Patrick Hughes, Senior Director of Government Relations and Strategic Inititatives
“Alexa, write an article about the product trends at CES this year.”
“Sorry, I don’t know that one.”
I suppose there are some limits to what voice assistants and artificial intelligence can do—for now. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, it seemed as if every product—from smoke detectors to lighting controls to autonomous vehicles—was either voice assistant-enabled or had a voice assistant like Amazon Alexa or Google Home built-in.
More than 180,000 people flocked to Las Vegas this year to see 4,000 exhibitors (including many NEMA Members) display the latest consumer technologies. Far from being limited to TVs and cell phones (although there were plenty of each), CES featured expansive exhibits on smart homes, smart cities, autonomous and electric vehicles, augmented and virtual reality, and enough robots to raise a small army.
Here’s a quick summary of the technology trends most relevant to electrical and medical imaging manufacturers.
The era of the Internet of Things is upon us, and that means connectivity in virtually every part of the home. Lighting, HVAC equipment, electric vehicle charging stations, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, security systems and smart locks, home appliances, and anything you can think of are all connected to the Internet and controllable via smart phones and voice assistants (“OK Google, how charged is my car?”). Some devices (e.g., light switches, smoke detectors) even have voice assistants built-in directly, providing seamless integration, additional functionality for customers, and the ability to take one more widget off of your countertop.
All of these devices are consuming electricity and have batteries that need to be charged. Wireless charging was a huge trend at CES this year (largely due to the release of the iPhone 8 and X, both of which can use Qi-certified wireless chargers). As more devices insert themselves into our lives, decluttering with cordless charging (and building wireless charging mats into everything) is something NEMA Members should factor into product development.
Li-Fi Wireless Internet
One of the award-winning products at CES this year was a desk lamp that used LEDs to beam Internet to a sensor connected to your computer to provide network and Internet access. Eventually, the receiver could be directly built into products, like mobile phones and laptops, and the light transmitter built into overhead lights. Using infrared light, this lamp provides Internet at speeds up to 23 Mbps (Wi-Fi currently maxes out around 200 Mbps). One advantage of Li-Fi over Wi-Fi is the fact that Li-Fi cannot travel through walls, so it is a more secure way to wirelessly transmit information.
Facial Recognition and Tracking
Cameras and facial recognition software were on display at numerous booths. Periodically, while walking past an exhibit, cameras would detect your presence and either identify you as a “person” or, in some of the more advanced systems, assign you an ID number. One such booth was able to assign each visitor a unique identifying number; visitors could return later in the day and the system would recall their original ID number. Some of these systems were marketed as streetlight-mounted crowd tracking systems to identify pedestrian traffic patterns or even to identify criminals in a crowd.
Other products were using facial recognition as a biometric security feature. For example, one electric vehicle on display had facial recognition sensors in the doors to unlock the car and automatically set the seat location, climate controls, and radio station to an individual user’s preferred settings.
Lighting systems were featured throughout CES—from the Li-Fi lamp and smart street lights mentioned above to indoor and urban agriculture systems designed to maximize agricultural productivity in small spaces. Exhibitors were showcasing small standalone systems for homes, schools, and businesses, while others featured modular systems that could be scaled for commercial indoor agriculture. The common features of these systems were tunable LED lighting and controlled temperature, ventilation, and humidity controls—all products of NEMA Members.
Many booths featured various forms of battery storage—from portable power banks for mobile devices to swappable batteries for quick electric motorcycle recharging—to ensure that power is available when and where it’s needed. However, it was an unintended power outage on the second day of CES that underscored the important role that electricity plays in our daily lives. A transformer outage (blamed on unseasonable rains in the typically arid Las Vegas) cut the power to one of the main expo halls for two hours, clearly demonstrating the extent to which our modern society depends on a reliable supply of electrons.
Don’t call them “autonomous” or “driverless.” “Self-driving” vehicles (the preferred term, according to skittish, focus-grouped passengers) were on display from start-ups and established auto companies alike, as well as their myriad technology partners. Self-driving technology, while not new, was pervasive throughout CES. Companies featured sensors that could detect pedestrians and roadway debris from 500 yards away in bright- and low-light conditions, cars that looked more like living rooms or hotel rooms than vehicles, and interactive windows that double as touchscreens and TVs.
While Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s keynote address featured his personal self-driving car, it was Intel’s 100-drone indoor “fireworks” show that stole the show (and, subsequently, Intel’s 250-drone outdoor show above the famous Bellagio fountain). The small, highly coordinated drones on display at CES were complimented by larger drones for use in agriculture and even personal travel. Drones with high-definition cameras are already used in the electric industry to inspect power lines, wind turbines, and buildings, and some can even help with inventory management in warehouses.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
Augmented reality (AR) heads-up displays are being built into light-weight frames for use in business and personal entertainment alike, and many of these systems are also voice assistant-enabled. Using AR glasses can improve manufacturing productivity by providing hands-free instructions to workers, and can even provide contractors with installation instructions and troubleshooting suggestions for the products they are servicing.
On the virtual reality side, one company had their entire booth rendered in a virtual reality world for anyone to visit, whether they were in Las Vegas or Lagos. The same technology could be used to showcase new products to potential customers or prototype new products in simulated environments before investing in physical mock-ups.
3D Image Capture and Printing
From handheld 3D printing pens to a 3D-printed self-driving bus, CES featured all types of additive manufacturing products and processes. Some companies were demonstrating 3D cameras that could capture images detailed enough to then reproduce via 3D printers. Manufacturers can use 3D printing (also referred to as additive manufacturing) to create uniquely shaped products that are strong and lightweight. In the medical industry, 3D printers are used by doctors to assist with surgery or to create custom implants. For example, one exhibitor featured an ear canal camera that can develop scans for use in 3D printing of custom earbuds for hearing aids or headphones.
It seemed like every booth at CES had a robot. From friendly greeters (“Hello, welcome to CES!”) to a ping pong pro (that happened to be beating its human opponent 20-3 when I dropped by), the robots at CES were ubiquitous and sophisticated. Robots on display featured facial recognition, advanced sensing, and highly controlled movements for use in industrial automation and in homes. A large number of robots were advertised as smart home companions for personal assistance, home security, elder care, teaching kids how to code, and even folding laundry. Other robots specialized in industrial automation and were coupled with advanced artificial intelligence software to maximize manufacturing efficiency. Perhaps to preemptively assuage fears that robots are taking over the world, many booths emphasized human/machine interaction and cooperation, not automation as a replacement for humans.
Advances in computer processing speed, data storage, and low-cost sensors have ushered in a digital revolution that was clearly on display at CES. The combination of artificial intelligence with Internet connectivity is giving consumers more control over their daily experiences at work, school, and in their entertainment choices. Voice assistants and AR are poised to provide a hands-free future. Industrial and automotive autonomy will free up humans to perform more advanced critical thinking tasks in line with our unique strengths while providing more free time, just as dishwashers and many other automated devices have in the past. Power and communication wire and cable are increasingly behind-the-scenes, yet more important than ever as more products and sectors of our economy are electrified. Get ready for a more digital, electrified future.