Chimni Founder Nigel Walley was appointed a temporary roving reporter for Showhouse Magazine as part of his trip to this year's Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. The feature was published in the March edition of Showhouse:
Its that time of year again - CES. A hundred thousand people descend on Las Vegas to revel in new consumer technology, try and make sense of hundreds of corporate announcements and rack up our first expenses for the year. For the homebuilding industry a show like CES is a mixed bag. Large parts of the show are irrelevant to our day to day as the show covers health tech, car tech, drone tech, ed tech, sex tech and various other areas where you might not have anticipated a ‘tech’ intervention. But ‘smart homes’ and the devices needed to run them, are now one of the fundamental building blocks of CES.
Before experiencing a single piece of tech you become aware of the politics of this kind of show by just walking around Las Vegas looking at the billboards and the sponsorships. Apple never turn up, preferring to do their own announcements in their own venue. Even so, this year their devices and HomeKit software managed to be present on various stands and Apple even took a poster site outside the main venue with a sarcastic message targeted at other phone users. In the sections of the show dedicated to Smart Home tech, there were also multiple ‘works with Apple HomeKit’ labels attached to stands and we began to see the beginning of the ‘HomeOS’ wars to come.
Two years ago, with the launch of the Alexa, Amazon managed to pull the same trick – putting their devices and logos onto 500 stands without actually having their own presence. This year, Amazon took over a complete exhibition hall in the Venetian to explain the breadth of their tech and services targeted at your home. In response Google took over the whole town.
It felt like every major digital poster and sponsorship opportunity in Las Vegas had been taken over by Google, including the inside and outside of the Las Vegas monorail – even the recorded announcements on the monorail started with a ‘Hey Google’ message. Outside the convention centre Google built their own pavilion with demonstration kitchens, bedrooms, car ports and a ‘Google Experience’ ride.
Inside the convention centre they flooded the floor with Google people dressed in Google boiler suits and woolly hats. 1800 of the 5000 stands had some form of Google presence on them, with 200 of them having Google-manned demo rooms bolted onto the main stands. The message was that Google are coming for every part of your home and every device you use. Google want to provide the underlying tech for the impending smart home revolution and aren’t shy of spending money to get there.
What is clear is that the tech industry is trying to make sure our homes are ready to accept them by connecting every feasible device to the Internet. A consistent theme around the show this year was screens built into the most unlikely places. Before PCs and smart phones, TVs were our only screen. Breakthroughs in intelligent glass manufacturer and flat-screen TV tech have woken manufacturers to the potential and now they are ubiquitous.
Mirrors seemed to be a big focus, with the ‘smart bathroom’ being a recurring theme. Various stands showed mirrors with voice control allowing you to change lighting while putting make-up on, or review emails while shaving. Some of these features still seem rooted in sci-fi – a bedroom mirror that showed the clothes in your cupboard overlaid on your reflection for instance. However, some felt launch-ready. For the first time, the internet connected fridges with built in-screens felt usable and relevant, not just gimmicky. The work has been done on the operating systems to make them ‘family focussed’, rather than just big PCs. The LG ‘FamilyHub’ software in their fridges was the best example, offering a digital version of what most of us stick on the outside of our fridge doors – notes, calendars, photos etc.
CES showed us that any flat surface – fridges, cooker hoods, mirrors etc can be made into a screen that can run services, apps and even telly. Netflix on a mirror next to your bath? Amazon Prime on your shower screen? TV is always a big theme at CES and the mantra this year from the TV manufacturers was the same as it is every year – bigger, thinner, smarter, sharper. The signature gateway into the show is always the LG TV wall – 200 flat screen TVs linked together into an overwhelming waterfall of 8K content that you have to walk through and under to enter the show. It is a perennial demonstration of why TV always provides the figurative ‘sex’ at CES and why so many devices and innovations want TV content on them.
But this year, a second major theme was integrating all devices with the virtual assistants. Last year we were told that devices could ‘talk to Alexa’ with a software patch. This year we were told that Alexa or Google Home, and in a few cases Siri and Apple HomeKit, had been built-in to their core software. Most TVs now include a microphone and have software from Amazon, Google and in a few cases Apple, to ensure integration with the emerging voice landscape. There is an expectation that TVs will provide the interfaces through which we run our smart homes.
However, these TVs may come from surprising brands. One of those companies showing off its own brand screens was Amazon. With Amazon Prime now ubiquitous on other devices, Amazon were showing off their own Amazon branded TV screens. Having shown they can build screen devices with their Kindle strategy they now targeting the big screen. Their vision is an Amazon TV in the main room of your house and a stick plugged into every old TV in the other rooms. All plugged into Alexa, your smart home hub and your Amazon e-commerce account. Amazon, like Google, are coming for every room in your home.
Sometimes weird tech takes just a few shows to become mainstream. The internet connected locks and video doorbells felt risky two years ago, but seem to have settled into a mainstream product group. But it can still feel that manufacturers at CES are trying to use tech to solve problems that don’t exist. We saw internet and voice connected kitchen taps that ‘remember your favourite temperature for rinsing spaghetti’. We also saw internet and voice connected bathroom showers that remembered your favourite settings and which you could set with an app on your phone. Once again, these were billed as ‘compatible with Apple HomeKit’ or ‘Samsung SmartThings’. For most homeowners this functionality would most likely cause more problems than it would solve.
Stepping back from the details of the devices and the deals, the message CES gave the world is that ‘smart homes’ are no longer just about geeky ways to turn on our lights. Our homes are now ‘in play’ for the big OS manufacturers. The idea that the voice assistants can be the concierge for our homes is well established and there is now an outreach programme from the kitchen into every other room. In the short term, pragmatism is breaking out between these tech players meaning content, apps and tech are increasingly shared and interoperable between devices, but clearly we are only a few years away from a homeowner deciding on an ‘android compatible home’ or an Amazon one. It is hard not to feel that the homeowner is now a passenger on a journey being dictated by the global tech giants.