Innovation was all the rage among the fashion, beauty and retail ranks at CES as companies from The North Face, Kate Spade New York and Fossil to L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Ulta Beauty, and more flocked to Las Vegas for the technology supershow.
The event, which ended Friday and drew 4,500 exhibiting companies and more than 180,000 attendees from more than 155 countries, was a lightning rod for brands eager to strut their innovative stuff alongside the likes of Google, Samsung and Qualcomm, while getting a front-row look at tech’s major moves.
The effect casts CES as an essential destination, rising to the level of shows like MAGIC and the National Retail Federation’s annual conference.
“Beauty tech has become something of a major interest,” said Guive Balooch, global vice president of L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator. “I’ve been lucky to be part of a company that, six years ago, thought about [tech], because there’s so many things you learn.…But it’s not like a fun trend anymore. It’s a real value and we all need to now be in it. I think everyone needs to be here.”
The ones who attend come with a savvy that seems to see through the exhibition’s flash of blaring lights, roller coasters and roll-up TVs. Perhaps it’s because fashion and beauty know glamor better than anyone, so they are less impressed. Or maybe it’s because brands and stores on the front lines of consumer retail seek real solutions, not gimmicks.
In a beauty tech session at the High Tech Retailing summit, Perfect Corp.’s Adam Gam described the challenge with augmented reality: “We like to say that all AR is immersive. But there’s good AR and bad AR. If it’s bad, they’ll never use it again.”
It’s a good time for this sort of perspective. The 2019 show featured technologies that have been maturing for years — including artificial intelligence, 5G cellular connectivity, augmented and virtual reality, digital health, entertainment innovation, connected and autonomous vehicles, resilience technologies and smart homes and cities.
Such emerging techs may not be fully baked yet, but they’re reaching new levels of sophistication. Some are even positioned to become bedrock technologies that buoy other categories. And when that happens, they can swing entire industries.
As one executive told WWD, “So many technologies are growing up. It’s good stuff, if you’re invested there. But more importantly, put them together, and now you can really do some things.”
Here are a few of the major themes from CES that are poised to shape commerce, apparel, beauty and more.
Artificial intelligence and its related fields stormed CES, whose halls swelled with everything from AI-capable kitchen appliances to televisions and smart mirrors. The logos of Alibaba and JD.com, powerhouse Chinese e-commerce and AI companies, were omnipresent, slung across buses, backpacks, signage and more.
But beyond individual display or device, the deeper push for more powerful hardware and robust platforms signal how deeply AI will be embedded in the future’s tech foundation.
For instance, Intel revealed that it’s working with Facebook to bring an AI processor later this year that offers more compute power. That will help with things like image-processing and identifying people in photos.
AI chips are a crowded space, with entries coming from Nvidia, which focuses on gaming, and Amazon Web Services, the e-commerce giant’s cloud business for companies.
The Google Assistant AI platform wants to create an ecosystem around the search giant’s voice and AI efforts. Its marquee aspect, the Google Assistant Connect platform, offers tools so third-party device makers can easily add support for Google’s voice tech to their products. Amazon started offering software tools for Alexa skills last year.
Talkative gadgets are arriving en masse, and the systems powering them are improving because of natural language processing. Some can automatically adapt to different conditions, without user intervention, and even customize features based on what they learn about the user’s preferences.
The fashion, beauty and retail sectors understand the need for personalization, powered by AI. It appears that those powers are set to grow exponentially. As tech advances, so do related trends like facial recognition and voice assistants, which rely on AI, computer vision, machine-learning and natural language processing.
A recurring theme at CES, facial recognition has long been available in smartphones through features like Face ID. Now the technology is showing up in places like homes, cars and stores.
Companies including Procter & Gamble, Softbank Robotics and Perfect Corp., among others, demonstrated technologies that can identify customers, connect to their data and offer recommendations.
SoftBank Robotics chief strategy officer Steve Carlin offered a look at how Pepper the robot could improve the shopping experience in physical retail.
If customers buy something online and head to the store, Pepper can greet them, identify them, let them know the order is ready, suggest other products they might like and — through a partnership with Simbe and its Tally aisle-tracking robotic system — let them know if the product is on the shelf or not in real time.
For Carlin, the experience is also about offering retailers contextually relevant data. “[The system] pulls from store inventory, loyalty and e-commerce,” he said. “You can see the difference between in-store shopper and online shopper. Or how shoppers may act differently between the web site and the store.”
Beauty is a natural destination for facial and product recognition. Perfect Corp.’s tech can identify the makeup worn by a subject in photos, and also analyze skin and determine its condition, as well as the user’s age, gender and mood.
Procter & Gamble’s SK-II exhibit showcased a similar concept, but in a futuristic retail environment. The Japanese brand envisions a store equipped with a slew of cameras that can recognize the shopper and offer personalized regimens. With sensor-equipped product packaging, the system can also prompt customers to stick with scheduled skin-care routines.
The evolution of these systems and machines is exciting, intriguing…and, for some, unsettling. In various sessions, questions about privacy inevitably came up from audience members. As facial recognition powers grow, so will the public’s nervousness and fear around them.
Perfect Corp.’s YouCam apps featured skin analysis, but it’s not the only one. A growing subsection of the beauty sector is seeing a concerted push from start-ups and giants.
Following up its Neutrogena SkinScanner and Skin360 app introduction at CES 2018, Johnson & Johnson took to this year’s conference with a new tech tool: Neutrogena’s MaskID, a micro-3-D-printed sheet mask. It can precision-map the user’s face and load up a customized mix of ingredients to address specific issues.
After unveiling its UV Sense wearable at CES 2018, L’Oréal returned to showcase its latest My Skin Track pH.
“There’s 50 years of work done around where pH of skin is so well correlated to skin condition, but nobody ever did anything outside of an academic environment,” said L’Oréal’s Balooch. “Because to measure pH, you have to have enough sweat to do this litmus test, which requires people to get on a treadmill. And no dermatologist today has the time to put people on a treadmill.”
For a tech sector that has been focused on digital health, CES 2019 seems like an apt venue to expound on health’s direct connection to beauty.
“My vision on health is that it will inspire the future of beauty, and beauty will inspire, potentially, the future of health,” he added. “Wellness and lifestyle are becoming a big part of the future of beauty, and especially in skin…it’s very much related to, not just your cosmetics, but your lifestyle.”
For its very first CES, Procter & Gamble came armed with a parade of demos. The Opté wand can scan the surface of the skin and apply exactly the amount of serum or makeup to cover spots, freckles or other issues.
“Opté is our first-ever precision skin-care device that allows you to reveal the natural beauty of your skin,” a company spokeswoman told WWD. She went on to say that Opté combines optic technology, proprietary algorithms and printing technology with P&G skin care to scan, detect and correct hyperpigmentation.
It’s akin to a real-life version of Photoshopping away spots. It works without leaving the caked-in feeling that comes from overapplying elixirs and foundations. The technology takes cues from inkjet printers: Opté uses 120 nozzles to deposit a precise amount of makeup, at one-billionth of a liter.
“What this does is, it takes 200 pictures per second — so on an average basis, about 24,000 pictures,” she continued. “It then takes all of the data, of understanding the color differences between the one little pixel size and the adjacent size, and runs it through a 70,000-line burst of data algorithm. We have so much data that we can actually tell, and there are 120 little ink-jet printers.”
Meanwhile, updates to Olay’s Skin Adviser showed how the system can use selfies and questionnaires to analyze skin care and provide recommendations. Its Future You Simulation uses the data to display two images of what the customer could look like in 10 years, comparing the difference if the advice is heeded, versus not.
The company made a big first impression with these demos, as well as others featuring an AI toothbrush from Oral-B, a smart aroma device called Airia and a range of detergent products that pack into a tiny footprint by eliminating the water.
Procter & Gamble’s approach shows a unique marriage of technology and consumer product research and development. For various products, the conglomerate took to Indiegogo crowdfunding — not to raise money, but to connect with consumers, get direct feedback and learn what people actually want.
The giants weren’t alone in their bid to nix blemishes. There were plenty of start-ups and new ventures putting skin in the crosshairs.
Lululab, a spin-off of Samsung Electronics, won a 2019 CES Innovation Award for its Lumini AI skin-care assistant. The device, a handheld unit that scans the face to detect problem areas, will be hitting makeup counters at places like Sephora this summer.
HiMirror also launched the HiMirror Mini and HiMirror Enterprise, which can detect skin problems, as well as offer music, social media and voice assistants from Google and Amazon.
Voice and Smart Homes
Simply put, the story of CES 2019 couldn’t be told without discussing voice assistants. They were everywhere at the Las Vegas Convention Center, courtesy of the companies with the two top contenders.
Amazon released slews of device announcements for Alexa every day. And Google was front-and-center, not only with its Google Assistant AI platform, but also a roller coaster ride, high-profile giveaway station — which looked like a huge gumball machine full of techie prizes — and a load of signage all over the venue.
On the show floor and in meeting rooms, companies touted their voice support across hundreds of devices, from connected mirrors to automobiles and kitchen appliances.
Products like Kohler toilets reside on one end of the range, while Vuzix’s voice-equipped Blade AR sunglasses live at the other. That just scratches the surface.
Voice command is the new black, being integrated into everything. Shopping, however, is another matter entirely. For now, voice commerce is still more relevant for groceries and perhaps some beauty or personal hygiene products.
For consumer packaged goods, voice makes a lot of sense, with gadgets that make ordering easy or, in some cases, automatic. It’s the ultimate in convenience. No one enjoys running out of coffee, toilet paper or hand soap when they need it most.
The future for fashion products and nuanced beauty retail is still uncertain in a connected or voice-equipped home. But that’s no excuse for reticence.
More voice powers are clearly entering the home, landing in vehicles and adorning the body — with wearables, like Kate Spade’s latest smartwatch, adopting voice tech. With that, Alexa, Google Assistant and maybe someday Bixby, Siri and Cortana are moving from the fringes to the center of consumers’ lives to become personal concierges, wellness coaches, language translators and other things.
Smart speakers now boast screens, which means that there’s a face to go with the voice. That’s significant, especially for brands whose shoppers won’t buy without seeing.
Meanwhile, AI, computer vision and machine learning are evolving, making product recognition, personalization and recommendations better and more sophisticated.
The dots are waiting to be connected, and Google and Amazon are furiously working to do just that. Judging by the momentum at CES, it doesn’t look like a matter of if but when. And who.
Transforming Physical Retail
Efforts from the likes of Softbank Robotics, P&G’s SK-II and AIPoly, whose Poly Autonomous Store Platform aims to give any store or distribution center Amazon Go-like features, signal one thing — physical shopping isn’t dead after all.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in, of all places, the e-commerce space.
“We’re seeing a revival of physical stores — as a matter of fact, just from a year ago, Warby Parker, Everlane, Blue Nile, James Allen, all the big online-first brands have become physical stores,” said Robin Raskin, founder of Living in Digital Times, the CES partner who coordinated the High Tech Retailing exhibit section and summit, among others. “And they’re incorporating that organic feel that you’d get from them online.”
That’s the cause Softbank and partner Simbe are taking up. They also believe robotics can change the game for physical retail when it comes to a particular challenge: Products on hangers or folded on a table are notoriously difficult to weave into an automated setting.
Consumer-packaged goods, whose boxes or packaging are uniform, are easier for machines to scan. But if items like apparel have RFID, they would work in this system, said Softbank’s Carlin, adding. “It frees people from counting everything.”
SK-II’s futuristic retail exhibit added another approach to physical shopping, veering into unexpected territory with gesture-based shopping.
None of these systems can work without solid communications. Enter 5G.
The next-generation cellular connectivity was the subject of a Verizon keynote, where Verizon chief executive officer Hans Vestberg described it as “a quantum leap compared to 4G.”
Think of it as mobile’s version of broadband Internet. In other words, it’s more robust, stable and faster than today’s 4G or LTE networks.
In a retail setting, 5G could untether in-store associates and ensure systems stay online. People can check real-time stock levels quickly and with little to no disruptions, and fortify automated systems. With more of the load moving from human workers to machines, people would be freer to help customers or tackle other tasks best suited for people.
Brick-and-mortar and e-commerce companies may have more reliable distribution centers, warehouses and delivery services to lean on, since they’ll be able to communicate better and faster. Those 5G signals will also keep customers better connected to their favorite brands.
Such service is around the corner. Major efforts are under way by smartphone makers like Samsung, which showed off its 5G prototype phone at CES, as well as carriers like Verizon and AT&T.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
The use cases for VR and AR are growing. And in the case of AR, there’s already adoption on smartphones. People shopping eyeglasses and furniture can see what the product will look like on their actual faces or in their living rooms.
With AR, the ability to try on innumerable shades of lipstick or eyeshadow has become a game-changer for makeup customers, as well as the companies who serve them, such as Perfect Corp. and ModiFace, and beauty retailers like Sephora, Ulta and others.
Beyond that, CES exhibitors like Vuzix — which launched its Vuzix Blade AR Smart Glasses at the show — are pushing to make face-worn tech less bulky and more attractive. Granted, in the hand, it feels a bit chunky. But on the face it doesn’t stand out as a gadget. It looks like a fairly normal set of glasses. Whether it’s worth the $999 launch price, however, the market will determine.
As for virtual reality, it still has more uses behind the scenes for things like personnel training, logistics and store planning. But the active push in VR apps and immersive environments, as well as PC and console gaming, may have an interesting twist for the retail world.
Game software is becoming rather advanced, even cinematic. And the tools these developers use — to work on avatar skins, hair and costumes — has some experts believing they could be meaningful for digital fashion and beauty in virtual commerce.
Of course, wearables and smart garments have become stock expectations at CES, and plenty still storm the show. Sometimes in strange ways.
But others are taking rather practical tacks to solve real-world problems — like Chico’s FAS’ intimate apparel brand Soma, which showcased its Innofit bra-fitting system. Comprised of a connected garment and app, SomaInnofit takes four key body measurements and uses the data to recommend bras for a precision fit.
Beyond specific announcements and individual categories, the broader theme at CES is how technologies are evolving and working together to unlock new uses and features.
The headlines may snark about Amazon’s Alexa trying to steal thunder from Google Assistant, or Apple’s attempt at throwing shade at smartphone competitors’ approaches to privacy. (Yes, the Cupertino, Calif. company skipped CES, but still made its presence known.) But the big takeaway from CES is that Silicon Valley and its technologies are learning how to work together. And that momentum is changing things across all industries.
Today, practically all businesses are tech companies. And if CES is a preview of what the future may hold, then for apparel, beauty and other related sectors, one thing has become clear: Tech is not an accessory, it’s a foundation layer.