Seeds of tech trends planted in Vegas

One of the most effective, but little-known barometers for how the technology market is shifting can be found in the floor space of CES in Las Vegas.

The best tech for anyone wondering what technology products will sell in the future is a crystal ball. Sadly, these aren't yet available from any manufacturers. Fortunately, there are a few prediction simulators around, and they're called trade shows. But there is a caveat: just because a new product is showcased at a trade show doesn’t mean it’s going to go big any time soon. Quite the opposite.

Cybershoes, a VR accessory that is worn on your feet and allows you to literally walk and run through virtual reality. Cybershoes, a VR accessory that is worn on your feet and allows you to literally walk and run through virtual reality.
For example, when the now defunct Palm launched a touchscreen smartphone called the Pre, along with the revolutionary new operating system called WebOS, it was a sensation of the show back in 2009. But the market utterly ignored it, and Palm crashed, finally being sold to HP. The tech giant also failed to make any impression with WebOS, and dumped it.

We didn't see as dramatic a collapse for some of the other trade show hype failures, like 3D TVs and netbooks, but anyone betting the farm based on the hype was going to spend time at the trough of despair. Similarly, don’t expect too much retail activity for smart hairbrushes, smart toilets and anything else that adds 'smart' to products that really don’t need reinvention.

So where do we find the clues to the real future, and real potential market booms?

Ground floor

Look not to the individual products being launched, but, rather, to the floor space devoted to new and recent categories. Ideally, you should visit the show every two or three years to get a sense of just how significantly this has shifted, rather than just getting a one-year snapshot.

So, for example, a visitor attending CES in 2012, and then in 2015, would have realised that the health device industry had exploded, but that there was still time to get in on the ground floor, so to speak. The secret was not to jump sneakers-and-all into activity-monitoring bands and smartwatches, which were already saturating the retail market. Rather, one needed to look at the peripheral categories of health products that were beginning to spread across the health section – now almost a trade show all on its own, within CES.

This year, you would have noticed the explosion of sleep and relaxation technology, expanding from a couple of smart beds and brainwave monitors to a veritable industry. It covers anything from white light to white noise, from smart pillows to tech cures for snoring to brain-calming headbands. With sleep being one of the last frontiers of health, expect this category to become as big as the fitness bands in the coming years.

Another big category to split off from health and fitness has also earned its own dedicated space at CES: sports technology. Beyond traditional fitness gear, we're now seeing virtual gyms, fold-up treadmills and monitoring equipment that gets so deep into your vital functions, it feels like your medical insurance provider is spying on you. Sports simulators, on the other hand, give users the hope they can train like professional athletes.

LOVOT, yet another cute robot. LOVOT, yet another cute robot.

Another category that an idle observer could imagine has taken over CES is automotive technology. Not merely the concept cars and next editions of Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, Nissan and Hyundai electric cars, but also the plethora of after-market tech that can now be added to cars to make them smart, or at least a little more helpful in getting us from automotive to electric comfortably and safely.

You would have seen this coming as early as CES 2014, when Google announced the Open Automotive Alliance. It pulled in GM, Audi, Honda, Hyundai and Nvidia to develop in-car systems based on Android.

The non-automotive brands competing in this space in 2020, such as Garmin and Panasonic, give a sense of the extent to which the after-market is already exploding beyond the spares shop.

Once we reach a noticeable proportion of smart and electric cars on the road, the aspirational value of that capability will result in a mushrooming of demand for products that give ordinary motorists – and fleets – similar capabilities without the high cost.

Printing the future

This year also saw an explosion in 3D printing exhibitors. Compared to the technology’s seminal years, when the 3D printing corner looked like a hobbyist shop, the expanded space now looks like an engineer’s dream. Devices that can build prototypes and parts for the medical, aerospace, engineering and automotive industries ranged from the seriously industrial to compact consumer options.

Don’t be surprised when these start appearing in local discount electronics stores.

SmartyPans, a smart pan. And there’s an app for that. SmartyPans, a smart pan. And there’s an app for that.
This year’s dedicated 'marketplaces’ at CES provided the broad brush-strokes that will help fill the tech crystal ball. Travel and tourism was one of the big categories, as it will encompass not just travel gear, but also virtual reality tourism, travel medicine and translation technology.

Drones have already broken out, but they keep getting more and more space at CES, telling us they will become increasingly visible to consumers, prosumers and businesses.

On the other hand, robots were everywhere to be seen at CES, but didn't change the sense one had since early this past decade that they remained gimmicks and novelties.

Clearly, not all market explosions are born equal. 
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