Consumer-Show Crowds Head to Las Vegas Where Hits Run Dry: Tech

Sony CES 2014
Attendees visit the Sony Corp. booth during the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Jan. 9, 2014. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Ultra-high definition television sets that don’t have much content available. Wireless chargers that don’t work together because they’re built on competing industry standards. Wearable devices that few consumers have shown interest in buying.

Technology companies will once again be using the Consumer Electronics Show that starts next week to unveil must-have new gadgets. The odds are stacked against them.

CES, the world’s largest trade show, is far from a hit-making machine. While the technology show is a leading indicator of trends and attracted 160,000 attendees last year, many products debuting at the event take years to get into consumers’ living rooms -- if at all. The last time the event had a true stand-alone sensation was when Microsoft Corp. debuted the Xbox game console at CES in 2001.

“It seems that every year there’s a central theme to the technology introduced and a lot of those have just whiffed,” said Jordan Selburn, an analyst for market researcher IHS Inc.

This year, CES will be packed with a wide array of splashy gadgets. Drones are being heavily featured, as are connected cars and a range of smart home technology designed to make everyday life more convenient. Quantum dot televisions, which promise better color and lower electricity use in giant screens, are also debuting.

Crowded Show

That’s spurring crowds to flock to CES. Attendance at the event last year reached a record 160,498, up 15 percent from 140,000 in 2011, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The number of exhibitors totaled 52,326 last year, rising from 51,236 in 2011. The group, which runs the event, declined to comment on the number of attendees and exhibitors registered for the show next week.

“It’s so big that if you skip it’s ‘Why aren’t you going?’” said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner Inc. “A lot of these companies have to be there whether they want to or not.”

Yet CES’s history is littered with products that have flopped or been slow to take off. While high-def TV debuted at CES in 1998, it took seven years before 10 percent of the market used it. More than five years after 3-D HD televisions debuted at CES, few consumers are watching movies through the 3-D glasses required to make it appear that something is jumping out of their screens. Last year, one of the more memorable parts of CES wasn’t a product but a viral moment when director Michael Bay cut short a presentation about Samsung Electronics Co.’s TVs after a teleprompter failure.

In Defense

“CES’s relevance grows as technology is now woven into our daily lives and is helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, from health and transportation to agriculture and beyond,” said Karen Chupka, vice president of business strategy for the Consumer Electronics Association.

This year, companies including Sony Corp. and LG Electronics Inc. are renewing their drive to convert everyone to ultra-high definition television, or 4K. Many of them will show off the organic light-emitting diode technology that promises even thinner TV sets capable of producing a more vivid picture, according to Selburn.

Still, Selburn said he’s seen little evidence that media companies and content distributors have firm plans to provide movies and TV programs on 4K-resolution discs. What’s more, there’s debate as to whether 4K screens offer consumers many benefits. Viewed up close in stores, a giant 4K screen will look better than current high-def sets. Yet at normal viewing ranges, some analysts have argued human eyes aren’t capable of telling the difference.

Wireless Fight

Las Vegas will this year also feature a fight over wireless-charging technology that threatens the introduction of new devices. Worse than even the debut of home video, where VHS duked it out with Betamax in the 1970s, wireless charging already has three rival groups -- the Wireless Power Consortium, the Power Matters Alliance and the Alliance for Wireless Power - - trying to make their version the industry standard.

“The rate of growth is being hampered by the standards battle,” said John Perzow, vice president of market development for WPC.

Even without the conflict, 2015 probably won’t be the year of wireless charging, according to Sujata Neidig, a marketing manager at Freescale Semiconductor Ltd. She said her company’s chips are going into wireless-charging systems that won’t make it into consumer hands until at least the second half of 2015 and probably in greater numbers in 2016.

No Shows

Some companies have scaled back their participation in CES. Microsoft no longer does the eve-of-the-show keynote presentation or a giant booth to show off products. It now rents more than 20,000-square-feet of space to use on an invite-only basis for customers and partners.

“CES brings together many of our important partners and customers and so, as we do every year, we are taking advantage of this natural opportunity to connect,” said Tony Imperati, a spokesman for Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft.

Other companies don’t bother showing up. Apple Inc., which had a CES flop with the Pippin game machine in 1996, doesn’t exhibit or have speakers at the event. The operator of the fourth-largest U.S. electronics retail chain sent just four buyers to CES last year.

An Apple representative didn’t return a call for comment.

Apple’s absence and the rise of Mobile World Congress, a mobile-technology conference that drew 85,916 attendees to Barcelona last year, takes away some of the focus of the biggest consumer device -- the smartphone -- from Las Vegas.

“You’re missing a big chunk of what’s going on,” Selburn said. “That chunk doesn’t get addressed at CES.”

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