To set the stage for this year's International CES--that annual consumer electronics trade show that invades Las Vegas at the beginning of January and devours all in its path--let me tell you a little story about last year's event. (Follow CES 2014 live, and get the latest CES news here.)
At one point early on in that show--my first-ever CES--I was trying to get from an appointment at one end of the Las Vegas Convention Center to another meeting far, far away. I hadn't counted on time, distance, and the crush of slow-moving humanity. In an effort to get from Point A to Point B, I put my head down and started zig-zagging my way down aisles, across booths, and through doors. I wound up completely turned around, no closer to my final destination than before, and having to flag down passersby for some clue--any clue--as to where I was (other than quite possibly still within the city limits of Las Vegas). I was horrifically late for my meeting.
My point here is not to give you an opportunity to point at me and laugh--though if you've already started, by all means, continue. Rather, it's to emphasize just how easy it is to get lost during CES--even if you never set foot on the show floor.
Depending on who's doing the counting, more than 3,200 exhibitors will be clamoring for your attention when CES opens its doors on Tuesday, January 7. In the days leading up to that, companies will also host a series of press conferences or show off their wares at a string of well-attended product showcases. All of this will be aimed at convincing you that whatever hardware, software, or service they're touting will wind up being The Next Big Thing.
And you know what? It probably won't be.
Some products that look good at a CES demo in January may lose their luster in the clear, sobering light of the rest of the year. Maybe the finished version won't live up to the promise of the prototype. Maybe it'll fail to resonate with consumers. In more than a few cases, maybe a hyped-up belle of the CES ball will never actually make it to market. These things happen more often than the breathless press releases coming out of Las Vegas every January will ever admit.
Lest this come across as some sort of blanket dismissal of everything CES, you'll also hear about worthwhile things coming out of the show. You'll just need to know what to listen for and remember not to get distracted by the shiny baubles and credulity-straining claims being tossed around Las Vegas over the next 10 days.
My TechHive and PCWorld colleagues are en route to Las Vegas. With the caveat that there's always the chance of surprise developments, here's what we expect to see--assuming none of us gets lost at the convention center again.
You'll have a new gaming console to try
For major gaming pronouncements, you'll likely have to wait until the E3 trade show in June. But gamers can look forward to at least one big news item at CES: Valve's Steam Machine console, which promises to bring PC gaming to your living room.
The Linux-based SteamOS debuted last month in beta form, and Valve has already shown off a prototype. (A select cadre of beta testers have prototypes in hand to put SteamOS through its paces.) While a few tantalizing details about the Steam Machine prototypes have trickled out, Valve is saving the big news--like which PC makers will actually be building the shipping versions--for next week.
Why you should care: What Valve is doing with both its SteamOS and the hardware it runs on are part of an ambitious effort to open a new venue for PC gaming. We're ready to see how that effort will take shape in 2014.
You'll have a new wireless plan to consider
Smartphones were little more than a sideshow at CES 2013, a trend likely to continue now that February's Mobile World Congress, and company-hosted events by heavyweights like Samsung, Google, and Apple, have become the more popular methods for rolling out new hardware. That said, phones won't be entirely MIA--after all, Sony's Xperia Z smartphone arrived at last year's CES. This year could throw us a curve--curved screens, specifically. Samsung and LG both ended 2013 by introducing curved smartphones, though only in South Korea. CES could be where the companies reveal US launch plans for the Round and G Flex, respectively--unless they decide to wait until Mobile World Congress next month.
Right now, the biggest smartphone news out of CES may have nothing to do with your power-packed gadget, but rather the wireless service you use with it. T-Mobile has a press event slated for Wednesday that figures to introduce the latest iteration of the company's "uncarrier" efforts, which have already seen T-Mobile introduce subsidy-free pricing plans, among other changes. T-Mobile's next step, if widely circulating rumors are to be believed, could be to pick up the cost of early termination fees in order to lure new customers.
Why you should care: New phone designs and features are always fun to debate, but revamped wireless plans from a carrier like T-Mobile directly impact your bottom line.
You'll see a lot of new 4K TVs--and maybe programs worth watching on them
TV makers have already dropped hints about what they'll be showcasing at CES. Sony plans to make 4K TV a centerpiece of its CES presentation, while LG plans to unveil a high-resolution TV of its own--a 105-inch curved Ultra HD set, to be precise.
The problem for TV makers, though, is a lot of these technological advances don't seem to be convincing consumers to part with their cash in quite the same way that they embraced flat-screen HDTVs. Setting aside issues of size--I'd need to knock out a wall in my house to accomodate a 105-inch TV set--there's not enough 4K content out there to justify springing for new hardware.
That's why you should pay attention anytime Netflix gets mentioned next week. The streaming video service spent 2013 testing UltraHD streaming. TV makers are likely to unveil UltraHD Smart TVs next week that feature a built-in Netflix app that can stream the next season of House of Cards in 4K. (Amazon, another player in the streaming content market, has also promised original shows in the 4K format during 2014.)
Why you should care: As nice as these higher-resolution sets look, so far it's been hard to get excited about 4K TV. Now that prices of sets are falling from astronomical to merely steep, and 4K content is becoming easier to find, there's a little more there there.
You'll be riding shotgun with Google
CES has become a real car-technology showcase, a place where automakers roll out new concept vehicles, as well as in-car information and entertainment systems due to appear on next year's models. At CES 2014, alternative energy will be in the spotlight: Toyota will show off its fuel-cell concept car for the first time in North America, and Ford will take advantage of the 300-plus days of sunshine in Las Vegas to unveil the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept, which can track the sun to maximize energy collection. We also expect to see new milestones on the road toward self-driving cars.
But the most significant automotive news at CES next week may arrive via Silicon Valley. Hyundai's 2015 Genesis, which will be on display at the show, may incorporate Google's search capabilities to find destinations via the car's navigation system. And earlier this week, reports surfaced that Google and Audi may team up to build Android into the automaker's infotainment systems--an announcement that could come as soon as Audi's Tuesday morning press conference.
Why you should care: Between Google's efforts and Apple's iOS in the Car standard for connecting iPhones and iPads with in-car systems, the Android-iOS rivalry may be extending beyond mobile devices and onto the open road.
You'll be awash in wearables
If we can step into the Wayback Machine for a moment, two of the bigger hits from CES 2013 were the Fitbug Orb fitness tracker and the Pebble smartwatch. And that pretty much set the tone for the rest of 2013: People seem fascinated by mobile devices they can wear on their wrist, even if it's not always clear what problem those devices are trying to solve.
Look for more of the same at CES 2014, with exhibitors hoping to capture your attention with devices that track how many steps you take, monitor your heart rate, or display messages without forcing you to reach for a smartphone. We're also expecting to see more than a few challengers to Google Glass: Vuzik plans to show off the M100 Smart Glasses it first previewed at last year's Mobile World Congress, while GlassUp is promising a prototype of its take on smart eyewear.
Previewing all the wearable technology slated to appear at this year's CES could fill a separate article--in fact, my colleague Jon Phillips is doing just that. Trying to forecast which will win the day before CES even begins would be a fool's game. But on the fitness-tech front, I'll be looking out for gadgets that successfully blend the two most essential features: the ability to analyze the collected data, and to boast about my accomplishments over social networks. As for smartwatches, anything that manages to avoid the high price tags and limited functionality of current offerings like Sony's SmartWatch 2 and Samsung's Galaxy Gear will have a promising head start.
Why you should care: There's a lot of work being done in this area by a lot of companies. While there are bound to be more misses than hits, someone's eventually going to come up with a breakthrough product--even if it's not at this year's CES.
Smart appliances and power trips
CES has become a hotbed for smart appliances and home automation--things like washers and refrigerators you can control from your mobile device, or high-tech security products and locks. I don't want my appliances to connect to anything other than an electrical outlet, but the buzz around products like the Nest Smart Thermostat shows that some people can't wait to talk to their toaster. I am looking forward to seeing products like smart lightbulbs that can encourage better sleeping habits and attentiveness--and my wife can't wait, either.
You know what else I could use? A device that could sustain a tired journalist after three or four days at CES. For now, I'll be on the lookout for anything that promises to keep my essential devices powered up, whether that's a battery-equipped case or wireless charging technology. As for the human version, well, there's always next year.