“Hey Google, can you make all these weird disruptions stop?”
That was the likely query on the minds of many attendees at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, as they experienced an uncharacteristic bout of rain followed by a freak power outage.
Both the show and Las Vegas, a desert city that receives only slightly more annual rainfall than Abu Dhabi, were woefully underprepared for the two-day deluge. Transportation slowed to a crawl, the convention centre roof leaked, and Google literally had its parade rained on.
The search giant was to be the star of CES, the annual techno-circus that drew more than 184,000 attendees and 4,000 exhibitors from around the world this year, but not before shuttering its pavilion just outside the convention halls on the first day because it too was leaking.
As if that wasn’t enough, a blackout – which CES officials blamed on the rain – shut the main exhibit hall for several hours on Wednesday.
The clouds eventually parted and the power ended up restored, finally allowing Google to resume its planned dominance of the 51st CES. And dominate it did.
Last year’s show belonged to Amazon and its voice-controlled AI assistant Alexa, which found its way into all manner of gadgets, appliances and even cars.
This year it was the search company’s turn, with Google Assistant – a similar multi-tool that can read news, play music, perform web searches and control home devices – being added to a similar range of devices.
Google Assistant, which activates on the trigger phrase “Hey Google,” is coming soon to at least 15 brands of smart speakers, including JBL, Altec Lansing and Lenovo, as well a number of Sony and LG televisions.
Appliance makers including Whirlpool and LG are also adding it to their refrigerators and washing machines while Google itself announced compatibility with Android Auto at CES. All told, the company says Google Assistant is now available on more than 400 million devices.
The stage is thus set for a showdown between Google and Amazon, a battle that’s apparently being fuelled by ravenous consumer demand.
In the United States alone, smart speaker sales are expected to grow to 43 million units in 2018, up from just 27 million last year, according to the Consumer Technology Association, the group that organizes CES. Similar growth is expected in other countries as the two companies add more language support.
“The market isn’t just heating up, it’s like a wildfire,” said Steve Koenig, CTA’s senior research director, at a press event. “We don’t often see hockey-stick growth like this. This is very, very significant.”
CES wasn’t all just voice assistants, though. After years of taking a backseat to virtual reality, augmented reality – which superimposes computer graphics onto the real world by way of a screen – stepped into the spotlight at this year’s show.
The technology is starting to see wider adoption as depth sensors and software that enables it get cheaper and easier to implement.
New York-based Vuzik debuted its Blade AR glasses, a next-generation take on Google’s failed Glass product from a few years ago. Vuzik’s product resembles an unassuming pair of sunglasses, which could help make head-worn AR acceptable with consumers. Its US$1,000 price tag, however, will still be an obstacle.
The glasses can display real-time directions as well as location-aware information, so wearers will be able to identify buildings and landmarks simply by looking at them. And of course, all functions can also be voice-controlled with Alexa.
AR is also popping up in bathroom mirrors, where on-screen graphics can show users how much longer they should brush their teeth or how to tie a neck-tie. Motorcycle riders will also have AR helmet options this year from startups including Skully and Nuviz, both of which are making products that can beam navigation directions into the user’s field of view.
UK-based Reach Robotics is also adding AR functions to its spider-like MekaMon robot to create a new sort of hybrid toy.
“We didn’t just want to create what is essentially a remote-control car with legs, we wanted to build a robotic gaming platform and bridge that physical [world] with virtual reality,” said lead industrial designer Daniel Stuart-Cross. “That’s what AR enables us to do.”
AR is taking a different trajectory to VR, according to CTA’s Mr. Koenig. While virtual reality was aimed first at consumers but is instead seeing acceptance with enterprises and industry, AR is emerging from business uses into the mainstream.
“This is the year AR gets real,” he said.
Though not as flashy as some of the other technologies on display, 5G wireless also gained traction at CES with chip makers and network builders talking it up.
5G specifications are expected to be finalized later in 2018, but some wireless carriers including Verizon and AT&T in the United States are already in the process of deploying pre-standard tests in select markets.
5G is expected to be integral to the rollout of delay-sensitive applications such as self-driving vehicles – another big technology at this year’s CES – because of its faster download speeds and low latency. Network manufacturers are expecting transmission speeds of 10 gigabits per second with communications delays close to zero milliseconds.
This year’s initiatives by Verizon and AT&T could therefore be key to larger deployments.
“Those are some features you want to test in the market,” said Dr Suhel Patel, an engineer at Ericsson, in an interview. “Then you can help the standards [bodies] to come up with better versions.”
AT&T also managed to provoke some controversy at CES. Richard Yu, chief executive of Huawei’s consumer products division, expressed dismay with the U.S. carrier during his speech on Tuesday for pulling a deal to sell the Chinese company’s phones at the last minute.
The move was apparently motivated by US political pressure stemming from concerns about Chinese espionage.
“We win the trust of the global carriers, all the European and Japanese carriers,” the frustrated Mr Yu said on stage. “We are serving over 70 million people worldwide. We’ve proven our quality, we’ve proven our privacy and security protection.”
“It’s a big loss for consumers, because they don’t have the best choice for devices.”