A New Year means a new start, and that goes double for the tech world, since the first week of January is when International CES takes place. The biggest technology show in the world is set to begin Monday, Jan. 4, turning the Las Vegas Strip into a high-tech carnival for nearly a full week.
Each year, CES provides a snapshot of the current state of consumer tech, and, if you look closely enough, plenty of signposts of where it's going to go in the coming year. Just look back at the surprise appearance of "hoverboards" at last year's show, which ended up being one of the hottest new products of the year (literally and figuratively).
The stage is set for CES 2016, and there have been plenty of announcements and hints already. The show also feeds on itself; the big hits of years prior will get a second act, while others will get a reboot.
Here's what you can expect from CES 2016.
1. Cars of the future
We've known self-driving cars are the future for a while now, but the past year has shown just how near-term that future might be. Tesla's autopilot, while not actually a "driverless" system, was a wake-up call to many, and the many successful demos and unveilings of self-driving cars at CES 2015 didn't go unnoticed.
All that is pointing to CES 2016 being a car show like no previous CES. While car electronics and connected cars have always had a presence, this year several big automakers are planning huge unveilings at CES, not the least of which is the official Chevy Bolt, supposedly one of the first long-range affordable electric cars. That GM chose CES for the event and not the Detroit Auto Show (which takes place just one week later) speaks volumes.
At the same time, Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Ford and even the beleaguered Volkswagen Group have planned major events, many regarding self-driving systems. Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and other connected-car systems will be everywhere. But if you pay attention to just one car announcement at CES, make it the big reveal of a new concept car from Faraday Future Monday night, the Chinese electric-car company aiming to take on Tesla directly.
2. Virtual reality's close-up
Virtual reality is poised for a huge breakout in 2016; we know this. The debut of Oculus Rift is imminent (and the latest version will be at CES), services (including Facebook) are already supporting 360-degree video and simpler viewers like Google Cardboard have whetted the appetite for immersive experiences.
Though Oculus is the gorilla in the room, and Cardboard is the "democratic" version of VR, there's still space for in the midrange for headset makers (especially since Samsung's Gear VR doesn't leave much for non-Samsung owners). Controller accessories will be everywhere, seeking to be the prime alternative to Oculus Touch.
And let's not forget about VR's cousins: 360-degree video and augmented reality. Camera systems — both simple and sophisticated — for capturing spherical footage will be a big focus, and augmented reality systems could see a resurgence now that Microsoft HoloLens has attracted so much attention over the past year.
3. Rise of the drones
Despite an up-and-down year that ended with mandatory registration, drones are poised to fly even higher in 2016. Drones are sure to be everywhere they can legally be at CES 2016, which isn't actually that many places. But from within controlled cages to supervised demos, we'll see drones that are faster, nimbler and leaner than their predecessors.
For CES, the emphasis is on the consumer, so that means easier-to-use drones with better cameras and smaller bodies. Some may even be light enough to be exempt from registration, while others will be all about sophistication, with cameras that boast the latest tracking and stabilization tech.
4. Next-level streaming
The biggest names in video streaming — Netflix and YouTube — will both be keynoting CES. That alone tells you video services will have a large presence at the show, and the launch of Sling TV at last year's show was definitely a sign of things to come.
Being a dominant player in streaming in 2016 will mean skating where the puck is going. That means 4K, 360-degree video and virtual reality, access to more content — and doing it all with hardware that's wireless and convenient, and in ways that don't choke the Internet. The big players are already well on their way to doing all this, but there's still time for others to grab pieces of these growing (and potentially lucrative) pies.
At the same time, the success of Sling TV has pointed the way for more over-the-top services that offer live content. There are sure to be competitors and imitators who dream of being the Netflix of Internet-based TV.
5. The smart home regroups
The past year saw a lot of promise for the smart home, but little delivery. Big platforms like Apple's HomeKit and Google's Brillo were supposed to unify all our smart devices into a relatively simple easy-to-use system — and they may still — but it's been progressing at a snail's pace. In the meantime, competitors (like Samsung's Tizen and LG's webOS) are slowly establishing their own walled gardens.
For CES, that means a regrouping around what's been shown to work for smart home gadgets: Individual products that solve a problem or add value when they become "connected," regardless of whether they play nice with others. Certainly there will be plenty of manufacturers boasting HomeKit and Amazon Echo compatibility, but it'll be the practical, useful gadgets (think: sensors that detect floods or breakage) that will be the true breakouts.
6. Transportation gets personal
Unless you live in a cave somewhere, you must have experienced the hoverboard phenomenon — more accurately called the "self-balancing electric scooter" phenomenon. In fact, the trend first hit the mainstream at last year's CES, becoming a breakout hit of the show. Now, as questions about safety of the devices continue to mount, the category will grow even larger at CES 2016.
The one company that actually calls itself "Hoverboard" will have a formal debut for its product, and Gogoro's breakout smart scooter will make a return. Certainly, there will be plenty of hoverboard startups hawking their own version of the product, with differentiators like foldable designs and portable batteries for recharging (because, if they're prone to exploding, why not put one on your back?).
Other forms of personal transportation will get the high-tech treatment as well, including so-called smart bikes, and we may even see the first drone that can carry actual passengers. The future of getting from place to place looks pretty cool… and potentially very unsafe.
7. The Internet of healthy things
In contrast to the smart home, mobile health is entering a kind of golden age. Fueled by advanced sensors, low-power chips and battery-sipping wireless tech, a whole generation of devices is emerging for tracking health in realtime. Devices that monitor blood glucose levels, detailed sleep patterns and even body chemistry will be at CES 2016 — not all of them necessarily wearables.
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