Tomorrow's tech trends today: 2013's gadgets revealed

Brains downloaded to hard drives, space tourism, and self-driving cars are all well and good, but what does the more immediate technological future hold?

One indication of what's coming soon is to see what products manufacturers are offering to brand-name consumer electronics firms. At last month's Hong Kong Electronics Fair there were some telling trends among the thousands of companies hawking their wares. It's the largest tech trade show in terms of exhibitors, with over 3,900 companies crowding into endless aisles of busy booths.

The show is an interesting barometer of what's coming this holiday shopping season and next year, because it's where buyers from the likes of Best Buy and Fry's go to see what they should stock on their shelves.

The show had the predictable array of headphones (hoping to cash in on the continuing popularity of Beats by Dr. Dre), Bluetooth wireless speakers and accessories, much of which underscored the growing influence of smartphones and tablets on the consumer electronics industry.

But two trends promise to continue to influence what we watch in the living room, where smart TVs will replace traditional sets and—surprise, surprise—many companies expect Google TV to make a major renewed push into American homes.

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Rather than touting 3D features or ever larger LCD screens, most of the overseas manufacturers were pushing sets with built-in processors and Wi-Fi connections—at lower prices. Nearly every flat-panel maker was offering services like Netflix, Vudu, and other streaming media, as well as customized software and easier ways to find programming from online sources. In other words, next year it's going to be all but impossible to find a set that doesn't have built-in broadband connections and smart, streaming media features.

Just as obvious from the Hong Kong show was the fact that 3D TV is not going to make a renewed bid for consumer's attention any time soon. Most manufacturers have abandoned the idea of making sets that require you to wear special glasses popular. Indeed, the only company really touting 3D was Marvel Digital, which introduced a series of glasses-free 3D displays, aimed at the commercial market for interactive displays and billboards.

With sets ranging in size from 27 to 82 inches, Marvel emphasized that such sets were designed for stores, not for average consumers. The company's business development manager, Deric Lau, expects that HD 3D displays that deliver a sharp enough picture without glasses for home use are at least 2 to 3 years away.

At the Hong Kong show there also wasn't much noise about higher-resolution Ultra HD sets. Although a few $20,000-plus 84-inch models will be in specialty stores this Christmas, few of us expect Santa to be delivering one to our homes. Indeed, behind closed doors, Chinese manufacturers have shown smaller, 55-inch Ultra HD sets that look better than the 84-inch models, but those models won't be hitting stores until this time next year.

Perhaps the most surprising apparent trend coming in the next few months is an influx of Google TV boxes and devices.

Google has struggled with its first versions that combine home theater controls, streaming online services, and live TV, but there were more than a score of companies touting new models in Hong Kong. Under the banner of “Android” set-top boxes (because these firms had not licensed Google TV), manufacturers were showing models the size of cable TV boxes as well as devices about the size of a USB memory stick.

Several companies mentioned Roku's Streaming Stick as a competitor and said there should be several Google TV “stick” models coming to the U.S. soon for under $100.

The five exhibit floors of the expansive Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre traditionally cater to those firms making smaller gadgets and electronics and this year was no exception. However, like much of the consumer electronics industry today, most of the activity focused on smartphones and tablets as the centerpiece of a world of gadgets.

There were devices that turn smartphones into health and fitness monitors for retirees and triathletes alike. There were devices that turn smartphones and tablets into serious gaming machines. And there were wireless charging and streaming music technology demonstrations that promise to make these technologies more common next year. (Google's Nexus 4 and Nokia's Lumina phones now use the Qi wireless charging system.)

There were no autonomous cars shuttling around the exhibition floor or private space shuttles on display. What electronics firms will be focused on over the next few months is making gadgets smarter and easier to use. We'll soon find out if they are able to deliver.

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