The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas kickstarts the year in gadgets, as electronics companies attempt to reinvigorate consumers deflated by the Christmas blowout with new and shiny products for the year ahead.
Marking the rise of content as king, Sony’s chief executive Kazuo Hirai will officially open CES at 08.30 Pacific time on Tuesday (16.30 in the UK, 11.30 on the US east coast), and at 09.00 will be talking about the intersection of content and hardware – in which Sony, a content company through its music labels, movie and games studios, obviously has a vested interest.
You might recall that CES always used to open with a Microsoft keynote – but in 2012 Steve Ballmer bid farewell, as did Microsoft from official presence at the show. Last year’s keynote, as you’ll recall, was by that well-known consumer technology personality … (* Answer at the end.)
The show will actually open to the press on Monday, so here is a quick run through the major trends of what is expected to be on display this year.
Gaming, but not from the traditionals
It may not be the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), which takes place in Los Angeles every June showcasing the latest and greatest the gaming industry has to offer, but gaming is likely to play at least some role at CES.
Sony, for instance, could show off the product attempting to rival virtual reality goggle manufacturer Oculus Rift, which promises to give the wearer an immersive 3D video experience.
However, the rise of the Steam Machine is likely to be the biggest gaming news from CES this year, with Valve’s vision of a Linux-based gaming console to take on the might of Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One.
Announced in September, with 300 prototypes already sent out to testers, Valve’s assault on the living room is set to go on sale this year, and several of the machines are expected to be on show at CES, possibly from various manufacturers.
With 50m users of its Steam gaming digital distribution platform able to buy almost 3,000 games, Valve and its Steam Machines could be a real threat to the dominance of Sony and Microsoft in the living room gaming market.
Yet more wearable tech
Body-worn sensors, currently taking the form of fitness trackers such as the Misfit Shine and Nike Fuelband SE, are expected to proliferate this year as the technology within them becomes cheaper to produce. Intel and Archos, for instance, have already announced that they will have new smartwatches and fitness gadgets, while the Pebble smartwatch company is promising something “special” for CES this year.
As a result, the “Digital Fitness Area” at CES is being expanded by 30% to make room for more companies exhibiting more fitness-associated devices. Social connectivity, where a wearers’ fitness statistics are compared to their friends, colleagues or fitness nemesis, is likely to play a much larger role as devices become more and more smartphone and tablet-app integrated.
Whether these devices will do any more than simply nag wearers for being lazy remains to be seen, but there is solid potential here for connected devices to do more than just tell the tracked that they don’t sleep very well.
Look out for a plethora of Google Glass-like wearable smartglasses too, as device manufacturers attempt to beat Google to widespread availability of head-up displays, as well as all manner of “smart” apparel including solar-charging bags and high-tech clothing.
Tablets, big and small
Mobile World Congress, which takes place in Barcelona in late February, is traditionally the exhibition at which new smartphones and tablets are announced. CES 2014 is likely to reflect the massive expansion of the tablet market, however, especially in the low-end, small budget tablet computer market seen in 2013, with ever more tablets from the likes of Samsung, LG and a small army of Android tablet manufacturers.
But it won’t just be Android on show at CES – Microsoft, Intel and AMD are expected to have a raft of larger Windows 8.1 tablets, convertible laptops and ultrabook/tablet hybrids on show, too, as the PC industry struggles to reignite its sales from their current decline.
For better or worse, flexible displays seem to be invading consumer technology, mainly driven by Samsung and LG, which manufacture the OLED (organic light emitting diode) screen technology that makes bendable screens possible. Flexible displays might be almost ready, but we’re still years away from circuitry that can be bent too, so their applications will certainly be limited.
CES 2013 saw Samsung show off its flexible display smartphone prototype, and this year is likely to see yet more phones and other devices with bent screens that are nothing more than gimmicks.
The Samsung Galaxy Round, for instance, should make an appearance at the show, which has a curved screen, while LG is likely to have its G Flex curved Android smartphone on display too.
Curved 4K TVs, because we can
Television screens curved for no real good reason should also be out in force at this year’s CES. Having seen a good showing at the Ifa exhibition in Germany in September last year, curved displays are highly likely to mate with the ultra-high definition (UHD) 4K screens to yield earth-shatteringly expensive curved 4K screens.
More than likely to still be in a prototype stage – or perhaps in a state where one screen around 80in on the diagonal will cost as much as a sports car – these curved screens with at least four times the number of pixels compared to regular high definition televisions are unlikely to be available in high street stores any time soon, but are heralded as the future by some.
Something to actually watch in 4K
After the death (or at least zombification) of 3D TV, the buzz around ultra high definition is unlikely to stop at the curved and unfathomably large 100in-plus displays. UHD content is expected to be present in force at CES this year, marking wider availability of the next generation of video content.
Netflix, for instance, has already announced that it will provide streams of its in-house TV show House of Cards in 4K resolution for its next season through partnerships with “major TV vendors” to be unveiled at CES this year.
Season two of the award-winning show is set to premiere in February this year; Netflix says a broadband connection as slow as 15Mbps should be capable of carrying the show due to new encoding technology. (That’s not a typo – it’s fifteen, not 1.5.)
Google’s YouTube has also announced that it will show off a new, higher efficiency system for its existing and new 4K content that aims to reduce the bandwidth required to stream the 4K video.
Whether internet service providers will be able to handle the bandwidth demanded by 4K streams remains to be seen.
More 3D printing
3D printing has had a bumper 2013, with machines even making it onto the UK high street and services available in supermarkets for 3D scanning and printing with your weekly shop. This year promises to be even bigger for the “second industrial revolution“.
Makerbot is holding its own press conference, while the the area dedicated to 3D printing machines and content creation is bigger than ever this year, showing that even more companies, machines and products are moving into the new fabrication space.
As with 4K television, 3D movies – and even Blu-ray discs before it – the future of 3D printing is content, and it will live or die by what is available to actually print. This year the methods and services by which people actually create the printable 3D models are likely to be key to 3D printing.
But for all that, it’s never safe to assume that what emerges from CES shines a light on what is going to be important in the year ahead – as we discovered when we looked back at past winners of the “best of show” awards.
Our CES coverage starts on Monday at http://www.theguardian.com/technology/ces2014.
* The keynote speaker in 2013 was no less a consumer industry figure than the chairman and chief executive of Qualcomm**.
** Qualcomm is a chip-maker***.
*** Paul E. Jacobs. That’s who it was.
• Need more future-gazing? Read what the Guardian Tech reckons 2014 holds for us
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