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Visions of CES 2017: Skyfall or Sky Mall?

After attending this year’s bigger-than-ever Consumer Electronics Show, I had the distinct impression that the future will not be televised. A major arc at the show was the evolution of the human-computer interface beyond a keypad or screen. The boxes, screens, and keyboards of computing’s past are morphing into a ubiquitous, flexible, and smart presence that is personalized to a user’s needs–for example, in the form of Amazon Alexa–and activated by voice or gesture.

Although ultra-thin screens and barely there bezels still captured the headlines, I’ll put my money on the ever-expanding universe of screen-less products and services–Razer’s Project Ariana, HoloLamp, and the latest in mixed reality glasses. Intel’s Project Alloy merges augmented and virtual reality together in a headset with full wireless positional tracking and multi-room tracking, to create what the company has coined “merged” reality, and that will facilitate multiplayer virtual gaming among other things.

The shift to voice, gesture, and projection computing is led by the gaming and entertainment sectors, but slowly seeping into the home and the office as well. The Sevenhugs smart remote wirelessly connects to sensors placed throughout a room. Aim the remote at a lamp and Philips Hue’s interface will pop up. Point it at your Nest thermostat and you can change the temperature of the room. Pointing it at the door will let you call an Uber straight from your remote.

A second arc, related to Alexa’s ascendance, was the onslaught of new Internet of Things enabled gadgets. The breathless enthusiasm for smart trashcans was palpable, and so was the skepticism. Do IoT products solve actual human needs or simply fuel an insatiable appetite for new gadgets? As my colleague Mark Rolston observed about CES, “It’s like one big Sky Mall catalogue–a lot of junk looking for a purpose. If I have a smart toothbrush, a smart hairbrush, and a smart bathroom mirror, how do they work together to make my life measurably better?”

It will be interesting to watch the evolution of the Alexa ecosystem–companies developing products and services compatible with Amazon Echo–as well as the trajectory of Echo copycats. Could Alexa and her ilk become the “personalities” that bring the IoT to the next level? It’s telling that the Consumer Electronics Association gave the chipmaker Nvidia a keynote slot, and that their CEO used the opportunity to convey his ambitious agenda for AI-powered assistants operating in all areas of human activity.

A third arc at CES was the continuing march of AI into our everyday lives. Nvidia is best known for the high-end computer graphics cards. In the future, it wants to be known as the powerhouse behind artificial intelligence in your home and in your vehicle. The company is at the intersection of key, changing dynamics in the tech industry, notably AI and deep learning and their respective roles in pushing home entertainment and in fueling those next generation autonomous vehicles.

Nvidia wants to spread AI through the home via an upcoming, yet-to-be-priced ball-shaped peripheral for its SHIELD streaming system called Nvidia Spot. Each has tiny far-field processing microphones and echo cancellation to pick up your speech from 20 feet away. SHIELD also integrates with Samsung’s SmartThings hub to connect to smart plugs, coffeemakers, garage doors, locks, thermostats, cameras and other devices. Nvidia also showed off a tiny AI-car supercomputer called Xavier meant to be the brains in future self-driving cars.

Which brings us to my fourth and final arc: the rapidly emerging autonomous vehicle, which seems to be arriving faster than anyone has thought. Imagine, Ford arrived to CES seven years ago with the Sync system, and a CEO that dismissed autonomous vehicles “in my lifetime.” Fast forward to today and Ford insists we will see fully autonomous cars, without steering wheels, by 2021.The introduction of new smart car models was the hit of the show. Faraday Futures grabbed the headlines, but the Vision Van from Mercedes packed autonomous features with drones and robotics to give a more realistic glimpse of the fast-moving and diverse future the vehicle manufacturers have in store for us. Buckle up.

Through it all my sense from touring the Sky Mall at the Las Vegas Convention Center is that non-trivial technologies will still be the big winners in 2017. We need more technologies that combine “humanistic” interfaces like voice and gesture with advanced machine intelligence to help us solve real-world problems, like healthcare or making water infrastructure more resilient against extreme weather.

Just as CES was drawing to a close, a mammoth storm slammed into Northern California and Nevada, causing floods and landslides and pushing already vulnerable water and wastewater infrastructure to the breaking point. A smart bathroom may drive foot traffic on an expo floor, but a smart sewer system is the kind of technology that makes a lasting impact.

There’s serious buzz about a tech backlash unless we get our priorities straight–entrepreneur Ross Mayfield says, “Tech can do more than grow. It can do good. And if doesn’t, bad things will happen.” In an age of global jitters and digital clutter, doing worthwhile work is foremost on everyone’s minds.

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