The 2014 edition of the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) came to an end in Las Vegas just over two weeks ago, with IDC in attendance to assess the year ahead for the world of technology.
Much has been said about the absence of Google, Apple, and Microsoft (particularly in a year marked by so many new launches from the Redmond-based tech giant), while IDC also noted the lack of PCs, which were almost a total no-show in the main convention center and barely present in the exhibition halls of the neighboring hotels. The one big exception was Intel’s unveiling of its dual-platform technology: PCs that can shift from Windows to Android at the press of a button.
Much more could be written about all the amazing trends shown at the event, such as self-driving cars from BMW and Audi, and the concept of ‘connected cars’ presented by other automobile manufacturers – vehicles that support apps to execute a variety of functions, from giving commands to your smart devices to connecting directly to your bank account to pay for gas. Other major trends included curved displays and Ultra HD televisions, also known as 4K TVs, while the connected home concept also left its mark, with vendors looking to provide everything from smart fridges and washing machines to a toothbrush that monitors how well you have brushed your teeth. 3D Printing also attracted huge interest at CES, as leading companies such as 3D Systems, Stratasys, and Makerbot have started exploring consumer applications for their technologies.
However, IDC believes the biggest hit at CES was wearable devices. Most large technology companies have launched their versions of such gadgets or are due to do so soon, which is a good indication that they are not a passing fad but a strong technological trend. Essentially, wearable technology can be divided into three categories: fitness trackers, smartwatches, and virtual or augmented reality glasses, all of which synchronise with mobile phones.
Though this concept has been around for decades in the realm of fiction, it was only truly realised in 2012 with the release of fitness trackers such as the Nike Fuel Band and Fitbit One. Smartwatches such as the Pebble and Samsung Gear were launched a little later, in 2013. Finally, prototypes of glasses such as Oculus Rift and Google Glass have been around since 2012, but will only be widely available to consumers in 2014.
A good many wearables released to date have failed to live up to the hype, according to IDC. Most of them face hurdles that need to be overcome in order to produce something that consumers will genuinely want. For instance, smartwatches generally fail to present a design that would make them attractive to people beyond early adopters and “techies” in general, though a strong exception can be found in the new Pebble Steel introduced during CES. It manages to look like a stylish classic watch while offering plenty of new functionalities in comparison to the new version launched roughly a year ago through Kickstarter.
Among other smartwatches, the typical shortcomings highlighted by IDC’s latest research include short-lasting batteries, unsuitable screen shapes, and a high dependency on smartphones, which leads consumers to ask themselves whether it makes sense to add another interface to that of their mobile device. In addition, smartphones account for just over 40 per cent of mobile phones in the Middle East, meaning a smaller addressable market, and most wearables only synchronise with iOS and Android phones, driving this percentage even lower.
Manufacturers of fitness trackers have managed to produce minimalistic products that the consumer wants to adopt: One of the coolest gadgets released at CES was Razer’s Nabu, a body-tracking wristband that — besides tracking steps taken, stairs climbed, GPS location, and sleep patterns — also works similarly to a smartwatch, pairing with iOS and Android phones and displaying notifications.
One of the main players in another wearable category — glasses — released its second prototype at CES. Crystal Cove’s Oculus Rift is said to have unbelievable head-tracking capabilities that allow for leaning in and out and looking at objects from multiple angles. Once widely available to consumers later this year, the product will change virtual-reality based gaming as it is known today. Missing from CES this year was Google Glass, Google’s forthcoming wearable modular glasses capable of receiving voice commands, taking pictures, sharing what the wearer is seeing, giving location information and directions, and much more.
Among the other great wearables launched during the event were Intel’s Smart Earbuds, which double as body-monitoring devices. A tracker inside the earbuds synchronises with smartphones as it tracks heartbeat, pace, distance, calorie, and time data. The company also launched its Intel Smartwatch, which uses geofencing to track anyone wearing it, with numerous possible applications for the device. For example, this technology will be a boon to parents needing to track their children’s whereabouts, as it can be programmed to warn parents if their children travel beyond a certain predetermined geofence.
Tens of millions of wearables are set to be shipped in 2014. Time will tell if they live up to the hype. However, despite their current flaws, and a lot of speculation from critics and reviewers, IDC believes they are here to stay.
The columnist is group vice-president and regional managing director for the Middle East, Africa, and Turkey at global ICT market intelligence and advisory firm International Data Corporation (IDC).