LAS VEGAS — A seemingly endless assortment of fitness trackers, smart appliances and self-driving cars are on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show — some 20,000 tech products in total. But as visitors sort through row after row of gadgetry, they'll probably notice that many of the products at this year's show are strikingly similar.
And it's not just that there are a lot of smartwatches on display. There's a real sense that the 3D printer in one row is somehow related to the Wi-Fi-connected dog bowl in another. But how?
In a talk here yesterday (Jan. 5), Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), explained the underlying similarities between technologies that, at first glance, don't appear to have much in common. One trend helps explain why a high-tech dog bowl and 3D printer may seem intrinsically linked. [Best Fitness Tracker Bands]
"We're taking something that's happening in the physical space and digitizing it," DuBravac said. This is a trend that's been building for at least the past three years, he added.
The Wi-Fi-enabled dog bowl turns a totally analog, everyday activity into a digital process. Just tap your smartphone and Fido will receive the right amount of food, instantly. And a 3D printer lets you see an object in the real world, digitize it, and then recreate it at the press of a button.
This trend, which DuBravac dubbed the "digitization of physical space," is dominant at CES this year. There is an abundance of products designed to help you track, monitor, correct or detect just about any physical activity imaginable. You can finally perfect your snowboarding jumps with one device. Another connects your running shoes to your smartphone, monitoring every footfall. There are even products that can help you track unhealthy habits, such as a "smart" lighter that stores data about cigarette breaks.
But with all these products aimed at digitizing even the most ordinary of everyday experiences, one question comes to mind: Who cares? That's the question that today's consumers will want answered, DuBravac said.
"We're going to see a number of products this week that are digitizing some space, and it's not enough," DuBravac said. "We're moving beyond just showing that something is technologically possible. We're now moving into an environment where we accept that it's technologically possible and now we [ask] is it technologically meaningful? Does it really matter?"
Companies that can tap into technologically meaningful data will likely be the ones that make a splash in 2015, DuBravac suggested. Pacif-i, a smart baby pacifier designed by U.K.-based Blue Maestro, is one example, he said. This product connects to parents' smartphones via Bluetooth, and can alert moms and dads when their baby is running a fever. Pacif-i isn't just recording information for the sake of having it — it's making parents aware of the health of their children, allowing them to see how well a medicine is working or whether it's time to bring a sick kid to the doctor.
Even fitness and lifestyle companies are trying to design devices that track more meaningful data for consumers. Certain fitness tech brands, such as Jawbone UP, are teaming with companies like Uber, to convert hard data into meaningful information. For instance, Jawbone customers will soon be able to see how many calories they would have burned if they had walked to the gym rather than jumped into an Uber car.