CES 2016 – Looking for Innovation/Inspiration in an Off-Year

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  January 13, 2016

By definition and design, technology trade shows tend to be self-promotional extravaganzas. But even with that in mind, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is in a class by itself. It might have to do with the sheer size of the event (with 170,000+ attendees at CES 2016) and the weeks of relentless publicity hype leading up to the actual conference.

Toss in keynote addresses by senior executives – CES 2016 featured, among many others, GM’s Mary Barra, IBM’s Ginni Rometty, Intel’s Brian Krzanich, Netflix’s Brian Hastings and YouTube’s Robert Kyncl. And let’s not forget the omnipresent Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA, which sponsors CES) who, while certainly a bright and able guy, seems to have studied emcee skills at the Waxahachie Academy of Emotive Carnival Barking.

The result was an over-amped event designed to spark adulatory headlines and consumer hunger for the next big thing. The only problem was, that seemd to be missing from CES 2016. Even the endlessly upbeat Shapiro admitted this, saying, “There are no breakout new categories that everyone is going to talk about … (though) … there are plenty of major trends that are going on.”

Toss in more than usual serious related news events occurring during the show (China’s continuing economic meltdown, rumors that perennial CES no-show Apple is scaling back production of its high-end iPhones and a self-inflicted pricing kerfuffle by high profile VR wannabee Oculus) and the result could have been a serious downer. Instead, CES 2016 came through with more than a few innovative products and inspirational moments.

Key keynotes – Intel’s Brian Krzanich

Putting highly-coached c-level executives on stage in front of thousands of IT reporters and vendor reps is no guarantee of success but Intel’s Brian Krzanich kicked-off CES 2016 with a presentation that kept the crowd awake and often delighted. Krzanich’s focal point was Intel’s role in enabling a new era of intensely personalized consumer technology, a view he illustrated with examples from health/wellness, art/creativity and sports/gaming.

In the third category, Krzanich was aided by executives from Disney, the X Games and Red Bull, along with a professional gamer, BMX bike riders, a free runner and a Yuneek Typhoon Drone to show how Intel and its partners are expanding and personalizing user experiences in ways never before seen. At one point, Krzanich stood serene and smiling between a pair of launch ramps as two BMX bikers executed perfect 360º flips over his head, their motions recorded, analyzed and broadcast by Curie-based sensors. By the end of the keynote, Krzanich proved himself to be one of the gamest, best humored CEOs in IT, leading a company ideally positioned to help drive the new era of personalized technology.

Endpoint goodness

Since my main practice focuses on business computing, I was especially interested to see what kinds of new business-class PCs, laptops, printers and other endpoints vendors would bring to CES 2016. I wasn’t disappointed. On the PC/notebook side, Dell, HP and Lenovo all arrived with new products designed to survive and thrive in the workplace.

  • For its part, Dell delivered the goods with a new Latitude 13 7370, a new 13” notebook that blends the design elegance of the company’s XPS line with the well-known durability and security of its Latitude line into a top notch business solution appropriate for the conference room or board room. The company also demoed its new UltraSharp 30 Ultra HD 4K OLED Monitor, a gorgeous high-end monitor that’s also the first Dell product to use OLED technology.
  • HP’s new Elitebook Folio is an attractive, brushed aluminum ultrathin Ultrabook built for the workplace. It bears more than a little resemblance to Apple’s Macbook Air but with chrome appointments that place it more into luxury class. Though the Elitebook Folio is one HP’s better efforts, I was put off a bit by its input options which begin and end with two Intel Thunderbolt ports. A dock for supporting USB, HDMI and other device ports is available but costs extra.
  • I mentioned the Lenovo ThinkVision X24 Pro in last week’s Review but the company’s most fascinating new solution is probably the ThinkPad X1 Tablet, a hybrid tablet/laptop that also supports three optional modules for, 1) boosting battery performance module, enabling Intel RealSense 3D imaging, and 3) turning the ThinkPad X1 into a makeshift projector. I’m not sure how popular the modules will be but with the X1, Lenovo continues to deliver on the Thinkpad’s heritage of notebook innovation.

Eureka Park

Whenever the crowds and noise of CES get me down, I know it’s time for a visit to Eureka Park, the portion of the show devoted to very small start-ups, entrepreneurs and university programs. Located in the basement of the Sands Convention Center, this year’s Eureka Park was one of the best and most energetic I’ve ever seen.

Eureka Park is presented by National Science Foundation and Techstars, and the variety of technologies and ideas was simply staggering. They included, trendy hoverboards, motorized skateboards, electric scooters, home security systems, Internet of Things and smart home products by the dozen, 3D printing, electric wallets, pet bots and trackers, healthcare gizmos by the score, and devices for the physically impaired.

Solutions and projects displayed at Eureka Park are often longer on imagination than commercial viability, and many will never fully mature or reach the market. But the level of inspiration behind them makes dealing with the annual craziness of CES worthwhile.

Final analysis

Like any mature industry consumer electronics tends to focus more attention on major vendors and high roller players than it does on nerdish wizards and garage-based start-ups. That’s predictable enough but it has also led to an industry increasingly focused on safe bets and small winnings. Maybe that’s one reason that CES 2016 seemed short on conventionally buzz-inspiring products.

But as the consumers and businesses that consumer electronics serves head into the new era of intensely personalized technology that Intel’s Brian Krzanich so ably described, it’s worth asking whether the industry has a vision big enough to support them. Certainly many vendors are proactively helping to lead the way. Plus, the energy that was clearly apparent at Eureka Park attests to the innovation that technology continues to inspire in individuals and communities of every kind.

That may not qualify as a “breakout new category” CES’s leadership can recognize or understand but it certainly gave me hope for what’s to come in the year ahead.

© 2016 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.