“The Future of Lifestyle Technology is voice-controlled and automated.”
By Damon Aitken
CES 2017 showed off plenty of gadgets, and provided a view of how tech companies imagine we will live in the future. Consumer electronics is shifting from entertainment to lifestyle essentials, as they are becoming a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives whether it be in the home or in our cars.
Voice technology is seen as the future method of user interaction. The January 7th-13th issue of Economist may have featured voice control as its cover story, but the technology still has some hurdles to overcome . Voice control still struggles in noisy, or inappropriate, environments, and the technology can have difficulty with strong accents or unsupported languages. Though, the tech industry is constantly attempting to find solutions. One startup, Knocki, provided an alternative, which allows users to tap a surface such as a desktop to execute commands. For example, the sensor could pick up a tap on a dining room table and turn on the room lights. The success of Amazon Echo demonstrates however that voice technology has huge demand among consumers (5.2 million in 2016).
Voice control technology has been extended to other technologies too. For example, one company developed a talking solar panel that provides varied responses to the same command. Solpad, the firm that produced the panel, presented ideas that aim to provide more fluid communication between users and machines. These ideas can be promulgated among different user devices.
Outside of home devices, autonomous cars were a big theme, with major car manufacturers presenting their takes on self-driving cars. One of the most striking innovations was Toyota’s 愛i Concept (愛 is the Japanese kanji for love). The slick presentation imagined a future where car AIs are personalized to each user. They would learn user preferences and use an in-car camera to detect facial expressions to determine the driver’s emotional state. This is different to another view of autonomous cars, in which car ownership will cease to exist and everyone will use a taxi service. Another major manufacturer that believes in personalized cars is Chrysler. They demonstrated a moddable interior that uses exterior cameras to recognizes users as they get in and provides personalized media to each passenger seat with its own screen.
Two other well-represented areas of tech were smart homes and robotics. Smart homes are essentially devices that have automated tech inside them, which allow users or an AI to control functions in one’s house. Voice control is a key way to input commands. Current smart home devices are often rather piecemeal; wifi-connected dongles that connect into power plugs. Firms displayed visions of smart tech built into the house itself and suggested that future new homes will be built specifically for this form of technology. Smart homes could dovetail with robots in the future; robots are becoming ever more capable of interacting with humans. One Chinese-built robot could give sassy retorts in Mandarin before following instructions.
CES 2017 gave glimpses how modern technologies will be further integrated into our lives, but the current U.S. Administration will introduce more exogenous uncertainty. Rhetoric about about a potential trade war with China could have repercussions for the consumer electronics industry. Higher tariffs on goods manufactured in China would affect a vast swathe of electronics products. Cities like Shenzhen, in China’s Pearl River Delta, have built up expertise in electronics manufacturing, which combined with low-cost but skilled labor, has made them massive producers. China has huge potential advantages for its tech industry in its massive potential human capital and sheer size. In addition, the cheap production costs mean that Chinese companies can produce far cheaper goods. One example is that of Huawei which produces affordable smartphones that rival American manufacturers in build quality. Its Honor line of smartphones were on show at CES and impressed many media outlets with their build quality, UI, and low price.
Chinese companies rarely used to be represented, but now comprise a significant proportion of companies present at CES. Though the United States still has a massive influence on the innovation occurring in the industry, international firms are also providing their own innovations as well. Francois Fillon, a candidate for the French Presidency, dropped in for a talk with Techcrunch. German firms continue to be represented in manufacturing realms. A French smart home concept employed machine learning to help the AI learn user routines to do things such as open the blinds at a certain time. Japanese and Korean firms continue to produce their popular products. Panasonic presented a smart kitchen with transparent screens displaying recipes and a countertop that could also be used as a stove. An overseeing program would inform users what remained in their fridge and compose recipes based on that information. Samsung also presented a wide range of products ranging from new phones to ultra-modern washing machines.
Though the devices showcased were futuristic, consumers will be inhibited by one key factor in choosing which device they want to buy: price. The tech industry has faced criticism for exacerbating income inequality. The vast majority of those displaced by gentrification in Silicon Valley will not be able to afford the technologies on display today. There is also the tendency for the tech industry to favor monopolies and benefit the better educated. In order for consumers to adopt what Silicon Valley is pitching as the lifestyle of the future, costs will have to drop significantly before they become truly widespread and enhance the way we all live.
Image Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:CES_2017#/media/File:CES_2017_Opening_Keynote_Carnival_Levy_(32129786085).jpg
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