Despite its uncertain future, the annual CES is always the year's first taste of the new technologies that will define it. With hundreds of companies peddling thousands of products, it's easy to get lost in the noise of pre-show chatter, but out of the chaos, various patterns are emerging, and some will grow to become bona fide "trends."
International CES 2013 officially begins on Tuesday, Jan. 8, but like the presidential primaries, companies are unveiling new products earlier and earlier in advance of the show in order to be heard before the din of the show gets too loud. LG, for example, began announcing TV news as early as Christmas, and Samsung dropped news about PCs and cameras early in the New Year.
Besides products, you can pick out trends based on who is (and isn't) at the show. As my colleague Lance Ulanoff pointed out, with Microsoft absent this year, it's telling that Qualcomm has filled the opening-keynote gap -- a signal that mobile will play a large part at the show. The press-conference schedule, which includes show mainstays Sony and Panasonic but also auto companies such as Ford and Livio, has some notable tea leaves, too.
While the bigger tech players have realized they can more effectively control the narrative of their product launches when they stage their own events, for smaller, newer companies, CES is invaluable. It lets them connect with the press and potential partners all in one place while simultaneously giving them credibility (exhibiting is an expensive proposition, and requires commitment).
Put enough of these smaller players in one place, and they amount to a considerable force. That's why the major CES trends can be defined as much by the company that made your smartphone's case as the one that made the smartphone itself. And the show can still surprise.
1. Ultra High-Definition TVs
It used to be called 4K. Now it's Ultra HDTV. Whatever you call it, it's probably overkill. UHDTV is what lies beyond full HD resolution, doubling the pixel count in both directions to 3,840 x 2,160, or four times the pixels in a 1080p signal.
A number of TV manufacturers (notably LG and Sony) have already launched 4K sets, but CES 2013 will inevitably be their big arrival, in multiple screen sizes. Since 3D failed to take the world by storm, the TV industry has been looking for another way to drive innovation (and thus revenues), and many are placing their bets on 4K.
Too bad its benefit is extremely questionable. At least one display expert is on record as saying 1080p TVs are already "retina" displays at normal viewing distances, so more pixels don't really add much -- except at extremely large screen sizes. When the day comes that we all have wall-size TVs, 4K makes sense. Then we'll only need source material.
2. Mobile Everywhere
Cellphones are huge, duh. But how well do they connect with your TV? Or your car? Or your home? In 2012, not so great. In 2013, dozens if not hundreds of companies will be looking to change that.
With in-car app platforms such as Ford Sync and Livio Connect, the apps on your phone can extend their reach to your dashboard. A host of software makers also want to be the go-to second-screen app for TV watching -- a category due for a major expansion (and possible shakeout) in 2013. And as the Nest has shown, using your phone to control things like lighting and heat doesn't have to be an expensive proposition.
It all amounts to mobile extending its reach over the technologies that CES has traditionally showcased: audio, video, home automation and car electronics. It's not only a major trend -- it's also a way the show can stay relevant in the years to come.
3. Bluetooth Speakers, Lightning Connectors and Soundbars
CES got its start as an A/V show, but the "A", audio, has been slowly relegated to a bit player in the narrative. Still, those beautiful 4K TVs would be silent without sound, so what happens with audio matters.
2012 saw the Jawbone Jambox emerge as the standard-bearer in newer field of mobile audio, a simple Bluetooth speaker that can pair with your phone, tablet or PC. The category is growing, so expect dozens if not hundreds more wireless speakers at CES, all claiming to be the most convenient, stylish and best sounding.
While wireless takes center stage, wired docks still matter, particularly since phones don't charge themselves. Apple's Lightning connector has given the category a jolt, and accessory makers are now scrambling to release Lightning-compatible docks, which are guaranteed to be everywhere.
And let's not forget soundbars. As cute as speaker docks are, you need something more powerful for a TV. Still the category can benefit from its smaller cousins with convenient wireless pairing and sleeker designs, which are likely on tap for CES 2013.
4. Sensors and New Interfaces
Got sensors? If not, you're probably not a gadget that matters. Fitness gadgets -- with accelerometers, gyroscopes and even heart-rate monitors -- will be everywhere at CES 2013, and their common thread is the ability to detect your movements and intent better than anything that came before.
Those fitness gadgets are the tip of an iceberg that's made up of sensors, data and new user-interface paradigms. Kinect-like gesture control will be embedded in more gadgets at CES, led by Leap Motion. Even eye tracking will become a consumer technology in 2013. We're way beyond touch screens now.
It's exciting, but also worrisome: As our machines read ever-more detailed information about us and the way we use them, there's huge potential for big-data opportunities... and privacy concerns.
5. More Unique Gadgets
Individuals and smaller companies often use Kickstarter to jump-start projects that larger companies seemingly have no interest in, and it sometimes leads to big success. Now it seems those larger companies are starting to notice those missed opportunities.
While CES in years' past was often an exercise in incremental upgrades in predictable categories, early buzz about CES 2013 points toward bolder, more notable product launches (case in point: Samsung's "something new" ad). Some rock-star Kickstarters like the Pebble will be at the show, and you can bet other newbies will be looking to them for guidance.
Innovative new products will be everywhere at CES 2013, but one will be absent: Apple's "iTV" television, which is expected to arrive this year or the next. There's still nothing official on this mythical device, but you can bet it's top of mind for most if not all of the exhibitors at the show. From the trends -- especially those in the TV space -- it appears that many are racing to innovate before Apple's new TV arrives and does it for them, which could lead to one of the more interesting CESes in recent history.
What do you think the big trends will be at CES 2013?
January 04, 2013