Consumer Electronics Show: 5 Thoughts on New Tech



Annually, the technology industries convene in Las Vegas, Nevada for community, gambling, and Consumer Electronics Show. The Las Vegas Convention Center and assorted other venues play host to 150,000 industry guests present for the unveiling of various exciting new products, many professing to be game changers for the industry. Attendees peruse thousands of exhibits, attend various speaker tracks, demo literally millions of new products, and to watch Michael Bay publicly embarrass himself. There’s a lot to see and a lot to learn, way too much content for any person to entirely absorb. Below, I tried to pick out a few key themes that resonated at CES, filtered through my own opinions and observations.

1. 4K TVs Cost Less Than $4K

After television makers spent a few years championing 3DTV as the next crucial home entertainment centerpiece, the emergence of the ultra high resolution 4K format can be seen as an admittance that 3D just might not transcend niche. 4K resolution indicates ultra high definition (UHD) display devices measuring approximately 4000 pixels across. The relatively new format replaces 1080p standard high definition televisions. Television makers like LG, Samsung, Sony and Panasonic hope that consumers adopt 4K and replace their current sets. The manufacturers have friends equally advocating UHD conversion, such as Netflix and other content providers. Netflix announced 4K streaming partnerships with Sony, LG, and Samsung, which is available immediately for owners of those manufacturers’ compatible products.

Existing 4K content is fairly limited. Sony sells a line of 4K optimized Blu Ray disks, but these are still far below actual 4K resolution. The announcement that Netflix will stream 4K content, combined with forward-thinking plans from broadcasters, bodes well for customer adoption. Most importantly, Vizio, Polaroid and other manufacturers used CES to introduce 50+” screens for a mere $1,000, which will force technology leaders to price products below the current $3,000-10,000 range.

One highly-touted TV feature that seems just as questionable as 3D: virtually every manufacturer prominently showcased a curved screen format in their CES showroom. For those who have not seen the technology yet, the curve is horizontally inverted, rather than the protruding, rounded curved tubes of televisions past. Considering virtually no existing content was originally created for a curved viewing display, the feature is more curiosity than it is crucial. Most manufacturers present at CES utilized nature footage to showcase the curved format, perhaps subtly implying that the feature is best used for Animal Planet, Planet Earth, and similar nature content. Samsung and LG both have sets that allow users to alter screen curve at the tap of a button.  


2. 3DTV Isn’t Dead

Obviously, consumers decided to reject 3DTV in 2011 and 2012 in favor of high definition displays that don’t involve wearing sunglasses inside the house. According to The Wire, 3DTV sales are on the rise, but only because that functionality is included in so many products across leading manufacturer brands, making 3D hard to avoid.

It's also a major blow to 3D in the living room; Vizio sells the most TVs of any company in the US, according to The Verge. But Vizio is confident that consumers won't miss it; in fact, the decision was made because Vizio's current customers simply aren't viewing content in 3D often. In 2014, Vizio seems willing to sacrifice what some may consider a gimmick in pursuit of a better picture. 

Manufacturers have moved on to try their luck with 4K and curved screens. But LG, despite radically reducing its output of 3DTVs, still has some faith that a smaller, niche audience will seek out the in-your-face format. On display at CES was LG’s truly massive array of tiled curved 4K 3DTV screens. Crowds gathered to view the most impressive 3DTV viewing experience yet from any manufacturer. Of course, one only need purchase about a hundred 58” screens to duplicate this result, but the experiment proves the viability of the format as an immersive and exciting novelty.

The big excitement at CES was the emergence of high quality glasses-free 3DTV sets. Sharp’s new glasses-free set (which requires the viewer to sit in a single, optimal viewing location) underwhelmed and failed to build upon encouraging work shown in 2012 and 2013. But Samsung’s prototype allowed for 35 viewing angles and only slight degradation of the 4K image quality.

3. Tablets Rule PCs Drool

Everybody at CES wanted to show off their tablet. Nobody wanted to show off anything resembling a PC. According to studies by Gartner and IDC, global PC sales fell 10% in 2013, which is more than the standard 4% decline PCs have had over the last few years. About 83 million PC units were sold worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2013. In comparison, NPD group reports that the 2013 holiday season saw about 11 million tablet units sold, representing a 45% jump over 2012 figures. Tablets and more affordable laptops like Chromebook and Asus Transformer Book are singled out as high selling PCs, but both offer similar benefits to tablets, such as lower price tag, touch screen, and easy portability.

PCs still make up a much bigger chunk of business than tablets, but customers around the world are converting away from the larger, more expensive devices and choosing handheld competitors. Trends don’t necessarily match reality: it will take a few years for tablets to pass PCs in worldwide sales. But CES isn’t about statistics and research, it’s about eye-catching trends and trail blazing, forward-thinking movements.   


4. Wearable World

Nobody is saying Google Glass is the future, but Nike+, FitBit, and other bracelet or clip-on devices certainly rule the present. Fitness and health related booths, including iBitz for the youth audience and even a few GPS-laden wristlets by Garmen, peppered the trade show floor. But the most attention-getting booth was Cisco’s Internet of Everything space, preaching the benefits of a fully connected world. While these wrist or clip-based tracking devices are far from ubiquitous, the segment’s popularity continues to grow. Cisco’s CEO John Chambers calls the Internet of Everything a “$19 trillion opportunity” to  connect our devices to the world around us. 

A speaker at Cisco’s booth, which visualized the connected home of the near future, walked the audience through a few examples, all possible by tethering a Nike+ or FitBit-like wristlet to mobile devices and the cloud. Picking a kids safety example: these wristlets would be tracked by parents and handlers/operators from the child’s school. If a child went home to another child’s house, the handlers would be able to see that the kids had an “approved sleepover” and that nothing unusual was occurring. The speaker then supposed that the visiting child had a food allergy (for example, gluten intolerance). If the child reached for cookies containing gluten, a sensor in the cookie packaging would ping the wristlet, resulting in a buzz or notification. Other examples included a parent’s ability to block access to certain television or internet content, allowing the wristbands to make content user specific.

Cisco’s example didn’t particularly resonate: the last thing American kids need is more controlling parents. But the admittedly Big Brother-sounding idea has many viable potential applications. Chambers asked audience members to imagine trash cans complete with sensors to indicate the need for trash pickup, thereby cutting waste management costs. He mentioned similar savings (upwards of 70%) for street lighting if integrated with sensors. Virtual shopping carts and concierges, tied to a customer’s pantry and refrigerator, could propel changes for the grocery business. Smart cars and smart car repair combine for quicker results and diminished wait times. Chambers’ examples indicate how big data solutions will change our daily lives in the next few years.

An example at Samsung’s booth displayed a smart mirror. Though not intended to showcase a forthcoming product, the prototype proved how easily digital interfaces can be integrated into the world around us, making a digital dashboard seamlessly part of our physical lives.

5. Accessorize To The Crime

Taking a wrong turn in one of the CES halls, I suddenly found myself in purgatory: endless rows of smartphone and tablet cases, stands, stickers, and assorted other chunks of plastic intended for use with your handheld mobile device. There were a number of cool accessories showcased, including a litany of portable battery chargers, but I found myself wondering why most of these companies spent their time and money showcasing products that differ so slightly  from each other. Hundreds of accessory booths filled rooms and rooms at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Accessorizing is big business, but the low barrier to entry for manufacturers has resulted in a barren accessory landscape masking the few true innovations to be found in the category.

In his roles as Digital Strategy Director of Consumer & Entertainment Brands at Manifest Digital, Co-Founder at toy invention studio Otherdoor Entertainment, and ChiTAG committee member, Brian Torney is an innovator in the play industries, kids entertainment, and product/brand initiatives. Refusing to grow up, Brian has been contributing to the play industries since the age of 15, when he worked at a Chicagoland Toys R Us store. He specializes in cross-platform brand storytelling. Brian also practices ancient Jedi techniques of mind control… These are not the droids you’re looking for.

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