The launch this week of our Big Bang Disruption book added significant urgency to our annual search for the biggest disruptors at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
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After all, the book’s principal argument is that continuing exponential improvements in price and performance of core component technologies—including computers and broadband networks—has led to dramatically accelerated entry for new products and services that create new markets overnight, even as they devastate old ones.
We fully expected to come across an exciting range of new examples, many of which hadn’t even been thought of last year.
Sure enough, among the record-setting 3,000+ exhibitors and two million square feet of exhibit space that overtook much of Las Vegas this week, we found dozens of innovative technologies offered by start-ups and incumbents alike, each with the strong potential to rewrite the rules of one or more market sectors. The range of industries participating in this show reinforced our belief that today every business is a digital business and every consumer a digital consumer.
This year’s winners all meet our definition of a Big Bang Disruptor. They offer consumers a better and cheaper way to do—well, to do nearly everything, from opening their front door (smart keys) to piloting autonomous aircraft (aka drones) to not driving their cars because the cars are doing the driving for them.
Thanks to the continuing decline in cost for basic technologies, a robust ecosystem for experimentation, the availability of recombinable component parts, and tools for global sourcing, many of the technologies we highlighted last year area even better, cheaper and more customizable than they were when we last saw them.
Often, they were also smaller and require less power–though energy was itself a major category of disruptor this year.
One source of overall disruption is the proliferation of so many new devices, which has the happy side effect of creating tremendous economies of scale for manufacturers of basic components. Corning demonstrated Gorilla Glass 3.0, for example, which is even more durable and now includes antimicrobial protection.
And with so many new uses for each preceding generation of display technology, manufacturers have ample incentive to continue pushing the envelope on quality and features. We saw remarkable demonstrations of next-generation 4K displays, known as UltraHD, especially from Samsung, as well as continued improvements in 3D display technology from LG and others.
In the Internet of Things, last year’s standout product was Belkin’s WeMo, a range of simple-to-use attachments that allow consumers to program basic behaviors (e.g., on/off) for their electrical devices.
Belkin has continued improving and expanding on a winning formula, which included giving its customers access to a visual interface to create “If This Then That” recipes for controlling their home devices.
Now WeMo is offering the WeMo Maker kit, which can be used to convert many electrical devices powered by DC transformers into programmable appliances.
Power your irrigation control unit through a WeMo Maker, for example, and suddenly you can program it through a smartphone interface. “WeMo gave users a sandbox to experiment with software,” WeMo Assistant Product Manager Jake Whisler told us. “Now we’re giving them a sandbox for hardware.”
3D Printing, which had just crossed over into consumer-friendly devices last year, has also exploded into widespread use in less than a year. The number of 3D printer exhibitors went from two or three last year to a few dozen this year. Analysts expect worldwide shipments of mass market 3D printers, already a billion dollar business, will nearly double from last year to almost 100,000 units in 2014 and double again in 2015. A home 3D Printer is now available for as little as $500.
One innovative variation we saw came from Mcor Technologies, which uses ordinary copier paper as a medium to create 3D objects designed by the consumer. Instead of printing them using thermoplastic filament , the IRIS carves the object out of paper, gluing the pages together and coloring them as it goes. The result is effectively a wooden artifact. It will even decompose naturally if discarded.
So much for the preliminaries. Here is our list of the five most disruptive innovations for CES 2014:
1. Embedded sensors – Thanks in large part to the smartphone revolution, innovators worldwide now have access to a wide range of low-cost microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), including accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers. It’s now easy and cheap to embed sensors into every physical product imaginable, fueling explosive growth for the Internet of Things—the most talked-about trend at CES this year.
Soon, the price of MEMS technology will be so cheap that it will be cost-effective to add them to even the most mundane objects, including clothing, as we saw in prototypes of smart fabrics from Cityzen Sciences.
Or consider Kolibree, a sensor-embedded toothbrush that sends data–as many embedded devices do—directly to your smartphone. A few off-the-shelf sensors and your toothbrush can now tell you how long you brushed, where you missed, and how you can improve the effectiveness of your brushing. All valuable data to back you up when you are getting chastised by your dentist.
Another early-stage sensor application we saw at CES’s “Eureka Park”—space reserved for start-ups and experimental technologies—was the PulseWallet, which uses a biometric reader made by Fujitsu to uniquely identify a user based on a three-dimensional reading of a single vein in her palm. More secure than even a fingerprint scan, the PulseWallet is being designed to facilitate mobile payments by linking the user’s palm print to stored credit card information. No pin, no card needed.
2. Wearables: The Internet of You – An incredible range of new products have appeared this year that collect information about you and your body–technologies that are poised to revolutionize the massive healthcare sector, especially for aging populations. Accenture’s Digital Consumer Tech Survey 2014, released at CES, reveals significant market opportunities in wearable technologies. More than half of consumers are interested in buying wearables, including fitness products, smart watches, and connected eyeglasses.
This year, the MEMS revolution has translated to wearables and other embedded technologies that can monitor and offer feedback for an expanded range of vital signs and new metrics.
Products from iHealth and Withings, for example, include sensor-based technologies that can measure and report your pulse, blood pressure, sleep environment, weight and even glucose levels for patients with diabetes. Another new product, the JUNE bracelet from Netatmo (expected later this year) monitors your exposure to sunlight and alerts you when you need to apply sunscreen or put on sunglasses.
Many of these early-stage products take advantage of the shrinking cost and size of sensors to embed monitoring technology into everyday objects that currently don’t have much if any built-in intelligence.
Beddit, for example, is a sleep tracker and coach. The product is a lightweight flat strip that goes under the sheets on your bed. It’s available for pre-order now for $149, perhaps a bargain for those looking to improve their sleep without resorting to much more expensive alternatives.
How about sensors in your shoes? An early-stage start-up called Veristride, working under a grant from the National Science Foundation, is developing unobtrusive shoe-based technology that will measure and provide active feedback on how well you walk.
The product is initially being developed to help amputees adjust to their prosthetic limbs, but future applications could easily include helping retrain patients after joint replacements or stroke, or to provide warnings to older adults who may be in imminent danger of falling.
3. Exponential Energy – Electronic and computer components aren’t the only technology exhibiting exponential improvements in price and performance. Many alternative energy technologies are also becoming better, cheaper, and smaller. We saw dozens of new uses for solar power and improved storage batteries for charging other devices, in many cases without the need for cables and plugs.
Examples here ranged from the small to the enormous. In the greatly expanded automotive section of the show, for example, Toyota’s exhibit included a concept car fueled entirely by liquid hydrogen tanks. Ford demonstrated the C-Max Solar Energi, which can recharge its battery using solar panels on the roof of the vehicle instead of plugging in.
At the smaller end, an explosion of new portable energy technologies are appearing to help keep our growing supply of rechargeable mobile devices and other electronics running for longer periods away from a plug.
In some cases, mobile rechargers are being embedded into smartphone and tablet cases, such as the Mophie Space Pack, which we were told carries up to three full charges for a smartphone and extra memory in a surprisingly thin case. Acoustic Research’s Zipstick, Phonesuit’s Flex Pocket Chargers, and similar products come in the form of lightweight attachments that can recharge device batteries on the go. Ningbo Jiye Electrical Co., Ltd from China offered a solar-powered smartphone charging case for as little as $15.
4. Driverless vehicles – There’s a great deal of buzz about driverless cars, following eye-opening experiments begun in 2009 by Google and others. In reality, automakers have been using technology to make vehicles more autonomous for years, including everything from anti-lock brakes to automatic parking.
Of course, calling them driverless cars is like calling the first automobiles “horseless carriages”—we still don’t even have a word for what is to come in driving automation. But whatever it is, it’s coming soon.
Here an impressive innovation we saw came from an incumbent, Mercedes-Benz, which demonstrated a completely automated vehicle that retains its stylishness. Rather than using a rotating laser range finder on the roof of the car as Google does, Mercedes’ demonstration vehicle relies on miniature cameras positioned around the vehicle, and can manage traffic lights, intersections, pedestrians and other vehicles.
As a company representative told us, the engineering of automated vehicles is not the issue. “From a hardware perspective,” he said, “it’s already there.” The real constraint now on expanding automated driving is legal. Governments around the world are grappling with appropriate new rules for testing and deploying these new technologies.
And the stakes are high. Advanced vehicle automation could result in far safer travel, reduced traffic, and greater energy efficiency, among other benefits.
Among other impressive developments in autonomous vehicles, Parrot demonstrated lightweight drone aircraft called MiniDrones and Jumping Sumos, which can be programmed, or rather choreographed, with remarkable precision. They’re expected to sell for under $300.
Today, most consumer drones are being sold as toys. But future applications in public safety, environmental monitoring, package delivery and agriculture, just to name a few, may be only a few years away.
5. Immersive Interfaces – Last year, in a suite far from the conventional floor, we got an early look at the Oculus Rift, a prototype of virtual reality gaming goggles that was launched only a few months before on Kickstarter. The company has continued to develop its technology, and a new 1080p OLED prototype, code-named Crystal Cove, won the official CES “Best of the Best” award as the consumer electronics product of the year.
Winning best of show with a prototype is quite an achievement, but that’s not the only indication that the makers of Oculus Rift are on to a true Big Bang Disruptor. Thanks to its open interface and developer tools, other companies are already building extensions and non-gaming applications for the goggles, creating an Oculus Rift ecosystem.
Middleware producer SoftKinetic, for example, has attached depth and gesture recognition cameras onto the Oculus Rift goggles, allowing the user’s hand motions to translate into real-time manipulation of objects in the 3D space. Intel is embedding SoftKinetic’s technology for what it calls RealSense, which could someday facilitate virtual design and other fine motor manipulations, including medical applications.
Among other advances in natural user interfaces we saw, the most promising include eye tracking technologies that allow users to work with computers without relying so heavily on their hands. Last year, for example, we met with the developers of Tobii, a Swedish company working on products that replace basic mouse functions with simple eye movements. Tobii had a much larger booth this year—and a modestly-priced development kit for third parties to build applications for their Tobii EyeX technology.
Like Tobii and Veristride, many of our examples fall squarely into the early market experiment stage of Big Bang Disruption. That means many–perhaps most of them–will never make it to mainstream success. But even those that don’t succeed send a strong signal to incumbents of imminent disruption when some entrepreneur hits on the right combination of new technologies and business model.
That is, for incumbents who are listening. As the number of innovators working with new technologies continues to expand, that better include everybody.
See you next year.