Despite being a largely evolutionary, not revolutionary year for the $195 billion consumer electronics industry, a number of notable new technology trends and innovations promise to revolutionize the business in 2013 and beyond. While many such as Internet-connected utensils and robotic spider walkers inevitably stole the spotlight at last week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), those amongst its 150,000+ attendees who chose to see further inevitably caught a glimpse of something even cooler... Specifically, several lower-profile, yet equally high-tech advancements that promise to quietly reshape the world as we know it.
Granted, with over 1.87 million net square feet of convention space and showings by 3,000 vendors to skim (not counting off-site appearances at neighboring hotels by Adobe, Seagate and more), there was no shortage of spectacle on-hand at the event. From Lenovo's table-sized IdeaCentre Horizon table-like tablet to Lexus' and Audi's self-driving cars and billboard-sized ultra high-definition 4K (offering 4X the resolution of 1080p models) and OLED (super-colorful/-crisp) TVs from LG, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung and more, jaw-dropping upgrades awaited everywhere one turned. But what guarantees CES's continued relevance, despite critics' assertions otherwise in a world growingly focused on a year-round spate of private corporate events, isn't so much actual products themselves. Rather, it's the sweeping undercurrents and trends that the multitude of shiny gewgaws and grandiose initiatives that were on display reflected, helping reveal the overarching directions in which the twin worlds of mobile and home electronics are soon headed.
As the following potentially game-changing innovations underscore (among the field's most novel new upgrades), despite a growing emphasis on bigger, brighter and shinier objects, sometimes -- no matter the screen size -- in the world of technology, what you don't see is what you get.
The Changing Face of Portable Computing
From Sony's hyper-powered Xperia Z and Huawei's 6-inch-display-sporting smartphones to Vizio's spate of Tegra 4 and Windows 8 Android tablets, you couldn't walk six steps at this year's conference without stumbling over a sea of supercharged mobile devices. Credit the work of chip makers like AMD (who announced its new Temash processors, which deliver premium productivity and gaming performance on tablet PCs), which are quietly working overtime to cram laptop-level horsepower into devices that fit in your purse or pocket. Looking around, it was easy to see Moore's Law -- think: routine gains by leaps and bounds in computing performance, even as prices continue to fall -- in effect everywhere. Nothing this, due credit should also be given to manufacturers, all of whom are working overtime to integrate these innovations throughout their range of electronic devices.
What this means for you, the end-user: Growing access to increasingly portable, high-powered hardware that delivers on-demand access to media, allows desktops to travel wherever you go, and increasingly approximates retail-grade productivity, communications or entertainment experiences. Equipped with touchscreens, 3D graphics chips and access to thousands of free and low-cost apps, the 1.2 billion smartphones and tablets Gartner expects to sell in 2013 don't just level the playing field, empowering even technophobes to suddenly enter the computing continuum. It also changes the fundamental way in which we shoppers consume content (growingly expected to be hyper-intuitive to use, cheaper to access and available virtually anytime, anywhere) -- and, more importantly, forces manufacturers to play by growingly convenience- and value-minded rules.
Bottom line: That new Temash tablet or Xperia Z isn't just going to be capable of running high-end 3D applications or hyper-powered entertainment apps, whether downloaded while waiting for the bus or streamed straight from the cloud. It's also going to be capable of fielding an increasingly approachable range of practically-minded software programs that will cost less, be simpler to use and offer more value right out of the virtual box. In other words, more great deals are coming your way soon -- and in a way that increasingly fits your everyday lifestyle.
TV Becomes a Primetime Attraction Again
Despite all the hype you may be hearing about next-gen television formats such as OLED and 4K TV, the reality is such: Few models are available, prices for these sets begin around $12,000, content isn't readily accessible, and (given such limitations) sales are likely to be a non-starter for several years. Consequently, connected or 'smart' TV (which offer access to online content and streaming apps on-screen) technology is secretly the hottest game in town, as manufacturers growingly jockey to bring next-gen Internet experiences to your living room, and be the first to transform how we utilize the boob tube in the same way Apple did smartphones and tablets. The irony here: Millions of sets already offer these features today. Unfortunately, NPD Connected Intelligence shows few customers are using them, as each manufacturer boast its own interface, ecosystem of apps and range of features, many of which shoppers find perilously confusing.
So why are we so bullish on the opportunity? Because with the upsides of connected television experiences -- e.g. streaming music/movies, two-way videoconferencing and real-time communications -- becoming growingly obvious, it's only a matter of time before someone solves the riddle. Internet connectivity (which would allow you to chat, shop right from your catch, or interact with live talk show hosts) clearly presents a much more marked -- and, for content creators, cable providers and consumers alike, a more cost-affordable -- opportunity than pricey new display technology. Meaning that after decades of industry stagnation, there's ample room and incentive to quickly transform TV viewing from a passive to interactive experience without the use of high-touch, low-impact second-screen experiences... If only someone can design an intuitive interface that clearly makes sense for average shoppers, and quickly and substantially communicates the addition of digital features' benefits.
The good news: Dozens of providers are quietly working behind the scenes to solve the challenge. Rather than focusing on distractions like alternate screens, such vendors are further growingly looking to return the main screen to its place as the hearth of the home -- and create interfaces that humans can easily relate to. Whether the future lies in voice commands (turn on CNN!), gesture controls (e.g. browsing your Netflix library with the wave of a hand), or otherwise remains undetermined. But the future of entertainment is coming soon, and we're confident that it will be televised.
Technology Becomes More Human
OK, we admit it -- we're suckers for shiny new objects like Asus' Transformer AIO (is it an all-in-one desktop, portable tablet or both?) and Pentax's retro-fabulous MX-1 camera as much as the next gearhead. But it's not sheer technical readouts that have us wistfully pining for gobsmacking upgrades like NVIDIA's Project Shield (a portable and PC game streaming console) or Samsung's NX300 connected sharpshooter. Rather, it's the growing emphasis nearly every single manufacturer -- forced by shoppers' growing focus on value, convenience and everyday practicality over performance -- is placing on function over mindless flash and dazzle. Witness: Advancements like SpareOne, an emergency cell phone that runs on one battery, or AMD's SurRound House, a 360-degree positional audio technology, which lets you enjoy symphonic melodies which swoop and swirl around your head.
Yes, dozens of great gadgets promise an oh-so-irresistibly impractical way to waste that bonus check, or impress the neighbors. (Those whopping 110-inch TVs from Samsung and Westinghouse... We'll take three please!) But more important is how the overwhelming majority of options -- and surrounding messaging, as manufacturers increasingly try to initiate the uninformed into the cult of technology -- are playing to the masses in hopes of breaking through. What you don't always see as an everyday buyer: Just how commoditized hardware, feature sets and connectivity options are becoming. Which means that if product and software makers truly want to stand out in what's become an increasingly crowded field, they have to do so by virtue of the following differentiators: Exclusive content, unique features or capabilities, and the ability to both quickly convey key benefits and impress at a glance. In other words, whereas past consumer electronics were clearly built by engineers first, industrial designers second, today's gadgets are designed to be increasingly accessible to novices, and deliver several magnitudes' more day-to-day value.
Breakthroughs like healthcare kiosks that let you enjoy checkups by videoconferencing remotely with your doctor or emergency cell phones that run on one battery certainly aren't as sexy to crow about as skyscraper-sized TVs or bleeding-edge tablets. But you don't have to be a futurist to see how they have more power to impact tomorrow -- or bring even self-styled Luddites kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Translation: You don't have to be a futurist to see tomorrow's hottest new technology and innovation trends before they hit -- just willing to click a bit further than "Best of CES" round-ups that focus on jaw-dropping products alone.