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Retail Evolution

Quick Impressions of CES2018 and What It Hints About Tomorrow's World

Peter Angeline, PhD
Sr. Manager Hershey Labs & Technologist

I had the luck to attend the 2018 Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas last week. And besides a bad cold, came back with many thoughts about the current trends and the Consumer's life of the near future.

Let me say up front that the most impactful and interesting booth I visited during my 3 days of wandering this tech wonderland was Netflix's promotion of an upcoming show called "Altered Carbon". I won't go through all the details, but the booth theme was a company that would download your consciousness into a flesh covered robot. They presented it very much like a real company might, and I admit, for a brief moment, I wasn't sure what was going on. That delicious moment of disorientation was my favorite CES2018 experience.

Assisted Living 

One of the most obvious trends is the explosion of robots of all ilk for the home. Roomba watch out because everyone is coming for this space with a myriad of mechanics. Robots big and small that do specific chores to make life just that much easier. 

At this point though, it seems like its heading towards a modern kitchen with a specific contraption built for each special purpose. While a kitchen might be able to support a Fry Baby and a Foreman Grill and a Food Processor and a junk drawer full of all the latest kitchen gadgets you thought would make cooking more of a pleasure, the rest of the house could get very crowded at early adopter homes. Bots to sweep, bots to read to the kids, bots to inform you and entertain you. Soon, I fear, we will move from "There's an app for that" to "There's a Bot for that" 

One macro-trend in this space that seems very interesting is the increasing focus on the bookends of our lives, namely Senior care and Child care. A number of bots are targeted to provide companionship and safety to the young and old of society, allowing the rest of us a modicum of additional time to navigate our busy lives. In the Senior space, this seems ideal. Grandma doesn't want to move out of her house so her kids get her a bot to talk to, monitor her, and call for help if and when necessary. But, to my mindset, similar efforts in the children's and teen's space seem slightly worrisome. Bots to read to and otherwise entertain kids, to monitor them, sensors you place right on your baby so you can be alerted when something is not as it should be, all seem harmless at first. Taken together, they may signal a slow progression to relegating some portions of parenting to automata. Could the Digital Native Generation be followed by the Bot Baby Generation? Time will tell.

Frictionless Food

Smartphones and Millennials have been significant players in the major upheavals currently experienced in the broader food industry. "What I want, Where I want it. Whenever I want it" is the rallying cry for the emerging generations and CES 2018 showed a myriad of mechanics built to serve that perspective. We used to think pop-up stores on street corners and small delivery drones were the thing, and to some degree they still are. But this year we saw those ideas begin to merge. Autonomous stores are coming. Specialty vans filled with produce and goods that drives to your door so you can pick out what you need on your doorstep. Forgot chives for your famous chicken salad and you don't have time to hop in the car and get them? No problem, the store will come to you.

Much like in the Amazon world, boxed consumer food products are easy to sell online and include in curbside pickup and home delivery solutions. But there's an element of trust required in those models when it comes to unprocessed, unpackaged products like produce and raw meats. Having the butcher shop, or the cheese shop, or the farmer's market roll right up to your door keeps the power of personal selection in the hands of the consumer so they feel like they got the best apple and not that the bag boy at the market picked the worst one of the bunch. And, maybe more interestingly, allows for the all important impulse buy! Look for brands to fight for space in these food trucks of the future!

That's Entertainment

Of course, the most interesting, expensive and glamorous booths were saved for all manner of consumer entertainment solutions. TVs, TVs and more TVs!!!! TV Walls! TVs that were as thin as a mounted poster. 4k and 8k TVs. Amorphous projection TVs that needed very little space but could project over most of a living room wall. Gorgeous screens and images everywhere. A fever-dream of photons wizzing in all directions!

Among the jungle of LED, OLED and other pixel describing acronyms, the standout new tech was the TV screen that doubled as a speaker. Since you have this big beautiful monitor to watch your favorite show, it would be a shame to attach tiny tinny speakers on the sides. And buying any of the awesome soundbars or companion speaker sets on the market can make for a wire and power cord mess in your otherwise slick setup. The current solution, make the monitor's screen the resonant surface for sound. What's more, having an area means you can emit the sounds from any portion of the screen, moving from stereo to an actual 2D resonant area. So a bird on the left of the screen has its sound emitted from the left of the screen while the bird on the right from the right. It was hard in all the noise and confusion of the floor to fully grasp any level of realism this technology added to the experience, but it seems like it had potential.

Voice is the New Remote

As everyone should have expected, all manner of voice control was in all manner of appliance. Really not surprising that everything from TVs to toasters will try voice control. While this level of voice integration will ultimately fail (in my view there will be a single, central voice recognition system and protocols like IFTTT extended to run everything in the house, including the toaster) it does serve to emphasize the basic point that voice and natural language will be as fundamental a change to technology as the mouse and touchscreen.

There was a plethora of other technologies that are worth noting, but those above, and the many details about them I couldn't easily share here, will stick with me as I do my work this year.