” Eric Hsia, a venture adviser, said in November at CEA Innovate. “There has to be a discussion about what the economic splits are to make the experience seamless to the consumer.”

A generational gap exists between people using mobile payments and people who aren’t, with 70 percent of respondents between the age of 18 and 34 having used a form of mobile payment, compared with 46 percent of respondents over the age of 35, according to CTA.

Then there’s the security factor: The majority of people aren’t totally comfortable with mobile payments. Attitudes toward security differ based on demographic, with 35 respondents between ages 18 and 34 saying they are comfortable replacing all forms of payment with mobile payments compared with 27 percent of respondents over the age of 35 in the CTA survey.

“People are really scared to have those payments transmitting over their phones because they don’t understand what’s going on behind the scenes,” Andrea Smith, a longtime technology journalist, said at CEA Innovate.

Additionally, once mobile payment systems create strong loyalty programs for shoppers, offering deals and promotions when they spend over mobile, these payment systems will become more compelling.

“Once they entice people by making it seamless and integrated with partnerships and it’s easy, convenient and safe, then there’s some value,” Smith said.

As far as the customer experience goes, companies are starting to engage customers with virtual reality and augmented reality experiences.

“Virtual reality is becoming a reality itself at CES 2016,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CTA, at CES Unveiled New York.

The 2016 show will feature an increase of about 80 percent in the augmented reality marketplace, he noted.

Automaker Volvo has introduced its virtual test drive, called Volvo Reality, so that anyone with an Android device and a Google Cardboard headset can be in the driver’s seat regardless of where they are. Home improvement chain Lowe’s, for instance, has a 3-D augmented virtual reality room for shoppers to design a room and literally walk into it while working with a trained sales associate for assistance. In the retail space, Magic Mirror and Memory Mirror are using augmented reality to show consumers how clothes fit.

Barriers for the smart home

The smart home — where your lights, locks and appliances are connected to the Internet and talk to each other for an automated living experience — is not a new concept. Major companies, such as General Electric and Google (which owns Nest), have been perfecting these products for the last couple of years.

There is an influx of these devices on the market due to growing consumer demand, with estimated sales of connected home devices reaching $7.63 billion in 2016, up from $7.19 billion in 2015, according to a report by CTA. The majority of these sales are attributed to connected security devices.

However, what’s holding the smart home back from being truly valuable to the consumer (and greater adoption for smart products outside of security) is the lack of standardization among different manufacturers. The lack of open standards prevents devices from different manufacturers from talking to each other and thereby limits devices’ capabilities.

“There’s a market opportunity here,” Smith said. “When people see how the technology can work together, there will be greater adoption.”

The good news for consumers is that organizations such as Z-Wave Alliance, the Open Interconnect Consortium and the CTA’s TechHome Division are committed to uniting these disparate protocols, and major technology companies are starting to join these consortiums, recognizing the benefit to consumers.

How we’re consuming content

A rise of user-generated content has led to some serious advertising dollars for websites such as YouTube and Vimeo. These platforms are the new mediums for creativity.

“Today anyone can be a content creator,” said Karen Chupka, CTA’s senior vice president for CES and corporate business strategy at CES Unveiled.

The users who have the biggest followings are rewarded for their creativity — YouTube user PewDiePie is the current king, with 38 million subscribers and 9 billion views that earn him a whopping $4.7 million per year in advertising alone.

Overall, there are 300,000 ad-supported YouTube channels, and brands have taken note, advertising on YouTube and setting up their own channels.

Between YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other streaming options, millennials will continue to cut the cord and media will be consumed à la carte, on the nearest screen, rather than on the nearest television.

“Younger generations don’t want to pay for cable because they’d rather pay only for what they want to watch,” Smith said.

At last year’s CES, Dish Network announced Sling TV, a $20-per-month alternative TV package. Two months later, HBO announced HBO Now, a $15-per-month streaming service. We can expect to see more traditional networks offering streaming packages in the future.

Streaming services such as Netflix will provide “predictive customization” in which the online platforms make recommendations based on environment rather than a user’s experiences, said Shawn DuBravac, CTA’s chief economist and director of research, at CES Unveiled.

Where connected cities are going

In the next few years, we can expect to see more sensors planted across cities, measuring infrastructure to monitor conditions so that cities can replace aging bridges and repair roadways to keep residents safer.

There will be greater data collection on behalf of city governments for the collective benefit of residents. For example, officials might collect data to determine whether citizens need to conserve more water or whether streetlights are expending too much energy.

As of now, smart city applications are mostly limited to monitoring and measuring critical infrastructure, (major highways, tunnels and airports, for example). But in the future, officials will be taking that data and acting upon it more, disseminating information to residents and modeling land development for the future thanks to information collected from sensors. A greater focus on sustainability, citizen safety and more efficient transportation are the cornerstones of smart city initiatives. But every city is different — New York City has plans to replace 250,000 streetlights with LEDs by 2017, whereas Singapore is known for its sensorized intelligent traffic management systems and London has a free, open program called Datastore for residents to solve problems such as pollution and urban food availability. Urban planners will borrow ideas from one another to improve the quality of life for everyone.

Brian T. Horowitz contributed additional reporting for this story.

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