Tech to watch at the Consumer Electronics Show

From drones to wearables, which consumer tech should marketers place their bets on?

Toy robot
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Las Vegas has always seemed like an appropriate location for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES): a city built on innovation and gambling that this week welcomes brands from around the world to place their bets on new technology for the year ahead. Rapid digital advances have seen CES grow to host a predicted 150,000 visitors this week, with many marketers likely to be among them.

More than ever, marketers today must be able to stand up and make a case to their business about which new technologies offer real promise – whether as new consumer products, new marketing channels or the basis of a new brand proposition. So, for those who are not at CES, what are the big tech trends that brands and marketers should look out for as they plan their strategies for 2015?

Augmented intelligence

CES senior vice-president Karen Chupka suggests that this year will see increasing infiltration of technology in all manner of products. One consequence will be higher levels of ‘intuition’ from smart products and the brands that use them. While artificial intelligence – man-made technology that thinks entirely for itself – still resides in the realm of science fiction, there are plenty of inventions in Las Vegas this week that demonstrate the learning capabilities of inanimate objects.

The show’s robotics area is hosting everything “from humanoid entertainment devices to robotic cleaning machines”, according to its publicity, while Chupka believes such technology could lead to big advancements in areas such as home entertainment and children’s toys in the coming years.

“Last year, there was a teddy bear [on display] that was able to interact with children – it’s designed to help autistic children by reacting to them and helping them to learn how to connect with people at an early age,” she explains. “There are more products like that coming out and more commercial uses for some of this technology.”

The smart software powering these products coming to market is known as ‘augmented intelligence’ or ‘machine learning’. Examples already available include voice-activated personal assistants loaded onto smartphones, such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now, which not only respond to requests for information, but also adapt their answers over time by integrating data on the user’s preferences and behaviour.

Although this technology is advancing quickly, a review of Cortana in PC World magazine last year noted that these digital assistants “haven’t yet mastered the ability to tell us what we need even before we ask”.

“The idea isn’t for the machines to take over. They shouldn’t be there to replace you, but rather as an extension of your need, anticipating that need. We see this as the future”

Cristina Riesen, Evernote

Cloud-based note gathering service Evernote is seeking to offer a similar level of pre-emptive intelligence through its new ‘context’ function. Launched last October in partnership with business and financial publisher Dow Jones, the function offers links to articles that it thinks will be relevant to the user based on the content of their notes and their use of the platform.

The function complements other intuitive Evernote features including image recognition technology that allows users to search for content from handwritten notes that they have uploaded as images. Evernote, which aims to have a presence across all connected devices including wearables and home appliances, also provides notes and content suggestions according to the appointments in a user’s calendar.

“The idea isn’t for the machines to take over,” says European general manager Cristina Riesen. “They shouldn’t be there to replace you, but rather as an extension of your need, anticipating that need. We see this as the future.”

Image recognition

Image recognition looks set to play an increasingly important role in this type of intuitive brand experience. At the end of last year, UK technology start-up Neurence unveiled an app that enables people to scan physical objects or sounds with their phone in order to find related content online. The app, named Sense, differs from other smartphone scanning tools such as QR code readers by allowing anybody to upload and categorise any image or sound.

Charlotte Golunski, co-founder of Sense, explains that even when an image is not stored in its cloud-based system, the app uses machine learning to provide “a base level” of information. “The software is constantly indexing the internet in the same way that Google does,” she says.

Sense has already tested the technology by running a marketing campaign with pop group The Vamps whereby fans could use their phone or wearable device to detect an image of the band’s album cover and win the chance to have a video chat with the band. Sense recently launched its software development kit (SDK) for brands that wish to integrate the technology into their own apps.

For marketers, the applications for such capabilities run wide and deep: “Booking a holiday from looking at a postcard, buying tickets for your favourite band when you walk past a poster or using audio recognition to translate in real time and conduct a conversation in a different language will all become a reality,” claims Golunski.

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Connected convenience

CES’s Chupka also believes the ‘internet of things’ looks set to take on a life of its own this year.

“One of the biggest things that is changing the world of technology is sensors – how they are being built into products and giving products the ability to measure things and understand the world around them,” says Chupka. “The whole idea that everything is connected and that everything has a way of sharing data and being smart about you is driving a lot of the technology stories at CES.”

Notable products on show this year include a wearable device that allows women to measure when they are most likely to conceive a baby and automated systems to help cars avoid accidents. In addition to the broad theme of the internet of things, CES 2015 will also showcase huge advances in both software and hardware. This year’s conference is the first to have a dedicated area for drones, for example, while robotic exhibits are up by 25% on 2014.

It is not only technology companies with an interest in these developments, either. A huge range of brands are visiting Nevada this week, aware of the need to adapt their business models to the latest tech and consumers’ changing behaviour.

Procter & Gamble, Unilever and McDonald’s are some of the big names in attendance, while L’Oreal is exhibiting for the first time in the wearables area of the show as it looks to bring its health and wellbeing products into the digital age. “It’s very difficult to define what is a tech company these days,” notes Chupka.

Andy Hobsbawm, founder of Evrythng, a software company that specialises in connecting objects to the internet of things, believes that the rise of smart products will lead to an increased demand for seamless experiences that allow consumers to connect all products together in one place. This, he suggests, will prompt a fundamental shift in brands’ digital strategies in favour of online ‘ecosystems’.

“We’re going to see an explosion of product apps and that will result in an app backlash. Having to open 10 different apps for 10 different products isn’t going to work – we don’t live our lives like that. Apps will become subsumed into the mobile web and there will be a move to join these things in an ecosystem,” says Hobsbawm.

“Apps will become subsumed into the mobile web and there will be a move to join these things in an ecosystem”

Andy Hobsbawm, Evrythng

In recent months there have been numerous cases of big technology firms joining forces in order to facilitate these ecosystems. Last August, for example, home appliances group Electrolux became the latest technology company to join the AllSeen Alliance, an internet of things project that also counts Haier, LG, Microsoft and Panasonic among its members.

The companies are working together to build an open source software framework called AllJoyn that aims to act as a universal translator for objects and devices to interact, regardless of brand and other infrastructure considerations.

“Electrolux strongly believes that this technology, where appliances communicate with each other, with consumers and with other devices, offers a great potential to develop products and services that improve how we cook our food and clean our homes,” says Jan Brockmann, chief technology officer at Electrolux.

Hobsbawm argues that the marketing potential of smart products is huge, though he believes that brand activations must provide clear benefits for the consumer. He suggests, for example, that brands can extend their engagement with customers by inviting them to ‘friend’ their appliance on social media in order to receive additional rewards.

Connected car technology, such as that launched by Jaguar Land Rover recently, will come to the fore at CES 2015

Another suggestion is for connected appliances to provide users with online advice or contact details for repair services when they breakdown. “Companies need to figure out what makes a good connected experience,” he says.

Connected experiences will also usher in heightened levels of cooperation between different brands as they look to provide additional content and services to consumers. Jaguar Land Rover recently launched a SDK to accompany its new, smartphone-enabled connected car system justDrive – a move that will allow a variety of third parties to develop apps for the platform.

However, the company’s head of connected car Mike Bell says external software must work seamlessly in its connected system, which uses intelligent voice command technology to help drivers navigate, send messages and access apps.

“You don’t want Angry Birds being enabled through our touchscreen – that wouldn’t send out the right message. It needs to be safe, driver-centric and the brand fit needs to be right.”

Wearables become mainstream

One type of device guaranteed to make a splash in 2015 is the smartwatch, thanks to the impending launch of the Apple Watch, which is reportedly scheduled for spring. Many smartwatches are already available to buy, so wearable opportunities extend far beyond the Apple hype, but in 2015 brands will need to take a view on how widely smartwatches will be adopted and to understand what is required for brands to reach consumers through the various devices. The exhibition space for smartwatches at CES has more than doubled in size this year compared to 2014.

Karen Chupka at CES notes that wearable devices now include a wide range of clothing items, with athletics brand Under Armour among those exhibiting a line of sensor enabled sports tops that allow people to monitor their performance online. “That feeds into the wider evolution of sports equipment, with digitally connected balls and so on,” she explains.

Wearable specialists are also opening up their technology in a bid to develop new partnerships. Last September, maker of the Shine wristband Misfit announced it is working with over 30 partners who are integrating its activity – and sleep-tracking capabilities into their own products. These include fitness apps such as Lose It! and RunKeeper, but also non-technology brands like Coca-Cola, which has its own branded wristband as a result of the collaboration.

David Butler, vice-president of innovation at Coca-Cola, confirms that the company is keen to extend its presence in wearables and the wider internet of things. Its wristband product is available for sale in Apple stores in the US, where Misfit has a retail deal, and to employees as part of its internal wellbeing programme. As reported last year, Coca-Cola is investing in start-up technology ventures via its new Founders network, as it looks to diversify revenues and strengthen its digital capabilities.

Butler says: “Sensors cover everything – from all the touch points we have in the world like our delivery vehicles and our equipment, right down to the ‘biomarker’ level that can measure how hydrated you are and the effects of that on your body.

“We’re looking at all of that – large-scale sensors, all the way down to predictive analytics around the human body.”

Wearable technology doesn’t have to be high-tech, as Barclaycard’s bPay wristband has demonstrated

Brand strategies

Brands aiming to take advantage of leading-edge technologies have a significant amount of work to do to drive adoption and awareness, despite the hype generated by events such as the Consumer Electronics Show. New research by Ipsos MediaCT shows that only 49% of British adults have heard of cloud computing, while 44% are aware of smartwatches and 33% know about smart glasses. Only 4% of people currently use smart home technology, while 6% own a wearable device.

Not all innovations need to be revolutionary, of course. Barclaycard has integrated contactless payment chips into objects as simple as gloves; its PayTag sticker, which attaches to the back of a phone; and its bPay smart wristband. The latter offers the potential for brands to extend their engagement with consumers by connecting it to social media or loyalty schemes, though Barclaycard sees it more as a means to grow contactless payments.

“The UK is one of the leading markets for contactless payment, so while tangentially this is the internet of things, I think about it more in terms of driving contactless and the whole mobile payments wave,” says Mike Saunders, head of digital payments at Barclaycard.

Regulatory barriers may stand in the way of some marketers who are tempted by the flashiest hardware. For example, Amazon and Google are currently testing commercial uses of remote-controlled drones for delivering goods. However, large-scale applications remain a long way off and there are doubts about safety, since passenger planes in both the US and UK reported near-misses with drones in 2014.

“The regulatory side needs to come into better focus and certain technological aspects need to be improved,” says Michael Perry, a spokesperson for drones developer DJI. “But next year we will also see lots of innovation and creativity from the people who are already thinking about how these tools can change the world.”

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