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The future according to the tech industry elite

More than 4,500 exhibitors set up shop at CES to show off their latest gadgets and services to 180,000 attendees, across more than 2.9 million net square feet of exhibition space in Las Vegas. It’s the biggest tech show in the world and as good an event as any to get a finger on the pulse of where the tech industry is headed.

On one level it’s a massive transactionless shop floor full of the tech products that will be trickling down to the market over the next 12 months. Standing to attention in the vast halls of the Las Vegas Convention Centre will be every conceivable variation of laptop, preposterously-sized TV screens (curved or otherwise), quirky gadgets that will potentially never see the light of day, and phones. Lots of phones.

As well as providing a play to have a nose at all the fancy toys, the organisers (the Consumer Technology Association) also position the event as a bellwether of where the jetties of innovation are taking the industry in a more general sense.

“CES showcases the power of innovation to solve global problems and improve lives around the world,” says Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CTA. “The passion, ideas and business connections at CES make this the most significant global tech event – and the most inspirational week of the year.” Even if he does say so himself.

Over the course of the show, a cast sourced from the biggest tech firms on the planet take to the stage and unleash a tidal wave of keynotes, press conferences, speeches, presentations, product demos, panels and sometimes eyebrow-raising comedic skits.

Certainly a fair amount of waffle and self promotion is indulged in while they have a captive audience in front of them, but in amongst the posturing, certain key themes are touched upon repeatedly, which can give a sense of where the tech industry’s elite think everything is going. And since this is the gang collectively deciding where everything is going, it’s bound to be a bit more solid than your average crystal ball gazing. In theory.

So what do these esteemed corporate juggernauts think is going to define the tech industry in 2019 and beyond?

To 5G or not to 5G

5G is perhaps the most talked about yet least observed phenomenon in the tech industry. For a few years now its been hailed as the next big thing (which in mobile connectivity terms, it is by definition) but despite all the excitement from network providers, phone manufacturers and about a billion other places, there’s not a lot to shake a stick at yet. That will change of course as early adopters get their grubby mitts on the first devices to roll out of the factories.

Verizon claims to have the world’s first commercial 5G broadband internet service, and also claims that its undersea cable network carries much of the world’s internet traffic. Its CEO, Hans Vestberg, said during his keynote: “5G will change everything – 5G is the promise of so much more than what we have seen from wireless technology. Anyone who thinks 5G is just for the mobile handset is thinking too small.”

The firm claimed the power of 5G is based on ‘currencies’ – namely ‘speed and throughput’, ‘mobility’, ‘connected devices and Internet of Things’, ‘energy efficiency and service deployment’, and ‘latency and reliability’. Riveting stuff.

To back up these claims and pour some more hyperbole all over the stage, Verizon marched out a series of ‘partners’, including the New York Times, Disney, a medical technology company called Medivis, a drone company Skyward, and…erm… the LA Lakers. Each waxed lyrical on how 5G connectivity will revolutionise their respective industries in ways each more exciting than the last. And one of them shot some sweet 5G-powered VR hoops.

It’s a tough one to quantify when firms like Verizon deploy sentences like “It’s a quantum leap that will bring an era of radically new possibilities across all areas of technology” and descriptions like ‘the 4th Industrial Revolution’. These are big, but vague claims. Regardless, for the big tech firms to be in such a froth, 5G is bound to mean a lot more than faster loading Facebook video dross while you’re on a train.

Rise of the machines

Speculations as to the impact ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence will have on society range from a work-free utopia where all problems are solved by a benevolent, smiling computer dad, all the way to nightmare landscapes where robot overlords use us as batteries. All because we wanted to bellow ‘change the record’ at a smart speaker and have it understand our lazy command.

IBM chairman, president and CEO Ginni Rometty’s keynote posited that AI will prove data as the ‘world’s greatest natural resource’, creating whole scale revolutions in smart cities, health care, transportation and robotics (eek).

She claimed that it will destroy jobs, and that it will create jobs – but that ultimately “100 per cent of jobs will be different”. So that’s pretty big, then.

One of the main thrusts of the talk was to define ‘broad AI’ and how that is going to shake things up in the near future. It differs from what is mostly used now, which is called ‘narrow AI’ and is only good for one thing, like playing chess. It also differs from ‘general AI’, which is the as yet unrealised, hyper advanced, human level version of AI. This is the one that will murder us all. Or save us all. We’ll just have to see which way the wind blows on that one.

Broad AI is supposed to sit somewhere in between and according to Rometty: “is going to give us time to market with a lot less training data.”

LG’s president and CTO, I.P. Park also had a lot so say about the growing importance of AI in his keynote – and was joined by a four foot robot called LG CLOi GuideBot to emphasise his point.

After explaining how AI is already used in LG’s massively wide product range (for instance, it has OLED TVs which automatically optimise display and sound settings for what’s on screen using algorithms) he explained how in the future AI is going to be even more integrated into every conceivable facet of life.

He painted a picture of fridges making announcements when they’ve run out of eggs, and then taking it upon themselves to order some more online (we’ve heard that one before, mind), washing machines that know how long to wash clothes for, mirrors that give virtual clothes fitting information, self-driving cars analysing real-time traffic and working out the best route… the list goes on. We’ve heard a lot of these overtures before, but there’s no doubt year-on-year AI is having a greater and greater impact on particularly how large organisations operate. “AI should go from simply recognising your command to really understanding your needs and your purpose,” said Park in his speech. “Not just executing your orders, but reading your intentions, and recommending the best way of achieving it.”

Virtually reality

VR has been ‘the next big thing’ several times over the last few decades – hype and expectation flaring up with a new set of enabling technology, only to drift away again due to mass-market indifference. However with this generation of VR, which can perhaps be traced back to 2012 and the announcement of the Oculus Rift headset, the technology capabilities could finally be said to be catching up with the ambitions of VR proponents.

Powered by a series of alliances between hardware firms, software developers and platform holders, VR is now a serious force in the gaming world – and its proponents have even larger plans for it. During his keynote, Nvidia’s CEO Jensen Huang revealed just how big the firm estimates VR adoption currently is, claiming “four million HMD VR displays have been sold for PCs in the last several years.” No small potatoes.

Adding weight to Huang’s observations towards the rude heath of the sub-sector, the show floor was peppered with a raft of shiny new VR devices, including the HTC Vive Cosmos VR headset, (offering the VivePort Infinity service, described by HTC as ‘Netflix for VR titles’) and Pimax’s 8K ultra-wide high-resolution VR headset, which the firm claims will finally solve that perennial problem of peripheral vision in VR.

HTC and others were also talking up eye tracking technology – in which you can control software, such as menu selection, with a glance, and which may become a pillar of VR in coming years.

Beyond gaming, HTC also announced a partnership with Amazon Sumerian during it’s press conference, a move designed to enable developers publish VR-optimised websites.

The term XR – or extended reality – was also reported to be used frequently at the show. This is an umbrella term encompassing Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality, which is supposed to make it all simpler.

There’s no doubt the tech is getting more and more impressive, but whether another acronym and the promise of more immersive web surfing grasps the mainstream attention and extends its reach beyond the gaming community, remains to be seen.

You’re never alone with a smart home

Samsung – who has a finger in more or less every conceivable corner of the tech market pie – had a lot to show off and talk about at CES 2019. Aside from a billion new products including fancy- pants laptops and big ol’ TVs, the smart home was a clear pillar of its messaging.

New smart fridges are bolstered with improved interfaces for better picture and digital note posting on the door, and will also alert you if said door is left open. New washing machines are smarter, have more connectivity, and the new QLED-based Q900 series 8K TVs comes loaded with AI (the smart home and AI sectors merge quite heavily) to help find films and TV tailored to your tastes, while Samsung’s Bixby tech, Google Assistant and Alexa are also plugged in.

There were plenty more firms making a big show of their smart connected devices, proving this theme – which has been bandied around for well over a decade without, it has to be said, a massive impact on the mainstream buyer – is certainly not going away anytime soon. And like VR, it does keep getting more impressive each year, in no small part due to the entry of well-funded goliaths like Amazon and Google into the fray.

Google had one of the biggest smart home offerings. It’s Google Assistant Connect platform is designed to enable a slew of compatible gadgets in the coming years. It was claimed that Google Assistant digital helper could be available on one billion devices soon.

Another highlight from the search giant was ‘Interpreter’, a new feature for Google Smart Displays and Google Assistant, which can translate 27 languages to voice or text instantly.

Amazon announced a raft of Amazon Echo compatible partner products, while on the other side of the ecosystem more traditional appliance manufacturers were showing off smart home products, such as Whirlpool who had a suite of small to large appliances that work with the Yummly recipe app.

While the tech industry still might have a lot of work ahead of it to convince the average punter they need to unlock their front door with an app, or that the fridge needs to take personal responsibility when the milk runs, each year sees more and more realistic looking smart home deployments.

There were simply so many new products under the loose smart home umbrella that before long you might struggle buying brand new tech without some form of smart home connectivity tech ferreted away in its innards.

There were a thousand other announcements and themes ranging from the evolutionary and predictable (AMD, Intel and Nvidia all had faster chips to talk about) to the more fringe (such as new self driving cars and foldable phones) all the way to the bizarre (pet cameras, robots designed to follow you around the home and cheer you up, and Alexa powered toilets you can have a conversation with).

But within all this, 5G, AI, VR and the smart home were some of the most repeated themes from the year’s starting pistol of CES announcements, and we’re bound to hear much more about them in the coming year.

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