The theme (or meme) of the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week can be summed up as “the Internet of things”-- or thingys.
Just as no one on the Internet may know you're a dog, soon, no one on the Web will know whether you're a TV, watch, car, or even a fork.
For years, the electronics industry has been trying to connect everything online, often to little practical purpose (why surf the Web from your fridge?). But now streaming services and the prevalence of smart phones has injected new life into those efforts, from home entertainment to health and fitness gear.
The heart of CES has been and still is big-screen TVs. There are already smart TVs—models connected to the Web to deliver services like Hulu, Pandora, and Netflix. But this year, smart TVs will go mainstream and soon it will be difficult to find a set in stores that doesn't offer Skype video calling, Facebook, and Twitter. What's really new, however, and shows a lot of promise, are 4K or Ultra HD sets.
With a clarity and crispness of detail that is truly impressive, at pre-CES demonstrations LG and Toshiba's Ultra HD models were stunning. The TVs offer four times the picture resolution of current HDTVs. Unlike the 3D sets pushed a couple of years ago, the video images on the 84-inch Ultra models are so clear and realistic they appear almost as if one was looking through a Window—almost.
But the really big Ultra HD screens coming from several manufacturers this year, will cost you: A cool $20,000. Sharp will offer a 3D Ultra HD set this summer, but more likely to take off will be “smaller” 2D 55-inch sets priced several thousands of dollars less and expected from LG, Toshiba, and others including budget conscious Westinghouse and Vizio.
Another thingy looking to get connected to the Net this year will be the stodgy old wrist watch. Microsoft once pushed a SPOT watch that pulled information from the Web, but it was about as fashion-forward as an NFL sweatshirt and failed miserably. Recognizing that style does make a difference, the new $249 to $299 Martian Watches look like regular watches but have built-in microphones and wireless Bluetooth connections to a smartphone.
Martin Watches use voice commands so that you can make phone calls, send and receive text messages, and even search the Web on a phone. It's a variation on the Dick Tracy fantasy, and there will competing models, but one has to wonder if these devices will displace geeky Bluetooth earpieces. Many of the twenty-something generation no longer sport watches; that's what their phones are for.
Parents may be attracted to a more serious connected watch. A model will be announced tomorrow that tracks kids and can be located in an emergency. Also aimed at those with recalcitrant kids is the Beam Brush. It's a $49.99 manual toothbrush with Bluetooth that monitors your brushing using an app. It's the 21th century way to nag your children to brush their teeth.
In our never-ending quest to get thin, the Internet is also here to save the day. A raft of connected devices can monitor your workouts and pulse rate. Fitbit, for example, has a new gadget to monitor your daily activity to remind you that you're, well, pretty darn inactive. Fitbit's competitor to the Nike+ Fuelband and Jawbone UP will launch launch this year, and at CES beleaguered reporters are using Fitbit gadgets to see how many miles they'll log marching through the massive hotels—and casinos--in Las Vegas.
More serious health-oriented devices are also coming, such as a Masimo's iSpO2 Pulse Oximeter that monitors your blood oxygen level in order to gauge your cardio efficiency. It clips onto your finger and plugs into an iPhone, graphing your readings and sharing them online (assuming you want to brag).
Looking to attack our health issues at the source is a fork that zaps you if you eat too quickly. Okay, it vibrates rather than shocks you, but the electronic Hapifork still a strange gadget. Too many mouthfuls in too few minutes, and the utensil starts shaking like Harry Potter's wand. Your meal masticating habits can of course be transferred to the Web for sharing (via USB cable; a Bluetooth model is on the drawing board). The price for curbing your hunger? Just $99 this spring. Hey, it's a lot cheaper than NutriSystem.
Finally, car companies are at CES in force, with 7 of the top 10 manufacturers in attendance. Most are touting how their vehicles will be more open to smart phone-based apps that will appear on car dashboards. Ford announced, for example, that it will add the Rhapsody music service to its growing roster of Sync related in-vehicle programs.
So what won't the expected 150,000 show attendees see on CES's more than 31 football fields of exhibition space with over 3,000 companies? Apple never attends the show, and for the first time in over a decade Microsoft is not here (probably licking its wounds over its Windows 8 flop). The company taking over most of the Seattle softie's old space at the show—Chinese electronics firm Hisense. And that may turn out to be the biggest sign of things to come.