LAS VEGAS, U.S. -- Household devices responding to voice commands and increasingly intelligent automotive technologies are the star players at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, dethroning mobile devices as smartphone sales sag.
A smart future
Reporters given a sneak peek at the world's largest home electronics expo, opening to the public Thursday in the desert city of Las Vegas, caught a glimpse of a fully connected future where, in the words of a presenter from Lenovo Group, appliances throughout the house can be set in motion at the sound of the human voice. This thanks to the Chinese company's "Smart Assistant," a speaker the size of a large water bottle.
In the U.S., this device is powered by Amazon.com's Alexa, a voice-responsive system that can wirelessly control elements of the home, including lights and televisions, in response to user commands. Lenovo plans to sell the devices in the U.S. and Europe starting in May for $129 to $179.
Amazon's own Echo smart speaker, also loaded with the Alexa system, hit the market in 2014. Google debuted a rival device, the Google Home, in November 2016. Now that such hub devices are widely available, appliance makers, too, are moving into the artificial intelligence business with compatible products.
The American manufacturer Whirlpool unveiled Tuesday a line of appliances such as washing machines controllable via the Echo; they are slated for sale this year. General Electric has already introduced such devices. South Korea's Samsung Electronics will begin selling this year its own smart speaker, drawing on AI tech from Microsoft. LG Electronics, also of South Korea, announced its own voice-responsive appliances Wednesday.
"The next computing interface is voice," said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist at the Consumer Technology Association. The industry group estimates that sales of voice assistant devices will rise 52% to 4.5 million units, or by 36% in revenue to around $600 million, in 2017. Machines' ability to recognize speech is already on par with humans', DuBravac said.
The next wave
In the 2000s, televisions were at the center of CES. Japanese makers such as Sony, Panasonic and Sharp were often the stars of the show, regularly introducing larger, thinner devices with higher picture quality. Around 2010, the focus moved to smartphones and tablets, which have largely remained on top -- until now.
But the tides are already changing. Global smartphone sales climbed just 6% to 1.39 billion units in 2016, according to estimates the CTA presented Tuesday. This is remarkably slow after double-digit annual growth from 2010 to 2014. This year, growth is seen declining further to a mere 3%. Tablet sales are already below year-earlier levels, and growth in the wearable device market is weakening as well.
The automotive sector has joined makers of voice-recognition tech to pick up the slack. Automakers' presence at CES has been on the rise since 2010, when Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally gave the keynote address, and has grown particularly pronounced since 2014. The number of automotive-related companies in attendance has risen to 145 this year, including nine automakers, three of which are Japanese. Nissan Motor is making its first appearance at the show, while Honda Motor is attending for the first time in a decade to show off automated driving tech and a compact electric concept car equipped with an AI system responding to the driver's commands.