CES 2017: The Biggest Surprises Come From Little Improvements

Going to CES Unveiled -- the press's meet-and-greet with a handful of tech vendors that takes place before the show officially opens to the public -- is like going to a cocktail party thrown by a futurist with a very specific vision. There are hovering speakers that look like flying saucers, robots that answer a question nobody asked ("What if we turned Elmo the muppet into a cyborg?"), and hairbrushes that supposedly monitor your grooming habits.

While the people who throw CES have identified their own tech trends for the media to cover, the best observations are the first-person ones. I'm feeling strangely optimistic after a few hours spent circling the hall a few times, grabbing four jumbo prawns, and asking how secure "the world's first Internet-connected hearing aid" is. Here's why I'm upbeat.

Some interesting ideas from last year have been refined so they're actually more useful. I got very excited about the Smarter FridgeCam once I learned that the gadget has broken out of the one-device-one-app-one-smartphone-one-user ecosystem model that was so prevelant with so many smart-kitchen doodads last year. This FridgeCam -- which does exactly what its name implies and takes pictures of the things inside your fridge -- is now set up so anyone in the household can download the app and see what your condiments get up to when the door is closed.

In practical terms, what this means is that the "Do we have enough milk?" question can be answered by anyone who's got the app -- the labor of checking the data and acting on it does not rest solely on one person. That was a big complaint of mine last year and it's nice to see at least one company addressing it.

(The people I talked to at Smarter FridgeCam also explained that their camera is but the first step in a smarter fridge -- you can also survey your ingredients and ask what you can make for dinner, then get suggestions, and they're working on partnerships with grocery delivery places so you can move from "Aw, man, we need milk" to "Aw, man, we need milk ... (click)  ... Milk is being delivered this evening.")

Another idea I was happy to see refined was smart home management. I talked to an awful lot of companies last year whose reps couldn't tell me exactly what user data was collected, much less what security measures were in place to prevent hackers from rifling through it. And a lot of these companies took the attitude that hey, smart-home management requires the one-device-one-app-one-smartphone-one-user ecosystem. If a user ends up managing several apps -- how is that their problem?

That attitude has made for some market opportunity (witness Apple's canny positioning of its Home app as it tries to own the experience of managing your smart home), and Stringify is taking advantage of it. The company provides a console-like service to consumers where they can hit Stringify and manage their lights, their thermostat, their security system, their streaming music, etc. all in one place. Think of Stringify as If This, Then That for the Internet of Things.

Granted, these are just two companies out of the many that are going to be at CES -- but it's reassuring to see that at least two of the companies here have refined some of the ideas that bubbled through earlier shows. We are so used to thinking of tech progress as happening on a sort of punctuated equilibrium model -- the idea that a specific web service, device or app comes along and changes everything -- that we forget exactly how many big leaps happened because someone refined a good idea to make it great. The iPod only worked because someone else came up with MP3 players first. Fitness wearables on the wrist -- like the Fitbit or the Jawbone UP or a smartwatch -- happened after folks monkeyed around with pedometers, tiny trackers that clipped to one's bra and digital watches that also measured your pulse. Every big tech leap is predicated on looking at a good idea and figuring out what needs to happen to turn it into a widely adaptable technology.

It's fun watching all the little steps these technological implementations take. Maybe they're leading up to another big tech leap forward.

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