UBTECH robots including the First Order 'Stormtrooper' (L) and the Amazon Alexa voice assistant enabled 'lynx' (C) are seen during the CES Unveiled preview event at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center during CES 2018 in Las Vegas on January 7, 2018
UBTECH robots including the First Order 'Stormtrooper' (L) and the Amazon Alexa voice assistant enabled 'lynx' (C) are seen during the CES Unveiled preview event at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center during CES 2018 in Las Vegas on January 7, 2018

CES 2018: The world's biggest gadget show gives up on gadgets

Gizmos and gimmicks are still around — but don't look to them for the future

Andrew Griffin@_andrew_griffin
Monday 08 January 2018 18:41
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CES 2018 has kicked off. And with it comes all sort of tat — except, because it's the future, now that tat is connected to the internet.

The Las Vegas spectacular is a gadget show, above all else, and there are thousands being released this week. In fact, it's the biggest gadget show in the world.

But gadgets are ultimately a distraction. Toys might be fun, but they aren't where the future of technology can be seen.

Instead, what matters is platforms: platforms for your house, platforms for your voice, platforms for your car, platforms for your entire reality. This is, in one sense, an easier war to have, since companies don't even necessarily have to actually make anything physical to win you around. Some companies still have to actually make the gadgets to access and live on the platforms, of course - but the real money is in allowing the smart home technology to talk to each other, not in manufacturing those things.

For all that, there are some big breakthroughs coming from CES this year. Here's where the most exciting stuff is, and what to expect.

Augmented reality

Virtual reality - which was always fairly gadgety, requiring people to strap things to their head and ensconce themselves in an entire world - was hyped lots and delivered little, at least so far. But gradually people are moving away from that approach, and into augmented reality.

It is the ultimate platform: it doesn't even need other things to connect to it, since all it needs is a camera to see the world and a display to show you it with some more fun added on top. Luckily, you already have those in your phone.

Apple - always a very noticeable absence from CES, along with an increasing number of important companies - has been working on its own AR platform. That works simply by using the iPhone's camera and the sensors embedded in it, projecting all manner of virtual worlds onto the real one.

Now, other companies are developing platforms as well as the software that lives on those platforms. Gadgets will make use of these breakthroughs, of course — beautiful though the iPhone is, it can be described as a gadget, and what else was Google Glass? — but it's really the platforms that will be interesting.

Smart homes

The home is the ultimate place for the gadget. It's also the biggest reason for people to resist them.

When the idea of the connected home and the internet of things first caught on, it came in bizarre forms like web-controlled pet feeders and shoes that spy on you. (This is not entirely over — today a press release was sent out about a "connected wine preservation system.)

Gradually, with time, the gadgets have receded. As people let more of this kit into their house, they're also asking more of it - like that it won't secretly use its computing power to launch hacking attacks on entire countries, for instance, or to mine bitcoin.

The trouble is that people don't want gadgets in their house - they want kitchen appliances, furniture, fittings and accessories, not gadgets. Technology can enhance your domestic life, whereas gadgets only get in the way and fill up your house.

And so companies have been gradually moving towards making existing things smart, not adding smart devices into people's houses. Philips' Hue smart lights, for instance, just fit into your existing lamps and light fixtures; Nest's smart smoke alarm fits in the same place as a normal one and is indistinguishable from it; Hive's internet-enabled thermostat works just like the decades-old one on your wall, apart from also having an app.

Many people had forecast the emergence of the internet of things, but that appears to be wrong. What we're actually getting is just good things, empowered and improved by the internet.

Cars

Stepping outside of the smart home, and into the car, reveals much the same move. Once, electric and semi-autonomous looked like strange, technological bugs; nowadays, manufacturers like Tesla are among those making the most beautiful, fast vehicles on the road.

The battle to see whether those new upstarts will unseat the traditional car companies to build the electric vehicles is still ongoing. But it's clear what will decide the winners: which of them can build the best platforms for charging your car, and letting it drive itself; the hardware will matter, but the cars themselves are far from gadgets, with an intense focus on how they look and how they are built emerging from many of the companies currently building their vehicles of the future.

Televisions

For all of the above, CES remains a show mostly known for one thing: televisions. For a while, they tried being gadgets, with their various strange new features; then, they had a go at being platforms, with each company aiming to build its own smart TV technology that would make it easier to use than the rest.

Now, they appear to have moved towards positioning themselves as the best thing for other platforms: clear, bright, advanced ways of letting people watch content from elsewhere. They might offer some future for the gadgets and their makers: if the future belongs to the platforms, they're going to need something to exist on. The winners are likely to be those gadgets that manage to hide what the really are.

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