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Leaving Las Vegas and CES 2016

January 22, 2016

The last time I went to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it was 2010.

Back then, you could could still attend CES and expect to be wowed with new product introductions and tech. Now, many of the companies driving true innovation in consumer electronics, brands like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and even Tesla, choose not to attend CES. Instead, they host their own product launch events to exact control over the media experience and better influence the release of their marketing message. Some smaller brands are following suit, and for good reason. It’s easy to get lost in the noise of CES. That doesn’t stop thousands of companies from packing up their gear and traveling to the desert each year in hopes of having their voices heard.

Much like last year, CES 2016 was full of slightly evolved versions of the consumer electronics we’ve lived with for a long time. From televisions to digital cameras, some of these products are so ubiquitous that they’ve been replaced by a feature or an app on our smartphones and tablets. Perhaps that’s why they fail to stir up excitement despite a concerted effort to be appear more human centered. For example, this year’s crop of televisions were expectedly thinner and more color accurate than ever, with blacker blacks and richer hues. Some screens were curved, others transparent. Ultra HD and 4K replaced 3D as the new justification for consumers to upgrade their perfectly functional digital TV.

For those looking to return to an analog era, turntables made a big comeback at the show. Step into any Urban Outfitters and you’ll see that vinyl is experiencing a major revival. For those too young to dust off their old turntable, CES offered a variety of new products. And not just toy record players. Audiophiles have a hi-res audio turntable option from just about every major player in the space. Panasonic even updated a classic Technics model for the occasion.

The biggest challenge facing manufacturers is explaining how these products will fit into peoples’ lives.

Other product categories, like action cameras, activity trackers and drones, are maturing quickly. Each of these have a clear brand leader present at CES (GoPro, Fitbit and DJI respectively) who are smoothing out the rough edges of their tech while driving prices lower to encourage adoption. There are also numerous smaller companies scurrying to catch up and vying for both attention and marketshare. Most of them have marginally differentiated products and, unfortunately for them, me-too thinking. As these categories grow, so too does the ecosystem of third-party accessories and, in the case of drones, counter technologies to defend people against product misuse.

To be fair, there are still some frontiers to be explored at CES. 3D printing and virtual reality come to mind. There’s room to delight people with these products and their potential applications. The biggest challenge facing manufacturers is explaining how these products will fit into peoples’ lives. There was a conscious attempt to do so at CES 2016. 3D Systems excelled in that regard showcasing a wide range of 3D printing applications using a variety of materials, from metal to sugar. And plenty of exhibitors were utilizing VR headsets from Oculus and Samsung, offering people a first-person, immersive way to experience their new product, be it an electric supercar or software to help you redesign your kitchen. Many of these demos felt incomplete, failing to demonstrate the true potential of VR.

Maybe we have unrealistic expectations for innovation and it’s unfair to assume each CES will offer something radically divergent from the last. Leaving Las Vegas it was fun for me to imagine how the show might continue to evolve over the next five years. Will automotive brands continue to expand their presence at CES, offering their autonomous vehicles as the next platform for technology innovation? Will healthcare catch up with other industries thus ushering in an era of medical grade home health and wellness devices? I’d personally settle for being able to make it through a full day of CES taking photos and videos without having to scavenge for a way to recharge my phone.

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