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CES: Prom for Gadgets

The big dance for the consumer electronics industry, CES 2012 promises crazy cool gadgets and lots of excitement 

Like high school prom, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has historically been a pretty big deal for electronics manufacturers. It’s the coming out party for the most innovative, and sometimes the most outlandish gadgets and gizmos, sporting the latest technology advancements. This annual gathering draws more than 140,000 attendees and nearly 2700 different exhibiters crisscrossing 1.8 million square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Given its exposure, the stakes are high and the pressure is on to impress.

Though some say CES relevance is waning due to the economy, competing events and big vendors sidestepping it in favor of other, more cost-effective product promotion, we can still expect at least one more year of fun, excitement, drama and gadget overload next week. I’m not attending this year, but I’ll be watching closely from the sidelines, looking for the latest computing advancements, home entertainment innovations and a variety of connected devices that promise to make our lives simpler.

Microsoft: Out with a Bang

(Disclosure: I supported Microsoft PR for eight years until recently, though I won’t be sharing any secrets here, sorry!). In spite of announcing its final year at CES, we can expect Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to give it his all in Microsoft’s final CES keynote, dazzling attendees and online audiences by demonstrating the advanced computing experiences we’ll get with Windows 8 on some pretty cool devices from its hardware partners (crossing fingers he’ll demonstrate a Windows 8-based tablet vs yet another notebook). And, he’ll probably put a big emphasis on Windows Phone 7, too, in a push to gain critical mindshare and compete with Apple and Google, both of which dominate the smartphone market. This is a pivotal year for Microsoft and consumer perception is crucial to the success of Windows-based devices, including Ultrabooks and tablets.

Ultrabooks: Thin, Light and Powerful PCs

Compact and powerful PCs are the way of our computing future, challenging the components under the hood to keep pace. As such, Intel has invested significant cash into what it has trademarked as Ultrabooks, requiring laptop makers to meet a very specific set of specs to realize the Ultrabook vision: thin, light, powerful and speedy, with rapid boot times that might rival what we experience today with our smartphones, which are nearly instant-on. We’ve already seen a few of these devices surface in late 2011, but I’m hearing we’ll see somewhere between 30 and 50 new Ultrabooks showcased at CES next week from the likes of Acer, Dell, HP, etc. Though expensive given the spec requirements, these skinny laptops make a world of difference as consumer mobility increases.

Tablets: Companions to the PC Workhorse

Though CES 2011 was all about tablets (I’ll have to confirm, but I recall counting something like 85+ different tablets unveiled last year!). Many of these tablets, mostly powered by Android, fell flat with consumers who were underwhelmed by performance and value relative to Apple’s iPad. That said, CES 2012 is an opportunity for device makers to re-set the tablet category and give Apple a run for its money, at least until Windows 8 ships. Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba and others are expected to show tablets, focusing on quality over quantity, many of which will likely support the long-awaited next version of Android OS, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS)—a much needed OS update to make a real run at the iPad and demonstrate to consumers it has a device worth considering. We’ll see.

Televisions: Smart Entertainment and Rich Experiences

Though I’m not as deep or smart on entertainment devices, I’m watching for the latest in-home theater advancements, namely device-to-device streaming gadgets and connected TVs. In previous years, our friends from LG, Samsung, Sony and others have shown us their entertainment visions with prototypes that either never saw the light of day or so far away from retail ready that our hopes die on the vine while we stood right there in their booths.

It’ll be interesting to see what TV makers do with 3D this year, which was all the rage in 2010 and 2011, but lacked consumer traction. For me personally, 3D is cumbersome and annoying, but if new devices surface that strip away the glasses and improve the experience, I may take another look. While I’m expecting to see glasses-free 3D TV, what I’d really like to see is better connectivity and more services options. We’ll likely see a slew of new internet-connected televisions that allow consumers to access digital content from the Internet right from their TV to supplement regular programming schedules.  I’m crossing my fingers for more strategic and meaningful partnerships to deliver interesting content that I care about with smarter delivery (can’t wait to dump cable!), including streaming content from Hulu, Netflix and Pandora. And as devices get smarter, we should start to see the ability for TVs to talk to our other devices like Windows Phone and Xbox, responding to voice and gestures, like Kinect.

Appliance to Appliance Chit-Chat: The Promise of a Connected Home

One of the more promising visions we’ve been hearing about is the ability for utilitarian devices, such as refrigerators, stoves or washer/dryers, to take on more meaningful roles in the home, enabled by connectivity features and cloud functionality. These features have been available to some degree in appliances recently, but they are super expensive and require fairly sophisticated networking to get their full value. Though still expensive and not yet mainstream, we’re getting closer. That said, I long for the day in which my smartphone can talk to my refrigerator, letting me know that while I’m at the grocery store I’ll need to pick up milk or that I only have one egg when I need two for the dinner that the appliance so thoughtfully recommended the week before while meal planning. Both LG and Samsung lead this device-to-device connectivity with a variety of appliances, and I expect to see them both unveil refreshed products next week.  I still won’t be able to afford one, though.

Device-to-device connectivity continues to evolve in the automotive industry, too, so connected cars are likely to be a big theme at CES 2012. Led by Ford last year, Audi, Chrysler, GM, Kia, and Mercedes-Benz all have a spot on the show floor, demoing new features that deliver digital content to their vehicles, including deeper dashboard and smartphones interface. But I’ll be watching for additional connectivity that supports robust safety systems, richer music services like Pandora, and hands-free, voice-activated texting, which I actually have now with my Windows Phone 7 Bing app, which also talks to my car’s Bluetooth navigation system—pretty cool stuff!

So, in spite of what might happen to CES in the future, I’m still expecting CES 2012 to be THE consumer tech event of the year. No doubt there will be lots of cool gadgets and gizmos that create a stir. In some ways, I wish I could be there this year to see them all firsthand. But since I won’t, I’ll be tracking my favorite tech pubs for all the latest news:

I’ll circle back after the event to highlight some of my favorite devices, but I’d love to hear what you’re hoping to see. Share a comment below.

Is Your Living Room Connected?

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Yesterday, my 4-year old and I had a very active and sweat inducing game of Fruit Ninja with Kinect for Xbox 360. Slashing fruit and dodging bombs, he was having a great time, and I was getting a great workout. But we’ve only recently introduced our kids to the world of connected devices, and have limited their exposure to traditional video games in favor of toys and games that don’t have flashing lights or sounds. That said, Xbox rules our living room and keeps us connected to our entertainment and the people we care about.

Last year, Kinect for Xbox 360 introduced controller-free entertainment by letting you use your body and voice to play your favorite games and access entertainment, turning you into the controller. This amazing innovation changed my view of the gaming world and consoles, seeing that Xbox isn’t just for gaming anymore. In our household, it’s our entertainment hub, enabling us to access new release movies exclusive for Xbox, our Netflix video library, see live concerts and access our favorite television shows, as well as a growing library of family friendly gaming. And we use the device for live video chat with family and friends in other time zones and on different continents.

In fact, we’re so connected that our family was “forced” to invest in two consoles (one for the Man Cave and one for the family room) to prevent the boys from arguing, and by boys, I mean my husband and our 2- and 4-year old kids.

And now I’m getting in the game. Microsoft just launched perhaps its biggest software upgrade for Xbox 360, refreshing the interface, deeper voice integration, stronger social capabilities and more robust integration across devices. With these updates, we’ll get more TV programing, more movies, more music and of course more games across new third-party applications, expanding our entertainment options. And Microsoft is further enhancing the connected experience by broadly integrating Kinect with Bing search technology across the Xbox Live dashboard for smooth and seamless navigation using voice and gestures to simplify search for content and services. With Bing on Xbox, your voice becomes the ultimate remote control to find the games, movies, TV shows and music you’re looking for. Though voice control isn’t new, the deeper integration with Bing creates a completely new experience. Tell that to my kids, though. My 4-year old son already speaks to Xbox and waves his hands around, commanding it to launch Dinosaur Train, and my 2-year old skips Xbox altogether, commanding the TV to launch Team Umizoomi. Now we’ll see our devices actually respond to them!

For me, the story is about the updates that push our connected experiences further, and devices are central to this scenario. Though using my voice as a controller sounds like a fun option, it won’t always be practical. So Microsoft has also released a mobile app exclusively for the Windows Phone that enables it to control the console, services and content. The free Xbox Companion app uses Bing to search for content, access and launch programing, and turns your smartphone into a wireless remote control for media playback and for purchase transactions. I can’t wait to try it out.

Another cool feature is how Xbox leverages the cloud to create a more seamless experience across our device portfolios, including other Xbox 360 consoles. Got to run out before finishing your game or movie? This new feature will allow us to log into any Xbox 360, then play our saved games or watch our in-progress movies from other consoles. This update enables us to take our entertainment with us when we’re on the go. Parents rejoice!

Though some of the major network and entertainment partners won’t be ready to launch their content this week (see GeekWire for a complete rundown of who, what, when), you can bet my family will be bundling all our digital content and subscriptions through this one device, simplifying our experiences.

If you’re intrigued and want all the details, the folks at Engadget have a super solid review of the new features and functionality. So check it out.

What do you have to say? Do you think Xbox 360 is on the right track regarding the future of connected entertainment? What are the barriers to drive this concept forward?

UPDATE: The updates are live in many households this morning, and I see that Microsoft has updated a variety of parental controls, which will likely be of interest here. I’m told that parents can manage their child’s console activity, sharing on social networking sites as well as regulate access to games, movies, television, and music. Additionally, the update brings enhanced navigation to Xbox 360 Family Settings to better integrate with Kinect. I’ll check those updates out and report back. For more reading, check out Microsoft Xbox and Kinect Newsroom

 

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