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Wearables and Rolling Things: Previewing International CES 2014

Previewing International CES — that’s the official name, and woe be it unto anyone who merely calls it “CES” or “The Consumer Electronics Show” — requires taking a stab at what the overriding theme of the year will be. In recent years, we kinda knew what we’d be getting, whether it was The Year of 3-D TV or The Year of the Connected Car or The Year of 4K Ultra HDTV (they overlapped, but you get the idea). This year, the phrase being repeated over and over is “The Internet of Things,” meaning connected-everything. Every device, from wearables to sports gear, will connect and report and interact. That’s the goal, at least, because they can’t really figure out what else they can sell you that you don’t already have or need to replace. It’s not a new idea, and a lot of this has been shown in previous years, so much so that it doesn’t seem new even though most of us don’t have Bluetooth golf clubs yet. It’s not revolutionary so much as a collective prayer that you’ll want this. If the industry’s goal is to have everything on Earth connected to the Internet, well, that’s been the goal since the first time someone uttered the phrase “Internet-enabled refrigerator.” It’s not new, but the Bluetoothing of sports gear and Wi-fi-ing of appliances is likely to be pushed pretty hard here. Of course, the most memorable item from last year’s CES was a vibrating fork, so this is not a shocker. (The same company’s back with a “smart toothbrush.” I am NOT falling for that.)

But first, for the uninitiated, a little more about the show: CES (hey, I called it by its official name once already, that’s enough) is as much defined by what it isn’t as for what it is. It has video games, but it’s not even remotely THE video game show (Malik Forté will be here covering that). It has mobile phones, many mobile phones, but Mobile World Congress has that covered. It has car stuff, and it’s increasingly automotive-oriented — we’ve seen not only connected car announcements but lots on self-driving cars and the like, and a lot of the significant players in the automotive industry now make this a must-go on their calendars — but it’s not an auto show.  There are computers, but it’s no replacement for Comdex and as long as Apple isn’t here, the computer trade press won’t be looking for any major announcements from that sector.  And there are a lot of accessory manufacturers — you can’t grasp how many companies make cases and stands and chargers and other stuff for mobile devices until you get lost in a sea of booths of the stuff — but that’s not quite Consumer Electronics.  There are televisions, and that, CES is all about.  Every year, the hall is filled with TVs.  But it’s become fairly desperate for TV makers in the last few years, because they haven’t been able to hype 3-D TV into acceptance, Blu-ray is facing the streaming challenge, and there’s some doubt that 4K will be seen as the same kind of gotta-upgrade thing that HD was to SD.  Even if it is, the prices will have to plummet quickly for that to happen, and, as Bud Grossman said to Llewyn Davis, I don’t see any money in that.

The biggest surge in recent months has been in wearables, and we’ll see a lot of that here.  You can see that coming just by a visit to your local brick-and-mortar retail stores, where the Fitbit and Nike+ and other fitness bands were sold out or close to it this holiday season.  And I imagine everyone reading a site called Nerdist has at least seen a pair of Google Glass in the wild or engaged in a discussion of whether they’d need or want to wear the things.  None of that, as it will likely manifest itself here, is so much new as it is a case of follow-the-leader, or several leaders, whether it’ll be Google Glass equivalents or Fitbit equivalents or GoPro equivalents or Apple iWatch… wait, they haven’t done it yet, how can they be the leader?  No matter, if it has to be recharged and you can wear it, I expect it’ll be announced here.

And, yeah, huge TVs. Big honking massive bigger-than-your-living-room TVs. That’s nice, but one of the big TVs released in recent years resulted in the greatest Amazon comment threads ever. And while the public hunger for big flat screen TVs remains, as we see at Black Friday every year, it’s about as price-sensitive as anything in the retail pipeline. And, again, where’s the money in thin-margin electronics that people don’t see the need to replace every other year like they do with phones?

I’ll be interested to see if there are any new things announced in the 3D printing realm, because the day when we all have our own Replicator is now more clearly on its way than ever. I want one. Nobody’s yet let me near one. Maybe they’re afraid of what I’d make. That’s probably wise.

Anyway, the preliminaries on Sunday included a couple of trend talks, which you don’t care about unless you’re a manufacturer or retailer, and CES Unveiled, which you might recall is a room full of vendors showing off stuff and attendees there mostly for the hors d’oeuvres and booze. And, like last year and, seemingly, every year, plenty of people were transfixed by a drone:

In the immortal words of Derrick Coleman, whoop-de-damn-do. There were also some remote-control rolling things, which also had people staring and whipping out their cameras. Okay, so did I, but just for reporting purposes, you understand. This:

The pink one shows great promise for upskirt videos. Law enforcement, take note.

Lenovo was showing off something on a 27-inch tabletop, the Horizon 2, that resembled Microsoft’s old Surface — the big one, not the tablet of the same name — with a demonstration that involved placing your phone near the Surface and pictures appearing and something something etc.  It had some people oohing and aahing:


I’ll be honest here — I didn’t see anything that exciting about it.  It looked like they were making the generally easy act of downloading a picture from your phone into a major production to no practical end, but I could be wrong.  And the 27-inch “tablet” is… well, I’m not their best use case.  I wouldn’t want it.  I’d just get crumbs and spilled drinks all over it. They do have some multi-player board games, which are cool, and totally replicate the experience of using an actual board game, which costs a lot less and, I understand, can still be purchased and used.

Best thing in the room?  This:


For obvious reasons.  Anyway, this was all the preliminary to the preliminary — Press Day’s Monday, then the show opens for reals on Tuesday.   We’ll be here — I’m covering the dry industry panel stuff for my other site, but I’ll do some wandering and try to give you a flavor of stuff around here as well. If you’re here, tweet me and let me know what’s going on, won’t you? Thank you, I’ll be here all week….

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