Consumer technology: five trends to watch

At CES, the consumer electronics and technology tradeshow that run in January in Las Vegas, it was clear in which direction tech companies are heading. However, the most interesting discovery from the heart of the world’s biggest tech event was a discreet sign of revolt against connecting virtually any device to the Internet.

Vocal computing and engaging the sense of touch for two-way communication with machines, as well as taking advantage of the data generated by the Internet of Things devices to increase sales of products adjusted to the needs of each client individually are no longer a plan for the future, but quickly becoming a standard. These trends include also companies which until yesterday had a little in common with consumer technology.

Here you can find the list of trends that dominated the fiftieth edition of CES. Plus, a signal that the future will not exclusively belong to corporations focused on connecting almost any device to the internet. Businesses that promise to protect customers from the digital world may also be successful.


1. Voice

On the presentation “2017 Tech Trend to Watch” that was given before the tradeshow, Consumer Technology Association’s chief economist Shawn DuBravac, Ph.D., pointed the voice interface as the most important tech trend right now.

Tech Trends to Watch by Shawn DuBravac Voice credits TrendNomad

DuBravac drew attention to the fact that since circa 2010, when first wearable devices entered the market, the graphical user interface has been disappearing in certain categories of consumer electronics. DuBravac indicates that communication with machines relies more on more often on voice.

Tech Trends to Watch by Shawn DuBravac Vocal Computing credits TrendNomad

It did not take long to find many confirmations of his words. Two days later, when the CES was officially opened, plenty of consumer technology companies – including those offering vacuum cleaners (Samsung), ovens, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers (Whirlpool), air purifiers (Coway) and printers (Canon) – launched products that can be connected to Amazon Echo to be managed by Alexa, the virtual assistant that speaks English and German.

Canon and Amazon Alexa credits TrendNomad
“Alexa, print the schedule” – Canon Pixma TS8020 printer features voice interface.

Alexa can be asked, for example, to print a document, to turn on an automatic vacuum cleaner, to warm-up and to set an oven, to check the remaining time of the washing cycle and to change the temperature in the selected compartment of the refrigerator.

Amazonon Alexa was the top star at CES. Voice assistants from Google, Apple and Microsoft were mentioned very occasionally.

Today, Alexa is nothing more than a slimy on and off virtual switch activated by voice. It can also order a pizza or a taxi, and respond to simple questions, for example, those concerning weather or the traffic in the city.

Ford and Amazon Alexa credits TrendNomad

Speaking of mobility, Ford and Volkswagen have promised to make Alexa a permanent passenger of their cars. In addition to the long list of obvious questions and commands, eg. to give directions, write down notes on the go, remotely control home lighting (seriously, what for?), one (!) function seems to be pretty useful. While driving a car, you can ask Alexa to read your Kindle e-book out. Naturally, Alexa will start declaiming it from the point you recently stopped reading the text.

More or less useful functions and various incarnations of Alexa were on everyone’s lips. However, her drawbacks were left unsaid. And Alexa, at least now, is far from perfect.

Today, Alexa does not understand the meaning of a series of commands spoken in the same sentence. For example, the request: “Alexa, increase the temperature in the room, play the music and dim the lights” will not work. Every request must be said separately, starting with the name of the Amazon’s virtual assistant.

Alexa does not distinguish different voices and does not know whose commands she should prioritise. Anyone who is in the range of microphones built into the Amazon Echo can control voice-friendly home devices. In theory, access to the system can be protected with a voice password. In practice, it is not difficult to eavesdrop it.

LG tries to fix this issue with face recognition technology. Apart from the built-in camera,  the design of LG Hub Robot includes a screen to express “emotions” of the digital assistant, as well as moving parts to use “body language” that all go beyond verbal communication.

Regardless of the physical form of Alexa, doubts raise as the digital assistant never says “no”. It will take some time before Alexa will be able to refuse to execute some of our commands, asks how do we feel, and find the cause of our unusual behavior, when, for example, we ask her to increase the room temperature when it is already hot inside.

Today, “smart home” does not deserve its name. And it won’t until a home management system will be connected to artificial intelligence such as the IBM Watson supercomputer (goodbye, beloved privacy). Such cooperation was recently announced by EnOcean, the company specialised on energy independent Internet of Things.


2. Touch

Touch screens that are available on the market do not fully deserve their name either. They will be fully “touchable” when they enable us to feel textures of displayed materials (eg. textiles, wood, paper) with a bare finger. At CES I experienced that tactile sensations may be convincingly simulated by a smartphone or tablet.

Tanvas credits TrendNomad

When touching a flat screen with built-in haptic technology developed by a team of US-based company Tanvas, you can feel choppy, grainy, fine and other textures of displayed materials. Tanvas creates tactile sensations by affecting the friction that occurs between the screen and a finger. Their technology is based on electrostatics.

On a tablet with embedded haptic technology, an image of sand is grainy when touched.

Similar tactile experience, but based on a different technology, is delivered by the French start-up HAP2U. Here the friction between the screen and a finger is manipulated by ultrasonic vibrations.

HAP2U credits TrendNomad
At the HAP2U’s booth, one could feel the texture of fish scales and the resistance of sliders and knobs displayed on flat screens.

Visiting Tanvas’s and HAP2U’s booths was interesting, but then in another hall, it came out that haptic technology goes far beyond tactile sensations given on a flat screen. The UK-based company Ultrahaptics has developed a technology that enables users to receive tactile feedback in 3D without touching any physical object.

Ultrahaptics credits TrendNomad

This technology uses ultrasounds to project sensations through the air and directly onto the user. Users can “feel” touchless buttons and get feedback for mid-air gestures or interact with virtual objects. One of the areas of application of this technology may be the automobile industry.

Bosch haptics credits TrendNomad

Bosch cooperated with Ultrahaptics to unveiled at CES the prototype of in-car infotainment system based on contactless haptic technology. The goal is that a driver can intuitively, conveniently and safely operates onboard electronics without taking his or her eyes off the road.


3. Real virtual reality 

People working on VR also shown their interest in the sense of touch. Slightly less stunning than Ultrahaptics’s technology, but still very interesting one was demonstrated by the TACTAI company at Ericsson’s booth.

Tactai credits TrendNomad

Tactai Touch put on a fingertip gives you the impression of touching an object that you see on VR goggles. TACTAI team wants to replace the legacy buttons-based controllers by allowing users to interact directly and naturally with virtual worlds.

Cerevo Taclim credits TrendNomad

Another idea of accessories for VR was shown by the Tokyo-based company Cerevo. The set includes gloves-like controllers and shoes with built-in haptic technology.

When wearing Taclim shoes, a player feels under his or her feet delicate vibrations. Depending on a content watched on VR gogles, it may feel like walking on snow, sand, grass, etc.

Apart from technologies engaging the sense of touch, the next emerging trend in the field of VR is body 3D scanning. The aim is to put three-dimensional avatars that reflect individuals look into games and VR social media.

Bellus3D credits TrendNomad

Start-up Bellus3D presented a scanner attached to a smartphone or tablet that measures 500,000 points on a human face to create a high-resolution and accurate face model in seconds. And the 3D model may be used not only for VR applications.

Bellus3D wants to use this technology also for confirming people’s identity and for a realistic simulation of the makeup effect without the time and mess associated with normal trial-and-error. Virtual beauty stores already exist, but now they use only 2D images, so there is a space for progress.


4. Beauty under control

The YouCam Makeup app is not new. It is already popular in many markets, but for me the time and place I discovered this brand was CES 2017. The app is used for putting a virtual makeup (including powder, lipstick, eye shadow, hair dyes etc.) on a selfie stored in the memory of a mobile device, or in real-time in the augmented reality.

The most interesting feature here is the online shop. Once you virtually try-on some cosmetics, you pay (with a real money, sorry) for those you like the most, and then you receive (real) products. The lesson worth to remember: virtual fitting in AR is made for real business.

Another product, HiMirror Plus is not an e-beauty store (at least, not yet). It is a smart mirror offering personalised skincare analysis based on the evolving condition of a user’s skin. The device also measures the effect of cosmetics applied on the skin.

HiMirror credits TrendNomad

Through the built-in camera and using the software, HiMirror analyse user’s skin condition including wrinkles, fine lines, complexion, dark circles, dark spots, red spots, and pores. The device identifies problem areas, so the user can react with suggested solutions. Plus, it measures the effectiveness of given cosmetics that can be scanned with a barcode.

HiMirror Plus also helps to apply makeup appropriately for any occasion. The mirror comes with LED light to simulate five different lighting scenarios: a sunset view, outdoor on a sunny day, a brightly lit office, a shopping mall or supermarket, and a restaurant or party venue.

You can analyse at home not only your skin but hair as well. For this purpose, you can use Hair Coach, a hair brush developed by Withings (Internet of Things) and Kérastase (hair care products) brands. The brush is equipped with a built-in microphone, a gyroscope, and an accelerometer.

Hair Coach credits TrendNomad

Hair Coach diagnoses hair conditions mainly by listening to the sound of hair brushing. It identifies patterns, providing insights into manageability, frizziness, dryness, split ends, and breakage. And, naturally, it recommends appropriate Kérastase cosmetics to fix hair problems.

Here lies the core of a business based on Internet of Things: selling more products and services recommended and personalized to each client individually, using data generated by everyday devices connected to the Internet.


5. Giants are transforming 

Why among the exhibitors present at CES you could find a huge cruise line and a sports clothing company? Well, both corporations announced in Las Vegas that they strongly bind their businesses with wearable technologies.

Carnival, the largest cruise vacation company in the world operating more than 100 ships worldwide under 10 brands, launched the wearable device called Ocean Medallion. Later this year it will replace keys, wallets, and tickets on The Regal Princess, the largest cruise ship in the company’s fleet. Then, gradually, the technology will be put on boards of other ships belonging to the corporation.

The medallion is delivered free of charge to client’s home. Then the device makes boarding and disembarking the ship as simple as walking past a sensor.

It unlocks your room door when you walk up without any other key. It lets you pay for any purchase you do on the ship and it remembers your preferences to make it much easier to order your favorite meal and drink (through a smartphone or on touch screens placed throughout the ship). All you have to do is to wear the tiny device equipped with the Bluetooth and NFC technology on your wrist or as a pendant, or just keep it in a pocket.

It was not such a huge sensation that the American sports clothing company Under Armour unveiled at CES a new line of shoes with built-in sensors. What is here really worth noticing is the Athlete Recovery Sleepwear line. It is all about the inner side of the fabric that features soft bioceramic particles.

Under Armour credits TrendNomad

Every piece from the hi-tech apparel collection that includes long and short sleeves, pants and shorts, absorbs the body’s natural heat and reflects it back to the skin as far infrared. It helps the body to recover faster, reduces inflammation, regulates cell metabolism, and foster better sleep. Good night, competitors!


Post scriptum

Sticking to the story of new kind of clothing related to technology, but looking beyond five trends from CES 2017 mentioned above, one should also pay attention to the extremely interesting product that can be seen as an expression of people’s lack of comfort (or a fear) caused by the increasing number of devices connected to the Internet, as well as a revolt against our addiction to online life and technology. Let me present you the winner of CES 2017 (in my personal competition): men’s underwear brand SPARTAN.

Spartan underwear credits TrendNomad
Arthur Menard, Co-founder and CEO at SPARTAN.

SPARTAN underwear is made of cotton with the pure silver fibre sewn throughout it. The company’s CEO claims that metal thread acts as an electromagnetic shield, blocking 99% of radiation from cellphones and Wi-Fi.

If someone is concerned whether radiation has a direct and negative impact on men’s fertility, this is a perfect product made for him. Additionally, the silver prevents bacteria from proliferating and, in doing so, eliminates odours that may build up throughout the day.


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