The Consumer Electronics Show kicks off in Las Vegas on Tuesday, and is expected to spotlight the latest in ultra high-definition television, connected home technology and every other manner of gadgetry.
But if there’s one category worth focusing on this time around at the mega-trade show — which generally sets the table for the year ahead — it’s smartwatches.
Manufacturers such as Samsung, Sony and Motorola have been trying to sell the public on the devices, but the digital timepieces have so far failed to catch on in the way that smartphones and tablets have.
Many consumers still don’t see the point of yet another gizmo that doesn’t offer much unique functionality on its own. CES could be the last kick at the veritable can for smartwatch makers looking to entice consumers.
“A lot of 2015 is going to be trying to find the killer app. What is that app that brings the watch to the forefront?” says Emily Taylor, consumer and mobile research analyst at IDC Canada.
“For real traction, the smartwatch is going to have to do something different or better than your phone.”
To that end, Taylor expects manufacturers to show off a bevy of experiments and gimmicks at CES, including standalone watches that don’t have to be tethered to smartphones to get internet connectivity.
Such watches would have their own subscriber identity module (SIM) cards, like those found in cellphones. Yet with many consumers already saddled with expensive cellphone bills, such devices could have trouble catching on.
“To get another SIM card or another plan, it’s going to be a barrier,” Taylor says. “But we’re still going to see them at CES.”
The rise of wearables
Ironically, the best hope for smartwatches may lie outside of CES. Apple, which typically doesn’t exhibit in Las Vegas, showed off its own Apple Watch at a press event in September.
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The device, expected to go on sale in the first half of 2015, could spark sales of the overall “wearables” category. IDC expects the Apple Watch to lead a 70 per cent increase in Canadian wearables shipments to 1.2 million, year over year.
“There is an argument to be made that every watch sold could be a smartwatch,” Taylor says. “People initially scoffed at the tablet as well.”
Other analysts aren’t so sure. Toronto-based tracking firm Solutions Research Group believes the media overrates the public's interest in smartwatches.
In surveys, only about 22 per cent of consumers have shown interest in the category.
“[That] basically says it’s a niche product,” says SRG president Kaan Yigit.
“Yes, there are health and fitness applications, but outside of certain segments, not everyone will want to have their heart rate monitored 24/7.”
In addition to smartwatches, electronics manufacturers will push 4K televisions, otherwise known as ultra high definition, at CES.
4K TVs – so-called for their 4,000 horizontal pixels of resolution, four times that of regular HD – may have an easier time catching on in 2015.
Prices have come down by about 85 per cent since the technology was first introduced two years ago, according to BI Intelligence.
In Canada, Future Shop and Best Buy report that 4K was responsible for about 40 per cent of TV purchases during recent Black Friday and September sales.
Streaming company Netflix, which is ramping up its 4K content, estimates the higher-resolution TVs are already in 10 per cent of U.S. households.
That figure is likely to reach 30 per cent next year and potentially surpass 50 per cent in 2016, says Netflix spokesman Cliff Edwards.
“You’re not looking at mass adoption, but they’re going to be much more into the mainstream,” he says.
Making your home smarter
A lack of 4K video content has so far been an issue, but CES will likely herald a number of announcements on that front.
Netflix is planning to outline further 4K plans and some of the major TV manufacturers may show off 4K Blu-ray players, which are expected in late 2015.
Broadcasters are gearing up, too. In December, U.S. provider DirecTV launched a 4K satellite, while cable giant Comcast is already streaming some content in the higher resolution.
(Bell and Rogers, two of Canada’s largest TV service providers, didn’t return requests for comment.)
The connected home will also be hyped at CES, with companies touting everything from digital door locks to smart thermostats. Many of the products are heading into their second and third generation, which means many of the bugs have been worked out and they’re easier to use.
“The evolution of these products is that they’re providing much more utility than they did before,” says Tony Sandhu, vice-president of merchandising for Future Shop and Best Buy.
About 30 per cent of Canadians are interested in connected-home products, according to SRG.
“Again, niches here, but of course it's early days of [the internet] everywhere,” Yigit says.