The world's biggest consumer technology show runs this week in Las Vegas. Formally called CES 2016 (the folks who run the convention don't call it the Consumer Electronics Show any more), 3,600 exhibitors are expected to attend. Here are the biggest trends to watch for this year:
Does the C in CES stand for car?
After an impressive showing of concept technology in 2015, this year CES is set to become the high-tech curtain raising for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit (starts Jan. 11). Volkswagen AG is expected to unveil a new microbus, a concept vehicle from electric-car startup Faraday Future could show up and everyone from General Motors Co. to BlackBerry Ltd. and two dozen other companies will be showcasing auto tech. At this rate, CES could become the place the world's car makers go to talk about the future of driving.
Wearables were the hot category of 2015. This year seems to be virtual reality's breakthrough. There will be more than 40 augmented or virtual-reality booths at CES pitching an array of devices, experiences and services. All are expected to turn immersive computing for your face from "future tech" to present tech in 2016. Surveying the landscape, it looks as if the biggest choke point in the VR revolution may still be content distribution. Some yet-to-be-resolved issues: What will become the main channel or app store for VR experiences? And will VR's killer app be a consumption medium like the movies – or a primarily interactive technology like gaming?
If my e-mail inbox is any guide, everything that plugs into an electrical socket will soon also connect to the Internet. As impressive as the convenient new features in the latest "smart home" gadgets unveiled at this year's CES might be, they will also provide all kinds of new vectors for malicious attack or monitoring.
Security researchers have shown myriad problems with the protections built into existing Internet of Things systems: A parade of horribles were put on display in Las Vegas last summer at the hacker conferences Black Hat and DEFCON. There have been stories throughout 2015 that showed everything from cars to baby monitors, digital locks and drones could be hacked – in many cases remotely. The sad reality is that CES is offering up a huge variety of newly intrusive devices, and today's IOT marvel could be tomorrow's data breach.
But it's no unicorn farm
With some of the biggest software or hardware companies in the world taking a pass on the festivities, CES occupies a strange position as a technology show.
Facebook Inc. is there through its Occulus subsidiary, and Alphabet (formerly Google Inc.) is expected to be on hand to show off self-driving car partnerships. But CES isn't a huge priority for the likes of Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc. Tellingly, the majority of the most highly valued tech startups (or unicorns) such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Airbnb Inc. also don't have a lot of use for a gadget convention.
Which isn't to say startups don't use CES. Canadian company Voltera Inc. (makers of a 3-D printer that prints custom circuit boards) won the TechCrunch Hardware Battlefield event at CES in 2015, and there are hundreds of hardware and service startups attending the show's Eureka Park. But looking back at previous years' attendees, it's hard to find any household names that gained traction at the show.
Bonus category: Next Christmas's "hoverboard" replacement
Long before rappers and viral videos of flaming devices made the self-balancing two-wheeled scooter some call a "hoverboard" famous in late 2015, they were shown off at CES. These days, convention-goers have been banned from using them on the show floor, but there are another clutch of personal transportation devices ready to get hot for a holiday season. I, for one, welcome our next hip-breaking, head cracking, self-immolating wheelie-gigs.