The Consumer Electronics Show wrapped up in Las Vegas last week. Every year, tech companies get together to show off all their coolest stuff. Most of it isn't as cool as they think. However, some trends give us an idea of what we can look forward to from tech in 2016.
High-End Virtual Reality Headsets Launch This Year, If You're Willing to Pay
The Oculus Rift has been an amazing futuristic toy for early adopters everywhere, but most normal people haven't really had the chance to use it. HTC is also working with Steam on the Vive, which is also a self-contained VR unit, with the added benefit of a camera, so you can see the real world, with VR elements on top of it. Both should arrive in consumer's hands this year.
The Oculus Rift will retail for $US599 ($853) when it starts shipping at the end of March. If you can't wait, pre-orders opened on Wednesday. This is one of the first high-end VR headsets that will be commercially available. The HTC Vive doesn't have a release date or pricing yet, but the company says they plan to release it around April 2016 (though it's worth pointing out they also planned to release it in 2015, so take that for what it's worth).
Both of these VR headsets will offer the first high-end experience for virtual reality in the home. Up until now, your only other options were the all plasticSamsung Gear VR or do-it-yourself cardboard kits. While these are handy for getting a feel for what VR is, it takes a lot of pixels to render realistic VR, so phone-based VR will never be as high quality as dedicated systems. The Oculus and the Vive are the first that will push this category of devices forward in a meaningful way.
The important question is, do you really want this? At $US600 ($854), the first edition of the Oculus Rift will be a hard sell for many people. The Oculus Rift also comes with some hefty system requirements. Oculus sells Rift-ready PCs, that are in the $US1,000 ($1,424) range. You can probably shave that if you build your own, but don't expect to buy the Rift without spending a few extra hundred dollars upgrading your system. In the short-term, VR headsets that use your phone are more accessible will continue to be more accessible for the average user.
Once you get it, there's the question of apps. VR headsets are primarily gaming devices, and graphics-intensive games are notoriously expensive. There's a reason there are a hundred equally-adequate Flappy Bird clones, but first-person shooters are harder to come by. Developing games for the Oculus will take time. Think of it like the launch of a new console. There will probably be a few big titles when it's released, but it will take time for a huge library to grow.
Of course, there are non-game uses for VR, too. Oculus already has an app store that, while mostly full of games, has a few non-game uses. You can explore some Street View locations, watch 360 degree YouTube videos, watch drone videos, and even utilise a virtual desktop. Netflix, Hulu, and Twitch also have apps that offer whole viewing experiences inside the headset. While it might sound silly to put on a headset to watch Netflix, it's a neat personal theatre that won't disturb other people.
This will be a big year for the development of VR, but it's also hard to come right out and say it will go "mainstream." The price of entry for high-end, desktop-based systems alone may keep it out of many hands. The fewer people are able to adopt it at the start, the less incentive developers have to make sweet new apps. Valve is working on the Vive, so that's at least one big developer for that platform, which is great. We'll see how many others will follow. However, mobile-based VR systems are also becoming widely available, so both early adopters and casual users have something to play with. All of this could mean big things for the VR landscape. Or the whole idea might fizzle and die off once regular people get their hands on it. Either way, if you're interested in VR, now's your time.
Cord-Cutters Enter the Golden Age of Internet TV
The Consumer Electronics Show is usually about, what else? Consumer electronics. However, Netflix decided to make an appearance to kick 2016 off by completely owning your entire TV watching habits. To start with, Netflix is now available in 130 new countries (which is to say, most of them), starting this week. That's a huge new audience. They're also adding 600 hours of new content this year. For perspective, if you watched two hours of Netflix every day, you'd have new stuff to watch for 25 days of every month of the year. That's a lot for a company that's not a TV network. And that's only the original content. There's so much that we've started keeping track of all the original shows that streaming sites are releasing, and it's a tall order. If you're looking to cut cable, there's never been a better time.
Most of us watch at least a few shows, and cable TV isn't getting any cheaper. Fortunately, the industry finally seems to grasp what we've all been saying for the better part of a decade: the internet is the future of TV. If you've been thinking of cutting the cord, there's never been a better time to do it.
Dumb "Smart" Gadgets Keep Coming, But Some Don't Suck Now
CES is the place for tech companies to show off their latest "smart" gadget that probably didn't need to be smart to begin with. To wit, Samsung kicked things off this year with a refrigerator housing a massive touch screen. This was not Samsung's first smart refrigerator. Unsurprisingly, the promise of a touch screen has not made the whole of America run out and replace their fridges.
The hits don't stop there. A company called Polar announced a $US100 ($142) smart scale (which is mostly notable for being the cheapest smart scale yet). Securifi made a wireless router that's also a security system. This is a 9 volt battery for smoke detectors that can send push notifications to your phone. Here's a rubber duckie that connects to your phone via Bluetooth to let you know when your child's bathwater is too hot.
Look, CES is weird, ok? There's a reason most normal people don't go, and it's not because it's supposed to be "press only." While some big companies use it as a place to announce their new products, most smaller companies are throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks and announcing vaporware just to make a name for themselves. Some smart things are awesome. Others make you wear out the word "Why?" It's enough to make you think that all these "smart gadgets" are pointless, and that the phrase "internet of things" is meaningless. Well, ok, it is meaningless, but some things in the smart device world are actually really interesting.
For example, wearables are maturing. Fitbit released a fancy new fitness tracker that actually kind of looks like a watch. Casio announced a rugged Android Wear watch that can, coincidentally, function like a fitness tracker. It's also specced to handle enough wear and tear to be suitable for military use. Not bad. Wearables, despite many of us having fitness trackers in our pockets for years now, are still a new category, and not everyone agrees on what they're good for. However, they haven't died off, and people are actually buying more of them.. Between the interesting (if questionably useful) array of data they can provide, and the mild convenience, wearable devices like smart watches and fitness trackers at least stand out from other needlessly "smart" gadgets.
Bottom line, putting a couple sensors and a wireless connection in something doesn't immediately make it better. If CES is good at nothing else, it excels at advertising fancy smart gadgets that nobody needs. However, some devices: watches, fitness trackers, connected TVs, and audio systems, are worth making a little smarter. As we move into 2016, we're getting a better idea of what we do and don't want from our connected gear, and manufacturers are taking notice. They're ham-fisting it at first, like they always do, but it will settle down, and this year will be the year we start to see the useful separate from the superfluous. If you've been sceptical of a device that didn't used to have a computer in it, but does now for some reason, it might be worth taking a second look. Just don't wear a smart belt, ok? That's too far.
Drones Are Cool, Even If You'll Never Own One
Tech people love talking about drones, and they're everywhere at CES, despite the fact that most normal humans don't need them. They're an admittedly really cool hobby though. However, as drones become more common, the controversies that surround them will start to spill over and affect everyone, in both good and bad ways.
The rules regarding where and when drones can be flown are catching up to the hobby. There have already been issues with drone safety. In one instance, drones prevented emergency services from helping people in burning cars. The Secret Service got involved when someone flew his drone a little too close to the US President's motorcade. Controversies like these have led to small, localised restrictions (or bans) in certain parts of the USA.
Towards the end of 2015, the FAA released its first drone regulations. As more people use drones, and more edge cases start popping up, you can look forward to cases that challenge these rules and explore the grey areas. Everything drone-related up until this point has existed in a sort of wild west of regulations. Now we'll start to see how they integrate into society at large. While these rules are isolated to the US, as drone use becomes more popular worldwide, governments around the world will also have to consider regulations around this technology.
This is good, because businesses are ready to start using the capability of drones to offer cooler services. Amazon and Walmart are in a well-advertised race to bring drone delivery to the masses in the US. Some real estate agents are using drones to take pictures of houses, and at least one construction company wants to use drones to oversee outdoor workers. A Chinese company has the crazy idea to use autonomous drones as taxis. And I'm still holding out hope for the Tacocopter.
Even if you don't want to personally own a drone, chances are good that you or someone you conduct business with will want to use a service that employs drones in the near future. We're still scratching the surface of what drones -- whether remote-controlled or autonomous -- can do. This is the year we get to see what happens when the metaphorical rubber of regulation meets the road that those drones are flying above.
Laptops, Tablets, TVs, and Phones Are All Mercifully Boring Now
Every year at CES, companies announce a ton of new laptops, tablets, phones, and TVs. This year that happened, but with one key difference: the updates aren't all that interesting. This TV with a lot of pixels has a slightly smaller bezel than this other TV with a lot of pixels. Another company made a laptop that looks a bit like a Macbook. Computers are slightly faster than they used to be. Woo.
This is actually kind of a relief. We rely heavily on an increasing number of gadgets that iterate too quickly. Now, the most common pieces of tech in our lives aren't in as much danger of getting ripped out from under us by obsolescence (planned or otherwise). Of course, throughout the rest of 2016, you'll no doubt see endless ads about the latest Macbook, Surface, 4K TVs, and smartphones. However, most of these are iterating because tech simply gets better over time. Not because you need to upgrade now. If you're happy with your basic devices, just enjoy them this year. If you feel like spending some money on a gadget, there are better places to look. All of the interesting trends in tech are going to be outside the realm of basic devices. Like this amazing turntable that Alan is geeking out about.