By Andrej Kupetz
Watchful cameras in the fridge and VR headsets that come with sick bags: we will only succeed at life in the digital world if we learn to discipline ourselves and adapt.
In its 50th anniversary year, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has blossomed into the world’s most notable yardstick for gauging how far the digitalisation of our lives has progressed. While the sense of many a development goes unchallenged, the exhibition has retained the childlike charm of an inventors’ fair: we’ll show you what we can do rather than what we need.
Emboldened by this approach, the major carmakers have been using the show for the last five years too – as a platform for communicating their visions of connected or autonomous driving. The German automobile manufacturers have been making a particularly big splash in recent years: in 2015, Daimler showcased its self-driving F015 prototype, and in 2016 Volkswagen presented the Budd-e concept, perhaps hoping the accompanying publicity would serve as an electric polisher for its dented image.
And this year, although not physically in attendance, Audi, BMW and Daimler were very much present in the media: with perfect timing, a press release issued during the CES revealed that the three owners of map service Here have sold 25 % of their shares: a 10 % stake to a consortium from China and 15 % to chip maker Intel, one of the major exhibitors at CES. This kind of alliance is uncharted territory for the German premium brands: up until now, the assumption has always been that they will surmount the challenges facing the industry by their own efforts. The recently announced joining of forces may well result from the realisation that any issues concerning the future of mobility will require them to deal not with their competitors from the auto industry but with the IT giants from California. Because unlike the carmakers, the techies already know how to make money with data.
Focus on building technology
And so the smart home showcase was a lot more interesting than the cars. Connected light switches, refrigerators and thermostats have been steadily conquering more and more of the exhibition space in recent years. Now they are being joined by digital assistants designed to make home life easier and connect it with the outside world.
Take Kuri, for instance, a cute little household robot presented by Bosch. If you stroke Kuri’s head, the robot turns to look at you and purrs with pleasure. Kuri can play music, alert you to unusual events or give you a friendly welcome as you come through the front door. And if you’re not at home, an app allows you to access Kuri’s field of vision – a camera – and keep an eye on the kids or the contents of the fridge. In fact, fridge cams in general seemed to be a dominant theme at the CES. The smart cameras scan the contents of the fridge and decide what items have gone out of date or need to be stocked up on. It would seem as if monitoring the eating habits of the fridge’s human user is only one small step away. After all, the sensors deliver the kind of data that has health insurance companies licking their lips.
Virtual Reality on the rise
Developments in VR headset technology were another of the highlights at the 50th edition of the CES. Intel was showing a new product that allows users to do things like follow a football match from anywhere in the stadium. At the presentation of the software, the company took the remarkable step of handing visitors not just a VR headset but a paper bag as well – just in case the unaccustomed visual experience made them feel nauseous.
But the headset- with-sick-bag stunt raises far more important issues: will we get used to the new ways of seeing things? Are we capable of adapting and compensating for our inadequate ability to process the data our eyes receive? In the digital age, can we optimise ourselves along Darwinian lines and adapt to the digital circumstances? Or will we simply die out like so many species before us? Well, as long as my fridge monitors its contents, at least there’s hope that it might nurture me to become a (technically) better person.
First published in the designreport edition 01/2017. Article picture © Bosch.