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Is CES Dead Now That Elvis (er, Mobile) Has Left The Building?

by Adriana Lee | January 10, 2013January 10, 2013 7:00 am PDT

The opinions are racking up: If you believe many of the bloggers and journos, this year’s CES might as well be called a dud.

I think what they’re generally talking about is how mobile — which has dominated the tech landscape in recent years — isn’t offering up anything particularly game-changing this time around. Bigger, better specs? Yes. Rollouts of respectable, but slightly yawnworthy models from lesser brands? Check. Ginormous 5-inch versions of existing phones or new handsets for recent platforms? Yeppers. And, say critics, there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about any of it.

The one thing from a major manufacturer that may come close is Samsung’s flexible display, and even that doesn’t really come off as much more than a gimmick. The display may be bendy, sure, but it’s enclosed in a rigid surface, which is angled at the sides to offer a narrow view of mini alerts like notifications or scrolling tickers. (Big wup. I’m waiting for a genuinely malleable display that can revolutionize form factors and give that boring old candybar a run for its money. Someone wake me when the bendable prototype with the Windows Live Tile interface actually launches.) Personally, I think the YotaPhone from Russia is far more interesting.

Clearly the big mobile players aren’t grandstanding as much this time around. Apart from a cameo at the keynote, Microsoft has moved on, as have other major players. It’s a sure bet that they’re withholding their hottest items for solo announcements, á la Apple, or specifically mobile-oriented events. CTIA, anyone? How about Mobile World Congress, or surprise press conferences at SF’s Moscone Center or other points in NYC? To paraphrase the late, great Whitney Houston, you can bet the big kahunas are saving all their love for these events.

And that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Writer Matt Buchanan made an interesting point: Tech is not really so much about hardware anymore, as incremental updates to specs aren’t enough to rev up the masses. These days, most of the really fascinating work is being done on the software side. And those few gadgets that do scream potential are increasingly coming from the smaller guys who, after getting Kickstarted into the spotlight, may not need an expensive exhibitor booth to get the word out.

There’s definitely some truth to that. And yet, I think it’s too early to call CES dead. On the contrary, this could be a grand opportunity to inject new life into the hall, since there’s room in the spotlight now for other innovations.

The Internet of Things is looming large in Vegas this week. Indeed, Samsung, LG and Sony seem more excited about creating smart homes filled with their home appliances and TVs than their smartphones. (Little wonder there. Samsung’s multi-viewer OLED TV looks positively sick. And that Smart Hub is no joke.) The idea that everyday users may be able to network everything in their house — from heat to refrigerators — is not only intriguing, but aggressively being pursued. And even this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Did you know that a mind-controlled copter is on view at CES? It hooks to a brain-wave-reading headset from NeuroSky, and demos were on exhibit so people can see how focus and concentration translate into executable commands. Leap Motion is also showing off its chops in booth demos of its cheap, but spectacular motion controller for computers. This $70 add-on can track to within 1/100 millimeter of motion with no practically no latency. With this, users can mold virtual clay, move game pieces or draw in mid-air with just a wave of their fingers. The list goes on and on: There are feats of 3D-printed art by MakerBot and Sculpteo, new gaming devices like NVIDIA’s Project Shield, Lenovo’s epic 27-inch IdeaCentre Horizon Tabletop PC, and even less-sexy, but infinitely practical innovations like HzO‘s waterproof nanocoating for all gadgets on display.

(Side note: Seems like waterproofing has been one of the secondary trends going on this week. Sony’s Xperia Z and Walkman, a variety of digital cameras and numerous waterproofing solutions remind us all of how clumsy everyday users are and what a huge landing target that bathtub or toilet is.)

Advancements like these are all worthy of attention, but for years, they’ve been eclipsed by the spectacle of smartphone announcements. And now, with mobile becoming so big that it has outgrown CES, Elvis has indeed left the building and left a giant hole behind. But despite what the pessimists say, it doesn’t have to mean the show is over. There is opportunity now for other products and categories to shine — that is, if they can shed their backup-singer status and learn to take center stage.

So the big question now is, can a transformation happen? Well, there were probably more misses than hits this year, but the opportunity is there — if pioneering visionaries can step up to lead the way. I suspect we’ll know if the naysayers nailed it or not next year. Maybe it’s optimistic, but I’m rooting for the show to go on, bigger, better, and more diversified and exciting than ever. After all, the event is called the Consumer Electronics Show, not the Endless Parade of Phones Show. That would be CTIA, coming this spring.


Adriana Lee

Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...

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