For some people—roughly 170,000 of us—the new year doesn’t really begin until we descend upon Las Vegas for CES. WIRED’S editors and writers will be at the annual consumer tech trade show all week seeking out the latest trends, products, services, oddities, and absurdities that will help set the tone for technology in 2020.
As usual, our coverage comes with a caveat: Most of the new tech we see in Las Vegas won’t ship right away, or possibly ever. But strip away all the glitz and hype, and CES remains a good opportunity to get a sense of how tech-makers are thinking about the coming months or years. Here’s what the tech industry is buzzing about on the way to CES 2020.
Even after all the talk about how it’s going to change the way our devices connect to the internet and to each other, 5G was a bust at last year’s CES. Consumer electronics companies and wireless carriers alike were understandably excited about the potential of this next-gen wireless tech, and we did see a few 5G-ready, premium handsets hit the market in 2019. But even now, a year later, it’s hard to make sense of where real 5G exists in the US and who can access it.
CES 2020, then, will be an opportunity for tech makers to demonstrate that 5G will be an actual thing this year, and they’re not going to hold back. Some of these announcements will be around specific devices, like Dell’s 5G-ready Latitude laptop. Others will be around chipsets: MediaTek, for example, plans to roll out a premium 5G chipset for phones at CES, and Qualcomm will likely expound upon the announcements it made at its annual Hawaii summit back in December. Most importantly, expect infrastructure updates, as the US carriers continue to expand their 5G networks and show off how the fifth-generation of wireless will transform healthcare, “smart” cities, and autonomous vehicles.
AI All Day, All Night
We need to talk about AI toothbrushes. Not really, but if there’s anything that might be emblematic of the trend of “Artificial Intelligence” being infused into every product possible, it might just be the internet-connected toothbrush. Why must the miniature scrubbie for your nubs of calcium phosphate include machine learning? I do not know, but there are plenty of products at CES that try to answer that question, and CES 2020 is going to be quite the AI and IoT bonanza.
Thing is, there are very real, important applications for AI—see aforementioned autonomous vehicles, energy-efficient cities, and advances in healthcare. Big tech companies like Samsung and Google have committed billions of dollars to AI, with the goal of transforming everything from real-time language translation across the globe to your average washing machine at home. Some technologists and analysts note that tech has effectively “disappeared” into our lives, which is to say it is everywhere; AI, which is largely intangible as a physical experience, is a big part of that.
But that also means that companies with less AI expertise will use it to market their wares, whether those are pet collars, lightbulbs, smart toilets, pill packs, gardening tools, or hairbrushes. The idea is that as these products “learn” your habits and get smarter over time, they’ll provide added conveniences. If that’s the actual outcome, then we’re all for it.
CES wouldn’t be CES without TVs. This year we’re expecting to see a bigger assortment of 8K models, as well as TVs and other displays that flex into a variety of cool form factors—LG has already teased a rollable OLED model that retracts into the ceiling between viewing sessions.
Hands down though, this year’s most exciting TV trend is MicroLED. It’s similar to the more mature OLED technology, where each pixel on a TV acts as its own own light source, instead of relying on a dedicated backlight. The difference is that MicroLED can potentially get brighter and last longer than OLED technology, which means the picture has even better highlights and deeper contrast. We’ve seen massive MicroLED models like Samsung’s Wall before, but they were primarily proof-of-concept prototypes. This year at CES, we expect to see actual production models with the technology. At least in the short term, it’ll make a bigger difference in picture quality than simply adding more pixels.
The Pleasure Is Mine
By now you might have heard the story: At last year’s CES, a robotic vibrator called the Ose was initially awarded an innovation prize, then was disqualified once the Consumer Technology Association (which puts on the big show) deemed the product “immoral” and “obscene.” Backlash followed, and last summer the CTA released a statement summarizing some policy changes, which included—surprise!—a trial run for sex toys at CES 2020.
All of that buzz (pun absolutely intended) seems to have generated momentum for the woman-led team behind the Ose vibrator. The company says it made more than $1 million within an hour of listing the product for pre-sale in November of 2019. But it also opened the doors for more sex toy and sexual health companies to exhibit at CES this year, whether those are bendable bullet vibrators, kegel exercisers, or “rear gear.” According to the CTA, The caveat is that the products have to be “innovative and include new or emerging tech” to qualify. So, OK, we’re looking forward to seeing sex toys served up with AI smarts and a side of blockchain—but really, we mostly look forward to the erosion of taboos around sexual health and sexual pleasure, particularly for women.
New Kinds of Buds
Apple doesn’t typically exhibit on the CES show floor, but Apple’s presence will be felt this year as every major brand chases the company’s massive AirPods sales numbers. Expect a wider variety of wirefree earbuds than ever before at CES 2020. And it should be a year of great earbuds for travelers, with a number of new noise canceling models designed to compete with Sony and Apple’s current lineup; as well as an increasing push towards affordability. We have a sneaking suspicion that we might see the first legitimately good pair of wireless earbuds below $50.
On the home front, speakers are getting smarter, and not just by adding popular voice assistants. Over the past few years at CES we’ve seen Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant find their way into a wide variety of products (and some pretty absurd ones), but this year we expect to see a lot of attention paid to other AI-heavy audio tech. This includes smart speakers with the ability to optimize sound to individual rooms for even more immersive listening experiences. And this processing power will likely extend to soundbars, with new models from the likes of Dolby Atmos that offer better object-based audio, and other manufacturers bringing such high-end features to smaller, more affordable bars.
Scoot On Over This Way
Over the years, CES has morphed into something akin to an international auto show, with a dozen different legacy car makers showing off their sleekest vehicles and concept cars. Hundreds of other automotive technology companies also show up to exhibit their in-dash computers, driver assistance tech, or automation systems.
But more recently, factors like climate change, worsening traffic congestion, and significant improvements in battery technology have spurred the popularity of “micromobility” devices: personal transporters and experimental scooters that are changing the way city-dwellers get from here to there. For example, Segway will show a whole host of new electric transporters, the most flashy of which is the S-Pod, a two-wheeled chair that can’t be tipped over and can turn on a dime. Expect more lightweight, ultraportable scooters, compact commuter e-bikes, and high-performance off-road vehicles like those made by the Swedish bike company Cake.
Let Me Bend Your Ear
Electronics companies will try any number of tricks to make an old idea seem new again–3D TVs! Bluetooth turntables! Celebrity partnerships!–even if that means taking a product and quite literally twisting it on its head. Enter: foldables.
To fold a device is not new; a lot of us spent our formative years snapping flip phones shut, which, technically speaking, folded at the hinge. But companies like Samsung, LG, Lenovo’s Motorola, and others have been hard at work making products with flexible displays—screens that bend without visible hinges or seams, allowing your compact phone unfurl into something that resembles a tablet. In 2019 we saw the first batch of these foldables hit the market, and CES 2020 is likely to be a showcase for even more bendable goods—including laptop-sized computers that fold in half for transport. The technology is still expensive, the resulting gadgets are still fragile, and the concept is still a long way from mainstream adoption. But manufacturers will try their hardest to make the everyday rectangles we carry around with us seem fresh again.
I Spy … A Less Private Future
With all of our connected devices and their corresponding apps and platforms that slurp up our data, we humans have developed a real concern about where our personal information ends up. And that’s assuming we’re even fully aware of how it’s being collected in the first place.
The CTA will do its part to make sure that privacy is addressed in some capacity at CES 2020. On Tuesday, January 7, the chief privacy officers from Facebook, Apple, Procter & Gamble and the FTC will convene for a public panel discussion. But keep in mind that comprehensive solutions for privacy (and security) in an IoT world aren’t going to be hammered out in a single roundtable. If the privacy woes of the last decade carry over into a 2020 and beyond, despite new regulations that aim to give consumers control over the information companies collect on them, it’s going to take more than privacy platitudes at a tech-friendly trade show to lock it all down. Because everything is connected now, and there’s no going back.
WIRED writers Lauren Goode, Parker Hall, and Adrienne So contributed to this report.
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