CES 2013: Signs Of Things To Come

Calling your car to pick you up and reading text messages on your watch are just the beginning…

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By Cary Chin
It’s always fun to see the latest gadgets introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show, held last week in Las Vegas. This year, two in particular stuck in my mind. First, in what is clearly still a fledgling industry (not necessarily for technology reasons), Audi demonstrated its self-driving car, with the added twist that you could “call” your car. It remotely started up, maneuvered out of its parking spot, and then drove to your position to pick you up. Congratulations to Audi for the best demo of the show!

Unfortunately, Audi doesn’t expect the self-driving car to be in production for another 10 years because of governmental regulations as well as miniaturization of the additional electronics required. I’m totally with them on the governmental issues, but couldn’t disagree more about miniaturizing the electronics. Haven’t they heard of Moore’s Law? If there’s one thing we can all count on, it’s miniaturizing electronics.

Which brings us to my other favorite product at the show—the Pebble watch. Pebble gained notoriety last year when it turned to Kickstarter after failing to raise a second round of venture funding, and instantly became a smash hit, raising over $10M from nearly 69,000 people in one month. The watch was unveiled at CES, and begins shipping next week. It’s basically a 1.26-inch 144-168 pixel monochrome display, with accelerometer, magnetometer, light sensors and a vibrating motor built-in—and battery life of about a week. But the really fun part is that it also has support for Bluetooth 2.1, and Bluetooth 4.0 (Bluetooth Low Energy, BLE), so it can be used as a display for messages from a connected smartphone. That means no more taking your phone out of your pocket to read a text message or check the time.

The Pebble isn’t the first Bluetooth-capable watch. Meta Watch has a similar product, and many traditional watch manufacturers have had “Bluetooth-connected” watches for some time. Even Apple is rumored to be ready to introduce an iOS watch. Its 6th generation iPod Nano, which could be worn as a watch, has now grown back out of the watch form factor, perhaps making room in the product line for a new entry in “wearable electronics.”

Whether portable, pocket-able, wearable, or implantable, it’s clear that mobile electronics are here to stay. But there’s still one question that’s nagging at me. I’ve been playing around for a while with “AirPlay,” which allows display from an iOS device onto a large screen TV via Apple TV and your WiFi network. Recent developments also have enabled mirroring, allowing most everything on the device to be displayed (and sound to be heard) on a large display. And with AirPlay support in Mountain Lion, MacOS X now sports a similar capability.

The question is, will our mobile electronics continue to evolve in a way that duplicates “computing” across all form factors, or will we go back to more of a centralized “computing/communicating” model, with displays in multiple form factors connected on a need basis? Even today, our choices for display size run the gamut. Starting with a Bluetooth headset (effectively our “zero screen size” display), we can go from wristwatch (1.5-inches), to smartphone (3-5 inches), to notepad (7-9 inches), to tablet (10-12 inches), to notebook (13-17 inches), to desktop (21-30 inches), to TV (37-60 inches), to projector (60-120 inches), and even larger if necessary, depending on the application. For each display size (except for the REALLY big ones), we have devices that essentially duplicate the “computing/communicating” part of the function. My phone, notepad, tablet, laptop and desktop all have processing, storage, and communications capabilities, which for the most part are redundant (too bad the mobile phone and Internet companies don’t give me credit for that!), especially because I can use a personal hotspot for sharing a communications connection, and cloud computing to share data and compute capabilities.

Remember the old “PC’s” that consisted of two (big, heavy) pieces—the “PC”, and the monitor? I’m getting the feeling that a centralized compute/communicate function, perhaps in a smartphone form factor, with wireless connection capabilities to displays (and speakers) of all sizes, might be coming back into vogue. And it’s all starting with the revival of the wristwatch.

—Cary Chin is director of marketing for low-power solutions at Synopsys.