CES 2016: An explosion of connected hardware!

Inspirations and traumas from CES 2016 in Las Vegas
In January we went to Las Vegas for CES, the largest consumer electronics and technology tradeshow with more than 170K attendees over 3,200 exhibitors. This visit led to three insights: It's not about connected hardware, but about connected services! We need to learn how to MVP (minimum viable product) connected services and products! Connected hardware is not quite there yet - there's great opportunities for designers!

There were two floors dedicated to startups, one for the early stage, and the other for the more established startups. And of course there were lots and lots of innovations shown by large corporations as well. One observation, which became obvious to us, was that those innovations, which were basically 'just' a connected hardware, are in for a hard time. Not only because most of them will fail to build an on-going relationship with their customers, but because they can be very easily copied and then pushed out of business by cheaper models.

It’s not about connected hardware, but about the underlyig connected services!

Flic vs Dash

One can see the difference between a connected hardware and connected service when looking at flic and Amazon Dash. While flic is very well executed, it's ›just‹ selling a connected button that an individual can program based on his or her needs. Amazon distributes their button (for a low nominal fee) to make shopping even more convenient. Dash, when pressed, automatically orders the product it is associated  with (in the case above it's Tide washing detergent).

On the search for the right service

Through our work on connected insulin pens and Bosch's Lifebuddy, we understand the importance of suitable services. The insulin pen by Cambride Consultants is a nice solution for a connected insulin pen, especially as they use energy harvesting: when you lift the cap, you create enough energy to power the bluetooth LE communition. However, we think that it is even more important to design the related services. For instance, the community service helparound is - in my point of view - an interesting approach to involve a whole community of people with the same chronic disease, so they can easily connect and help each other. For the upcoming years, design will need to have a strong focus on those extra services, which are enabled through connected hardware.

The challenges for the car industry

By far the most interesting proposition presented by a car manufacture at CES was the Open Mobility Cloud by BMW, a project IXDS is also working on. BMW is fundamentally challenging today's understanding of car manufacturing by suggesting an open mobilty platform, in which owning a car (or a BMW) is just one part of a holistic experience. The consistency they applied in designing this service shows how fundamentally connected hardware is changing traditional businesses.

We need to learn how to MVP connected services (based on connected hardware)!

Expanding step by step

Nest is a good example of how to bring a service based on connected hardware to market - how to MVP it. They first started by offering a really well executed thermostat, continued by integrating other temperature-related connected devices such as a fan or a car (because of ETA), and are now expanding into controlling the entire smart home by offering a wireless communication protocol for the smart home environment. So, if you have a broad vision for a service based on connected hardware, it is always good to start with a very narrow, very well designed offering and learn from there!

Start with non-hardware services

Our client Mimi.io provides a good example of having a vision based on connected hardware, but starting with purely digital offerings - to save costs, to establish the brand and to learn from the market. They first offered an app for hearing tests, then they produced an app which plays your music and phone calls in the right volume setting for your ears, and maybe in the future they will also offer connencted hearing devices themselves rather than just connecting to them...

Start by telling a story!

In line with the philosophy of lean startups, it is always good to tell a story! Back to BMW’s Open Mobility Cloud, it is interesting to see how their interface tells a story. As Dieter May, Senior Vice President of Digital Business Models at BMW, pointed out at IXDS’ recent After-Work Talk event, the card metaphor in the app interface indicates that there is more to it than just your car! Also the fact that the customer’s name is first, and not the car, is already a huge shift for this industry. It indicates a broader vision beyond simply owning a car!

Connected hardware is still VERY MUCH in limbo — a great opportunity for designers!

Wrap up

We saw some really ridicoulus innovations, such as the connected plate and fork, which claim to be able to count your calorie intake (a real dinner party spoiler). Or the Tennibot, which collects tennis balls and even lifts them up to an easy to reach height for really lazy tennis players.

The "Connected Finger" by prota, which allows you to retrofit your house (especially the switches in it): a little motor in this box powers a "finger", which comes out and presses the switch. Even though retrofitting is an important issue when designing services based on connected hardware, I am not convinced that this very mechanical solution is the right approach: it looks very nerdy and I doubt it's reliability.

The smart bed by sleep numbers is another example of quantified self: it not only tracks your sleep, but also adjusts the temperature of the bed to your situation (whatever that means). For me, quantified self is not enough to convince a mass market - these services should be more targeted towards groups with real needs!

Similarly interesting was the connected lighter, which counts the amount of cigarettes you have smoked per day. If you set a limit, you can stop it from lighting after a certain number, so you don't smoke too many cigarettes in one day. 

The perbot is a connected selfie-camera for dogs, which rewards the dog with food! This product shows that there is a market for smart devices for pet owners.

Quite inspiring was the digipen by Stabilo. Without any special paper it recognized and digitalizes what you write. A great invention, however, we think that possible services around the pen need to be clarified; otherwise, in the area of hand-written-to-digital we would be missing a huge opportunity!

As you can see, there will be a huge wave of connected hardware. Technically, there are not huge challenges anymore, but defining the right services and stories is the challenge - a challenge desighers have been working on for many years!