At the start of every year, for the last several years, I've made the four and a half hour journey from Los Angeles across the desert to Las Vegas to attend the annual Consumer Electronics Show, a spectacular marketing circus where thousands of exhibitors from all over the world converge to showcase the latest and soon to be greatest technologies destined for our homes. It was amongst this year's 140,000 industry professionals I got the opportunity to try out several soon-to-be released electronics, preview a handful of on-the-horizon technologies and take note of several trends which will soon be making it into many of our homes in the next year or two…
The 10 Things I Learned at CES 2011:
1) 3D HDTVs still kind of suck: Yes, manufacturers like LG, Samsung, Toshiba, Mistubishi, Sony and multiple others had their latest updated high definition 3D displays out in force and they've improved since last year's 3D love fest debut. But despite some inroads with improved image stabilizing technologies, including passive glasses from Toshiba and LG, or the brighter and color accurate laser light model from Mistubishi, the artificial strain and flicker-effect is still there to give you a headache. Sony had a glasses-free autostereoscopic concept display, but the 3D effect was about as convincing as an audio bar speaker is compared to a full 7.1 system: kinda, but not really. We're still several product cycles away before glasses-free 3D becomes a viable option for the consumer market. The good news is the style offerings of 3D glasses has improved dramatically, with a few fashion brands now offering compatible specs.
2) 2011 (and beyond) is the year of Android: Google's Android platform was prolific amongst a myriad of devices and manufacturers, notably the announcement of new tablets running on Android 3.0, code-named Honeycomb. And at a show where Apple isn't in attendance (though their presence is felt via the endless amount of iDevice accessories being showcased), it's Google's influence which looms strongest. Expect to see Android powering not only your smartphone, televisions and tablets, but also appearing inside your washing machines and refrigerators, as previewed with LG's THiNQ Technology Smart Appliance line. This could mean you'll be downloading cooking apps to your smart oven while your refrigerator could offer an app for grocery coupons or nutrition guidance. Google seems to have plans that make Microsoft's dominance seem quaint and Apple's influence merely boutique.
3) Robotic home appliances are here to stay: whether it was athletic dancing robots, an air purifier that could sense and move to rooms needing environmental care by itself, a supportive nutrition robot which doled out advice, or the myriad of cleaning devices for floors and even vertical windows, many of the most menial household tasks are being addressed by essentially self-learning, environmentally aware devices. Roomba maker, iRobot, showcased several of their newest commercial and tech experimental robots, while numerous Asian manufacturers (specifically Korean companies) had similarly shaped robot vacuums which could adjust for different surfaces, room layouts and and cleanup duty.
4) Steam power is back: not quite steampunk, but we noted several home appliances made use of steam technology to perfectly cook foods or gently, but effectively "refresh" clothing. Our favorite was LG's steam wardrobe, a $2000 high-tech closet which not only gets the wrinkle of your clothing, but also refreshes/deodorizes and removes minor stains in about half an hour. LG also applied steam technology in the category of dishwashers, with a powerful steam generating system which supposedly can remove lipstick marks from glasses while only producing 42 dBA of sound while in operation.
5) Home automation systems are on the brink of becoming mainstream: we've already waxed prolific about our hotel room's luxurious and easy to use Control4 automation system, and throughout the halls of CES an assortment of manufacturers and technologies offered countless ways for dumb devices to be interconnected with smarter systems. Crestron, Schlage, Lutron, Control4, Insteon, and Hai were all represented, and Verizon unveiled their Home Monitoring and Control system, which "enables customers to lock doors remotely; see what's going on at home via networked cameras; and set, adjust and control lights, smart thermostats and appliances — all by using a smartphone or a computer or through FiOS TV."
For the most part, home automation in general is still a specialty category requiring professional installation, with a price tag to match. But certain categories like automatic door locking systems, remote security monitoring and simple lighting controls are spilling down into the DIY-Home Depot range. It won't be long before home automation will follow the footsteps of home theater in a box systems in affordability and ease of installation.
6) Good industrial design matters: there was a time when home electronics and appliance makers didn't have to so much worry about how their products looked in conjunction with the rest of the home. But those days are long gone, with design savvy customers choosing their tech with the rest of their home's decor in mind. Headline technologies like the Motorola Xoom tablet and Lady Gaga's Polaroid GL20 Camera Glasses garnered media attention, but it's actually the more mundane devices which we all use regularly and often have have to consider leaving out in the open in our homes when not in use. So we applaud the likes of Black & Decker for releasing a paper shredder that bucks convention or Samsung for offering a bookshelf audio system which actually looks like it belongs amongst your favorite tomes. On a related note: for the second year straight, we'd award Samsung for the best overall booth in the design department, both in presentation and products showcased.
7) Full body gesture systems are moving beyond gaming: Microsoft flexed their gaming muscle on the show floor with their popular Xbox 360 Kinect entertainment system. But we also saw several remote operation solutions from non-gaming manufacturers which either incorporated a wand-like solution, a la Nintendo Wii, or ditched the hardware altogether for user interface manipulation for display or media delivery user interfaces. We wonder how long it will be before you can remote control your vacuum or open your fridge from afar simply using gestures.
8) The green sheen marketing is fading: compared to the last couple of years, manufacturers thankfully turned down the eco-friendly features marketing blast that prevailed during leaner times. This in itself is what Martha might call "a good thing", since there's less fluff/hype in the marketing of products, but still plenty of genuine energy monitoring and adaptive solutions to help reduce power consumption. And with the proliferation of interconnected smart technologies, monitoring energy use per device and together in a household is become a reality. General Electric's Imagination at Work booth was amongst our favorite, with touchscreen displays providing a wide assortment of energy analytics sourced from washers, dryers, lighting and just about anything plugged into your home (including a Yves Behar designed electric car pumping station!).
9) Tablets are getting smaller, smartphones are getting bigger: Our favorite tablet device was the 7" Blackberry PlayBook. A non-Android device, the RIM designed tablet was a multi-tasking powerhouse offered in a size smaller than the popular iPad, making us reconsider (at least for a moment) whether the portability and power of the smaller tablet might be a replacement for Apple's take on mobile media computing. In the realm of cellular devices, every smartphone manufacturer had new handhelds which inched closer to tablets in size and matched them in power. When you can dock your smartphone into a laptop cradle and practically use it like a full-function computer (Motorola ATRIX 4G), or slide open a tablet to reveal a slide out keyboard like a smartphone (Samsung 7-Series Sliding Netbook), you know the future has gotten a whole lot more interesting.
10) The near future will require less wires: the Samsung SH100 digital camera looks like your average point and shoot camera. But it can upload photos directly to your computer or to your Facebook sans USB cables. And even better, a Samsung rep noted the SH100 can work in conjunction with the Samsung Galaxy S as remote screen, so you can preview what your camera sees on its end before snapping a shot. In similar effect, iPhone and Android users can tap an app from Eye-Fi and partner it up with the new Eye-Fi Direct Mode and any compatible digital camera, allowing for image upload to the cloud all that much easier.
Miscellaneous note from CES 2011: my better half has an uncanny ability for finding Snuggie-type devices at nearly any type of tradeshow, as documented above.