It has begun: The Consumer Electronics Show 2018—or, CES—is off to the races. The conference, in theory, is an ambitious forecast of what’s to come in tech in the next year and beyond. In practice, it’s something of a mix between a device-powered circus and a Best Buy on steroids. It’s difficult to connect the things you see at CES to the real world; though some of them will make it through to actual store (or online) shelves, many (many, many) will not see more than a niche consumer base. And as the show grows every year, more tech giants sit it out, preferring to launch the products we’re increasingly familiar with at their own events. Which means CES has fewer big-ticket items to see and draw insight from and an overwhelming amount of smaller would-be-could-be-influential technologies.
On one hand, that can be confusing. On the other, that can be fun. Either way, it propels the conversation about what we can expect from the future of technology as it affects our daily lives. Which gives us a great starting point: What is your big-picture forecast for tech in 2018? Product-wise or conceptually, what do you think we can expect? —Molly McHugh
Alyssa Bereznak: To me, artificial intelligence will most definitely be the star of the show this year. It seems like every smart appliance—from fridges to mirrors—now comes equipped with either Alexa or Google Home technology. And more than anything, the selling points of gadgets are less about high-resolution screens or immersive entertainment, and more about how a piece of technology can help you reduce friction in your life.
Victor Luckerson: That makes a lot of sense. Google is expected to have a big presence at CES for the first time in years (maybe ever?), and a big part of that should be showing off Google Home and its various living room/kitchen/car integrations.
McHugh: It’s weird because this has really been the heart of CES—and yes, tech in general—for years now, right? Some of it was dumb novelty stuff like “smart shoes” and “smart water bottles” (those are probably there this year too, mea culpa) but now it’s being implemented in a way that’s useful to regular people. I also think it has a lot to do with platform takeovers; like, you didn’t want some no-name AI built into your doorbell or whatever, but if everything is connected across large platforms like Google or Alexa, then you’re probably OK with it. And also, yes, Victor, great point: No, Google is not launching its next big whatever at CES, but it’s EVERYWHERE.
Bereznak: Right. Not to say that the Google and Alexa technologies aren’t frequently infuriating. (I speak from experience.)
McHugh: Slipping in as a platform is so much more sustainable than building hardware.
Kate Knibbs: Are there any smart-home products you guys would buy? I know they’re getting more ubiquitous, but I’m personally not quite sold on them.
McHugh: We have a security camera and alarm system from some random brand because my fiancé’s work van was stolen twice. It alerts us on our phones that we are in constant danger when in reality a car drove by our driveway. But it works! Also, I can tell you that everything looks scary on a security camera footage you look at through your phone.
Bereznak: Kate, that question gets at the very theoretical nature of CES. I live in an old pre–Civil War studio apartment in New York City, where it has taken me two months to get my landlord to fix a leaky radiator. Most of the smart-home products that exist aren’t compatible with my city lifestyle for a handful of depressing reasons. And I have a feeling a lot of other semi-broke, urban-dwelling millennials feel the same way. But I do have a Google Home, which I love.
Knibbs: I like the idea of a smart fridge, but I definitely cannot afford a smart fridge.
McHugh: Integrate Google Home into the Instant Pot! I would love that.
Bereznak: CAN YOU DO THAT?
McHugh: NOT YET. CES 2019! Wait, sorry—quitting my job and pitching this and becoming a millionaire.
Bereznak: Instant Pot engineers, if you’re listening, we’re counting on you.
McHugh: (Hello, it’s me, the person who got an IP for Christmas and is now incredibly annoying about it!)
Luckerson: I am looking forward to finally getting into a driverless car for the first time. I don’t think 2018 will necessarily be the year they go mainstream, but watching the tech inch along is fascinating.
McHugh: Yes, that’s exciting. I test drove a Tesla at an event once, but it was for about 60 seconds.
Was there anything you expected to be big in 2017 that flopped or that we lost interest in? Or did anything surprise you?
Bereznak: Virtual reality has a long way to go before it’s widely adopted. The required hardware for most games/social experiences is prohibitively expensive, and the whole “hanging out in VR” thing (brought to you by Facebook) still has a lot of questionable, uncomfortable aspects to it. Right now, the technology is sort of stuck in the gaming world, and it’s going to take a significant amount of time to appeal to non–Palmer Luckey types.
Knibbs: Yes, Alyssa, I was also going to say that 2017 convinced me that VR might never go super-mainstream.
Luckerson: Even in gaming, it hasn’t really taken off. The biggest gaming hit of 2017 was the Switch, not VR.
McHugh: I think my VR/AR expectations are just too high.
Knibbs: I was a little bit surprised that AR fizzled out after Pokémon Go.
Luckerson: The same company is making “Harry Potter Go,” so it’ll definitely be back.
McHugh: Someone tell Mal. My biggest surprises were narrower in scope I guess—but the HQ effect is wild. And also ... bitcoin.
Knibbs: Do you guys think HQ is a flash-in-the-pan? Or representative of a new trend toward interactive, phone-based entertainment?
Luckerson: … Games?
Knibbs: I guess I think of it as a cross between a game and a TV show on my phone.
Luckerson: I don’t see what makes HQ so special compared to Words With Friends or whatever.
McHugh: This makes me think of that Black Mirror episode where they had the American Idol–style show. (Everything reminds me of Black Mirror now, to be honest.)
Bereznak: I wrote about this in my profile of HQ host Scott Rogowsky, but I think any tech company whose success is so wrapped up in the personality of a single human might have trouble expanding. So much of the reason we love HQ has to do with the memes around its public-facing personality. I think that’s what launched it into otherworldly layers of viralness.
Luckerson: I feel like HQ is succeeding (with the press and, to some extent, with users) because there hasn’t been a fun, new, wildly popular app to play with since, like, Snapchat. So, there’s a novelty factor that I think wears off.
Speaking of novelty: What do you think is going to be the novelty scene-stealer at CES? A couple of years ago, it was that giant drone that never really became a consumer thing. Anything you’ve seen so far that might be like that?
McHugh: The Rocking Bed.
Bereznak: Oooh. Do tell.
McHugh: I have so little information on this it’s unfortunate you asked me. So: I believe it is an adult-sized rocking bed, like the one that had there for babies last year!
Knibbs: Like a bassinet for adults??
McHugh: I wrote about it a little in this story on sleep technology. It’s called Snoo, and it rocks your baby in this precise way so it would fall asleep more quickly. I sleep with a weighted blanket because I’m a terrible sleeper, so the rocking bed is up my alley.
Luckerson: Robots are always a good bet.
Bereznak: One cool thing I saw, which I am definitely going to test out, is a filter that can turn most liquids into clean water. That, and a device that analyzes your skin, decides how much moisturizer it needs, and applies it.
McHugh: I’m so skeptical of beauty tech!
Bereznak: Yeah, I always think of the makeup gun from that one episode of The Simpsons. Homer shoots it at Marge’s face and she looks like a clown. That’s probably what it’ll be like.
McHugh: That suitcase that rolls itself seems pretty “cool thing at CES, never gonna see it IRL.”
Bereznak: I am also excited about this smart Tupperware-like product, but I’m not convinced it will work. This would make my life significantly better for the sheer fact that it would make me feel less guilty for wasting food.
What will be the conversation coming out of CES? And even bigger-picture, what tone will that set for tech this year? What will we be talking about?
Bereznak: One thing that I always think about with these shows is how quickly companies skip ahead to the next big thing, far before the world is ready for it. The New York Times’ lead-up to CES mentions that many of these smart appliances would interact with one another much more efficiently once broadband companies debuted their 5G network technology. I remember the same kind of conversation was happening around 4K TVs when they first debuted a few years ago—no one was even filming in 4K yet! (And by the way, this year we’ll get 8K.) All of that is to say that the tech industry moves at lightning pace, ultimately leaving consumers to bear the brunt of frustrating mismatches between gadgets and the infrastructure that powers them.
McHugh: Totally. We get a glimpse at a lot of stuff that will work once X, Y, and Z happens. Bringing it back around to talking about AI and smart homes, it feels like there’s some catchup happening this year, you know? We saw “the smart home of the future!” for years at CES, but it was so conceptual and felt impossible. I think one thing we’ll take away is that the wide-scale platforms to enable this stuff are here now.
Luckerson: The biggest questions about 2018 and technology are political—whether net neutrality will be a driving issue in the midterm elections, whether Congress or the Justice Department will consider regulatory action against the tech giants, whether Donald Trump will ever get himself banned from Twitter.
McHugh: Oof, this last one seems like a definite “no.”
Knibbs: On the consumer side, I hope there are more fun kitchen gadgets like the Instant Pot. But in the big picture, my predictions for 2018 are pretty grim. I think Facebook and Google will continue to consolidate power as media companies; I don’t think regulatory action will be taken against them or Amazon or Apple; and I suspect we’re soon going to have another recession that will throw the whole industry out of whack. And as much as I’d like to see Trump off Twitter, you’re right—it’s not gonna happen.
Bereznak: Those AI-infused Instant Pots are going to be the only thing to comfort us in the forthcoming tech dystopia.