A lot on show but a long way to go: A designer’s eye on CES

Beyond the hype of fun new gadgets, we took a deeper look at what was missing from the big world of consumer tech.
For the last three years, a small team from IXDS has been traveling to CES in Las Vegas – the so-called “ biggest global gadget show of the year”. We not only use the opportunity to meet clients and friends, but also to reflect on the latest developments in the world of consumer electronics. We condensed what was a massive onslaught of technology into our seven most important takeaways.
1. History is repeating itself!

The “war” of voice assistants was all over the place (really, all over the place), and still we saw that this technology is repeating many of the mistakes made by previous digital innovations – mistakes which will prove harmful not only for customers, but also Hey Google and/or Alexa’s partners.

For somebody who has been in the industry for some quite time, I had a feeling of déjà-vu seeing how the competition around voice assistants resembles the former competitions of operating systems on PCs and mobiles. The only thing that has changed are the potential hardware platforms – ranging from kitchen appliances to cars to bathroom fittings. The approach and the naiveté is the same: both Amazon and Google are offering free support and free software, but they’re not sharing any data or revenue. I am surprised that hardware manufacturers don’t recognize that they’re giving up their own strong position by accepting this offer. Not only are they providing free access to areas Echo and Google Home currently don’t have, they’re also giving up data and the ability to learn from that data. And, as the saying goes: “without data analytics companies are blind and deaf.”

Image: ‘Hey Google’ was all over the place - on every digital billboard in Las Vegas, in the convention center, at  many booths and even on the trains.

2. Still no standard UX for voice assistants.

I was quite impressed when the Echo was introduced: it had a clear and easy-to-understand visual feedback through the light ring, it had the microphone-off button positioned very prominently on the top, and it had an iconographic shape which made it easily recognizable as a voice assistant – even in various implementations (e.g. dot or regular). However, none of these elements became the standard for voice interaction; on the contrary, in many cases a connected product doesn’t give any hints that it’s voice enabled or what the current status of interaction is. this might be related to the harsh competition between Google and Amazon - and their willingness to compromise just to get their technology out. I think this is a big mistake: to gain trust and acceptance, devices need clear affordances and hints on how to use them, and how to stop them from listening.

Image: This GOURMIA kitchen appliances has ‘Hey Google’ inside - how can one tell…?

3. Context & personalization still misunderstood.

Interestingly enough, the grammar used for talking to voice assistants has became more complex: “Hey Google, tell UVO to start my Kia”, or “Alexa, ask LG to stop the air purifier”. I guess that this doubling up of addressing who you're speaking to is an attempt by some hardware manufacturers to keep their brand alive. Already a mouthful, this becomes even more complex (and therefore difficult to use) in situations with clear commands: “Alexa, ask Kohler to flush my toilet.” Wow! Why not just: “Flush the toilet”!? Clearly there’s still a lot of opportunity for user-centered design to get the context and personalization right.

Image: Numi, the toilet by Kohler which can be controlled by Amonzon Alexa (images source: Kohler)

4. The Smart Home still needs to live up to its promises.

Besides the use of voice assistants, we had the impression that in two of the main focus areas at CES there was not a lot of new innovation on show.

In the Smart Home world, of course there were again fridges with large touchscreens and recipe suggestions, there were robot vacuum cleaners and robot window wipers, connected beer brewing devices and connected pesticide detectors, but nothing was really “new”. The smart home is still being driven by technology and an engineering view of the world. The best example of this was LG revealing an oven that is supposed to communicate with their dishwasher to indicate – depending on the food being made in the oven – what washing program to choose. The world has been waiting for that, hasn’t it? Unless the Smart Home comes up with solutions which really help people it will stay in the nerdy niche!

Image: Is it really a valuable use-case, when your oven tells the dishwasher how to clean (image source: LG)

5. No digital strategy in mobility?

Since Daimler’s impressive presentation in 2014, the car industry has been using CES as a platform to present their digital strategies – often these have been quite surprising and inspiring. However, this year, the presentations fell short in any regard: VW was hardly present, BMW focused on car racing and wasting tires by letting guests drive donuts around a speedway, and Daimler showed a new car and a new interface which was finally what one would expect from a premium car manufacturer. The transition from selling cars to providing mobility services was only present in a couple of startups, e.g. Olli and e-palette. One small highlight was Smart’s announcement that thanks to connectivity and GPS they can now come to your car, clean it for you and fill up the tank. This, in our point of view, is a nice example of the new ways in which service-oriented and user-centric thinking is being applied in mobility.

Image:  e-Pallette, an automated, electric, flexible vehicle concept by Toyota that can be tailored to various needs and lifestyles. (Image source: Toyota)

6. Robots are coming to our homes – maybe.

There were many new interesting areas at CES, such as Health, Sleep, Childcare, and Smart Cities, but what stuck in our minds were these two subjects, which are our final two takeaways we want to share.

There were plenty of robots on show – as mentioned, vacuum and window cleaning robots –  but also in more heartbreaking form-factors for education, for the elderly, or as companions in the kitchen. We think that robot technology is a promising field, as reliability is less of an issue and the acceptance of them is growing. However, also here, both, use-cases and interaction paradigms still need to be explored from a use-centric perspective.

Of course, if would be nice to have your laundry folded, but if it needs you to place a t-shirt into a machine and wait, maybe it’s faster to just fold it yourself. And of course, it’s nice to have a suitcase follow you, but weight should also be considered. 

Our Designer Christiane takes a ride on suitcase for a spin
7. The blackout was the best experience!

One of the days, there was a complete power-outage for two hours throughout the entire convention center. This showed us that there was much more to experience, like the sunshine outside, and nice people to talk to! It also acted as a reminder that we should never forget about the real life when designing consumer electronics!