CES is a mess. Bright lights. Small city. Multiple conference centers. Thousands of vendors. Tens of thousands of products. Far too much to see during the four days of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, taking place in Las Vegas from Jan. 8-11.
Once again, one of us was wrong
All these reasons and more are why I (Tim here) have gone on record in the past saying CES is no longer relevant. How it could it be when three of the world's most important consumer tech companies -- Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL), and now Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) -- have little more than an unofficial presence at the show? Each company draws thousands of developers and customers to their own confabs. For them, CES is a distraction.
Don't expect the Vegas throng to care. They've come to appreciate an important nuance: big companies aren't what make CES interesting. Contrasts are.
Envision talking with incumbents pitching new spins on well-worn concepts only to find a would-be Rule Breaker demonstrating an alternative 15 minutes later. Call it a chaotic gadget soup that promises to introduce us to better living through technology. So here we are again in Las Vegas, on safari hunting for big ideas. Here's a sampling of what we expect to see this time around:
1. The Internet of Things and extreme connectivity. Think of an indoor Wi-Fi-enabled GPS whereby Siri finds your car keys on the kitchen table. Or maybe sensors that are injected into you with a simple shot, creating a sort of "wired humanity" in which checkups are performed via server.
Who might be responsible for these sorts of improvements? Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO) is at CES to tout new smart home products, though we're hoping the list will include more than wireless control of the thermostat or smoke detector. Meanwhile, both Broadcom (UNKNOWN:BRCM.DL) and Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) have talked up chips built specifically for indoor positioning.
2. The end of the family doctor. Why do we need to see a doctor in the connected age? Can't we just rely on software and better monitoring to diagnose basic illness and authorize $4 prescription refills electronically? We're aiming for a higher plane of health care in which generalists give way to their more specialized peers.
UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH), it seems, has already heard the message. The company purports to have a 4,000-square foot booth at CES. Executive Vice President Dr. Reed Tucker will participate in a panel discussion about the digital health revolution, talking about, among other things, using technology for health care self-service. Maybe this means we're finally serious about making progress in this area?
3. Welcome back, "Made in America." You could hardly have asked for more if you owned shares of Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) in 2012. The stock proved to be a four-bagger in a good market year that wasn't always kind to tech stocks.
At CES, the company will show off the next generation of its Cube consumer 3-D printer. "Our growing selection of 3D apps, designs and lifestyle accessories on Cubify.com makes 3D printing accessible to everyone," Chief Marketing Officer Cathy Lewis said in a press release announcing the new Cube.
On Tuesday, privately held upstart MakerBot will introduce its own desktop 3-D printer for consumers. At this rate, "Made In America" will soon become code-speak for skipping the department store and making your own toys and gadgets at home.
4. We're all getting a brain transplant! Between Google's get-anything-you-want-fast search muscle and Evernote's never-forget-anything-ever notetaking app, we're outsourcing thinking like never before. What's next in this area? Sleeping substitutes to reclaim hours?
Lest you think that sounds a little too much like a Philip K. Dick novel, a soon-to-be Kickstarter funded project called the HAPIfork (pronounced "happy fork") tells you when you're full before your brain can. That's not all. A series of tailored music streams curated by UCLA researchers and dubbed Focus@Will purports to increase focus for a full 100 minutes, thereby boosting productivity. Suddenly, software is the new miracle brain drug.
5. The end of the DMV. We're tired of picking up the kids and driving around grandma and grandpa. A self-driving car (goodbye, driver's license) could solve that problem. Better yet, it could act as a personal chauffeur for the commute to work. Throw in broadband and you'd have the highway equivalent of a subway ride, taken with more privacy and certainly more comfort.
As you might imagine, we're not the only ones thinking about this. Google already has an ongoing experiment with self-driving cars and Audi received a permit to operate its self-driving TTS in Nevada, just in time for CES, the Los Angeles Times reports. Toyota (NYSE:TM) also has a self-driving concept car in development that executives are expected to talk about during the show.
So yes, CES is a mess. It's the kind of chaos that throws together incumbents with challengers they may not have known existed, and small-time hopefuls with huge corporate decision makers. Some of the big boys may not have an official presence anymore, but rest assured they have an ear to ground here in Las Vegas. So do we.
Fool contributors Tim Beyers and Karl Thiel are members of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team. Tim owned shares of Apple and Google. Karl didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication.
The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems, Apple, Cisco Systems, Google, and UnitedHealth Group. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Qualcomm. The Motley Fool has the following options: Short Jan 2014 $55 calls on 3D Systems and short Jan 2014 $30 puts on 3D Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.