CES 2016: Gaining ground not breaking it

CES has always been notable for iconic product launches—the first VCR in 1971, Nintendo in 1985, Tetris in 1988, and Blu-Ray in 2003. This year, however, wasn’t a year of iconic product launches—it was a year of incremental progress, including more advances in drones, virtual reality, healthcare, and robotics than we’ve seen any year before.

CES is still a great place to put faces to names and build real connections with some of today’s most promising innovators. To that end, Foundation Capital cohosted a MarTech mixer alongside our portfolio companies, AdRoll, Localytics, Tubi TV, and TubeMogul. It was a great opportunity for our companies to meet marketing leaders from across the world and for attendees to experience the latest advances in marketing coming through VR and AR (augmented reality). The evening also featured special guest demonstrations from Immersv, a mobile VR platform connecting advertisers with content creators, Quantum Bakery, and LiveLike. We saw amazing technology coming from these startups—including many activations that marketers will be hungry for in the new year and beyond.

My partner Ashu Garg also spoke about the Decade of the CMO to a packed room of marketers attending the conference. As marketing increasingly becomes a technical discipline, we’ll see deeper insights and integrations between the CES-centric tech world and traditional marketing practices.

Though there weren’t any earth-shaking new tech developments coming out of Las Vegas this January, that’s not to say that my jaw didn’t drop a few times at the major steps forward we are seeing across today’s hottest technologies. Here’s a quick rundown of what you can expect to see in drones, virtual reality, quantified self, and robotics this year.

Our MarTech Innovators Happy Hour at CES 2016 – a good time was had by all.

Drones, Drones, Drones!

The drumbeat of the drones is only getting louder—and this year we saw industrial-level drone developments as well as some pretty amazing (albeit zany) inventions in personal transportation, all thanks to drones. It is staggering how many flavors of drones there are. Here are my favorite picks for drone MVPs: the Yuneec Tornado, the EHang 184 (who can ignore a person-carrying drone?), and the Parrot Disco.

While drones are rapidly moving into the mainstream (DJI is now at $1B+ in revenues), it’s clear that the drone hardware stack is getting commoditized even more quickly than I had imagined. However, I believe that many areas of the drone stack are largely underinvested. One area is the infrastructure that will govern drones when (not if) millions of drones hover over our skies. The second is software that is able to extract proprietary data that it can leverage to enable drones to be smarter and more useful for certain sectors or use cases, like using drones to perform roofing inspections. I hope to see more companies addressing these problems at next year’s CES. And even some of the oldest brands in the country were talking drones. My colleague Meg Sloan, attended the Fortune Brainstorm Tech dinner and heard Mark Fields, CEO of Ford Motor Company, talking about the importance of drone integrations into their business.

Virtual Reality

2016 is the year that VR really arrives. Pre-orders for Oculus Rift opened up just prior to the show this year, and VR is poised to move toward the mainstream in the months ahead—but there are still major obstacles to mass consumer adoption. On the floor of CES, we saw many companies trying to crack the code for VR hardware that is accessible and less cumbersome than carrying around a headset all day.

While Google Cardboard and smartphone VR continue to grow as platforms and content channels, startups are emerging to make the phones in our pockets into better VR machines. From our conversations at the show, we learned that even leaders in VR do not yet consume this new digital medium as their default entertainment. Hardware is that huge of a barrier. Yet startups like Quantum Bakery—with their Figment VR—are transforming our phone cases into VR viewers to make accessibility easier.

Though content is wide and varied in VR, gaming is still leading the pack and will remain the breakout VR genre for the immediate future. But hot on the heels of gaming, scenarios where entertainment consumption is real time and requires mobility are poised for a significant move into VR. For example, soon someone who lives in China will be able to use VR to watch the NBA. (Did you know there are over 300M NBA fans in China?—another tidbit Meg learned at the Fortune event from Pam El, the CMO of the NBA.)

Healthcare aka the Quantified Self

This year also saw further developments in wearables and software systems that measure nearly every human activity and many of an individual’s health signals. Healthcare IT and quantified-self technologies are targeting three primary demographics:

Millennials, who want to measure everything—companies include Healbe (calorie tracker), Polar Balance (smart scale), OMsignal (fitness-monitoring clothing company).
The aging population, who are concerned about health and disease, including heart conditions, blood pressure, diabetes, and post-surgery therapy. Often these solutions will be tied to healthcare practitioners and institutional software systems that aggregate a holistic view of a patient’s health. Companies spotted at CES include VivaLnk, MedWand, and Masimo.
Parents—the brand-new generation of tech-savvy families who are looking for more sophisticated ways to monitor their children and take the term “overprotective” to new heights.
In order for these solution to reach the mass market, companies will have to decipher: 1) where in the customer lifecycle this solution best fits and how to follow the customer through their lifecycle and 2) how tech platforms can be developed that don’t require a significant change in consumer behavior (since many solutions do—such as charging batteries, entering calories, etc.).


IoT developments were everywhere at CES this year, and the latest trend within the Internet of Things is home automation by way of personal robots. If CES is any predictor, we will soon see home robotics that will help automate nearly every household task from laundry to doing the dishes to making the bed, and much, much more. So much so, that perhaps someday robots may be the next on-demand market.

Though CES 2016 was more about evolution than revolution, the advances we witnessed were still pretty mind-bending. It will be amazing to see some of these developments make their way into the popular consciousness over the year ahead. And for startups, there are some pretty fantastic opportunities to grab a hold of following this year’s show.

If you were at CES this year and saw something amazing or if you are an entrepreneur making something exceptional in VR or beyond, please reach out to me at @joannezchen.

Ashu Garg, Foundation Capital General Partner – discussing the ‘Future of Marketing’ at CES 2016