Get Your Geek On

At CES, the next wave of gadgets meets the media that power them (Apple and Microsoft be damned)

Hip tech-centric events like SXSW and TED have muscled into its territory, Microsoft is bailing and Apple has always stayed home. And yet, the Consumer Electronics Show has still got juice for some 140,000 gadget hounds, journalists and other citizens of the world of tech set to descend on Las Vegas this week for the annual expo.

The launch pad for seminal devices like the VCR and Nintendo Entertainment System—and more recently, innovations including the Blu-ray disc, Microsoft’s Xbox and 3-D television—this is being billed as the second-largest CES ever, hosting more than 2,700 exhibitors and a roster of speakers from organizations ranging from NBCUniversal and NPR to NASA.

But once again, the gathering is making news for who’s not there—most notably Apple, which opts to stage its own high-drama launch events. Microsoft, after a 14-year run, said this year would mark its last CES appearance (CEO Steve Ballmer is set to give the opening keynote). And following reported troubles lately with its 4G service and the disastrous (and since reversed) decision to charge customers a $2 “convenience fee” to pay their bills online or over the phone, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam abruptly dropped out of a panel discussion featuring chief executives at this year’s CES. (John Stratton, head of Verizon’s enterprise services division, will fill in.)

Meanwhile, as the development of technology and content in silos is history and partnerships among content producers, service providers and gadget makers proliferate, media companies are flocking to the event.

Consequently, the CES program has evolved. Media and entertainment players have always had a presence there but no longer are simply another group gawking at all the new toys—they make news themselves.

When 3-D TV technology is trotted out at the CES show, DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg is up there on stage with the TV manufacturers to promote his latest production.

And no wonder, since for those looking to launch compelling devices, a key question is: Will the content be any good?

“As cool as we think hardware is, what really makes the world move are the media and the content behind it,” says Stephen Baker, vp of industry analysis at market research firm NPD. “More and more of the challenge for the electronics industry in general is, how do we profitably sell hardware when an increasing amount of the value lies after the purchase? How people own, rent, buy and view content, that’s at the core of so many products today.”

 

The merger of technology and content is exemplified by Amazon’s Kindle, which brought the retailer’s publishing partners into the world of hardware with the support of mobile service providers, notes Shawn DuBravac, chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association, the trade group behind CES. “Content, hardware and services are coming together to tell the launch story,” he says. Thus, while media companies used to be “passive observers” at CES, “now they’re coming as active participants.”

Ad agencies also have become a greater presence at the show. Digitas, for one, sends representatives every year to track the latest trends, says svp and social marketing practice lead Jordan Bitterman. Lately, clients have encouraged the agency to take a greater role in the program. This year, it developed content for the official CES app and offered up its own people for panel discussions, including a “Digital Hollywood” chat.

When asked about prospective big trends at this year’s show, Bitterman singles out the explosion of connected devices, which bring Internet connectivity to products including the obvious (TVs, smartphones) and the less obvious (cars). “Through all of this convergence innovation, we see huge opportunities for brands to play active roles in their consumers’ day-to-day lives,” Bitterman says.

DuBravac predicts that this will be “the year of the interface” across multiple devices and industries. On the computing side, companies will unveil smartphones and tablets that offer “haptic” interfaces, enabling users who tap and swipe the next generation of touchscreens to actually feel the display respond. In gaming, look for products that follow the lead of Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect, enabling players to manipulate games by moving their bodies rather than mashing buttons.

“The next step in [the] innovation cycle goes from complexity to simplicity to a natural user experience and user interface,” explains DuBravac.

Take the remote control. The earliest was merely a clicker tethered to the TV set. Over time, manufacturers added more features, and many of us came to possess multiple remotes equipped with dozens of buttons. Now, manufacturers are simplifying things, with the latest innovation, voice control, offering the most natural interface of all. While voice-controlled devices are nothing new at CES, look for more advanced iterations this year.

NPD’s Baker doesn’t expect to see “hugely new” products this week. Rather, he anticipates improvements in existing technology and the evolution of gadgets from trade-show demos to something “real” for consumers.

While manufacturers tout 3-D TV as the next big thing—and the technology will play a starring role in Vegas—consumers thus far have proven immune to its charms. Baker says 3-D could stand a rethink. “The consumers haven’t gotten the product and the industry hasn’t found the right metrics to get people excited about it,” he says. “Whether it’s the glasses issue or the content issue or the cost issue, there are things still preventing it from being a breakthrough.”

Illustrations: Martin Gee