Adventures at the Consumer Electronics Show: the world’s largest “Digital Disney World,” the higher ed perspective

Executive director of WCET, Mike Abbiatti, recently attended the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. New and soon-to-be introduced electronic products are unveiled each year at the Show. The following blog contains the details and reflections of his adventure through the latest technological innovations. He also wonders what the impact of these new tools will be on education. Enjoy!

Erin Walton


The yearly Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is the Holy Grail destination for anyone interested in the evolution of technology. Just imagine spending a week with over 200,000 of your best friends from all over the world, wandering around several million square feet of the latest and greatest technology innovations from all over the globe.

There are aPicture of Las Vegas architecture at night.s many reasons to make the pilgrimage to Las Vegas as there are attendees. For example, if you are the creator of new tech, you are looking for a venue to show your wares. If you are tasked with purchasing new technology for any organization, then you must be there to be sure you can make the appropriate purchasing decision. Similarly, if you are a new company, or an accomplished one looking to move to the next level or retire, then you are at CES in an attempt to sell your company to Google, Amazon, or one of the titans of the industry. And, if you are a CIO/CTO/CSO, then you are there to try to stay current in your profession.

But, what in the world would a technocrat such as myself be doing at this revered event? Given the transformational impact of consumer technology on the strategic transformation, operational diversity, and tactical reality on the entire educational community of interest, the importance of CES cannot be overstated. I embarked upon quite an adventure for a few days that was based in two perspectives: benefits (perceived and real) and risks (also perceived and real) when it comes to the impact of evolving technology and the quest for success for all learners.

Motivations for Attending the Consumer Electronics Show

One of my basic philosophical motivations for attending CES was to underscore my belief that a major shift in technology-enhanced education is the fact that tech no longer moves from the institution to the home, but rather moves from the home to the institution. The impact of this shift cannot be overestimated when it comes to planning for the future of K-20 education. When one adds the evolving cyber-threat landscape, one discovers a new set of opportunities and challenges.

My focus was not infrastructure, but learning more about the impact of new technology on planning, legislation, policy, finance, and the unintended consequences of becoming universally dependent upon technology in teaching people how to do what they don’t know how to do. Currently we call this process ” education.” CES should be a ” must attend” for senior, non-technical higher ed leaders, not just the staff engaged in the daily deep dive into the digital transformation of academic institutions.

The excitement surrounding attending the world’s largest Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is palpable from the moment one boards the airplane destined for Las Vegas. The aircraft is populated by technologists and commercial reps from all over the world. During this trip, I sat next to a young lady whose only job is to circulate around select venues and collect “leads” for her client companies. The discussions I had throughout the trip with other passengers centered on the anticipation of seeing the latest and greatest tech systems and devices that will drive their worlds — from the home to the office — in the near term.

The Adventure Begins

Picture of the shoes of two people standing on tile that reads,

At the show, most of my adventure was spent walking many miles throughout four large exhibit halls and several hotels filled with amazing video, audio, and data manipulation devices. The intent was to gain a general understanding of the physical layout and thematic areas of each venue. It was quite clear that the major topic of focus was “Artificial Intelligence (AI)” and Virtual Reality (VR).  Highly touted was the combination of AI, content selection, and audio manipulation. It was clearly demonstrable that technology could create pictures and animation that were almost indistinguishable from live humans. This could certainly have an impact upon future faculty selection. The question could be, do I hire a new faculty expert, or just order one? Not so clear was the fact that true Artificial Intelligence has yet to be achieved and that which was being touted was actually Machine Learning enabled by ultra-fast computer chips and fiber optic transport systems. The significance of this fact, in my context, is that anyone interested in leveraging the latest technology in education should be aware of the realities versus the marketing hype.

In one area, I interacted with an “AI-based” whole body scanner that took a minute or two to scan me and promptly announced that I was a 37-year-old male. Since I am actually a 69-year-old male, I was less than impressed. The night before the exhibits opened, a Russian robot was run over and destroyed by a fully automated Tesla sedan. Barring  an international incident, it appears that we have a few glitches to iron out before we entrust our lives to the latest and greatest digital marvels.

The Search for Educational Exhibits

Black and gray picture of a brain that symbolizes artificial intelligence.

That said, an intriguing aspect of CES was not digital, but rather human. A large proportion of the 200,000 attendees were from Southeast Asia, and this fact was pronounced in the video venues, except in the gaming areas. When it came to gaming and Virtual Reality technology, most of the attendees were from the western nations. In a similar context, the Asian participants were noticeably younger than their western counterparts. I thought this was an interesting observation that demonstrated the investment some countries are making in the education and workforce preparation of their youth.

To cap off my search for educational exhibits, I only found one company with the word “education” on its title and exhibit space.  I am sure that there were educational enclaves, but I was only successful in finding one Innovation Space dedicated to higher ed. It appears that the academic community is expected to repurpose technology for the teaching, learning, and research missions.  Perhaps readers who attended CES were more successful in finding education-specific venues.

My continuing adventure launched into searching the wonders of state-of-the- art robotics and drone tech. Throughout the week, I kept out a watchful eye for wandering Russian robots and autonomous Teslas. I am sure that there are colleagues at CES who did actually find the education-focused venues and I hope they will follow this blog with their experiences. It is literally impossible to see everything at CES by yourself.

Having gotten a pretty good idea that it is impossible to see all the exhibits at the Consumer Electronics Show, I took a more comprehensive approach. Clearly, Healthcare is at the top of the CES list of foci. My tech-trek revealed quite a variety of technologies relative to generalized integration of AI (Machine Learning) and all types of Mixed Reality (VR and AR).  The sheer number and complexity of Healthcare exhibits and products was most impressive.

Discovering Immersive Reality

As stated earlier, the overall CES theme of AI integration into the process of data collection, manipulation, and outcomes was evident. Medical devices designed for both home and clinic use were in abundance. A common theme was Immersive Reality use in training of professionals, dental and medical procedures, and treatment of mental health problems. Home scanners and testing devices not only claimed more effective and affordable than healthcare services, but also a move toward encouraging patients to take control of their healthcare.

Mike wearing bronze and gold steampunk glasses with gears, wires, and gold lenses.
WCET Executive Director, Mike Abbiatti, is always on the lookout for the latest in educational innovations.

The evolution of Telemedicine systems that provide high quality data collection and visualization via an electronic connection between the patient and healthcare provider community continue to promise lower costs by reducing/eliminating travel expenses, and making more efficient use of caregiver time and resources. Add in the plethora of wearable devices designed to monitor health status of the wearers and connect directly to caregivers and you have a highly mobile system.

Picture of doctor speaking with a patient, while using a laptop.

The trend toward more large retailers investing in healthcare clinics in their stores was also quite evident, thus providing more access to caregivers and to a wide variety of people as part of the shopping process. CES was an amazing journey through Digital Health. Given the shortage of healthcare professionals and the differentiation of healthcare needs on a global scale, the role of technology will continue to increase. In exploring these exhibits, I heard a good bit of discussion about the challenges inherent in relying upon computer-based systems, like robotic surgery, and AI-enabled diagnostic tools when it comes to something as personal and prone to legal liability as one’s health.

CES is the best of all worlds and the worst of all worlds. Currently there is a rush to integrate AI, and the new tech is always is more expensive. These trends are deployed so fast that the actual success in the academic environment is more faith than fact. Historically, legislation and policy lag behind innovation; thus, funding also lags in the higher education community. Today, the reality of increasing cyber-vulnerability adds a new dimension of risk. When higher ed decides to purchase the latest and greatest data collecting, analysis, and decision-making tools, the tendency can be to follow the ready-fire-aim model based upon clever marketing and the perception of public/private urgency.

How to Ensure Student Success

CES is a wonderful experience that I highly recommend to higher ed non-technical leaders to create strategic awareness relative to the acquisition of new technologies required to maximize technology-enhanced education for the growing student populations we serve. Our profession is ensuring student success; our tools are constantly evolving. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is an effective source of data from which we make decisions about how we will deliver responsive excellence. From the perspective described in the first paragraph of this blog, I am not only excited about the potentials that new tech brings, but cautious about the inherent risks. It is not rational to think that one person can see and interact with all the devices/systems on display at CES. However, it’s important to remain focused on the fact that the technology is not the most important aspect of the academic experience; rather it’s what we, as educators, actually do with the tech. The way we utilize tech is the most important filter through which to pass all of the magic that CES provides.

Educational technology is currently experiencing a significant upswing in investment. This availability of funds will spawn legions of new devices and systems designed to collect data more efficiently, transport data faster, process data more rapidly, and generate potential decision support.  We must also be aware that all new technologies have inherent risks associated with vulnerability, primarily data theft from external and internal (intentional and unintentional).

What About Data Protection?

I was disappointed to see that the FBI had only a small booth with three attendants in one of the venues. I will admit that most venues and product displays at least mentioned, even if in passing, the importance of data protection. When one considers the steep learning curve that those associated with funding, managing, protecting, and delivering curated academic content to an ever-increasing diverse and distributed population of learners, one can understand the necessity of having an effective cyber-defense strategy. Adding one or more of the amazing devices or systems to your home, your institution, or your classroom can be a risky scenario.

Final Thoughts and Call to Action

I will end this blog by stating that the Consumer and Electronics Show was an excellent example of the marketable trends. As educators, we must be mindful of the fact that technology is valuable only when the devices and associated software enable quantifiable student success outcomes. My assertion that technology moves from the home to the institution was validated at CES. My concern that we could easily allow technology to become the driving force in education was also confirmed, at least in my case.

In closing, I had a unique opportunity to view the wonders of a burgeoning global technology marketplace through the lens of an educator and technocrat. The basic outcome for me is that we must be careful to ensure that the focus of our collective efforts, and investments in our home and institutional in technology must not be influenced by the technology, but rather by what we DO with the technology to improve our lives and the lives of the students we serve.

A Practical Note

Please think about attending the Consumer Electronics Show in the future. The actual cost was only $100 for a pass to the exhibit halls, with the added cost for the travel to Las Vegas. The lost opportunity cost would be significantly more than $100. I will add that there are certainly much more expensive passes one can purchase that allow entry into the keynote and breakout sessions. My rationale for avoiding the extra cost was that I didn’t see a need to attend sessions that would provide information that would probably be outdated the next day. Our colleagues at SXSW.edu, etc., do a great job of providing a tradeshow with more of an academic focus. However, seeing the whole picture at the Consumer Electronics Show is certainly an excellent pathway to stand on top of the mountain and survey the horizon.

mike hdedshot
Mike Abbiatti
Executive Director
WCET

 

 


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