Why CES 2014 Lacked a Big Bang (and Why That's OK)
The theory of events like the Consumer Electronics Show is that there has to be a big bang every year. What happens when there isn't one?
It's a timely question, because it was hard to come up with a single standout product launch at CES 2014. What's the big water cooler moment? While I was waiting for the Brand Matters keynote for advertisers ad marketers, the five most buzzed-about topics were: ultra HD (the latest evolution of improving video quality), Sony (a CES mainstay), Samsung (ditto), wearable tech (this one's important; more on that shortly), and Michael Bay (newly infamous for flubbing a keynote appearance on Monday). Are these top trends a sneak peek into the future?
No, they're not. And that's okay.
The biggest reason CES 2014 feels less exciting in terms of its innovation output is that it has become a victim of our heightened expectations. We may not want to wear Google Glass yet -- or have a FitBit track our health, play immersive 3D virtual games or have self-driving cars take us around town. That's fine; not all of these technologies will offer immediate benefits for everyone; some will barely have a use for anyone. But for all of these, we've collectively reached that view of the horizon where we can envision what might come in the near future. In the past several years, it feels like just about every great science fiction idea has been dusted off, prototyped, and popularized.
It brings to mind "the adjacent possible," the concept coined by Stuart Kauffman and popularized by Steven Johnson in his book "Where Good Ideas Come From." Johnson describes how different people in different places often come up with the same invention or innovation at roughly the same time, largely because they're all operating at the margins of what we think could be plausibly real. "The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future," Johnson wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself." Right now, we're awash with possibilities, and there are so many edges where inventors can operate.
The margins themselves are more important than the individual products at this CES. With wearable headgear in particular, there will likely be a few successes for the mass market, and a number of other winners targeting special use cases such as skiers, surgeons or heavy gamers. Most others will fail. What's far more important is that there are now viable applications in fields such as hands-free mobile computing, voice controls, lifecasting and the merger of fashion with consumer electronics. With the top five trend list cited above, it's healthier that that people are more interested in the field of wearable tech than any one product. Any category matters more than its individual companies and products.
Even if a product broke out and became the most buzzed about hit, it wouldn't necessarily mean anyone will buy it. No matter how many curved and 4K displays get headlines, high-definition sets are already so impressive that TV software matters more than TV hardware when it comes to displays. Anecdotally, the TV hardware I've heard most people excited about is Google Chromecast -- a product sold for $35, not $3,500. Chromecast itself, while not introduced at CES, is just one of many technologies enabling people to easily connect their screens and devices, and that broader trend is something evident everywhere at this show.
Every attendee will have his or her favorite products they saw here. There was plenty to choose from. Android coming to cars, Intel's sensors built into clothing for babies and WowWee's gesture-controlled robots are a few of the standouts. Figuring out what this mean and what to do about them will then mean CES isn't a weeklong event but one that reverberates all year long.