By Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
It’s easy to make fun of CES, as we found out when we announced our excitement at not attending it in 2012. Now, even stalwart, general technology reporters like the New York Times’ David Pogue are getting in on the act, questioning whether we really need to watch a bunch of shiny new hardware unveiled for 2013 — especially when we already have pretty good rectangular touchscreens for delivering apps, text, video, and music to us, wherever we are, just fine, thank you very much.
Do we really need OLED televisions? Again? Like we did last year, Pogue wonders whether CES will be the next Comdex, made irrelevant by consumer electronics becoming as commodified the way desktops and laptops were before them.
We were rebelling against CES before it was cool. Nonetheless, we can still think of at least six things that, if announced there, would convince us we were wrong not to fly to Vegas:
1. A Killer, Near-Field, Wireless Entertainment Standard from CEA
The Consumer Electronics Show is put on by the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents every electronics manufacturer you can think of, large and small. For years, we’ve watched the industry at large flail about ineffectually as Apple’s AirPlay standard takes over the living room. Connecting smartphones and tablets to televisions and home stereos is important — it might be the single most important question facing the industry this year. And although Microsoft, Google, and others are finally waking up to that, Apple still owns it.
I would feel silly for skipping CES if the CEA were to announce a new standard for zapping audio and video around the home, with every company from mom-and-pop speaker dock manufacturers to the Sonys and Samsungs of the world pledging to support it. I don’t think that’s going to happen though, because a standard like this is much more complex than something like a Compact Disc, and even that took a great deal of cooperation between Sony, Philips, and the rest.
Still, if the industry figures out how to put apps, music, and video on consumer electronics equipment using a simple, open standard, it would be bad for Apple – but good for just about everyone else.
2. TV That Doesn’t Suck
Nevermind OLED, 3D TV, or ultra HD — how about we fix the perfectly-awesome televisions most of us already own? The menus on our television set-top boxes are the worst thing in technology right now. It takes forever to find anything, the screens and search load way too slowly, and the internet is missing, in most cases. I would regret missing CES this year if 2013 is the year the cable and satellite companies catch up to the rest of the industry in terms of design and functionality, while bringing the internet to the large screen — and, for extra measure, introducing standardized audio syncing of the “second screen” — but I doubt that will be the case, in part because, from their point of view, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Too bad consumers don’t see it the same way.
3. Cars With Apps That Know They’re in Cars
One of the early bits of digital music news to emerge from Las Vegas so far is this tidbit from CNET’s Greg Sandoval about Pandora finding its way into Chrysler cars, followed by another one from Bloomberg about Rhapsody appearing in Ford cars. In both cases, this is about using a car dashboard to control the vanilla version of a music app on a smartphone.
At CES 2011, Pandora CEO Tim Westergren drove me around Las Vegas in a Cooper Mini to demonstrate how its dashboard could control Pandora on an iPhone. Back then, he said the winning strategy was to use the smartphone as the brains of the car’s digital music nerve center, merely controlling it with the dashboard — mainly because most people wouldn’t want to pay for another modem in their lives — and a mobile, wireless one at that.
That is still the world we live in today. But at some point, cars are going to run apps natively, and some of them on display at CES already have their own modems, the way they did last year and the year before that. At a certain point, music (and other) apps are going to take advantage of the fact that they are running in cars. Some of this will be about targeted advertising based on where you are, who you are, and where you are going, but some of it will be about the experience itself, and that’s where things get interesting for music fans and other consumers.
Earlier this year, we saw an app that played songs by bands from the area through which a car is traveling, but other possibilities include using music to regulate the driver’s mood (and maybe even intended speed) for purposes of safety or relaxation, or maybe even sending a song to a driver in another car. The sky is the limit when it comes to smart music playback in the car, but it won’t happen until apps are tailor-made for cars.
4. Disgustingly-Cheap-Yet-Pretty-Decent Hardware
If you walk into a drugstore today, you’ll probably see tablets and ultrabooks that cost around $50. If electronics are becoming commodotized, which they are, how about some insanely cheap tablets that are somewhat well-made? Some people have multiple televisions in their homes, so they don’t have to walk between rooms to see one. If decent tablets cost $50, it’s easy to imagine people putting one in every room in the house, just in case someone wants to fact check something online to settle a bet, do some light reading, post a quick status update, or watch a video, without impacting their “main” battery (the one in their smartphone), or using (or finding) a single expensive tablet somewhere else in the house.
However, when the good stuff gets that cheap, we’ll need…
5. Recycling Discounts From Retailers
It’s no secret that many shoppers view chains like Best Buy as little more than showrooms for the shopping they’ll do on Amazon or other online retailers. That’s one problem, where brick-and-mortar retailers are concerned. Another problem, where environmentalists are concerned, is that electronics products are filled with weird chemicals and trace amounts of exotic elements and compounds — and yet most people don’t recycle them, or even know that they can be recycled.
The Consumer Electronics Show likes to talk about how green it is, which is a little funny, considering that over 150,000 people are expected to fly there to see an entire city of promotional booths that will be erected and destroyed within the space of a week. To get greener, it could encourage gadget recycling with the help of brick-and-mortar retailers. If you automatically get a discount for bringing in an old or broken gadget instead of consigning it to the landfill, you’d be more likely to bring that thing in to Best Buy, rather than paying to ship it to Amazon. And just like that, we’d be keeping dangerous chemicals out of the environment, possibly, eventually, reducing the cost of bringing new devices to market, and extending a lifeline to brick-and-mortar electronics retailers, before only the Apple Store is left.
6. Specialized Smartphone Modules from the Future
Okay, we get it — the smartphone is now the center of our digital (and actual) lives. We are all part of “generation fidgital,” to use the New York Times’ recently-coined phrase. If CES wants to stay relevant in the smartphone age, these sorts of modules could be one key to that.
I sort of saw this coming, although it happened with apps, not hardware. Now, it’s happening with hardware too — by which I mean we’re seeing more hardware add-ons to smartphones that extend their functionality, turning them into everything from desktop computers to boomboxes (see Felt Audio and BoomBot). If were Gary Shapiro and a genie granted me three wishes, one of them would be for a rash of exciting smartphone hardware modules like the following announced at CES 2013:
Audio: I describe this here in detail, but the basic idea would be to allow high-end audio format’s like Neil Young’s Pono music initiative to function on existing smartphones by converting the audio in a small, standalone box.
Camera: You can already buy little snap-on lenses that let you capture optically-transformed panoramic and fish-eye photos and video, which is important, because photos look better when a lense (as opposed to an Instagram filter) transforms their images. If manufacturers figure out how to add killer optics to smartphones, photographers with an eye for quality would no longer be forced to choose between the smartphone they have in hand and the DSLR they probably left at home.
Fitness: You can already get watches, shoes, and pedometers that connect to smartphones for exercise purposes, but we could always use more of them — and, why not, better, cheaper, and more-widely-compatible ones.
Projector: We’ve little “pico projectors” demonstrated at CES’s of the past, but they haven’t taken off yet. By snapping on (or wirelessly connecting) a super small projector, it would be possible to share photos, videos, and business presentations without lugging around or locating a full-sized projector.
Photo of CES 2013 courtesy of Flickr/samsungtomorrow