Future tech

CES tech show goes big on smart home devices and wearables, with Asia’s ageing populations set to drive demand

As Consumer Electronics Show opens in Las Vegas, experts say Asia’s ageing populations could make it the global hub for wearable sales – and voice controls for the home could be big trend for 2017

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 January, 2017, 5:51pm

Ageing populations in developed areas of Asia could see it become the global hub for a whole new genre of active ageing technology, according to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).

Speaking ahead of the opening of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which runs from January 5 to 8 in Las Vegas, the CTA’s senior director of market research, Steve Koenig, says that Japan and South Korea in particular could spark a new focus on wearables.

He says demand for wearables could be high in developed parts of Asia: “There’s a culture of respect for elders, and seniors tend to live very active lifestyles compared to other cultures around the world.”

Expect broader adoption of active technology, he says, which tends to be wearable devices.

His comments come at a time when neither the holiday season nor New Year’s fitness resolutions seem to be helping wearable gadgets break into the mainstream in the US.

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Research firm eMarketer has lowered its outlook for smartwatches and fitness trackers. It’s not that the craze has died down – it’s more like there never was one to begin with.

In October 2015, eMarketer expected wearable gadget to grow more than 60 per cent among American adults in 2016. That’s now down to less than 25 per cent. While fitness trackers are relatively cheap and straightforward to use, eMarketer says smartwatches haven’t caught on because they are expensive and lack a well-defined purpose.

But multinational corporations could save the day – at least in the West. Tech research firm Gartner predicts that by 2019, nearly all big employers will encourage the use of fitness trackers to “improve corporate performance”.

The CTA expects fitness devices to grow from 42 million units in 2016 to 68 million units by 2020, and there are around 250 exhibitors showing wearables this year at the CES, which this year is celebrating its 50th annual show across 2.4 million square feet of exhibit space.

More than 3,800 exhibitors are expected to attract 165,000 visitors from 50 countries. There are more than 1,300 exhibitors alone from China, by far the largest country representation at the CES.

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Wearables are also going beyond the wrist, with Samsung’s S-Skin microneedle patch and analyser skincare system and the Helios Smart Ring, the world’s first personal vitamin D tracker. Also showing in Las Vegas is the 2Breathe sleep-inducer and Doppel, which produces a rhythmic pulse that can either make the user feel more alert, or calm them down.

CES has also seen a brace of so-called wearable speakers, including Polk Audio’s BOOM Bit and LG’s TONE Studio HBS-W120. The latter delivers “personal” 3D surround sound from wireless earbuds and speakers combined. LG also launched a levitating speaker for the bedside table.

After years of hype, wearables have now become a significant sector, joining what Koenig calls the “magnificent seven” gadgets.

“There’s a group of seven products that have been responsible for about 80 per cent of all spending,” says Koenig, listing smartphones, feature-phones, TVs, cameras, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs. “But there’s a new face in the magnificent seven, and that’s smartwatches, which have supplanted standard phones,” he adds.

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“It’s a global marker of the impact that wearables are starting to have.”

Elsewhere, smartphones are responsible for a whopping 47 per cent of that spending, thanks largely to emerging economies in Asia such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

“There are more hands and more handsets in emerging regions, and consumers there are prioritising that purchase – and why not?” says Koenig.

“This device is the centre of the consumer tech universe – think of the services, the apps, the disruptive business models that orbit around this single device,” he says. Spending on smartphones will hit US$432 billion in 2017.

That smartphone future will be super-fast, too, thanks to the launch at the CES by Qualcomm of its Snapdragon 835 mobile processor. Able to support cameras that film and play Ultra HD 4K video, Snapdragon 835 is also built for virtual reality (VR) devices.

CES was relatively light on VR talk, though Imax discussed its plans for VR in cinemas, and Vuzix demoed its upcoming Blade 3000 Smart Sunglasses, which provide a wearable smart display that’s designed to be a substitute for a smartphone or smartwatch.

Earlier, the CTA’s chief economist, Shawn DuBravac, said he believed 2017 would be a big year for the smart home – rated by the CTA as a US$25 billion global market in 2016 – but with an unexpected twist.

“Voice is going to be the glue that holds the smart home together,” he said of virtual assistants. “There are already 1,500 different applications for Amazon Alexa and I would not be surprised to see 700 more launch at CES,” he said. He also predicted that five million voice-activated assistants or “vocal computing hubs” will sell in 2017.

Among Alexa-powered gadgets at CES are a table lamp from GE with Alexa embedded inside, the Array smart lock that can be operated by speaking, as can Whirlpool’s washing machines and Samsung’s Powerbot VR7000 robot vacuum cleaner.

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All can be operated by voice alone. The new age of “faceless computing” has arrived, but has anyone noticed?

“The face of computing it starting to change and we don’t even recognise it,” said DuBravac. “When I’m interacting with Alexa I’m interacting with a computer that’s thousands of miles away.”

One thing’s for sure; if the CES does declare “Alexa Everywhere” to be a trend, the likes of Baidu Duer, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana will have something to say.

Additional reporting by Associated Press