We tried as hard as we could to cover the 2.2 million square feet of exhibit space at the 2015 International CES, the big tech trade show that drew 170,000 people to Las Vegas last week. I came home with a cough and a toe blister as proof that I tried. But now that I’m back at home, I’m absorbing what I saw as the biggest tech trends.
I figure I walked 30 miles during the show, though I lost my step counter due to epic tech fail. I was glad that I only saw one pair of 3D glasses the whole time I was there, and that all of that excitement about phablets had given way to conversations about wearables.
You can find all of our CES 2015 coverage here. And for historical perspective, here’s our trends story from CES 2014. We always find there are dominant topics for conversation, like 4K TVs and the Internet of Things. But there are also subthemes that run counter to the main ones.
Here’s the top tech trends from CES.
1. The Internet of Things is real, but expensive
Every major tech company touted the Internet of Things (IoT). It’s a gold mine that naturally stirs the hype machine because it means tech companies can sell us all sorts of gadgets in the future. In fact, every product will become smart and connected, giving the tech companies an inroad for taking over other industries. But beyond the hype, the reality was solid for IoT devices at the show. We saw connected lightbulbs, smart pet feeders, teddy bears with health sensors, self-watering flowerpots, smart toothbrushes, and many more.
Samsung Electronics CEO Boo-Keun Yoon said that 100 percent of its products would be connected to the Internet within five years. Intel had a new chip for the Internet of Things, dubbed Curie, that will be the foundation of even more Internet of Things devices to come. This is real, and it’s going to be used to spread the Internet of Things even more widely.
These devices will connect to the Internet and have their own IP addresses. They’ll get smart enough to capture data from sensors and process it in a way that can be delivered in an understandable way to our smartphones or the web. And then we’ll get some meaningful insights about how we spend our time. Purveyors of IoT devices will have to be careful not to overdo it and generate a backlash, however. On top of that, they’ll have to work hard to bring down prices closer to the level of equivalent dumb appliances, once the sales volumes start to rise.
2. The car is the new supercomputer
Nvidia brought this point home as it introduced two new computers for the car, one for the information you’ll see on your dashboard and another for the autopilot system in a self-driving car. Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang noted that the Tegra X1 processor for the car can process data at 2.3 teraflops, or twice the computing power of the most powerful supercomputer in the world in the year 2000.
It’s worth noting that the Internet-connected infotainment system should stay separate from safety-related computers such as the autopilot, so that hackers who break into one can’t get access to the other. Tasks such as learning to drive safely take a huge amount of learning, and that means artificial intelligence technologies such as “deep neural networks” have to be used to perform real-time tasks such as identifying pedestrians, making the driver aware of fast-moving cars that are coming up behind, or finding the best parking space at your destination.
Cars should be able to house computers that have much better capabilities than our smartphones, but the effort will be to make sure that the car computer doesn’t become obsolete too quickly.
3. Smart appliances need ecosystems and standards
Smart homes, cars, and appliances are coming. But they won’t take off if they can’t work together. The Internet of Things could become the biggest network of devices of all time by the year 2020, with 50 billion connected devices, according to Intel. But that won’t happen if the companies involved don’t make interoperable standards. Companies give lip service to this idea, but they all jockey to create a standard that includes their own favorite technologies.
Qualcomm talked about its AllSeen and AllJoyn alliances for smart home devices and smart lighting, respectively. But those standards will compete with the Open Interconnect Consortium devices being promoted by the likes of Intel and Samsung. Samsung said it would invest $100 million in creating standards for the Internet of Things. That’s good, because the last thing we need is a Tower of Babel for all of our smart devices. But since the movement is beginning now, it means a lot of early devices will have to be adapted to fit with these standards in the future.
4. Virtual reality has its leaders — and its competitors
Oculus VR was the elephant in the gaming sector of the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The virtual reality goggles maker, which was acquired last year by Facebook for $2 billion, came back with a huge booth and a top-notch Crescent Bay demo that thousands of attendees experienced. Samsung, which uses the Oculus Rift headset, made a big push for its Samsung Gear VR smartphone-based VR headset, and it launched the Milk VR video service as well.
Oculus Rift’s competitors were plentiful. Sulon’s Cortex headset, Razer’s Open Source Virtual Reality platform, and other VR vendors also made appearances at the show. Virtuix finalized its Omni Treadmill, and it is eagerly waiting for more headset makers and accessory makers to ship their VR goods. It’s going to take a whole ecosystem for VR to thrive. Yet VR itself is going to have competitors, like augmented-reality smartglasses that can show you cool imagery on the inside of your glasses, but still allow you to see the outside world. Osterhout Design Group had one of these. It’s expensive now, like Google Glass, but time will make it more competitive.
5. 4K TV goes mainstream, but there’s more to come
UltraHD TVs were in every major booth, and they were the most talked-about product at the show. These TVs have a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels, or four times as detailed as the 1920 x 1080 pixels of high-definition TV. They’re sharper and don’t pixelate as much when you focus in on one section of the screen. On top of that, many of the TVs can accommodate faster-moving imagery, and they’re all inherently connected. And many of the screens are curved. No doubt the costs are coming down as well. All of that means that the variety of UltraHD TVs we will see this year will grow.
Samsung talked about its SUHD TVs that will have resolution just shy of 8K TV, or 16 times the number of pixels in a high-definition TV. And Sharp also described a screen with 167 percent the resolution of 4K TV. One difference this year: Companies such as Samsung and Sony were making a big effort to make more UltraHD content available, and that’s the ultimate driver of sales.
6. Wearables are exploding, but you may not want to buy them yet
VentureBeat’s Harrison Weber gave a complete rundown of 56 wearables he tried at CES. While the explosion of creativity and devices is thrilling, it is also a time for consumers to be wary. We know that the Apple Watch is coming soon, and I didn’t see or hear about any device that is going to be much better than that one. For sure, you’ll find devices that are cheaper than the $400 Apple Watch, though. You may want to get a use-specific wearable like the sunburn-preventing Sunfriend for $50, or just wait until all of the standards and features get sorted out in the coming year or so. Apple is going for the high-end audience that is fashion-conscious, and Intel has teamed up with fashion trendsetters so it can design devices that are appealing beyond the nerdcore.
But be warned: This is all going to change. New and more affordable sensors will come out that will make today’s wearables obsolete. The good thing is that we’re seeing prices go down, or perhaps just a greater range of cheap and luxury devices.
7. Tech is helping the lazy, the disabled, and the rich
This seems like a very broad topic, but let’s focus on eye tracking as a useful emerging technology. Eye-tracking control mechanisms from companies such as Tobii can help people who can’t control a mouse or touchscreen. That’s just one example of how incredibly liberating technology can be for the disabled. The same eye tracking can be useful to gamers, too, who can use it to target objects faster in shooter games. And it can also let us kick back on the couch and control our TVs and devices without getting off the couch. These tools are expensive for now, but we can test them on rich folks, who don’t mind being guinea pigs.
Tech making us lazy is a generalization. But here’s another example. The 4moms’ Mamaroo automated baby rocker is great for exhausted parents. But you can bet a lazy parent will just put the kid into the baby rocker rather than hold the baby.
8. Last year’s tech has become real
It sometimes seems like it takes forever for a tech idea to filter from concept to market. But it is fun to see when it happens. One good example: Intel has been talking about the RealSense depth camera for laptops and tablets for a long time. But it’s finally shipping in devices such as the Dell Venue 8 7000 Series Android tablet. The camera can recognize your gestures, measure the length of items in front of it, and focus your images better. The Personify 3D video-calling app also makes use of the RealSense camera for better depth perception in video calls.
These are just a couple of new apps that are available for the RealSense, which will become standard on most tablets and laptops with Intel technology over time. There were a bunch of other maturing technologies at CES this year — like 4K TVs and curved organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens — and better renditions of past experiments, such as the ultra-responsive Ford Sync 3 voice recognition system for cars. We don’t often notice when past trends become real, so that’s why I’m calling this out.
9. Asian companies are emerging as the strongest
The Asians are coming. Or they’ve come. CES is now home to some huge Chinese tech companies, from smartphone provider Xiaomi to Changhong, which occupies the booth that Microsoft once had in the Las Vegas Convention Center. Don’t be surprised if we see more Chinese companies or other Asian giants take up more of the show floor in the future. They’re unknown today, but they’re all working hard on becoming the Sonys and the Samsungs of the coming decades.
10. Drones and robots are multiplying
Ascending Technologies showed off its Firefly drones during the Intel keynote. They had a cool feature of being able to avoid collisions, so much so they could navigate a dense forest on their own with no human control. That feature was also useful for playing “drone ping-pong” during the keynote, where Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich showed that you could nudge them back and forth by stimulating their collision avoidance systems. There were hundreds of drones on display at CES. The market is still small, but the variety of drones is huge, with applications ranging from entertainment to selfies.
Note that other kinds of robots, particularly those with better artificial intelligence, are also going to be very plentiful. We’ll all make jokes about how these machines are creepy or will take over the world. But in the meantime, I’m looking forward to all of the useful things drones and robots will do for us — even though Toshiba’s greeter humanoid robot, dubbed ChihiraAico, was a little creepy.
11. 3D printers will be a bonanza for creators
The smell of burnt plastic was palpable in the 3D printing section of the Sands Expo, where companies like MakerBot showed off faster and easy-to-use 3D printers. HP also showed its Sprout computer, which allows you to visualize prototypes in 3D and then print them out on HP’s industrial-size Fusion 3D printer. These devices are going to be a godsend for creators, whether they’re product designers, entrepreneurs, or artists who want to easily transfer a design from paper to a digital form and finally a 3D prototype. We’ll see more digital content creation companies, toy makers, and small hardware companies emerge as a result. 3D printing is part of a creative movement, and CES showed that it is still growing.