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Tech to Watch from the 2014 CES

Tech to Watch from the 2014 CES

The Consumer Electronics Show is an annual showcase for new and emerging technologies for the consumer market. Some technologies are a few months from the market; others are simply concepts. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to CES in the past, given that a lot of what I saw was obviously just hype. This year’s show, however, had some things that piqued my interest.

Wearable Tech

This category is defined mostly by Google Glass, smartwatches such as Samsung’s Galaxy Gear or the Pebble notification watch, and fitness trackers such as the Nike FuelBand. I’ve been tracking wearable tech for a while now given the Dick Tracy-type imagery it conjures. But it seems like wearable tech is always just over the hill and has yet to truly arrive:  

  • Google Glass, intriguing though it may be, hasn’t hit the mainstream market, and, if it ever does, expect some cultural blowback from the invasion of privacy inherent in its use.  
  • The Galaxy Gear watch is receiving tepid reviews and needs to be paired with one of a select few Samsung smartphones in order to work.  

  • The long-rumored “iWatch” from Apple has yet to materialize.  

  • Fitness accessories such as the FuelBand are more expensive accessories than truly useful pieces of fitness equipment.

Despite the tenuous nature of this category, it only seems to be growing year after year. It just needs one killer product to come along and provide a standard template for the rest, not unlike the defining form of the iPhone in the smartphone category that killed previous devices such as the Blackberry and the Treo back in 2007.  

4K and Curved Televisions

3-D TV and the headaches those stupid glasses give me are all but dead, and I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. In its place we have some tech that actually looks promising. First up and the most likely to become mainstream is 4K TV. 4K televisions feature four times as many pixels as standard HDTVs for a resolution of 3840 x 2160. In technical terms, that’ll give you a crazy-sharp and clear picture. 4K televisions are already available, but the way I see it they’ve got four major hurdles:  

  1. Price
    A decent-sized, quality 4K television will set you back at least a thousand dollars, but those prices are already falling.  

  2. Content   
    4K movies will require at least twice the amount of storage space that current generation Blu Ray discs are capable of, meaning new 4-layer discs and new players to buy. Yay. . .  Of course, optical storage is dying off thanks to streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, not to mention user-generated streaming video from sites such as YouTube and Vimeo. Broadband connections with fat pipes are certainly capable of delivering 4K streaming video, but, given the money-grubbing data caps imposed by ISPs like Comcast and AT&T, this won’t be a viable option for most users. And, finally, neither Microsoft nor Sony have been especially forthcoming about their new consoles’ support for 4K gaming, leading most to believe they are stuck at 1080p gaming.

  3. Mobile devices  
    Consumers are ditching TVs to watch video on their tablets and smartphones. Why bother with a new, expensive TV when you can watch movies in bed with an HD screen a few inches from your face?  

  4. Desirability  
    Even when prices do fall enough that 4K is affordable for all, are we really going to care enough to buy yet
    another new TV set and disc player? TV isn’t doing enough new things so that I think 4K will really woo that many watchers to its side. Certainly the first two hurdles will have to be jumped before desirability comes into play, and I believe that it’s the streaming option that will be the largest impediment to mass-adoption of 4K.  

The second TV tech to look for, that I think is far less likely to catch on in a big way but is still interesting, is the curved screen. From the sound of it, nearly every TV manufacturer had a curved TV on display this year, and each one had slightly different justifications for the new technology. The most prevalent reason seems to be that when centered in front of a curved screen, the viewing experience is said to be far more immersive than that of the standard flat-screen display. Viewers sitting to either side of the center viewing area will not benefit however. The idea is neat, but it will surprise me if curved TVs are much more successful than 3D TVs.

Connected Cars
It’s no secret that the automotive industry is packing more and more computer technology into our cars. With built-in GPS, digital music players, smartphone integration, assisted parking, proximity alarms, keyless ignitions, side and rearview cameras, and touchscreen dashboards, cars are starting to look like the biggest and most expensive gadgets of them all. We’re just getting started, though:  

  • General Motors announced that 2015 Chevys will have the option for a built-in LTE data connection and an app shop for their center console, not unlike the Apple App Store or Google Play, albeit it with drastically reduced selections.   

  • Google, partnering with GM, Honda, Audi, and Hyundai, announced the Open Automotive Alliance, a group dedicated to bringing the Android operating system to cars. Given both the maturation of Android on mobile devices and the inconsistent dashboard user experiences from car to car, the OAA has the potential to bring a more standardized and predictable experience to digital dashboards.  

  • Audi is testing a new technology that will feed stoplight information into your console. You’ll be given a heads-up in advance when a light is about to turn red, how fast you’d have to be going to make the light (a questionable application if you ask me), and how long you’ll have before a red light turns green again.  
  • The U.S. Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan are testing a new vehicle to vehicle communications technology that would have vehicles transmitting information such as speed and position to each other. It’s hoped that the sharing of this information will lead to technologies that can improve safety, provide real-time traffic alerts and alternate-route suggestions, and consequently greener car usage given the lack of time stuck idle in traffic.

Virtual Reality

Hey, 1992 called, they say that the Lawnmower Man wants its movie concept back! Seriously, the idea of virtual reality has been around for decades, but up until the last few years computer technology has not been able to meet the ambitious demands VR requires. Now, thanks in great part to Apple’s iPhone and iPad, we have a dependable supply of affordable and mobile high-resolution LED displays, powerful mobile processors, and miniaturized motion sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes which can inform not only movement but relative position as well.  

Enter the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, a Kickstarter success story that started with a funding goal of $250,000 and ended up with $2,437,429. When I first read about Oculus Rift, I dismissed it as the fad from the early 1990s reborn, not taking into account just how drastically technology has improved in the last two decades. Oculus Rift has not only stuck around, but its prototypes have seen consistent updates.  There’s a good chance it will be ready to ship at the end of this year or early 2015.  

CES 2014 also saw the introduction of the Virtuix Omni VR, a specially-designed platform allowing for natural walking, running, and jumping to be detected and mapped to the buttons or keys used for the same movements on a gamepad or keyboard.  When paired with a device like the Oculus Rift, we might actually have the sort of virtual reality promised by movies and books for so long.     

Gaming

The two big gaming announcements at CES this year are the introduction of Playstation Now and Steam Boxes.  

Playstation Now is Sony’s new streaming gaming service which will allow games to be played without the need for an actual game disc or even a dedicated console. As the term implies, all streaming game content will be transferred and displayed in real-time. The service will initially be limited to Sony gaming consoles and select Sony Bravia smart TVs, but Sony has stated that as the service matures it will be expanded to include other devices like tablet computers and smartphones. There are a number of problems streaming game services such as this: face such as graphical quality; controller latency; and, of course, running headlong into ISP data caps. Still, the promise of being able to play Playstation games without needing to buy an expensive console is enticing to budget-conscious gamers.  

We should also keep our eyes open for the release of Steam boxes. Steam is the largest platform for purchasing and playing PC games, but it’s never dabbled in hardware. It came as something of a surprise when Valve, the company that runs Steam, announced a new operating system, Steam OS, which is based on Linux, as well as a partnership with various PC manufacturers to create living room gaming PCs running the new OS. Before CES even officially started, Valve unveiled 13 Steam boxes, each featuring different specs for different price points. It’s exciting to see a company trying to expand the options for video games. From a purely gaming perspective, the Playstation 4 and XBox One are practically the same device whose only real differentiators are their lineups of exclusive titles. Steam boxes inject some much needed variety into the living room gaming industry. That said, gamers are wondering how the Steam box will ever become a viable alternative to these consoles when almost no big-name PC games support Linux.  

Clearly there is a lot to be excited about for both tech-heads and lay-users alike. A great deal was also made about connected homes and appliances featuring built-in computers and online connectivity. It's a great concept, but I'm with the camp of reviewers who feel that appliances and other home technologies already have enough potential points of failure without having a built-in computer thrown into the mix.

Personally, I'm most excited by the car technologies. I think they have the greatest potential to be transformative in a positive way, particularly the tech aimed at improving safety, though an over-reliance on technology while on the road can also be hazardous. Whatever the developments, it's interesting to think that what looks futuristic and fantastic today may be so integrated with our lives in the future as to be taken for granted.