The Innovation Bonanza: Q’s With CTA’s Steve Koenig on Digital Transformation, Acceleration & CES 2021

CES Show
(Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

The unprecedented pandemic has “accelerated” innovation on a number of technological fronts, according to The CTA’s Steve Koenig. We can expect to the manifestations of this at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (pictured here in Jan. 2020) which will be virtual this year

The Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, is best known for its yearly Consumer Electronics Show. Taking place each January in Las Vegas, this year’s CES will run online from Jan. 11-14 and expects more than 150,000 attendees from around the world with some 1,200 exhibitors featuring cutting-edge innovations in a range of fields including mobility and transportation technologies, digital health, 5G, Artificial Intelligence, smart cities, home entertainment and far more. Pollstar reached out to the CTA’s VP of Research Steve Koenig who broke down this year’s innovation trends and what lies ahead.

Pollstar: What is your role at the Consumer Technology Association?
Steve Koenig: I lead the research team of 13 people. What distinguishes CTA in the trade association world is that we have the equivalent of a boutique research firm inside the walls of CTA. We do a lot of consumer studies, probably 25 to 30 consumer and B2B studies each year. We’ve been quite busy in this season trying to document shifting behaviors as it pertains to shopping usage of tech and so forth. We do forecasts for 300 technology products twice a year. We also have a partnership with NASDAQ, so we create and maintain thematic indexes that are the backing of about 10 different Exchange Traded Funds on the market traded across five global exchanges

Is the Consumer Electronic Show your biggest public-facing event?
Correct. CES is what the Consumer Technology Association is best known for. And CES is so big, some people call us a trade show with an association [laughter].

Steve Koenig

Steve Koenig

Pollstar and VenuesNow are honoring innovation in the live business in this year filled with innovation and pivots with livestreaming, sanitization protocols, drones that spray down stadiums, rapid testing and others. What trends are you seeing in the marketplace?
Two words really describe it best, and those are digital transformation. When you look strategically at a lot of the innovation across this season as a function of the health crisis and in ways that the health crisis acted as a catalyst for pulling forward a lot of transformation processes, this is really the underpinnings of what’s happening. What I have talked about is The Internet Of Things, which was all about the connectivity of things – that things were connected. And that describes the previous decade. This decade is about a new IOT, the Intelligence of Things and that statement bears testimony to the fact that AI is really starting to go into everything, in a number of different ways in the consumer space and obviously in the business world and so forth. There’s been a lot of research and data coming out about the increasing importance of this as everything shifts online that’s generating even more data and the need to interpret this in real time. It was getting there before the crisis, but the crisis just acted as an accelerant. It’s like pouring gas on a fire. The other thing that has accelerated it is robotic process automation.

There was news yesterday about ticketing possibly being able to process vaccination and testing information, is that an example of AI and the Intelligence of Things?
Yes, that would be AI. And things like optical sensors and cameras in a stadium context that AI could be used to see if people appropriately distanced and identify areas where they’re not. There’s lots of different things. Facial recognition as it pertains to ticketing.

Some innovations we’re seeing have to do more with fintech or financial tech, but also specifically contactless payments is another thing that has been pulled forward. And also digital keys not just for hotels but also autos can be parlayed into the live events industry. With digital ticketing and using biometrics to authenticate tickets, it’s a 21st century way. With facial recognition, and this is again touchless, you could also do speech recognition. Say if a consumer buys a digital ticket when they show up at the venue with a camera, basically some kind of a face capture happens there, so that when that person shows up at the venue, as long as they haven’t grown a beard in between the time that bought the ticket and attend the event, it’s facial recognition and the turnstile opens. It’s completely frictionless.

Getty Images

Biometrics is being combined with ticketing and entry into venues WaitTime Technologies is one vendor in the space.

That’s what our phones do now.
In China they have been using facial recognition as a payment system. They were a step ahead of Apple Pay with using your phone to pay for goods at the checkout counter. We’re expecting to see a lot of these things accelerate because the health crisis, from a consumer behavior point, people don’t necessarily want to touch stuff anymore.

I’ve had the experience of using Apple Pay and then having to put in a pin or tip which defeats the purpose. Some POS haven’t caught up to the technology.

It’s true and the bottom line is it’s investment. Some POS systems are more robust than others. Another thing that is going to shift are these tablet-based POS systems where they pivot the tablet around and you sign with your finger. Nobody is going to want to do that. And the employees and business owners aren’t going to want to constantly clean the screen and spend hundreds of dollars a year in cleaning supplies for little wipes. But all of this has to do with the customer’s comfort level.

What about privacy issues?
Privacy and security are going to be the big issues from a tech standpoint just given everything we’ve talked about with the rise of biometrics, data, artificial intelligence and so forth. This is the decade where a lot of decisions and notions about privacy and security will be tested and reshaped and the health crisis is accelerating that.

Some may see these things as Big Brothers; others may say, “That’s extraordinarily convenient. I endorse that. I’m comfortable. It’s encrypted. It’s secure.” The point for live event companies and digital ticketing in this fashion is that they need to be vocal and visible with their safety procedures and from an encryption standpoint, after your ticket is authenticated, we delete your face data so they’re not storing a record of your face. That’s critically important from a good housekeeping standpoint, but these are the new ground rules that are emerging, and it’s important for the industry to do self-policing so that we can avoid potentially harmful regulation. We would rather industry be able to self-police and do things the right way.

It’s interesting a lot of these technologies have been around for a long time, livestreaming, drones, AI, but the pandemic has acted as an accelerant in getting these technologies adapted, functioning, monetized. Will we see that at the trade show?
Generally speaking, yes. This is something that is happening across the entire economy and the pandemic has touched every facet of society, business, culture and government worldwide – every economic sector is grappling with this. During periods of economic downturn, we tend to see innovation accelerate and then, as that innovation is unleashed on the economy, it issues a new era of technological change. We’ve seen this pattern time and time again. And the health crisis, I would say, has doubled down on this. It’s created an economic downturn and the whole stay-at-home culture and shutdown of big swaths of the economy. A lot of events, in particular, have been extremely affected, as we know. But the last time that happened was in the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

And what happened then?
That crisis gave rise to services and technologies that are almost indispensable to us today. Things like Uber, Instagram and Airbnb and a host of cloud services. That’s when we saw e-commerce take a quantum leap because everybody was going online looking for value, and that pattern stayed. In this crisis, the behavioral shifts that we see taking place, we reckon a number of them are going to stick. A lot of it is going to return – we’re going to get back on a plane or take a vacation to Hawaii, we’re going to start to do things again. We’ll return to old behaviors and old habits, but we’re also going to pick up some new tricks along the way and we’re accumulating those things now.

This is more radical than what happened in 2008 to ’09 with the economic crisis and recession. We’ve long had cyclical economic ups and downs in the economy – that’s always going to happen. But something like this, with a pandemic, we haven’t had for 100 years. This is a whole new scenario so maybe we’ve only scratched the surface with some of these emergent technologies. Is this the start of an innovation bonanza?
I love the word “bonanza.” Yes. Absolutely. The crisis is a crucible for innovation and it’s happening in two ways. One is organic innovation, the invention of new technologies to present a solution to different problems. And then the second way is deploying existing technologies for new use cases. And a good example of that is using VR in a hospital with healthcare workers that are overworked, and tired, and they can put on a VR headset and be teleported to a beach somewhere and just relax. So it’s new use cases for existing technologies. It’s organic innovation.

And an example of that organic innovation robotics is definitely a great place to look. A lot of these are autonomous systems and this overlaps with AI and sensors of all kinds. There’s so many examples of robots, literally and figuratively coming to our rescue. Food delivery and contactless delivery in my neighborhood here in Fairfax, Virginia, we have Starship Technologies. And these are like little Igloo cooler-sized robots on six wheels. And though there’s a certain radius that they operate around town, we’re within that radius. So you can order and they deliver food from certain restaurants within and it’s all done by an app.

What are other robotic examples?
There’s hospitals using robots, there’s Triage that speak 53 languages, which is helpful in dense, urban areas. Sanitization robots, drones being used also to deliver goods with big brands like UPS experimenting with drones. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, said it best. “We’ve seen two years of digital transformation in two months.” He said that on an earnings call and it encapsulates exactly this bonanza of innovation. But again, it’s in two forms: it’s organic innovation, altogether new technologies coming forward, and then the application of existing technologies to new use cases.

This year’s CES is all digital. If it were to take place in person, what parts of the trade floor might be expanded and what areas might recede?
My guess is we’re going to see a lot of technologies devoted to the digital transformation we’ve been talking about. That’s more or less in the B2B space. Other things we didn’t talk about in play are natural language processing, biometrics and cloud. Also, the digital transformation of the home, that means smart home technologies, which is another category that’s really accelerated as people stay at home. The poster child for this is the smart doorbell with the camera. Also contactless delivery Robots and drones,. We’ll see a lot of innovation showcased at CES.

Are you still seeing a drive for sustainability in the market?
Yes. Sustainability is another area that has been amplified as a function of the crisis. And sustainability, when we think about climate change and the rising of energy costs and so forth along with sustainability, it’s resilience, and redundant systems, less of a reliance on various citywide systems and so forth. And again, this is where we have a lot of automation using AI, different sensors, and so forth. In this decade it will increasingly grow in importance and you’ll see brands whether it’s seeing CPG (consumer packaged goods) business using responsible materials, less packaging, etc, down to smart cities. They’re trying to be more green, more green spaces, more environmentally friendly, and so forth, more smart street lighting, for example, and other things that save energy and give off less light pollution in the environment at night, and things like that.

The bubbles were very successful this year first with National Women’s Soccer League and then the NBA, Major League Baseball did fairly well. Is there any sort of sequestering technology or protocols coming out?  It probably would extend to offices and trying to mitigate spread of the virus?

Sure, they’re different innovations, like wearable technologies that will tell you if you’re getting a little too close to another person. I think in tandem with that is what we’ve seen on the medicine side with rapid testing available so we can quickly– not just days later – say  “Oh, yep. That player has COVID.” We can then better take action in terms of isolation instead of having to wait days and days. It’s all these different things, the sanitization, the social distancing and so forth.

If you had to sum up this whole period of time, how would you describe in a macro sense what you’re seeing with CES and CTA?
It comes down to a massive acceleration of digital transformation across the economy, and this is certainly true for live events. There is an abundance of evidence of this. A lot of these changes, as it pertains to live events that we’re starting to see, will remain in place. But let me also just make the point, although we’ve talked a lot about these digital tools and thereof, and thank goodness we’ve had these that have allowed our businesses to continue to move forward, live events, sports, concerts and so forth, the streaming, the social media, the interactivity, keeping fans engaged, audiences engaged it’s been critically important. But the point I want to make is that once the pandemic is over, I the role of in-person events will be more important than ever because this crisis has highlighted that people crave face-to-face connections. The best technology innovation can’t replace face-to-face contact and the serendipity that brings and the enjoyment of the five-sense experience. I really think t once the contagion is contained, those stadiums are going to be filled to capacity.

Previous Next
Return To Innovation Hub