The show floor at CES is a busy place—so busy that it's sometimes difficult to put the thousands of products here into context. The abundance of wearable tech and smartwatches, for example, would lead you to believe there's a vibrant market for them—but tepid consumer demand and disappointed reviews suggest otherwise.
With this in mind, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) hosted a symposium Sunday to discuss the current state of consumer tech and, more importantly, the trends we can expect to see in 2014. CEA Chief Economist and Director Shawn DuBravac outlined several key areas that are likely to define the coming year in consumer technology, as evidenced by the approximately 20,000 new products launched this week.
Most crucially, DuBravac touched on the idea that a third industrial revolution is beginning to take shape. Where previous revolutions were centered around mass production, this one is based in mass customization. From 3D printing and smart media to home automation and wearable tech, the most promising nascent technologies allow an unprecedented level of personal control.
The conference covered a wide range of trends, but we think five of them have a real chance of catching on this year.
There are many reasons why 3D printing is a big trend at CES. For one, a number of critical patents are set to expire this year, which will open the doors to a wealth of products from promising new startups. Undoubtably, this will help bring 3D printing products and services to consumers.
Optimistic advocates believe this market will fundamentally revolutionize manufacturing, allowing each household to literally print everyday objects and product components instead of relying on third-party distributors, factories, and complex manufacturing supply chains.
According to DuBravac, a whopping 7,000 square feet of floor space at CES is devoted to 3D printing. But as with every newborn technology, it's important to distinguish between technological feasibility and commercial viability. The CEA estimates 2014 will be a breakout year for 3D printing, with nearly 100,000 printers sold—but that's a paltry figure compared to the roughly 40 million TVs sold annually in the U.S.
The Internet of Things
Widespread internet connectivity is a trend just about everyone has noticed by now, but the underlying forces driving the movement are less obvious. DuBravac believes we are nearing the point where mobile computing will overtake traditional computing; he estimates 2014 or 2015 will be the year when the install base of mobile devices surpasses personal computers.
Facilitating this trend will be machine-to-machine communications, often referred to as The Internet of Things.
Increasingly, DuBravac says, we are using sensors to solve problems. Seven or eight years ago, the cost and scarcity of sensors—whether photographic or thermodynamic—precluded their use in all but the most cutting-edge devices. Now they're cheap and readily available, and they're paving the way for mass automation and connectivity.
As a result, Cisco predicts more than 50 billion "things" will be connected by 2020; that includes everything from cars and coffee makers to door knobs and thermostats—all interacting with one another to provide a seamless, automated user experience.
Ultimately, this will drive demand for smart home functionality as prices—not only for products but also for infrastructure and utility expenses—will be shaped by the data provided by these sensors.
Perhaps the most interesting application of this technology is in the driverless car space. Here, onboard cameras and sensors have led to adaptive cruise control, which dynamically adjusts your car's speed according to its surroundings. Active park assist uses the same technology to autonomously parallel park your car.
This, according to DuBravac, is an example of innovators solving discrete problems, and then putting these solutions together to create commercially viable products. This is why we're likely to see mass adoption of driverless vehicles before electric makes a dent, and the proliferation of wearable tech will only hasten things.
Display technology is going to be another big story in 2014. Screens are not only growing in size, they're also improving in resolution, color gamut, and user experience. Mobile devices—including phones, phablets, and tablets—are pushing the boundaries of display size while simultaneously packing in more pixels than ever.
Among large-screen devices, UHD (4K) displays are gaining momentum. According to the CEA, roughly 60,000 UHD displays were sold in 2013, and that figure is expected to skyrocket to 500,000 in 2014. That's significant growth, but it's important to keep some perspective. Americans buy some 40 million overall displays each year, meaning 500,000 is a mere drop in the bucket.
The smartwatch and wearable tech space has spawned plenty of cynicism, but that hasn't stopped the CEA from projecting that U.S. smartwatch sales will hit seven digits this year, up from 500,000 in 2013. The reason this space has so much potential, DuBravac argues, is the above-mentioned trend in connectivity and automation, and the supplanting of traditional computers with mobile interaction.
"All of these devices become viable because of an install base of connected devices like smartphones and tablets," he said.
Wearables only enhance the operability of connected devices, and expand the connected nature of "things." Fitness bands that read your vital signs and augment your exercise routine are a perfect example. Once again, though, this is an area where commercial viability will have to catch up with technological feasibility, and 2014 may be the breakout year for that trend.