What happens in Vegas famously stays in Vegas – except for this year of course as we stayed home and kicked off 2021 with the very first digital-only CES show. Personally, I missed the fountains and cocktails, if not the sore feet and endless lines. And although last week’s virtual event lacked the buzz of in-person contact, it was still good to tap into some of the thinking and trends across markets. So, keeping with tradition here’s our run down of the highlights that jumped out for Team Cambridge Consultants.

Curious to see what we presented?

The attendees – beyond tech and consumer 

Back in the late 60s this event started as a Consumer Electronics Show focused on the consumer tech market but now the acronym has become the name. For many years now, it’s been a place for non-consumer and non-tech companies to visit to understand the potential of technology – and for whole new categories to emerge with start-ups alongside multinationals.
 
We saw this with sports and fitness a decade ago, then with the emergence of the connected health space, new opportunities for CPGs and then more recently with agriculture and other industrial areas. This year we saw talks from Caterpillar and John Deere – technology-focused companies to a degree, but surprising attendees for some – and product launches from L’Oréal and Amorepacific. I’m sure many non-tech companies were in the audience too. All were taking a leaf out of my colleague Jen Gomez’s book, who reminds us that CES is always a good opportunity to learn from others, even virtually.

A big one – sustainability innovation

First emerging as a key topic around five years ago, sustainability was huge this time around – with it featuring heavily in many launches, talks and company showcases. Futurists say that water will outstrip the value of oil as climate change takes hold, so it was great to see water-saving solutions from L’Oréal, Moen, and the award-winning Hydraloop.
 
Also standing out was the combining of sustainability and personalization evidenced by the expansion of the Wiser smart home ecosystem from Schneider Electric, which has been recently nominated the world’s most sustainable company on Global 100 index. With homes predicted to become the single largest greenhouse gas emitters over the next decade, this timely system allows users to monitor and control their energy consumption. There’s also the bonus of significant savings on heating and cooling costs.  
 
We’re already working with many clients on developing and evaluating sustainability innovation, so it’s encouraging to see the global spotlight falling on this vital area. Here’s one story worth catching up with – our digital services innovation for VeriTherm, which offers viable thermal verification for commercially developed properties. 

AI – from fake news to healthcare 

AI spokespeople from the likes of Hive, IBM, and BlackBerry were eloquent and positive – but also challenged expectations by asking: “If AI is so good why doesn’t it combat fake news?” The consensus being that the training for this is based on subjective data. The debate moved on to the risk and awareness of bias and prejudice. 
 
Another excellent session expanded on concerns as experts explored trust in relation to the impact of AI on medical judgements in healthcare. The big challenge as seen as the ‘black box’ nature of AI and the general lack of explainability. Pat Bird of Phillips made a good observation, saying that he had proposed extending the regulatory guidance that existed for medical samples to data. The implication was that perhaps we don’t need to create a whole new regulatory framework but extend what we have already to digital data medical samples. The overall mission to attain trust was also summed nicely: we need to get nurses back to looking after patients rather than machines.
 
The care of data in the ‘The Digital Transformation of Personal Wellness’ was highlighted as crucial by Mindy Grossman, CEO of WW. She described the company’s digital acceleration sparked by the pandemic. Harnessing data successfully was instrumental in the journey to personalize their offering. They were now a technology experience company, creating intimacy with customers. 
 
Evidence of #gotAI was reflected in the CES Award Winners. I have picked out a few of those that caught my eye when looking for smart products. The Oticon More hearing aid features a deep neural network, while the AltumView Sentinare 2 smart activity sensor also has deep learning algorithms used in senior care.  Again for healthcare, the K300 autonomous health monitoring solution from Xandar Kardian can detect heart rate with superb accuracy without contact. 

Onwards – to artificial general intelligence

The trajectory of AI was analyzed brilliantly in the debate between two great thinkers, Thomas Friedman and Professor Amnon Shashua. In ‘Technological Megashifts Impacting our World’ they tracked our technology journey so far and examined the imminent move from narrow AI to broad artificial general intelligence (AGI). They suggested that within three to five years computers will be able to read text. In a topical reference, they said a machine could ingest all regulations for a COVID vaccine and engage humans in a discussion about how safe it was. The debate moved to the question of what comes after ‘deep’ – deep intelligence and deep medicine. They suggested the field remained radically open, with the focus once more back on data, using it to ensure a massive move to democratization. 

Automation – what now for smart cities?

The smart city concept has been around for several years but COVID has highlighted the massive inflexibility of cities. As was explored in a great panel discussion between Siemens, Lime, and Numina, most cities are fixed as soon as the concrete is poured. Now though the traditional rush hour is being replaced with mini rush hours and traffic flows have significantly altered.  
 
The key takeout was that city policymakers divide into the progressives and the conservatives. Paris fell into the progressive camp by creating a complete digital twin. This enables them to simulate different people-moving options – quickly and cheaply. Mass transit systems are now under significant strain, due to low passenger numbers. This may open up new innovation opportunities to offer more dynamic and integrated transport options, across different modes of transport. I’m pretty sure we’ll see more innovations in this space at CES next year. 

5G – the industrial perspective 

There was a lot of chat about 5G. A LOT. If you dig below the surface, although 5G promises to be all things to all people (remember the famous 5G use case triangle?), this isn’t the case in reality. Indeed, more often than not the mobile network operators are focused solely on the enhanced mobile broadband element, or a fatter data pipe. But some industrial companies are sensing an opportunity in the ultra-reliable, low-latency comms corner and are willing to pay handsomely for licenses to prove it.  
 
For all the talk from John Deere about improving the precision on the farm, what piqued my attention was what they didn’t mention regarding connectivity; specifically, their acquisition of CBRS licenses for manufacturing operations across several US sites. Enabling manufacturing lines to be more flexible by removing the need for miles of ethernet cable is a need that cuts across many industries and organizations. I’ll be watching Deere and others with interest to see how they deliver on the promise here. It's a big challenge that off the shelf kit is unlikely to solve straight out of the box.  

Automotive – ambition is really taking off 

It appeared that GM raided Ford’s past playbook by going all-in at CES this year. I was really impressed with the company’s ambition and vision to transform itself into a mobility company. The keynote presentation was packed full of transformative initiatives. We saw them unveiling their EV battery technology Ultium, the foundation for 22 new all-electric vehicle launches planned up until 2023; the announcement of their plan to roll out Super Cruise, their self-driving package to more affordable models later this year; their foray into last-mile logistics with BrightDrop; and, to top it all off, their flying car concept, the Cadillac eVTOL.  
 
Amidst the blizzard of new announcements, it was interesting to see very little fanfare was made of perhaps one of the greatest technological achievements in recent times. It was their first successful fully self-driving trials (with no safety drivers) in downtown San Francisco late last year, a very significant automotive milestone. 
 
I thought the GM keynote accurately reflected automotive trends that influenced many other announcements. There’s a significant push to launch electric vehicles, and we saw plenty of evidence of this. Established automotive suppliers Magna and LG, for example, announced a joint venture to focus on electric powertrain development.  
 
Meanwhile, as self-driving features appear more widely, there is an opportunity to completely redefine the in-vehicle experience to offer greater comfort and immersion. Harman unveiled a development environment platform that designers can use to realize a completely new in-cabin experience. It is underpinned by advanced audio and video capabilities that rely on high bandwidth 5G connectivity, AI, and other emerging technologies. Exciting stuff.  

What will stick?

There’s no avoiding it so briefly back to the pandemic. Obviously this has had an enormous impact on all of us as individuals, and has accelerated digital transformation in many industries. This was covered excessively, and I found more interesting the, perhaps, less expected trends and to think about ‘what will stick’? I think one that will last is the increased awareness of the importance of immunity. It’s a big topic – from the increased use of food supplements to improve immunity right through to the relationship between improved sleep and immunity (as highlighted by Philips and TV personality Dr Oz among others).

Get in touch 

Another impact area I hope we’ve all experienced is an increase in empathy, from individuals, communities and multinationals alike. ‘Pay it forward’ schemes are popping up all over the place, as are ‘buy one donate one’ initiatives.  It was super interesting to see the launch of Bellalovesme -  a novel approach on banking with a karma account that enables random acts of kindness. Personally, I hope this approach does stick around.
 
On that note, please drop me an email if you’d like to chat further on any of these CES-inspired trends and continue the conversation one-on-one. I was glad not to pick up the annual cold from CES, but I have really missed meeting up with people and I’m already looking forward to Vegas in 2022. Hope to see you there!
 

Author
Ruth Thomson
SVP, Global Consumer Business

Ruth works with consumer brands across multiple market sectors including beverages, beauty, consumer healthcare and entertainment. Her focus is creating consumer delight and engagement through the integration of innovative technology, bringing significant business transformation for her clients.