18 Observations from CES 2015

Ah, CES. CES (Consumer Electronics Show) is the closest thing we’ve got to a World’s Fair in our modern era. It promises to show off visions of the future alongside the newest technology we’ve got today. After spending the past few days down in Las Vegas, I’ve put together some observations of general trends from the show.

  1. Wearables. Most attendees suspected this would be the case going in, but the wearables are certainly out in full force. Any self-respecting consumer electronics company had a band with some set of fitness tracking, phone integration, notifications, and more. There were a tremendous number of Asian knock-offs of the forthcoming Apple Watch and current Android watches. Honestly though, for the whole space, the hype feels bigger than the market.
  2. Consumer health is emerging. Building on glorified pedometers, devices are incrementally becoming more about preventative medical care. The same aforementioned large self-respecting tech companies (Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, etc.) are producing devices that are “connected” to the rest of their ecosystem, allowing consumers to take their blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate, and temperature. This could be an interesting trend going forward in alleviating medical costs through preventative integrated devices.
  3. 3D Printing, or lack thereof. Maybe I missed it, but there was way less 3D printing than I thought would be there. For all of the attention it saw in 2014, I expected half of a showroom floor dedicated to it, not a random scattering of smaller companies. It’s largely still a cool technology looking for a big market. [Edit: there was more 3D printing in Eureka Park, which I didn’t have a chance to attend.]
  4. Drones, drones, everywhere. Drones have certainly found their use case in creative video production. Manufacturers want there to be more, but a second major market hasn’t emerged yet. There has been an explosion in the number of drone companies in the last year. I’d expect this to narrow to the big guys in the coming year:
    • High-end: Select $20k+ manufacturers for a heavy camera payload.
    • Mid-range: DJI and 3D Robotics duking it out for amateur and non-Hollywood-grade professional video.
    • Low-end: Parrot dominating the consumer market.
  5. Curved TVs and monitors. Sure, curved screens are theoretically nicer than looking at a flat panel when you’ve got several next to each other, but it feels gimmicky. Prediction: it will go the same way of the 3D TVs. Speaking of which:
  6. 3D TVs are dead. They were nowhere to be seen. That was fast.
  7. Smart TVs are table stakes. Nobody was bragging or showing off how their TV was “smart”. Attendees just assumed they all were.
  8. 4k TVs. It’s the new standard. You’re a sucker if you’re buying 1080p. Like we’ve seen before, the displays are outpacing the content, but 2015 will be the year that any major budget film or TV show can be expected in 4k.
  9. 8k TVs. A few manufacturers were boasting 8k TVs, but they didn’t look close to market. For example, Panasonic’s 55″ was LCD (not LED) and was only available to view privately in a demo showroom. One use case they were showing off is several-page document review when laid flat, but with 160 pixels per inch, you can see the pixels upon inspection. Show me a 55” retina display, and then we’re talking.
  10. OLED 4k TVs. These are really nice. The blacks truly are black. The dynamic range is significantly wider. The colors pop, and there’s no bleed-over. The one I saw at LG next to their top-of-the-line regular LED 4k TV was immensely better. It was about twice as much ($10k price tag), but that should come down drastically in the next year or two. The LG booth attendee also mentioned that their yield per batch of displays has gone from 20% at the debut of HDTVs to over 80% now. You can bet that’s the main driver of cost reduction of HDTVs, and we should benefit from the same savings on OLEDs when the same trend occurs.
  11. VR is for real. Oculus had private demos in your own little padded room of the new Crescent Bay prototype hardware. It’s 2.2 pounds lighter than the DK2 model, has integrated sound, and a new display technology with vastly reduced screen door effect. I wanted to stay in the Rift world for hours, though I only got 8 minutes. The head tracking felt exactly on par with real life, and the final demo that used the Unreal engine was freakishly realistic. VR will have implications in everything from entertainment to education, and I could even see productivity applications. While VR has proved that it can create a compelling, natural experience, I’m not convinced 2015 will be the breakout year. I’d imagine this is the sort of experience that the iPhone team felt in 2005, knowing they had something, but still over a year out from serious commercial adoption. Even at launch in 2007, the iPhone was a niche luxury product, and I don’t think we’re going to see any serious consumer market adoption in 2015 for VR.
  12. There’s some pretty crummy VR. Samsung Gear VR isn’t nearly as enjoyable to wear and didn’t grip my attention. It’s Oculus tech under the hood, but it’s hard to know their motivation to release a premature product when they’ve got such an impressive one in the works. At least it doesn’t have Oculus’s name on it.
  13. Automotive tech is and will always be automotive tech. The automotive industry was the worst offender of “future tech that may never get released” syndrome. There were incredibly early prototypes of self-driving cars that will keep showing up in various forms for the next several CES shows. More realistically, most manufacturers demoed digital and touch panels in cars to replace physical knobs, following Tesla’s lead from the last 5 years (though I’m still not sold on that for safety and convenience). Speaking of Tesla, they showed off the Model X SUV. Except Tesla as a company was nowhere to be found, ignoring the automotive section of the show entirely. Instead, the Tesla Model X was on display in Panasonic’s booth talking about their joint venture in the Gigafactory for advancing battery technology. Yes, the Model X has gull-wing doors.
  14. Plenty of connected home / “Internet of Things”. Like wearables, we expected this, and every major player had a suite of smart appliances that communicated to a cloud services. Many integrated with Apple’s HomeKit, but the Apple’s solution didn’t seem fully baked yet. The devices themselves were thermostats, motion detectors, power strips, lightbulbs, security cameras, humidifiers, fire alert systems, etc. Move along folks. Nothing you didn’t expect to see here.
  15. Bitcoin. While much of the hype has vanished, several bitcoin companies are trudging onwards and growing. Bitcoins themselves have lost a lot of value in the last year, but their value is significantly more stable than it used to be. This is the greatest asset that the bitcoin enthusiasts praise, in hopes that stability will dispel fear and increase adoption. Even more interesting is the applications being built on the blockchain other than a currency. Identity verification could be an interesting one.
  16. There was an entire floor of “iAccessories.” Business is still booming.
  17. Selfie sticks. Everywhere. All the time. As a friend remarked, “It’s gotta be the highest-growth category ever in one year.”
  18. Asian “Manufacturers.” There was a plethora of Chinese “manufacturers.” Though many were just white labeling the factory next door. It’s pretty tough to know who distributes and who actually manufacturers. There are a couple of interesting things here:
    • Any of them seem to be able to do anything. There were endless booths containing a mishmash of cameras, vaporizers, cables, keyboards, and a million accessories. They have a warehouse and machines that can mold and shape. If you’ve got a desire to put electronics into plastic or metal, they’re willing to do it (with volume priority, of course.)
    • Amongst the confusion and language barrier, there were several “trust organizations” that emerged. Their sole purpose is to help you find a reputable manufacturer overseas, and serve as a relationship broker for a fee.

That’s all, folks. Happy 2015!

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