The Consumer Electronics Show, the tech industry's annual confab that is expected to attract 150,000 attendees, is about to get underway again in Las Vegas, and I'm looking forward to it.
In recent years, some major tech companies have either avoided the show or reserved their biggest announcements for other venues, making me wonder if all the CES hubbub was worth it. But this year's show has a lot of promise because several newer technologies have matured enough to make a difference in consumers' lives -- or soon will. Here are some of the things I'm excited to see:
Wearable technologies. The era of wearable tech got underway last year with the debut of Google (GOOG) Glass and a collection of "smart" watches, including the Pebble. As their name implies, these devices are worn on the body and resemble eyeglasses or watches, but they possess some of the same capabilities of smartphones. Typically, they can run or interact with apps and often can display short messages or even make phone calls or send messages. Numerous new wearable products are expected to be unveiled or showcased at CES, and many analysts think wearables will be the big story of the show.
Convention organizers have devoted a special area to highlight 10 smart watch vendors. And we're likely to see a variety of new "smart" glasses that will attempt to steal some of the spotlight from Google Glass.
The wearable market, which someday could include clothing or jewelry with embedded sensors and processors, is currently focused on smart watches and eyewear but is rapidly maturing. Already wearable products come in a range of price points, capabilities and designs, noted John Curran, a senior executive at Accenture's Communications, Media and Technology group. And manufacturers are improving the design and aesthetics of the products, which should encourage mainstream adoption.
"I think we're at a real inflection point where this goes from more niche really into the mainstream," Curran said.
New TV tech. TVs have long had pride of place at CES. Every year, the show starts off with announcements of new models from the big television makers.
But television manufacturers have been flailing in recent years. Other than extra-large screens, few new TV technologies have drawn much interest from consumers. Stereoscopic 3-D technology, for instance, was a big bust.
But new technologies that will be touted at CES could give TV sales a boost. Ultra-high-definition technology, or 4K, which offers super-sharp images on large-screen sets, is becoming more widespread and available at lower prices. Manufacturers are also likely to show off TVs with curved screens, which are supposed to offer a more immersive experience thanks to a wider viewing angle.
I'm also looking forward to the latest in OLED TVs. These have the promise to eventually be razor thin, even to the point where they could be installed like wallpaper. And even 3-D could see a revival. Several companies are touting new technologies that provide 3-D viewing without the goofy glasses that helped undermine the demand for 3-D TVs in the past.
3-D printing. This is another area that's likely to draw a lot of excitement and interest this year. The technology works somewhat like inkjet printers, but instead of printing lines of text with small dots of ink, 3-D printers deposit small amounts of plastic or other materials layer by layer to create solid objects, which can range from toys to car parts. Show organizers set up a special area for 3-D printing companies last year; this year, the area will be three times larger, with 27 companies represented.
As with wearable technologies, 3-D printing is looking like it could soon become a mainstream technology. Prices are coming down, machines are getting smaller and consumers are starting to discover more uses for them. And manufacturing companies such as MakerBot have come out with 3-D scanning technologies that allow users to make both digital and 3-D printed copies of real-world objects, such as a plastic animal model.
The market reminds me of the advent of desktop publishing 30 years ago with the development of consumer-grade laser and inkjet printers. "It's really taken off," said Brian Blau, a consumer technology analyst at Gartner.
The great unknown. Each year I find a handful of companies or technologies that are unexpectedly exciting -- or just downright cool. Last year, it was the giant 8K televisions, which offer 4 times the resolution of 4K TVs -- and 16 times that of today's high-definition sets. The images were so sharp that I could barely see any graininess even when within a few feet of them. Three years before, I saw Parrot's AR.Drone for the first time. Much more than a simple remote-controlled plane, the AR.Drone is essentially a flying robot, which can be flown with a smartphone and can be used to take pictures from above or to play "augmented reality" games, which overlay computer-generated objects on to images of the real world. The latest version can be programmed to fly from one point to another autonomously.
I hope I'll find something just that neat and exciting this year, and I'm betting I will.
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285 or email@example.com. Follow him at www.mercurynews.com/troy-wolverton or Twitter.com/troywolv.
What: Annual electronics industry trade show
When: Events start Sunday but officially runs from Tuesday through Friday
Where: Las Vegas
Attendees: About 150,000
Exhibitors: More than 3,200
Exhibition space: More than 1.9 million square feet
Notable speakers: Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel; Kazuo Hirai, CEO of Sony; Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo; John Chambers, CEO of Cisco; Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter
Source: Consumer Electronics Association