Trendspotting at
CES 2015

At a time of year when most of us are hunkering down against the frigid January gloom, thousands from the worlds of tech and design flocked to the neon Nevada desert for the annual hullabaloo of the Consumer Electronics Show.

With over 2 million square feet of exhibition space, the trade show is an orgy of products vying to be the next big thing. While some trends of past years have famously fallen short of the hype (we're looking at you, 3D TVs), CES has become a reliable barometer to size up the tech trends that will insinuate themselves into our lives over the coming years. We trekked through the 3600 exhibitors to see what all the fuss was about.

 

Superlative HDTVs

This year's crop of TVs are the everything-est: the brightest, the sharpest, the thinnest, and now even the curviest. But while the picture quality is undeniably beautiful, it comes with a healthy dose of hype.

4K TV (formerly known as Ultra-HD) was one of the most buzzed-about buzzwords of the show with a resolution four times greater than standard HD. Although there is an appreciable difference in side-by-side comparisons between the two, the time might not yet be ripe to hop on the 4K bandwagon. 4K content still isn't easy to come by, and some new players in the burgeoning 4K content market will be exclusive to certain TV brands.

The advent of the curved screen has also been met with some skepticism. Designed to immerse the user and cut down on glare, the curve also causes subtle distortions, particularly for users who aren't seated at dead center in front of the screen. "To experience the kind of immersion that TV companies are promoting, you would really need to buy at least a 100" TV," said Jongho Nho, senior industrial designer at TEAMS Chicago.

If you've bought a TV in the last few years, it's probably not worth it to go out and drop a hefty amount of cash on one of these newcomers. However, we're excited to see where this technology leads in the future. The innovative material possibilities in this category will lead design teams to continue exploring, as we've done with Bayer Material Science, and as screens become thinner and more easily shaped, areas like wearable tech are primed to reap the benefits.

Immersive Experiences

TV wasn't the only medium looking to draw users into their very own enveloping world. Virtual reality headsets and games featured prominently by following the lead of the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that's been a pioneer in solving motion sickness — the bane of the VR movement.

Despite the long lines and clear interest, the VR showings were mostly limited to demos of projects that are still only available in development kits without a consumer product on the market. Each company still has many technical issues and questions of cost-effectiveness to tackle before they can make the jump from demonstrating a novelty to selling a consumer product.

Audio was another area intent on immersing the user in 2015. From the personal — bluetooth headphones for your commute or your VR experience — to home audio, wireless connectivity is making it easier than ever for us to surround ourselves with sound wherever we are. The offerings in personal audio ran the wide gamut that we're now so used to seeing in that category. From blingy earbuds to retro headsets, endless options for stylistic individuality continues to be the big draw.

In home audio, the products are becoming less obtrusive. WiFi-networked speakers and soundbars come without the tangle of cords needed for erstwhile surround sound systems, and several multi-room systems will finally be giving Sonos a run for their money. While much of this tech is sleek and low-profile, some brings more conspicuous style that better integrates with home decor; the Get Up Stand Up Speaker from the House of Marley is now available in a bluetooth model, combining the brand's soulful use of materials with the latest tech. Samsung's new 360-degree speakers have a clear mid-century influence with more than a passing resemblance to George Nelson's iconic cigar lamps.

Internet of (Every)things

The unglamourously named internet of things, or IoT, promises a future where all of our dumb products become smart and seamless through connectivity. With more things connected to the internet than people extant on the planet, this is one trend with a clear course for explosive growth. There's still much R&D needed to determine some of the best uses and spaces for IoT, but plenty of exhibitors were on hand to show their forays into connected systems.

Some distinct spaces are already evident in the current offerings. In home automation, Belkin's WeMo allows users to control everything from their lights to a familiar coffeemaker with a remote app. In wearables, Withings is attempting to make health tracking more holistic with a range of products that monitor activity, sleep, weight, and even blood pressure.

Even cars are getting smart with us; from on-board WiFi to fully autonomous cars, automakers are keen to take advantage of tech that will make cars safer, easier, and all-round more fun (more on that below).

Print-It-Yourself Technology

For the past few years, 3D printing has largely remained a bit of a playground; users and printing companies alike have toyed around with the fun, if tricky, process in search of worthwhile applications. Its impact on rapid prototyping in design can't be understated — "3D printing has already changed the way we work at TEAMS," said Yono — but the 40 exhibiting companies displayed a real drive for pushing the envelope past the quirky objets that abound online, the Iron Throne cell phone holders and Sad Keanus.

While there was no lack of fun or quirk on display, there were also a variety of clever and meaningful applications to be found. Customized medical solutions were prominent, such as dental and surgical prosthetics; the open-source initiative Open Bionics showcased its amazing effort in making low-cost robotic hands for amputees. 3D Systems showed some culinary applications for the 3D printing of confections in their Chef Jet.

A lot of the big innovations in 3D printing weren't quite as glitzy. MakerBot announced new composite filaments that look like stone, wood, and metal — allowing rapid prototyping to be even more visually accurate — and with Protoplant's conductive Proto-Pasta, users can print their own electronic parts. Companies are also introducing software that simplifies the file creation process for the layperson not familiar with CAD. While the new software options will allow users to make successful prints from a mobile device, they will not be nearly as flexible as the tools available from compatible CAD programs. In the end, both novices and experts will have outlets to play more with 3D printing's capabilities.

After two days of traversing the epic show, our feet were killing us and we were more than a little jealous of the IO HAWK that went gliding effortlessly by us, but getting a taste of the first of this year's big trade shows has us excited for those to follow in the coming weeks and months. But for now, maybe we'll kick up our feet for a few in one of these driverless cars.