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The real value of CES: putting tech advance in perspective

Ten years ago robot cars barely worked, now they’re everywhere – next up is virtual reality.

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Tech Advance In Perspective:

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My first Consumer Electronics Show literally brought me to tears.

It was 10 years ago and I was working at the National Post. My boss had given me late clearance to cover the show, so I had to pick from the dregs of remaining hotels.

I ended up staying at the Emerald Suites south of the Las Vegas airport, a long hike from the Convention Centre way up at the north end of the famous strip. It took me an hour-and-a-half each way via public transit, or a small fortune by taxi.

I was armed with a clunky Toshiba laptop running Windows XP and a heavy digital SLR camera. Toting them both around the show killed my back, but the breaking point actually came in my hotel room when trying to connect to the internet.

We take wi-fi, decent speeds and “it just works” computer operating systems for granted these days, but none of them wanted to co-operate back then. Gathering material for stories on the show floor was hard, but sending it back to base in Toronto was harder. Tears of frustration couldn’t help but flow.

So much has changed in 10 years. This year, I covered the show with but two devices: a feather-light 360-camera and my phone, which doubled as my main camera, voice recorder and notebook.

I left my laptop back in my hotel room – much closer to the action now, since I booked it back in September – and did my typing there. Fortunately, hotel wi-fi has come a long way so I had no problems. Input and output in this job is now a breeze.

In the midst of all our new problems – as in, how much of my data is the National Security Agency sucking up? – we sometimes forget how far we’ve come on the plus side. It’s worthwhile to stop and reflect every once in a while, which is what I’ve been doing this week.

Every year, there are the inevitable stories about how big trade shows such as CES are no longer relevant – that big companies stay away from them in favour of their own events and how teleconferencing has made in-person meetings unnecessary. I always think such missives are off base and still love going to CES, even after 10 years, because it provides perspective that can’t be had any other way.

At my second CES, in 2008, I was lucky enough to catch a ride in a self-driving car that was under development by Ford and Carnegie Mellon University. The concept was very new at the time and getting a ride was a rare treat.

Sitting in the passenger seat and watching the steering wheel turn itself was astonishing. I became an instant believer in the technology and was convinced it would change the world. I wrote about it for CBC and told my friends and family about it, but funny enough, no one believed me that self-driving cars would ever become a thing.

And yet, here we are almost 10 years later and autonomous taxis, buses and trucks are rapidly taking to the roads around the world. There is a race on between auto makers to be the first to market, which means it’s taking root faster than most people thought.

It’s happening because, just like the bulky gear and wonky connections I used to have to use for my job, self-driving technology has shrunk and streamlined.

The Ford vehicle back in 2008 was almost buckling from all the sensors, computers and other gear strapped to it. Today’s self-driving cars – like the Lincoln MKZ, co-developed by BlackBerry, pictured above – are virtually indistinguishable from those you might see at a local dealership. The technology is here, it works and it’s virtually invisible. Now, it’s just about getting it out to people.

Although that first drive in an autonomous car is still the most amazing tech demo I’ve ever experienced, I’d say the HTC Vive virtual reality test session I got last year was a close second. VR is also one of those technologies that can’t help to astonish – if it doesn’t get your imagination going after trying it, well then, you may not have an imagination in the first place.

The technology itself is probably at the same stage that self-driving cars were back in 2008. It works and it’s amazing, but there are still many problems to overcome – cables, movement and cost, just to name a few. But again, that’s where the CES perspective comes in. Ten years from now, I suspect VR will be as ready for prime-time as autonomous vehicles are now.

nissan

A few people have asked me over the past week if there was anything at this year’s show that blew my mind. There was – like the HTC Vive, Nissan’s demo of its human-robot hybrid self-driving platform really got the imagination going.

While everyone is talking about full vehicle autonomy, Nissan is approaching the idea a bit more realistically. The French-Japanese auto maker believes cars – or most robots for that matter – will never be truly autonomous because they will always encounter situations they’re not programmed for.

Cars, for example, might come across an unexpected construction zone, or perhaps an accident on the road. Nissan’s solution is that the car would then contact a human assistant, who can remotely take over the vehicle and guide it around the obstruction. The car would then resume autonomy, its occupants unaware that any shift in control had actually happened.

The demo was amazing to witness for a few reasons. For one, watching it actually happen – where a human assistant live on stage in Las Vegas took control of a self-driving car in California – was dazzling when you consider how much technology had to work together, and properly, for Nissan to actually pull it off (there were a few false starts, but it did finally go through).

It was also inspiring when you think about what it could mean for society. There is no shortage of reports, studies and stories of how robots – particularly self-driving cars – are going to take away human jobs. But there is an unfortunate paucity of similar thinking regarding how many jobs such a shift will create.

And yet, here was Nissan demonstrating what could be an entirely new class of work – the ground-traffic controller, or a human who is in charge of remotely maintaining car autonomy so that the rest of us don’t have to bother with driving.

I spoke with Maarten Sierhuis, director of Nissan’s Silicon Valley Research Center and the former NASA scientist who came up with this hybrid driving idea, and he estimates a single assistant could support perhaps 10 vehicles.

There are currently 260 million cars on the roads in the United States, so even if that estimate proves low it would still mean millions of jobs, provided that Nissan’s plan comes to fruition. That would be amazing, and there are surely doubters who will say it’s unlikely.

That’s okay. Ten years ago, people said it was unlikely that self-driving cars would ever be on the road, but here we are.

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