Quick Thoughts: CES – AI Assistants, Self-driving Cars … and PCs?

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–     AMZN, and to a lesser extent GOOGL, showed up in appliances, TVs and cars. Voice AI assistants may be the missing UI for the connected IoT home.

–     Car makers were all touting their progress on autonomy – NVDA and MBLY are in the middle of most of it – but full Level 5 claims are probably overstated

–     PC’s actually got some buzz – MSFT’s Surface success has inspired new form factors and performance characteristics in desktops, laptops, 2-in-1s, and peripherals.

–     VR/AR demos are cool, but the products are far away from the form factors, functionality, price points or content availability necessary to make them winners with consumers

CES 2017 wrapped on Friday. Every year a few themes stand out – sometimes signifying real change (smartphones, OLED screens, 4K video) and sometimes reflecting wishful thinking by the electronics industry (3D TVs, curved screens). This year the biggest buzz hummed around voice-powered AI assistants, with AMZN’s Alexa almost universally touted as the “winner” of the show. AMZN has been busy signing up licensees for Alexa, with Ford cars, Whirlpool appliances, Klipsh speakers, Dish Hopper DVRs, LG appliances, Huawei’s flagship smartphone, Element TVs, and Levono smart speakers all showing up with Amazon’s friendly assistant on board. GOOGL, which followed AMZN with its own Echo-like speaker a couple of months ago, has started to find partners as well – Nvidia, Sony, Hyundai and Chrysler featured the Google Assistant prominently in their booths.

The “connected home” has been one of those concepts that has been touted by the electronics industry but has always been a bit too kludgy to set up and use for consumers to really embrace it. However, the overlay of voice controls feels like the impetus that could finally get the market rolling. We expect that we will see a lot more of Alexa and Assistant over the coming year, with AMZN and GOOGL battling for both technical and sales leadership. AAPL’s philosophy of keeping its applications for its own devices keeps Siri out of the licensing game – Siri can control a number of connected consumer devices via HomeKit, but only iPhones, iPads and AppleTV actually have Siri available. The difference between asking your oven to pre-heat and set a timer directly vs. asking your phone to ask the oven to do it is subtle but could be significant in driving user adoption. We have written at length about AI virtual assistants – you can read it here (http://ssrllc.com/publication/ai-assistants-the-next-user-interface-paradigm/)

The other big buzz at CES was self-driving cars. At least a dozen automakers showcased their progress on automated driver assistance, with most promising fully autonomous operation 3 to 5 years down the line. NVDA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang closed his opening night keynote with his company’s latest for self-driving vehicles, highlighting the Drive PX processing platform, announcing the AI Co-Pilot (which can track driver engagement and monitor conditions which could affect the driver – critical for situations which may require control to be transferred from the AI), and revealing new partnerships with Audi, Mercedes, Bosch and ZF. NVDA rival INTC has partnered with MBLY and BMW – their alliance announced plans to have test vehicles on the road in Germany during 2H17. Kia made a forceful case that 5G wireless will be a critical piece of the self-driving puzzle, bringing QCOM, TMUS and S executives onto the stage to make the pitch for the importance of infrastructure investment. A number of companies were offering test rides to reporters, including the mysterious Faraday Future, which surprisingly showed up with a practical model that they hoped to bring to production at some unspecified future date.

PCs made a bit of a renaissance this year. The last round of PC innovation at CES was 3-4 years ago, when the first 2-in-1 convertible tablet/laptops started showing. This year, perhaps inspired by MSFT’s success with its Surface line, computer makers like Acer, Asus, Levono, Razer, Dell and HP were showing creative form factors, interesting packages of specs, and cool peripherals. Perhaps the consumer Windows PC is not quite dead yet.

Finally, the big hype continues for virtual reality and its younger sibling, augmented reality, about which we recently wrote (http://ssrllc.com/publication/vr-and-ar-the-reality-story/). The lines for the VR demos were not as long as they once were, but the basic experience is more or less the same – cool flight simulator games and virtual tourism. The first consumer VR devices have been on the market for over a year now, but sales have been modest and the available content is thin. We are not sure that any of it would remain compelling over the long run, much less threaten to become a primary user interface.  AR has more promise in that regard, but seems a long way from a performance level, form factor and price point that would make consumer smart glasses viable. The AR products at CES this year are not going for the Magic Leap/HoloLens wow factor of 3D images seamlessly incorporated into your view. Instead, they follow more of the Google Glass model of floating a display that can be seen by one eye off to the side.  This is practical, with most of the real opportunity in enterprise applications. Osterhout Design Group showed up at QCOM’s presentation to tout the Snapdragon 835 SoC in its supposedly consumer oriented AR glasses, but even with limited functionality the product is far too bulky to pass for stylish outside of Silicon Valley.

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