The good thing about braving the crowds at the Consumer Electronics Show is that you get to see a lot of the future’s gadgets. And if you see the same thing over and over again, that’s a trend. Last year, every TV maker embraced 3D and web connectivity. That trend continued this year with more than half of all new TV models including those features. This year, we’ve sniffed out similar trends that could play out throughout 2011 as companies execute on their grand ambitions:

1. Tearing down walls between industries and platforms. This never used to happen with frequency. But there is so much disruption going on that it is becoming common for a company in one industry to tear down the walls and invade its rivals’ turf. The main beneficiary is the consumer, who enjoys the benefits of more competition.

The clearest example of this at CES was Microsoft’s announcement that it would create a future version of Windows that runs on both Intel-compatible x86 chips as well as ARM-based processors being developed by Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Nvidia. For users, that means that, when this version of Windows ships (most likely in 2012), they will have more choice in terms of processor types and computer models. The chips could power a wide variety of gadgets, from high-end PCs to smart TVs, tablets, and smartphones. Intel’s near monopoly generated billions of dollars in profits, which Intel is using to invade its rivals’ turf in smartphones.

Another example was Samsung’s deal with Comcast and Time Warner Cable to put their programs on Samsung’s TVs and other gadgets. By providing web-based content to Samsung, the cable companies can break out of their geographic territories. A user in Comcast’s territory could watch shows in Time Warner Cable’s region. This kind of deal liberates content, breaking down artificial barriers.

Still another example was Vizio’s deal with OnLive to include OnLive’s server-based games in Vizio TVs. OnLive can provide console-quality games via a broadband connection directly to the TVs, with no extra hardware built into the TV. The result is a low-cost platform that can play high-end games. That disrupts not only the game retailers, but the game consoles themselves. No longer do you have to spend extra money on a console to play games on your TV. OnLive is also going to provide movies over its broadband service, potentially disrupting cable companies.

2. 4G LTE arrives. We’ve heard a lot about 4G in the past, but it’s not just bluster anymore. Verizon has launched its 4G LTE service in 38 cities, offering mobile broadband download speeds of 5 – 12 megabits a second. That’s pretty impressive, and it means that users will be able to spend more time surfing and less time waiting when they’re trying to get information on the internet. Companies are figuring out that when you’re mobile, you really have less patience than when you are at home waiting for web pages to load. AT&T said at CES that it will have its 4G LTE network ready in the second half of 2011. And Verizon said that its 4G LTE service will cover 100 markets with more than 175 million people by the end of 2011. It will have nationwide coverage by the end of 2013. Lowell McAdam, chief operating officer of Verizon, said that faster broadband will spur innovation and create jobs for those who exploit the networks. That’s a long wait. But at least it’s a real roadmap.

3. Tablets get real beyond iPad. The joke has become familiar. Pundits predicted that 2010 would be the year of the tablet. Instead, it became the year of the iPad. Now the rival tablet vendors are showing their stuff and Apple hasn’t yet revealed its second-generation device in this exploding category.

The Motorola Xoom was one of the most impressive among the 80-plus models of tablets that were at the show. The tablet will be among the first to run Verizon’s 4G LTE service at speeds of 5 – 12 megabits per second for downloads. Motorola is reportedly aiming at selling 1 million Xoom tablets in the first quarter of 2011. The device will also use the 3.0 version of the Android operating system, which is the first version of Android that looks like it is ready for prime time. Many of the new tablets will also have Nvidia dual-core Tegra 2 chips. That means you won’t be waiting as long when you want your tablet to work as fast as possible.

The Motorola device supports features such as Flash, which is ubiquitous on the internet. The combination of tablets, faster chips, Flash, Android 3.0, and 4G LTE could help tip the balance against the iPad in the competitive market.

4. Android grows up. Fragmented and slow, Android software generated a lot of complaints in the past year. When it was launched in the fall of 2008, the first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1 from HTC, was a weak competitor to the iPhone; it didn’t even have a decent multitouch screen. You could swipe your phone four times before anything would happen.

The Android Marketplace was a poor cousin of the App Store. It allowed users to return paid apps within 24 hours. The problem was that many users could finish playing with an app during that time. The policy destroyed the opportunity for developers to make money. Over time, Google released seven major versions of the software. Each released fixed problems, but they also fragmented the user base into a lot of different parts.

With the Android 3.0 Honeycomb version of Android, many of the problems will be fixed. It will have a better user interface, support for tablets, a 3D desktop taken from BumpTop (acquired by Google in 2010) and other improvements such as live video conferencing. The new version is designed from the ground up to support multitasking. Scheduled to arrive in the first quarter, the 3.0 Honeycomb version of Android looks real. It reminds me of the first real version of Microsoft Windows, version 3.1.

5. Glasses-free 3D pushes the bleeding edge. The marketing hype on 3D has gone into overdrive for the past couple of years. James Cameron’s blockbuster 3D movie Avatar finally broke through a wall of skepticism in the theaters. But the home market has been hard to crack. This year, another big pile of money went into 3D. So far, it’s a lot of work for little gain. Toshiba showed off a glasses-free TV set that seemed like a good thing. But up close, you could still see ghosting, or double images, and it had a narrow sweet spot. If you stepped out of it, the images became blurry. Toshiba also showed off a glasses-free 3D laptop, but the effect was much the same.

3D in the home still has a long way to go. Slowly but surely, it’s moving forward. More than half of the new TV models from LG, Samsung and Panasonic were 3D capable. LG created 3D TVs that could use the less bulky passive glasses, which don’t have to be charged. That’s a much better experience for consumers.

Still I’ve only encountered a few cool 3D experiences. The Nvidia 3D Vision glasses work great on a three-monitor set-up with a gamer PC loaded with Nvidia’s fastest graphics cards. Watching flight simulators or racing games on three monitors is a very cool experience. But not many folks can afford the $3,000-plus bill (though it can be done as cheaply as $1,500). Nintendo’s glasses-free 3DS handheld game system, launching in March, also does an excellent job of maintaining a 3D image. It’s easier to stay still watching that device because the screen is just a couple of inches. And MasterImage 3D (executive Roy Taylor pictured above) also showed off glasses-free stereoscopic 3D running on cell phones and small displays. The quality of the imagery is great for watching 3D movies on the run. That’s because MasterImage 3D divides a screen into a series of cells that can be manipulated in a fine-grained manner. These are small islands of coolness in a sea of vast hype.

6. Motion controls move to the PC and beyond. Microsoft Kinect shipped more than 8 million units in 60 days, proving that Xbox 360 gamers want motion control. That quite possibly makes Kinect the most popular consumer electronics gadget in history. Now a bunch of companies are excited about bringing that capability to PC games and the TV itself. Asus tapped PrimeSense (pictured, PrimeSense CEO Inon Beracha), the supplier of 3D motion control chips for the Kinect, for its Asus Wavi motion-control system, which takes PC content and moves it to the PC. There, you can control the content and other media through hand gestures. The show had many more examples of motion control, including Omek Interactive, Softkinetics, Panasonic and other vendors.

7. Smartphones blur the line with computing. The Motorola Atrix 4G phone came with an interesting dock that has a screen and a keyboard. You can use it as a virtual laptop. Sporting a dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 chip, the device blurs the line between the computer and the phone. Sure, it’s a smartphone. But it could very well be the beginning of smartphones that are more powerful than a lot of the computers we own.

8. Car computing gets smarter. From OnStar’s smart rear-view mirror, which allows you to make hands-free emergency service calls or normal calls, to the Ford Focus with Sync voice-activated controls, cars are getting equipped with full-fledged computers. You can also use your MyFord Mobile smartphone app to preheat or precool your car and monitor its charging while the electric car battery is plugged in. OnStar has a pricey $19 a month subscription fee and costs $299. But it’s certainly a lot cheaper than buying a new car to get fancy computing capability.

9. Wireless networking becomes mature. Some of the newest wireless devices are finally allowing us to get rid of some wires in our tech gear. Devices such as Samsung’s Central Station show that wireless networking is hitting maturity. Talked about for years, fast wireless networks such as ultrawideband, WirelessHD, WHDI, and near-field communications are coming to fruition. Alereon’s UWB chips power the Central Station, which allows you to drop a laptop near your desktop-style dock and then have it immediately recognized and connected. It has a 23-inch or 27-inch display that you can connect to with your laptop.

Near-field communications can also do the job when all you need to do is pair two devices, such as a cell phone and a headset. Near-field devices have extremely short ranges so you can’t confuse them easily when pairing. Broadcom showed that you can simply put the devices near each other and they immediately recognize each other and pair themselves. That’s a lot simpler than trying to pair a Bluetooth device, which often finds multiple devices to pair with.

10. The anti-Apple coalition is getting stronger. Apple has always cast a large shadow over CES. It never comes to the show, but its influence is everywhere. When Apple came up with the translucent iMac years ago, the next year’s CES featured lots of translucent PCs.

As Apple innovated with the iPhone and the iPad, its rivals seemed like the Keystone Cops. They couldn’t get anything right, and the net result was that Apple commanded around 95 percent of the tablet computer market during the fall. The iPhone is in a neck-and-neck battle with Android.

But now the barbarians are at the gates. As we’ve noted in our earlier trends, everyone is starting to get their act together. Microsoft is coming up with a version of Windows that runs on ARM chips, which means it will make a better tablet OS. Palm, under the ownership of Hewlett-Packard, is preparing to launch new WebOS tablets. The Android crew is putting together a better mobile operating system. Rivals are likely to deploy 4G LTE smartphones and tablets sooner than Apple will. And a lot of the new tablets and smartphones will take advantage of stellar new chips such as Nvidia’s Tegra 2.

This means that Apple better have some pretty cool products when it gets around to launching the iPad 2 (possibly this spring) and the iPhone 5 (possibly this summer). You can bet that Apple will stay in the lead when it comes to cool product design. But how big will that lead be?

11. Touching is good. Touchscreens are getting more and more popular, and they’re also getting better and better. Microsoft’s second version of its Surface touchscreen tables are pretty spectacular. At $7,600 and much less bulky, they are half the price of the first version. Microsoft’s Touch Mouse will get you in the mood to fondle, combining the features of touch and a mouse in one device.

3M and Perceptive Pixels
also showed off cool 23-inch touchscreens that could handle dozens of touch points and still have a response time of less than five milliseconds. That’s a very fast reaction, and it means that responsiveness is on the upswing. That’s important because we have all been frustrated by touching screens that don’t respond quickly enough.

And touching is getting smarter. The screen technology from Stantum showed that you can write on a tablet with your finger or your stylus. And when you do so, you don’t have to worry if your palm is touching the device. The screen is smart enough to recognize that you don’t really mean to touch the screen and write with your palm.

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