Business, tech leaders' challenge : Finding innovation that matters

Every executive wants to create innovation that matters and CES 2016 gave us a glimpse on a few developments worth tracking on an ongoing basis.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

"We're delivering innovation that matters."

That quote belonged to Tim Baxter, president and chief operating officer of Samsung Electronics America. Baxter, part of Samsung's CES 2016 keynote last week, said what every company wants to echo.

What's alarming is that CES 2016--like previous years--will produce very little innovation that actually mattered. In fact, 2016 may only produce one or two innovations that have real staying power. The catch with innovation is that one advance by itself may only be meaningful when combined with other developments.

Analytics and artificial intelligence got a big boost from the cloud. Mobile and social in a vacuum don't produce a sea change. Put all those things together and maybe IBM's Watson when coupled with Under Armour apps becomes entrenched in our lives.

The other gauge of innovation--at least to me--is that it has to be tied to money and a real business case. Amazon's e-commerce and digital content efforts are notable, but without the logistics network and infrastructure behind it the front end is meaningless. Apple is known for its devices that delight. In the final analysis, Apple real innovation may rest with its supply chain.

Through that lens, we can take a glance at what CES 2016 produced and cook up a few potential innovation highlights for the year ahead.

Business strategy innovation: Toyota's artificial intelligence efforts. Toyota created a research institute focused on artificial intelligence and hired an all-star team of AI experts to run it with a $1 billion starter budget. Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), brought together a bunch of DARPA execs together and teamed up with Stanford and MIT. Pratt's keynote at CES stood out as one that became more interesting as it went on.

TRI's goals revolve around creating a vehicle incapable of causing a crash regardless of the skill or condition of the driver; providing access to autos to people that otherwise couldn't drive; translate Toyota's mobility expertise in outdoor vehicles to indoor; and apply AI to other scientific areas.

Pratt's most notable items were that automated vehicle robustness needs to be measured against how cars handle unknown risks. The other point is that Toyota's manufacturing expertise could apply to robots. Perhaps humans will ultimately feel the same way about their robots as they do their cars. Think Toyota can be a robot leader along with rival Honda? Sure.

On the innovation front, TRI hasn't accomplished anything yet, but the approach is innovative. Coupled with Ford's software efforts and you come away thinking that the term "disruption" and automakers may not apply. Sure, Google has autonomous cars and maybe Apple is building one, but cars are integrated systems that are going to by hybrid human-AI efforts for a while. There's an innovation in strategy and approach in play with the automakers, which technically could become mass producers of robots. Also: Ford's master plan to enter transportation services rests on software prowess

Analog to digital innovation: Under Armour puts the digital pieces together. Under Armour acquired a data platform with the acquisitions of MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal and Endomondo and at CES 2016 the apparel maker tied in some hardware via a partnership with HTC. For $400, Under Armour and HTC are pitching the HealthBox, a suite that includes a fitness band, scale and heart rate tracker tied together by UA Record. Under Armour is illustrating how all companies are digital. It's also worth noting that New Balance also is creating a digital division. Athletic gear makers have the relationship and trust with customers to acquire data. Ultimately, these brands will become coaches.

The Trojan Horse Internet of things hub innovation: Samsung launches a smart fridge called Family Hub. At first glance, Samsung's smart fridge seems ambitious and a bit absurd. A camera inside the refrigerator will allow you to see what's missing while grocery shopping. This fridge will also connect to other devices in the home. And ultimately, the fridge may be the central smart home hub. What Samsung gets is that the kitchen is the family hub. Why not make the fridge the mainframe of the smart home? The thinking with the smart fridge is quintessential Samsung, which throws every feature at a product. But there is some innovation here even if you can't help but smirk. As an appliance, Samsung's move is so-so, but as an IoT hub it has potential. Why this innovation may not work: Samsung's Family Hub is more about advancing an smart home strategy than delighting customers, who may like their dumb fridge.


Augmented reality delivered now innovation: Daqri's smart helmet. Daqri CEO Brian Mullins joined Intel's keynote to highlight its smart helmet, which brings augmented reality to the workplace via Intel processors and RealSense. The Smart Helmet is a wearable machine interface designed to be the next-gen safety gear in various work environments. If Mullins' Smart Helmet wasn't shipping today, Daqri would look like yet another augmented or virtual reality demo. However, Daqri is getting to market ahead of Microsoft's HoloLens and has time to find real use cases.


An old advance that finds new life innovation: Panasonic's Freeze-Ray effort with Facebook. Panasonic's keynote was notable at CES 2016 because 80 percent of the content revolved around B2B. Panasonic's talk on smart cities and data centers may have been misplaced, but props to the company for leveraging its Blu-Ray optical disk technology to archive photos and videos for Facebook at lower costs. Panasonic is now commercializing Freeze-Ray. There are rivals to Panasonic, but the company is reinventing itself with real business applications.

Keep it simple stupid innovation: Double Robotics nails cheap telepresence. The idea that you can use telepresence and be more mobile isn't new. Cisco and iRobot have a collaboration robot called Ava that aims to bring you to manufacturing floors and hospitals from afar. The issue: Price. Enter Double Robotics. The company's robot is stripped down and you could even consider it a newfangled iPad selfie stick on wheels. However, Double Robotics's Double 2 starts at $2,499. That price may make a mobile telepresence robot worth a pilot or two.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

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