Looking back at the highs and lows of CES 20157
Every January, tech makers come to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to promise disruption and revolution. Before we embark on the 2016 edition of CES, which is less than a week away, we’re taking a look back to see how the last batch of hyped-up announcements has fared. How have the past 12 months gone for the innovations and products that grabbed the headlines of CES 2015?
Dell XPS 13
Let’s start off with the least controversial of all the products introduced at CES 2015. Dell’s XPS 13 came in looking like the future of Windows laptops, and it spent the year as the top choice in that category. It made a great first impression with its practically nonexistent display bezels and high-end construction materials, and backed it up with good performance and ergonomics. None of the XPS 13’s aluminum-clad luster has faded, and a refresh late in the year with Intel’s updated Skylake processors only made it better. Dell also extended the edge-to-edge Infinity display to its XPS 15 model, underlining the success and popularity of its CES debutant.
The Verge’s Best in Show from CES 2015 did not disappoint. Gogoro’s grand plan is rather more ambitious and holistic than being a mere scooter, but that’s where it all starts. In January the Taiwanese startup stirred imaginations with its irresistibly cute personal transporter, and by July it was being warmly received in its native capital of Taipei. A city teeming with scooters of every type and price was nevertheless smitten with the electric Gogoro.
Following its winning pilot scheme in Taipei, Gogoro announced it will expand to Europe in 2016, starting with Amsterdam. Due to the scooter’s design — it only exchanges battery packs and cannot be plugged into a conventional electric charging station — Gogoro has to roll out on a city-by-city basis, building citywide grids of battery exchanges as it goes. That’s not an easy or cheap process, but the company is making rapid progress and its future looks bright. Americans can probably expect news about a San Francisco expansion before 2016 is through, perhaps even as soon as the upcoming CES.
One of the big themes of CES 2015 was the rapid improvement in drone technology and capabilities. Numerous companies showed off flying devices capable of following their user, with some even touting 360-degree selfies. German company Ascending Technologies brought the most impressive example to the show with its obstacle-avoiding Firefly hexacopter, which played a starring role in Intel’s keynote presentation.
quadcopters, hexacopters, awesomecopters
As the year has progressed, it’s been encouraging to see AscTec’s products — which are intended for industrial and research purposes — being matched by drones that are closer to commercial availability. The DJI Matrice 100, which was introduced in the summer, laid claim to being the first consumer drone with the ability to see and avoid objects in its path. Most of the other future-facing demonstrations of CES have also made their way into mainstream drones by now, setting the stage for another big jump forward at the 2016 show. AscTec will no doubt want to show improvements too, as its obstacle avoidance tech was surpassed a month ago by an MIT drone that autonomously weaved its way through tree branches at a formidable 30mph.
LG G Flex 2
LG did almost everything right with the curved G Flex 2. It took the flawed design of its original G Flex smartphone and refined it smartly. The Flex 2 was a smaller, more manageable device that nevertheless retained a unique look and a very high-end spec sheet. Capable of withstanding great bending pressure, it was also one of the more durable devices introduced in 2015. Its fancy back cover featured the second generation of LG’s self-healing plastic, which can recover from scratches in about 10 seconds. And yes, you could buy the G Flex 2 in a sumptuous shade of candy apple red.
By LG’s own account, the Flex series has always been a design exercise more than anything. It represents the Korean conglomerate’s most advanced technologies, such as the flexible plastic OLED display from LG Display and curved batteries from LG Chem, and it hints at things LG might do with its future flagship smartphones. But what held the G Flex 2 back wasn’t so much its experimental nature as it was the rather prosaic issues of price and performance. For all its specs, this smartphone didn’t perform as quickly and beautifully as it promised, and with a limited release and high cost, it never saw any great adoption.
The future of curved phones is far from certain, following the underwhelmed response to LG’s efforts and to Samsung’s Galaxy Round. On the one hand, current consumer demands are clearly geared toward obtaining more performance and battery life from phones, not more quirky form factors; on the other hand, these handsets are pushing design boundaries and thus are always on the brink of delivering something groundbreaking. For now, at least, the curves seem to have been shelved.
With the breakthrough of so-called hoverboards into the mainstream, 2015 has been a big year for electric rideables, but not for the one that garnered the most attention at CES in January: the ZBoard 2 electric skateboard. It arrived in Vegas seeking support for a crowdfunding campaign, and it promptly secured nearly $860,000 from 858 Indiegogo backers. Alas, its development has been slow, and the company only recently started shipping boards to beta testers. A year after its big moment in the spotlight, the ZBoard is still a work in progress.
The ignominy of being overshadowed by hoverboards
The advantage hoverboards enjoy over more serious projects like the ZBoard is one of price and convenience. They’re hastily put together and questions have arisen about their safety, but their lower price has prompted many to buy them on a whim. To compete with them, the ZBoard and other electric skateboards like it will have to prove their superior reliability and quality over the long run.
Looking like a segment from a Toblerone chocolate bar, the Pono Player was one of the most charming and fascinating launches of CES 2015. Neil Young’s high-res audio player was built around simple controls, a simple display, and a simple mission: delivering high-fidelity music to a wider, more mainstream audience. It was such an appealing proposition that over 18,000 people contributed in excess of $6.2 million to its Kickstarter campaign before it even arrived in Las Vegas.
But the Pono Player’s fortunes this year have been mixed. It launched to a chorus of critical disapproval, which revolved around the simple fact that regular music listeners just couldn’t hear any difference between the Pono’s high-res tracks and conventional, compressed MP3s. For a $399 music player — tied to a Pono Music service where users have to purchase high-res versions of songs they already own for more than $2 each — the Pono’s failure to display clearly superior quality seemed fatal.
Financial struggles hampered the company in August, by which point its chief, Neil Young, admitted that he and his team were doing everything they could just "to keep Pono alive." At the same time, though, he did point out that tens of thousands of Pono Players and hundreds of thousands of tracks had been sold, and later in the year he had news of an expansion to Canada and the UK. Pono closed off the year by collecting a pair of awards, so its promises of higher quality playback appear to have been justified, even if the benefits of high-res audio remain dubious at best.
The Pono Player could also be found at the Audeze (pronounced like "odyssey") booth at CES 2015, serving as a bright-yellow marker to attract people to this boutique headphone maker’s stand. Those who perused Audeze’s offerings were rewarded with a listen to the excellent EL-8 planar magnetic headphones that the company had just launched. Costing $699, they actually represented a significant move down in price class for Audeze, whose flagship LCD collection is often compared against Sennheiser’s HD800 for the title of best overall headphones available. Audeze made further progress in 2015 by introducing a Lightning-connected pair, called the EL-8 Titanium, which integrates an amp and a digital-to-analog converter into the cable. This makes it possible to get the best and loudest sound from a pair of true audiophile headphones while relying on just an iPhone as the music source.
Big headphones and big sound at a big, but declining, price
The EL-8 has been a clear success for Audeze, which has spread its name further than ever before by making its products more accessible and friendlier to mobile devices. The company has asserted its position as a pioneer in the movement to take high-end personal audio on the move, and CES 2016 is likely to show many competitors introducing their efforts at catching up.
The self-driving car seemed to be everyone’s darling at CES 2015, but Mercedes went furthest in its embrace of the futuristic motoring experience. Its F-015 concept car, subtitled Luxury in Motion, featured four swiveling passenger seats, an array of touchscreen displays, and extra advanced features like gesture and eye tracking. Running on hydrogen and built out of carbon fiber reinforced plastic, it’s an all-out rejection of everything conventional and a true vehicle for research and experimentation. Mercedes-Benz offered test rides inside the functional F-015 a couple of months after its big CES unveiling, and the car has gone on to set the design language for all of Mercedes’ 2015 concepts that followed. The entire F-015 package is very far away, but its most practical elements are likely to start appearing in production cars before too long.
LG webOS smartwatch
Before Samsung’s Gear S2 — which was as much a treatise on the benefits of round watches as it was a great product in its own right — the most exciting and interesting smartwatch out there was LG’s webOS timepiece, briefly teased at CES. Introduced by Audi rather than LG, it was demonstrated as a futuristic way to unlock your car with the effortlessness of wireless NFC communications. Its appeal was that it was a watch, a key for your car, and a smart device with cellular connectivity that could perform a variety of advanced tasks. Audi’s focus on automotive applications, such as checking and controlling the status of a car remotely, didn’t discourage curiosity even from public transit users — the watch was just too attractive and, at the time, unique.
The good looks of the watch itself were carried over in the software within, which was tailored to make the most of a round face and already included a number of apps designed for a circular interface. Everything worked smoothly and quickly, with webOS making its Android Wear competition feel unwieldy and sluggish by comparison. Much of what made this watch stand out in January has now been either matched or surpassed by Samsung’s Gear S2, however there’s still plenty of room for attractive, nicely designed smartwatches.
Audi’s teaser for this watch promised it for 2016, and the latest word from LG is that it’s still on track. Expectations are that LG will also be introducing webOS smartwatch models under its own brand in the new year. The CES 2015 appearance can, therefore, be deemed a success: it whetted appetites and confirmed consumer interest in developing a geekily beloved operating system into a new smartwatch platform.
HTC’s connected future
Not a singular product, but the vision of a connected future described by HTC was one of the bigger announcements at CES in terms of potential impact. The smartphone maker was on the brink of a transformation that would turn it into the vendor of connected devices and experiences. It was emblematic of the "connect everything!" theme that pervaded much of CES 2015, with every company having its own take on the Internet of Things and its own philosophy on how to turn it into reality. None have made any huge strides in this direction since then, and HTC is once again an instructive example of it.
HTC’s plan included the connected home, the connected life and self, and connected entertainment. It wasn’t known at the time, but CES marked the company’s first, cagey hint at the HTC Vive VR headset that would be revealed a month later at Mobile World Congress. Regrettably, the Vive’s release date was bumped from the holiday season of 2015 all the way to April in the new year, and a similar fate befell the accompanying HTC Grip fitness wearable.
By this point in the year, HTC would ideally have realized a range of Re-branded devices, putting hardware behind its promises of fundamental change. That hasn’t happened for the Taiwanese company yet, and its struggles to diversify are illustrative of the broader industry challenge of tackling unfamiliar sectors. Car companies are getting involved in personal tech and connectivity, while phone makers are dabbling with auto technology, and everyone is experimenting with the potential of novelties like drones and VR.
CES 2015 was like every CES that came before it and like every CES that is yet to come. It had obvious hits like the Dell XPS 13, unlikely successes like the Gogoro, and a fair share of both predictable and surprising disappointments. What distinguishes every year from the next, however, is the specifics of those winners and losers. Gogoro’s strong development and expansion are nudging the entire electric vehicle industry forward, while companies like Pono and Audeze are making audiophile technology more accessible to the masses, with varying degrees of success. Everything that happens at the upcoming CES in a week’s time will be informed by the fortunes of the products first revealed at CES a year ago: the successes will breed imitators and emulators, while the failures will be taken as lessons for what not to do. Such is the circle of tech life.