East End Tech: Postcard from the Consumer Electronics Show

I was in Vegas last month for the the annual Consumer Electronics Show, or as I like to call it, “Nerd Core.” CES is the Super Bowl of the tech world; all the major players come here to unveil super awesome new gadgets, hoping to build early sales buzz for the coming year. If you’ve never had the chance to hit this epic event, close your eyes and picture this:

You’re standing in the largest room you’ve ever seen. There’s aisle after aisle of tablets, TVs, phones, game consoles, appliances and more. Now add lots of scantily clad “gadget girls” (their term, not mine) who shamelessly lure you into sampling the merchandise—as if we needed extra incentive. And for good measure, throw in hordes of guys who still live in mom’s basement and come to CES dressed as wizards, gnomes, jousters and other role-playing characters.

Good times, right?

Ironically, I rarely have the chance to walk the floor these days. Digital media companies like Hulu and Yahoo have started coming to CES—most corporate attendees use the time for networking—so it’s nonstop meetings in hotel lobbies and bars.

This year, I managed to find a few hours to see what’s what. Here are some observations, trends and things to look for in 2014.

TV’s Last Stand
Did you know that the TV business is in big trouble? Neither did I! Apparently, flat screen TVs are getting bigger and better, but prices and margins are plummeting. The manufacturers can’t make any money on the sets. And the kids (it’s always the kids!) would rather watch on tablets anyway.

How did this happen and why aren’t people rioting in the streets?

The TV companies have a plan for 2014: Smart TVs. Manufacturers like LG, Samsung and others are making big bets on them. The strategy is to replace your home computer with a TV set that already has all the apps and functions built in. I saw models that let you surf the web while watching ESPN, or click a single button to pull up your family photos and videos right beside Netflix. I even saw a 100-inch curved TV that looks and feels like an actual movie screen.

These TVs are dazzling, and I understand that the TV makers need to blow customers away. But there’s big problem: mobility. The tablet is great because you have all that functionality right in your hands—email, games, video, web—and you can take it anywhere you want. Not so with a 60-inch LED TV that’s mounted above the fireplace.

I’m not sure that Smart TVs will ever catch on, but we can expect to find some amazing technology and sets as the TV industry makes its last stand.

It’s All Wearable
I have a love-hate relationship with Wearable Technology. I’ve been goofing on Google Glass for over a year now. I mean, how can you not? Then came the Samsung wristwatch computers, which had major hype but didn’t exactly set the world on fire.

Maybe I spoke too soon, because Wearable Technology is everywhere at CES. We’re talking wristband health monitors, lapel pin video cameras, gift cards that track your purchasing history and more. I even saw shoelaces that doubled as fiber-optic cable. (OK, I made that one up.)

To me, this signals two things. First, electronics makers have maxed out the bells and whistles for smart phones. They’re struggling to invent the next great leap forward, so it logically follows that smaller, omnipresent devices will be part of the solution.

It also opens a lot of questions about consumer behaviors. What kind of gadget experiences do we truly want over the next 3, 5 or 10 years? Will we be OK with the present generation of smart devices, where we manually access content and information? Or will we want gadgets to do the thinking for us and offer seamless, constant technology experiences—almost like systems monitors for daily lives?

Having seen the goods in Vegas, I think the human robot age might be upon us much faster.

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