CES 2014—What Innovates in Vegas Doesn’t Stay in Vegas

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  January 15, 2014

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2014) at the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) and surrounding hotels didn’t seem quite as bodaciously glitzy or ear-splittingly bombastic to me as past events. It wasn’t that there weren’t the requisite number of ludicrous “mine is bigger (brighter, glossier, louder, faster, pricier, etc.) than yours” claims than we’d seen many times before. They were, in fact, abundant.

There was also no shortage of goofy predictions about the next latest/greatest product/trend to hit consumer living rooms during the next 6-12 months—a circumstance that might be summed up by declaiming, “3D TV is dead! Long live 4k TV!” Nor were there any shortage of lines to stand in—particularly at McCarran Airport, taxi stands, monorail stations, restaurants, rest rooms and the mainstream press events orchestrated by the CEA (Consumer Electronics Association), owner/organizer of CES.

That’s all part and parcel of joining the herd of 150,000+ other conference cattle. But in leaving Las Vegas on Thursday morning, I had a strong sense of having participated in a multiplicity of often contradictory, even oppositional events. The resulting feeling was not of having attended a conference that exemplified, summarized or unified consumer electronics, but that the global market for consumer electronics has simply gotten too big, too complex and too diverse for any single event, including CES, to adequately encompass or represent.

In any case, my time at CES 2014 was usually interesting and often fascinating. Here are a few thoughts on the experience:

Wearable Companions

Wearable tech in the form of Google Glass, smart watches and sensor-enabled wrist bands (like FitBit) were highly touted and visible throughout the conference. Some were intriguing, many were goofy looking and most were simply silly, limited-function “me, too” devices that will be long forgotten by the time CES 2015 comes around. While most in the media focused on the products’ wearable aspects, their “companionability” or how they interacted with companion smart phones, etc. was more intriguing, particularly in products designed for fitness and healthcare. We believe it won’t be long before wearable tech finds a place in the medical market in applications such as monitoring/alerting the condition of patients. The rapidly “graying” Baby Boomers who helped drive the wide adoption of computer technologies will grow the demand for and uptake of these products.

IoT, End to End

While wearables grabbed the headlines at CES, they were actually a significant part of larger “Internet of Things” (IoT) discussions, which encompass a vast sea of usually wirelessly networked devices with embedded digital intelligence. Not surprisingly, most of the vendors at CES interested in this space focused on the IoT endpoints that will reside in peoples’ homes, pockets, cars, etc. But the bigger IoT narratives reside in the backend data centers that will collate, store and analyze the massive volumes of data those endpoints collect. Of the vendors present at CES 2014, only Intel seemed to fully comprehend the implications of this issue, and the company moved swiftly to address them with numerous IoT-related products, partnerships and strategic initiative announcements during CES. Intel has an obvious position on the hardware side of IoT, but the company’s 2009 purchase of Wind River, the dominant OS platform in the embedded market, also means Intel will assuredly be “inside” IoT from endpoint devices to backend data centers.

Component Collaboration – Qualcomm, Broadcom

A simple truth about CES is that of virtually all products highlighted at the show, few if any are designed and manufactured from scratch by any single vendor. Instead, companies collaborate with a wide range of specialty manufacturers that develop components that add specific, meaningful functionalities to those shiny gizmos on the show floor. We met with two major component players: Qualcomm and Broadcom, whose customers include many of consumer electronics’ leading players. The former is the larger company, which focuses a great deal of attention on wireless/mobile solutions. In fact, a Qualcomm executive we met stated, “We are mobile. That’s what we’ve always been.” The company demoed a number of new Snapdragon products at CES 2014, including the 805 (supporting Ultra HD video), the 602a (the first automotive SKU for Snapdragon) and the 402 (for mass market smart phones).

Broadcom’s large booth was located away from the main show floor and was only open by invitation. The company showcased a number of new technologies during CES, including a WICED SDK for HD audio streaming over Wi-Fi, enhanced 5G WiFi solutions, HEVC satellite set-top box solutions and residential gateway chips for emerging markets, and used its space to display dozens of its own and clients’ products. The place was jammed with serious people in formal business attire checking out options for the products they’ll be building and selling later in 2014. It was a great example of how and where the real business at CES gets done.

Personal Computing Redefined—AMD, Dell, HP/Nvidia, Intel

By almost any measure, traditional personal computing markets and vendors are under siege, but that doesn’t mean they’re tossing in the towel. In fact, three vendors displayed new solutions at CES 2014 that suggested inventiveness and individuality are alive and well in the PC market. Here are three that impressed us:

  1. AMD hosted a lively press conference to preview its new Kaveri APUs, the first company products to leverage the company’s heterogeneous system architecture (HSA) that allows both CPU and GPU cores to leverage the same memory and be programmed with common tools. The company demoed numerous new and existing products based wholly or partly on its silicon, including the new Apple MacPro desktop, which leverages AMD’s ATI graphics cards. We were also impressed by a demo of the Tango PC, an innovative, smart phone-sized dockable device still in development that can support PC, gaming and entertainment applications.
  2. Dell spotlighted a four-year collaborative initiative between its Alienware group and Valve to develop gaming products based on the Steam OS, including an all-new Alienware Steam Machine. In addition, the Alienware x51 will be available as a Steam Machine-configured console. Finally, Dell demoed a new 28-inch UltraHD monitor (P2815Q) that’s going on sale worldwide on January 23. Along with delivering gorgeous graphics, the $699 list price means Dell is delivering one of the market’s most affordable 4K monitors.
  3. HP launched a number of all-in-one (AiO) products at CES, including home, business and workstation solutions. But the one that really caught our eye was the new HP Slate21 Pro AiO which is designed for productivity in office, education and kiosk environments. The Slate21 Pro features a 21.5-inch diagonal Full HD IPS touch screen on a stand that allows up to 70 degrees of adjustable recline and optional VESA mounting, making it flexible enough for a variety of work environments. The most radical feature? The Slate21 Pro is based on NVIDIA’s Tegra quad-core processors and the Android OS, meaning it supports the million+ apps available from the Google Play store. It isn’t clear that the world really wants or needs an Android-based AiO but with a list price of $399, HP’s new Slate21 Pro will likely get people thinking about the idea.

Offsite Events

With 150k+ people on hand at CES 2014, the LVCC was a hard place to get much done, which heightened the importance of offsite events. Some of these were formally attached to CES, like the vendor-hosted previews and press conferences at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Others, including Digital Experience/PEPCOM and Showstoppers are media-focused events operated by third party organizations. Finally, the CEA’s Eureka Park section at the Sands Convention Center in the Venetian was the place to be for dozens of early stage start-ups looking for attention and/or funding.

Of the three, we found the first to be of least value due to the number of people on-hand (CES attracts around 5k reporters from around the world) and tightness of space (making many events standing room only). Happily, that’s not the case with either Digital Experience or Showstoppers, which offer lots of time/room for participating vendors and analysts/reporters to have meaningful discussions, so kudos to those organizations. We plan to attend both events again at CES 2015.

Finally, Eureka Park was a great place to take a pulse check on the start-up community. Many looked like solutions in search of problems, some were variants on established commercial products and a few were simply odd (GPS-enabled pet collars… really?). But there were also truly interesting and innovative technologies, including a couple we found especially notable: 1) VocalZoom is an Israel-based startup that has created a laser-assisted microphone that reduces 70-90% of background noise, significantly enhancing in-car phone calls and mobile voice recognition, and 2) EcoHarvester is a Berkeley, CA-based startup that developed a battery-free remote dimmer switch for its “BonsaiLight” fixtures. The company received a grant from the National Science Foundation and is considering other commercial uses of its battery-free switches.

That’s it for CES 2014, though I’m sure we’ll return to at least some of these products and developments before CES 2015.

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