Chinese Startups Steal The CE Show In Vegas
China Takes Front Row Center at CES 2016
From copying to innovating, the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show proved that China is gaining quickly in global innovation, particularly when it comes to hardware. Of the more than 3600 exhibitors this year in the Vegas show, about one-third came from China – up from about one-fourth the previous year.
Despite federal marshals’ raid of a Chinese hoverboard maker, Changzhou First International Trade Co., for low-cost, knock-off products, the bulk of exhibiting Chinese startups and large tech companies demonstrated China’s move beyond mere copying and strides in innovation.
To showcase how this trend is evolving, Silicon Dragon highlights and assesses eight select Chinese startups that made a splash at this year’s CES. Many of these companies did not exist two years ago, but several have become near-household names for their breakthrough electronics and hardware products. They also have gained prominence by turning to English language sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo to raise initial funds and generate buzz.
Eight Chinese Startups That Made A Splash at CES 2016
Letv, best known in China as a leading online video company, got into the limelight with a U.S. launch in 2015 and a stand-out exhibit at CES this year for the well-funded startup with 500 employees across all offices. In Las Vegas, Letv released the Le Max Pro smartphone, the first phone to incorporate Qualcomm’s new flagship chip, the Snapdragon 820 processor. The phone features multi-gigabit sharing of data between devices, incorporates ultrasonic fingertip technology, and debuts support of the the IEEE 802.11ad wireless standard.
Letv and partner Aston Martin, a British luxury sports car maker, also unveiled the first results of their collaboration: an Aston Martin Rapide S that incorporates the Letv “Internet of the Vehicle” system. The car features a new concept for the center console and instrument panel, equipped with screens. The vehicle also incorporates Letv’s latest speech recognition technology.
Assessment: Look for Letv to branch out beyond entertainment and its home turf. Whether the conglomerate can compete against other sector-focused startups remains to be seen, but Letv has the resources and domestic reputation to continue creating industry-defining partnerships and products.
Amidst the wide range of Chinese drone makers, Ehang and DJI dominated. In particular, Ehang’s new 184 quadcopter, equipped with the ability to autonomously fly passengers for 23 minutes, captured the public’s imagination for its helicopter-like design. The drone, capable of flying at heights up to 2.15 miles and speeds up to 60 miles/hour, even comes with an air-conditioner system. Passengers have no need for a pilot’s license, thanks to the fully automated navigation, but obviously there are regulatory hurdles to clear before it takes off. Though this is not the world’s first rideable quadcopter, the $50 million venture funded Ehang has introduced never-before seen technology, including new flight-control algorithms that oversee the speed of the drone’s rotors. Cofounder Derrick Xiong stated that the drone will be sold later this year at a price of $200,000 to $300,000 per unit, initially targeting tourist areas.
Assessment: Hailed by insiders as a “publicity stunt” to gain media attention at the expense of a widely usable product, Ehang’s quadcopter is nonetheless an intriguing concept. The startup’s quick-to-market plan shows hustle. Its strategy to first sell to businesses that might use the device for tourist purposes, before attempting to expand into other market segments, is clever.
Global market leader DJI unveiled four products, including two new versions of its most popular drone models. Notably, DJI added the new Phantom 3 4K to its lineup, effectively combining its 4K camera, previously only available on its Phantom 3 Professional, with a less expensive model that upgrades the quality of the final recorded image, while downgrading its piloting range.
Assessment: While Ehang stole the drone stage at CES, DJI is still the world’s best-selling and largest drone maker, credited with popularizing the concept of consumer drones. DJI boasts a sky-high valuation: $10 billion as of its latest $75 million VC round in May 2015. Arguably though, DJI’s new products featured in Vegas were more tweaks rather than truly innovative.
Maintaining a leading position in this competitive and dynamic market is challenging. Tech titan Tencent has partnered with Shenzhen-based hardware maker Rapoo Technology to venture into drone technologies. Meanwhile, Intel has venture invested $60 million into drone-maker Shanghai’s Yuneec International, another CES exhibitor.
ANTVR was among the virtual reality (VR) headsets that was in Las Vegas spotlight. The Chinese VR startup, which crowdfunded a gaming VR kit named ANTVR Kit 1 on Kickstarter last year, is developing VR, augmented reality and holographic reality. The young company counts among its products a VR headset for PC, VR glasses for mobile phones and a VR camera.
At the show, ANTVR presented two headsets for gamers: for PCs and for Lenovo smartphones. The PC headset is able to track a user’s movement in space as they walk, done through a forward-facing infrared camera that reads small square pads laid out on the floor before use. A launch date is planned for Summer 2016, with a price tag of $300 to $400. The Lenovo headset, currently sold in China, uses a smartphone as the processor and screen, mounted into a minimalistic headset. It comes bundled with a Lenovo smartphone for $15, and $25 without the smartphone.
Assessment: This startup’s chances of success are boosted by its passionate team led by founder Qin Zheng, who created the first ANTVR prototype and later recruited an equally bullish technical team, plus its partnership with China- and U.S.-headquartered Lenovo. Notably, Lenovo just launched its VIBE K4 Note in India, concurrently offering a compatible VR kit made by ANTVR. The current products could use some tweaks, but the VR market is still nascent. Props to ANTVR for successfully incorporating crowdfunding to get its product off the ground.
In 3D printing, Chinese startup XYZprinting came out of the woodwork. The startup exhibited eight products, including the da Vinci Mini, its most affordable 3D printer to hit the market, priced at $269. The small, versatile printer comes with Wi-Fi capabilities and is designed for consumers including small businesses, educators and craftspeople. It requires no assembly or equipment adjustments.
At CES, XYZprinting also rolled out a $49 3D Pen. By pushing a button, a user dispenses the filament that has been fed into the pen and is able to form various shapes. The product does not require a computer or software to use.
Assessment: This startup is one of the first companies to make a name for itself in the 3D printing space. With a compact size and simple design, the new products are quite versatile. Hailed as a “budget” printer, the Mini provides good value for the price. The 3D Pen could become a staple in schools and homes of the future. Will XYZprinting achieve its mission of bringing affordable 3D printing technology to the masses? Time will tell soon: its Mini will be available for purchase in the second half of this year.
Ubtech Robotics, a maker of toy robots, showcased its new robotics kit, named “Jimu,” or “building block” in Mandarin. The kit lets kids (and adults) build robo-creations from instructions and color-coded parts. The finished robot can be connected to an Android or iOS device via Bluetooth, and then launch the corresponding Jimu app. The robot is easy to program: simply press a record button in the app, then move the robot to its position.
Ubtech also displayed an Alpha 2 Robot, a descendant from the Nao line of humanoid robots. Due to its small size, the bot is considered more of a helper than a companion; it will be able to complete tasks such as interpret languages, remind its owner to take medications, and act as a home security guard.
Assessment: The DIY kit is fun yet intellectually engaging, and could be a consumer success. At $1295 for a July 2016 release, Alpha 2 is priced out of mainstream adoption threshold. Watch for the technology behind this bot to continue to be fine-tuned and evolve, coupled with a price decrease. The personalized approach to designing this bot’s capabilities is impressive.
Combining smart hardware and mobile phones, The ONE Smart Piano connects with a smartphone or tablet to help piano players learn new music. An LED-lit keyboard, interactive sheet music and virtual instructor aid students as they teach themselves. The keyboard is priced at $250 ($299 online) and an upright version retails for $1500.
Assessment: The team behind The ONE has smartly applied technology to one of the world’s most popular instruments. As reviewers on its Amazon page have echoed, the product needs improvements before it is truly ready for prime time. Software glitches need to be worked out, as do connectivity issues with devices. Despite these challenges, one wonders: after a Smart Piano, what instrument or skill is next? The ONE has begun to show us what is possible in music education.
Faraday Future, previously hailed as a “Mysterious Tesla Rival,” is not itself a Chinese company but the electric vehicle maker’s Chinese connections run deep, counting billionaire Jia Yueting, CEO of entertainment company Letv among its backers and partners. The company is working on a modular components platform with the aim of accelerating development time frames for a wide category of electric vehicles. With intentions to invest $1 billion a Nevada factory, an emphasis on design, and a mission of revolutionizing what consumers can do in an automobile, Faraday has a big plans but execution is key.
Assessment: A big vision, the right market (electric cars), and solid connections in the world’s largest consumer market all point north. Faraday is one of several Chinese electric car makers that may soon become a global household name.
Chinese Tech Giants Make A Stand At CES
Large Chinese tech companies made their stand as well at this year’s CES. In addition to Letv (mentioned above), Lenovo, Haier, ZTE, Huawei, Hisense, and TCL were all center stage.
Lenovo made headlines with news that it will produce a $500 smartphone for Google’s Project Tango, the search giant’s technology to bring spatial perception to Android devices. It looks likely that Lenovo will be the first to bring the technology to consumer smartphones later this year.
Another phone maker, ZTE, launched two inexpensive smartphones, the $130 Grand X3 and the $115 Avid Plus. ZTE also featured its flagship AXON products.
State-owned enterprise Hisense announced that it will be releasing 25 new TVs this year, with prices ranging from $189 to $3300. Hisense already takes honors as the third biggest seller of TVs worldwide and claims to be the top selling brand in China. Another plus: Hisense makes the fastest-growing 4K TV brand in the U.S.
In line with the trend of incorporating Dolby Vision, TV maker TCL plans to release an X1 line of TVs that uses the display technology. The multinational also intends to partner with Roku, maker of streaming devices, to push for HDR Roku TVs.
Home appliance maker Haier debuted an Android tablet and two Windows tablets. With an eye to smart homes of the future, the Chinese household name displayed a range of connected appliances including a smart refrigerator, air conditioners and washing machines.
In addition to showcasing a new Android phone, the Honor 5X, Huawei delved into smartwatches, with the launch of two Android smartwatches designed to appeal to women: the Huawei Watch Jewel and the Huawei Watch Elegant.
All in all, CES had a decided Chinese flavor this year.