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AI, voice assistants and 5G play their cards at CES in Las Vegas

Manny Pham
January 28, 2019

5G was among the event’s main themes, though big announcements may come at MWC next month

One of the telecoms industry’s biggest international events has closed its doors for another year. Each year, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) showcases the best consumer products the technology world has to offer.

Attendees at the Las Vegas event were treated to sneak peaks of AI goods and soon-to-launch voice assistants. The exciting possibilities for 5G were also very much on the agenda, though we may have to wait for next month’s Mobile World Congress for big announcements on that.

The colossal CES event takes up 2.9 million square feet of space and hosts 180,000 attendees. This included 6,600 members of the media perusing over 4,500 exhibitors, such as Samsung, Huawei, TCL and Nvidia, to name a few.

Between January 7 and 12, CES was mentioned a massive one million times on Twitter, featured in 49 million Snapchat stories and provided content for 224,000 Facebook videos.

Dominating the show’s themes were 5G, artificial intelligence and voice assistants. Although not a grand event for smartphones, with only a few new releases and most manufacturers more likely to opt to launch at next month’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, CES serves as a pulse check on technologies that will dominate the industry over the next few years.

Unsurprisingly, 5G was a huge focus topic at the show, with the largest US operators piling in to claim a lead on the technology, as well as manufacturers such as Ericsson, Nokia and Qualcomm. South Korean operators are widely tipped to be the first to launch, with the US coming after. Businesses will see huge benefits from 5G, through faster download speeds, reliable connections and a decrease in lag times.

Talking about the event, CCS Insight chief of research Ben Wood highlighted that 5G will be an incredible asset for the world. He said, however, that many questions remain unanswered for now, with MWC lining up to be the main platform for major 5G disclosures.

“5G is happening; we all know that, everyone is investing in it and a lot people believe it’s going to open up a lot of opportunities,” said Wood. “Everyone is talking about it, but the problem is the networks and phones aren’t ready. Also, the business cases aren’t done yet. We know it’s going to be great, but there was nothing to show.”

GfK key account director Imran Choudhary agreed, saying: “With 5G certainly being a key focus for the telecoms industry, it was one of the buzzwords at CES – but there was little physical hardware on display from a mobile device perspective. As 5G is seen as an enabler for many other smart solutions, it’s being positioned as the foundation on which intelligent networks and services will be built.

“It will become the backbone for transportation and digital health systems, all driven by a 5G network working via 5G-enabled devices. Samsung did have a 5G mobile device prototype on display and made noise around the fact that it had received approval in the US to go ahead with its 5G devices this year. Qualcomm, too, shouted about its 5G-ready capability that will make its way into at least 30 consumer devices in 2019, many of which will be mobile devices.”

Independent technology, media and telco analyst Paolo Pescatore said: “The reality is there’s still plenty of capacity and opportunities in 4G. I’m worried about the 5G hype emerging with regard to consumer demand. What we learned from Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg’s presentation (left) is that operators are starting to change their tune and focus more on enterprise user cases and, in particular, the media industry, which will benefit massively from 5G in terms of efficiency and reducing costs.”


A major highlight for smartphone enthusiasts was the showcasing of the Royole FlexPai, the world’s first smartphone that can be bent in half. However, the device, which is currently available in China, was widely panned by critics at the show for being lacklustre overall, with an expensive price tag of around £1,000.

Chinese manufacturer Royole seems to have grabbed a head start on Samsung in terms of consumer launch. The Korean manufacturer announcing its Infinity Flex Display at its developer conference in November, but has not yet launched it.

But despite this lead, said Wood, “Royole has done Samsung a massive favour because it has set expectations extremely low for what flexible displays should be like. Anything Samsung launches will be much better than what Royole was able to offer.

“The FlexPai device is a long way from being ready for the mass market, but the range of curved and flexible displays on show at CES 2019 signalled an impending future where a range of surfaces and objects can become displays.”

For now, though, Wood pointed out that it is still early days for flexible devices, dubbing it the “Stone Age” for such products. Cost and fragility are substantial barriers that will need to be overcome, he added.

Choudhary said of the FlexPai that “the device, whilst clunky in some areas, is a breath of fresh air when it comes to the handset form factor most devices now adopt. No doubt the foldable phone will be a trend for 2019 and it’s going to be exciting to see how this form factor develops along with new use cases. Ultimately, it will be exciting to see how consumers react. The ideal use case for a foldable phone is very much to provide a larger screen when needed, and not to be a tablet that folds to create a bulky device. The FlexPai is the first step in this direction.”

AI push

A topic emblazoned on billboards on the Las Vegas Strip, TVs and the lips of attendees was AI. But Wood warns AI could be stumped before it peaks, with many brands stretching the definition in advertising such products.

He said: “I’m concerned AI is being massively devalued as a kind of technology. Everyone seems to be abusing the term and the technology by placing AI on everything. For example, LG claimed AI in its dishwasher will automatically order more dish soap when it runs low. That’s not AI, that’s the use of algorithms. The danger is that AI has the potential to transform our lives, but devices with this feature should deliver meaningful improvements over time.

“AI in smartphones has been brilliant. With the Huawei P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro, there’s no question they deliver meaningful improvements to pictures that people take. For operators, AI will be hugely important in forecasting demand, minimising natural disaster effects and [signal] crashes.”

Pescatore added: “There’s no question that AI can benefit all industries; nearly every stand was promoting its services.

“Companies are really trying to promote the AI message among the consumer landscape, and that’s all about effectively articulating what it is because people don’t understand it. There are better ways in communicating it, but right now the industry is stuck on this.

“Most households are fragmented with their products. Ovens, TVs and dishwashers are made by different manufacturers, and getting them all to speak to each other is a challenge. The one thing that brings them all together is voice assistance.”

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