CES 2020: Best of show? Some of this will last, most of it won't
Every year, a new crop of stuff at the Consumer Electronics Show is crowned the "best of." Some of it lasts, a lot of it is forgotten and discontinued within years. A review of recent years' highlights is a cautionary tale not to take what happens in Vegas too seriously.
Every year, certain gadgets are the pick of the litter as "the best" of CES. Many of the them will ultimately fizzle, even if some of the features and some of the philosophy they promote live on as a given category of product blossoms.
ZDNet took a stroll through the past several years of best, or favored products, many of them compiled by sister site CNET. Their editors do a decent job surveying all that's offered.
The point was to see what stuff actually endured, and what faded away.
Occasionally, something actually comes out of the show that suggests a real movement is afoot in a given direction. That's the exception: The rule is that most stuff is fairly predictable, and fairly derivative.
Probably everyone's favorite surprise buzz item last year, the Impossible Burger 2.0, is also everyone's favorite success story from CES because it's so intriguing.
Both the ever-expanding distribution of Impossible Foods's product, the Impossible Burger 2.0, as well as the IPO in 2019 of competitor Beyond Meat, are signs that this is a thing with staying power. Demand is so hot that Impossible Foods this week said it didn't have enough product to meet McDonald's orders.
It's interesting that the most significant product of 2019 was a product of chemistry, not electrical engineering. Apparently, the big new thing this year is fake pork.
The rise of connected stuff
In the decade just ended, as CES transitioned from being a personal computer conference to being about connected stuff of all sorts, lots of promising products emerged for personal and home use, and for care of people with disabilities, from devices to vehicles to sensors. Many seem like great ideas, many started off as Indiegogo projects, some have made it to market, and it's not yet clear which will have true staying power.
This is now a burgeoning industry. OhMiBod has a slew of products, there are lots of other vendors, and new entrants like the Osé are offering innovative technology to enhance the category. According to Cosmo's Carina Hsieh, you can compile a pretty solid list of the best-selling sex toys of 2019, and 2020 looks set for lots more hits.
For consideration of the connected gadget world, it's instructive to take a look back a few years to buzz-worthy names.
The Whill autonomous wheelchair, the Model Ci, powered by Nvidia's Jetson TX2 chip, is planning another appearance at CES this year after the company's technology first caught the eye of CNET's Elizabeth Armstrong Moore way back in 2013. The wheelchair was tried out, on a pilot basis, in a number of airports in 2018, including Dallas/Fort Worth. The device sells for $4,999. The company counts among its advisors former Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy.
One stand-out item in 2017 was the Willow Breast Pump, which CNET's John Falcone cited that year as a prime example of how wearable technology had moved beyond smartwatches. Mashable's Leah Stodart informs us last July that Femtech, including breast pumps, is a $200 billion industry. The specific segment dedicated to breast pumps from Willow and others, such as Elvie, is expected to reach $3.5 billion by 2024.
Whirlpool's $1,199 Zera Food Recycler started as an Indiegogo project but is now available from the firm's Wlabs website for purchase. CNET's Megan Wollerton, a confessed compulsive food shopper, in 2016 dubbed the Zera "a seriously smart alternative to traditional composting." This seems a very worthy technology, though for the moment, it's a very small market in unit terms, it would appear. A report from a firm called "Fact.MR" in 2018 cited the total addressable market for "food waste recycling machines" as being 10,890 units that year.
One big theme behind CES in recent years is that contract electronic manufacturers such as Flextronics and distributors such as Avnet have become much more active in helping young companies get new inventions to market. That has led to a rash of connected doohickies of all kinds.
One example was a 2016 startup venture named Owlet, which makes a connected baby booty that sends alerts to parents' smartphones. Following its debut at the show, the device was reviewed by CNET's David Priest, who wrote that it was a worthwhile device, but short on features and pricey.
A lot of stuff that's promising in this connected category is making very small strides, and it's not clear if it will ever break through in a big way, even if it's worthy technology. Japan's Xenoma, which won the 2018 award for best wearable technology, is just now gearing up for a debut of its pajamas with embedded sensor technology. It's meant to aid in things such as monitoring of sleep patterns. Start-up Black Box VR, another 2018 winner, for best startup, is making gymnastics facilities that use virtual reality, has slowly been opening real-world facilities. It's too soon to tell how popular they can make the craze.
Another connected thing from 2018, the tiny, tiny UV sensor from L'Oreal, called the UV Sense, was cited by CNET's John Falcone that year as one of numerous products in wellness that went beyond the fitness mandate.
The UV Sense, meant to be worn on a fingernail, detects how many rays you're soaking up. L'Oreal is a company that's constantly releasing stuff in the category of smart wellness, or smart beauty, or whatever market research people christen the field in any given week, all kinds of stuff that supposedly has "AI," for whatever that's worth.
L'Oreal's $60 sensor is available exclusively at Apple retail stores as My Skin Track UV. It is no longer meant to be worn on a fingernail; rather, it has now been made into a wearable technology device, with a clip that attaches to clothing. It can also be had in a bracelet form. How big can this thing be? Probably too soon to tell.
Each year, a whole connected sub-category gets a big focus, as was the case in 2018 with sports accessories that can monitor traumatic body injury. Startup Prevent Biometrics turned heads, if you will, for sports tech with its Head Impact Monitor System, a bite plate that sits in an athlete's teeth and gathers real time info about impacts.
The HIMS is getting real deployment at some teams. But the category faces some controversy. The FTC in August closed an investigation into Prevent with the observation that the company's initial claims were not all substantiated, and Prevent had to alter its marketing materials.
Big in Japan
Some things linger in the gadget universe forever and seem never to take over the world but also not to fade away. Sony's been hawking its robotic pet Aibo for years now. CNET's Falcone wrote that it "stole the show" in 2018 as far as robots. We know that Aibo has led to dedicated cafes in Japan for cyber-pets for the fans, thanks to the intrepid reporting of BuzzFeed's Rosalind Adams, but it's not clear that the device is taking any other markets by storm.
How quickly some things are supplanted. AirDog got major applause from CNET's Joshua Goldman in 2015 for distinguishing itself from other drones. Rather than having a clumsy remote, it paired with a hardware bracelet, or leash, worn by the human user, which would compel the AirDog to follow the user's movements. AirDog is one of the many follow-me drones that make possible modern cinematography, where the camera follows the subject of the action, which is a burgeoning equipment market. But fast forward, and 2019 saw the rise of better, cheaper models, such as the Skydio 2, from Skydio. The Skydio 2, reviewed by CNET's Stephen Shankland this past October, improves on the state of the art by not requiring you to wear any kind of physical device for tracking. It's also got a relatively inexpensive $1,000 price tag that made the initial production run sell out immediately, Shankland reported.
In other words, categories persist, but which players are on top can change pretty quickly.
Ghosts of CES past
The further back in time one goes, the more things seem to fade. In 2013, for example, the best wearable technology of that year was the Pebble smartwatch, from startup Pebble Technology. Indeed, anyone attending that year remembers the thing, with its simple black-and-white display, as a striking new entrant that took the show by storm. Many smartwatch enthusiasts at the time figured this was the thing that would make the category.
But Pebble was coming to market as speculation about a possible wearable computer by Apple was already rising. Three years later, in 2016, Pebble shut its doors, as the Apple Watch came to dominate smart watches. Pebble's technology was sold to Fitbit, which was last year bought by Google.
A similar casualty was the Reign fitness bracelet that caught lots of people's attention in 2014, from headset maker JayBird. TechRepublic's Jack Wallen wrote two years later that you "can't go wrong" with the Reign as a fitness tracker, praising the device for its balance of functionality relative to other wearables.
Despite that enthusiastic response, the device was later discontinued, another victim as Apple steadily increased the feature checklist of the Watch.
Valve's Steam Machines hardware, also known as Steambox, was one of the most buzz-worthy gaming tech developments at CES in 2014. CNET's video game correspondent Dan Ackerman called it the biggest idea in a sudden revival of PC-based gaming that year. But as Brad Chacos of Computerworld chronicled in 2018, the gaming devices became a disaster, selling fewer than half a million units in the first seven months of release, leading Valve to end the entire Steambox initiative.
Some of the most striking and promising young things disappear without a word. Such is the case for 2014's Mother, a wireless base station with a resemblance to the legendary cartoon character The Shmoo. It connected to several small sensors that could be placed around a home, or even on a person, to be used for any number of sensing tasks.
CES 2020: The best tech, gadgets on show (so far)
Anyone who was at CES in 2014, when Mother won as the best "offbeat product," remembers seeing this little thing. It was cute and intriguing. But the early feedback in the marketplace may have signaled the end was near. The Guardian's Stuart Heritage tested it a couple years later, and confessed he couldn't exactly figure out what the heck it was supposed to do. Which perhaps was not a good omen.
Others found some functions surprisingly helpful, such as its sleep tracking ability. Sense, the company that made Mother, released another product in 2016, a miniature sensor that could be employed in various situations, called the ThermoPeanut. CNET's Claire Reilly called it "Nifty."
But by 2018, the Sense company had folded, and the product was no longer supported. An interesting paperweight, in the end.
Relax, it's only a concept
Put into one bin all the stuff that is mostly concept or prototype, and you can safely forget about these items because they won't affect your life the rest of the year — or for years, for that matter. For example, a year ago, LG's TV R was one of CNET's 10 favorite products at the show, and was also a CES honoree for innovation in the video displays category (Yes, LG gets numerous honors every year from CES, they have a lot of product in the running.) The TV R is an OLED television set that simply rolls up into a sleek sound bar, for those who don't want their home marred by a large slab when they're not actually watching.
Turns out, CNET's David Kazmaier reported Monday, that the TV R will cost $60,000 when it goes on sale this year. Its initial expected ship date had been last year but that slipped, reports Katzmaier. Unless you are a sultan or know someone who is, this is one TV you can expect not to see a lot of.
Concept is also the label of a lot of flashy electric vehicle stuff that appears every year: these things seem to take forever to actually become a real product. One of 2018's most interesting entries in transportation is a giant concept vehicle, or maybe a non-vehicle, the e-Palette by Toyota. When CNET's Antuan Goodwin reported on the unveil at Toyota's press conference that year, Goodwin wrote that it looks very "boxy" but "gets much more interesting the more you imagine." Which is just the right way to put it, because so far, it mostly is a product of the imagination rather than reality.
The e-Palette looks like a sci-fi version of a camper, a giant structure on wheels with big windows on the side. It's an electric vehicle, it is intended to be an autonomous vehicle in some cases, and rather than being a vehicle, per say, it can be a mobile point of sale, like some kind of sophisticated food cart.
It's hard to write off concepts because the most ambitious can take years to come to fruition, so it is often premature to say they won't come about. A neat curiosity in 2016 was the EHang 184, a prototype two-seater quad-copter — think of a drone big enough to actually carry two humans. CNET's Falcone that year called it the "can you believe it? drone of the show."
EHang Holdings, the company that makes the thing, calls them autonomous aerial vehicles, or AAVs. The AAV is controlled by artificial intelligence, according to EHang, specifically "deep learning based object detection systems," and "advanced artificial intelligence algorithms and other technologies." The idea is a self-piloting craft that carries people as passengers, like a self-driving car in the sky.
EHang the company made its first customer delivery of a vehicle in 2018, for testing purposes, and as of December had delivered 38 vehicles in total. EHang Wednesday announced it tested its vehicle for the first time in the U.S. at something called the North Carolina Transportation Summit. The company's done has done 2,000 trial flights to date, it said. The Chinese company — EHang is based in Gaungzhou — just went public last month, trading under the ticker "EH." The company made $9 million in revenue in the first nine months of 2019, and lost almost $7 million on that revenue.
Is this vaporware or what?
Some stuff prompts an eye roll from people even in the year it wins. CNET's Dan Ackerman in 2017 called the Project Ariana "one of the more unusual concept pieces" from Razer, a company with a history of conceptual stuff. The Ariana was a 4K projector with special depth-sensing capability that could supposedly spread a projected image over an entire room while adjusting the geometry of the projection to account for obstacles such as furniture. The idea was to make a video game fill the entire room.
Ackerman cautioned at the time, "this product may never actually see a commercial release," and how prescient he was! Nick Statt with The Verge tells us that Project Ariana is destined not to see the light, at least not anytime soon, and it now appears to be merely the latest in Razer's yearly unveiling of stuff that never really becomes actual product.
But one of the biggest disappointments in recent memory has to be the various "wireless power" offerings of startup Energous. For six years running, Energous has shown up with prototypes at CES of its transceivers for sending up to a watt or two of power over distances of tens of feet, using RF signals. The stock was a favorite of momentum traders, with every tidbit of news bringing the promise of boom or bust for the tiny company.
Energous has not lived up to the loftiest expectations of its investors, but it's still coming to CES. This year's press release mentions a number of either prototype products or items that are actually available for sale. You have to give them credit for showing up.
None of what's been cited above takes into account the hundreds, or thousands, of products that emerge in existing categories each year that are immediately the best. Smartphones, Chromebooks, accessories — tons of stuff has its place in the sun for a moment. You'd probably find that few of those devices have huge sales, much less change the world. Vegas is a place where fortunes are made and lost easily, and darlings appear and fade almost as quickly.