CES 2014 Remembered (Fondly)

by francine Hardaway on January 11, 2014

I bet you’re dying to hear what I thought of CES, especially since there has been hardly any press coverage (not). This year I went with a press pass, and the most amazing thing I saw is the press itself. Trust me, “journalism” is in no danger of dying if the number of press passes is any indication. And the Tower of Babel in the press room was equally striking, CES is truly an international show.

About the stuff, however, I have less to say. I wore three activity trackers, and they registered around 14,000 steps a day before two of them actually gave out. I spent a good deal of time with the wearables, but I still haven’t seen anything really new. A glucometer that does intermittent tracking or recording or blood sugar and transmits it wirelessly is in the works, but it’s not on the market. Most of the other devices are either updated versions of what I’ve already tried, or new entries into the smart watch market by big brands who just want to have a position in wearables in case they take off. Fitbit is the big winner here, but only because it has the largest data set (it was first to market).

One minor good thing: the makers of wearables have finally become aware that in order to make them compelling, they have to have more design than a simple technologist can put into them. You can see that in the Pebble Steel, which all the guys voted best in show. That’s because they favor steel over plastic in a watch, not because a woman going out for the evening could wear one. The Fitbit Flex, a narrow band obviously designed with women in mind because it comes in pink, is so difficult to put on that I gave mine to my daughter (who lives with a husband who can help her affix the clasp).

Out of the wearables arena, I saw an interesting robotic window cleaner, which works like a Roomba turned on its side. I also saw many better-designed alternatives to the Roomba, because robots were another interesting facet of CES. I’m not sure it’s a robot per se, but the small Parrot drone was pretty compelling — unless, like me, you already own a larger Parrot. That’s the problem with being an early adopter; you already have v.1 and when v.2 comes out it’s generally prettier, but does about the same thing.

3-D printers, too, have ceased to charm me. I have one, and since I don’t design in CAD, I keep making things I don’t really like and don’t need. I’m just using up filament to have fund, but I have no real need for a 3-D printer, and neither do most people. The consumer brands won’t do the really sexy stuff like print your shoes or make you new body parts, so I see 3-D printing as great for industry, but not really relevant in a consumer electronics show.

Ah, but the car technology? That really got me. I’m a perennially distracted driver, and I saw many cars — from the 2014 Kia Soul to the Audi –that finally have enough rear view cameras, lane change warnings, connected smartphones, and vehicle diagnostics to save me from myself. However, the caveat is that most consumers don’t take the time to learn what their cars have to offer technically. I have a 2013 Mustang with SYNC, and while I can talk to it, I’ve only gotten as far as telling it what audio input source to use (“Bluetooth Audio” or “USB”), and I’ve never successfully gotten it to dial a phone number even though it has downloaded my entire address book. Also, I went to the Ford booth to see the 2015 Mustang, saw it marketing Applink, and realized I have had Applink all along and haven’t used it: my car can automatically play certain apps on my phone like Stitcher and Pandora. Yes, I never bothered to RTFM — and do you think I’m alone? I probably shouldn’t be allowed to buy a new car until I have mastered this one.

I’ve also seen the Internet of Things, and although the idea that our products will be connected to our networks sounds sexy, it could mean that in the future our appliances and scales will rule our lives, spitting out a cacaphony of requests for service and rising up against us as in a sci-fi movie. They will also, of course, be collecting data on us and transmitting it either to the government or to marketing people who will use it to hammer us with messages as the refrigerator becomes an opportunity for a “touch point.”

And yet, I continue to want to live in the future.

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