The best things at CES, an annual festival of consumer electronics and excess in Las Vegas, were not what you’d expect. Giant televisions were everywhere, of course, along with the usual forest of cellphone cases, Apple product knockoffs, tablets no one wants, and cheap cameras.
But what I was most excited about were a handful of products that people will actually use.
Disclaimer: I didn’t go to CES myself. For the third year in a row I’ve escaped the mayhem by sending less jaded members of the VentureBeat news team to Vegas. But as a longtime gadget nerd, I wasn’t able to peel my eyes away from the ongoing spectacle, even from afar.
Here’s what CES tells us to look for in 2015.
There will be more selfie sticks. And, just as we did with people taking photos with their iPads, techies will mock them. But, just as with iPad photography, the joke will be on us. Because selfie sticks are genuinely useful — they are a simple hack, an inexpensive gadget that lets people take better photos. And not only solo selfies, but group shots — which means selfie sticks are in fact a very pro-social invention.
Over the holidays I walked past a group of three young women on the San Francisco waterfront, obviously all friends, each taking her own individual selfie with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Each one held her own individual phone and gave it her own individual fake, selfie smile. It was so sad. What these women needed was a selfie stick.
USB Type C
The people who designed the original USB plug specifications should be forced to spend their retirement years doing jigsaw puzzles, because that’s what I feel like every time I try to plug something in. Who in their right minds thought it was a good idea to create a plug-and-port combo that is asymmetrical, but looks entirely symmetrical? It’s even worse given that many USB ports — in the past anyway — were situated on the backs of computers, in the dark, against the wall, where you can only feel your way to them. This disaster of industrial engineering has been pithily summarized with a graphic explaining how you need to rotate USB plugs three times before they work, which is explained by reference to quantum physics.
Enough complaining, though: USB Type C fixes this problem by making a USB port that is, at last, symmetrical — so it doesn’t matter which way you put the plug in. HALLELUJAH!
As a bonus, USB-C recognizes that people use USB as a power port as much as — if not more than — they use it as a data connection. So the new spec can deliver electricity in both directions: You can use a USB-C port on your computer to power up a phone, or you can connect a power adapter and use it to power up your computer. Slick! I can’t wait.
This fitness gadget embedded in a terrycloth sweatband may be the most ridiculous-looking thing that Harrison Weber put on his body at CES — and he put a lot of things on his body. I personally think it’s incredibly ugly.
But the terrycloth is a sign that gadget makers no longer have to limit themselves to hard plastic thingies. If fitness gadgets are huge this year — and they probably will be — why not make them comfortable to wear? Why not start incorporating materials that feel good against your skin, like cotton, silk, and fleece?
The real problem with this dorky “smart sweatband” is not the terrycloth, it’s the protruding screen. That part needs to disappear.
The problem with quantum dots is their name. As I was describing them to a new acquaintance earlier this week, he pointed this problem out. He said, “Every time you said the word ‘quantum dot,’ I imagine the word ‘asshole’ appearing across your forehead.” And you know what? He’s right. It’s one of the most ridiculous-sounding tech marketing terms to come out since “deep learning.”
But quantum dots are the rare example of a TV technology that you might actually want. (Unlike 3D TV.) It’s a technique for illuminating an LCD screen’s pixels with brighter, more natural light than you can get with the usual LED backlights. Quantum dots could make screens that are almost as vivid and gorgeous as OLED screens, and which use less power than current LCDs, but which are much more cost efficient. I want one.
Washing machines, door locks, and smoke alarms
Gadget bloggers made fun of Samsung and LG when they announced new washing machines. I made fun of LG when it touted a “smart refrigerator” last year. But LG and Samsung will have the last laugh, because they will sell billions of dollars worth of these appliances — since such appliances actually do something useful.
You can forget about the ugly phrase “Internet of Things” and its even uglier abbreviation, “IoT.” The sooner we leave these terms behind, the better. What they’re really about is connecting ordinary gadgets to the Internet, giving them IP addresses and APIs. Forget putting a screen on your fridge. Nest (now owned by Google) has the right idea about how to incorporate home appliances into the Internet: Give a gadget a modicum of intelligence, get it on the Internet (maybe by using Nest as the central hub), and let it communicate with an app on your phone.
I don’t need a dishwasher that can talk to me. It doesn’t need to use neural networks to figure out the optimal time to wash my dishes. Just a little bit of intelligence — like letting me monitor its energy and water consumption via my phone — would be enough to make me happy.