This past Sunday, I fielded the question, "So what did you like best at CES?" from about a dozen people. My initial, flip answer -- a trash can that actually opens and closes on voice command -- is actually pretty close to the real, exciting trends I noticed this year at the show. Rich Hay and I spent five days criss-crossing the Las Vegas Conventions Center, the Sands, and countless hotel suites and press conferences, and at the end of it, a few tech trends really stood out for me. These trends will likely percolate through our coverage for the remainder of the year.
TREND #1: Energy Independence
People who plan for emergencies -- Rich in hurricane country, me in earthquake country, for example -- had a lot to get excited about at the show. There were a plethora of batteries, portable rechargers, and solar technologies. The one I can't stop gushing about to my friends is the $1400 SolPad, a small solar panel that could really be a game-changer for people who own electric cars, apartment- and condo dwellers who don't have the luxury of tiling a roof in solar panels, or emergency-prep nerds like me. What I especially liked about SolPad was how you could automate it via an IFTTT-like app, so you could charge the panel, plug one of its associated plugs into a wall where your freezer was, and write the script, "If the circuit shuts down, then use my SolPad to keep the freezer powered."
Anyway, expect to see a lot more in terms of solar chargers for your electronics, rugged batteries, and alternatives to generators. This speaks to a broader shift in how very portable and necessary we expect our technology to be.
TREND #2: Talking to Our Stuff
I was only half-kidding about my favorite demo being the one where I saw a trash can open and close on demand. SimpleHuman's new trash can, available in March for about $180, opens on "Open, sesame" (or another verbal cue) and closes on "Close." That's all it does. But that's all it needs to do. If your hands are full, it's nice to have the can open up. I have a pedal-operated trash can now and I'm here to tell you, those don't always work. SimpleHuman swears they've tested this can and it's opened and closed thousands of times.
"If you choose to engage with voice or not, it needs to be effortless," said SimpleHuman's David Wolvert. That approach is going to make or break any voice-activated tech, from Alexa to a smart fridge to a television. But the reason it works so well with the trash can is that the trash can only has to do one thing well: hold trash when you need it to. Being able to say "Open, sesame" means that the trash can is especially able to do its job. All voice-activated features should do so well -- they're not supposed to be the main attraction, they're supposed to help the main attraction work better.
When we cover voice as an interface this year, you can be sure we'll focus on whether voice is supposed to be the technology "wow" factor, or if it's what makes the technology better.
TREND #3: Style Matters
I wrote about the emphasis on design as a competitive differentiator last year, and this year, it's like the show doubled down on it. Appliances were sleeker, screens were thinner, personalization options more abundant. There were two complementary sentiments running through the product designs this year: "our product is designed to fit seamlessly into your already-tasteful life," and "our product is here to help you express and amplify your personal taste"
Design carries messages in it. It's no accident LG's household robots are cute as a bug's ear. Remember how cute the original iMac was? How that helped people stop seeing it as just a computer and start seeing it as an object that made their world brighter? Design can send the message that a robot's here to make you feel safe, a fridge will help you turn your kitchen into the cozy hub of the family, a printer will streamline all your petty, multistep tasks.
TREND #4: Screens Are Everywhere, Screens Are Invisible
The Consumer Technology Association is feeling okay-ish about televisions this year, expecting some 229 million TVs to be sold, which is pretty much flat from last year. They're also feeling only okay-ish about computer sales, expecting maybe $195 billion in sales and 380 million units sold. There are plenty of theories why both categories are sluggish -- people don't cycle through tablets as rapidly as analysts expected, people hold on to TVs for a surprisingly long time, etc. But here's what I thought was interesting:
Do you see how the share of video viewing on the TV has dropped while laptop, smartphone and tablet shares have all made big gains? We're looking at a transition in how people watch "video content," one likely brought about by the rise of streaming media (Hulu, Netflix, etc.) and digital downloads.
In response, TV makers are really pulling out the stops -- I saw a lot of televisions where the colors were more colorful, the pixels more profuse, the sound more audiophile-friendly, all of which flog the sales pitch that there is only one type of device that really gives you the best experience.
But I also saw Dell's new XPS 27 All-In-One, which has an amazing sound compared to other computers and a screen with enough rich color to make a movie look good. When I was talking to Dell, they emphasized that this computer was perfect for the kid who was heading to college and would be using one machine to write papers, play video games and watch movies.
I daresay the all-in-one appeal of the machine is not the most compelling argument for this computer. What is the most compelling: How this computer will seamlessly slide into a user's already-present tech set-up -- they can move between tablet, phone and computer far more easily than moving between phone and TV set.
Television makers' emphasis on the audiovisual superiority of their product misses the point: Users would like really nice screens, yes. But what users want more is a frictionless user experience. The "second screen" is real and so is the expectation that one should be able to move between every screen without issue.
We don't cover TVs on this site, but we do cover a user's relationship to their tech set-up as a whole. So we'll likely be looking at the hardware and software people use for work and play, and how they move between phone, tablet, laptop and desktop.
And a final note ... If you decide to go to CES, here's my advice to you:
Start planning in November. And by this, I mean: start taking your multivitamins. Get in the habit of drinking a lot of water. Adjust your diet so you're eating well. Rest. Your goal is to go into the show in decent physical condition because a week of schlepping through climate-controlled hotels, casinos and crowded convention centers is like CrossFit for your immune system. Speaking of ...
Wet wipes and hand sanitizer are your friends. Get vendors' product pitches, not their germs. I fly to the show and you can be darn sure I'm whipping out a wet wipe to swipe down my seat and tray table. Same goes for any communal press areas, and anything I'm touching in a hotel room. And I keep a tiny tube of hand sanitizer for discreet squeezes between booth meetings. If I could walk around in a bunny suit like I'm starring in a 1990s Intel commercial, I probably would.
Bring a water bottle. You're in a climate-controlled environment, in a desert. You can see your skin drying before your eyes. You can hear your eyelids click when you blink. And water sells for, like, $7 a bottle on the show floor. So bring in your own. Nobody's stopping you from doing refills in the bathroom.
Start planning in November, part II. It's never too early to start thinking about what you want to see and how to cluster your days. CES is a great show in that it tends to group like with like, so if you want to spend time playing with dog wearables, then you only have to stick to one part of the show floor and do that. Use the website venue maps to figure out what's being shown where, then plan accordingly.
Accept that you're not going to see everything. Even if you wanted to, even if you were in peak physical condition and planned everything down to the minute, something will come up -- busy crowds, someone absent from the booth, you hit a wall. It's okay. Your task is primarily to find and see the tech categories that affect you and your job. And if you happen to run across a booth where someone specializes in making remote-controlled fluffy blue fiber optic animal tails ... it's the universe recognizing you need some whimsy.
Ask a lot of questions about anything you see. The people who display products and technologies at CES have great demos (for the most part) and those demos are designed to sell you on two ideas:
1. This product solves a burning problem you've been having.
2. This product solves a burning problem you've been having better than any other product ever could.
Your job is to figure out what this product really does and how it really works.
Do not hesitate to ask questions about use cases -- with Internet of Things gizmos, I like to ask if everyone in a household gets to manage the locks/thermostat/fridge inventory/laundry cycle on their phone or if there's a sole user -- and do not hesitate to ask about pricing and availability.
A lot of CES demos are of the "Soon ... soon ..." variety. It's useful to separate what you could do in the future from what you can do in the present.
And so that's what we'll be doing through 2017 -- sifting through what we could do and what we actually can do. Let us know what you want us to look at in the wake of our CES coverage.