There isn’t a trace of salesmanship in Shawn DuBravac’s voice, despite his hyperbolic-seeming description of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.
As the chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association, the lobby group that runs CES, it’s his job to hype the annual Las Vegas techno-circus, which officially opens Jan. 7. Still, his deliberate and thoughtful comments belie a genuine belief that this year’s event will be a showcase for a new era of technological development.
“We’re entering the third industrial revolution now. We’re taking technology and changing the way we produce,” he says. “We’re no longer solely mass producing things, we’re doing it in a way that we can customize things down to the individual user.”
He goes on to explain that the first industrial revolution, which started in the 17th century, saw the amalgamation of numerous small businesses into large-scale enterprises. The second phase, over the next two centuries, saw the application of new technologies – electricity and communications – to that paradigm.
Now, the advent of 3D printing and the ubiquity of sensors and internet-enabled connectivity means the possibilities of individualism can be applied on a large scale. Big companies such as Nike and Motorola are already allowing people to customize online purchases of goods such as shoes and cellphones, say with personal colour or design choices. Even the simplest of objects – say, door locks or water bottles – are now using personal data garnered from smartphones to perform their tasks.
Such newly enhanced goods, many of which will be launched and shown off at CES, have the potential to collectively change the way we live and who we are.
“We’ve created the solutions for really complex problems and we’re starting to put those solutions together to create a more holistic, autonomous experience,” DuBravac says. “It’s beyond just making things, it’s the ability to change the way we interact with our products.”
It’s a different way of looking at CES, which is generally regarded as a huge, noisy smorgasbord of gadgets. Billed as the world’s largest technology trade show, this year’s iteration is expected to attract 150,000 attendees and 3,200 exhibitors. In its 47-year history, the event has been the launching pad for numerous big consumer technologies, from VCRs to high-definition televisions.
In recent years, CES has taken on a different character, as bigger technology companies have opted to save their flagship product unveilings for their own special events. The show’s sheer size makes such decisions understandable, since it’s easy for new products to get lost in the din.
More relevant than ever
While giants such as Apple and Microsoft don’t officially exhibit – although they will have representatives in attendance – CES is perhaps more relevant than ever, given the explosive rate of technological advancement of the past decade.
It’s a singular place where all those rapid changes coalesce into real-world ideas and applications.
“The first eight to 10 years I went, you’d see the same technologies wrapped up a little bit differently,” says Tony Sandhu, vice-president of merchandising for Future Shop, who will be attending his 18th CES this year. “Now, you’re seeing very relevant and significant improvements in technology.”
As a result, it’s the little things, as opposed to the big flashy products, that are taking centre stage. In the run-up to this year’s show, DuBravac says he has seen seemingly innocuous items, such as smartphone-connected plastic bottles that monitor their user’s water intake, to sensor-enabled basketballs that track shot arcs and velocity.
'The first eight to 10 years I went [to CES], you’d see the same technologies wrapped up a little bit differently. Now, you’re seeing very relevant and significant improvements in technology.' - Tony Sandhu, v-p, merchandising for Future Shop
Some of these items sound silly – one of the products that got the most attention last year was the HapiFork, an eating utensil that tracks how fast its user is chowing down – and some will inevitably flop, but a few winners are also likely to emerge, even if they are hard to spot coming.
Frank Gillett, analyst for technology tracking firm Gartner, likens the current situation to the era just before the iPod arrived in 2001. A number of different approaches and technologies for digital music players were being bandied about at the time. Then, Apple finally came along and solidified them.
“We’re in a period where a lot of existing ideas are floating around and someone, or several someones, are going to pull them together into something that really clicks and takes off,” he says.
Greater emphasis on software development
Further complicating the ability to spot CES winners ahead of time is the fact that gadget improvements may not be as noticeable or dramatic as in previous years, since manufacturers are now shifting their efforts into software development rather than hardware.
Software improves “gradually over time instead of this thunderbolt from the sky,” Gillett says.
That’s not stopping some of the bigger exhibitors, with the likes of Sony, Samsung and LG all aiming for that figurative thunderbolt with ultra-high-definition (UHD) televisions. After rolling out a few test models last year, manufacturers will be heavily hyping the flat panels, which have four times the resolution of existing HD TVs.
Prices have been high so far while UHD content that takes advantage of the sharper resolution has also been sparse, but boosters of the technology expect the momentum to start rolling in 2014. In addition to the TV makers, Netflix will also be further talking up its plans for UHD at the event. The video streaming service is currently shooting the second season of its hot show House of Cards in the new format.
“From a pricing perspective, it’s going to surprise people,” says Future Shop’s Sandhu. “From a content perspective, Netflix is talking about early 2014.”
Others aren’t so sure about the technology. Gillett doesn’t believe UHD is going to go mainstream any time soon, mainly because consumers aren’t likely to see the difference. The higher resolution is really only noticeable on giant screens, which most people simply don’t have room for in their homes.
“It’s unrealistic in a lot of living rooms and out of range for a lot of wallets,” he says. “It feels like an, ‘Oh wow cool!’ thing to show off at a show, but not something that you and I are going to want to go out and buy for our living room any time soon.”
The CEA has modest projections for UHD, with only about 60,000 units expected to sell in the United States in 2014. In Canada, it’ll be about 6,000 to 8,000. Overall adoption will take years to reach critical mass, DuBravac says.
“It really is a beautiful, compelling technology. We’re not going to have 30-per-cent ownership tomorrow, but it’s a natural, evolutionary step in TVs.”
Wearable technology is also expected to be big at the show, despite the relatively high-profile flop of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch and the privacy concerns over Google’s Glass connected glasses in 2013.
“There’s the question of what’s socially acceptable versus the enhancements it provides us day in and day out. I’m really curious to see where people are landing on that,” says Sandhu. “That’s going to be a very intriguing part of what we see down there.”