With 2014 now firmly in the rearview mirror, the tech industry is gearing up to start 2015 off with a bang as it gathers for the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. This grand-scale exhibition of the near future attracts thousands of companies and hundreds of thousands of attendees every January, setting the tone for the year ahead. CES amplifies the trends that are coming and exposes the ones that are fading. Last year, it was the stage for a spectacular deluge of new wearable devices, spanning the full gamut from a basketball shooting coach to a wrist-worn speaker. There were also bendable TVs, self-driving cars, and Sony’s ultra-ambitious PlayStation Now cloud gaming initiative.
Director Michael Bay also etched into our brains that some older technology, like the teleprompter, can still have issues some 60 years after its inception.
CES 2015 looks set to extend the themes of its predecessor into the present year, as the one thing 2014 lacked was successful execution of all the novel ideas it started off with. There’s still progress to be made in the areas of health and fitness tracking, there are more (and more unusual) devices to connect around the home, and car automation is moving from the periphery to the forefront of CES’s biggest announcements. Here you will find our top predictions for the most important storylines heading into this year's show.
Self-driving cars, self-driving cars, self-driving cars
Autonomous driving isn’t a new theme. It’s not even a new theme at CES, in fact: the last several years have seen announcements and demonstrations from various automakers showcasing just how little attention we’ll need to pay to the road someday. But the reality is that even now, in 2014, precious little autonomous technology is in dealerships — the technology still needs to improve, laws need to be passed, and consumers need to be informed. That’s where CES, a show that’s hyper-focused on consumer technology, comes into play.
Expect to see a lot of self-driving demonstrations at CES once again, paired with a slew of connected car initiatives — CarPlay and Android Auto are big topics right now, and automakers are in the hot seat to show support for them.
LG going all out
For a company occupying the most central spot in Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, LG has never been able to truly own the CES spotlight. The Korean manufacturer of everything electronic always brings its A-game to CES, but it’s only ever figured as one of the big stories of the show, not the biggest. This year, the stars may be aligning for LG to finally dominate the news agenda in the way that its compatriot and nemesis Samsung has done in the past. There have been multiple reports of a new G Flex 2 flexible phone to be revealed at CES, alongside rumors of a G Watch R 2 and even more wearable devices. Though the G Watch R is only a few months old, LG admitted at its launch in September that it’s holding something back for CES — whether that means a new watch or an upgrade to the existing Android Wear device remains to be seen.
Samsung's moment of weakness is LG's biggest opportunity to grab the spotlight
Beyond mobile, there’ll be new Quantum Dot TVs, yet more OLED 4K TVs, and a new series of design-oriented Art Slim TVs (the latter from LG Display) that extend LG’s war on the bezel that little bit further. Plus, webOS 2.0 should cement LG’s software leadership among smart TV vendors. Intelligent speakers, cinema-wide monitors, and a new partnership on Mercedes-Benz driverless cars are a few other areas in which LG's forward momentum has been demonstrated before CES has even kicked off. LG has one of the earliest press conferences at CES every year, so it won’t be long before we find out if 2015 is the time when it decisively steps out from Samsung’s shadow and stands as an innovation leader in its own right.
Big phone makers doing little
While LG maintains its usual strategy of carpet-bombing CES with new announcements, its mobile competitors find themselves in a period of flux: both Samsung and Sony are in the midst of overhauling their smartphone ranges to better compete with cheaper Chinese alternatives, Lenovo and Motorola are still getting to know one another, and Microsoft is building up to a new OS reboot with Windows 10 on phones. Sure, Sony’s teasing the launch of a "New World" Xperia smartphone, but all this transition and uncertainty are likely to produce only incremental upgrades, with the biggest improvement coming from the expected introduction of Snapdragon 810 handsets. LG’s G Flex 2 and Sony’s new Xperia are likely to be the first among the new class of more powerful phones. Everyone else will likely play it safe at CES and fight for headlines again at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona a little later in the year.
The reluctance of the big names to throw everything at CES opens the door for smaller companies to assert themselves: the Russian YotaPhone 2 and Japan’s Fx0 Firefox phone are just two of the more unique designs that will grace this year’s expo. There will also be a new wave of ultra-rugged smart devices from the likes of Sonim and Caterpillar, and this year even Energizer is lending its name to a set of waterproof and dust-proof Android phones.
Wearable gadgets were the big story and the biggest disappointment of CES 2014. From Android-powered child trackers to pedometers that counted a dozen steps at the flick of a wrist, last year’s show was characterized by a lot of failed experimentation and hurried execution. With another year’s experience under its belt, the tech industry returns to tackle the same challenges that thwarted it a year ago. Recent introductions like Sony’s e-paper watch give us hope that the 2015 vintage will be much improved.
Fashion brands becoming tech brands
This year, the Consumer Electronics Association, CES’s governing body, welcomes Adidas, New Balance, and L’Oréal to its swelling ranks of over 2,000 companies. These brands have always relied heavily on technology to improve and refine their products, but they’re now joining the CEA because they are starting to sell literal pieces of technology to their consumers. For a company like Adidas, the overarching mission is to associate itself with anything and everything you might use to keep fit, so it’s unimportant whether that means a high-tech new mesh for running vests or a new iteration of the miCoach training watch. Or some combination of the two, as there are now increasing efforts toward making intelligent clothing that can sense and record the intensity of your workout.
Everyone's in the tech business now
The continuing melding of the worlds of fashion and technology will be full of intriguing contrasts. Established tech leaders like Intel are working hard to create attractive new shells for their wares, while clothing and sports companies are looking to smarten up what they already have. Their products and approaches differ, which should produce greater diversity and choice for the consumer.
Smartwatches at a standstill
Since last CES, the smartwatch world has been turned upside down by the launch of Google’s Android Wear and the official announcement of Apple’s forthcoming Apple Watch. Before those two behemoths entered the smartwatch arena, CES was where makers such as Pebble and Meta debuted their new products. But it doesn’t look like that will be the case this year: sources tell us that neither Pebble nor Meta plan to make any new product announcements this CES.
The Apple Watch won’t be coming to market until later in the spring, and Google’s partners aren’t likely to announce new Android Wear devices among the noise of CES (aside from perhaps LG, as noted above). There will certainly be a bunch of smaller smartwatch makers peddling their wares on the show floor, and it’s likely that a lot of accessory makers will be showing off products for the Apple Watch before it’s even available to buy, but we’d be surprised to see a smartwatch showstopper this year.
Quantum Dot TVs are poised to be a thing
It seems that every CES brings about a new TV technology intended to drive sales to get people to replace their sets as often as possible. This CES, it looks like Quantum Dot will be that technology. Quantum Dot is said to provide better color reproduction than standard LED and has been used in a handful of TVs (mostly from Sony) for a couple of years. Now it's seeing wider adoption with LG and TCL already announcing that they will be showing Quantum Dot TVs at CES 2015, and they're unlikely to be alone in doing so. LG has long held OLED up as the best TV technology it makes, but the company says its Quantum Dot technology makes an LCD TV nearly as good while costing less and being easier to manufacture than OLED. With the death of plasma, which arguably offered the best picture quality you could get in an affordable TV, there’s plenty of room for new technologies to take its place. Will Quantum Dot be as significant for TVs as HD and 4K, or will it be a gimmick like 3D or curved screens? We should find out in just a few days.
Intel’s Broadwell is finally ready
Intel’s big news at last year’s show was support for devices running both Microsoft's Windows and Google's Android. This time around, it’s all about the company’s fifth-generation Core Broadwell processors, a platform that’s finally here after delays.
Broadwell brings two meaningful changes to portable computers: longer battery life and even thinner form factors. Intel touts a 30 percent improvement in power consumption over its existing chip, making it easier to run demanding apps and games without sacrificing the goal of all-day battery endurance. On top of that, the Core M variety of Broadwell chips runs cool enough to work without fans, eliminating the last major moving part inside modern laptops. Intel's focus on ultra mobility means there won't be much for desktop gamers to get excited about, but CES 2015 should grace us with plenty of smaller, sturdier laptop and 2-in-1 designs, such as those already shown off by Asus’ Transformer Book T300 Chi and Samsung’s Ativ Book 9.
Internet of things for everything, again
The rush to stick Wi-Fi and Bluetooth into everything in your house has been going on for years. Yet, what’s really been missing (beyond a good reason to do it at all) is having all those connected appliances play nice with one another. If you buy smart devices from different companies, they aren't usually capable of working together and sharing data. It’s the biggest hurdle to achieving the longstanding goal of a smart home, and one that’s only going to get bigger as more and more device makers add smarts to their products.
Gadgets are still looking for a common language to help them communicate
Big companies are trying to fix that by making platforms and inking alliances to settle on standards. That includes Intel, which recently announced a platform to make it easier and safer for connected devices to be built and talk to one another and the cloud. There’s also Apple and its HomeKit, which has gone from an idea at a developer conference to hardware and software that developers can now harness. Though Apple won’t have a booth or a press conference at CES, there will be plenty of HomeKit-ready products from other companies, ranging from home security to power outlets and lighting systems.
There’s also Samsung, which last year bought SmartThings and its smart home platform, Google and its Works With Nest program, and of course the Qualcomm-led AllSeen Alliance and the AllJoyn platform. The big task for all of these groups is to first convince us that certain types of gadgets are better as part of a network rather than running on their own, and then to show that their standard is the one that all should unite around.
Cameras are out of the picture
CES has never been a huge show for camera announcements, but this year things are likely to be especially dire. Outside of CES, the camera industry’s big show for new announcements is the biannual Photokina, which just happened this past September. Many of the cameras launched there, such as Fujifilm’s X100T, Canon’s G7x, and Panasonic’s LX100, are just getting into consumers’ hands now, and the chances that camera makers will supersede those with new models at CES are pretty slim. Expect to see plenty of camcorders — and perhaps an action cam or two — but don’t get your hopes up for the next great mirrorless camera to debut at this year’s CES.
Virtual reality you can buy for real
When Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion back in March, it was an investment into what the company viewed as one of the next big computing platforms after mobile. The screens we’re holding in our hands could one day be stuck to our faces — and that day might not be too far off into the future.
Oculus has been the darling of CES for two years running, but numerous other companies are now getting involved with their own virtual reality solutions. Expect to see the final version of the Virtuix Omni, the bowl-like device that lets you run around virtual worlds with your very real feet. Avegant's Glyph, which is still in development, will also be making an appearance as will Sulon Technologies’ Cortex, a headset that debuted at the Game Developers Conference in March and blends together both virtual and augmented reality.
As its competitors start to reach maturity and properly challenge Oculus, the company that rekindled the VR craze is already working on the next set of challenges to perfecting the user experience. It recently acquired hand-tracking company Nimble VR and is rumored to be planning a set of motion controllers that would work in conjunction with its Rift headset.
Samsung's partnership with Oculus on the Gear VR and as the supplier of the Rift's display brings in the healthy boost of a massive manufacturer's support. Sony's also continuing work on its exciting Project Morpheus, which focuses on gaming applications for virtual reality gear and might well see an update at this year's CES. Whether big or small, there's now a wide range of companies involved in the development of new VR hardware and software. Making the two work together seamlessly will require plenty more time and effort, but we're already approaching the point where a VR headset can be a cool toy to have, if not yet the mass-market device that Facebook envisions for our future.
Portable media players party like it’s 2005
It’s probably a stretch to say that the MP3 player is back, but it’s not for lack of trying: Sony just released an all-new Walkman for audiophiles and Neil Young’s high-end PonoPlayer is finally getting close to shipping after more than two years in development.
The resurgence in media players isn’t completely arbitrary. A number of companies have started turning their attention to high-quality, high-bitrate lossless audio, which has been made viable by the enormous storage capacities and fast download speeds afforded by modern devices. Expect this CES to see a variety of introductions in support of it, including headphones, amplifiers, and yes, new media players too. Maybe we’ll even hear a Pono there.
The reversible USB era begins
To make cables interesting to the general public, you usually have to dress them up in extravagant titles like Thunderbolt or Lightning, but that’s not the case with USB Type-C. The new, reversible connector for the ubiquitous Universal Serial Bus is such a self-evident upgrade that it’s been a fan favorite among Verge readers from the moment it was announced. Shrinking the connector down to Micro USB size and making it symmetrical means it can fit into even thinner devices and, more importantly, in any orientation. The new standard, which was finalized in August, will also unite mobile and desktop devices around a single connector, helping to blur the line between the two categories.
Where the N1 leads, many will follow
At least one motherboard manufacturer is planning to introduce its first hardware with reversible USB Type-C ports built in, and Nokia has already announced that the N1 tablet will use the new standard. Look out for more names to quickly join the list of Type-C supporters as 2015 gives us an awesome new reason to upgrade: the simple convenience of never having to guess which way a plug goes in.