A lot of us sort of expected CES 2016 to reveal a new, more practical side to the consumer electronics industry.
Guess again. Despite a looming global economic slowdown, the devaluation of tech-company unicorns, and the fact that everybody already has as many smartphones, tablets, and wrist gadgets as they need, CES continued to show us the same cavalcade of craziness and excess that it always has. Smartphone-connected kegel exercisers? A Wi-Fi-enabled Febreze scent dispenser? Modular TV screens? Yeah, baby.
Some of it was even kind of cool.
Facebook’s Oculus division finally announced the price and shipping date for its VR headset, the Oculus Rift. Despite being almost twice as expensive as expected, at $600, eager consumers snapped up all the available preorders almost instantly. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey went onto Reddit to humbly beg forgiveness for understating the price last year, when he led everyone to believe that it would be about $350. Even at $600, it’s still worth it, Luckey said: “I will use whatever credibility I have left to assure you that you are getting a pretty crazy deal.” The Oculus is what most observers regard as the most promising VR headset, and with Facebook’s reach and marketing muscle behind it, we’re sure to hear a lot more about this in the coming year.
Segway announced a combination hoverboard/personal robot, and somehow managed to not get laughed out of Las Vegas. It’s a smallish, self-balancing two-wheeled contraption that rolls around on its own, with a cute little face and optional arms, so it can take photos, carry your stuff, or maybe even act as a tiny personal teleconference robot. When you’re ready to head home, you literally squeeze the robot’s face between your legs and off you scoot.
And several old brands embraced decidedly retro products, in hopes of eking out a few more moments of relevance, perhaps. The most ambitious: Kodak (which went bankrupt a few years back) has re-emerged, teamed up with famed industrial designer Yves Behar, and is planning a revival of the Super 8 camera that launched a thousand film careers. The new Super 8 will shoot movies on film, just like the old one, but will also have some unspecified digital capabilities. We don’t know much, except that it will take film cartridges ($50-$70 each) and will also have a USB port and a slot for an SD card. You may chuckle, you may lust for it, but either way, one thing is certain: Kodak lined up a truly impressive array of Hollywood directors for its press release, with quotes from Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams, and a host of others.
This is all in striking contrast to the realities of the marketplace. As VentureBeat learned earlier this week in a conversation with Accenture, the consumer technology market is in a serious global slowdown. Consumers have reached a saturation point — first noticed a year or two ago when tablet sales started tapering off — and are less likely to buy the latest shiny new thing until it’s demonstrably useful and necessary. (Hello, Apple Watch.) Many gadget categories, like smartphones, have matured to the point where the differences between market leaders are marginal at best, based largely on design and brand.
And, as Accenture noted, consumers are worried about security and privacy. Electronics makers have forged blithely forward into a world where your every step is logged and stored in the cloud, and where even your wall sockets and light bulbs have Internet connections. Yet at the same time, over the past year we’ve seen one horrible security breach after another — 76 million customer records here, 40 million there, 240 million there. No wonder buyers are leery: They’re not idiots.
So in the coming year, will you buy an Oculus headset, a Segway robot, a weird digital/film camera from a failed brand, or a fitness tracker with a color screen? Probably not. You’ll hold out for something more useful — and if you’re smart, you’ll wait until you hear more about how these companies are going to protect the increasingly personal data they have on you. Maybe these things will be useful enough, or cheap enough, to buy in 2017.
In the meantime, enjoy the show.