Every year one or two breakout technologies capture the imagination of consumers. Eighteen months ago it was Pokémon Go, the first augmented reality mobile app to really catch fire. A few years before that it was 3D printers.
Last year it clearly was digital assistants – Amazon Echo, Google Home and others – that tapped cloud-connected artificial intelligence to respond to voice commands.
These smart speakers have set the stage for voice control to become a table-stakes feature in a host of gadgets. And that will likely be a key theme at this year's CES – the sprawling consumer electronics extravaganza that runs Jan 9-12 in Las Vegas.
"Last year Amazon seemed to dominate in terms of intelligent assistants, or intelligent speakers," said Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Technology Association trade group, which puts on the show. "It has been one of the breakaway products for the year. There is a fourth (sales) channel now. You talk to your speaker and it buys stuff for you."
CES is a bit of a hodgepodge, but on a massive scale. There's a little bit of everything – from smart beds to virtual reality headsets; 360-degree cameras to TV screens so sharp it's hard to look away; powerful gaming computers to a chubby, self-driving shuttle bus that taps computing power from IBM's Watson.
CES attracts about 4,000 exhibitors under 2.7 million square feet. Some schlock is on display, but there's also plenty of gems. More than 184,000 product buyers, industry analysts and journalists attended last year. Attendees came from 150 countries. The show is not open to the general public.
Over the years, CES has become a showcase for start-ups at its Eureka Park in the Sands Expo Centre. This year, the number of young firms exhibiting increased 50% to more than 900.
New at CES this year is a new section dedicated to Smart Cities technologies, with more than 40 exhibitors featured. In addition, a new Sports Zone highlights technologies for athletes, arenas and e-sports, with 18 exhibitors.
More than a dozen San Diego companies have taken space at the show or related venues. Chip makers Qualcomm and MaxLinear are there. Sony Electronics, located in Rancho Bernardo, always has a large footprint.
But there's also Carlsbad-based Amionx, whose technology creates a circuit breaker for overheating lithium ion batteries used in many consumer gadgets.
Gryphon sells a stylish Wi-Fi router that blocks not only cyberthreats but also inappropriate websites for children connecting their tablets, laptops and smartphones to the Gryphon router at home.
San Diego's Humetrix and Independa provide health-related technologies targeting seniors. And Nuviz provides a heads-up display technology for motorcyclists aimed at preventing distracted riding. It won a Best of Innovation 2018 award from the Consumer Technology Association. The company will be featured in Innovation Awards Showcase at CES.
All of which contribute to the serendipity of discovery at CES. Here is a look at some additional trends expected this year.
Look out for 8K TVs
Not long ago ultra-high definition 4K TVs were considered new. But this year, 4K could make way for an even sharper resolution – 8K screens.
"I think we will probably see at CES the first concrete product announcements around 8K," said Paul Gagnon, a display technology analyst with IHS Markit. "They will be pricey. There won't be many of them. But I expect to see them."
TV makers are pushing 8K to combat falling prices for 4K televisions.
"I am impressed by the fact that a 55in (4K) OLED TV is on sale right now for around US$1,500 (RM6,032), and that was a US$4,000 (RM16,086) product not too many years ago," said Gagnon.
While there isn't 8K content available right now, there are 8K cameras on the market, and some movie studios have begun shooting content using the technology. Moreover, the next generation of broadcast television standards support 8K.
The higher resolution means consumers can sit closer to very large screens – 65 inches and larger – without seeing pixels, creating a cinematic experience at home, said Gagnon.
"The trend has been significantly shifting toward larger screen sizes for the past few years," said Gagnon. "So 65 inches is about the smallest screen size we'll see in 8K TVs."
Amazon's Alexa platform signals that many more devices are going to be tapping artificial intelligence in the future.
"In the end, it is hard to imagine that not being a key trend – artificial intelligence and voice commands being embedded in all kinds of devices," said Ignacio Contreras, director of communications at Qualcomm.
How many of these device will be ready at this year's CES is not clear. And whether consumers will embrace the idea that their refrigerator, TV or other gadgets are listening to them also could come across as creepy to some consumers.
Vizio, for example, paid a fine to regulators last year for installing software on 11 million Internet connected TVs that tracked viewing habits, which the company subsequently sold to marketers.
"The idea of a TV always listening to you waiting for voice commands scares some people," said Gagnon. "When you buy an Amazon Echo or Google Home, you buy it very intentionally. You know that this device is listening to you. But when you buy a smart TV, you may not want that."
No products will be announced at this year's CES with 5G technology, which promises fibre-optic like wireless download speeds, capacity for billions of connected gadgets and imperceptible transmission delays.
But the topic of 5G – where products are expected in the first half of 2019 – will be a hot one at this year's show because it has the potential to be game changing.
"The way 5G is designed to be not only mobile broadband but to be able to connect multiple devices and have extreme low latency and high reliability really sets the stage for a broader impact of cellular across all these different industries," said Pete Lancia, a spokesman for Qualcomm, which has been working on 5G technology for a decade.
CES has become a top trade show for automotive technology – from on-board navigation and entertainment systems to autonomous vehicles.
And it's getting bigger. The space earmarked for vehicle technology is up 23% to nearly 300,000 square feet at the show. Most major car makers will be there.
There will be demonstrations of self-driving cars, said Shapiro.
At CES, Vista-based TetraVue will debut a long-range, high resolution 4D video camera that delivers spatial data – adding depth perception to video.
TetraVue's technology aims to allow advanced driver assist systems and autonomous cars to more quickly identify dangerous obstacles at longer distances.
"From a digital video perspective, the world is no longer flat," said Hal Zarem, chief executive of TetraVue.
Qualcomm already provides mobile connectivity chips to several car makers for navigation and entertainment. It has reportedly received state approval to test self-driving vehicles in San Diego.
One of its less well-known technologies is Cellular-V2X, which allow vehicles to directly communicate to each other, to pedestrians, to roadway infrastructure and to the wider cellular network.
So if a person steps off the curb and an on-coming driver doesn't slow down, Cellular V2X could sound the alarm.
"That has significant impact in terms of enhancing safety," said Contreras.
The market for smartwatches and activity trackers has become very competitive over the past couple years, and that's not expected to change. The top remaining players – Apple, Fitbit, Garmin, Samsung and fashion watchmaker Fossil – are adding capabilities to lure buyers.
"A lot of what is coming out, particularly from Fitbit and Apple, is releasing the most robust health and fitness software and feature packages," said Jackson Somes, an analyst at San Diego market research firm Gap Intelligence.
Outside of smartwatches and activity trackers, development work continues on other wearable technologies, such as connected clothing and running shoes, said Somes.
"The trend of gathering data, viewing it on a platform and being able to refine workouts from data you collect from what you wear is not going away," he said. "So we're going to keep throwing the Internet and tracking into whatever we can." — The San Diego Union-Tribune/Tribune News Service