Many Monstrous Notes at CES 2017

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While wandering around CES 2017, I was reminded of that scene in Amadeus, in which the Emperor Joseph II decides that the new opera by Mozart had “too many notes.” (The actual quote is “monstrous many notes” and referred to Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” but I digress.)

That’s what I felt about CES—monstrous many technologies.

This over-saturation of technology, of course, is a constant complaint for CES goers; technology has always been evolutionary. It just seems lately that Moore’s Law has impossibly mutated beyond our capability to absorb or understand all its implications. Not that I want to compare myself with the comically short-sighted 18th century Austrian-Hungarian monarch, and maybe I’m becoming a bit too cynically senile. But where others may have beheld the wonder of technological exploration and innovation in Las Vegas last week, I saw only a morass that mainstream consumers will simply blank on like a book-length dinner menu. Overwhelmed by the options, we may simply ignore it all and just buy the technological equivalent of a cheeseburger.

For instance, the North Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center was filled with grandiose exhibits from all the major car companies, all showing autonomous vehicles—concept cars previously reserved for the annual car shows. And it’s a good thing autos are becoming autonomous because their increasing crowded app-centric control panels are way too distracting to trust to manual driving.

And who, exactly, are the customers for all this AR/VR hardware and software? Do you know anyone outside our business or a Samsung Galaxy Gear TV commercial who regularly views VR content? Much of the current VR/AR state-of-the-art seems to be in its formative stages, with bulky hardware and experimental software waiting for 8K and more powerful processing to solve resolution, seam and warping issues. And the entire VR/AR industry seems to be waiting for an enormous technological or application breakthrough and subsequent shakeout. In short, VR/AR seems mostly virtual with little consumer application/business model reality.

Drones are still plagued by a plethora of legislative, regulatory, business model and even moral issues facing their commercial and consumer adoption. Acknowledging these issues, the CTA says “[i]deally, tech groups will be able to work more closely with legislators to determine how best to create realistic guidelines that protect people,” clearly indicating that much work needs to be done to decide not only on the feasibility of drone usage but accepting the consequences of an intrusive overhead presence as well. And there are still drone technical hurdles to be overcome. Last week, for example, highly-touted autonomous iOS drone maker Lily announced it was unable to complete its project and will issue refunds to its 60,000 crowd investors after raising $34 million.

The Smart Home and Health and Wellness marketplaces were overlapping areas filled with an often confusing array of new “smart” detection and control devices lacking one important aspect: compatibility. While all are designed to work with iOS and Android smartphones, there are immense interoperability and infrastructure issues, with competing connectivity standards clouding consumer adoption.

Some infrastructure clarity at least seems to be coming to the smart home. CES featured a growing number of Wi-Fi mesh systems, such as Netgear’s Orbi and Linksys’ Velop to supply home owners with easy-to-set-up, whole-home, single-network Wi-Fi. And the recent release of Bluetooth 5.0 and Bluetooth mesh promises to eliminate proprietary system silo hubs and make mixing-and-matching of smart home devices and appliances even more practical.

Bluetooth 5.0 also will have an impact on wearables, increasing the range of the connection and the amount of bio data carried and transmitted—but exactly how many bio sensors are we supposed to wear? To completely keep track of our health and wellness, we’d end up looking like an over-decorated Christmas tree.

And then there are robots. That’s right, now we’re worried about robots. A whole new marketplace at CES was dedicated to floor and window cleaners and a new generation of what are essentially rolling anthropomorphic versions of Amazon’s Alexa. These rolling robots don’t do much more than Alexa or Siri, but look cute while doing it. However, the EU is spooked enough by the Frankenstein prospect to pass legislation to give robots some sort of legal status and mandate “kill switches” to avoid the events depicted in the Terminator world. Seriously.

And speaking of Alexa, Amazon is actually paying developers to imbue products with its voice command capability, in evidence all over CES. The problem: Alexa has no idea who is talking to it. Alexa Davalos, the star of Amazon’s own original series, “The Man in the High Tower,” was recently a guest on Stephen Colbert’s show, and each time the host uttered her name, Echo’s all over America responded. Amazon Alexa has become the object whose name cannot be uttered.

Perhaps the most impressive—and least-confusing and most obviously desirable—advance at CES was LG’s 65- and 77-inch wallpaper OLED UHD, a TV sheet just a silly 2.57mm thin (a tenth of an inch) designed to attach to a wall via magnets. But this wallpaper TV seems to exemplify the unfinished nature of the whole 4K TV changeover.

Near its dancing wallpaper TV display, LG also hung a Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG)-enabled UHD sample and the first ATSC 3.0-enabled 4K TVs for the South Korean markets. Both these HDR and next-generation broadcast technologies would finally make buying a 4K TV logical, if and when. The problem: to my eyes, the live ATSC 3.0 signal shown in LG’s booth was not particularly sharp, and HLG is just one of many HDR solutions proposed for inclusion in the ATSC 3.0 standard. The industry will sell millions of 4K TVs this year, some of which could be out of date for HDR viewing by next year.

And these just represent the most obvious, top-level areas of advancements exhibited at this year’s CES, and the most obvious complicating factors of each. It’s hard enough as a professional industry analyst to track all these technological tendrils. I can’t imagine how mainstream consumers will be able to pick out a melody it can hum through these many monstrous notes.

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