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While this year’s CES may have lacked any big announcements or disasters (see Michael Bay at Samsung last year), the size (170,000+ people) and diversity of this event never ceases to amaze. The big themes included wearables, health and wellness, connected cars, drones, smart homes, virtual reality and 3D printing. Not unlike last year, in fact, exactly the same, but the lengthening long tail of hardware was very much in evidence at CES with some eccentric products on show, illustrating how the Internet of Everything really is as all encompassing as the name suggests.

ABI Research’s analyst pounded the show floor in search of new technologies and the progress of the old, returning home with the usual memories of sore feet and a series of glamorous lunches on a corridor floor next to an overflowing bin. In terms of a review of the show, let’s start with….

The Good

Real and Compelling Use Cases

  •  Epson Movario – Google Smartglass hijacked the smartglasses debate, positioning smartglasses as a smartphone replacement. CES 2015 went a long way to redressing this misconception, with a number of compelling task specific usa cases from gaming with Oculus VR (although of course these are Smartgoggles), to the range of enterprise use cases being realized on the Epson Movario, including remote assistance and augmented reality. 
  • The FitLinxx AmpStrip - The AmpStrip monitors heart rate, exercise load, resting heart rate, recovery heart rate and other biometrics. It's a disposable adhesive patch that is replaced daily, so it's nearly hidden from sight and waterproof unlike other heart rate monitors.
  • The Dash – a product championed by ABI Research early last year and the winner of best in show at CES 2015, these wearable earbuds include a wireless music player, fitness tracking and Bluetooth capabilities. Users of The Dash can track their bodies’ performance during exercise, monitor speed, time and distance, and the detail of the analysis offered is equal to most fitness bands or watches currently available on the market. The Dash can measure the user’s technique and cadence in the activity being performed, as well as heart rate, oxygen saturation, and energy spent, all of which are captured in real-time. The design is very subtle, making it near universally applicable and the engineering challenge impressive. 
  • ProGlove – a product demoed at AT&T’s developer day and third in part of Intel’s Make it Wearable challenge. The smart glove was designed by former BMW employees to improve efficiency and safety, as well as cut costs in car manufacturing. The glove contains a range of sensor technologies and combining them with scanning and wireless connectivity. Delivering data and information for manufacturing line and logistics management, including automated hands-free scanning of goods, monitoring and training of workflow sequences, identification of tools and parts to avoid incorrect usage, 100% documentation of goods and processes.  Watch the youtube video here
  • Design Quality - Garmin Fenix 3, Withings Activité and the LG G Watch R – technically wearables remain the largely the same proposition as last year’s CES, 2014 has been largely about refinement. For example, design has come a long way, making the category far more commercially viable, i.e. crossing the chasm into the mass market. Withings have created a classic watch design in Activité and LG’s smartwatch (i.e. a real smart watch with an advanced OS) is the first such watch that consumers might not immediately identify as such, a key milestone for mass adoption.
  • Designer partnerships – Intel kicked off the partnership approach with MICA bracelet in partnership with Opening Ceremony and many other vendors picked up the gauntlet with Misfit’s Swarovski range, fitbit’s Tory Birch range, Martian and Guess, etc. ABI Research looks forward to the results of Intel’s partnership with Oakley too. 
  • Connectivity & Tariffs - Timex Ironman Watch tariffs and network architecture -  the viability of WAN connectivity for wearables has been a source of much debate in the industry, with ABI Research being negative about its prospects. However AT&T and Qualcomm may have forged a way ahead with the Timex Ironman Watch. The extremely compelling tariff of one year free followed by $40 per year thereafter, is enabled by using a Qualcomm proxy server to work as an intermediary between the network and watch, shrinking messaging protocols and minimizing power consumption by the cellular radio. Reminiscent of Qualcomm’s BREW architecture used in similarly finite use case, device and network environments.

The reason for the above selections is that they are examples of real tangible progress along three of the seven key vectors identified by ABI Research a year ago, namely use case, design and connectivity. Hopefully 2015 will see further progress as wearables reach a tipping point.   

Now for The Bad

  • Services and analytics – CES consisted of a buffet of hardware, but the level of competition will inevitably lead to significant price erosion, especially if the fitness trackers fail to elevate themselves beyond being seen as glorified pedometres. If they don’t then fitness trackers will end up being little more than $10 devices that people pick up a throw away after a month, especially as the smartwatch category is evolving into a smartwatch/fitness tracker hybrid. Hardware vendors need to ensure that their value and differentiation is not simply about hardware and even look beyond hardware as the revenue driver. Analytics and services can provide a value to customers which is hard to replicate, especially overtime. Fitness and activity tracker vendors are improving their apps, but this needs to be illustrated more clearly to communicate the value and create ongoing user engagement. Simply throwing more and more sensors into the market creates diminishing returns without a service strategy. Perhaps most importantly the lack of an end to end strategy leaves the fitness and wellness category open to someone who can put an end to end strategy together better than most….
  • Quality benchmarking – related to the point above, the fitness and wellness industry needs to be more mindful of quality in terms of sensor performance and data collection to retain the faith of the consumer and therefore ultimately value. The inconsistency and variety in sensor readings is obvious to industry insiders, and not unexpected, but the concern is that a clear benchmarking system does not exist to ensure this is understood by consumers. If this continues then price erosion will be rapid and the innovation and value within the fitness tracker category will disappear quickly as mentioned above. 

Finally The Ugly

  • The iSetWatch – is a watch that allows you track your match score and communicate it via BLE and your smartphone. In terms of a compelling use case, bear in mind that typically a game of tennis has less than eight points per game and between six and 13 games per set, scoring is not a complex mathematical exercise. 
  • The Belty - the iSetWatch was not alone of course; the Belty, a smart belt that aims to track users’ waistlines and provide extra comfort is another product worth mentioning here.  Ideas and innovation are a great thing, the lifeblood of the tech industry, but so is sanity checking self-sensorship (pun intended). The long tale may be getting too long. 
  • The Smartwatch Zone – essentially a collection of LED alert connected watches. The use case is not particularly compelling (i.e. an alert saying you need to get your phone out of your pocket) and the quality of the devices on show left a lot to be desired, both in terms of design and build quality. Many of the devices appeared to be made by the same manufacturers, an inference that was confirmed in conversation with the vendors. A number of the vendors considered their products to be little more than proof of concepts, designed to attract the big watch brands to employ them as the middlemen for their connected watches. ABI Research has little faith in this (the LED alert watch) category. Perhaps the one exception was the Martian and Guess watch collaboration. Designed for the bling markets, rather than for my understated English tastes, but it does have some market potential and is the direction these vendors need to go in.