CES 2011: How Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Eye America’s Aging Population

Consumer Electronics Show

The consumer electronics trap is set and Baby Boomers are squarely in the crosshairs once you get past the 3-D televisions and tablets. That was my impression after seeing many of the consumer technologies showcased by vendors during the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show this past week in Las Vegas. Besides the broader focus of CES from major consumer electronics manufacturers, the conference has numerous track associated with different types of businesses associated with consumer tech, two of which were related to senior living and wellness, the SilversSummit and the Digital Health Summit.  The Digital Health Summit enjoyed standing room only participants on Friday (over 300+) while the SilversSummit sessions were near capacity on Saturday.

The billion dollar question is how will consumer tech be delivered to an aging American population? The short answer is slowly and through our interest (and vanity) in health and fitness.

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If you’re 80 years and above, large consumer electronics manufacturers know the same thing everyone does: your time is running out. The Silent Generation demographic will be relegated to specialty manufacturers with products that will (hopefully) be well designed for that market. There are a number of niche vendors focused on this area but the 800 pound gorillas in the consumer technology universe are betting on the adaptability of Baby Boomers. The hope is that the technology will provide Boomers a choice of features such as larger or smaller fonts and that your vanity will let you think you can read the font like a 35 year old but give you a safe exit if you want one.

How will Baby Boomers get sucked into the consumer electronics trap (as if they haven’t already)?

Step 1. Focus on health and fitness applications. Baby Boomers love computers, DVDs and video games according to one of the panelists from Best Buy. The popularity of Wii and Kinect are just the start. Consumer electronics manufacturers are using these systems to get casual users more comfortable interacting with its interface in a fun way. Yes, this is already here but these sytems will get more interactive and spawn users to have devices that they keep with them (think heart rate monitors, pedometers, etc.) that are embedded with GPS and software to track information. Imagine in 10 years, your body will interface with the internet (hopefully not with an embedded USB dongle from your Arm) and download this information to your health profile. How do we get there? Get comfortable wearing sensor on our body and plugging into the network to get feedback and information. At some point, those devices will be embedded within the human body. The Silent Generation has been introduced to this via Wii Fit and other programs but the success achieved has exceeded device manufacturer’s original expectations.

Step 2. Enhanced Communication via Video. Industry analyst Lori Orlov noted during one panel session that ‘Skype-like” technologies will engage an aging population more as time progresses and as the technology gets simpler to use. The next step in this phase occurs as interfaces and hardward are simplified (Skype is still challenging). Whether its cable TV boxes (Motorola, Cisco) , TV manufacturers (Sony, Panasonic, Samsung), cell phone video (EVO’s Video Call, Apple FaceTime) or video game machines (Xbox Kinect, Sony PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii), these entry points into the home will serve as the foundation for senior and Baby Boomer consumer technology. Almost every major technology company that you would recognize either had some kind of operating system embedded in their device or s separate device that would enable this communication but serve as a foundation for monitoring, health application and more. The use of video communication will be the pre-cursor to wide spread adoption of more passive monitoring such as pressure sensors and motion detectors.

Step 3. Home Automation. Safety, Security, and Monitoring. The home automation (HA) industry represented by consortiums such as Control4 are positioned to have explosive growth but the costs of retrofitting homes to fully utilize these systems are cost prohibitive. The application of these established products and services in the HA industry are more useful than many believe but for now these products are still in the realm of “luxury”, especially for retrofitting homes. For new construction in senior living, home automation should be near the top of the list when it comes to line items for expenses. Granted these expenditures will be competing for budget space with green concepts, universal design and general construction costs. Architects, interior designers and developers should examine some of these more closely at the outset and for solutions that rely on established standards (Zigbee, etc.).  The home area network (HAN) is achievable today but at a significant price.

CES Day 1 050

Revenue Subscription model

Love it or hate it but many new vendors in the senior care technology space are reliant upon subscription models to drive their revenues. Can these new businesses sell consumer an additional subscription fee models on top of connectivity charges (either through cellular modem or cable)? Or can new products be developed and delivered on a standalone basis such as TV Ears? (full disclosure – we bought a pair for Dad this Christmas)

During Stuart Sikes’s presentation from Parks and Associates, the threshold for monthly costs for senior care are at about $35-40 per month above any existing services currently bundled.  Are larger players look at this market?  You, betcha. For example, I spent time talking with an engineer for Motorola’s home automation division and he stated that this area was a new focus for Motorola through a recent acquisition but their strategy relied on their cable set top box business. He demonstrated their standards based architecture for locks, lights and temperature that interfaced with major vendors through mature standards such as Zigbee.  I see another $9.95 per month charge for “Granny Sitting” in your future cable bill if it wasn’t already high enough.  But can these new upstarts gain enough traction for broad adoption given some of the higher price points and the added subscription costs? If yes, these fledgling companies would be ripe for acquisition in 2-3 years.

For those aspiring entrepreneurs who want to create the next senior gadget and constantly email SHN for ideas, who to talk to, etc., I highly recommend making the trip to CES in 2012. There are hundreds of manufacturers willing to discuss making your product in China, Japan or Vietnam. You too can make your own senior tablet or 3-D TV(if you’re crazy or rich enough….or both).

Other CES opinions:

3-D Televisions are going to be very popular for sports when filmed correctly. The rest of the programming was mediocre at best until someone other than James Cameron does something along the lines of Avatar.

Tablets. They seemed to be everywhere at the show. The one that I enjoyed playing with the most was the Blackberry Playbook. The Android ones did not get me terribly excited. One thing is for sure, the death march of the tactile QWERTY keyboard has officially begun.

Click on the link for those wanting to see the PDF of the slides for “Creating A Smart, Aware Home

See our Pictures/Slide Show – Tech Gadgets, Sex and A Rap Star