CES Kickoff: Four Key Trends In Consumer Electronics Will Launch A Third Industrial Revolution


Robert Hof, Contributor

January 6, 2014

It’s time for the week of Las Vegas madness called CES, which used to stand for the Consumer Electronics Show. The show, the most important annual conference for launching the next generation of consumer gear and software, opens officially Tuesday.

But we in the press get an early look today. To kick things off, I’m sitting in on a presentation on trends to watch in the year ahead. Laying out the possibilities is Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and senior director of research for the show host Consumer Electronics Association. His presentation will be posted here.

He lays out four trends, some of which of course have been building for awhile, but which are adding up to what he terms the third industrial revolution:

1) Mass customization. You can go onto Nike’s and other shoemakers’ websites and customize your sneakers right down to the shoelace color. You’ve seen this trend building over time, he notes–Cafepress has been making it easy to order custom T-shirts for years. So we’ve taken mass production and added customization to it.

Then there’s 3D printing. Some 7,000 square feet of space here is dedicated to 3D printing, and the space sold out twice and still CES had to turn away companies.

You see this other places, too, such as the Moto X that you could customize by color. Amazon has a customized video chat help service now, too. Wearables will be very big this year and there will be customization implications when those roll out in big numbers.

You’re seeing the Internet experience change, as smartphones and tablets together could surpass the 2 billion-unit installed base of personal computers this year or in 2015.

2) Multidimensional screen expansion: Screens of all sizes are proliferating, and all of them are getting more pixels all the time. Ultra-HD TVs are starting to take off, with almost none in 2013 likely rising to 500,000 this year. Smart watches are also starting to take off, though we’re still looking for the killer application, DuBravac says. In the U.S., they will hit 1.5 million units this year, but a big lift depends on finding that killer app.

3) Age of autonomy: By this, DuBravac means the use of sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes in all kinds of products, which then allow those products to work fairly independently in response to external stimuli. We’re seeing sensors evolve in how we use them as prices of them keep falling. When we start to embed camera devices on the front of the car, we can do adaptive cruise control to stay in the lane. Some cars now have “park assist” that beep when there’s a parking space and then tell you to take your hands off the wheel so it can park automatically.

So we’re starting to digitize these everyday things. We can then make decisions more quickly, or let machines do tasks on our behalf. Radio is key here, because providing connections among devices of all kinds is key to making them useful anywhere and all the time. There are 3G, 4G, and WiFi, of course, but also radio technologies such as Zigbee, ANT+, and many more.

Sensors will become very key just in the next two to three years, he says.

4) Curation and content: Services meet systems, pulling in digital data and making sense of it so you can make decisions. Netflix, for instance, has algorithms that can guess what we want to watch next. But what if Netflix had access to my wearable device and knew how stressed I was? They could start to take all that digital information and make much more sophisticated decisions. Or they know there are six people in the room, and certain movies are much more popular with groups of six people.

We’re going to see this develop over the next 10 years, following the rise of sensors.

DuBravac said privacy will be a big deal in the use of these technologies. Every company in this space is deathly afraid of the possible backlash, he says.

As we move into a digital environment, digital data wants to grow and replicate and move around–like photos.

He also addressed whether newspapers could take advantage of these technologies. DuBravac thinks their focus on hyperlocal news and information might be aided by access to data produced by these technologies. The data also could help the newspapers customize information to precisely what individual people want.

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