I’m back from Las Vegas where, for another astonishing year, I attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Like most of the marketers who attend the event, my mind was blown by innovation. I sat on the plane home buzzing with all the astonishing developments that consumers can expect to impact their lives in the not-so-distant future.
For marketers there is an urgent requirement to acknowledge and understand these new technologies and how they change the whole marketing ecosystem forever. So many innovations appear set to disrupt and delight us in equal measure in the coming years.The big questions for marketers from CES
The question marketers must answer is not whether they are ready for the radical implications that these new inventions will bring, but whether they can afford not to keep up as the pace of change intensifies. Too many attendees at CES concerned themselves with the unimportant and unhelpful questions about why, who and what, when they should have been asking when and how much.
That was certainly my approach last week and, after a long period of introspection, I have compiled a shortlist of my favourite new technologies at this year’s event. While you will probably question the practical realities of my space-age selection, I have no doubt that each of these hot new innovations is set to upend everything we know and, once again, change the face of marketing forever.
Advances in tablet tech
There was a lot of chatter across all the CES exhibitors about the hot new trend in tablet technology – disposable eco-tablets. The idea is brilliant in its simplicity and aligns perfectly with the new environmental issues that are now a constant concern at CES.
“The problem with tablets is that they cost a lot of money and resources to build,” explained Arnold Babar the head of R&D at Georgia-Pacific. “Then the power and battery requirements to run one are also, ultimately, very limiting.”
Georgia-Pacific is working on a new prototype tablet – codenamed Accessible Four or ‘A4’ for short – which provides all the functionality of a tablet computer but without the enormous component costs and power requirements that usually accompany it.
The new A4 devices on display at the Georgia-Pacific stand last week were certainly impressive. Their stripped-back design and simplistic appearance are reminiscent of the early Macintosh computers and the buzz around the company’s stand was palpable as experts tried them out.
The new A4 is extraordinarily thin – literally the width of a single sheet of paper. It’s also very light – an average user could carry dozens of these devices in their suitcase without any issue. The A4 is also surprisingly versatile.
Rather than a proprietary stylus, Georgia-Pacific claims that any traditional drawing instrument will work with the A4. I was sceptical of this category shredding claim but, sure enough, all the supplied pens and pencils worked equally well on the new device. Even a cheap hotel biro I found in my pocket produced outstanding clarity and a high-definition blue colour on the A4.
The environmental credentials of the A4 are also first class. Many of the raw materials required for traditional tablets, like rare metals, copper and lithium have been replaced with new, organic components like tree pulp and water. The device is completely recyclable too and, in a move that caused many raised eyebrows across CES last week, requires no external power to work indefinitely. You read that right. Battery independent, indefinite operating life.
But what really impressed me about the new A4 device was its ability to deliver against the key requirement of modern smartphones and tablets: foldability. While Samsung continues to struggle with its own foldable devices it would appear Georgia-Pacific’s proprietary manufacturing processes have enabled the company to leap ahead of the competition.
I was able to fold my A4 not just once, but several times. And then – in a magical moment – unfold it again immediately and back to its original, flat state. In a clever move, Georgie-Pacific calls this new foldable capability ‘origami’. No news yet if this feature will ultimately be offered open-source to other tablet manufacturers.
It is truly time for marketers to accept that the old models and traditional ways of operating are very much things of the past.
There are some design bugs. For starters, the A4 device I was using clearly had residual screen marks once I unfolded it. But the company is working on these issues and the biggest challenge Georgia-Pacific faceS is getting a tech-savvy target market to understand how the advanced A4 works. Many of the attendees at CES last week, for example, were dumbfounded by the lack of a power button and left the stand when their frustration at being unable to activate the A4 device became too much.
Offering the base model without wireless capability is a similarly challenging move. It’s all very well pushing the boundaries, but these 21st-century updates must be carefully explained to users who are simply not used to this kind of uber-minimalist advanced tech.
Vocal protocol systems
Also causing a stir at CES last week was voice protocol hardware. Both Samsung and Apple previewed upcoming proprietary systems at the event that will facilitate a new level of communication across advanced smartphone handsets. For too long users have been constrained by a tiny keyboard that limited usage to the sending of simple textual messages to friends and colleagues. Very soon, however, new vocal protocols will enable users to transmit voice messages too.
What’s the big deal you might ask? Well, rather than a text or video-based message these new systems enable users to speak almost instantly to other people in their network, and these other people can speak back to them – in real time.
According to Ed Harley, technology editor for Smartphone Weekly, this new innovation could completely change the way many users interact with their devices in the future. “Imagine,” Harley noted, “picking up your smartphone and instead of using it to tweet or email or get life tips from Gary Vaynerchuk about humility, you simply speak into it and immediately communicate with others on a vocal level.”
Harley sees this as a “paradigm busting change”. Others were less impressed. For example, senior tech futurist Gayle Stanwyck was sceptical of the potential.
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“We just don’t see the long-term value of vocal protocols,” she explained. “Sure, they are fun and a novelty feature. But 5G is the big disruptor for the year ahead, not some sci-fi notion that we will start using a device that was designed to surf the web as a conversational tool instead.”
John Cocktoston from the Wall Street Times agreed with this cautionary stance: “Even if the technology makes this possible, and I’m not sure it does, most millennials simply don’t want that level of vocal intimacy and would feel threatened by it. Plus, the security implications of real-time voice communication do not bear thinking about. Imagine what Facebook could do this with this kind of functionality.”
Premium retail assistance
There was a lot of buzz at the retail section of CES once again this year. Big retailers like Nordstrom, Tesco and Carrefour were all showcasing a new, high-end, shopping technology that augments the retail experience with new peer-to-peer service optimisation.
It’s a bold move. In recent years the retail showcase at CES has been all about automation and reducing the time consumers spend at the checkout. Automatic barcode scanning at the point of service was superseded by Amazon Go and other completely seamless retailing experiences.
Less interaction was seen to be the goal. But times change. These autonomous systems are often unpopular with consumers who find automatic checkout both inefficient and prone to error.
Several retailers at CES were showcasing personal, peer-to-peer transaction experience models last week. The idea is radical and not without risk, but the consensus from Las Vegas was this was the way of the future. Rather than being forced to scan one’s own items or simply picking them up and exiting the store, the supermarket of the future will employ people to manage the end experience.
Automatic conveyance technology (or ‘belts’ as the retailers are now calling them) enable all your items to move seamlessly through to the personal transaction staff, who then scan and bag your items and then run the transaction offline while you wait.
The mock-up that I tried at ‘Tesco Store 2025’ was extremely impressive and worked flawlessly. The only glaring issue was the shock of being confronted with personal and occasionally intrusive questions from the retail transaction executive.
Being asked “do you have anything planned for the rest of the day?” threw me completely and it took several seconds to check my smartphone before I could confirm that I was free until 4pm. I then waited for an appointment request but none came. An odd glitch in what was otherwise an amazing glimpse into the retail future.
According to Tesco’s Peggy-Lee Zorba we can expect these personal retail transaction kiosks to roll out across the UK this year. “We do not expect they will ever replace the automated checkout,” Zorba explained. “But wherever we have introduced these kiosks they have proven immediately more popular with shoppers.”
And isn’t that the main point? New, radical innovations are displacing the old models of the past. These examples demonstrate how the near future for consumers will be very, very different from the past.
With so many bold new inventions emerging across tech, retail and lifestyle sectors it is truly time for marketers to accept that the old models and traditional ways of operating are very much things of the past. The next step in human evolution is made up of A4 tablets, voice protocol technology and peer-to-peer service optimisation.
I have seen the future, can you see it too?