CES 2020: Trends, Brands and Waving at Robots

Last week I attended CES 2020, formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show. It’s the global gathering of innovators for tech’s biggest showcase of the year.

Here’s my official Fallon + Publicis Groupe recap: Capturing Attention With Creativity in a “Smart” World, which is part of a larger CES 2020 Trends and Insights report you can download here.

One of my tweets was quoted in this BBC News article, Nreal’s mixed reality glasses win over skeptics. Another couple tweets were quoted in this Daily Mail piece, Smart kitchen of the future. And you can see my Twitter threads live from the show floor here and here.

Here’s a video tour I produced from the 950 photos and videso I took of the show this year:

Why Attend CES?

CES is one of the best ways get a pulse on emerging trends in technology that will impact consumers, and thus how brands engage with consumers through those technologies. As culture continues to evolve and tech-adoption increases, it’s important to have a sense of where things are at and where they’re headed.

I first attended CES in 2008 – just a year after the introduction of the iPhone, four years before Oculus Rift VR was founded, and six years before Amazon would introduce Alexa. It was a different world. I used an actual camera to take photos and a Flip Video camera to record digital video.

Over the last 12 years, I’ve observed trends that today seem common place, like:

  • Smartphone at the Center of Everything
  • IoT and Wearables Shifting From Products to Platform
  • Immersive Content is Mainstreaming
  • Sensors in Everything
  • Assistance Through Assistants

And although there are great takeaways, the “WTF?” moments are also memorable.

In 2014 the people manning the booths were more interested in my Google Glass than telling me about their demos. I got the chance to see augmented reality contact lenses up close (which were sadly disappointing). I filmed an entire series on Vine called “What’ll They Think of Next?” that went viral (but is now gone forever). And in 2017, I toured the show wearing Snapchat Spectacles and a broken foot. The video still holds up.

I’ve written thousands of words about innovations at CES, used those insights for clients, and feel strongly it’s important to keep up a strong pulse on emerging technology when it comes to advertising and marketing.

The truth is, you can get a lot out of CES by reading articles about it (like this one!). But being hands-on and getting a real feel for the community and what people are saying can be extremely helpful to form objective and original takeaways.

CES is also a great complement and partner to South by Southwest, where the focus is less on hardware and more on philosophy and cultural impact. It’s a one-two punch to start Q1 every year.


2020 CES Takeaways

Science fiction and fantasy book sales have doubled in the last decade. Everyone owns a smart phone. Popular entertainment is filled with fantastical ideas of how emerging technology will impact our society — for better and worse. As a result, consumers are more interested in digital, gadgets, and smart devices than ever before.

Creativity is enhanced by technology, and the marketing opportunities unlocked by tapping these disruptive technologies can help brands break through the wall of noise to capture consumer attention in this increasingly “smart” world.

Here are some of the ways technology is capturing attention as we headed into 2020:

Dreaming of the Future: From self-driving cars to self-folding laundry, personal robots to ground drones, there is one constant. People love fantasizing about the coming future. Just look at the CES news coverage this year amidst one of the busiest global news cycles ever.

There’s always a place for robot news – whether its excitement for toilet paper delivery, poking fun at electric license plates, or hoping for a day with Uber helicopters circling the skies. Brands can borrow equity from emerging technology by building creative experiences that help consumers picture themselves in this future state.


Nostalgia Tech: In an uncertain world that seems to be changing too quickly, consumers look to the past for comfort.

Huge advancements in technology at CES are being built into retro shells to appeal to our past: smart thermostats that look like old thermostats, record player cabinets built into furniture, even cassette players, walkmans and boomboxes with terrestrial radios were on the scene. You know my obsession with fax machines? It’s merited.

Brands can appeal to the inherent attention value of nostalgia while balancing smart sensors, computers and processes under that throwback aesthetic. Dig deep into your archives and find something that once mattered to people and resurface it with a modern twist. People will LOVE it.


Aftermarket Upgrade: Making your daily life “smarter” no longer requires a huge investment or buying new appliances every few years.

From aftermarket kitchen devices that control your old stove or reorder groceries, to Amazon Echo in your older car or an unbuckled seatbelt alarm, we’re starting to see more opportunities to make “dumb” devices smarter without huge cost.

The aftermarket inventions to help disrupt porch-pirates in our home-delivery world were particularly compelling!

Leapfrogging competitors takes time and heavy investment, but brands can look for opportunities to plus-up existing products or create a low-cost marketing campaign product when “smart-lite” will do.


Small Screen Content on the Big Screen: Given the rise of streaming networks, mainstream smartphone adoption, and innovative ways to create and share vertical-first content, you could be surprised there is so much focus on 8K flat screen TVs at CES again this year.

But consumers still want to watch content on giant monitors at-home. Based on 2020 CES trends, those monitors probably won’t need 3D glasses, may roll up inside a small, and may spin vertically when watching vertical content. But most of all, they will continue to be thinner and brighter.

Brands should continue to explore thumb stopping, clickable and highly shareable advertising that will reach people where they want to consume content, including broadcast, streaming networks, gaming platforms, and YouTube. Big screen or small.


Facial Recognition Marketing Strategy: There will be more than 1 billion surveillance cameras in the world by the end of 2021, and that doesn’t count the cameras consumers are voluntarily putting in their homes, phones, cars, mirrors, TVs and doorbells at CES.

Walking past smart monitors on the trade show floor, I found myself tracked, gender identified, and temperature checked -– all without my permission. Invisibly.

From a marketing perspective, brands should explore ways to create attention with the magic of facial recognition and personalized content (or experiences), while seriously balancing consumer pushback, privacy and security protections of that sensitive data. Do you have a facial recognition marketing strategy? Even if it’s “We won’t capture or keep this data,” you need one in 2020.


Smart Glasses and the Mixed Reality Revolution: Four years ago CES was awash with virtual reality headsets and all kinds of bad VR experiences causing huge lines in booths across the trade show. Today, VR arcades are popular in every major metro market, and personal VR headsets are a stocking stuffer.

At CES 2020, there were VR and AR headsets, glasses and glasses-free experiences with similarly huge lines and new mixed reality technologies – like Nreal’s extremely portable AR glasses, multiple aAR heads-up displays for automobiles, the announcement of Sony Playstation 5 VR, and Sony’s Eye-Sensing Light Field Display, which uses vision sensors and facial recognition to create an AR, 3D-like “spatial reality experience” without glasses.

These new innovations make use of improvements in tiny cameras, microdisplays, processors and consumer utility — for both enterprise and consumer use. Of note, all the best VR and AR tech demos at CES this year supported prescription lens inserts. I was asked for my prescription 6 times in 3 days. Thank God.

Per my 2020 Trends Predictions, Facebook, Amazon, Snapchat and Apple all have smart glasses patents filed, and are in various stages of addressing launch rumors. That means 2020 could be the year that talking, listening or photographic glasses again test the social norm limits of Americans.


Hearables: Ears have been called “the new wrist” for emerging technology. And CES had a wealth of innovation around audio and in-ear devices.

With iOS adding decibel health, Apple driving active noise cancellation into the mainstream, Congress approving over-the-counter hearing aids, a decrease in hearing device stigma, and innovations in micro technologies and bone conduction, we’re just starting to see where this category will go and grow.

A CES 2020 highlight, Nuheara was demonstrating a $399 solution to moderate hearing loss combined with AirPod functionality, Siri, and more – called the IQBuds Max.

Gen X hearing aids are going to be so cool.


Self-Driving Cars with Steering Wheels: CES has turned into a bit of a car show, with the North Hall filled with major auto brands showing off their latest in automation, safety and self-driving capabilities each year. After all, in 2020, cars are the biggest piece of smart technologies in our lives after a smart phone. A car is just a big computer.

This year Segway introduced a Wall-E type lounge chair for getting around town. Sony introduced a prototype electric car that looks eerily similar to a Tesla (with a steering wheel!). And countless vendors showcased new and aftermarket technologies in the smart-car space, like heads-up augmented reality displays, dashboard cameras, LiDAR and human/objective identification, batteries, charging, and more.

Although a world where our cars ALL drive themselves may be decades away, we’re seeing these smart technologies incorporated into modern automobiles at a startling pace that improves safety for drivers, occupants and pedestrians.

It’s partial automation realized today, and in a car culture fraught with political and infrastructure barriers to full automation, our cars may have steering wheels for centuries to come.

As for content and in-car entertainment, Shelly Palmer made the case that the future of autonomous car entertainment is already here. It’s our phones, and we already stream content on them all the time during our commute. Super interesting POV.


Brand Activations: Two non-traditional technology brands really stood at CES — Charmin and Impossible Foods.

Charmin leveraged the consumer insight that sometimes you run out of toilet paper while you’re on the toilet with the fact that CES is robot-obsessed, and designed a “prototype” of TP delivery robots perfectly structured to incentivize social sharing and PR buzz.

Nested inside the P&G booth, Charmin never pretended this activation was anything other than tongue-in-cheek booth bait, and it got people talking.

Impossible Foods, on the other hand, arrived at CES with true product innovation. They announced Impossible Pork, gave away White Castle Impossible Sliders, and had a small tent outside the convention hall with a spinning wheel for branded swag.

That was really all it took for Impossible to drive headlines and social engagement about their experience. Amazing. And delicious.

Both of these branded activations had non-stop lines and buzz all week.


Test and Learn Pilots: Your brand may not be ready to go all-in on the next generation of technology. However, you can leverage consumer engagement and press interest in A.I., IOT, VR, AR, and the rest of the alphabet soup for your brand today with small campaign pilots designed to drive buzz, articles and attention.

Don’t get paralyzed at needing your emerging tech idea to be perfect. Build something small and launch it as a test.

You’ll be surprised how much attention and traction a creative test with emerging technology can earn in 2020.

Want ideas of how to get started? There’s a process for that. Hit me up!


Waving at Robots, 2020

Here is a video of me waving at all the robots at CES 2020…


A Final Thought on CES 2020

CES is so exhilarating and inspiring. What man is doing with technology can be truly amazing, if used for good. For entertainment. For bettering our world.

Not all of this fun stuff does that, and some of it can be abused or keep our focus away from what matters. I do wish for more focus on climate, mental health and creating cross-cultural connection.

Maybe that’s something we could focus on together. It’s our community, after all.


SWAN’s Historical CES Round-ups and Debriefs


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