Seeking Best In Class At CES

January 2014

I grew up in an early adopter, audiophile household, which means I was fortunate enough to get exposed to consumer technology quickly and often ahead of other kids in my neighborhood. As a family, we had Pong, Atari, rear-projection TV, surround sound, CD player, LaserDisc, and Walkman, and eventually I had a Commodore, the original NES, Apple II, and a Game Boy. My early introduction to tech left a rather substantial impression on me, and I’ve remained an early adopter—even going so far as making it part of my professional responsibility.

In 2014, however, I had my first opportunity to actually attend CES…and, well, wow! Because I was there in support of our client MakerBot, I flew in on Sunday night to help set up the show floor. Walking into South Hall in its raw state on Monday morning, before the onslaught of CES attendees arrived, the team and I dodged speeding forklifts and overhead cranes as booths around us started taking shape. It was here I realized the sheer scale of CES, and my inner geek started going into overdrive.

CES has grown into a huge event; nearly all the major players in the consumer electronics industry come to present their best across product portfolios, start-ups come for the opportunity to gain media attention, and smaller, more esoteric product companies come to try to get distribution for their wares. Additionally, the show has evolved into a hot zone for media companies looking to find partners for the year’s plans.

The ambition of CES is matched by the venue’s sheer size; according to my Withings Pulse, I walked over seven miles Tuesday across the three intensely packed, vast halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center. But, perhaps what stood out most was what didn’t. The sea of sameness was amazing, and I found myself constantly questioning how a company could even afford to develop a sizable presence based solely around iPhone cases (much like the other 100+ companies displaying iPhone cases) or copycat Bluetooth speakers. But three major themes did stand out as I made my way around the floor: ultra HD, wearable devices, and 3D printing.

Ultra HD

HDTV is always a staple of CES, and this year certainly did not disappoint as Ultra HD (4K) systems were literally everywhere. It was honestly a challenge to understand or, frankly, want to understand why a particular manufacturer was better than another. Every manufacturer included Netflix and the same 10+ apps to use as over-the-top services, but quite honestly few if any actually stood out.

And as if an 84-inch Ultra HD screen wasn’t innovative enough, most were also curved, with the exception of Samsung, which unleashed its remarkable bendable display that can adjust from flat to curved. While this was only a prototype with no price tag or release date (the rep mentioned the screen didn’t yet have a model number), I struggle to understand the value in this new viewing style. Apparently, it leads to more depth of field and total image perspective compared to a flat panel, and regardless of specs, the pictures on the higher-end screens were fantastic.

One display that caught the attention of everyone passing by was LG’s pretty insane 3D HDTV wall. There must have been 100 screens connected and running in perfect sync. The content was gorgeous and truly something to view. But despite it being really awesome, there doesn’t seem to be any current practical use for the technology, except perhaps for use in something like the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium.

Wearable Devices

Building up to CES, there was considerable hype about the potential wearable devices that would be on display, and CES did not disappoint. Smartwatches and fitness bands littered the floor, squeezed in between UV meters and augmented smartphone devices. Start-ups, as well as larger consumer electronic players all showed a variation on the wearable device, yet most were largely indistinguishable black bands (see above: the sea of sameness in the Ultra HDTV category). Jaybird introduced Reign, a flexible band designed for greater comfort, while LG debuted the Lifeband Touch, which has an open-end design. More importantly, though, is the Touch’s ability to connect to about 10 different services…open data FTW?! We’ll see. Garmin launched the Vivofit, which seems like a nice way to connect into Garmin Connect outside of running and biking, although most people I know who use Garmin already track over on Strava. And start-up Atlas tried to differentiate itself with a fitness tracking band that quantifies and classifies the quality of varying exercises at the gym. But in the haze of CES, it was yet another indistinguishable black band.

Many wearables, however, did break out of the black box and into categories other than fitness, among them R/GA client GeoPalz, which drew considerable attention from press like TechCrunch anddeal makers like Jeffrey Katzenberg. R/GA accelerator company, Owlet, was in attendance, showing off its “smart sock” designed to monitor a baby’s health and wellness. Intel also targeted babies and wearables, showing off the smart onesie Mimo, which runs on Intel’s Edison SD-size computer. During its keynote, Intel highlighted a set of biometric headphones that can quantify workouts (when the user is listening to music). The headphones seem like a very interesting concept so let’s hope someone decides to manufacture them. Until then, Jabra’s Rox might just have to do! And, finally, the Netatmo JUNE, a bracelet that seemingly targets women, allows the wearer to better understand UV exposure. But with the rather massive “gem,” I can’t really see the bracelet getting adopted beyond some more outgoing types.

3D Printing

Lastly, R/GA’s work with MakerBot gave me an insider’s perspective of the world of 3D printing, which in many ways was the belle of the ball. In the five years since 3D printing arrived at CES, the category has matured. Given the sheer volume of new products and services announced this year, one can expect 2014 to be a big year for 3D printing. MakerBot cleaned up by winning awards almost every day, culminating in the Best in Show. Even Martha Stewart recognized it’s going to be a very good thing.

Google Glass at CES

I’ll leave you with one last thought that sums up the innovation at the Consumer Electronics Show: CES almost normalized Google Glass. I say almost because while I spotted at least 30 other people wearing Glass (I, too, was wearing Glass), I got stopped and asked about it constantly. Glass, like a majority of the tech shown at CES, is not ready for mainstream adoption and still comes with an “innovative but” tag. The nail on the head? It was at CES, a conference designed for technoratis, that I received my first ‘Glasshole’ comment.

Author: Jonathan Greene, Managing Director, Mobile & Social Platforms, R/GA NY