All aboard the (self-driving) bus – next stop, CES: Las Vegas’ annual gigantic tech fest.
About 4,000 companies – many of them start-ups – are arriving in town this weekend. Over the coming days, they will reveal new products, secure orders and hopefully provide a taste of the future at the trade fair.
The event has its roots in consumer gadgets, but now sprawls into fields including artificial intelligence, automobiles, medicine, marketing and even agriculture.
Most of the big technology brands in attendance will have something new to brag about. But increasingly, they hold flagship products back for stand-alone events.
In recent years much of the excitement has instead been delivered by smaller, lesser-known companies for whom CES presents a “break-out” opportunity.
Below is a sample of what to expect, including several exclusive hands-on videos with some of the new tech:
From fridges to cars, watches to robots, device-makers fell over themselves to support or build in its Alexa smart helper, leaving Google’s Assistant trailing in its wake.
New cooking controls have just been added to the AI’s capabilities, so watch out for a flurry of Alexa-connected microwaves this time round.
Google is, however, still in the fight.
Earlier this week, LG revealed its latest top-end TVs will feature the Assistant.
And this year, the search giant has booked a CES booth to show off its AI, as well as splurging on a new paint job for the Las Vegas monorail to promote it.
While the battle to secure the most tie-ups will likely be intense, one trend to look out for is products that provide the best of both worlds.
GE has pre-announced a ceiling light that supports both companies’ virtual assistants, and HTC already sells a smartphone that answers to both AIs’ wake words.
We believe customer choice is important, and that multiple AIs can be complementary of each other,” an Amazon spokesman told the BBC.
Elsewhere, expect “AI-enhanced” to be the buzz phrase of the moment, even if it’s not always clear what that means.
“AI has become an overused term – often it just refers to there being a voice component or related cloud service,” commented Simon Bryant from the consultancy Futuresource.
He added that the key question to ask was whether the promise of artificial intelligence meant a device or service would become better over time.
So, to take one example, when HiRide Suspensions promises to show off a smart bicycle suspension system that uses AI, does it mean its electronics will learn to deliver a smoother ride over time, or merely that they have developed algorithms that would always deal with the same bump in the road in the same way?
The Italian start-up’s pre-CES materials are unclear on the matter.
Short presentational grey line
The so-called wellness market could prove to be CES’ most vibrant sector this year.
One recent forecast suggested the world’s annual healthcare spend will be nearly $9tn by the end of the decade. Both the big brands and start-ups believe there’s an opportunity to disrupt a sector currently dominated by specialists.