The first tech event of 2017 is also the year's biggest: CES arrives the first week of January, and like a tardy Santa Claus, it bestows the world with the gift of new consumer tech of every kind — phones, cars, TVs, drones, VR — you name it.
Looked at another way, CES tends to catapult new devices and technologies at the world like enormous gobs of spaghetti. The thing about spaghetti, though, is not much of it will stick. A large portion of the gadgets, gear and concepts shown at CES will never make it to store shelves, as cool as some of them may be.
Still, while many of the devices and gear on display may be suspect on an individual basis, taken in aggregate, they point the way for the industry (and its many sub-industries). CES doesn't create tech trends on its own, but it solidifies existing ones and focuses them by refracting them through a common lens: the consumer.
Here are the tech trends to watch out for at CES 2017:
Alexa's smart home
The rewards of Amazon's early lead in the smart-home war will become apparent at CES 2017 as companies announce several products with Alexa integration. This trend began with last year's show, but after the most high-profile announcement — Samsung's Smart Fridge — turned out be vaporware, things stalled for a while.
However, with Nest floundering, Google Home coming late, and other big players like Apple staying more or less silent (HomeKit has surprisingly little buzz in advance of the show), Amazon had no serious challengers, and the partners have come calling. Expect Alexa-powered light bulbs and lamps, loudspeakers, smart locks, sprinklers, and even apps to be all over CES. Yes, Google Home will also get some love, but it'll be a drop in the Alexa bucket.
The hottest buzzword: AI
CES could fill an encyclopedia with all the jargon that gets thrown around, but there's always one white-hot term that every company wants to include in its sales pitch. In previous years, the crown was worn by "4K," "smart" everything, "4G," and even "satellite radio," but the early winner for CES 2017 looks to be "AI."
Artificial intelligence apparently isn't just the domain of the big platform stewards like Facebook and Google — at CES, we'll see that wearables, sensors, cars and more can all be AI-powered. Of course, for many of these products, it'll just be hype. But the ones that can truly deliver a better experience by leveraging the power of AI could change the game for their categories.
Cars go beyond driverless
Driverless tech and alternative fuels were the big story of last year's show. Although they'll both play a big part at CES 2017 (Faraday Future once again has a big reveal on day one), this year car companies will have to go beyond those now-expected technologies to wow audiences. It looks like they're doing just that — mostly by turning attention to the car's interior.
Concept vehicles, imagined for the driverless future, will be on display, as will some driver-centric technologies for the here and now. Think: windshields with heads-up displays (HUDs) and more connected-car gadgets similar to Automatic. Whatever the exact product is, you can bet it'll claim to be AI-powered.
Security and privacy: features, not afterthoughts
From ransomware to creepy nanny cams, the very public hacks of the past several months have shone a light on the state of security for smart devices — and it looks really bad. In response, a new class of "privacy gadget" has arisen, typically a device that you plug into your home router that promises to safeguard your digital comings and going from prying eyes.
For other kinds of devices — especially ones that have anything to do with children — security features will have newfound prominence as well as, hopefully, ease of use.
2016 wasn't a a great year for wearables. There was weak progress from the Big Three (Apple, Google and Samsung), Pebble fell, and fitness mainstays Fitbit and Jawbone began to wither. That won't stop wearable tech from being everywhere at CES 2017, but most of it will be more of the same — poor man's copycats of the big players or single-purpose gadgets with no hope of capturing the mainstream.
The one exception is wearables for kids. By their nature, wearables don't require the same expensive tech as other mobile devices (like smartphones), plus the user interfaces are typically very simple. From a tech standpoint, that makes them perfect for children, and the single-purpose idea is a strength in this case: a wearable can help teach a basic skill (step counting is just math, after all) or good habits (like toothbrushing technique). Just as long as they don't forget security (see above).
Laptops get big again (for a reason)
There are a lot of options for mobile VR (Samsung's Gear VR and Google Daydream View among them), but for a "high end" experience like Oculus or Vive, you'll still need a tricked-out gaming PC. The thing is, not everyone who's into VR wants a big tower on or underneath their desk. Enter the gaming laptop.
Gaming laptops have been a thing for a while, but you could probably count the number of them offered out of the box on one hand. At CES, the field will expand dramatically, with graphics-intensive — and VR-ready — PCs debuting from several well-known manufacturers. And since these babies prioritize performance over form factor, they're going to be chunky.
VR headsets lose the cords
On the other side of the VR coin, it's no secret the industry is working desperately for a high-end VR experience that's truly mobile — which is to say, doesn't tether your head to a PC. Intel has already announced such a device in Project Alloy, and it'll have a big presence at CES. Expect a fistful of smaller companies to vie for a piece of the stand-alone VR action with headsets of their own, though who knows if they'll be able to ship them before Oculus and Vive start selling their solutions.
AR: Everyone wants to be Pokémon Go
Pokémon Go showed the world the potential of augmented reality, and tech companies have seen its success as a siren call. From devices to gadgets to full-on platforms, everyone with something to contribute to AR will be at CES 2017. Don't expect to actually see the next Pokémon Go — that phenomenon had more to do with the franchise IP than the actual AR experience — but you'll probably see the tech that powers whatever follows in its virtual footsteps.
Wireless earbuds everywhere
Wireless audio has been with us for a long time, but the last several months have seen the sudden rise of wireless earbuds — earphones with no cords at all, not even one connecting the two sides. It's not a new concept; models like the Bragi Dash were winning CES awards years ago and Sennheiser pioneered the idea back in the day with the MX W1. What's changed is that Apple's AirPods and the ongoing Headphone Jack Saga™ have validated the form factor, not to mention given the category a high price tag. For CES exhibitors, that's the equivalent of blood in the water.
TVs: Rise of the Chinese brands
CES is traditionally a big TV show — and a show about big TVs — although the room for innovation in the category has gotten very slim. Everything is 4K now, high dynamic range (the hot display tech from CES 2016) is common, and the race for the biggest screen got old a decade ago. Ultra-thin OLED displays can still wow, but they'll be pretty much limited to LG's models. And curved? Please!
The story of TVs at CES 2017 won't be the tech as much as who's making it. Chinese brands like Hisense, LeEco and TCL have had a presence at the show for a while, but this looks to be their breakout year, with several major events, and product lineups that compete on tech and price. If you've been holding out for a 4K TV, this could be your lucky year.
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