CES 2019: It’s the Year of Virtual Assistants and 5G

LAS VEGAS — The show must go on.

That sentiment couldn’t have been stronger this week at CES, the largest consumer electronics convention in the country. The conference, which brought more than 180,000 people to Las Vegas, was a reminder of what the tech industry is best at: being optimistic about itself.

Who cares about the abysmal stock market and growing fears that we are sliding into a recession? Check out these virtual-reality headsets, self-driving cars and big-screen TVs.

Filippo Yacob, a tech entrepreneur who attended, was blasé about the state of the market. “The speed of progress and innovation happens at such a rapid pace that it’s not like it pulses with the stock market,” said Mr. Yacob, whose company Primo Toys makes tech products for children. “It’s more like a bullet train.”

This year’s event was also slightly larger than the last, with more than 4,500 exhibitors sprawled across 2.7 million square feet. The conference offered a peek at the year’s hottest tech trends, including artificially intelligent virtual assistants, next-generation wireless networks and connected cars.

And companies unveiled thousands of products. Google and Amazon showed car accessories, alarm clocks and speakers that can be controlled with their virtual assistants by speaking commands like “Hey, Google, what’s the weather today?” or “Alexa, what’s my sports update?”

LG lured attendees into its giant booth with televisions that can be rolled up as if they were yoga mats.

Wireless carriers and chip makers highlighted 5G, the next-generation cellular network arriving this year in a small number of cities with data speeds so zippy that devices can download an entire movie in seconds.

The most surprising news came when a host of tech companies announced they were working with Apple to bring some of the company’s content and virtual assistant capabilities to their devices.

Vizio, the TV maker, said its newer TVs would work with AirPlay, an Apple software feature for streaming video and audio content from an iPhone or Mac to a television screen. People will be able to speak to Siri on their iPhones to play content they had purchased from iTunes on the Vizio TVs. Samsung, Sony and LG announced similar partnerships with Apple.

In the past, AirPlay and iTunes videos were mostly tied to Apple-made hardware like the Apple TV set-top box. Their expansion to third parties underlines Apple’s ambition to expand the revenue it generates from its internet content and services. That’s especially important now that sales of Apple’s cash cow, the iPhone, are slowing. This month, the company reduced its revenue expectations for the first time in 16 years.

The move is also notable because it illustrates an unusual willingness by Apple to open its technology to other companies, including competitors like Samsung.

In a statement provided by Samsung, Eddy Cue, Apple’s head of internet software and services, said that with the expansion of iTunes and AirPlay, “iPhone, iPad and Mac users have yet another way to enjoy all their favorite content on the biggest screen in their home.”

Front and center at CES was the battle between virtual assistants — namely Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Google erected an enormous outdoor booth to show off the multitude of devices that now work with Assistant, including smart watches, speakers and displays. The company said a billion devices now work with its assistant, up from 400 million last year. Google wants to make the Assistant the focal point of a consumer’s life: in the home, in the car and on mobile devices.

“When I walk down the aisle at Home Depot, will all the devices I might buy work with the Assistant?” Nick Fox, a Google executive who oversees Assistant, said of items like smoke detectors and thermostats. “The answer is yes.”

Amazon also had a large presence at the show. It filled a large conference room at the Venetian hotel with dozens of products that work with Alexa, including an Audi car, a motorcycle helmet and a stereo system.

The battle among virtual assistants is shaping up to be very different from past platform wars between tech companies because consumers will have more choices. Many of the smart gadgets at CES worked with multiple virtual assistants.

Aaron Emigh, chief executive of Brilliant, which makes smart home products that work with Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri, said it was critical for virtual assistants to work together, not against one another, because the smart home was already too complex, with products like light switches, thermostats and cameras coming from different brands.

“The more technology and the more different vendors that get put in your home, the more important that it all works together,” he said.

Car manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz and BMW showed off concepts of autonomous vehicles powered by artificial intelligence and 5G wireless connections. But consumers won’t be able to buy self-driving vehicles from a dealership anytime soon, in part because companies still need much more data on how people drive cars. Smarter cars with features like built-in voice assistants to help people use maps, play music or get a sports update without taking their eyes off the road are available now, however.

If the economy does cool off, sales of cutting-edge gadgets will drop. Fast. But that didn’t faze people here. None of the CES attendees I spoke to expressed concern.

Matt Strauss, who oversees Comcast’s Xfinity internet and cable service, was especially bullish about the year ahead. He said just about everything announced at CES required an internet connection, so that’s the last thing that people would cut off.

“It’s become like oxygen,” he said.

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