For many tech aficionados, the start of the year marks their annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas to discover the cutting edge of technology at the Consumer Electronics Show. Eager to experience the latest must-have devices or life-changing innovations, the event effectively sets the tone for the year ahead in tech. PwC US technology leaders David Sapin and Rob Mesirow report on the emergent themes that will dominate 2019.
The annual Consumer Electronics Show lets the tech industry show off its best efforts to answer the question, “what’s next?” Divining unifying themes from the chaotic exhibition halls and multiple panel discussions can prove challenging. Here are three key areas that were influential at CES 2019.
1. The tech still wows…
It’s not uncommon for first-time CES attendees to suffer from a kind of sensory overload. The Las Vegas Convention Center’s three cavernous halls are packed with glittering screens, sleek cars and futuristic-seeming devices. But amid the cacophony of this year’s show, there were still a few technologies it seemed most exhibitors wanted to talk about. One was 5G, the next generation of cellular connectivity, which promises to greatly increase the speed of digital communication.1
The implications for media tend to be top of mind for consumers – mobile video, for example, will be much faster to download – but businesses may also find that 5G has a number of helpful applications. According to companies at CES, it will underpin everything from autonomous vehicles to augmented reality surgical suites.
Another technology many companies at CES were eager to discuss was artificial intelligence.2 From cameras and televisions to vacuum cleaners, it felt like practically every product on display had AI baked in somehow. And, of course, in the mammoth North Hall, where automotive tech dominated, car manufacturers and their suppliers were eager to discuss their AI-powered self-driving systems.
To be sure, this wasn’t the first time that 5G and AI have been on display at CES. It’s not uncommon to hear veteran attendees of any large conference complain that last year’s show was more impressive. But one hint that some at CES were suffering from a bit of hype fatigue was the fact that the most buzzed-about vehicle in the North Hall wasn’t a self-driving car but a prototype of a gigantic, hybrid electric flying taxi. When it comes to truly wowing the CES crowd, the bar is high and rising.
2. Trust is
top of mind
As David Sapin, PwC’s US Risk and Regulatory Advisory Leader, said about the cool tech on display at CES in a fireside chat with Palmer Group CEO Shelly Palmer, “there’s a lot of promise, but it’s based on an assumption of trust.” With connected solutions and AI-enabled devices continuing to dominate the show, data privacy and cyber security remain important topics to consider. The collection and monetisation of information about consumers’ movements and habits is one of the hottest questions in tech, but not one that every company is keen to take on.3
Some executives on panels at the show took the position that consumers understand the tradeoff between privacy and personalisation of digital services. Others were less willing to touch the topic at all, showing how it remains the elephant in the room for many in tech.
Sapin said he doesn’t foresee the US following the European Union’s lead in adopting sweeping privacy laws in the near future. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible – especially if tech companies prove incapable of policing themselves. “There is some momentum for federal privacy legislation – more momentum this year than last – but I don’t think we’ll get there this year,” he said. Tech companies “need to understand that if you don’t act, policy makers are going to step in.”
CES can sometimes feel slightly surreal – connected, voice-assistant enabled toilets were among the buzzed-about devices on display this year – but the world outside can’t be kept completely at bay. One way that manifested itself at CES 2019 was in a drop of about 20% in the number of Chinese vendors at the show.4 Just how much of that drop is the result of increased tensions between the world’s two largest economies (compared with the show’s official explanation, reported by several news outlets, which was that more floor space was allocated to larger vendors, squeezing out some smaller companies) is difficult to know. But while some large Chinese tech firms were reported to have increased the size of their booths, some attendees noted that the overall presence was toned down from previous years.5 Others kept key executives at home.6
Though the reduced presence by Chinese firms may have given attendees less of an opportunity to see their products in action and cut down on opportunities for business dealings on the conference’s sidelines, it serves as a reminder that even though CES may take on a dreamlike, futuristic quality, it does indeed take place in the present – and in the complex, intertwined world of technology, trust and geopolitics.
These three areas will undoubtedly have a major impact throughout the year, and we expect to hear more about the interplay of these trends at the upcoming MWC Barcelona (formerly Mobile World Congress) which begins on 25 February.