Saturday, January 9, 2016

Mostly More of the Same at This Year's Consumer Electronics Show

The overall theme at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2016) seemed to be small steps and incremental change. There were no ground-breaking new products or technologies that caught my attention, and I left feeling uninspired.

There were way more drones (unmanned aerials, in CES parlance) than past years, with an entire section of the lower South Hall dedicated to them. FAA's new guidelines doesn't seem to have grounded this industry in the least, and the size of drones keeps growing.

Virtual Reality systems remain poised to be the next big thing, led by Oculus Rift who finally announced they will begin shipping product in March at a $599 price tag. The line to experience their product constantly snaked around corners, making them one of the popular stop for the second straight year in my estimation. Use of VR for gaming is pretty obvious, but I'm more interested in how this technology will be adopted in industrial and commercial applications, to perform hazardous work remotely for example.

4K displays were the norm, and keep getting larger and thinner, which is simply expected now and not necessarily groundbreaking. The 3D displays that were so prominent a couple years ago have almost disappeared.

The Internet of Things (IoT) buzzword continued its overuse trajectory this year, and has hopefully reached a climax. Every type of product imaginable now connects itself to a smart phone, and I counted at least thirty products that bill themselves as "The world's first [insert product idea here]." I totally get the long term potential here, but do I really need to adjust my mattress remotely or have an app that tells me if my toilet tank is leaking?

I attended the show with a particular interest in wearables and bio-sensors, but these seem to have stalled as well. Although there were more companies peddling health products and fitness bands than in the past, there's simply not much differentiation in the category. Focus seems to have shifted to style and fashion instead of features. Samsung highlighted their smart clothing line, but the sensors themselves seem convey basic things like temperature, motion, etc. with smartphone software performing the magic of converting this to calories burned and other (questionable) information. Perhaps the sensor technology required to make other types of biometric measurements accurately is just not there yet.

The biggest shift I saw from last year's CES is that autonomous vehicles are now going mainstream. This idea seemed pie-in-the-sky just a few years when the Google car started getting attention. Then luxury brands like Mercedes and BMW started autonomous programs. Now all of the automobile manufacturers have self-driving prototypes to various degrees, and we may see these on the market before we know it. Interestingly, Toyota also displayed a hydrogen-powered vehicle, which seemed like a blast from the early 2000s.

As a beer geek and homebrewer, and can't complete this article without making a mention of picoBrew. This Kickstarter-funded company had a great display and real-working product, from which they were brewing beer and giving out free samples. They target shipping the smaller picoBrew system ($1000) in mid-2016, and are already shipping their larger Zymatic system ($2000). As an advanced homebrewer, such a system would take all the fun out of brewing for more, but they're goal is to make homebrewing so easy that anybody can do it. Best of luck to them.

Overall my CES 2016 experience this year was a little underwhelming. I hope companies are saving some of their great new gear and tech for next year.