Though many grumble about getting to Las Vegas smack dab after the holiday, there's no doubt that the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) convention, which takes place every year at the beginning of January, is scheduled right when it should be. After all, the show is all about innovation—what's next in gadgets, consumer electronics, technology and more. And that makes it a great place for business owners to get a handle on their technology strategies for the coming year.
"CES is still the biggest and best place for emerging technology. It's an oasis of brands, media and high-tech for consumers and businesses," says Ramon Ray, editor of SmartHustle and SmallBizTechnology.com. "For small-business owners, CES is the place to observe what future technology you might want in your business to get ahead of the competition, make things better for customers, save time or boost productivity."
Last year's show witnessed a record-breaking 177, 393 attendees across 2.47 million net square feet of exhibition space. And this year's CES is a special one: When an estimated 165,000 attendees and 3,800 exhibitors descend upon Las Vegas on January 5th to 8th, it will be the show's 50th anniversary. Today the show's purview includes nearly everything technology touches: automotive, robotics, 3D printing, wearables, health/fitness devices, smart home devices, mobile, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual and augmented reality, and good ol' TVs, which are more interactive, multi-sized and high-def than ever.
Given the number of activities, people and exhibitors, it can be hard for business owners to get a handle on what to look for at CES. Here are a few technologies, trends and areas of the show that are worth a special look.
Voice Recognition Technology Makes Waves
One of the biggest technologies that is poised to go truly mainstream this year is voice recognition, the ability of phones, computers and other devices to recognize human speech. Whereas previously devices were able to recognize and follow voice commands, with today's voice recognition technology, devices are able to understand more of a conversation.
This AI-based technology can power everything from customer service voice menus and chatbots to car controls and home search devices like Amazon Echo's Alexa and Google Home—a huge potential convenience if you're a business owner working virtually without an assistant. “Voice is the next computer interface," says Shawn DuBravac, chief economist at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). Voice may even replace the screen-and-keyboard-based interfaces we're accustomed to using today.
"We've seen more progress in this area the past 30 months than in the past 30 years," says DuBravac.
—Shawn DuBravac, chief economist, Consumer Technology Association
"Business leaders need to think about what it looks like for their customers when their customers are looking at computers using only their voice," he continues. "How is information disseminated in this way? If I ask Alexa or Google Home about a particular business, what is my interaction going to look like? If I have a service, how can I integrate it into these platforms?" Already, consumers can call a ride-share service, order a pizza or look up a local business with a quick voice request from Amazon Alexa and Google Home. This means that smart business leaders may be thinking about how, say, a consumer could order a widget from them via voice command on these devices. Ditto ensuring that a business's address and directions quickly show up on voice-initiated searches. Amazon has opened up its APIs (application programming interfaces) so that any business can make an Alexa-friendly app, which means business owners may want to rethink their mobile, online and app strategies.
Voice recognition is already an integral part of everything from chatbot-based customer service on popular messaging apps to simple voice search and commands on your smartphone. "Every business has information they're trying to convey to a customer, and how they convey that information to a customer is changing significantly," says DuBravac. "Will it be via digital display, via voice prompts, both?"
Even on a practical, daily level, business owners can use these devices to keep track of their calendars or do simple searches and research, but without needing a smartphone or computer in front of them.
New and Improved AI Technology
Other forms of AI technology are worth exploring at CES, too. Look for Internet of Things (IoT) devices—essentially, any device that's connected to the internet—that are powered by neural network-trained AI offerings from IBM's Watson and Microsoft Cognitive Services. These companies offer APIs, which make it easy for businesses that may have use for, say, an image- or facial-recognition application, but don't want to spend the time or investment to develop the technology from the ground up.
Such APIs, for example, are what enable some makers of security cameras to add features like facial recognition, so that alarms don't go off if someone familiar enters your home or office. Smart robots with sensors and computer vision capabilities can also use these APIs, for example, to help improve safety for construction and factory workers as well as inspect, say, computer chips at a microscopic level to ensure assembly line quality control.
Drone Technology, Augmented Reality and More
Need a drone to shoot footage of your next launch event? The product category for these robo-aircraft includes over 125 exhibitors at this year's CES. more than 1.2 million drones are projected to be sold in the U.S.by the end of 2016, according to the CTA, and they're no stranger to AI advances. "You're going to see a lot more sensors embedded in drones to do things like avoid accidents thanks to object detection and the like," says DuBravac.
Although Google Glass was discontinued by Google, look for other augmented reality (AR) solutions that one day will come into play for business users: AR-powered apps that offer instruction manuals, or facial recognition to help identify people you meet at a trade show, making networking easier. You may also find smart wireless earbuds that not only track your stress levels and block out noise, but also remind you of your next appointment or business meeting thanks to full integration with Alexa.
No matter what your main goals for attending are, CES remains an opportunity to make connections, whether you're planning back-to-back meetings in advance or serendipitously running into a product designer who can work on your next smartphone peripheral. And besides seeing the future of tech, trade shows like CES can offer a chance for business owners to see how their companies can participate in the next wave of innovation, helping them adapt their current systems to keep up with innovative products and technologies. As DuBravac puts it, "CES is about seeing something new that causes you to think about your business differently." In this era of disruption, thinking about your business differently can be key to giving smart leaders an edge.