I'm recovering from a Las Vegas hangover. And it has nothing to do with partying. I'm talking about seeing dozens of companies over the course of several days, running to back-to-back-to-back meetings and spending one very late night deliberating our Best of CES Awards with the LAPTOP team. In between all of this I had the opportunity to discuss the big CES trends on CNBC and Fox Business from the show floor. As I emerge from a fog of next-best-thing spin, I thought it might be helpful to summarize some of the lessons I took away from the show, both for those whose heads are still spinning like mine and for the wrongheaded CES doomsayers who decided to sit this one out.
Smart Watches Are Hot But Need Work
At CES we saw a half dozen new smart watches and played with most of them. But as much as I'm a sucker for Dick Tracy-style wristwear, the first wave of devices is hit or miss. Take the I'm Watch, which lets you see who just messaged you (but not respond) and check out your latest Facebook updates (and not do anything about it). Being able to glance at this sort of information at a glance sounds convenient, but what's the point if you have to pull out your phone anyway when you need to act? Worse, the voice calling simply didn't work. Then I called our online editorial director while heading to an event and didn't even realize he was taking it on the Martian Watch. This time the call quality was surprisingly clear, with only a few clipped words. I'll give this category some time before I make up my mind.
CES has a Newfound Startup Spirit
Thanks to crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter, startup companies generating lots of online buzz are leveraging that attention to thousands of attendees who have never had the opportunity to see these inventions in the flesh. Oculus VR wowed onlookers--and me--with its Rift virtual reality gaming headset. Meanwhile, the folks from Pebble finally let reporters check out its elegant and connected smart watch. I didn't get a chance to ride it, but the weight-sensing ZBoard skateboard turned a lot of heads at CES. Last but not least, I was impressed by an app that came out of AT&T's hack fest, one that lets a child ring multiple family members with a single call. As some bigger companies eschew Vegas to hold their own events and have the spotlight all to themselves, it will be critical for CES to give smaller innovators a bigger stage.
T-Mobile's CEO is a Breath of Fresh Air--And Really Funny
If you haven't seen or heard John Legere speak, you're missing out. At T-Mobile's CES press conference, the carrier's relatively new CEO took potshots at AT&T, calling its network in New York "crap." He also likened most wireless subscribers to prisoners who are handcuffed for two years as their wallets are drained. Legere was there to tout T-Mobile's new $70 unlimited 4G plan for no-contract phones, as well as the provider's general push to end subsidized devices. Wearing a New York Yankees cap, Legere also announced a multi-year MLB deal for integrating T-Mobile's tech. Joe Torre showed up, and T-Mobile's spunky leader had no problem telling those in attendance that he'd rather ask the ex-Yanks skipper questions than field them from us. Overall, Legere demonstrated a deep knowledge of the industry along with a great sense of humor, but most importantly a maverick spirit that could have a huge impact on the struggling carrier.
Android Gaming is About to Explode
While there are plenty of good 3D games in the Google Play store, the iPhone continues to get the most cutting-edge titles first. That may change this year, and not just because Android devices are outselling iOS. Nvidia's Android-powered Project Shield is a portable console that runs circles around the Nintendo DS and even PSP in terms of graphics power, thanks to the new Tegra 4 chip. This handheld, as well as lower-cost Xbox-style controllers for Android handsets like the Moga Pro, will likely spur developers to give Google's platform the extra attention it deserves. Add in Android-powered game consoles like the upcoming Ouya, and you have a lot of reasons to believe the green robot will let its frag flag fly in 2013.
Eye, Gesture and Voice Control Are All Coming Together
After covering the tech world for more than a decade, I'm not easily amazed, but my jaw dropped when I saw the Tobbi Rex, a new peripheral for laptops that will let consumers control Windows 8 by tracking your eyes. You can scroll by looking up and down, and open an app just by staring at it and pressing a button. Another firm I met with, 4tiitoo, is working with Tobbi to develop middleware and applications that take advantage of eye-tracking technology. If you move your head to the left in a game, your character will move left. But that's just the start. The company says it's looking to enable third parties to combine eye, gesture and voice control in popular apps like Photoshop. I put in a request for being able to pinch two fingers in the air to crop a photo and then saying "resize to 675 wide" to make it Web-friendly. That will save my team a lot of extra time at next year's CES.
The Battery Life Problem Will Be Tackled From Multiple Angles
You know smartphones aren't lasting long enough on a charge when the most precious commodity at CES is an open outlet. The good news is that companies are addressing the power issue in different ways. Wysips, for instance, has a photovoltaic component for smartphone screens called Wysips Crystal that can extend your usage time by sucking power from the sun and even indoor light. (Expect real-world products toward the end of the year.) I was also encouraged by some of the demos provided by the Alliance for Wireless Power, including a mock car center console that could juice two phones at once and a table that charged a tablet with a book sandwiched between it and the surface. The competing Qi standard is already in a lot more gear, but you can't ignore the fact that Samsung is backing A4WP's spec. For now, though, we'll have to be content with bulky but effective smartphone cases with integrated batteries, such as the Otterbox Defender with Ion Intelligence.
Windows 8 Needs a Cheap Tablet (Now)
Although I appreciate the best-of-both-worlds benefit of Windows 8 hybrid devices, most of these laptop-tablet combos cost north of $750. And while Windows RT holds the promise of cheaper slates, several big-name companies are avoiding them like the plague. My guess is that the price of the software license is just too rich for Microsoft's partners. And then you have confusion over what RT can and can't do versus full-fledged Windows 8 machines. "So Windows RT is better for content consumption and comes with Office for free, while it's not included on Windows 8. Got it." Whether it's a lower-cost Surface or a device made by a partner, Microsoft cannot afford to cede the lower end of the tablet market to Android. And that's not the only threat. Several laptop-makers have seen how well the $249 Samsung Chromebook is selling and are taking a serious look at offering their own in time for back to school. A low-cost Windows 8 slate will also be critical for spurring app development.
More: Top 10 Windows 8 Hybrids
Wearable Health Gadgets Need to Provide More Incentive
Maybe I'm just unhip, but I wasn't as gaga over wearable fitness gear announced at this year's show as others were. Sure, it's nice that the Fitbit Flex fits around your wrist, but the underlying functionality hasn't changed much. Our team liked the Mio Alpha Sports Watch better, which gives runners real-time heart rate readings to make sure you're getting the most out of your workouts. I understand the challenge in getting those who are less active off the couch, but it's going to take more than smartphone integration and social sharing. iHealth says that it's talking to insurance providers about its Smart Glucometer to potentially reduce medical visits, but I think the companies in the space need to go a step further. Why not experiment with a Progressive insurance-style incentive program that ties more activity to lower healthcare costs? That would compel me to be less of a couch potato.
Tech Can Actually Bring Families Together
At CES 2013 I got a preview of Verizon's new Verizon FamilyBase service launching this spring, which will enable parents to lock their kids' phones during school hours so they don't text during class. They'll also be able to see who their children are texting and calling. That's practical, but I'm more encouraged by innovations that bring families together. A great example is the Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon, a 27-inch all-in-one PC that folds down to become a huge tablet. Lenovo's Table PC has a unique Aurora UI that rides on top of Windows 8. The family can gather around to enjoy photos and videos, play air hockey and cards and more. Executives from Sony told me that that one of the most popular uses for its similar Tap 20 product is Pictionary. Now, that's a trend I'd like to see continue.
The Pen's Comeback Will Continue--But Few Will Nail the Execution
With the Galaxy Note phones and tablets, Samsung has proved that there's still an appetite for pen-based input. So it's only natural to expect other companies to jump on the bandwagon, as evidenced by a few early prototypes I saw behind the scenes at CES. The problem is that few understand why Samsung's implementation works. For one, there's a place to put the pen in the design. If there's no holster for the stylus, you failed. Second, you have to think way beyond handwriting recognition and drawing to make pen computing compelling. The Galaxy Note II, for example, lets you open apps by scribbling a single letter and enables users to hover over emails to see their contents. Competitors should be thinking about how to go a step further instead of including a pen just to say you have one.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter and Google+.