CES, the world’s largest technology conference, takes place every January in Vegas and is a week-long gathering of industry visionaries, innovators, enthusiasts and media. Think mecca for geeks. It’s spiritual for some.

For me, it’s the best opportunity to really see (and touch) the future. A place to actually read the silicon tea leaves.

So, what story were the leaves telling this year? I’d sum up the whole event in three words: refinement, concept and waiting.

Refinement.

We are really operating in an innovation, not invention, space right now. We’re not seeing new categories of technology – these have remained pretty much unchanged for the last 4 years or so. What we’re seeing instead is incremental innovation. Products (and often services) are just getting a little bit better or smarter – but there’s no real game-changers yet.

Concepts.

The show floor was packed with concepts, rather than finished products. CES used to be about seeing products that will come on sale later in the year. This year though, we were teased with concepts – the idea of products and solutions that may never actually see the light of day.

Waiting.

The industry is still waiting for the next paradigm shift. Many expect it will come from 5G or AR – both are poised to be a platform for new waves of innovation. But, for now, the technology is still very much in its infancy.  

With those 3 themes in mind, let’s take a glimpse into the future. Here’s some of the most promising tech from CES 2020.

Innovation in the mouth

In the age of technological refinement, it was a good year for the toothbrush. Somehow, it’s a product category that still finds room for new innovation. From Oral-B’s brush featuring an accompanying AI app that coaches you on good dental hygiene, to the Y-Brush that claims to brush your whole mouth in just 10 seconds. But perhaps the star of the show was from Colgate, who unveiled a unique plaque-detecting brush that includes a clever sensor to let you know when you’ve removed all that pesky plaque.   

Image removed.

The smart kitchen

Kitchen technology, unlike many other gadgets on display at the show, is starting to make the shift from just concept to fine-tuning products that could actually be useful in the real-world. The smart connected kitchen now makes sense outside of just our sci-fi fantasies – mainly because the technology actually works and has a real purpose now that people are increasingly embracing connected ecosystems throughout their homes.

Smart fridges are nothing new, but at CES this year we saw them partnered with a whole set of connected devices and experiences. For example, robotic kitchen arms were all the rage with most of the big brands debuting some iteration of the gadget. Capable of helping to assemble meals or make your morning coffee, it’s not difficult to imagine a future where your Hello Fresh order is optimised to be prepared by a kitchen robot. Essentially, it’s all about making people’s everyday lives easier.

The last decade saw innovation in the entertainment hub of the house – the living room. In the next 10 years, perhaps it’ll be all about the kitchen. 

Where were the cars?

Concepts were everywhere on the automotive floor – an industry that burst onto the CES scene for the first time 4 years ago, when we were in the peak of the hype-cycle on self-driving cars.

You could really sense the scramble as car manufacturers pivot to technology companies. But looking around, it was difficult to find an actual product on display. Instead, it was all about visions of the future – concept cars, concept travel alternatives and even concept cities. We saw mobility pods, giant drones for ferrying people from A to B and a bizarre – but albeit, beautiful – driverless vehicle from Mercedes that would look more at home in James Cameron’s Avatar universe (it was actually quite fittingly called the VISION AVTR).

The answer to packaging waste

Like many parents, I’ve just made it through another Christmas with tech-hungry children and the convenience of e-commerce. But we cannot ignore the sheer volume of waste surrounding the category. And I mean surrounds. From the packaging encasing the actual product to the mounds of boxes and bubble wrap it takes to ship that product to consumers in one piece. Our trade-off for convenience has been waste.

That’s why I was particularly impressed by one company at CES who quietly unveiled their remarkable invention (and yes, this was an actual invention – not just a concept) to address this problem. LivingPackets, the first example of a packaging-as-a-service company, showcased ‘The Box’– a reusable container designed to remove the need for bubble wrap and featuring an E-Ink display in place of shipping labels. Each box can be used over and over again, for up to 1,000 deliveries.

It remains to be seen how many e-commerce companies will jump on board with LivingPackets’ idea – but it’s certainly something I’m hoping we will see take off over the next few years.

AR – so close, yet so far

As mentioned above, many expect AR to be the next big thing. Lots of smaller companies were showing off their AR in action, but the real winner was from a Chinese company called Nreal. The company debuted a set of futuristic AR glasses and, although still somewhat clunky in design, they’re probably the closest any company has gotten to creating a functional headset that I could actually see being worn outside of a conference like CES.

We’re still waiting for the major players like Apple, Samsung (Edelman client) or Facebook to bring a similar technology into the mainstream market but, rest assured, it will become a market – and a sizeable one at that. Nreal has shown us the ingredients needed – seamless software partnered with practical hardware – we just need a company to hit that perfect balance. In five years’ time we’ll probably spend less time looking at our screen, and more time looking through one.

A whisper, not a shout

Over the last two years, CES has been all about voice, with Amazon and Google literally shouting about it at every corner of the event. But this year that shout became a whisper. Not because the technology wasn’t there, far from it, but because the technology is already out there – we already understand it and, indeed, expect it. Most of the devices released today have voice integration as a standard – and that’s a trend I only anticipate will continue well into the future. Voice isn’t going anywhere.

Invisible innovation

Have you got a connected smart mirror yet? Probably not. Will you have one in a years’ time? Quite possibly. As our homes continue to get smarter, it makes sense for one of the most common objects in the house to get upgraded too. When you think about the screens we look at every day, your mirror probably gets quite a bit of your time. The tech industry certainly believes we could be using them more productively. Whether it’s to help you with your skincare routine or showing you your schedule while you’re getting ready for your day – mirrors doubled as intelligent displays were everywhere at CES this year. 

It’s actually reflective (no pun intended) of a wider trend of technology integrating into our everyday lives. We’re already seeing TV’s camouflaged as art or screens that can be rolled into furniture. Over the next few years, we’re probably going to see technology blending so seamlessly into the background of our homes it becomes invisible.

Who killed the robots?

Aside from some interesting robots from the major players – like Samsung’s (Edelman client) cheery little Ballie helper robot – there were surprisingly few robots on the show floor this year. That said, there were a number of interesting exoskeleton companies on display. These robotic full-body suits could one day replace fork-lifts by giving workers super-human strength (think Iron Man). The best demo was from Delta Air, who presented a robotic exoskeleton designed for to help airport workers lift heavy objects like luggage.

Is it time to kill the key?

Many of the companies at CES seemed to think so. At a time when we can open our phones with just our face or fingerprint, physical keys seem somewhat archaic. Several brands were showing off their answer to keyless front doors, bike blocks, padlocks and more – typically using fingerprint scanners instead. We’ve all lost our keys and found ourselves locked out of our homes (don’t lie, you know you have!) so there’s certainly a huge market for doors that do away with keys.