At CES, big screens aren't the big picture anymore
The largest, thinnest, highest-resolution TVs generally generated the most hype the past few years at the annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas.
But analysts say theres a major shift in focus for the 2014 International CES this week, with TVs taking a backseat to wearable technologies, digital health and fitness devices, do-it-yourself 3-D printing, combination phone-tablet phablets and other smart sensor-embedded gadgets.
And the four-day tech convention may also signal the start of a new battle among Apple, Google and Microsoft, this time for control of in-car technology.
This years show, which officially starts Tuesday, reflects a digital transformation for the consumer electronics makers because their customers now expect to be more connected all the time, said John Curran of the management consulting and technology services company Accenture. The electronics industry is paying attention to the shift to smartphones and tablets and responding to what tech executives call the Internet of things.
Were probably at the tipping point where mobile devices, mobile accessories and mobile data all become way more important than in the old days of big screen TVs and loudspeakers, said NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker. The industry goes where the unit volume grows.
The trade show is billed as the consumer electronics industrys biggest annual showcase for the latest products and innovations that are either in the pipeline or harbingers of the future of tech.
Thats why about 152,000 people - including industry executives, retail store buyers and journalists - are expected to descend on Las Vegas to roam through the 1.92 million square feet of exhibition space and 3,200 exhibitors looking for that next big thing in tech.Most just upgrades
In reality, few if any groundbreaking technologies tend to be unveiled at CES - most are evolutionary upgrades of existing technologies. And companies reserve their big announcements for times when they have the sole spotlight to avoid getting lost in the din of CES.
Moreover, some critics question how much impact CES can have when Apple, the company with arguably the single biggest impact on consumer tech, isnt one of the exhibitors.
Much of CES turns into overkill. The pre-show buzz about 3-D TVs the past four years didnt convince consumers to buy the expensive monitors, for example, since there wasnt enough 3-D programming to watch anyway.
This years show will still feature the latest Ultra HD TVs, which have four times more pixels. But Ultra HD figures to rank behind other top themes, starting with wearable technology, said John Curran, a senior executive for Accentures communications, media and technology group.
We think (wearable technology) has the potential to be the story of CES 2014, Curran said. Wearables are really at the key inflection point of going from a niche, early adopter market to the mainstream.
The category includes the personal health and fitness monitoring devices, which make up about 90 percent of what already is a $3 billion annual wearables market. Accenture projects that market will grow to up to $8 billion by 2018.
But the market is expanding with smart watches that add the functions of a smartphone on your wrist, and glasses that display information about the world around you.
Another top topic at CES should be 3-D printing, which so far has been restricted by high costs to commercial industries. But Curran anticipates seeing 3-D printers at CES that start at about $500, low enough to appeal to average consumers. CES officials say the number of 3-D printing companies signed up for the show grew to 27 from just three last year.
Curran expects demonstrations of how 3-D printers can create auto parts, vacuum cleaner accessories, holiday ornaments, mobile phone cases, fishing gear and house ware, showing consumers how this could be a recurring use scenario in their lives.
Auto tech also figures to be a hot topic. Karen Chupka, senior vice president for the shows sponsor, the Consumer Electronics Association, said 9 of the top 10 automakers are exhibiting at the show. And taking another page from Google, four automakers will be showing off driverless car technology.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google and Audi plan to unveil a partnership to develop a car infotainment system that runs on the Android platform. That would put Google up against Apple, which last summer unveiled an iOS in the car initiative. Honda has announced some of its newer models will have Apples Siri Eyes Free compatibility.Battle over cars
And with Microsoft powering Fords Sync, in-car technology figures to be the next major platform battle between those three tech superpowers, said analyst Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies of San Jose.
Apple has been talking to pretty much all of the major car companies and I would expect to see others adopt iOS in the next few years, he said. But it was inevitable that Android would find a home with some car vendors since Android has become a viable competitor to Apples iOS.
Benny Evangelista is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com