Well, I did it. Somehow, against all odds, after tens of thousands of steps and literally wearing thin the soles of my boots, I managed to see every single exhibitor at CES 2016. As I sit here in my hotel room wondering if I’ll ever walk again, I thought I’d get my thoughts down while they’re fresh. Here is my overall impression of where consumer technology is headed in 2016.
1. Internet of Things
If you’re not familiar with the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT), think of it as making everything talk to everything else. Sometimes its automatic, such as your refrigerator making more ice and lowering the temperature when your thermostat senses a large number of people in your house (i.e. you’re having a party) or your light bulbs adjusting their color and intensity based on the style of music playing. Other times they may be controlled by voice, motion, remote control, etc. One very cool concept around automating your home is geofencing. Geofencing is setting a virtual “fence” around your house that the system uses as triggers to perform certain functions. For example, it could tell that you were a half-mile from home and turn on the fireplace. Or, it would know when the last person left the house and reduce the heat or AC.
While it doesn’t appear that the industry has completely settled on an infrastructure, the two names that came up again and again were “Apple HomeKit” and “Zigbee”. Even though I’m an Android fan, I’ve said in the past that the biggest strength of the Apple ecosystem is that with a single platform it is much easier for third party hardware developers to support it. This has proven to be the case in the IoT sphere as well. Many providers such as Schlage locks, iDevices wall switches, and Honeywell’s Lyric Thermostat were touting their compatibility with the HomeKit network. However, being HomeKit compatible does come with the extra cost of increased testing and enhanced security that you can expect the IoT manufacturer to pass on to you.
For the rest of us there is still the ZigBee Alliance. The ZigBee Alliance is “an open, non-profit association of approximately 450 members driving development of innovative, reliable and easy-to-use ZigBee standards. The Alliance promotes worldwide adoption of ZigBee as the leading wirelessly networked, sensing and control standard for use in consumer, commercial and industrial areas.” Having a communication standard allows manufacturers to create devices for the IoT without worrying about what ecosystem it will eventually run on (many HomeKit certified IoT devices use ZigBee as well) while consumers can be sure that whomever they buy from, their IoT device will run on their existing system.
Despite its misnomer (a drone is by definition autonomous, although this definition is rapidly evolving), the vehicles that the FAA calls “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)” have taken over in a big way. From tiny racing drones the size of a silver dollar to gigantic commercial vehicles capable of hauling sophisticated cameras or machinery and everything in-between, the drone market has exploded in the past year.
So what’s hot for 2016? Automation and improved cameras are the two biggest changes you can expect this year. In automation, the three key items to look for are auto takeoff and landings, collision detection, and pilot-free control using waypoints and follow-me functionality. While hobbyists have been building these systems for some time, adding them to their drones as they can, manufacturers are starting to combine them all into a single machine that functions right out of the box. As for cameras, in three months you’ll probably be hard pressed to even find a drone that doesn’t include a 4K camera on a 3-axis gimbal. The more advanced ones will be sporting either multiple cameras or 360-degree cameras. Which brings me to:
3. Three Dimensions, 360 Degrees, A New Reality
Now that Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and others have sparked the Virtual Reality (VR) revolution, there is going to be more and more demand for content for these systems. Enter the 360-degree camera market. While the most common solutions include two opposite facing 180-degree fisheye cameras, some of the more advanced models are using four, six, or even more individual cameras and stitching them together. GoPro cameras seem to be popular for this, with Intel’s demonstration using six Hero4 cameras in a 3D printed mount, being stitched together in real-time using their new 6th generation processors for the heavy lifting being the most impressive.
Augmented Reality (AR) had a decent showing as well, but it still felt like a solution looking for a problem. I saw a few demonstrations of medical uses that could prove promising, but for the most part, AR still appears to be in the early stages, and all of them performed poorly for people like me that require corrective lenses.
3D printers have once again proven to be popular, but like so many other things at CES, they were more an advancement on existing technology than some new amazing breakthrough. I did see several compact models in the sub-$500 range, and there are some big names like Polaroid getting into the game, but the most impressive were the ones that incorporated 3D scanning into the unit as well. The ability to place an object into the printer, scan it, then print it is as close to Star Trek replicator technology as we’ve ever come. Unfortunately, the market still appears to be divided between very small, feature limited affordable home versions and decent sized, high quality, super expensive rapid prototyping printers for manufacturing.
As technology advances and becomes smaller and smaller, the opportunity to stick it on your body somewhere increases. Sport bands are once again hot, with everyone and their brother making their own model of step tracker and heart rate monitor, but some companies have moved beyond the simple step counter and are now analyzing movement, breathing and sleep patterns, and more. Sport-specific wearables are also hot, allowing athletes to track individual performance in a variety of activities such as measuring vertical leap and tracking shots in basketball, analyzing baseball swings, or measuring power output of cyclists in real time.
Wearables are not only for fitness nuts, though. The smart watch is still a popular item, with Samsung’s Gear garnering the most attention (Apple was not present at CES 2016, or I’m sure its watch would have been right up there), and the market has expanded into monitoring both children and pets. There are products that will allow you to monitor your baby’s breathing, heart rate, and sleeping patterns, and now even dogs can get in on the action with solutions for monitoring your pup’s activity levels to make sure they’re getting the exercise they need.
1. Warmed Up Leftovers
For every 360-degree camera or revolutionary new wearable, there were two, maybe three dozen firms trotting out the same old tech. Nobody is making any giant leaps forward in headphone technology, yet there were so many earbud, bluetooth speaker, power bank, and other such devices on the floor I was starting to think it was a requirement.
“Hey, Phil. It looks like we’re missing a headphone manufacturer in aisle 21000-21100.”
“Thanks, Dave, I’ll have someone sent over right away.”
The sad part is that so many of these companies were in the section dominated by Chinese imports, they were ruining the image of the entire region. I nearly missed a very cool lighting solution from a company based in Shenzhen because my eyes had already glazed over. And I do get that CES is not just for us tech writers to have something to say, that it’s for businesses to connect with buyers, financiers, suppliers, etc. I just don’t see how it’s useful to display 5,000 items that are identical to the 5,000 items in the booth next to you.
2. Oversized Exhibits
Maybe it’s just my aching feet talking, but I feel like the 2.4 million square feet of exhibit space could have been a lot less if companies weren’t just trying to outdo each other (I’m looking at you, weird company who had a giant booth with a Lamborghini in order to demonstrate their cell phone holder that clips onto a car AC vent.) Why do you need a booth the size of Intel, whose included flying drones, mountain bikes, and a stage, in order to show your five devices and 10,000 sq ft. of empty carpet?
3. Las Vegas
Vegas has to be one of the most aggressively anti-pedestrian cities I’ve ever visited. Sidewalks are closed or force you to cross busy parking garages and roads where drivers care very little for your continued existence, and every pathway from one place to another is designed to be as confusing and winding as possible so you have to snake through every square inch of their casinos, which, I would wager money, will be the last bastion of indoor smoking in the United States. Cab lines wrapped around the buildings and public transportation is nearly non-existent. While I give them full marks for their efforts with the Monorail, it was packed full every evening with zero efforts to maintain order as tired, irritable convention goers were left to their own devices, shoving and forcing their way onto undersized cars like they were the last choppers out of Saigon.
Finally, all this would be at least manageable if you could get any kind of assistance from people whose job it is to, you know, provide assistance to people. Casino and transportation people were almost universally rude, some to the point of actively ignoring you. I found that the most helpful people were the ones who were not there to help at all, but were just trying to do their own jobs. I quickly learned not to ask anyone who looked like they were there to actually assist people and instead would stop and ask the lady cleaning the escalator or the guy busing tables at the cafe, which, once again, would not have even been necessary if the people who designed the signs and pathways weren’t actively trying to stop you from leaving their establishments.
A Few of My Favorite Things
Here are a few things that made dealing with Las Vegas worthwhile. I tried to limit it to things that I either had never seen before or was wowed by its implementation. Enjoy!
LG G6 Signature Television
Using what can best be described as voodoo magic, LG has managed to create an Ultra-HD 77-inch OLED television that is just 2.8 mm, or 0.11 inches, thick. How thin is that? The new iPad Pro at 12 inches high is over twice as thick as this 77-inch behemoth. It’s honestly mind-boggling when you see it in person.
The CUBE Digital/Portable Color Reader is every color-blind designer or photographer’s dream. Set it on top of something, click the button, and it immediately sends the color information to your smartphone or laptop, including several major paint brand equivalents. It also includes a plug-in for Photoshop to drop the color directly into your palette.
Xiro Xplorer 2 Drone
The absolutely dead sexiest drone at the show that also includes a 4K camera, 3-axis gimbal, collision avoidance, indoor visual positioning, GPS dual satellite positioning, and real time FPV, all for a projected price point of around $800. My “want” meter went through the roof on this baby.
Lola Headphones by Blue
The Blue Lola Over-Ear Headphones were some of the most comfortable, best sounding headphones I’ve had the pleasure of wearing. Complete disclosure, though, Angelus behind the turntable was spinning some of the greatest music ever by request, so I may be biased. I also learned that nobody can clear a room full of Millennials like Freddy Mercury.
Retrobit’s Retro Gaming Systems
I mention it last because it technically falls under my “reheated leftovers” category, but who cares when we’re talking video games. The RetroDuo Portable plays NES and SNES cartridges on a portable system that also streams to your television, and the Super RetroTrio playes both of these plus Genesis. Retrobit also supplies a number of retro controllers with USB cables for emulators (purely by coincidence, their NES30 Pro is today’s GeekDad daily deal) and had the single largest bluetooth video game controller ever built where I got to demonstrate my old guy badassery by speed running Super Mario Bros. on a controller the size of a coffee table to a bunch of 20-something onlookers.