▼ Concept cars and concept foldables betray a lack of confidence
Today, CES officially opens. Yesterday was "Press Day" at CES, otherwise known as "Day Zero" (not to be confused with Zero Day hacks). So many companies announced so much stuff that it's impossible to synthesize it all. I'll link you out to a bunch of videos to watch and some of the larger pieces of news just to keep you caught up, but it's too much for one newsletter. So later in the week expect me to hone in more on specific categories. In the meanwhile, if you want the firehose, we have a storystream of everything at CES 2020 right here.
Let's talk about Day Zero for a moment, though, because as I scan over everything we saw today I am struck by how many of the splashiest announcements weren't products, they were concepts — and I strongly suspect more are on the way today and through the week.
I think that reveals a few things about the state of the consumer electronics industry. Especially when you look at the specific kinds of concepts that are being shown off: foldable screens and cars.
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On the spectrum of "TV Gimmicks that CES tries to make you care about," where 0 is an absolute fail and 10 makes you want to upgrade within the next year or two, I submit the following ratings, in chronological order:
The first HD TV flat panels: 9
3D TVs: 2
Curved TVs: 1
4K TVs: 5 at launch, 7 two years later
HDR: 6 at launch, 7 two years later
8K: currently 4
Variable refresh rates: currently 6.5
I'm giving variable refresh rates on TVs a higher score than I expected to because some are going to be landing alongside next-gen consoles later this year, which could create (oh god I'm going to use this phrase) synergies.
Variable refresh rate gets a higher score than 8K because I suspect there'll be more content for it than 8K. Plus, nailing refresh rates change the viewing experience in a way that's hard to quantify but definitively improves the quality of the experience — which was exactly the story with HDR. Finally, I think that the industry has figured this tech out and so it will become common on lots of TVs in the coming years.
We knew that we'd see a lot of folding screens this year at CES, but what we didn't fully expect is just how few of them would come with proposed ship dates. Dell's Concept Ori and Intel's Horseshoe Bend concepts are just concepts, tech demos that prove that, yes, these companies are working on devices like this. But Intel wouldn't let anybody fold its folding laptop, which seems problematic.
TCL also made a folding screen prototype, but as with the above it didn't say that what it was showing was even representative of a future product. Lenovo, meanwhile, gets credit for actually attaching a price and a possible release window for its ThinkPad X1 Fold, but the hardware we saw this week was so little improved compared to an earlier look that it's hard to give Lenovo a ton of credit.
So why all the concept foldables instead of real products? I can think of a bunch of reasons, but they all boil down to one thing: a lack of confidence.
I don't mean that these companies are all a bunch of yellow-bellied chickens. It's not as if sheer chutzpah would make any of these products viable for release. Plus, there's a very high profile example of a company confidently pushing a folding device out the door, and we all know what happened with that first Galaxy Fold.
Caution is warranted, in other words. I think that these companies lack confidence that these screens will be durable enough and good enough to really sell to a lot of consumers. I've sat in many briefings about folding devices with product managers from big companies and invariably they'll gaze wistfully into the distance and say that the thing we really need is bendable glass.
Set aside durability. I also think these companies can't confidently predict whether or not consumers really want folding devices. And even if a company believed there was demand for folding screens, there's no way any company can truly be confident that they know what kind of folding screen will ultimately be successful.
Folding devices are fun to play with because they introduce a new opportunity for device makers to play around with form factors. Should the screen be on the inside or outside, fold on the long side or the short side, be a phone that turns into a tablet, or a tablet that turns into a laptop or something else entirely?
The only good way to answer those questions is to get lots of different kinds of devices into the market and see what sells. But they're still so expensive that the risk isn't worth it, I suspect. Better to let somebody else take a flyer.
I also hope that these companies lack confidence in one more thing: the software. Nothing I have seen to date feels right on folding screens. Windows 10X may help, but we've not seen nearly enough to even speculate. Think about how many years it took Apple to get the iPad to a place where it didn't feel like a big iPhone. With foldables, the rest of the industry has barely started trying to solve the much harder problem of folding screen interfaces.
If anybody tells you they know the right way to make a computer interface for a folding gadget, they're lying.
And so: concepts. They're a way to test the waters and hopefully impart a sense of vague innovation that might add some shine to the brand. Which brings me to the other category: concept cars.
It was a surprise, to say the least. Who expected Sony, of all the companies you could name, to produce a car? Why did it get made? Sony's answer was telling: "This prototype embodies our contribution to the future of mobility," Sony CEO Kenichiro Yoshida said.
If you watch a lot of tech keynotes, you get used to these sorts of generic, platitude-y visions of the future. Usually, though, it's in the form of a soft-focus video running you through the day of some young business professional ten years in the future. That's what LG did this year. Sony, though, it elucidated that vision by making a damn car.
At least Sony did some work making a real thing, though. It worked with partners to build some of the pieces you'd expect in a hyper-connected electric car:
In fact, the Vision-S features 33 different sensors inside and outside of the car, multiple widescreen displays, 360 audio, and always-on connectivity, with some pieces coming from industry players like BlackBerry and Bosch. It's also powered by a "newly-designed EV platform" — which appears to have been engineered by automotive supplier Magna — that Sony says will be able to power other vehicle types, like SUVs.
But the truth is that Sony didn't actually provide all that much detail and left everybody with way more questions than answers. Our transportation reporter Sean O'Kane is going to try to answer as many of those questions as possible, but the truth is that the answers might be simple.
It might just be a concept car that makes people sit up and pay attention to Sony's brand instead of paying attention to Sony's products — which at CES this year were not especially great.
CES is about spectacle, you see. And when it comes to spectacle, even Sony has to cede the crown to Mercedes-Benz. It unveiled an Avatar-themed concept car with scales. When you click through that link — and you absolutely must — you will find that every sentence is more bonkers than the one that precedes it.
Those scales are there to convey empathy to people outside the car. James Cameron came on stage. The wheels are designed to be gentle on forest floors and also let the car drive sideways. Drivers are meant to enter into a symbiotic relationship with the car just like the Na'vi. No, really:
To that end, Mercedes-Benz likens this — seriously — to how the Na'vi physically connect with their banshees in the 2009 movie Avatar. And once passengers start moving in the AVTR car, the sweeping display in front of them can light up with 3D graphics of Pandora, the fictional world from the 2009 film Avatar. After Cameron joined Källenius on stage, he agreed with the chairman's claim. "We will merge," Cameron said.
As wackadoo as the AVTR car is, it nevertheless shares the same purpose as the Sony Vision-S. It's an attention getter and reader, it worked. But when a magician draws your attention in one direction, it usually means some sleight-of-hand is happening where you're not looking.
As with foldables, I detect a distinct lack of confidence. Ironically, the thing these companies don't have enough confidence in is the very thing these cars are supposed to represent: a vision of the future. It's as though these companies don't have the confidence to decide on what their next big technology bets should be, so they just present the idea that they're going to enable all of them someday.
I would be happy to be proven wrong, to see some of the ideas in Sony and Mercedes-Benz's cars turn into tangible technology products in the near future. I just don't know which of them are more real than the others, which is root of my distrust of them.
Sometimes, it's difficult to tell the difference between a concept and a con.
You are reading Processor, a newsletter about computers by Dieter Bohn. Dieter writes about consumer tech, software, and the most important news of the day from The Verge. This newsletter delivers about four times a week, at least a couple of which include longer essays.