My Week At CES: AI With Everything

CES. The tech event of the year. 100,000 tech fanatics, 32,949 tech buyers, and 7,545 journalists each jostling to see exactly what the next twelve months are going to be serving up on a silver motherboard. So, had the future arrived? My week at CES was bitter sweet. Here’s why.

Virtual Reality (is what I’m looking for… and I might just have to keep on looking)

I’ll admit it. I was pretty excited at the prospect of what would be happening in the realm of VR. But what was happening was very little – quite unlike the wizardry VR and augmented reality offerings I imagined, CES seemed to present product after product of affordable VR headsets, each were hoping to get in on the Oculus/HTC action (take Lenovo as a typical example). Whilst there were a few start-ups excitedly announcing their VR/AR prototypes, it’s a sad fact of technological life that without a funding miracle, they’ll likely come to little more than the prototypes of their present form.

AI, next. Onwards and upwards. I thought.

Artificial Intelligence (Artificial being the operative word)

ces3

‘AI’ appeared everywhere at CES. Every product, every gadget, everywhere – from self-rocking robot crib Snoo bassinet, to the sleep habit-tracking Beddit Bed.

But, whilst it was all pretty smart, it was also a long way of true AI. Take the house bot Kuri – the makers of this robot have bestowed Kuri with the tagline of being “insanely cute with some serious technology”. And this little guy can do all sorts of things – he can recognise voices, avoid taking a tumble down the stairs and respond with sounds, flashy lights and emotive eyes. Impressive specs, innovative tech – but the purpose escapes me.

Right now, I can’t help but feel that all too many are rushing to sate the consumer appetite for AI novelty. This artificial intelligence is all feeling a little artificial – failing abjectly to actually progress onto machine learning, and authentic AI that truly integrates with every element of our lives – helping us live better, healthier and assisting us to advance.

Just like a kid a Christmas who didn’t get that toy he’d set his heart on, I’m left drawing on feelings that range from mild disappointment to stamp-my-feet, all-out frustration.

We’re missing a trick here. And worse still, consumers are soon going to wise up to the fact that ‘AI’ really means nothing more than pretty damn smart, but not quite intelligent.

AI, Cars and going back to the future

ces2

Concept cars designers have long since seemed to root around in a generic imaginary scrap yard of parts and features – the hidden wheels that are so hidden it seems to suggest that soon, our dreams of Total Recall hover cars are going to become reality; those side lifting doors that are most definitely obligatory and strangely Back to the Future Delorean-esque (seriously, if they didn’t take off in the 80’s, I’m really not sure why they would now).

But asides from questions about style, do they have any substance – do they provide a subtext for what’s to come?

Showcasing their wears were Nissan, Audi, BMW, Faraday Future and just about every car manufacturer under the sun (a sun that notably has failed to start solar powering our cars – as was suggested by Ford’s concept car back at CES 2014).

Features included BMW’s floating displays; Faraday’s impressive 1000 horse power beast; and Nissan’s ability to grab control of a car where dangerous circumstances arise (with a special nod granted to Mercedes-Benz, who demoed their autonomous drone-like delivery van).

 

But with so much hustle and bustle at CES, I wonder whether they have any inkling that driverless cars may well be much ado about nothing. A recent survey found that consumers still remain uncertain as to whether they want anything more than car tech that can park for them, stop an accident or prevent their car from being stolen.

Perhaps we simply don’t trust tech in this way – if so, the question is, will we ever? Consumer trust hasn’t been helped by the much publicised Tesla fatality, although it must be said that less attention has been paid to the Tesla owner saved by his own car (that’s despite the autopilot not even being engaged).

In any event – all this may well be by the by. Even if there is appetite, there are other stumbling blocks too. As Kevin Clark chief executive of Delphi (a company launching its own concept car at CES), points out:

“The reality is that the tech exists today… the biggest problem for the manufacturers is the cost, legal and liability responsibilities.” – Kevin Clark chief executive of Delphi

 

It seems then that the realm of driverless cars are potentially as unwanted and challenged as AI gadgets are lacking in actual AI. And that, is why my week at CES was bitter sweet – so much promise, so little delivered. But there’s always next year, right? Tell me what you think

The Apple Falls – From ‘It Just Works’ to ‘It’s Hard Work’

Something is wrong at Apple – they seem to be lost in a mire of confusion and missed opportunities. I started to feel this after the iPhone7 launch; the new MacBook Pro launch just cements it. I’ve long been a fan of Apple’s (well, Steve Jobs’) ethos: creating beautiful products that make your life better. I simply don’t think that they are doing that anymore. Their last two product launches have been disappointing to say the least, with poor decisions – dropping headphone jacks and USB ports – and lack of innovation. But more than that, their crown of creativity is now being wrested from them. Google’s Pixel phone is an iPhone killer. Even Chinese super-manufacturer Xiaomi is launching a phone that looks like the iPhone7 should have been. And now the severely compromised MacBook Pro’s. Apple’s product range used to ‘just work’, now it’s just hard work.

MacBook Pro Fails

The latest MacBooks have missed the point completely. In abandoning USB in favour of Thunderbolt ports, you now basically have to carry a bag of dongles and cables to connect your other devices. You can’t even connect an iPhone 7 with the cables they provide out of the box – epic fail! They also didn’t bother to increase the power of the chips – with similar RAM and processor specs to those released years ago (still 2.4Ghz as standard, so 2010. 2.9Ghz?, oh that’ll be $3,000…). And the Touch Bar not only fails to add real value (quick access emojis ffs!), it does away with the ‘Esc’ key – effectively alienating one of their core demographic –  programmers and developers. They focused too much of their energy on ensuring that apps and programs can communicate effectively and seamlessly through Cloud software but forgot the basics.

Lack of Innovation

The introduction of the Touch Bar had the potential to be innovative but they sacrificed the function keys to make room for it. It’s almost they said ‘You don’t need those complicated things! Look – shiny icons!” – it feels more like a distraction rather than an innovation. Apple are forcing users to divert their attention away from the screen whilst they scroll through selected icons to find the app or program they need. Microsoft, in the meantime, came up with the Surface Dial – a cleverly designed peripheral allowing users to interact with every millimeter of the display.

The Surface Dial is an all-encompassing control device which combines simplicity and practicality – bringing a new dimension to hardware and software interaction. When placed side-by-side, there are some obvious advantages to having a dial which can be placed directly onto the screen, rather than the Touch Bar – which users actively have to break their concentration to use. Compared to the Apple Touch Bar the Surface Dial is innovative, has almost limitless applications, and is perfectly targeted at its audience – creative designers and developers, an audience that used to buy Apple without question.

In the summer, I wrote a piece about how important it is to ignore your competitors and listen to your customers instead. Apple seem to have done neither of these things, preferring instead to  look to the past. Now even Microsoft – formerly the antithesis of Apple, creatively – are beating them at their own game.

I’m Out

On the one hand it’s great to see more competition at the top end of the tech market. Ultimately this is good for consumers – more choice, better products, lower prices. But I’ve long been a fan of Apple, and it’s sad to see them fail so hard. Steve Jobs changed the world with his manic desire for beautiful designed products that define perfect user experience. The limitations of the new MacBook Pro are simply too much for me. I’m ditching my iPhone and switching to Google’s Pixel phone, and i’ll take Microsoft’s Surface Studio, or the Lenovo Yoga. I don’t think Steve would be happy with this state of affairs.

How do you feel about Apple’s new developments? Have i missed some genius strategy in their product line-up, or are they now being left behind by Microsoft and Google? Let me know in the comments using #NewMacBookPro.

Google Pixel: The iPhone Killer?

This week’s news is all about Google’s Pixel: the new phone from Google – and from what i’ve seen so far they have pretty much nailed it! After a few disappointing weeks of tech news – Snap Inc. and Apple, I’m looking at you – we finally seem to be seeing some real innovation and progress in the mobile sector. So, what’s on offer?

AI Is King

Google Assistant is the Pixel phone’s USP, and they have placed it at the heart of the user experience. In a highly competitive market, where Apple and Samsung dominate (but neither have been able to crack the integrated and intelligent personal assistant), AI is the new battleground.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the competitive advantage of AI incorporation, and how this technology will eventually be used to interlink many products from a single company. It now looks like Google is positioning itself to do exactly that, with Pixel Phone and Home Speaker working in unison to bring the Google Assistant to life.

Competitive Advantages

Google Assistant can hold a conversation, in which one question or command builds on the last, rather than dealing with each request in isolation – a point which has caused the most devoted Siri fans much frustration over the years (and leading to situations like this).

It also draws on Google’s Knowledge Graph database, which links together information on more than 70 billion subjects, and has been in use for four years, giving immediate access to a massive amount of useful information.

Google have also addressed one of the biggest achilles heals with the Pixel Phone: it will come with the latest, previously unreleased Android version as standard, and will automatically update to the latest OS. This is one very clear benefit of controlling the vertical

One-Up on Apple

Some of the Pixel’s features have been included in a clear attempt to overtake Apple’s progress and fill in where the iPhone fell short. Almost all the high-profile fails reported with the iPhone 7 have been addressed in the latest Google Announcement, with the launch marketing having a bit of fun at Apple’s expense.

  • Google will also provide a ‘Quick Switch Adapter’ to import iMessage data, photos, videos, contacts and other data directly from Apple’s iPhone, in a move which clearly targets disenfranchised Apple users.
  • Every photo or video the user takes with the phone’s highly-rated cameras are automatically saved in Google’s cloud for free, at full resolution – for life – a clear UX win for Google.
  • The Pixel incorporates premium product design & iPhone-matched price points, which are simply a necessity for any product hoping to compete at the top end of the mobile device market.
  • Finally, the Pixel includes both a flush camera lens and a standard headphone jack – which may not be top of the list for every early adopter, but I know for a fact that it certainly is a sore point for some devoted Apple fans!

 

The Google Hangover

Last week, I discussed some of Google’s rougher experiences – delving into the downward spiral that was Google Glass. The truth is that some of these issues will still be in the back of user’s minds. Google know this and have hired some serious big-hitters to drive this new hardware train. However there is work to do to help consumers overcome privacy concerns surrounding the incorporated use of AI technology and the automatic use of cloud storage.

Well Played, Google!

In my view, a lack of effective competition in the linked hardware & software consumer electronics market has allowed Apple to get lazy & complacent. The below-par iPhone 7 announcement was a spectacular display of a missed opportunity and this has played nicely into Google’s hands.

Google’s range of new hardware is the first real attempt to challenge the status quo, and by putting AI (Google Assistant) at the heart of their products, they are betting big that this is the new consumer electronics battle ground. And, while the launch of Google Home is clearly aimed at taking down Amazon (with their Alexa Home AI) as well as Apple, announcing  both a home hub and a mobile product is a very strong move to dominate the consumer user experience

They arrived fashionably late to the mobile hardware party, but by taking their time, they have been able to find solutions to almost every problem currently facing mobile device users – well played, Google! I’m ditching my iPhone and definitely buying a Pixel when they launch on 20th October. What about you?

IFA Berlin – Why Crazy Tech Is Great News For Everyone

I love Berlin – it’s got a rich history, gothic charm and baroque tradition; and, as one of Europe’s top tech startup hubs, also has it’s eyes firmly fixed on the future. It’s architecture is a mash-up of new and old with a strong creative edge. It is therefore somewhat fitting that this week ,rolling into Berlin, came the IFA Global Innovations Show, which heralded a slew of new, risky and innovative tech from some of the world’s leading consumer brands.

 

Innovation (However Left-field And Crazy) Should Be Encouraged

What I found exciting about this year’s batch of IFA product announcements was a return to pushing the boundaries of what is expected from new technology. Stepping away from “conventional” tech, some brands – Lenovo, Acer, HP – are taking risks with their products, both to stand out from competitors and also to engage their consumers. By way of comparison, Wednesday’s Apple event – announcing the iPhone 7’s and Apple Watch 2 (plus a Pokemon app and some insta-lose ‘Airpods’…) – seemed like a bit of a snooze-fest in comparison. Slimmer, lighter, whatever!

A particular highlight for me was a new laptop from ACER. They seem to have listened to their niche gamer audience and announced one of the talking points of the show with their Predator 21 X laptop – a step into the future of gaming and full of design quirks: fully customisable mechanical keyboard, customisable backlight settings per key (!), built-in wrist supports, a curved screen and clamshell case… It’s a product unashamedly for the hardcore gamer. At an unwieldy 8kg it is also not for the faint hearted, but the sheer amount of tech inside makes it both ludicrous and groundbreaking, both in it’s field and if you were to drop it!

Likewise the Lenovo Yoga Book with its innovative halo keyboard and built in stylus, 3-axis hinge, lightweight design and beautiful aesthetic means has marked it as true original in a market full of Macbook-a-likes. The ‘Halo’ keyboard alone makes this a product miles ahead of the competition. Essentially this is a laptop with two screens, that can utilised as a tablet, laptop and an artists pad all in one. A true leap into the future.

 

Elsewhere, we have the HP Pavilion Wave, which has a dual functionality as a high-end Desktop computer tower and a speaker unit. Utilising a unique textile approach, the entire device is wrapped in a lush fabric coat. Where the dressing adds nothing to the tech, it certainly lends the whole package a pretty design quirk, and stands it out from the crowd.

Finally, the Botvac Connected from Neato is a nifty innovation in vacuuming that is internet connected, can laser scan a room to map its path and route and has a handy homing beacon and “find me” function if it gets lost around the house (yes, really) that be activated via your smartphone. You can also plot its routine and course on your smartphone via the app. Add a GoPro and you could have hours of fun chasing your cat around the house.

 

It’s A Core Principle Of Entrepreneurial Enterprise To Test And Learn

It’s great to hear how some consumer brands are taking risks. It’s important for product innovation and for consumers. It’s a return to the test and learn, risk-taking, entrepreneurial spirit that has been largely missing from the Samsung and Apple tit-for-tat product launches. Having over-engineered gaming laptops and a robot hoover with a location beacon gives me hope that manufacturers will once again push the envelope and deliver innovative new products.

Even in the face of fashionable trends and common sense amongst your peers – a daring new product can make your company for the next ten years – or end you in a heartbeat, and this is what innovation is all about.

In an earlier blog post I spoke about how it’s more important to listen your customers rather than your competitors. When developing my own services and brand, I made the conscious decision to stop watching my competitor’s every move to make sure that I was in line with them. I can see why people would ask how I could be sure that my business was relevant, if I didn’t know what my competitors were doing. To be honest, I didn’t know whether my products were on par with those of my biggest rivals, what I did know was that my products matched what my customers wanted and answered their needs.

More brands need to push the envelope with risky innovations, give their customers the excitement of trying new tech and listen to the feedback. It’s great that leading brands are taking these risk with design, aesthetic and the expectation of their consumer base – this variety of product, of design and of idea is good for the companies, the consumer and – most importantly – keeping the field interesting and moving forwards. The only way we’ll get to the future is by taking the big risks to get there.

What new tech is getting you excited? Let me know below, or on Twitter @bradindigital