IoT @ CES 2016

January 20, 2016

A view of Vegas from my departing flight that looks, appropriately, like a circuit board.

Now the dust has settled on CES, we’ve had time to reflect on key takeaways for the Internet of Things.

EVERY THING CONNECTED

The overall takeout was the rise and rise of cloud connectivity and IoT, in the sense that absolutely everything at the show was online in some shape or form. The same infiltration of digital connectivity happened to the software industry with the rise of the Web. In 1993 when the first Web browser Mosaic was released, just 0.5% of software was Web-enabled; ten years later that figure was 99%.

Similarly, with physical products and devices, IoT is now becoming like “the Internet”, where you almost can’t really classify it as a space anymore – it’s all encompassing.

All manufacturers are waking up to the fact that ‘software is eating the world’ and that every business is becoming a software business. It’s becoming clearer to anyone that makes physical things that their products not only exist as digital services, but that a growing proportion of the value is virtual, and delivered in the form of connected bits rather than atoms.

However exciting, even revolutionary, new CES ‘hardware’ innovations are, it’s only when they are powered by smart ‘software’ in the cloud and use data feedback to personalize and optimize their performance in real-time and over time that they become truly intelligent.

As Andreessen Horowitz board partner Steven Sinofsky put it: “What is going to separate one device from another or one company from another will be the software execution, not just the choice of chipset or specs for a peripheral/sensor. It would be hard to overstate the clear opportunity to build winning products using stronger software relative to competitors.”

NO PRODUCT IS AN ISLAND

So it’s software and the flow of real-time IoT data that connects all the most important CES technology trends, from virtual reality, wearables and connected health to smart cities, cars, robots and machine learning.

But the critical factor is how all these newly connected ‘things’ connect to one another. There are way too many standalone IoT gadgets that don’t take into account the wider context, and digital ecosystems of other products, apps and services they exist within.

Fortune magazine’s “The 6 Things CES Taught Us About The Internet of Things” observed that IoT has moved from using hardware to create connected devices to using software to create inter-connected data services for those devices. But they also highlighted the barrier to adoption created by a lack of full ecosystem-connectivity between products that adds complexity for consumers.

Without interoperability of technologies, products and ecosystems, these products will remain separate islands (or possibly archipelagos) with diminished utility, and the whole IoT becomes less than the sum of its parts. (This is, of course, exactly what EVRYTHNG and our W3C standards submission is trying to solve.)

We saw a very strong validation of our IoT Smart Products cloud strategy to connect not just products, but all of the things in and around those products, including packaging and componentry. The trick is to think of each discrete, connected thing as its own mini ecosystem. The integration and interconnectivity of fragmented products and technologies will ensure success and more widespread adoption for all.

Google stepped up its game with the formal launch of Weave, a competitor to Apple HomeKit. Not available in official release of Android yet, but coming. The goal for product manufacturers must be to have a single SKU that can speak iOS and Android, while retaining control over their data, including the ability to direct how it is shared. Precisely what’s possible on the EVRYTHNG platform, naturally.

In other words, IoT needs to grow up in 2016 and actually solve real problems, moving from gadgets to use cases that bring real value. This will be helped by a greater volume of smart objects in the market, which will start to create IoT value through increased network effects.

 

NETWORKED REALITY

Given that Las Vegas itself is the world’s largest example of virtual reality, it was fitting that VR was one of the key CES trends tipped for a tipping point in 2016. Like 3D before it (or rather, for the headset makers and content creators, hopefully not like 3D before it), VR was touted as the re-imagination and salvation of entertainment and the new, must-have hardware device.

But rather than self-contained content experiences, technologies like VR are more interesting as interfaces to visualize and navigate the explosion of real-time, connected data. As billions of new things get connected to the Web, with a combination of embedded chips, sensors, and smart tags, there will be many trillions of additional connections between things, and the people, online machines and devices, and information systems they are networked to.

Don’t just think technicians going ‘inside’ remote machines for diagnosis and repair, or surgeons, engineers and the military using such virtual 3D simulations to make medical diagnoses, model new structures or formulate combat scenarios. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg said at the start of the year that visualizing data in virtual reality would help him build better services for Facebook.

The interesting tussle this year will be AR vs VR. The value of VR is total immersion. To fall through the screens back into places with human scale, as Aaron Koblin puts it. By contrast, the value of AR is precisely that users still remain in the real world so the technology augments the flow of human interaction rather than subsuming it.

Be My Eyes is a wonderful, lesser-known example of networked AR: a mobile app that lets you ‘lend your eyes to the blind’. It links the visually impaired with the sighted, using live video so helpers can talk through and describe what the camera is seeing on behalf of the visually impaired individual.

 

A TO B WITH IOT

Flyable gadgets certainly had their moment in the sun; they even had their own sideshow at CES, the Drone Rodeo, held 17 miles out of town away from designated commercial air space (hard to get to by regular human transport but highly accessible by drone obviously). Not to mention there’s now an Uber for drones service from Chinese startup Ehang, offering personal Autonomous Aerial Vehicles (AAVs) on demand to fly wherever you want to go.

In more earth-bound connected transportation news, Ford’s partnership announcement with Amazon’s Echo so drivers can talk to their homes from their cars and vice versa, was significant as a proxy for all smart technologies linking together the ecosystem of environments and devices in our digital lives.

2016 will be the year when product manufacturers get serious about not just connecting products to the IoT, but connecting them in a way that enables interconnection, becoming part of a physical Web of Things.
Some of these thoughts first appeared in this article for Marketing magazine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Andy Hobsbawm

Andy Hobsbawm

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