Every January, more than 150,000 people make a pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the annual event known as CES. Organized by the Consumer Technology Association, CES is one of the world’s largest technology trade shows. It’s an exhilarating and nauseating display of gadgetry, a kaleidoscope eye into what’s to come: blinking smart lights, liquid-looking displays, hovering drones, yogic phones, driver-free vehicles, newfangled wireless protocols, and intangible technologies that all come with the promise of making life better . It’s the Super Bowl for nerds.
Except the tech being shown at CES really isn’t just for nerds. Not anymore. Technology is everywhere. We carry it with us on our daily commutes; we talk to it in our kitchens and living rooms; we take it to bed at night. Products are now defined less by their motherboards and circuitry and more by the circuitous loop of connectedness and data-sharing they enable. (One word, kid: Platforms.) In 2018, our relationships with technology and its impact on global society came into sharp focus. Which means any assembly of tech this size has the potential to impact all of our tech futures.
Not everything we see at CES will have a huge impact. Not everything we see will even ship. Quite the opposite: There’s a good chance that many of the wares debuted next week in Las Vegas won’t go on sale in 2019, or ever. But despite the hand-waviness of it all, somehow CES keeps getting bigger; this year, as many as 180,000 people are expected to roam nearly 3 million square feet of tech exhibitions. WIRED will be there covering the biggest news from the show. Here are the themes we’re expecting to emerge.
Just a few years ago, adding a low-energy Bluetooth chip and a Wi-Fi radio to your dumb gadget was enough to earn it a place in the “smart tech” category at CES. Now however, smarts are defined by how sentient, how predictive our personal technology can be, whether those calculations are happening on the hardware or in the cloud. And at CES more than anywhere else, the term “AI-powered” is used loosely and is almost always a marketing ploy, whether a product is widely impacted by AI or not. Expect to see everything from self-driving vehicles to OLED televisions to energy-saving wall outlets all touting some form of artificial intelligence, machine learning, or deep learning.
The 5G Shuffle
2019 is supposed to be the year that 5G transcends hype and becomes a reality. So it makes sense that wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon, handset makers like Samsung, and mobile chip makers like Qualcomm will take advantage of the CES stage to make more proclamations about how the next generation of ultra-fast cell networks will fundamentally change our tech lives. 5G also has huge implications for the connected auto industry, because of its potential to let vehicles “talk” to one another in real time. Just keep in mind that, while 5G-ready handsets and devices will start shipping this year, 5G wireless networks won’t be available nationwide until 2020, and the first ones to roll out won’t offer the 10-gigabytes-per-second data speeds that make the technology so alluring.
Speaking of cars, CES is still locked in competition with the North American International Auto Show when it comes to auto tech announcements. This year, 11 major car manufacturers are expected to show up in Vegas, up from nine last year. But while there will undoubtedly be some concept cars (like a car that walks on legs from Hyundai), automakers still don’t really view CES as a place to show off new metal. Instead, expect a big focus on self-driving abilities (again) and partnerships with sophisticated chip, sensor, display, and voice technology vendors—anything to convince consumers that legacy car manufacturers are speeding ahead into the future. Also, watch out for zippy scooters and other transportation gear that hint at hassle-free, carless commutes.
Filling the K Hole
Just when you thought you were up to speed on 4K—you’ve got that sweet Vizio, that cheap 4K streaming stick, a solid broadband connection, and actual 4K movies to watch—8K has arrived to spin you into another seven-year cycle of living room inadequacy. TV manufacturers like Samsung, Sony, LG, Toshiba, and Sharp are widely expected to show off 8K displays at CES this year; LG has even pre-announced what the company claims is the world’s first OLED 8K display. 8K displays have a resolution of 7,680 by 4,320 pixels (that’s more than 33 million pixels total) which means they’re really really ridiculously good-looking. On the downside, these sets will be crazy expensive and difficult to find, and there's hardly any 8K content out there to watch.
There are insanely high-resolution displays, and then there are displays that you can fold and tuck into your back pocket, because that’s a thing you've always wanted to do. For several years now, companies like Samsung, Sony, Lenovo, and LG have teased a variety of flexible-display prototypes; CES, with all its oddity and aversion to humanity, has always been the perfect place to showcase such technologies. Will we get another glimpse of Samsung’s folding Galaxy smartphone concept that was first revealed in November? Will Chinese display tech company Royole bring the FlexPai , its new 7.8-inch folding phone, to the big show? Will LG demo its fold-up TV screen again? Maybe; whether any of those devices ship this year is another question.
So Much Talk
For the past couple years Amazon and Google have helped CES maintain its relevance; not only because of the companies’ massive physical installations throughout Vegas, but because their voice assistants have been integrated into thousands of gadgets. There are now over 20,000 smart devices compatible with Alexa, and over 10,000 that work with Google Assistant. CES 2019 will undoubtedly be a noisy cacophony of voice-controlled devices, ranging from refrigerators to sound systems to smart lights in the home, to wearables and cars outside of the home. (Turns out that if you add another voice assistant an existing product, you can call it “new.”) The question around voice technology, though, isn’t so much whether it will have a presence; the question is whether it will grow more seamless and less awkward this year.
It wouldn’t be the new year if we weren’t resolved to improve ourselves in some way, and what better panacea for all our ills than a Bluetooth body dongle that spits out health data? The digital health section has grown a lot at CES over the years; nearly 120 health tech exhibitors will be at the show this year, up from 98 in 2018, the CTA says. Expect the usual GPS running watches, questionable sleep gadgets, and promising hearing aid solutions. But also: consumer packaged goods companies are starting to capitalize on the quantified self. Procter & Gamble’s Olay will be showing off a new skin gadget, while its Pantene brand will somehow utilize AI to improve your hair. L’Oreal will demo new health-related sensors, and a company called Lumen says it will help you hack your metabolism by showing you how quickly you're torching carbs and offering you nutritional guidance. And you thought all you had to do to improve your well-being in 2019 was delete your Facebook account.
All Eyes on Platforms—and Privacy
CES is still largely a hardware exhibition, a kind of disorganized manifesto on where the tech industry is headed in the coming months. But this year it’s coming on the heels of a tumultuous year for the software companies that dictate most of the tech experiences in our lives. The show’s programming reflects this shift; in addition to the hardware companies that make up the core of the convention, CES also hosts a wide variety of companies that run platforms, make software, and produce media. This year’s schedule includes a panel of policy makers discussing American privacy regulations in a post-GDPR world, as well as a Twitter-hosted event about how the company plans to make its service more conversational.
Of course, little is likely to be solved through these staged conversations about tech platforms, but the point is that even the enthusiastic trade organization behind CES can no longer ignore tech’s problems. And since everything is connected , the autonomous vehicles and 8K smart TVs we’re seeing at the show this year will act as data-sharing (and advertising) platforms in the not-so-distant future. That’s all a way of saying that hardware and software are all irrevocably intertwined now, which means everything from a pair of headphones to your new dishwasher comes with questions about data-sharing and security.
We consumers should be asking those questions, anyway. Let’s hope CES 2019 points towards a year of more answers.
WIRED transportation reporter Jack Stewart contributed to this article.
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