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CES 2014: 6 Things We Learned

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CES, the mother of all trade shows, is officially underway. One could only imagine how bonkers it would be if all of the people who were supposed to be here but couldn’t make it because of weather-related flight issues were in the house. As it is, it’s still, well, hella crowded. That’ll happen when there are more than 3,200 exhibitors exhibiting across more than 2 million square feet. If you just take all of the people working for the exhibitors, it would still feel crowded.

CES always gives you a tantalizing glimpse at the present, the near future, and the distant future. A lot of the stuff introduced here will never make it into consumers’ hands, but many of the ideas those doomed products leave behind will persist. Don’t believe me? Check out some of the failed futuristic stuff shown at past CESes that doesn’t seem so futuristic anymore.

Here are six things we’ve learned today about, well, the future of the world.

3D printing is real and it’s going to change everything. I heard one person call it “the third industrial revolution.” Essentially, with a 3D printer (or using someone else’s 3D printer), anyone can be a manufacturer of virtually anything they can dream up. That’s right. You. And you. And you. And me.

At CES, most of the 3D printing products we saw were generating chachkies, like little models of animals and fictional characters. It all seems trifling until you realize that the revolution has just begun. You’ve got people creating food with 3D printers, for example. Guns. Horse shoes. Houses. Human organs. Basically anything you can dream up. Heck, you could potentially have a 3D printer create… another 3D printer.

There’s a lively “3D printing zone” here with about a dozen companies showing off their wares. A company called MakerBot really stands out to me. I think they could be the Apple of 3D printing. After sitting through a day of elaborately staged, teleprompter-laden press conferences from the old guard of consumer electronics — LG, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic — the humble, conversational, human MakerBot press conference was inspirational. Founder Bre Pettis expressed the wonder, the passion and the potential of 3D printing for all assembled. How it can change lives. How it could change entire cultures. If there’s one company that has the potential to bring 3D printing to the world in a cool way — dare I say, a noble way — MakerBot seems to be it. I am cynical as hell and they make me feel all gooey, like the world is a wonderful, happy place with all kinds of potential. I know, gag me with a spoon, but it’s true. 

MakerBot Founder Bre Pettis shows off his company's new 3D printers at CES 2014.

MakerBot Founder Bre Pettis shows off his company’s new 3D printers at CES 2014.

Ultra HD TV looks freaking awesome, but it’s not ready just yet. Here’s the thing about Ultra HD TV: I wonder if higher resolution is really a driver for people to upgrade their TV sets. When HDTVs first hit it big, it wasn’t 720p or 1080p that most people were excited about. They were excited about flat screens and wide screens. Ultra HD TV doesn’t up the ante in those respects (although the curved and flexible screens in development have a lot of “wow” potential).

There’s still very little Ultra HD content out there. Buy an Ultra HD TV now, and you’ll be using it 99 percent of the time to upscale HDTV signals to Ultra HD TV resolution. Netflix and Amazon have stated that they will offer native Ultra HD content this year, but the traditional cable networks have shown little interest so far. Give it another year; prices will come down, content will be more plentiful. But by all means, go to a local high-end electronics dealer and experience Ultra HD TV at its finest. Believe me, they’ll be happy to show it to you.

Oh, and caution: We saw a lot of cheap, crappy Ultra HD TVs from little-known manufacturers at CES. These panels don’t come close to what the big companies like LG, Sony, Samsung and Toshiba are offering. Don’t be lured by the low prices. What I saw from the big boys at this show was truly a revelation. It makes HDTV look like child’s play. But not all Ultra HD TVs are created equal. Not by a long shot.

Fashion and technology are on a collision course. Technology companies, with the notable exception of Apple, generally suck at design. For so many years, electronics products were made by techies for techies. Utilitarianism was the primary concern when it came to design. Now virtually everyone is a techie, whether they identify themselves as such or not. And now that technology is becoming wearable — it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when — it should sort of, you know, look good on you. The good news is that a growing number of electronics companies seem open to the idea of letting real designers design their products. In the meantime, get ready for more butt-ugly smartwatches.

Robots are still creepy. I checked out the “robotics zone” at the show and it still seems like we’re in Rosie the Robot mode. What these things can do are amazing — watch your kids, clean your grill, mop your floors — but they still feel cold and alien. They look at you with their inhuman eyes, they smile, they talk… but do you want one in your house? And doesn’t it build character to do your own damn chores? Hey you kids, get off my lawn!

Apple, Google and Microsoft are notable by their absence from CES. It’s kind of like an episode of Justice League where there’s no Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. It’s still awesome, but where are the flagship heroes? The ghosts of these three companies — especially Apple and Google — loom over virtually everything at CES. Everything is based around them.

The show goes on quite healthily without them, but they should be here. It’s just stupid that they’re not.

The big auto manufacturers are notable by their presence at CES. Nine of the 10 top automakers are here, exhibiting, in a big way, at a consumer electronics show. Until now, CES has been exclusively (and robustly) about the car electronics aftermarket — booming sound systems, mostly — but now the car companies are here in full force.

Could it be that, with the changes in the economy, the increase in urbanization and heightened interest in mass transit, that car companies need to sweeten the pot a little for the consumer? They sure do. And if that means that drivers want to listen to Pandora and noodle with apps in their car, well then by golly that’s what the automakers are going to offer. Smooth move, Fergusons.

Oh and number 7: Smart bowl.

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