CES 2014: Visions of Tomorrow

on Monday, Jan. 13th

The great thing about consumer technology is that it can be a democratizing force.

Look at what DSLR cameras that shoot video have done for aspiring filmmakers, and the Internet has so changed the face of publishing that we’re barely conscious of it anymore.

That’s the upside of consumer technology.

Yet all the attention gets lavished on the biggest, boldest and most expensive new gear. In a sense that’s natural. Gadget loving humans are neophiles, and we can’t help but be drawn to the new shiny.

So where does that leave us in the wake of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show? Was there anything announced that will Change Our Lives As We Know Them?

Clearly the tech press loved the latest Oculus Rift prototype, which was showered with “Best of Show” awards (Engadget, The Verge, Gizmodo). Yet we’ve known the Rift has be coming for over a year now, those awards are more a coronation than a debut. The only real question is if winter will reach Westeros before the Oculus Rift arrives in homes. My money is on the Oculus, but the pressure to have a mainstream hit–at least in the eyes of the tech press–must be mounting.

Over-inflated expectations could hurt Oculus VR in the long run. A year ago the Kickstarter-funded project was expected to be the darling of the hardcore PC gaming set, and now a wild success there might not be enough to keep the “favorite son” narrative alive.

However, nothing else at the show this year comes close to hinting at a surprising future. At least, nothing that was generating much buzz. The narratives leaking out of Las Vegas this past week revolved around the rise of 4K TVs, the very definition of a luxury upgrade.

Let’s not mince words here: if you dropped a 4K Bravia off at my door I wouldn’t complain; other than the cursing that would go down as I foolishly tried to mount it on the wall myself. Nor does a virtual reality product focused on gaming really shake off the label of a “luxury” product. Both are “want” not “need” products.

Yet the Rift has the potential to be so much more than just a “better” version of something many of us already have. Hence the heat. There’s potential, not a guarantee mind you, but the potential for new avenues of artistic expression.

There’s also the price: 4K TVs are just starting to come in under $1000. Oculus VR is on record as being committed to a $300 price point for the consumer version. We have to assume that’s going to be the basic version, but that’s still a big delta between your baseline 4K TV and baseline Rift.

Yes, a consumer will need a computing device to power the Rift. That’s an extra cost right there. Yet no less a programmer than John Carmack, the code genius behind Doom and who has managed to get complicated game engines onto iPhones, is working on getting the Rift to work with Android devices.

At the rate Android phones and tablets are going we’l be pulling them out of Cracker Jack boxes by 2015. The commoditization of the smartphone market is one of those great leveling forces of technology.

Hell, because of the shackles of service contracts the barrier to entry on smartphones is ridiculously low. The costs over the life of a device might not be a great deal, but that is often less of a concern for those who want to buy their way into the technological class. In short: just about anyone can pick up an Android device or an iPhone for a song (and a child to be named at a later date).

The future where everyone is playing intricate LARP style games with miniature screens strapped to their faces will likely cost less to be a part of than the one involving curved glass TVs.

It is also a more interesting future.

Right now 4K promises ultra-high-definition Kevin Spacey, while VR is delivering experiences that some of us have only ever dreamed about. Couple that with the boom that has been going on in the indie game development scene and the emergence of the Oculus and VR experiences has the potential to be a great new avenue for creative work. At best it will be the birth of a new industry or two.

Yet neither of these two technologies are likely to change our day to day lives in fundamental ways. Not directly, at any rate. Virtual reality may ultimately seep into more areas beyond entertainment, but adoption beyond that realm will probably take more than a decade.

The most radical shift that we may look back on from CES 2014 is the emergence of consumer available hydrogen fuel cells. This is a technology that was touted both for cars–Toyota’s HFC vehicle goes on sale in 2015–and as a battery recharging technology for cell phones.

It is this kind of humble shift that has the greatest potential to have the biggest impact on all our lives. HFC technology might not take up a whole wall in our living rooms or transport us inside virtual worlds, but it could just make the spread of the technology we already have that much more affordable to the developing world, and bypass some of the negative environmental impact that comes with progress.

That’s a future worth getting excited about.

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