CES 2015: Brands fail to deliver meaning in a connected world

Russell Blanchard

A record number of visitors attended the recent International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas for an inside look at the latest gadgets and technology trends. And, much like the experience in 2014, what they found was a lot of talk and hype – without much substance or meaning – around wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT). While some brands are taking smart steps forward, most continue to miss the mark on what it takes to create truly meaningful connected devices and experiences.

That’s because while many companies have figured out how to create functional products that capture data about our lives, too few have figured out how to turn the data into meaning. Below are the top five trends we saw at CES – along with some advice for brands if they want to break through the clutter and emerge as key players in our connected future.

1. Multi-product strategies = holistic user experiences.

In the past, brands with multi-product, multi-platform brand strategies were few and far between. You would never expect one company to make, say, a weigh scale, a watch, a blood pressure monitor, a home security camera and a bedside lamp. In fact, if they did, you probably questioned its credibility. However, in this new world of connected devices, the fact that brands have the potential to offer so many different types of products is actually an exciting shift – if done well.

Withings, a smart device maker focused on improving health, stood out at CES with its multi-product brand strategy. Withings’ products are all connected around the central benefit of improving your health. In the ‘un-connected’ past, if you wanted to understand and take control of your health, you probably had to do it by engaging with multiple brands across different touchpoints. You might have purchased a scale from the local Target, a blood pressure device from your doctor, a security camera system from Home Depot, and a watch … well, watches didn’t do anything but tell the time back then. The point is: consumers had to put up with fractured brand experiences. The products, while connected through your intent to be healthier, could not talk to one another nor capture data, and they probably all looked and behaved in different ways.

The most exciting thing about the IoT is that these once-disparate experiences now have the potential to speak a common language, share a common look and feel, and share behavioral characteristics. In short, the chance of enjoying a well-designed holistic experience that considers all the details of using products is much higher, and that’s great for consumers. The trouble is: too few companies are doing this well. Truly useful connected experiences will only come about when data is accessible, shareable and can offer people meaning across multiple brand platforms.

2. Connected home: elegant environmental control or frustrating rats nest?

Just like in 2014, the connected home was all the rage at CES this year. Sensors on doors, windows, AC vents, TVs, coffeemakers, blinds, beds, baby pacifiers, light bulbs … the list went on and on. But the same issue remains: most of these products don’t speak to or work with one another. In fact, our connected future may quickly turn into the most confusing and irritating version of human life we have ever encountered. The reason? Every device not only has its own communication language, but also competes with other devices to capture your attention.

Of course, there can be many interesting benefits to a smarter home if accompanied by a smarter way to engage with, control, and enjoy those benefits. Savant Systems is doing a really nice job of cleaning up this side of the experience with a well-designed smart home app that offers homeowners a very intuitive overview of all of the systems in their home on one iPad screen. The UI, full of user generated visuals of each room for easy identification, is a smart way to create a single, common UI language for a better smart home experience. However, there are still technology limitations that will have to be overcome such as finding a way to work with Nest. Until then, consumers will still have to use separate apps to talk with each system, which no one really wants to do.

This wave of trying to connect everything to the Internet is not over yet. There are still many areas in the home that have not had any ‘smarts’ added. This overall home experience is begging for a common interaction language to make all of the systems work smarter – and together – for a truly enjoyable and meaningful smart home experience.

3. Drones are here to stay, but why?

One thing seems certain: drones will be part of our technological future. Right now, though, they’re a bit like wearables: somewhat cool and definitely fun, but what are we actually going to do with them?

The amount of unmanned systems at CES was staggering. And while I admit I had a go on some of them, no one has yet figured out how we make them more than novelty toys. One of the more compelling use cases so far is an extreme sports tracking drone called Squadrone System, which is a flying camera that follows and films you autonomously. This is actually a pretty cool idea and an obvious extension for the GoPros of the world. You could easily imagine a future where drones become our family photographers and capture special moments in Truman Show-style. But even then, drone technology faces an uphill battle in seamlessly integrating into our everyday lives. Until they can operate as invisible, silent helpers, their future will likely be tied to the outdoor sports industries.

4. Fashionables?

To make wearable technology more attractive to a wider range of people, some companies are partnering with fashion or jewelry brands (FitBit+Tory Burch, Misfit+Swarovski, Garmin+Jonathan Adler) to make a more cosmetically-appropriate shell for the technology module that goes inside. Although the cosmetic shell approach may seem superficial, it actually represents a much more flexible world where people can interact with technology and continue their healthy lifestyle without the technology defining them or their sense of style.

Wearables for women are getting most of the design attention in the space. The Mira wearable, inspired by women athletes, is one of the more hybrid wearable options for health tracking that is a nice blend of a fashion meets technology aesthetic. Its medical grade-forged and machined steel bracelet feels high quality and durable. However, the plastic electronics bubble that snaps in the top still looks like it belongs on a TV remote from the 1980s versus the wrist of a modern athletic woman.

There might be opportunity to create a new type of wearable for women that is a true blend of fashion and technology and would embody a new design language that is equal parts strong athlete and tech enabled. This may be untapped territory, but the more flexible approach (while a little superficial) is the fashion shell. With this approach, consumers have the choice of many different fashion brand-designed shells to house the internal electronics that do the tracking and talk with their smartphones. The Intel Curie module is a great example of discretely integrating technology into a modern wardrobe.

5. Interaction with digital experiences.

Touching content through a thin piece of glass has been the norm since the first iPhone. We are now touching more and more content through glass on tablets – and even on watch faces. The new wave of LG smart watches are impressive if not only for the round plastic OLED display with incredible color and vibrance, but also the fact that it’s a full screen (no dead zone at the bottom) that can even have holes in it. However, it feels like a small smartphone on your wrist with a strap added. While this might seem fun for some, it doesn’t represent a thorough understanding of how most people want to interact with content on their wrists.

The more interesting play is the Withings Activité watch, which has no digital display at all. Future wearable technology can learn from this approach of providing meaningful benefits of technology without letting the technology dominate the aesthetic of the product. Hopefully, the future will have fewer displays that demand our attention. And as we move away from the visual medium of interacting with digital content we will have to pioneer the virtually untapped communication channels of sound, haptics (vibration) and gesture. These alternative methods are new frontiers for new types of experiences around wearable technology that will hopefully be more human while still engaging and useful.

Until next year…

It’s clear that our lives will become more connected than ever before. It’s also clear that new interaction languages and modalities is where companies will have to innovate. We have figured out how to capture data about our lives; now let’s design the language and platforms that can take that data from numbers and charts and turn it into meaningful suggestions, recommendations and, eventually, real-time coaching to help us all live the lives we want.