Treading New Ground in Consumer Electronics

Predator is Acer's series of computer products for esports aficionados. Photo: Jens Kastner

The recent IFA show in Berlin gave Taiwanese companies an opportunity to showcase new products.

Taiwan’s consumer electronics providers have begun exploring new market segments in the face of slowing global economic growth, decreased replacement demand, persistent concerns over the U.S.-China trade war, and stiff competition from China. The 2019 edition of IFA, one of the world’s largest consumer electronics exhibitions, which was held in Berlin in September, provided a glimpse into the progress some of these companies are making.

Acer, known primarily for its consumer notebooks and tablets, showed off a few new additions to its line of gaming-oriented computing products designed to please some of the world’s most demanding gamers. The company’s Predator brand, launched in 2016, includes gaming notebooks, desktops, and displays that boast ultra-low response times and ultra-high resolution. They also contain extra-efficient cooling technology to facilitate long hours of gaming despite the energy-gobbling graphics.

Acer has made big strides in the gaming sector in recent years. The company’s revenues from gaming products grew by 70% year-on-year in 2018, in contrast to the lackluster 2.2% overall revenue growth in the same period. The company’s experience aligns with the prediction from market research firm Newzoo that the global esports market will generate revenues in excess of US$1 billion in 2019, a major milestone, thanks to projected year-on-year growth of 26.7%.

A presentation at the Taiwan Pavilion at the recent IFA show in Berlin. Photo: Jens Kastner

“While mainstream applications for notebooks and tablets, such as home internet browsing, have seen sluggish growth, the gaming market is booming, and esports has become a major topic of interest,” said Manuel Linnig, Acer’s director of public relations for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, who spoke with Taiwan Business TOPICS at this year’s IFA show. “The games are getting better quickly, so the hardware has to catch up,” he said. “Acer is leading the pack on this front, as reflected in its spot as one of the top two gaming hardware providers in 24 countries.”

Linnig noted that the final round of an esports tournament today can easily draw a live audience of 60,000, in addition to 300 million online viewers. To elevate Acer’s position as a global esports brand and create an army of brand lovers in the close-knit gaming community, the company has taken an active role in esports competitions across the world. It organized the 2019 Asia Pacific Predator League, held in Bangkok in February, which attracted over 4.3 million views online.

In September, Acer introduced Planet9, an online esports platform that provides hobby gamers with tools to develop their skills. This platform allows the gamer to hire a professional coach and form a team for joint training sessions. Coaches are chosen based on game statistics, language, rating, and hourly rate. They can assist the gamer by creating a tailor-made course, which includes features such as screen-sharing, video or voice chat, and VOD uploading for playback.

Acer has also begun shifting its focus in marketing its notebooks. Instead of aiming at the average user, it is increasingly gearing its approach toward creative professionals such as designers, photographers, and engineers – users requiring mobile devices that can handle compute-intensive workloads. “Our ConceptD Pro series notebooks are about as powerful as the gaming notebooks, but the details differ,” says Linnig. “For instance, an engineer needs to see color nuances much more clearly than a gamer.”

Rival computer electronics provider Asus has also been investing heavily in gaming. Its ROG brand (an acronym for “Republic of Gamers”) initially focused on gamer-friendly monitors, notebooks, desktops, and accessories, but in 2018 the company launched its ROG mobile phone series. ROG phones boast higher refresh rates, which means less motion blur and faster response times. They also use 6000mAh batteries, which have almost twice the capacity as those in conventional smartphones for extra-long battery life.

The ROG II, released this past July, features pressure-sensitive corners that double as bumper buttons for games, expanding game control beyond the screen. The phone also includes a detachable fan to keep it cool for extended gaming. ROG announced in July that it will be the official hardware sponsor for the EXP Esports Gaming Series, created by ESPN in collaboration with game designer Electronic Arts.

“Traditionally, mobile devices haven’t been a real option for gamers, as they don’t provide sufficient computing power to match the real experience,” said Brian Tang, a senior manager at Asus. “The ROG brand is able to support all kinds of mobile gaming scenarios, be it at home or on the go, and the mobile gaming market is growing quickly with these developments.”

Tang noted that while gamers in the West usually started their gaming careers on video game consoles such as PlayStation or Xbox, gamers in China and Southeast Asia arrived on the scene later and went straight into mobile gaming, skipping the console stage.

Not just gaming

IFA also presented a chance to take a closer look at the New Kinpo Group’s transformation from one of the world’s largest ODM manufacturers of electronic calculators, printers, SSD/HDD storage, set top boxes, and household appliances to a conglomerate that drives innovation and has its own brands.

In 2017, New Kinpo established New Era AI Robotic, which focuses on artificial intelligence solutions and robotic development. The company’s products include service robots for use in retail, hotels, healthcare, and banking. The products feature autonomous indoor navigation, voice interaction, mobile advertising, real-time customer assistance, and facial recognition for targeted marketing and people counting. Some of the robots are capable of carrying items weighing up to 100 kilograms in space-constrained places like office corridors and elevators.

Smart service robots. Photo: New Era

In Taiwan, New Era AI’s robots have been introduced at eight Chunghwa Telecom branches, where they help customers review their account status, make bill payments, and set up roaming services for travel outside the country. The company’s robots also assist Mega Bank customers at the bank’s four flagship branches with opening bank accounts, checking interest rates, and perusing the latest news. And some units are in use in Taiwanese hospitals, transferring sanitized surgical instruments from supply room to operation room and providing legally compulsory post-surgery information to patients. To date, 200 units have been sold.

“Our competitive advantage is in providing open systems, which allow users to program the robots according to their unique requirements,” said Ian Sun, sales department supervisor at New Era AI Robotic.

Cal-Comp Big Data, another of New Kinpo’s subsidiaries, was also present at IFA to show off its new product, HiMirror, a device to help users decide which cosmetics products are most effective. The device comprises three layers: a touch screen laid on top of a mirror laid on top of an LED layer. Its high-focus camera sends close-ups of the user’s pores, wrinkles, dark circles, and other skin conditions to a cloud database. There, the user’s data is compared with thousands of other users of the same age and gender, enabling an evaluation report to be created.

HiMirror comes with Beauty Box, a cloud application that recommends the best products and leads the user to the online shopping sites that sell them. It also features HiTube, which superimposes YouTube cosmetics tutorials onto one corner of the mirror, allowing the user to replicate the tutor’s routine with ease.

“I use my HiMirror weekly, which gives me a very clear timeline of how my skin condition has changed over a six-month period,” said Ho Cin-Yee, director of sales and marketing for HiMirror. “It then helps me to evaluate whether the money I’ve been spending on certain products is worth it.”

Nevertheless, Ho explained that the nature of the device presents a challenge to retailers, who are uncertain whether HiMirror belongs in the fashion or cosmetics department, the drugstore or the electronics store. 

While HiMirror uses AI to improve its users’ skin, Taiwanese startup Relajet is providing innovative solutions for people who are hard of hearing. The company is made up of Taiwanese engineers formerly employed by chip-designer MediaTek and designs chipsets that separate human voices from surrounding noises, as well as individual voices from each other. The target applications for these chipsets are hearing aids and voice recognition machines. If used in a hearing aid, a smartphone app allows the user to choose which particular sound to isolate.

Photo: Jens Kastner

“If you are in a place with lots of children, you can easily turn down the volume of their voices so that you only hear your wife’s voice, or you can do it the other way around,” said Tim Hsieh, business development manager at RelaJet Tech. “We achieve this level of separation by teaching our chipset to distinguish sounds. To do this, we feed it with thousands of different voices and noises,” he added.

Hsieh noted that RelaJet Tech is anticipating a major sales boom brought on by a looming change to U.S. laws on medical prescriptions, which is expected to significantly expand the American hearing aid market. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans introduce regulations in 2020 allowing the sale of over-the-counter hearing aids. This development will make such devices more widely available to people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss.

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