Reflections from CES 2016

I just returned from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.  If you have any familiarity with the tech world (or even read/watch the daily news) you’ll have heard of it. CES is one of the biggest gatherings on the planet, with somewhere around 175,000 attendees.  Companies large and small, from a wide range of industries, come to show off their wares with the hopes of capturing the market for gadgets and gizmos that consumers will use in the coming year.
There are always a few big themes each year. For instance, the last time I attended CES two years ago, 4K television was all the rage.  A year before that, it was 3D TV.  These two examples point to another interesting quality of this trade show — some of the products featured there never see the light of day.  Some companies spend large sums of money on fancy booths and demos in hopes of creating the right buzz, but haven’t even gotten their first round of funding.  So it is a bit of a circus, literally. Throw in the fact that it is always in Las Vegas (the only town, apparently, that can accommodate this large an influx of conventioneers) and the experience can take on the feeling of being in an old-fashioned Fellini movie.
The most interesting thing about CES over the past 4 to 5 years has been the growing attention to connected health.  I was not able to attend last year, but when I was there in 2014, there was noise made about the number of connected health offerings and the expansion of the Digital Health Summit from even a year later.
Having taken even a brief hiatus made me feel like we’d fast forwarded decades.  The exhibit space devoted to connected health this year took up most of one large hall at the Sands Hotel, at least quadruple the exhibit space  I saw in 2014.  In addition, as was detailed in a blog post by my friend, Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, CES president Gary Shapiro’s opening keynote was dominated by health-related examples.
It is also worth noting that CES selected my new book, The Internet of Healthy ThingsSM, to be featured as one of only ten books presented in “Gary’s Book Club,” hosted by Barnes & Noble.  Once again, when you consider the breadth of what this event covers, this is a feather in the cap of connected health.
I could leave well enough alone and celebrate how far we’ve come to have connected health so prominently featured at this mammoth conference. But as Paul Harvey would have said, that would leave the rest of the story untold.
The other analogies I could use would be a good news/bad news joke or the hit song from the 1970s “57 Channels but Nothing’s On.”
There was so much featured, but not much of it was inspiring.  Most of the digital health technologies presented could fit under the broad heading of Internet of Things and wearables (which, of course are related). Here are a few themes:
Pet trackers:  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but really? Two areas of healthcare delivery that are always open to early innovation are veterinary medicine and dentistry, because they are based largely on a cash economy.  That said, I don’t know why we need a half dozen vendors peddling tags to track Fido.
Jewelry:  This is not new, per se, but the sophistication, beauty and breadth of offerings was stunning.  It wasn’t that long ago that I witnessed an MIT Media Lab graduate student demonstrating ‘wearable computing’ and it looked as goofy and geeky as you could imagine.  But now, for those who want to spend lots of money on their health tracking devices and make a true fashion statement, the choices are many.
Fitness:  Once again, not new, but the complexity and number of offerings was impressive.  Among my favorites were two companies promoting cyclist sun glasses that have built in headphones for music/phone, as well as a Google-glass-style heads up display to feed you all manner of stats about your ride: calories expended, speed, etc.  Too bad these glasses are only for folks with 20/20 vision.  Likewise, I was taken by a cyclist’s jacket that has lots of built in flashing lights to enhance visibility.  The arms automatically blink like automobile signals if you raise your arm in anticipation of making a turn and then turn off when you’ve lowered your arm.  I took the card on that one and may place an order!
Apart from that, there was a bevy of trackers, trackers and more trackers: Things you can stick onto items to turn them from dumb to smart; shoes that will tell you when you’ve worn them out and prompt you to reorder from the manufacturer; and all of the usual myriad of activity monitors, heart rate monitors, baby monitors and smart scales.  The volume of offerings was breathtaking, but so was the lack of innovation. Wearable computing seems to have entered the ‘me too’ phase.  With Fitbit now a public company and doing well, it seems everyone wants to reproduce their success without doing anything different than they’ve already done.
To quote a colleague, Rachel Kalmar, the data from all of these wearables is like flour coming from mills. The next phase has to be products that, by analogy, are the cakes, breads and cookies.  I saw none of that at this year’s meeting.

To wit, for our 2016 Connected Health Symposium, we’ve chosen the theme, “Wearables and Digital Therapeutics:  New Frontiers in Patient Engagement.”  We plan to feature companies and innovations that are creating some of these proverbial cookies and cakes.  The ones that easily come to mind (e.g., Spire, Muse, Empatica) were not at CES, or at least I did not find them. One honorable mention that had a presence at CES was Quell, a Boston-based firm with a wearable device for pain control.  They fit the category of digital therapeutic perfectly.
This is not meant as a knock on CES or on any of the technology featured there.  It is more of an observation on the state of the connected health ecosystem — and a call to action to companies, researchers, entrepreneurs and healthcare providers to continue to advance, inspire and implement truly innovative personal health technologies.
To reiterate, it is amazing how far connected health has come based on the sheer volume of activities, exhibits and interest at CES. I look forward to experiencing CES in years to come when companies are offering not just connected device data, but insight and inspiration!