The four technologies that really mattered at CES 2017

Sure, drones are cool—but voice-recognition technology and smart security are where the real business opportunities are

Norton’s Core router

Norton’s Core router, unveiled at CES. With homes filling up with Internet-connected gadgets, data security for the home is now heating up. (Norton)

Nearly 4,000 vendors powered down their gadgets on Sunday as the annual Consumer Electronic Show (CES) drew to close after four long days of sensory overload and tech euphoria.

While drones, autonomous cars, and virtual and augmented reality devices may have dominated the show (and the headlines), a handful of game-changing innovations made their debut or came of age this year. Here, we look at four trends emerging from CES 2017 that could actually shape technology and business in the years ahead.

Voice-activated everything

Developers have made huge strides in voice-recognition technology. Between 2013 and 2016, the word error rate of voice-detection went from 23% to just 5%. This progress has paved the way for platforms like Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa, and it’s the reason we may swap typing and swiping for talking to our devices this year.

“The human-computer speech interface is the next big thing,” says Nigel Fenwick, a digital business and technology analyst with Forrester, who says Alexa and similar systems were integrated with just about everything on the floor: refrigerators, light fixtures, house-keeping robots, security cameras, door locks, cars, speakers and headphones, shower heads, air conditioners, and the list goes on and on. “At one time, touch screen was a significant move forward,” Fenwick adds, “but actually getting that conversational interaction is going to be the next big stride forward in terms of human-machine interface.”

Voice recognition is also becoming more affordable. The two leading smart home controllers, Google Home and Amazon Echo, are both priced under US$200. And as more devices become embedded with voice recognition capabilities, prices are expected to creep down across the board.

Smart security

While not the sexiest toys at the convention, data security devices are among the most useful innovations that debuted at CES. With every new gadget or appliance we connect to the internet, we increase our risk for cyber attacks. In October, for example, hackers took information from over 100,000 Internet of Things (IoT) devices and used it to block traffic on sites like Netflix, Twitter, and Spotify. While the offence is unsettling, it’s minor compared to what’s possible when hackers can crack Internet-enabled door locks.

Norton is one company trying to preempt nefarious attacks on smart home devices. At CES, the firm introduced Core, which uses machine learning to protect connected homes against malware, viruses, and hackers through the home’s Wi-Fi connection. If it notices suspicious activity on a thermostat or baby monitor, for example, Core notifies the owner and isolates the threat by blocking the compromised device from the rest of the network.

Core is slated for release this summer, but Bill McCabe, software security consultant and owner of SoftNet Search Partners, says it will take some time (and potentially more attacks) before a majority of consumers shell out the cash for IoT home security. “A lot of consumers still don’t understand the ways we might be affected by this,” he says. “[Devices like Core] are bringing the issues to the forefront, but we haven’t totally solved them yet.”

Everlasting battery life

Our pursuit of sleeker, faster devices often means sacrificing battery life—something consumers are increasingly not okay with. In a survey from 2015, 33% of respondents said that “improved battery life” was the number one thing they looked for in a new smartphone. Developers are heeding the demand. HP bucked the trend of thin laptops with its 15-inch Spectre X360, a thicker model than its predecessor, owing to a bigger battery. And hype around the ZenFone 3, which Asus showcased at the event, is largely centered on the fact its battery can last up to 42 days (the iPhone 6 holds a charge for about a day and a half with moderate use), and function as a charger for other devices.

It’s not just the sheer size of batteries that’s changing; the way we charge them is evolving, too. Dell’s Latitude 7285 computer, for example, is powered by a wireless charging pad. Ford launched a pilot program to install cordless charging pads in garages and other parking spaces to power up electric cars. Meanwhile, Energous’ WattUp charging system uses radio frequencies to transmit power to devices through the air. WattUp contends its radio frequency technology is much faster than competing systems that rely on magnetic energy. That said, the WattUp charger currently needs to be within a few centimetres of a device in order to work properly, but the company is working to expand the distance to 15 feet.

Assistive Technology

Most tech companies tend to overlook how people with disabilities can effectively use new gadgets. Take touch screens, for example. The technology is often easier to use than a keyboard or mouse—except, of course, if you’re visually impaired. In that case, tactile feedback is incredibly useful. Companies are catching on to this, says Fenwick at Forrester, noting myriad “haptic” technology devices at CES this year. That includes touch screens that generate texture to emulate dials and other objects that you can feel.

Ultrahaptics pairs gesture technology with tactile feedback by using ultrasonic waves that cause the user’s skin to vibrate, creating the illusion of touching buttons or other physical objects and allowing users to control devices seemingly in mid-air. “Gesture technology alone is hard,” says Fenwick, particularly for the visually impaired. “You can’t feel or see what’s happening. Now you’ve got that immediate feedback as well, and that can make life a lot easier.”