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CES 2017: The Year of Alexa and the Smart Home

— January 24, 2017

Home Energy ManagementAs my colleague Neil Strother put it, Alexa stole the show at CES 2017. Walking through the smart home exhibition at the Sands, it seemed as though every vendor with a device prominently featured the Amazon Echo and emphasized integration with Alexa. What struck me most about this phenomenon was Amazon’s ability to transition the smart home from an idea into a reality. The ability of device manufacturers to hone in on Alexa as the basis for the smart home, on which a whole ecosystem of connectivity and access can be built, is pushing a market that the average consumer can get on board with, as opposed to a Jetsons-style future that seems so far away. The Amazon Echo is not just the advertised Wi-Fi speaker, but an entire smart home platform.

Alphabet’s Google Home is also acting as a connected home platform and pushing the market closer to the mainstream. Google Home touts integration with many of Google’s beloved products and services, including its search engine, translation service, and mapping software, as well as a series of devices such as the Nest product line and Samsung’s SmartThings. However, Home still has a long way to go before it can catch up to the connected ecosystem that Amazon has created since the Echo’s release in 2014. This was made clear at CES, where Google Home took second place to Amazon Echo in terms integration with third-party devices and presence at vendor booths.

Comprehensive Solutions

Outside of the Wi-Fi speaker play, others in the market are providing comprehensive solutions that are pushing the smart home forward. Vivint Smart Home, which had a booth that looked more like a livable home than a technology demonstration, not only has a whole ecosystem of devices (yes, Amazon Echo among them), but is also partnering with sister business Vivint Solar to grant consumers more control over their energy. This all operates on one platform, which includes artificial intelligence for learning user patterns and making recommendations on how to better automate devices in the ecosystem, thus bringing the market that much closer to truly smart homes.

There are still major hurdles to creating a truly smart home, such as interoperability, security, and the technology required to make a home “smart” rather than simply “connected.” However, CES 2017 showed that the smart home is becoming much more of a reality than a concept, and  devices like the Amazon Echo are providing average users with a glimpse into the future.

 

Perception vs. Reality: CES and the North American International Auto Show

— January 19, 2017

Connected VehiclesIf there is any one lesson that we should all take away from 2016, it’s the confirmation that perception does not necessarily equal reality. What people perceive to be the truth is often the most important part of their decision-making, a concept now shown in the auto industry’s seemingly increasing participation in the International CES and apparently declining interest in Detroit’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS).

There has been a lot of consternation in Michigan recently about the impact that CES has had on the Detroit show over the past decade. The two events tend to run back-to-back over the first 2 weeks of January. I was on hand in 2008 when then-General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner was the first major auto executive to keynote at CES after demonstrating the autonomous Chevrolet Tahoe, which won the DARPA urban challenge the prior year. While more automakers and suppliers than ever took part in CES this year, GM actually took a pass for the first time since Wagoner’s speech.

While the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which organizes the NAIAS, is concerned that manufacturers are increasingly favoring CES, the issues of the auto show are largely unrelated to what’s happening in Vegas. Auto shows are consumer events designed to showcase all of the latest products available for sale, and media previews show what is arriving in the coming months.

With rare exceptions (like 2016, when Chevrolet unveiled the production version of the Bolt EV), new production vehicles are almost never shown at CES. The electronics show is a business-to-business event that isn’t open to the public; instead, the industry flocks to Las Vegas to talk up technology.

NAIAS Is About Reality; CES Is About Perception

For many years, the financial market’s perception of the auto industry has been that of old-school manufacturers of commodity widgets. The view of Silicon Valley and technology companies is that of innovators on the bleeding edge that are poised for explosive growth. Thus, you have investors pouring billions of dollars into startups every year; most of those companies getting all of that investment fail without ever producing anything noteworthy while burning through cash.

Meanwhile, the modern car is one of the most complicated and technologically sophisticated devices ever created and is produced by the latest cutting-edge processes. The industry that produces them employs tens of millions of people globally directly and indirectly, generating trillions of dollars in revenue and tens of billions in profit. Yet the industry gets little respect and low market values.

The presence of the auto industry at CES is designed to reach a group of media that cover companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook alongside countless startups, the same media that investors follow. The goal is to change the perception of the auto business from one that looks like it came from the dawn of the industrial revolution to one that innovates on a daily basis.

That’s not a message you can get across by showing off the refreshed Ford F-150, even though it may be packed with far more technology than anything from Silicon Valley. That’s a message you communicate by demonstrating automated cars in Las Vegas traffic jams; partnership announcements with chip designers like Nvidia won’t reach its intended audience in auto shows in Detroit, Frankfurt, or Geneva. These shows have issues to address, but the fault doesn’t lie in Las Vegas. It’s all about perception.

 

Alexa Steals the Show at CES 2017

— January 16, 2017

CodeVoice activation took center stage at CES 2017, with Amazon and Alexa as the leading stars. I spent several days at the annual geek fest, and the device kept coming up in multiple conversations with industry players.

Alexa, formally called the Amazon Echo, is not new. The $180 device was first available exclusively to Amazon Prime members in November 2014. Since then, the device (along with its smaller clone, the Dot) and its cloud-based data service have been made available to anyone, steadily gaining a solid foothold in the smart home-Internet of Things (IoT) market. It has become a surprise hit, and vendors across the spectrum now clamor to include Alexa functionality in their devices. Companies like LG, Whirlpool, Samsung, Mattel, Lenovo, GE, and Ford have (or will soon have) products with Alexa voice technology.

From an energy standpoint, Alexa has already made inroads with smart thermostat makers to work directly with their products. For some months now, Alexa has enabled users to simply say a command, and a Wi-Fi-connected thermostat will alter the temperature to a new setting on a Nest, ecobee3, Honeywell Lyric, or Sensi product.

Waiting in the Wings

Even though Amazon’s Alexa is the clear leader of the voice activation trend, Alphabet’s Google Home device was waiting in the wings at CES to carve out its share of the market. The Home device has only been available to consumers since its launch in November 2016, but a number of vendors I spoke with already have products that can work with Home or are planning to add Home integration to their products in the near future.

While Amazon and now Alphabet are competing head-to-head for voice activation in the home, conspicuously absent in the space at CES were Apple and Microsoft—though that could soon change if rumors about Apple are true. Rumblings out of Cupertino indicate Apple is developing its own competitor to Alexa. Microsoft has its own voice-activated assistant engine called Cortana, but it is still unclear what the software giant’s strategy is in this part of the market and whether it wants to join a competitive hardware-cloud battle where it would likely start out as the number four player.

Other Connected Things: Mostly Incremental Gains

I saw mostly incremental advancements for smart thermostats, smart appliances, and numerous connected-smart lighting products on the show floor, which is not meant as a criticism. As manufacturers hone their skills, I would expect to see steady energy efficiency gains among these products as more sensors and data analytics combine to improve energy consumption. This kind of effort is difficult to achieve and takes time to develop.

Nonetheless, there was one notable product in terms of energy efficiency called LaDouche from French startup Solable. LaDouche is a residential water heater, and it was named as a CES 2017 Innovation Awards honoree for its heat exchange capability, which ostensibly can lower an electric hot-water bill by up to 80%. That is impressive (if it can be verified).

Voice Technology as Transformative

The 2017 CES was a showcase for voice technology as a transformative trend, and one that Navigant Research has pointed out as a key new input for the IoT and computing in general. This was CES’ 50th anniversary event, and the show remains one of the few places where transformative technology gets a megaphone and where one gets a glimpse of what potentially lies ahead in coming years—maybe even in the next 50. Flying cars—are you with me?

 

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