CES 2016: Set your smartwatch for a virtual-reality future
Hollywood and video game makers set to storm the immersive, headset market
The annual Consumer Electronics Show kicks off in Las Vegas on Wednesday, with virtual reality, ultra-high-definition television, wearable gizmos and the internet of things expected to be the main attractions.
An estimated 150,000 attendees from 150 countries will flock to the annual trade show — one of the largest tech events in the world — to see 3,600 exhibitors debut all manner of new technologies.
This year, virtual reality is expected to take centre stage, led by San Francisco-based Oculus Rift.
Purchased by Facebook for $2 billion US in 2014, the company is promising to release its long-awaited headset to consumers within the first quarter of 2016.
A number of competitors, including Samsung and HTC, are expected to go toe-to-toe with the company over a market that could be worth $150 billion by 2020.
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The headset makers will be showing off their products at CES, but the event is also expected to be a launching pad for an entire ecosystem of content and related hardware to surround the emergent technology.
Content creators, ranging from Hollywood movie studios to video game developers, will be announcing upcoming initiatives while accessory manufacturers will be gauging media and investor interest in their associated joysticks and controller devices.
"These are all important pieces of the puzzles," says Shawn Dubravac, chief economist at the Consumer Technology Association, the organization behind CES.
The bandwidth problem
Despite the inevitable hype and expectations, VR may be limited out of the gate by a number of factors.
Content makers, for one, are likely to face distribution challenges in the form of internet bandwidth limitations.
Fully immersive experiences will require super-fast connections and take a toll on the monthly usage caps that many consumers have, which probably means that any substantial VR applications are going to have to come on discs for the time being.
As a result, video games and movie-like experiences will likely make up the bulk of the early market, with the more experimental efforts — say, live streams of concerts or sporting events — still years away.
"This new incarnation of VR has real potential of course, but for now it will be one up from those 3D glasses from a few years ago," says Kaan Yigit, president of Toronto-based consumer trends tracking firm Solutions Research Group. "So, no iPhone moment yet for VR as far as I can see."
Speaking of discs, the ultra-high-definition video ecosystem is also likely to get a boost at CES with manufacturers expected to show off 4K Blu-ray players.
4K TVs, which offer better resolution than regular high-definition panels, have been around for a few years, but consumers have had little reason to upgrade thanks to a lack of content.
Sales have recently picked up as prices have dropped, with 4K sets no longer carrying substantial premiums over regular HD panels.
4K Blu-ray, along with more ultra-HD titles on streaming services such as Netflix and Canada's Shomi, should further spur the TV-set market in 2016.
Broadcasters such as Rogers are also starting to move to the new technology. The Toronto-based company, for one, has announced that all Blue Jays home games in 2016, as well as a handful of NHL games, will be aired in 4K (though Shomi hasn't announced any 4K content offerings yet).
The big TV manufacturers — including LG, Sony and Samsung — will also be talking up high-dynamic range, another new technology that promises sharper pictures and whiter whites.
Many consumers are likely to be wary of new TV gimmicks after years of questionably useful features such as 3D and curved screens, but independent observers believe high-dynamic range is the real thing.
"Is this new technology worth the hype? In two words: yes, hopefully," writes Geoffrey Morrison on technology site CNET. "I am pretty jaded when it comes to new TV tech, and I'm really excited about HDR."
The internet of things
Wearables and the internet of things have also been riding the hype wave for the past few years, with varying results.
Dubravac expects both a widening and maturing of such devices at this year's CES, with manufacturers refining and streamlining their new products based on lessons learned from previous efforts.
The result should be better-looking smartwatches that have longer battery life, he says, as well as smart home devices that accomplish a few tasks well, rather than trying to do too many things at once.
That's not to say exhibitors won't be experimenting.
Dubravac expects a number of "firsts," with companies and entrepreneurs continuing to apply digital technology, sensors and connectivity in a variety of new ways, especially in regards to health and fitness.
He expects to see devices that can scan a plate of food and estimate how many calories it contains, adjustable beds for the home and affordable and easy-to-use blood monitors that plug into a smartphone.
"Things that were once only in the purview of doctors are now becoming available to consumers," he says.