Devices, gadgets, robots, virtual worlds and selfie-sticks: some thoughts on CES

I recently attended my first ever CES show in Las Vegas. I was only there for a few days, and frankly, found it entertaining and useful. I know there are many SV folk who look down on CES. Oh well…I do plan to go back there next year if I can.

CES is a crazy place simply because there are so many people there. Long lines for taxis or shuttle buses, booked up hotel rooms from months in advance, ginormous exhibition hall floors and lecture halls from the Las Vegas Convention Center to the Sands Convention Center and Venetian. All mixed in with Las Vegas lights, music, casinos and street artists. I stayed two days, walked many miles equivalent each day and was pretty tired by the end of it.

IMHO CES is great for a few reasons:

  • It is a really a tremendous concentration of all things technology in one place. From next gen TV sets, cameras and robots to phones, PC peripherals, cars and gadgets. Some times one has to see the hundreds upon hundreds of companies innovating in technology to realize SV is not alone in moving technology forward, and there is tremendous supply and demand from consumers all around the world. Some of the most interesting companies I met there frankly came from Israel and France.
  • Unlike some other conferences, one can actually see founders and senior executives of companies often on the exhibition floors or in nearby vicinity. Its not just marketing folk surrounded by booth babes (ugh!).
  • CES is not just about large tech companies and their megabooths. Its also about the little guys tucked away in corners who might be doing something unconventional, something that may not make news this year but is bound to see more attention in the future. At the same time, major sponsors like Intel had actually also opened up much of their booth spaces to smaller startups that had incorporated their technology in the products.
  • So many different types of people attend CES. I met several fellow VCs, CEOs, product development folk, marketing consultants, young and old consumers, Las Vegas locals, and press/media. It was interesting to be able to somewhat compare and contrast the opinions formed by different people on the same products.
  • Its not a bad place to meet people if planned in advance. I mostly met people who live further away from SV – people from the East coast, Canada, Europe, and as far away as Russia.

Some other observations even though there are excellent CES summaries now published online.

  • TVs occupied a huge space. Everything was 4K and above. Curved TVs still occupied shelf space but it was clear their use-case is unclear to even inventors themselves, and most TVs touted some level of connectivity. God only knows how many different Asian TV manufacturers were there, and fwiw, it would be hard for someone to tell a difference if they had slapped a more well-known label across their product. Some companies showed off glass-less 3D TVs as well, but they stayed a novelty. TV industry is certainly grasping for something to hang on to as its share of our attention erodes.

  • Virtual reality was present in full bloom. It wasn’t about the devices themselves as much as it was about experiences created within VR. From shared VR experiences to flying drones inside VR. Some interesting 360-degree camera systems were on display as well for video filming from 3D/VR/immersive content.
  • There were dozens of drones and drone-related companies. While US continues to muck around with the FAA regulations, drone companies are sprouting elsewhere in the world, esp in Asia. In fairness, besides DJI and Parrot, US companies still seemed to have a lead on hardware, software, UI and applicability of the small drones.
  • There was a gigantic section showing of Internet of Things devices and systems. One could not have counted how many such companies were present. Many still remained as point solutions (use an app to turn a device on/off/measure etc). I think as far as VC investments go, we may be reaching past the stage of “lets connect this device to the internet”. Next up is how these devices perform important tasks together by exploiting their collective intelligence and networking. Nest, IFTTT, Smart Things etc are early experiments in that space.
  • I was honestly a bit disappointed to see the fitness trackers/health device spaces. I may have missed some important sections otherwise what I saw was unimpressive. I am not sure what utility there is any more in simple fitness trackers embedded inside fancy looking watches and devices. We need better vitals, better integration between devices and what physicians might know/measure periodically, and then AI engines to help translate all the body of knowledge into actionable insights.
  • There were several robotics companies but only a few stood out. I don’t fully understand the market opportunity around simple remote presence systems but some of those companies had a significant presence (e.g. Suitable Technologies). Their systems certainly entertained the audience for at least a short while.
  • One thing that really stood out at CES was the need for distance wireless charging systems. Unfortunately I did not see a good solution. Witricity had a big booth, and given the company has been in stealth for years, I expect to be more wow’ed by their product manifestations than I actually was. It feels they might have an int’g business in licensing their technology to larger product companies, but much work remains to be done to turn it into something that leaves consumer with a ‘wow’ experience.
  • 3D printing has certainly come of age and now a well understood, growing field. Small printers showed how to print in composite materials, including carbon fibers, and there were plenty of companies utilizing 3D printing to mass customize their products. This trend will not stop and investing behind it is probably a wise thing to do. At Lux we continue to look for opportunities downstream in the 3D printing value chain.
  • Some other interesting technologies were around cameras/imaging (certainly mobile is eating the DSLR world which is shriveling back to really high end systems mostly for professionals), gesture recognition & eye-tracking systems for use in gaming and VR, heads up displays for cars are definitely slowly making their way towards becoming commercially available, novelty items like heated shoes, solar bag-packs etc, and tons of phone cases, screen protectors, and ah-yes, the selfie sticks! If you think of a product, somebody likely has something at CES in that category. And its more likely to be a Chinese company than from anywhere else.

I am sure CES is not for everyone. Sometimes it reminded of my visits to crowded Japanese electronics malls in Tokyo, but I actually enjoyed those places as well….so maybe I am an odd person who enjoys such setups, but it was certainly a useful spend of my time. I hope there will be Uber there next year!