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CES 2017: What to expect at the biggest tech trade show of the year

It’s that time again: the holidays are over, a fresh year is on the calendar, and it’s time for the annual gadget bacchanalia of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The show officially starts on Thursday, but we’re already here on the ground and will be having plenty of CES content as early as today.

What can you expect to see this year? Well, aside from the usual TVs, automotive technology, drones, and VR spectacles, we’ll also have a live Twitter show that you can tune into on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30PM ET / 4:30PM PT. And keep your eye out for some fun stuff, such as a Facebook Messenger bot from Circuit Breaker that will serve up gadgets on demand and a running live blog of the entire CES experience that will be full of color commentary from Verge staff.

We’ve been preparing for the show for weeks already, and it’s given us an idea of what exactly you’ll see from the major categories at the biggest trade show of the year. Bear in mind, the best stuff at CES is often what’s unexpected, so be sure to tune in all week.

Vizio P-Series 2016 review

Chris Welch

TVs will be there

TVs are the classic spectacle of CES. It’s a show of big, amazing displays everywhere you look. And in 2017, the theme will be 4K (again) and HDR (again). The price barrier for entering 4K is pretty much gone, so this is the year that TV makers must sell the content and convince holdouts that Ultra HD is now essential to any modern living room.

All the usual big players — Samsung, LG, Sony, and Panasonic — will be there with massive booths to showcase their latest, most advanced displays. And countless other companies like Hisense, TCL, LeEco, and more will also be trying to stand out on the show floor.

LG will be back with its stunning OLED TVs, and it’s been rumored that Sony might be releasing some OLEDs of its own in 2017. Samsung loves its curved TVs, so you can expect to see the latest iterations of those, plus whatever Panasonic and other manufacturers have been working on in preparation for the big Vegas show.

HDR should become status quo for TVs in 2017 after being something of a standout feature for the last couple years. HDR10 has gained a little more momentum than Dolby Vision, but that split could definitely change depending on who goes with which technology at CES. Expect to see plenty of Android TV, Chromecast, Roku TV, Tizen, and webOS (well, at least for LG) as well.

ford-autonomous-fusion-01

Ford

Self-driving cars will be everywhere

CES, as the joke goes amongst the automotive press, now stands for “Car Electronics Show.” And this year is likely to be no different. What started with a single automaker (Ford) a few years ago, now sees an entire conference hall filled with automakers and suppliers eager to show their latest tech. This year will be no different.

This year, autonomous vehicles and connected cars will likely steal the show. Self-driving has gone from being one of those things we’ll see someday to a technology that’s actual real — Uber has rolled out its self-driving cars in a few cities for normal people to try out, and 2017 is likely to be the year when we get really close to where riding in a self-driving car is almost normal.

And just like our houses are increasingly connected to the internet, so will our cars. More and more vehicles are equipped with cellular data connections to send information back to the cloud on everything from maintenance issues like low tire warnings to reminders about upcoming service requirements. Self-driving cars will need to be way more connected, sharing and receiving data on road conditions, changes to traffic flow, and restrictions on where they can and can’t drive (a car might learn that a construction zone requires a routing change, for example).

As we get close to this connected, self-driving future, the hardware and software that makes it all happen will be on display at CES 2017.

Swagway Swagtron

Rideables won’t be stars anymore

Cars like Chevy’s Bolt and Faraday Future’s concept were the showstoppers of CES 2016. But it was the electric hoverboards, scooters, and skateboards that were truly inescapable. Everywhere you turned, there was a booth that featured something with an electric motor and wheels.

That said, CES 2016 also highlighted the controversies that these products have been mired in for the better part of the last year. Onewheel, a company that makes a strange-looking electric skateboard, had another company removed from the show floor by authorities for allegedly copying their designs. Swagway’s announcement of the Swagtron hoverboard was intensely focused on how much work the company put into making sure the thing wouldn’t explode.

Those problems plagued the category throughout 2016, and so the boom in popularity of these kinds of gadgets tapered off. They’ll certainly have a presence at CES 2017, but it won’t be the thing everyone is talking about anymore. Instead it will be a great chance to look at what these companies are saying about why they’re making these things, and what purposes they can serve, now that the hype has mellowed.

Samsung gear vr stock

VR will be weird

CES 2016 was the big year of virtual reality hype, held right on the cusp of the first big consumer headset releases. CES 2017 is the aftermath of its promising but slow launch. There’s likely to be a lot of virtual reality on the floor, but it might not seem as glossy or exciting as it did last year. For one thing, Facebook-owned Oculus — which has dominated the show’s VR news since it first appeared in 2013 — is keeping a low profile, with its massive black booth nowhere to be found on this year’s show floor. Oculus competitor HTC has a significant VR presence at CES, but it’s not clear whether we’ll see a substantial update on last year’s Vive headset. Peripheral products like the Virtuix Omni treadmill have started to ship, giving companies less reason to come show them off.

On the other hand, having the first wave of consumer headsets out the door could mean we’ll see more of a focus on experimental features, like inside-out tracking, hand controls, and all-in-one formats. Like last year, there’s a big crop of headsets aimed at the Chinese market — a particularly interesting, fast-growing part of the global VR industry. A lot of these products feel more like one-off pieces of hardware than the relatively robust Rift and Vive platforms, but they could also create a larger VR ecosystem in the long term. And big electronics companies like Qualcomm and Intel, both of which are likely to be talking virtual reality at the show, could help lift all boats by building better core components.

Augmented reality has been a mainstay at CES for some time now, although it’s mostly industry focused. That’s not likely to change this year. And given all the interest last year in products like the Microsoft HoloLens, we could see more of a push to turn from purely professional products to ones with more mass-consumer appeal — even if they won’t actually come to market for years.

Every drone maker will be chasing DJI

Expect drones to get weird and wild at this year’s CES. The market leader, DJI, is so far ahead of the competition, that introducing a straight ahead camera drone is a pretty foolhardy venture. But there is plenty of room in the market for new shapes, sizes, and capabilities. Expect drones that optimized for flying indoors, for high-speed racing, and even for diving underwater.

There will also be hordes of drones that mimic the look and feature set of DJI’s Phantom drones, but at lower price points, and with bells and whistles throw in to make them seem cutting edge. YouTube stars have made drones into the ultimate prop, something to set your selfies and vlogs apart from what your peers are publishing. So there is plenty of room in the market for cheap alternatives to line the shelves of camera shops and electronics retailers.

Finally, drones will be almost certainly be buzzing onstage and around the show as entertainment, a robotic crowd-pleaser that never fails to lend a futuristic edge to the CES madness. Look for Intel to push its new Aero line of drones and compute boards that have been lighting up the skies at Disney World.

Earin wireless earbuds

Wireless audio will reign supreme

Wireless. That single word is all you need to know about the massive deluge of headphones and speakers about to arrive at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Wireless headphones are, of course, not a new phenomenon, but 2016 has been a year that’s really accelerated their proliferation into the market. A positive reception for wireless models already on sale and Apple’s decision to pull the cord on the traditional headphone jack in its latest iPhone generation have combined to drive demand for more. Tens of millions of iOS devices are now being sold every month without a regular 3.5mm connector, which vastly expands the opportunities for any aspiring sellers of wireless portable cans.

The previous CES had a bit of mystery about it, as Lightning headphones were an intriguing alternative proposition, but Apple’s efforts to push wireless tech forward and the overall headphone industry’s reaction both point toward wireless cans being essentially the standard for 2017. Other categories like gaming and audiophile-grade headphones — as exhibited by the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless in December — are likely to also see new wireless choices to pick from. And as to speakers, any manufacturer that wants to sell speakers that aren’t wireless will probably need a strong justification for it. That’s the cable-phobic world we’re now living in.

Cameras will be built into everything

Photokina is the camera industry’s biggest show, and it only happens once every other year. So when it happens, it tends to suck up all the fun news. This past September we watched Fujifilm announce the absolutely ludicrous GFX medium format camera, Canon introduce the M5, Sony update its pro DSLR line with the A99 II, and SanDisk unveil a 1TB SD card.

So while all the major camera players are likely to have some sort of presence at CES, don’t hold your breath for a ton of fantastic announcements. Instead, we’ll probably see announcements focused around these companies’ low to midrange camera lineups. We might get more details on cameras like the Panasonic GH5, which was announced at Photokina with few details on specs or price. And we’re definitely going to see camcorders. Dozens and dozens of camcorders.

Of course, the camera rumor mill is as hot as ever these days, so there always could be some surprises in store. Canon is reportedly working on a full-frame mirrorless camera that might even take the place of the 6D Mark II. Fujifilm is said to be nearing the release of new X100 and X-T line cameras. And besides, cameras are in everything these days. Drones, smartphones, toys — you name it, and there’s probably a version of it with a built-in camera. So maybe CES 2017 will be a good time and place to start wrapping our minds around what that means. Because there’s a good chance that there won’t be much else to talk about.

Fitbit-Blaze-05-Verge-Welch

Wearables will try to go beyond the wrist

2016 was not a great year for wearables, with manufacturers ditching Android Wear, Fitbit predicting a crummy holiday quarter, Jawbone stopping production of UP, and Pebble selling off its assets. Apple claims the Apple Watch is doing well, but if that’s true, it may be the one bright spot in a category that seems to have stalled in terms of real innovation.

So our expectations for wearables at CES 2017 aren’t exactly high — but that doesn’t mean wearable makers won’t give it their best try. A lot will be health-focused beyond basic step-counting and heart rate tracking, but since many of them aren’t FDA approved, that also means a fair amount of bogus claims will be made. There will be wireless patches that claim to “taste” your skin to analyze physiological markers, wristbands that are supposed to curb nausea while you’re wearing a VR headset (a wearable to cure the ails of wearables), and smartwatches that are supposedly powered by body heat. And there’s always room at CES for stuff that doesn’t exactly go on the body but is related to it, like a “smart” spoon that will analyze tremors.

But wearables also go beyond health trackers, and there’s a good chance that the most interesting wearable tech we’ll see at this year’s show will appear in places other than the wrist: VR and AR headsets, “smart” glasses, sensors embedded directly into clothing, maybe even some exoskeletons. Because if wearables are going to make the leaps and bounds that people have been predicting for years now, there’s going to have been some value beyond being the thing that just sits on your wrist.

The PC might be interesting again

CES 2017 has always been a trade show about the possibilities of the future. When it comes to laptops and PCs, that means unfettered ambitions and even wildly impractical dreams about computing and how it could transform in the short- and long-term. Going into this year’s event, we can expect three big themes to play out: hardware designs that push the limits of the 2-in-1 form factor, processor upgrades that reimagine what’s possible in ever-smaller devices, and affordable virtual reality packages that bring that cutting-edge tech closer to the mainstream.

Both Intel and Nvidia use CES to showcase their latest respective CPU and GPU designs, with all eyes on Intel’s Kaby Lake processor and Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1050 and the various devices those hardware components will power. As for the devices themselves, CES is an opportunity for every big PC maker to show off both the practical products consumers might buy, like 2-in-1s and super-slim notebooks, and the far-out concepts that inform the hardware design of the future. On the latter front, think Razer’s modular PC tower, Project Christine, or LG’s rollable OLED displays.

That brings us to VR and gaming. Even with consumer headsets on the market, VR is still a niche technology. But the PC now plays a more important role than ever in bringing it to mainstream consumers. At this year’s show, we can look forward to a whole new slate of VR-ready PCs and even laptops that should be more affordable and more capable than past models. Bringing these PCs under $1,000 — into the price range of everyday buyers — will go a long toward realizing VR’s mass-market potential.

Of course, hardware PC gamers always have something to forward to at the Las Vegas show. Last year, Razer announced its Blade Steal gaming laptop and Blade Core combo that essentially transformed a mobile machine into a desktop powerhouse with a cube of additional GPUs. It’s that kind of creative thinking companies bring to CES.

Smartphones will be taking a break

The smartphone industry has a habit of taking CES off. That wasn’t always the case, as companies like Nokia, Sony, and LG have endeavored to make big splashy announcements at the Las Vegas show, but none of those have really panned out into successful devices. In fact, the most notable phone announcement during the time of CES was probably the original iPhone, which Steve Jobs deliberately timed to hijack the news cycle during the big tech gathering. But still, smaller-scale mobile announcements can be found at CES, with Huawei being the most reliable provider of news via its Honor brand for the US.

China’s Xiaomi will be attending CES and bringing its otherworldly Mi Mix smartphone that comes with negligible bezels and a lot of fanfare. All the other big names in mobile tech will also be present and showing off their wares — there just won’t be a great deal of new devices, the majority of which will be held back for Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the end of February. If you’re desperate for mobile news during CES, Qualcomm and companies of its ilk are the likeliest to sate your hunger with promises of faster chips, faster wireless, and (hopefully) smarter integration with other smart objects around the home and car. And hey, LG Display will also be attending, so we can probably anticipate some wild prototype displays to salivate over as well.

The smart home will still be plodding along

It’s never been the most exciting part of CES, but smart home tech has grown bigger and bigger with every year to the point where a huge number of vendors are flying in just to show the strange and sometimes helpful ways they can connect your home.

What is exciting is that the smart home gadgets they’re showing are finally getting really easy to use — enough so that you can often just buy these products at the store, install them yourself, and get going without hours of troubleshooting and help from a professional.

A ton of new products like this will be at the show this year, from smart thermostats to air-quality sensors to security cameras and even cars. In particular, we’ll be looking to see if Apple’s HomeKit platform can expand to cover a wider array of products than its current lineup of mostly power outlets and light switches, and if Google’s Android Things platform makes an appearance… basically at all. Samsung has also committed to making all of its products connected by 2020, and we’ll be looking for any progress made through its SmartThings platform.

But that’s all inside the home. And one of the promises made every year is that our tech is going to start automating what we do outside the home, too. Will we see that this year? Probably not, but any steps that companies take in that direction — by, say, starting ensuring that all devices, and not just the products they have a chip in, can connect to each other — will be welcome news.

CB gadgets

Gadgets won’t be dead, they’ll be everywhere

Almost everything at CES is a gadget, so obviously we expect to see a lot of those. But there are a couple trends we’re especially excited for from a Circuit Breaker perspective.

First off, there’s the USB-C-ification of everything. 2016 was the year where USB-C became basically mandatory on new laptops and flagship phones. And a new plug means endless new gadget opportunities. Hubs, docks, adapters, drives, headphones, and chargers are just the first wave. Monitors that can charge your laptop, act as a USB hub, and get a video signal all over the same plug will be one of USB-C’s first big payoffs. External graphics cards that run over Thunderbolt 3 should also be on display. Really, anything that can benefit from higher data throughput, higher power draw, or a smaller plug, can (and will) be enhanced by USB-C or Thunderbolt 3. But it’s not all roses. USB-C is an extremely complicated and frequently misapplied spec. We’ll be on our guard for gadgets that don’t do USB-C correctly.

The other Circuit Breaker trend we’ll be tracking is Kickstarter gadgets. Backing a Kickstarter is always a little scary: you’re putting up money for something that might still be just a prototype. Even if it does ship, is it any good? CES is a chance to see a lot of these Kickstarter gadgets in the flesh and see if they’re just hype. A couple projects I’m excited to test out include the Sevenhugs Smart Remote and the Airblock modular drone kit.


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