CES 2015: My UC Takeaways
Consumer oriented or not, last week's CES extravaganza provided a look at innovative technologies that may find their way into the world of enterprise communications.
I know CES is predominantly a consumer event, but I think it shows what is coming for those of us in the enterprise. So last week I ventured into the world of 4K TVs, drones, robots, 3D printers, wearables, smart cars and all other things technical and weird to see what I could find. Yes, I went to CES 2015 in Las Vegas looking for unified communications products and their impacts.
CES was huge -- almost overwhelming, with more than 160,000 attendees converging on multiple venues. One of the small halls at the Las Vegas Convention Center is bigger than the entire Enterprise Connect floor, and CES filled 10 or so of those, as well as many other venues. It featured an astounding range of technology, from cars to sous-vide cookers. Taking it all in, I found a few trends worth mentioning here for the impact they'll have in enterprise communications.
The Rise of Machine Visualization, Augmented Reality
The first area of interest is in the connection of technology to the real world. This requires mechanisms for computers to visualize the real world and then present it in new ways to the user. I saw a number of technologies in the area of machine visualization, for example, with the most significant being Intel's RealSense.
The RealSense technology enables 3D mapping of the real world through cameras and processing. Intel demonstrated a number of use cases, including facial recognition, the ability to fly drones that don't hit anything, and the ability to allow a blind person to "see." In one demo, for example, RealSense was a core part of new security technology, with 3D facial mapping allowing simple user access. The demo showed how you could walk up to your door and a camera would recognize your face and use two-factor security, also matching the smartphone in your pocket to you, to let you into your house.
Demoing RealSense in an iRobot, Intel showed how the telepresence machine could move autonomously in a target environment. Instead of having to guide the iRobot, the user would just say, "Go to the conference room," and the robot would move on its own, avoiding people and other obstacles along the way. It is not a big jump for use of this technology, which is expected to be available later this year, to find its way into the enterprise -- recognizing me, for example, as I enter a conference or identifying participants in a room.
The second part in this trend reflects how we interact with the environment. While a number of vendors showed immersive virtual reality helmets, augmented reality (AR) seems to have much more promise. Glasses with AR capability, for example, could overlay the real world with information for the wearer. For example, a name might overlay a person as he or she walks into a meeting room. In another use case, Sony had a cool warehouse demo showing how AR, in conjunction with location and RFID technologies, could help find and identify the content in boxes. In another interesting example, Intel showed a demo of playing a virtual keyboard in midair with a projected 3D display. A company called Touchjet showed a relatively low-cost solution to turn any surface into a touchscreen. These technologies will quickly find their way into our enterprise environment.
A Move to Continuous Audio Feedback
A second area of interest is the emergence of lower-cost continual audio devices. Bragi, GN ReSound and other companies showed Bluetooth devices designed for near continuous use -- put them in in the morning and wear them all day. With unobtrusive sound (you can listen to what is happening around you while still getting audio messages) and built-in mics, these devices will enable our UC systems to listen to us continually. This will blur the boundary between communications and assistance. Voice in the cloud can enable communications and collaboration, as well as provide assistance (think Suri) or to record. Everything a person says in his lifetime amounts to about 2 terabytes, so the capability for continuous communications is coming.
Ultra-HD Video Gets Real
4K TVs, which provide ultra high-definition resolution, are here to stay. A large number of vendors showed 4K TVs at CES and, while expensive, the price points are sure to drop. As I have discussed in some of my white papers on business video, 4K has potential advantage in certain room situations as the near viewers at a table can see the display without pixels. While definitely not mandatory, it is a consideration.
For video conferencing, I think we will see the advent of 4K video HD coming sooner rather than later, especially as the cost of 4K video equipment drops. For the network teams, this is a really significant consideration. As 4K video has four times the bandwidth of 2K TVs, even with newer encoding like H.265 and VP9, its use will mean a doubling to tripling of bandwidth for higher-end conferencing. I expect a 4K round of telepresence systems later in the year, as well.
WebRTC Fuels Development
WebRTC also had a place at CES, and I found two demonstrations of such. Amaryllo, a camera manufacturer, showed its iCamProHD, a new video camera that uses WebRTC. And businessfriend (why do all of the new companies eschew the use of capital letters in their names?), showed a WebRTC-based business communications and collaboration offering. Businessfriend provides four basic services: social integration, communications, contact management and cloud storage (available in free and premium versions, depending on storage capacity). WebRTC was critical for development, Freddie Pierce, vice president of product, told me. Such will be the case elsewhere too, I believe, as developers take advantage of the speed and innovation that WebRTC can offer to create platforms for the business user. In the large enterprise space, Unify's Circuit product/platform is similar. It will be interesting to see how pricing and business models.
Overall, I found CES incredibly exciting. As I've said, the range of products and technology is astounding-- and innovation was everywhere.
From the Living Room to the Conference Room
More generally, after attending CES I've concluded that 2015 (and beyond) will become much more challenging for profitability in consumer technology as a wider range of categories are competing for the consumer dollar. The Consumer Electronics Association predicted that overall spending will increase around 1% this year, but U.S. spending will grow by less than 3%. The fact is, consumer income is not increasing rapidly and fixed costs (housing, food, transport, etc.) are increasing faster than income growth (excluding the recent drop in fuel prices). As a result, discretionary spending is flat at best and decreasing for many. The emergence of multiple new technology categories means that spending in many categories will drop.
For example, Samsung quoted a survey finding that 32% of consumers are interested in smart home technology, but fewer than 2% have invested in it. I see this as the interest vs. income gap. If you have $500 to spend, do you buy a Nest thermostat and home automation, a new mobile device, a 3D printer, a drone, a robot, a...? You get the idea. In consumer electronics, competition in categories has driven margins in many categories (think DVD players) to razor-thin levels. I think the same will happen across categories going forward. The result is that many primarily consumer-oriented companies are looking to business opportunities for growth. This was evident in the Samsung booth, where a large area showcased use of Samsung displays in business applications.
Many of the technologies that today seem expensive for enterprise communications and collaboration will become affordable and integrated. Vendors and enterprise IT staff must both have a clear view of these technologies and how they'll effect the near future and beyond. Your users, managers and executives will see these technologies at home and will expect you to have them available in your solutions.
Find me at Enterprise Connect Orlando, March 16-19, where I'll be presenting: