CES: Prom for Gadgets

The big dance for the consumer electronics industry, CES 2012 promises crazy cool gadgets and lots of excitement 

Like high school prom, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has historically been a pretty big deal for electronics manufacturers. It’s the coming out party for the most innovative, and sometimes the most outlandish gadgets and gizmos, sporting the latest technology advancements. This annual gathering draws more than 140,000 attendees and nearly 2700 different exhibiters crisscrossing 1.8 million square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Given its exposure, the stakes are high and the pressure is on to impress.

Though some say CES relevance is waning due to the economy, competing events and big vendors sidestepping it in favor of other, more cost-effective product promotion, we can still expect at least one more year of fun, excitement, drama and gadget overload next week. I’m not attending this year, but I’ll be watching closely from the sidelines, looking for the latest computing advancements, home entertainment innovations and a variety of connected devices that promise to make our lives simpler.

Microsoft: Out with a Bang

(Disclosure: I supported Microsoft PR for eight years until recently, though I won’t be sharing any secrets here, sorry!). In spite of announcing its final year at CES, we can expect Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to give it his all in Microsoft’s final CES keynote, dazzling attendees and online audiences by demonstrating the advanced computing experiences we’ll get with Windows 8 on some pretty cool devices from its hardware partners (crossing fingers he’ll demonstrate a Windows 8-based tablet vs yet another notebook). And, he’ll probably put a big emphasis on Windows Phone 7, too, in a push to gain critical mindshare and compete with Apple and Google, both of which dominate the smartphone market. This is a pivotal year for Microsoft and consumer perception is crucial to the success of Windows-based devices, including Ultrabooks and tablets.

Ultrabooks: Thin, Light and Powerful PCs

Compact and powerful PCs are the way of our computing future, challenging the components under the hood to keep pace. As such, Intel has invested significant cash into what it has trademarked as Ultrabooks, requiring laptop makers to meet a very specific set of specs to realize the Ultrabook vision: thin, light, powerful and speedy, with rapid boot times that might rival what we experience today with our smartphones, which are nearly instant-on. We’ve already seen a few of these devices surface in late 2011, but I’m hearing we’ll see somewhere between 30 and 50 new Ultrabooks showcased at CES next week from the likes of Acer, Dell, HP, etc. Though expensive given the spec requirements, these skinny laptops make a world of difference as consumer mobility increases.

Tablets: Companions to the PC Workhorse

Though CES 2011 was all about tablets (I’ll have to confirm, but I recall counting something like 85+ different tablets unveiled last year!). Many of these tablets, mostly powered by Android, fell flat with consumers who were underwhelmed by performance and value relative to Apple’s iPad. That said, CES 2012 is an opportunity for device makers to re-set the tablet category and give Apple a run for its money, at least until Windows 8 ships. Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba and others are expected to show tablets, focusing on quality over quantity, many of which will likely support the long-awaited next version of Android OS, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS)—a much needed OS update to make a real run at the iPad and demonstrate to consumers it has a device worth considering. We’ll see.

Televisions: Smart Entertainment and Rich Experiences

Though I’m not as deep or smart on entertainment devices, I’m watching for the latest in-home theater advancements, namely device-to-device streaming gadgets and connected TVs. In previous years, our friends from LG, Samsung, Sony and others have shown us their entertainment visions with prototypes that either never saw the light of day or so far away from retail ready that our hopes die on the vine while we stood right there in their booths.

It’ll be interesting to see what TV makers do with 3D this year, which was all the rage in 2010 and 2011, but lacked consumer traction. For me personally, 3D is cumbersome and annoying, but if new devices surface that strip away the glasses and improve the experience, I may take another look. While I’m expecting to see glasses-free 3D TV, what I’d really like to see is better connectivity and more services options. We’ll likely see a slew of new internet-connected televisions that allow consumers to access digital content from the Internet right from their TV to supplement regular programming schedules.  I’m crossing my fingers for more strategic and meaningful partnerships to deliver interesting content that I care about with smarter delivery (can’t wait to dump cable!), including streaming content from Hulu, Netflix and Pandora. And as devices get smarter, we should start to see the ability for TVs to talk to our other devices like Windows Phone and Xbox, responding to voice and gestures, like Kinect.

Appliance to Appliance Chit-Chat: The Promise of a Connected Home

One of the more promising visions we’ve been hearing about is the ability for utilitarian devices, such as refrigerators, stoves or washer/dryers, to take on more meaningful roles in the home, enabled by connectivity features and cloud functionality. These features have been available to some degree in appliances recently, but they are super expensive and require fairly sophisticated networking to get their full value. Though still expensive and not yet mainstream, we’re getting closer. That said, I long for the day in which my smartphone can talk to my refrigerator, letting me know that while I’m at the grocery store I’ll need to pick up milk or that I only have one egg when I need two for the dinner that the appliance so thoughtfully recommended the week before while meal planning. Both LG and Samsung lead this device-to-device connectivity with a variety of appliances, and I expect to see them both unveil refreshed products next week.  I still won’t be able to afford one, though.

Device-to-device connectivity continues to evolve in the automotive industry, too, so connected cars are likely to be a big theme at CES 2012. Led by Ford last year, Audi, Chrysler, GM, Kia, and Mercedes-Benz all have a spot on the show floor, demoing new features that deliver digital content to their vehicles, including deeper dashboard and smartphones interface. But I’ll be watching for additional connectivity that supports robust safety systems, richer music services like Pandora, and hands-free, voice-activated texting, which I actually have now with my Windows Phone 7 Bing app, which also talks to my car’s Bluetooth navigation system—pretty cool stuff!

So, in spite of what might happen to CES in the future, I’m still expecting CES 2012 to be THE consumer tech event of the year. No doubt there will be lots of cool gadgets and gizmos that create a stir. In some ways, I wish I could be there this year to see them all firsthand. But since I won’t, I’ll be tracking my favorite tech pubs for all the latest news:

I’ll circle back after the event to highlight some of my favorite devices, but I’d love to hear what you’re hoping to see. Share a comment below.