LAS VEGAS — It’s just possible that the next major high-technology craze is lurking in one of the cavernous meeting rooms that house the International CES, the nation’s largest consumer electronics show. But nobody here seems to know what that major breakthrough will be.
“We’re awaiting that next phase of innovation,” said Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association, the global industry group that sponsors the event.
Maybe it’ll come from our cars, kitchen appliances, toothbrushes, and thousands of other mundane devices that are suddenly being stuffed with microprocessors and digital radios. A host of companies at CES are trying to build “the Internet of things,” a world in which practically every commonplace object contains digital intelligence. At CES, you’ll find door locks that record each user’s comings and goings, even taking photographs of them. There are kitchen stoves with built-in Android tablets that can download the correct settings for cooking a roast and a tennis racket that can tell you whether you’re swinging it properly.
Others are placing their bets on 3-D printing machines to let hobbyists build their own toys, tools, or spare parts. Like computers, 3-D printers once cost millions of dollars; today they sell for a few thousand, and they’re popping up in high school shop classes and suburban garages. So CES has set up a special zone dedicated to 3-D printing gear. Nine companies will be exhibiting their wares here, including MakerBot Industries, which recently began selling its machines in a retail store on Boston’s Newbury Street.
Or perhaps we’ll all go crazy for curved electronics. South Korea’s LG Electronics’ new G Flex features a big 6-inch screen that’s gently bent to rest more easily against the user’s face. LG’s giant South Korean rival Samsung is also getting bent out of shape, with Ultra High Definition TV sets that feature superthin curved screens.
Wherever the Next Great Thing comes from, consumer electronics vendors can hardly wait for its arrival. Koenig warned on Sunday that worldwide spending on consumer electronics would decline by 1 percent in 2014. The surge of spending on smartphones and tablet computers is cooling off in developed countries such as the United States. Indeed, Koenig said that China and other emerging Asian countries have surpassed North America as the world’s biggest market for personal electronics gear.
But in these Asian countries, consumers are choosing dirt-cheap brands, instead of the more costly devices made by Apple Inc. or Samsung Corp.
“The overall sales growth is really being blunted by these lower selling prices,” Koenig said. For instance, the global average price of a smartphone was $444 in 2010, but dropped to $345 last year, and is expected to fall to $297 this year. These dramatic price declines are good news for consumers, but they’re savaging industry profits.
Independent technology analyst Jeff Kagan does not see any sign the industry will soon release an exciting new product to match the launch of HDTVs a decade ago, or the tablet computing boom spawned by Apple Inc.’s iPad in 2010.
“I don’t think there’s going to be anything blowout,” Kagan said.
Kagan was especially bemused by the curvature craze. “I get the same confused look back from everyone I ask,” he said. “The market is not clamoring for a curved-screen smartphone.” Another industry analyst, Michael Inouye of ABI Research in Scottsdale, Ariz., said Samsung’s curved UHDTVs don’t look much better than the flat-screen alternatives. “It’s more of a branding or premium thing than actual performance,” Inouye said.
While 3-D printing has begun to capture the public’s imagination, it’s still an open question whether large numbers of consumers will want to print their own coat hangers or doorknobs. Kagan, though, is a believer.
“I think it’s going to become big and I think it’s going to become popular,” he said, comparing it to the rise of personal computers. “I don’t know if it will be that big, but it has that potential, because it creates a whole new category.”
Or perhaps the next big thing is literally everything. The Internet of Things concept could goad consumers into purchasing billions of dollars’ worth of “smart” products to replace the “dumb” ones they presently own. Peter Middleton, research director at the technology consulting firm Gartner Inc., estimates that by 2020, there will be about 26 billion interconnected smart devices worldwide, in homes and businesses.
“The consumer element will be significant,” said Middleton. “It’ll be light bulbs, it’ll be smart meters, it’ll be smart toys.”
But the public must first be reassured that their networked electric meters, thermostats, door locks, and cars won’t relay private information to online criminals or government busybodies. “That’s going to be one of the big social issues,” warned Middleton, “the privacy angle.”Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.