At the beginning of this year Vivian Lin and Jarod Beukelman visited CES 2013 and saw many interesting things. There was one trend so wide-spread that it stood out from the rest.
Connectedness: the Big theme of CES 2013
Creating a seamless, simple-to-use, network of smart objects was the main aspiration of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Buzzwords like smart, networked, sharing, and ubiquitous were trumpeted from large Asian mega-exhibits and small indie booths alike. For us, the exciting part of our trip was seeing how this trend is playing out across a mass of sensory products extending mobile reach, endless device to device channels for sharing content, and augmented ways of experiencing the way we work, live, and play.
Connectedness ain’t easy
In the future, consumer products will no longer compete solely via their own attributes but on (and in some cases with) the services, infrastructure, and technologies that enable them. Companies are now investing in platforms for their products and services to integrate seamlessly. The execution and design of these services is defining their success or failure. Connectedness is also providing room for small players to quickly disrupt the big companies, who seem to have their work cut out for them just keeping up.
Top down, or bottom up?
The landscape of CES is split between tech giants, such as Samsung or Sony, and small independents fueled by the rise in crowdfunding. Both of these groups are trying to win consumers with very different strategies. The Giants have a top-down strategy is top down. Build an ecosystem for which all products under the brand hopefully provide a similar experience. For the little guys, their strategy is naturally bottom up, connecting to the mobile offerings of the larger companies in order to be a part of the ecosystem.
From the top down
For the largest companies at CES, having a top down strategy for connectedness means going all in on one platform. LG had its SmartThinQ line of appliances with proprietary protocols, and AT&T Building a home automation subscription service. These companies are doing everything they can to keep their customers locked into their brand, even at the cost of user experience. The big American brands who are building mobile platforms (Apple, Google, and Microsoft) have decided they have no need to show off at CES. This comes as former leaders such as Sony are struggling to make a profit and up and coming Chinese tech brands are poised to enter first world markets. Filling the empty real estate left by Microsoft’s first-time absence was China’s #1 native brand, Hisense. They were not the only Chinese brand standing tall this year. Hisense was joined by Huawei, Changhong, Haier, and TCL, all with large floor spaces, and all showing just as much incremental innovation as the Japanese and Korean companies.
From the bottom up
A remarkable number of the smaller exhibitor booths at CES were made possible by the rise of crowd-funding centers like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Notable independent hardware startups included Occulus Rift for 3D gaming, the Pebble watch, and the HAPIfork. This trend is supported in part by the growth of the maker movement, empowered by the explosion of DIY Micro-controllers and sensors like the Rasberry Pi, as well as the falling price of 3D printing and other prototyping tools. Because of crowd-funding, makers like Smart Things have found themselves morphing from DIY outfits to mid-sized companies who can provide viable alternatives to the big name top down solutions.
The notion of greater connectivity in our everyday objects has been a long time coming, but what CES 2013 has taught us is this trend is about to turn the corner exponentially. But who will come out on top? We believe that the large corporations have a lot of soul-searching to do if they are going to create experiences that will get consumers to go all in on their brands. The little guys are still fighting the fact that they are little. This all translates into consumers having to manage many disparate experiences and business models, which doesn’t feel like the future at all.
Nine-thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-six.”
“There are 9,996 window panes in the library building. I’m a reference librarian there, someone asked me that just the other day.”
Chris and I turned to look at the woman standing behind us on the street corner. We had just finished marveling our way up and down the Seattle Public Library’s Central Library building and were taking some last outside photos before heading back to the hotel.
The surprise trivia was unsolicited but somehow seemed to fit with what we had just experienced inside. The library is full of thoughtful and unexpected details. The bright neon of the escalators draws you in. Clear signage reassures you that you aren’t lost. Removable rubber tiles on the floors help you navigate the stacks. Normally hidden spaces for the library staff can be glimpsed from floors above.
The colors and materials, framed by those 9,996 window panes, created a modern aesthetic that contrasted with what we’d seen earlier that afternoon when we walked down to Pike Place Market. Manhole covers, bathroom tiles, metalwork on the signal lights … Chris and I agreed that the little details make a huge difference in a city’s personality. Despite the fact that it rained almost the entire time of our visit, we both enjoyed Seattle.