In January 2020, when global pandemics were thought only to happen in movies, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) attracted a staggering 171,000 visitors.
But a year and a virus later, CES was a shadow of itself as it struggled to replicate the show online. Even when the show returned as an in-person event in 2022, it did so at a quarter of its previous size.
Since then the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) has done a great job of rebuilding the show. This year attendance was over 135,000, and the number of exhibitors almost back to 2019 levels - boosted by the growing number of European and Asian startups that now make the trip.
A busy show made for high energy levels, and as a crowd gathered waiting for the doors to open on the first morning, everyone felt sure they knew what was about to greet them. This was going to be the CES of generative AI.
Another false dawn?
Now admittedly everyone thought last year was going to be the CES of the metaverse - only to find the metaverse didn’t turn up. But that couldn’t happen for generative AI could it? After all, there had been a whole year of excitement about this new capability - and the technology actually exists.
Well, guess what? As the attendees poured through the central hall of the Las Vegas Convention Centre, taking in the stands of consumer tech giants such as LG, TCL, Hisense, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung and others, they found everything from transparent TVs to medical scanners, green tech to white goods, EVs to OLEDs; but no ChatGPT.
Sure, almost every device claimed to have AI inside - but that’s been true since AI v1.0 was the hot tech at CES 2018. When we saw Samsung proclaim ‘AI for All’ above its booth this year, we assumed it meant something more than just AI for all its devices.
So what happened? The answer is that CES 2024 showed us the reality of investment versus implementation. It was a fascinating object lesson, and it should leave us all feeling genuinely excited rather than momentarily hyped.
The fact of the matter is that while generative AI was hard to find in the main consumer technology hall of CES, it wasn’t altogether absent from this vast, sprawling show.
First there was excitement about the announcement of the Rabbit R1 - a curious pocket-sized, generative AI assistant, that carries out actions on the user’s behalf. It’s much like a small smartphone, without the phone, and without the need to touch the apps. And then a small number of other startups could be spotted, using generative AI to create 3D computer models, customise brand photos, or assist note taking.
But it was only when the role of the global giants became apparent that it became clear where we are on the journey to adoption of this important technology.
On the eve of CES, it was announced that some PCs will add a specific key for Microsoft Copilot - the large language model (LLM) enabled chatbot. Then in the show we saw Amazon partnering with Embodied on its generative AI learning robot Moxie; with BMW for LLM in the car; and with MultiOn for an intelligent browser assistant, performing a similar function to the Rabbit R1.
And most of all there was the Google booth. It was a shiny white generative AI installation, with everything from fun AI apps for smartphones, to useful ones for travellers, to serious ones for the enterprise. This was a tour de force of AI innovation.
And yet it went largely without comment - even in the trade press analyses of CES. It was as if generative AI had indeed landed, as everyone expected - and yet barely anyone had noticed. What was going on?
At the simplest level we were seeing a gap between expectation and reality. Major new tech moments at CES are normally unmissable because they are everywhere. When Alexa appeared out of the blue in 2017, Amazon managed to get it onto the stands of dozens of partners. It seemed ubiquitous, even on its launch.
But the chasm that really matters is the one between investment and implementation - and in the case of AI it seems that’s a chasm few except giants can cross. It’s easy to forget that the biggest technology moments in human history, from the spinning jenny to the internet, have seen significant barriers to adoption, precisely because the changes they invite are so great. Big change requires capital expenditure on the part of the customer; reorganisation; regulatory and governance considerations; new skills; and business transformation. That’s before you get to inertia and cultural resistance.
What’s changed since the spinning jenny of course is the time it takes for these barriers to be overcome. Gartner put generative AI near the peak of its hype curve in 2022, but with the expectation it would spend a mere two to five years in the infamous Trough of Disillusionment, before emerging onto the sunny Slope of Enlightenment.
In many respects we should be pleased that this year’s show had plenty of interesting technology, but relatively little hype. When it came to AI, what we were witnessing at CES 2024 was a technology about to get hotter, and more material, not one fading away.
Mark Harrison is CEO at the DPP
Read more: CES2024 Review: What We Learned