Every year in Las Vegas, Nev., hundreds of electronics manufacturers, retail store buyers and members of the press descend upon the Las Vegas Convention Center and surrounding hotels for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The convention is essentially an enormous commercial -- it allows manufacturers to advertise products that will soon come to market. Companies can also unveil conceptual devices that may still be a few years away from mass production. The 2009 CES was no exception.
There's always a wide spectrum of exhibitors at the show. On one end, you have small companies that may offer only one or two products. These companies tend to occupy small booths crammed together in a corner of the showroom floor. On the other end of the spectrum are the big companies like Sony, Panasonic and Microsoft. These corporations use CES to showcase dozens or even hundreds of products. Their booths may have private rooms, multiple levels and even a professionally-lit stage.
You might think that the relatively tiny exhibitors have little in common with their gargantuan counterparts. The truth is that certain themes and trends stretch across the entire show, uniting some of the largest and smallest exhibitors in a common philosophy. The themes you see at CES can give you an idea of what to expect from technology companies over the course of the year. In past years, themes like portability and the rise of MP3 devices were prevalent. What were the themes of CES 2009? In no particular order, we'll look at the top 5 themes.
CES 2009 devoted a section of the showroom floor to technology designed with children in mind. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which is the organization that produces CES, named this special area the Kids@Play Summit. There were two main components of the summit: the space on the CES show floor where exhibitors could display their products and a series of conferences about the ways children use technology.
The products ranged from educational devices to toys and games. One of the most popular items at the summit was the Mind Flex game from Mattel. The game consists of a circular playing surface that has a small air vent aimed straight up and several obstacles mounted on a rotating track. To play the game, you place a plastic ball on the vent and try to maneuver the ball through the obstacles as they rotate in place. But there's a catch -- you control the ball using a device you wear on your head. Mattel claims the device measures your brainwaves and you control the ball's height by concentrating or relaxing.
The conferences at the Kids@Play Summit covered topics like education, Internet safety and defining what it means to play within the digital landscape. Attendees had the opportunity to discuss issues with experts and corporate executives as well as get a sneak peek at toys that would soon hit the market.
Kids didn't represent the only age group that received special attention at CES 2009, as we'll see in the next section.
Just a stone's throw away from the Kids@Play Summit was the Silvers Summit. But while Kids@Play focused on technology for children, the Silvers Summit concentrated on technology designed to make the lives of senior citizens easier.
Developing technology for senior citizens requires a special approach. Rather than cram as many features into the technology as possible, manufacturers concentrate on making features simple and easy to use. While a young person may want a PC that can edit audio and video or play the latest video games, a senior citizen simply may want a machine that lets them check e-mail or browse the Web.
Marketing electronics to the elderly also requires a different approach. Traditionally, older people represent a very low percentage of the electronics consumer market. Some manufacturers are skirting this issue by marketing devices designed for the elderly to younger generations. The message is that technology can help children stay in touch with parents and grandparents. The devices help seniors maintain a sense of independence while at the same time reducing their sense of isolation.
Conferences at the Silvers Summit included discussions about technology designed to boost brain fitness in the elderly, general product design concerns and the impact of technology upon the physical health of an aging population.
One of the biggest themes at CES in 2009 involved the environment. CES dedicated a small section of show floor space specifically for green technology companies. Exhibitors within this space included several solar panel companies, a few wind power device manufacturers and many devices that limit or eliminate vampire power problems. But the exhibitors within the green technology area were only a small part of the overall story.
Most of the big companies at CES had a section within the main display area set aside for green technology. Some companies featured their eco-friendly devices prominently in the booth. Others grouped their green tech in a corner off to one side. And some of the companies seemed to be engaging in a little greenwashing. Greenwashing is an attempt to come across as environmentally conscious even though the actual product or manufacturing process isn't eco-friendly.
It's clear that the concept of adopting an ecologically-friendly lifestyle has taken root in the market. As a result, many companies are devoting time and resources to this effort. Some are diligent as they develop and produce electronics that leave a minimal impact upon the environment. It seems that the consumer will be left with the task to determine which products really are green and which are not.
Convergence has a special meaning in the field of technology. It refers to the trend of different technologies evolving to fill the same function. This usually involves two different approaches to meet the same set of consumer needs. Ultimately, convergence might mean these two different technologies will merge into one.
For example, smartphones are becoming increasingly powerful. The latest smartphones on the market have WiFi capability, a GPS receiver, a powerful operating system (OS) and a library of applications ranging from music players to productivity software. Meanwhile, portable computers are shrinking. The introduction of netbooks -- generally defined as computers with a 10-inch (25.4 centimeters) or smaller screen and limited processing capability -- took CES 2009 by storm. The result was convergence: Phones looked more like computers and computers looked more like phones.
Phones and computers weren't the only devices that seemed to be on a collision course. Practically every television manufacturer at CES had an interactive TV on display. These televisions paired native processing capabilities with the power of the Internet. Many used widgets -- small programs dedicated to simple tasks like displaying weather reports. Others, like Microsoft's MediaRoom technology, blurred the lines between watching television and accessing the Internet.
Perhaps the best example of convergence at CES 2009 was the LG GD910 watch phone. The watch phone featured a simple three-button interface, Bluetooth capability and 3G compatibility. The watch phone received a lot of buzz during CES 2009 -- the sleek design and simple interface impressed many people.
Perhaps the most prevalent trend at CES 2009 was the emphasis on 3-D technology. Nvidia, which produces graphics cards for computers, entranced booth visitors with a GeForce 3-D demo that featured clips from films like "Star Wars: A New Hope." The booth also featured a 3-D version of Guitar Hero, which inspired many CES attendees to let their inner rock star out as wicked guitar solos scrolled toward them.
Nvidia's system uses active 3-D, which means the GeForce glasses actively work to produce the three-dimensional effect. Each lens has a shutter that opens and closes at a rate of 60 times per second. The shuttering pattern combined with the image on the screen produces a stereoscopic effect. Most of the other 3-D technologies on display at CES used polarized lenses, which are passive. Glasses with 3-D polarized lenses don't require power -- the 3-D technology resides in the television set or computer monitor. Nvidia's 3-D system is available now for around $199.
While several companies showed off their 3-D displays, one deserves particular mention. Panasonic's high-definition plasma 3-D display produced convincing three-dimensional images that were crisp and clear. The company showcased the technology using a series of video clips, including footage from the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Like Nvidia's product, Panasonic's 3-D home theater system used active 3-D glasses. The company has not announced when the system will hit the market or how much it might cost.
The trends at CES reflect what manufacturers think is important in the minds of consumers. Did they get it right? We'll have to wait and see.
Each January, many folks head to Las Vegas to check out (and show off) the latest consumer electronics. Learn how CES began at HowStuffWorks Now.
More Great Links
- CEA. "Sustainable Planet." (Jan. 14, 2009) http://www.cesweb.org/exhibits/displays/652A6D6D64324447A6D6B7C82A88147B.htm
- Kids@Play Summit. (Jan. 14, 2009) http://www.kidsatplaysummit.com/
- Panasonic. "Panasonic's World's First 3D Full HP Plasma Home Theater System Makes U.S. Debut at CES 2009." Jan. 7, 2009. (Jan. 13, 2009) http://www2.panasonic.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/prModelDetail?storeId=11301&catalogId= 13251&itemId=322746&modelNo=Content01072009125145814 &surfModel=Content01072009125145814
- Silvers Summit. (Jan. 14, 2009)http://www.silverssummit.com