We Have Seen the Future and It’s 3-D, Mobile and Waterproof

Sizing up the crush of tomorrow's technology at the Consumer Electronics Show

There were two big observations out of the annual Consumer Electronics Show last week. First, from media giants like AOL and Comcast emerged the common vision that 2013 will be the year content providers at last realize the promise of connectivity across multiple platforms. And yet, the CES hordes continued to hear about “technologies” that really amount to little more than slogans (SmartGlass, TV Everywhere) and that represent not some great, futuristic leap forward but, in reality, the interbusiness equivalent of sharing your toys at recess.

Then, there was that familiar refrain of idealistic inventors who trek to Vegas not just this year but every winter to show off their sometimes cool, sometimes just plain weird wares: “This time around, my product will catch on.”

The value these mostly twentysomethings bring to CES in the first place is to develop devices and software that help make other technologies better—even if it means working with competitors. Oculus, a startup run by Palmer Luckey, this year unveiled gaffers-taped prototypes of its 3-D headset, the Rift, which promises to turn video gaming into virtual reality quickly and simply. That’s a much harder proposition than it sounds. Video games aren’t made for head-mounted displays filled with little gyroscopes; they’re made for $60 controllers you buy at GameStop, all of which basically look the same.

Luckey—with what he calls “some hacky driver fixes in DirectX,” Microsoft’s 3-D rendering software used to play most Windows games—demonstrated at the show that one could use cheaply produced sensors to mimic the commands of a gamepad within a headset. Luckey then put the prototype on Kickstarter as a “development kit” for anybody wanting to make a game compatible with his device.

John Carmack, the coding whiz who invented 3-D computer gaming with the Doom and Quake game series, took Luckey under his wing. He helped bring a third company, Epic Games (which happens to compete with Carmack’s Id Software), into the mix. Now, Epic is working with Oculus to provide a special set of tools to make new games playable using the Rift.

Such cooperation isn’t seen as often with the big tech giants. With all tech players of a certain size aspiring to the walled-garden appeal of Apple, large electronics manufacturers have been quick to wow with new gadgets, but slow to make those gadgets compatible with the products of other companies. AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong told Adweek at CES that he sees that changing. “Ten years ago, this should have been called the BES, because it was all business electronics,” he said. “Last year, it was the TV year, and now everybody’s got connected devices. It’ll be a huge boon for us because it’ll connect everything across.”

Armstrong is referring in part to the Direct Living Network Alliance (DLNA), a wireless protocol created by a third-party, nonprofit developer, and that the industry is rapidly adopting. At this year’s CES, Samsung made the biggest splash with its DLNA devices. At the Samsung booth, huge TVs floated about while maintaining image integrity as they spun forward and receded, as though each was actually a window into a place just behind the screens. A rep demonstrated that a person could pick a video off his tablet and “throw” it up onto another DLNA TV screen—not just another Samsung TV set, but the screen of another manufacturer with the same cross-company protocol.

The possibilities here are easy to see and are already being played out in the media world. In a corner of the Intel booth, Comcast set up its new XG5 “video gateway,” a DLNA-based box that serves as both a router and a very, very fast cable modem. With a Xfinity subscription and the right app, Comcast customers will be able to use their cable subscriptions from nearly any device in the house—tablet, smartphone, computer or TV.

As cable fights a war of attrition with over-the-top providers, recent gambits—tiered Internet packages, bandwidth caps, complicated authentication services—run the risk of further alienating consumers. The XG5 seems to represent a sea change in cable’s attitude toward its customers, namely the realization that the only way to compete with innovation is to add value. –Sam Thielman