by Paul Nunes and Larry Downes: Once again, we scoured the edges of the 2.2 million square feet of exhibit space at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show looking for what we call Big Bang Disruptors…
Those are the innovations that enter the market both better and cheaper than existing products or services, creating the greatest opportunity for dramatic—even catastrophic—success, and setting incumbents up for the biggest possible disruption.
As usual, we found plenty of disruptors—some from incumbents, some from start-ups, but all with the potential to cause big changes, many of which their developers almost certainly don’t intend.
Before we get to our five most disruptive innovations, a few general observations.
If there was a theme song for this year’s CES, it would be “Everything is Connected” (sung to the tune of “Everything is Awesome” from the Lego Movie). From routers that can recharge every device in a fifteen foot radius (the WattUp from Energous) to yoga mats that talk to your phone (the SmartMat), ever cheaper and ever smaller sensors, antennas and other electronic components are quickly making every one of over a trillion items in commerce programmable, collecting actionable data for consumers about every activity in their lives.
We noted this trend last year, but like everything else at CES, nothing exceeds like excess. As the basic components are built in high volume (many made initially for smartphones), price, availability and standardization accelerate, generating a feeding frenzy for entrepreneurs combining them in every conceivable way. Areas that once had a only a few pioneering products now have their own rooms full of competing vendors, each trying to crack the code that will give them the big bang.
And connectivity isn’t just for devices. One interesting new trend this year is the confluence of industries in the midst of reinvention, with odd partnerships forming between seemingly unrelated companies. As digital technologies continue to disrupt industries that have up until now been immune, convergence is bringing together widely divergent companies who may have never even heard of each other a few years ago.
Gaming powerhouse Nvidia, for example, is now making user interfaces for automobile dashboards. And Nest, the smart thermostat acquired by Google in 2014, has developed an extensive ecosystem with its “Works with Nest” program, including the Hue lightbulb, Whirlpool dryers, Ford cars, Kwikset smart keys, and Jawbone fitness trackers.
Communicating with the Nest, these devices respectively flash when something goes wrong, slow down the drying cycle if you’re away, lower the heat when you drive off, reset the temperature based on who enters the house, and again when you’re waking up.
Information itself is fast becoming the critical asset in digital businesses. At Accenture, we say every business is now a digital business. It doesn’t matter if you’re a phone company, a car company, or an underwear brand—you have some unique information assets that some other business can combine with their own and leverage on behalf of consumers. And that means that sooner or later you’re going to connect the dots—and the data.
Naturally, privacy and security are areas of concern as billions of inert objects become, in effect, small computers with Internet connections. While new standards and technologies are being developed, we saw some innovative authentication techniques that could replace relatively insecure passwords.Helix, for example, uses the camera on your smartphone to generate an identifier based on the unique shape of your ear, while Myris by Eyelock scans your iris, where the chances of a false match are less than one in 1.5 million.
Of course the core of the exhibit space is still devoted to the latest in consumer electronics. There were plenty of eye-popping displays to see, with 4K and even some 8K OLED Ultra HD televisions just waiting for content to render. (Manufacturers and content providers have formed an alliance to standardize 4K technology to speed things along.)
This year, everything seems to be curved—not just televisions (if that word still means anything), but also computer monitors and even mobile phones, including some from Samsung and LG. Curved displays offer improved peripheral views and, for phones, more ergonomic design, but the trend may really mess with a generation of interior design that assumed thin flat screens would simply get bigger, not change their shape. The design team of TV’s Property Brothers, who were in attendance, may have had a rude awakening walking the show floor.
Our overall groupings of disruptors aren’t all that different from last year’s list. As many attendees we talked to agreed, this year was mostly though not entirely about more, better, faster, and cheaper rather than the introduction of entirely new technologies. Still, there were plenty of disruptive innovations worth highlighting. So without further ado:
1. Transportation – Autonomous Vehicles
(The Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept car was a big hit with CES attendees)
Disruptive energy continues to emerge. Toyota’s Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, which emits nothing but water, will go on sale this year in California. (When we wrote about it last year, it was just a concept.)
But the big news this year is the continued evolution of fully self-driving or “autonomous” vehicles. Their arrival is now just a matter of time, perhaps no more than a decade or two at most And, as with many big bang disruptions, we expect the transformation of transportation will continue to proceed gradually, and then, at some inflection point, suddenly.
The technology and cost for autonomous vehicles are almost ready for the mass market—with the real hold up being the regulators, who barely know how to begin rethinking a hundred years of safety, insurance, and traffic laws.
Unlike the awkward-looking prototypes of the first Google cars, the incumbent automotive companies (who fortunately already know more than a few things about disruptive innovation), are showing concept vehicles that will just look like cars, with the cameras, sensors, and other new technology hidden from view. Audi has a console that can be removed and replaced, like a tablet computer. VW will use ultrasonic technology to predict where you can find a parking space.
Now the question becomes what you will do when you’re not actually focused on driving. Mercedes demonstrated a vehicle, guestimated for 2030, whose side panels would all be flexible displays, turning the car into a theater for Infotainment, social media, and other information-intensive applications.
2. Health and Fitness – The Quantified Self
There’s been an explosion since last year of new vendors and new applications that collect, report, and respond to information from the user’s own body, a trend that is sometimes referred to as “the quantified self.”
Although in many cases their component hardware is the same, and while most use phones and tablets for the user interface, right now these offerings are largely stand-alone point solutions for particular uses. Some are health related, some for improved fitness training. There are separate categories for seniors, people with disabilities, kids, and athletes, again using much of the same technology.
The overlaps can be surprising, even to the developers. The ReSound LiNX, for example, is a state-of-the-art hearing aid that is beautifully designed to be nearly invisible, with its controls moved to Apple and soon Android devices over a Bluetooth connection
Other than the price tag, which is $1,000 or $3,000 depending on the severity of a user’s hearing loss, the LiNX could easily substitute for earbuds and other listening technology, many of which themselves now include sensors to double as biometric trackers. TheDash from Bragi, for example, is a “hearable,” providing both an attractive wireless earphone (though much larger than the LiNX) and over fifteen sensors, tracking heart rate, respiration, oxygen saturation, and more.
At some point we believe all of these technologies will converge and rationalize, and when they do the result will be nothing short of a revolution in health care in the broadest sense, with patients shifting from passive to active participants in diagnosis, treatment, and preventive care. For an aging population in particular, this technology could add years to our ability to stay in our homes and defer the need for assisted living and home health care.
The earliest devices (back only a few years ago) took advantage of plentiful sensors from the exploding smartphone market—including accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes–to track basic movement, count steps, and recognize when we were asleep.
But as more kinds of sensors become better, cheaper, and easily recombinable, the range and sophistication of human and environmental sensing has expanded dramatically. Today, you can get products that measure and report on a wide array of biometric data including glucose levels (iHealth), emotional state (Being by Zensorium), temperature (TempTraq andPacif-i by Blue Maestro), sleep patterns (Sleep Number), pulse (Fitbit’s PurePulse), alcohol level (Alcohoot), weight (Withings), blood pressure (QardioArm by Qardio), and much more.
Each of these metrics has important applications. We wrote last year, for example, about technologies at CES’s Eureka Park, a special area for start-ups, aimed at improving the lives of patients with chronic medical conditions, and this year we found even more worth noting.Veristride, which we singled out in last year’s review, continues to make strides with inserts for shoes that can help stroke victims improve their walking.
This year we were impressed with UMoove, which is developing software-based eye tracking technology that uses the camera and processor already on a tablet to measure attention and focus. The company’s short-term goals are to diagnosis and help treat conditions such as ADHD and autism.
And Linx IAS has adapted technology it originally developed for the military to make a small sensor device that athletes can wear (with or without a helmet) to measure and report on impacts to a player’s head, giving coaches instant alerts about the possibility of concussions.
We were also impressed with Quell, an FDA-approved device that stimulates the brain to block pain receptors for patients with chronic conditions. The device is worn around the calf in a neoprene wrap and is approved for overnight use, and will sell for around $250 later this year. It performs similar functions (though not as specific) to existing devices that today must be surgically implanted at dramatically higher cost and risk. Better and cheaper technology could translate to a big bang disruption for the company.
3. Manufacturing – 3D Printing and Robotics
In the world of mass market 3D printing, the trend is for more, more, more—more vendors, more printing media, and more applications. The new kid on the show floor only a few years ago with just a few vendors showing expensive prototypes, this year boasted over fifty 3D printer vendors, many selling home products for under $300.
Industrial 3D printers have long been used to create manufacturing prototypes, but up until now the disruptive applications to go along with the rapid decline in price for the key components haven’t been obvious. Now the devices are increasingly being used for remote, just-in-time manufacturing and printing more sophisticated designs including customized prosthesis and 3D printed fashion.
Still, we’re just getting started with disruption of a wide range of manufactured goods and processes. This year, 3D printing pioneer MakerBot announced the availability of filaments (the basic plastic media used by the printers) that have integrated real-world materials including iron, bronze, maple and limestone. Printing objects with these new media can produce much more realistic looking and acting output, moving the technology closer to printing “real” items rather than plastic simulacra.
A company called Voxel 8, for example, will soon sell a 3D printer that can print electronic circuitry as part of an object—a true printed circuit—with the potential for making functioning electronic devices. Where will this end? In the future, 3D printers may be able to print more 3D printers.
Even more exciting were several new printers capable of using edible media to print actual food, one of the applications that has long been on the wish list of the 3D printing community. 3D Systems, another early industry leader, demonstrated the CoCoJet, which uses Hershey’s chocolate as its medium. “Ideal for the baker or chocolatier,” according to the company’s website, “the CocoJet prints custom designs in dark, milk or white chocolate.”
Even more impressive is the company’s ChefJet, due later this year, which will print with sugar or candy, examples of which were on ample display at the booth (we missed out on the offer of a sample). The ChefJet, with a large build volume, will allow cake decorators and candy makers to prepare elaborate designs and then print them, once or (hopefully) repeatedly.
Finally, we were impressed with a 3D printer that isn’t a printer at all, but rather a pen known as the 3Doodler, which has already sold over 100,000 units. As you draw, whether on a surface or not, the pen extrudes heated plastic filament, creating solid objects. If that’s hard even to imagine, then you’ve just experienced what makes big bang disruptions so unnerving.
Outside of 3D printing, the manufacturing innovation that most caught our attention was a start-up calledGraphene Frontiers, which like many of the innovators in Eureka Park has received funding from the National Science Foundation.
Graphene is a form of carbon that is a single atom thick, which in sheets has been shown in the lab to have remarkable strength and conductivity. Graphene Frontiers has patented technology to mass produce the substance, and is working on ways to print it directly onto silicon wafers, where it might provide very low cost medical diagnostics when combined with specific antibodies. But applications in the life sciences are only the beginning. Graphene could prove to be the most important discovery of the early 21st century.
4. The Internet of Things
We declared last year to be the year when the Internet of Things—in which everyday items became fitted with the ability to collect, send, and receive information—finally became a reality. That was clearly the case with this year’s exhibits, which included very large companies including Samsung and Bosch and plenty of start-ups using the basic technology in surprising new ways. The theme for this year was everything connected to everything else, whether it made obvious sense to do so or not.
The shift from computers as computers to everything else as computers has already disrupted industry leaders. As recently as a few years ago, Intel’s very large booth in the Central Hall mostly focused on PCs and laptops that featured the company’s chips. But as the market for computers slows, the company has shifted its attention to the IoT, offering ever smaller and more powerful components that can be embedded into everything that isn’t already “smart.” Intel’s booth this year had hardly any traditional computers.
Similar to the health and fitness applications, the IoT solutions are so far more of the standalone variety, with little integration. (Several competing standards and platforms are still vying for dominance, as is typical for emerging technologies.)
That hasn’t stopped the innovators, however, and the general idea of the smart home has now given way to very specific applications for specific and previously dumb things. We saw smart air conditioners, outdoor grills, water bottles, locks, light bulbs, wallets (like the Wocket), shoes, forks, toothbrushes, glasses and pretty much every item you can think of.
One of the finalists for this year’s “Best of CES” products was a smart belt, known as the Belty, that senses when you’d had a big Las Vegas dinner and automatically loosens itself. (In theory, it can also get tighter, if that was ever necessary.)
Taken separately, these devices may not need much in the way of remote user control and may not offer much in the way of useful information that can be uploaded to computing devices and consolidated in the cloud. But once we put it all together on standardized platforms, the disruptive impact will cross many industries, including manufacturing, distribution, retailing, consumer products, agriculture and transportation. To name a few.
Among a long list of contenders, we were especially impressed by Parrot’s smart Pot, which has built-in sensors that measure temperature, moisture, sunlight and fertilizer level. When it’s time to take care of your plants, the pot lets you know by—you guessed it—communicating wirelessly with your smartphone or tablet. A related product can go directly into the ground for outdoor plants.
And Belkin’s WeMo line of smart home offerings, which we wrote about last year and extensively in our Big Bang Disruption book, continues to expand. This year, WeMo has finally integrated technology it acquired some years ago from a startup called Echo. New WeMo sensors and software are now in field trials that will expand the system to monitor water and power usage and identify from a single location, such as the breaker box, multiple devices and their individual performance.
The water sensor will analyze vibrations in the pipes to calculate and improve usage efficiency and to alert users to possible leaks. The electricity sensors, likewise, will identify waste, determine devices that need repair, and help improve the design of home security systems. In an era of growing sensitivity to the need for resources efficiency and sustainable practices, these technologies may provide a level of power and water management that is inconceivable today.
5. Augmented Reality
Last but not least are advances in display and audio technologies that enable users to experience real and imagined environments with ever-greater richness. Whether in the form of virtual reality goggles and earphones that provide immersive gaming experiences, or superimposed displays that augment the view out a car window, the continued decline in price, size, and power requirements for basic computing components continues to spark revolutionary change in the world of sensory input.
We first met up with the developers of the Oculus Rift, a prototype goggle for 3D gaming, at CES 2013. The start-up, founded by a community college student named Palmer Luckey with an obsession for military simulation hardware, had just completed a wildly successful Kickstarter fundaraising campaign and didn’t even have a booth on the show floor—the founders were demonstrating their proof-of-concept in a hotel suite which also doubled as a crashpad.
A year later, the company’s developer’s kit won best of show, and in March of last year Facebook acquired the company—still without a commercial product—for $2 billion. Bang!
For CES 2015, the company had a flashy and over-subscribed booth at the Convention Center where attendees waited in long lines to try out the latest prototype, known as Crescent Bay. Those who were skeptical about the remarkable value placed on the company by Facebook learned pretty quickly how a 3D immersive picture can be worth 2 billion words.
The company has set a high bar in both price and performance for future display technologies. And even without a commercial product, Oculus has disrupted industries well outside of gaming. Based on the prototype developer’s kit, other companies last year were demonstrating applications of the Oculus technology.
Middleware producer SoftKinetic, for example, attached depth and gesture recognition cameras onto the Oculus Rift, allowing the user’s hand motions to translate into real-time manipulation of objects in the 3D space. Intel is embedding SoftKinetic’s technology for what it calls RealSense, which could someday facilitate virtual design and other fine motor manipulations, including medical applications.
This year, we saw the Oculus technology in such unlikely places at Lowe’s andOnStar. Lowe’s was using it to demonstrate in-store design simulations for home improvements, while OnStar applied it for demonstrations of new in-vehicle experience.
Competitors, naturally, have also appeared, including Razer, which announced an open source virtual reality headset in hopes will prove easier for third parties to integrate. The device will sell later this year for about $200.
Like Lynx, Quell, and even Oculus, many of the most disruptive innovations we found this year, as in previous years, fall squarely into the early market experiment stage of Big Bang Disruption. Some–perhaps most of them–will never make it to mainstream success. But even those that don’t succeed send a strong signal to incumbents of imminent disruption when some entrepreneur hits on the right combination of new technologies and business models.
That is, for incumbents who are listening. As the number of innovators working with new technologies continues to expand, that better include everybody.
See you next year.