People in bodysuits dancing around while their on-screen avatars mirror their every move. Machines that look like they store coffee pods but actually diffuse a variety of scents throughout the room. 3D printers that print not in plastic, but in chocolate. Screen upon giant bendable screen pumping out 8K video of waves and colors that give one a few moments of fear and loathing. Enveloping Las Vegas, the Consumer Electronics Show, colloquially known as CES, is an onslaught for the senses. (Contact Us to receive information about the 2020 Insights Association CES Excursion.)

While it’s a lot to distill, looking back at what I experienced there as part of the Insights Association group, four key trends (dare I say, buzzwords) were omnipresent. Speakers and exhibitors, ranging from companies as prominent as IBM and Samsung to startups that you’ve never heard of (and may never hear of) seemed locked in on capitalizing on these trends that in many ways underpin the future of consumer tech.

5G

Most people probably don’t know much about what “G” is, other than maybe recalling years of ads for cell phones touting their 3G and 4G networks.“G” means generation, thus 5G will be the 5th generation of wireless technology. Without getting too far into the weeds here, 5G opens up, or at least promises to open up, massively faster speeds and much more efficient cellular data transmission.For the past few decades, cellular tech has been mostly focused on connecting people.But the future lies in also connecting things or devices, ensuring they can communicate with each other.And 5G makes much of this communication – and the consumer facing tech displayed at the show - possible. Increased speed, power, and connectivity relies on a network to support it and that network is almost here.

AI

If you haven’t heard about AI, Artificial Intelligence, I’d like to congratulate you on successfully making it through the past year living in a cave (and also wonder how you are reading this). Certainly the most ubiquitous trend at CES, AI seemed to be everywhere, so much that it seemed a contractual obligation to be mentioned in all talks and marketing material just to get in the door. While on the surface that can be a bit annoying as I wonder if an AI-driven “smart couch” should really be a thing, it’s clear that the promise of AI is actually coming to fruition. If you enjoy going down rabbit holes, I’ll invite you to enter the discussion about what AI is/isn’t, but to sum it up (too) simply it is the ability to analyze, consistently learn from, and layer on accurate intelligence to data at both speed and scale.In the near future, if not present for some, AI will do relatively “simple” things for consumers, like control one’s home environment, such as lights, temperature, smells, sounds, based on external data like the weather and observed patterns like how you control your devices. More impressively, as IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and Delta CEO Ed Bastian discussed, AI can have a massive economic impact, such as utilizing data from weather stations and cellular devices to optimize plane routes in real time. And as Unilever CMO Keith Weed said, AI has the possibility to improve marketing by making sense of the glut of data that “otherwise will just sit in a pile.” While I think in a few years we’ll talk much less about AI as it becomes just the common tech that makes our lives possible (we don’t talk much about electricity, do we?), the interest level now from both brands and consumers has never been higher.

Blockchain

Let’s face it, all of the cool kids these days are talking about blockchain, whether they understand what it is or not. What it is, again in brief, is a distributed and shared immutable ledger. What do those words mean? Essentially blockchain allows for transactions or interactions to be digitally logged in a way that is unchangeable, traceable, and readily accessible by those with permission to do so. While perhaps the most talked about applications are in the financial space with cryptocurrency (sorry about your Bitcoin investment, by the way), the largely behind the scenes technology of blockchain will impact consumers in a very real way. As Charles Redfield, EVP of Food for Walmart shared, blockchain is being used to ensure food safety. Tracing food, or any type of goods for that matter, from producer to transporter to store to sale in an accurate and accessible manner is made possible by blockchain in a way that simply hasn’t been possible before. Do you want to ensure the diamond you purchase is actually conflict free? Want to know if that latte actually comes from coffee sourced from organic and sustainable coffee farms? Blockchain can do that too, providing a level of trust and transparency increasingly important to consumers.

AR/VR

A few years ago, for Christmas I got a Samsung Gear VR headset, the one where you strap your phone into the front of goggles.It was pretty cool. I virtually rode some roller coasters, played some fun if also pixelated games for a few weeks, and then put it away and basically forgot about it. While it has been collecting dust, many companies have been focused on improving this technology. VR, Virtual Reality, involves transporting someone digitally into another space in an attempt to immerse them in something other than their actual surroundings, usually by strapping a headset and headphones onto one’s head.AR, Augmented Reality, adds some sort of digital elements to what you are seeing in the physical environment around you (think Pokemon Go). While it’s important to understand these distinctions, though I’ll admit I’m going to do what annoys some here, conflating AR and VR and their current and future states. If I had a nickel for every exhibitor touting some sort of AR/VR headset, I could buy, well, a coffee, but some of that expensive blockchain-verified coffee.

I was especially impressed by how much better VR tech has gotten. While most of the use cases seemed pure entertainment like fighting trolls or shooting basketballs in an immersive digital experience, there were more practical applications on display as well, such as occupational training or meditation.AR tech, also much improved, and seemingly with more potential for transforming everyday experience, was largely focused on fun. It was fun to blast semi-holographic fish (though I don’t know what the fish did to me to deserve this) without the disorientation that comes with full VR. It was interesting to be able to wear glasses and see planets superimposed over what I was actually seeing and envision this as a teaching tool. While AR/VR tech is constantly improving, it still seems to still exist on a gamer-enthusiast fringe. I can envision a future where people wear AR glasses or VR headsets in everyday life, but I’m not sure when it’s going to get there. Cue Black Mirror.

It behooves those who conduct consumer research, especially those focused on technology, to keep abreast of emerging tech trends because they constantly change and create the world around us. And beyond this, there are related trends and developments specifically relevant to how research is conducted and will be conducted in the future. For more on that, stay tuned…

(Contact Us to receive information about the 2020 Insights Association CES Excursion.)