Trying to make sense of CES, the annual Consumer Electronics Show, is a bit like visiting a fortune teller. In the moment, it all seems uncannily on point, a stream of amazing information that fills your deepest, most secret desires and answers questions you didn’t know you were asking. Smart belts! Fitness patches! Selfie lights!
But take a step back and it becomes clear that none of it really has anything specifically to do with you. It may be a consumer electronics show—and the largest of its kind, at that—but it’s more about trying to generate buzz and piggyback on general trends than actually cater to any real consumer need. Many of the products announced this week won’t see shelves until much later in the year (if at all), and a large portion of the keynotes and demos are simply designed to push the limits of what can be done, not necessarily what needs to be done.
Soon there will be smart versions of just about everything we use in our lives. But something’s still missing.
There hasn’t been a truly groundbreaking product to come out of CES since Microsoft showed off its Xbox gaming console way back in 2001, and that streak wan’t broken this year. But even if we didn’t get a glimpse at the next big thing, there were a lot of little things that seem to add up to something; if we can glean anything from the torrent of products released over the past few days, it’s that the gadgets we use are about to get a whole lot more personal. It’s a direction we’ve been slowly heading in ever since the days of the Newton MessagePad, but more than ever, companies are looking to take full advantage of our always-on lifestyles to deliver products and services that connect our homes, cars and even our clothes in clever and convenient ways.
Our homes are already filled with smart lights, thermostats and cameras that seamlessly beam information to our mobile devices, and if CES is any indicator, the horizon is teeming with new ones. Schlage Sense lets iPhone users use Siri to unlock their doors. Parrot’s RNB6 in-dash car entertainment system switches between CarPlay and Android Auto for the ultimate hands-free driving experience. Connected Cycle’s smart pedals turn any regular bicycle into an autonomous training tracker.
Connected Cycle’s Smart Pedal
Dubbed the Internet of Things, there’s nothing that’s off-limits. If it can be fitted with a Bluetooth chip it can be given a brain, and soon there will be smart versions of just about everything we use in our lives. But the more connected devices we get, the more it seems that something’s still missing.
During Samsung’s keynote, CEO Boo-Keun Yoon predicted a not-so-distant future where all of our devices—from phones and tablets to light switches and refrigerators—recognize and interact with each other and learn how, why and when we use them. Samsung is promising a massive expansion of the intelligence we see from the likes of our mobile phones and smartwatches under an open, universal umbrella.
It’s a lofty goal, and one not without its share of potential pitfalls. For one, most of these devices are only as smart as the phone or tablet they’re connected to, so if you’re not keeping up with the latest Android or Apple handsets, you may be out of luck. And then there’s the issue of interconnectivity. We’ve seen glimpses of it with things like Belkin’s WeMo or Apple’s Homekit, but at CES the idea of interconnectivity truly began to take shape.
The leader of the pack appears to be Google’s Nest, which used CES to showcase its integrated Works with Nest system, using the simple elegance it pioneered with its thermostat and smoke alarm to add a greater level of automation to the home. For example, your Nest Protect can trigger your sprinklers or flash your Hue lights if there’s a fire. Or if your thermostat notices you’re away for more than a day, it can begin forwarding your Ooma Telo calls. Heck, it can even talk to your Whirlpool washer to keep your clothes from getting mildewy.
Mind you, we’re still a ways away from the time when your Belty belt can send a message to lock your GE ChillHub refrigerator if you’ve put on too many pounds, or your Dacor IQ smart oven automatically begins preheating to the temperature in the recipe you’re reading on your tablet, but the Internet of Things is closer than ever to fruition. CES has always been about pie-in-the-sky visions of what the future holds for technology—and there was plenty of that this year, from Mercedes-Benz’s stunning self-driving car to Intel’s boomeranging selfie drone—but even without a major product to rally around, there’s a reason to be excited for the rest of 2015.
Mercedes-Benz’s self-driving car
Nixie flying selfie drone
Even before the conference opened its doors, it was clear that smart gadgets would dominate the exhibition floor, but we’re finally able to see glimpses of the bigger picture. It’s not just about intelligence of these devices, but how they can use their smarts to actually automate our lives.
It’s just a matter of someone bringing it all together, and most likely it’ll come from one of the companies that were conspicuously absent from CES. Google and Apple always loom large over this event, but this year’s crop of products almost seem to be begging for a solution. With Android Wear and the upcoming Apple Watch, we’ve moved beyond reaching for our smartphones every time we want to check our email or play a song, but we’re still heavily reliant on dozens of little apps whenever we want to tell our devices to do something.
Maybe this is the year we finally find out how smart they can be.