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US-China trade war: All stories

AI, rollables and voice-controlled gadgets galore expected at CES 2019 as US-China trade war threat looms

  • CES is one of the world’s biggest tech conventions, with more than 4,500 companies showing off products
  • If US tariffs on imports from China increase, it could have a detrimental effect on the tech industry
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2018, 4:25pm

If the rampant consumerism of Christmas gets you down, absolutely don’t head to Las Vegas in the second week of 2019.

January 9 sees the year’s biggest global tech convention –the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – kick-off as more than 4,500 companies gather under several vast roofs to show-off their gadgets and products in an effort to get noticed.

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The annual event will take place against the backdrop of the US-China trade war.  “The focus of CES is on innovation, and innovation requires free trade,” says Gary Shapiro, president and chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association, which organises CES.

“There does appear to be a 90-day freeze of the present situation, which is not perfect, but at least it’s tolerable, and it’s not accelerating,” says Shapiro, referring to the 90-day truce between China and the US on tariff increases agreed to on December 1.

However, he’s concerned about whether US tariffs on imports from China will increase to 25 per cent, as the White House previously indicated, which he thinks could cause the economies of both countries to suffer. “I don’t think that this kind of discussion will be at the centre of CES unless the negotiations break down and the 25-per-cent increases comes into effect,” he says. “It would be devastating for the financial markets, and not my favourite way to start the new year.”

Chinese companies are increasingly important at CES, and will account for more than 40 per cent of the 4,500 exhibitors. Traditionally, their advantage has been in manufacturing, but that’s changing as the tech industry shifts towards artificial intelligence (AI).

“The nature of CES has changed over the years, and it’s no longer the kind of show where the latest gadgets are on display, with hardware vendors dominating it,” says Werner Goertz, research director at analyst firm Gartner. “For the last three or four years, we have seen a shift away from hardware towards a more user-centric CES, which is a reflection of how the industry is changing.”

The last truly disruptive device was wearables about five years ago. In 2019, expect to see innovations similar to last year. “We’ll see hands-free voice control of everything at CES,” says Goertz. “Last year at CES we saw Alexa-enabled smart speakers, but also bathroom mirrors, and, in 2019, I think we will see a lot more everyday appliances being retrofitted with voice control,” he says.

So expect to see [Amazon] Alexa and Google Assistant in much more than just smart speakers. “The classic last year was Kohler’s voice-activated toilet, which seemed odd, but just saying, ‘Alexa, flush my toilet’, without having to touch anything is no bad thing,” says Jim Cridlin, global head of innovation and partnership at media agency Mindshare.

“Voice is such a natural way of interaction, and manufacturers are realising that if they can enable their product to be controlled by voice, consumers will respond to it,” Cridlin says.

He says to expect there to be silly “head-scratchers” at CES when it comes to voice-controlled products (there are rumours of Alexa-enabled doorbells, dashcams, hi-fis and even musical instruments). “We’re still in the early stages where folks are trying to experiment to find out what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “But voice will kill off a lot of the ways we used to do things.”

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That includes driving. The area of CES given over to cars is growing exponentially each year, and this year it’s set to be packed not only with prototypes of driverless cars (that’s a given), but AI and voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant, and others, too.

So get ready for endless “next generation in-vehicle experiences”. For example, LG has confirmed that its operating system webOS, which it uses for smart TVs, will migrate to the car for CES, and include Alexa. Microsoft’s Cortana software will also get into the cockpit, while Nuance’s Dragon Drive platform will show-off a “multi-sensorial, cognitive mobility assistant”. So CES might help decide whether we need to have the same voice assistant everywhere, or whether we’re happy to have different digital assistants for the home, for the phone, and for the car.

The foldable phone and the 5G phone will both arrive in 2019, but probably not until February’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

At the recent Samsung Developer Conference, a prototype of a foldable device – the Infinity Flex Display – was shown on stage. So, can we expect a CES unveil? “No – it was still very clunky and it was obviously not productised properly,” says Goertz.

However, at CES there will be one bendable phone, the 7-inch Royole FlexPai. But Goertz points out that it’s rollable, not bendable, phones and screens that will stick. Dual-screen devices will also make an appearance. The recently announced Vivo Nex Dual Display Edition has a screen on either side of the phone, but don’t expect that to become popular.

Voice is such a natural way of interaction, and manufacturers are realising that if they can enable their product to be controlled by voice, consumers will respond to it.
Jim Cridlin

“The way of looking at foldable devices is two screens that can be melded into one continuous screen … though dual screens could come to laptops, where one is used for media and one for productivity,” says Goertz. CES is likely to be awash with prototypes from display-makers.

Likewise early indications are that TVs at CES will be more about design than pixels. There’s a rumour that LG will present a “rollable” 65-inch OLED TV that retracts into a base. Meanwhile, Samsung has announced its intention to debut its “Frame” (designed to look like a hanging picture frame) and “Serif” (which looks more like a whiteboard on an easel) TVs that are resolutely about style, not resolution.

2019 will see the birth of the first 5G networks, and at CES, we’ll find out exactly what 5G is for.

“A lot of the chip companies will be showing 5G products, some of the handset manufacturers will be talking about 5G products, and we will announce our 5G sales projections for 2019,” says Shapiro. “We’ll have the leaders of AT&T and Verizon at CES.”

However, those two US telecom companies will probably only announce the details of their 5G networks at the Mobile World Congress. That said, we’ll surely see at least one 5G-ready phone – and Sony is known for trying to get in first.

While there is a lot of focus on the big brands, it’s away from the main halls where the really interesting stuff will happen. Shapiro’s recently released book, Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation, reveals the skills these smaller innovators need to remain nimble and competitive as technology accelerates. He calls these innovators “ninjas”. So where do they hang out at CES?

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“That’s definitely in Eureka Park,” says Shapiro, of the area of the Sands Expo Convention Center reserved for early-stage start-ups armed only with prototypes. In 2019, Eureka Park will host start-ups offering everything from a voice-controlled motorcycle helmet and a holographic car assistant to companion robots and a bracelet that recreates the feeling of an ice cube on your wrist if you get too hot.

“We have 1,100 start-up companies in Eureka Park; it’s one of the coolest areas of CES,” says Shapiro. “I actually look forward to the time when I won’t be in this job and I can spend more time there.”

CES will take place in Las Vegas from 9-11 January, 2019.