Steve Goldstein: 8 Reality Checks From CES

Steve Goldstein’s Amplifi Media works with media companies and podcasters in developing audio content strategies. Goldstein writes frequently at Blogstein, the Amplifi blog.

Another remarkable CES is in the history books.

After six annual trips to CES, it is now fairly easy to conclude that fantasy is easy and integration is hard. It’s one thing to imagine the future, and so much of that is the fun of attending CES, but creating, building and implementing something of value to consumers is often elusive. So much of what is seen at CES never makes it to market.

Here are 8 reality checks from our time at CES:

5G is not yet real – 5G has been touted for years with speeds expected to exceed 4G by a factor of 10, making it as fast as home broadband. But where is it? In spite of heavy marketing, there are no phones with true 5G on the market in the US. What’s out today is 5G TF, which is a lite version. Verizon has postponed their rollout a few times now.

Bottom line – 5G is not yet ready for prime time. Apparently, there are structural issues to resolve including the range of each transmitter – they need more – and the ability of signals penetrating walls. It’s coming, but some analysts think we won’t see it for another three years.

The autonomous car is still hype – Again this year, we put on our sneakers and hit the trail with the Jacobs Media gang who always arrange a valuable tour with insider access of the convention floor. There are prototypes of autonomous vehicles everywhere. The Mercedes-Benz Avatar was this year’s eye candy. I sat in a Honda that sure doesn’t look like a CRV. The story, however, is the same as last year; this isn’t going to be the next car for most people. “Level 4” means there must be driver assistance capability like the Tesla, and most vehicles aren’t at that point.

While we are not yet seeing fully autonomous autos, you can order a pizza in Ann Arbor, Michigan from Dominoes. Also in Ann Arbor, Ford is plotting out “smart cities” in which cars communicate with one another. There are some fully autonomous cars on limited routes in a “controllable” small city like Ann Arbor.

Toyota is set to build a planned city in Japan. “Woven City” will have traffic lights that communicate with cars and small pod-like vehicles called micro-palettes able to ascend ramps to deliver your piping hot pizza.

Some of what we saw on the floor was fanciful and even creepy. One concept car will read your mood as you enter the vehicle and adjust the internal colors of the car to match it. Last year one car company promoted their own proprietary video games for kids to play in the backseat for points. If you have kids, you already know how that is going to work out.

Bottom line – All of this is fun to look at, however, your next car is still going to find you behind the wheel and not watching movies in the front seat.

Voice and smart speakers are omnipresent – This year, voice was everywhere. In particular, Amazon was omnipresent with voice assistant tech built in to everything from Instant Pots, to beds and shower heads. Edison/NPR released new data showing that roughly one out of four U.S. adults own a smart speaker. Voice, however, is rapidly moving beyond cylinders and dots and integrated into millions of devices and apps. At a full day Voice Summit put on by Pete Erickson’s company Modev, Google executives demonstrated impressively tight integration with Android phone apps from American Express and Dunkin Donuts enabling faster interaction with natural voice commands.

Practical use of voice is still hit and miss. Plenty of brands have fallen flat with skills that haven’t resonated with users. An exception is The Mayo Clinic which continues to blow me away. They have built content for 8,000 queries and a valuable first aid series. If you burn yourself, you can get a quick response on the best treatment, which sure beats going online and typing away in a time of need.

Bottom line – It was hard to walk anywhere and not see Google and Alexa integration in everything. We will see more apps like WAZE with little microphone icons as voice becomes more ubiquitous to quickly access content and more devices with voice integration.

Voice in the car – Car companies notoriously create infotainment systems that frustrate users. Two years ago Google and Amazon swooped in with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay to simplify connectivity with smartphones. Last year Amazon took a step by announcing an add-on Echo unit for the car (our review is here). This year, Alexa makes a significant leap with native car integrations from GM, Toyota, BMW, Ford and Audi. This announcement is a potential game change in which Alexa commands will be directly integrated into the car’s own infotainment system in the hopes of wrestling back control from Google and Apple. Amazon’s Alexa also has plenty of possibilities including a better in-car voice experience and turning on your lights at home.

Bottom line – The car is the perfect environment for natural voice commands. Car companies have failed in the past. Alexa is a higher standard. If you are in the audio content business — radio, podcasting and streaming —content will be accessible from any source with just a few words. This is a potential wonder for users and likely to result in disruption and at least temporary confusion for content providers.

Bluetooth makes a jump forward with Bluetooth LE – After 20 years, Bluetooth gets a makeover with LE (Low Energy). It will eat up less battery which is a big win, and offer new features such as multiple people listening to the same Bluetooth source at once. That might include a broadcast in a venue such as a theater.

Bottom line – Better battery life and more choice …. Nice. However there is a catch; your old headphones won’t support this new technology.

Artificial Intelligence everywhere – If audio was the theme last year, AI was this year’s dominant conversation. We heard a piece of music from Chopin — except it wasn’t. It was crafted through AI using previous technique from Chopin. It sounded great. A bit more disturbing was a video of Kim Kardashian. Except it wasn’t Miss K, it was a deepfake. The tech is remarkable.

Bottom line – What’s real and what’s not? It will be harder to tell. AI is both fascinating and scary. Sure feels like AI could be the central plot of the next evil James Bond villain.

Yes, there were TV’s at CES – 8K TV’s. They are bigger, thinner and cooler than ever. We saw one that flips from horizontal to vertical depending on the content.

Bottom line – They bend, they are thin, they look fantastic. Weirdly, there is a bit of a “ho hum.“

Know when to fold them – LG is marketing a dual screen smartphone that looks great. Samsung to follow. Foldable laptops are on the horizon.

Bottom line – Birthday gifts of the future.

Fun fact – Only 20% of the world speaks English. Only 50% of the content on the internet is in English. 140 billion words are translated each day by one billion people using Google Translate. It’s a big world out there.

Integration is a big theme this year. Devices talking-to devices.

Seeing so much in a compressed window of time is overwhelming. Thanks to Fred Jacobs and Paul Jacobs for setting up the behind-the-scenes tour. It is a great and valuable resource. Thanks to Erica Farber and the great people at the RAB for an enjoyable dinner. Also, special thanks to my friend and fellow CES compatriot, Buzz Knight. We each walked 19,000 steps in just one day, drinking it all in and decoding it all. You can read some of Buzz’s thoughts here.

Steve Goldstein