The best way to predict the future is to invent it — but then you have to persuade somebody to buy your invention. That's a good thing to keep in mind when attending Consumer Electronics Show.
CES draws about 150,000 attendees, give or take a few dozen buses' worth, to Las Vegas every January to see what most of the computing and electronics industry has in store for the rest of the year. It's a gadget hypefest beyond compare, but it inevitably winds up being a gadget graveyard too. Not every shiny new device will earn a spot in buyers' budgets.
The most obvious item at this year's CES — just like at every other show since I began attending in 1998 — was the TV. Now that the flat-panel TV has become a commodity, the next step is apparently to make them still flatter: The OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens showed off by companies including LG and Samsung are barely thicker than an eighth of an inch.
But they're also painfully expensive, with prices estimated at $8,000 for 55-inch screens. The same problem applies to the "4K" sets — as in, four times HD resolution — and glasses-free 3D sets on display here.
The more practical TV advances on display here related to what you can watch on your flat-panel screen; this year, the collection of apps on the average "connected TV" looks to go beyond software to watch videos from Netflix, Amazon and other online services to include plain old web browsing. And since the button-infested remote control hasn't gotten any less awful, some vendors are showing off voice and gesture-driven interfaces modeled after Microsoft's Kinect.
Moving along to the next-biggest screen in most homes, the PC looked a little more exciting at CES. Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 scraps the windows-plus-Start-menu look the company has offered since 1995 for an interface more akin to its Windows Phone 7 operating system (which itself marked a merciful departure from its clumsy Windows Mobile software). And "Ultrabook" laptops built to Intel's guidelines aim to offer some of the style and light weight of Apple's MacBook Air.
Tablet computers represented a colossal bust at last year's CES, but manufacturers haven't given up on competing with the iPad yet. The odds look best for Android-based tablets that, like Amazon's Kindle Fire, offer paperback-sized screens instead of the iPad's hardcover dimensions.
Phones occupied a large fraction of CES's 1.86 million square feet of exhibit space, and they too showed signs of screen-size inflation. An iPhone's 3.5-in. LCD looks tiny next to the 4.5-in. screens on many phones, let alone the 4.7-in. display of HTC's Windows Phone 7-based Titan 2 or the 5.3-in. screen of Samsung's Galaxy Note.
Perhaps because a phone with display almost as big as the screens on some 1990s-vintage laptops can be tricky to fish out of a pocket, vendors like Motorola and startups WIMM Labs and I'm Watch were showing off watches that act as external monitors for phones, using Bluetooth wireless to present messages and other relevant info. Like, you know, the time.
All of these portable devices need constant charging. So the last screen I'll note here is the battery display: To judge from all of the external power packs, solar-cell chargers and even one portable fuel cell that I saw on the show floor, the most desperately needed innovation at next year's CES must be longer-running batteries.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery
This article is part of our ongoing coverage of this year's Consumer Electronics Show. Find more CES articles here.