Things that won’t change the world:
The verdict: Too expensive ($600 U.S.), too niche (needs a high-end gaming computer to run) and perhaps too much riding on this one device. It seems clear that if virtual reality is going to become a real industry, the consumer model of Facebook-owned Oculus may not make the gadget that converts the masses. Instead, it might be a reference device, something other makers emulate. At CES there was a VR headset seemingly around every corner, with a variety of price points, resolutions and control solutions that all felt in one way or another like they were missing something.
I had a demo with the HTC Vive, made in conjunction with the gaming geniuses at Valve, and was mightily impressed with the addition of a camera, which lets users wearing the face computer flip back to a view of their living room when company comes over, or just to grab their drink off the table. There’s no question the experiences can be powerful and fun (an undersea simulation inspired awe; a cute office sim was good for a laugh) but Vive requires its own room, essentially, and things like long wires and clunky controllers plague the whole category. VR is just not ready.
An enormous volume of the show floor was taken up by high definition, high dynamic range, 4K, quantum dot, laser projection, curved, transparent, or double sided TV screens. Samsung is the undisputed king of CES (biggest booth, most booth traffic, most gaudy display of screens with its mechanized installation of two-dozen panels that rise and fall together like waves). Every one of Samsung’s rivals (many of the new ones from China) also made sure you saw their screens, too. But while there is money to be made here, a tweak to brightness or shape doesn’t change much about society’s relationship to screens. We love them, and have since the 1950s. Same goes for speakers, which are also on abundant display at CES but don’t fundamentally change our relationship with sound.
Things with cameras where they don’t belong
Samsung put a camera inside a fridge (and a flatscreen tablet on the door), and a dozen other companies offered versions of indoor and outdoor surveillance cameras. One cute little stuffed animal called Zooby (pictured above) had a terrifying night-vision eye of Sauron you put in the crib with the baby (or strap to the car seat so you can eyeball your kids on the highway). Other than providing endless new embarrassing videos to upload to YouTube, the increasing encroachment of cameras into our intimate spaces must reach a logical limit. The security issues with Internet of Things devices have been screamed by privacy researchers until they were blue in the face; if they are ever listened to (or if an embarrassing hack freaks out users) the tide will start rolling out again.
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When you step back, they all just expand or refine the feature set of smartphones. That’s why it doesn’t seem like the increasing growth of fitness trackers or other app-driven baubles are going to change behaviour we haven’t already embraced: Always-on interaction with our digital lives. The fight over which brand of wearable will go on and on (Under Armour unleashed the full power of its sports celebrity network at CES – Michael Phelps, Buster Posey, Cal Ripken, to tout its collection of hard core fitness gear) but not much seems poised to upend the smartphone-first paradigm.
Things that might move the needle:
Lego showed off a new set called WeDo 2.0, which is a collection featuring motorized models and an app to program remote controls. But more than just a cool pile of blocks, it’s designed to slot right into school classrooms, and make the most of science instructional time, and teach those collaboration, planning and programming skills we increasingly value. There were a dozen other similar concepts from startups that were all about unlocking creativity, teaching the basics of code and planning how to make a project come together. This is the least cynical part of CES, not simply because it is for kids, but because many of the world’s great technologists often recount tales of early exposure to the expressive power of code and these toys set out to make that a common experience for kids today.
One of the underappreciated stories of CES is the Eureka park area for entrepreneurs, and many of the smaller booths. When it comes to hardware there is a symbiosis between crowdfunding, tech talent pool ecosystems, the angel-accelerator-venture funders and Shenzhen, China. Whether you’re trying to make 500 bespoke gadgets for backers, or set up a manufacturing partner that can scale to thousands of units and beyond, smart teams send a senior executive to live in Shenzhen while they are springing up. Every floor of CES has a corner with a few booths from Shenzhen parts suppliers, some of whom also have clones of the wearable, camera or electric scooter of the day. Shenzhen’s tight network of companies, and the cheap parts and labour available, are making this ground zero for hardware startups.
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It no longer seems like a matter of whether Netflix is going to pass 100 million subscribers, but whether they are going to pass 200 million and how quickly, after the announcement of the global expansion (which despite massive emergency preparedness, went off without a single technical hiccup, according to chief product officer Neil Hunt). When Netflix reaches that scale, its preference for securing global rights is going to become the norm, not the exception. That’s a potential earthquake for the way movies and television get funded, and who they get sold to. And what happens to the local cable and telecom companies who will get massively outbid for content as they try to build a nationalized version of Netflix (like Bell’s Crave and Rogers/Shaw’s Shomi)?
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Some parts of the connected home
I’ve come around on the prospect of being able to control big pieces of your house with technology. Everything from wireless garage door openers to a million new self-dimming lights or connected bidets and sleep monitoring devices cluttered the floor at CES. What has convinced me is the increasing capacity of these devices to disappear into the background and work on single hubs, or with other sensing and control devices. One of the smartest startup ideas I saw was a simple motion sensor from France called Bixi, that allowed users to map certain gestures to controls on their smartphones (so you can skip songs or answer the phone while riding your bike and not dig out your phone). Intel is promising to get facial recognition into home automation systems too, imagining a future where when you get out of bed and your smart home turns on lights, radio and starts the coffee machine, but maybe it also gets the kettle boiling for your partner when they get up. Moving smart home controls away from apps means we might get closer to a home that’s actually smarter than we are.
Also, who wants to take bets on which celebrity with a connected bathroom or bed gets their intimate data hacked first?
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I’m tired of hearing about drones too, but looking at the wide array of weird new flying vehicles at CES (including one man-sized monstrosity from China’s Ehang that is clearly illegal and dangerous), it’s fairly obvious these things are not a fad of the hoverboard/segway type. Perhaps what’s most impressive is their increasing utility. I saw one that was a fishing sensor, and Intel showed off a device that dynamically tracks a user without any controller input. Even if they just become floating umbrellas of flamethrowing snowblowers (my personal dream), I for one grudgingly acknowledge our buzzing overlords.