First impressions are everything, or so the saying goes, of course, but during my second CES I couldn't help shake the feeling that this year's list of gadgets and devices fall short of what the industry has come to expect from the world's largest consumer electronics trade show. Sure attendance was just as high as usual, and roaming the show floor it felt busier than ever as we practically had to swim through the crowds of people to make appointments and meetings on time, but it almost felt as if it were over-hyped in many regards. Am I disappointed with my experience at CES? Certainly not, but the murmurings of "the year of the refrigerator" pretty much sum up the excitement level felt on the floor.
I pretty consistently heard people say they were disappointed with the showing and the general lack of punch in the announcements from multi-billion dollar multi-national companies, and I can certainly share that sentiment to an extent. Sure there was no Galaxy S7, no new Nexus phone or tablet, and definitely nothing announced on that level by any means, but there were still plenty of interesting devices. Once we got through the sea of fitness trackers, connected IoT devices and of course the incredibly sophisticated appliances and massive TVs, there were still a few gems that really stood out among the crowd. None of these were new devices per say, rather more refined versions of devices we've seen or used before that continue to surprise with their competence and technological abilities.
Easily one of the most prominent showings on the floor was VR as a whole, taking many different forms across dozens upon dozens of booths. Some companies are using your phone to power the experience, from the excellent selling and well supported Samsung Gear VR which uses one of Samsung's popular flagship phones depending on the model of Gear VR purchased. Other companies opt for generic adapters or designs so that you can use any Android powered phone, although it's obvious which companies spent more time on the design of the headsets and lenses, as some headsets are significantly more comfortable both resting on the head and for my poor strained eyes. The estimable Carl Zeiss makes quite possibly the best mobile VR headset of all thanks to some seriously incredible lenses that work well with nearly any glasses prescription (or no glasses at all in my case), yet has the ability to fit any phone in its universal case via official or 3D printed adapters.
The best showings come from dedicated units though, and I got to use both the near-final Oculus Rift unit at the show and the just announced HTC Vive Dev Kit 2 (known as the Vive Pre) as well. I've been excited about the prospects of consumer-level VR from the first moment I heard about Oculus Rift and got to use the original DK1 unit, but up until now technical limitations have really made it an experience that's more full of promise than actual deliverance. Now that's all changed with these latest hardware efforts from HTC and Oculus, and it was incredible to see how far the VR scene has come in so little time. The latest headsets eschew the headache and eyestrain inducing nature of the old models (and plenty of cheap Cardboard headsets for your phone) and replace them with an experience that's closer to perfection than it is to a work in progress.
What's clear is that this tech is not going to be mainstream any time soon given the price tag of the Oculus itself, not to mention HTC's self-admitted more expensive platform. On top of that the $600 Oculus Rift kit doesn't even ship with the "proper" controllers as I used at CES, rather it ships with an Xbox One controller instead. While this isn't bad for some experiences it's not what people had in mind when they thought about interacting with the virtual world, and it certainly doesn't help lend value to a package that's already considered incredibly expensive. The differences between the Oculus Rift and the Vive is more than just pricing too, as it seems HTC will only ship the Vive in its full experience form rather than the simplified version Oculus is shipping. This of course means a higher price tag but gives the Vive more baseline functionality, continuing the idea that the Vive is a more full-featured and more advanced product.
The actual experience between the units felt just as wide too, and it comes down to two things that could make or break the experience for you. First off there was no movement in the Oculus demos I've used, either in the dev kits or the more final form I had at CES. You stand in place and look around, interacting with the world from a fixed position unless you're navigating with the joysticks on the controller. The Vive, however, not only features the ability to move around the room, which translates perfectly into the VR experience, but also keeps track of what's in the room too. This gives you more of a spatial awareness as well as keeping you from running into obstacles, and even gives more interaction with the real world environment as well. The front-facing camera on the Vive and the sensors in the room to keep track of your hands and body movement simply translate into a better VR experience.
Outside of VR there were very few new devices at the show, and while the famous Kickstarter-backed Nextbit Robin isn't new by any means, it's nearing final form with units scheduled to ship out in just a month or so. This is a phone backed by ex-Googlers and the brainchild behind classic phone designs at HTC like the One M7 and One M8, among plenty of others. What you'll find is a phone that looks wholly unique out of the box, and one that functions quite uniquely as well. I was incredibly impressed with not just the visual style of the phone and the OS, both of which are captivating in a number of ways, but just how smoothly the software operates. Now I'm not just talking about the framerate of the OS, a problem we haven't had to deal with for a long time now in Android, rather I'm talking just how well the cloud-based features of the Robin function. Offloading apps and other data that's taking up precious space is effortless and nearly instant, and while restoring them might take more time since the data has to be re-downloaded to the phone, it's no less effortless than trying to open the app or access the data in a normal fashion.
It's these experiences that make shows like CES so much more fun than simple product announcements, a thing that could happen at any old time during the year. What we found was interesting and innovative to say the least, and while there's plenty of me-too products out there, the rest of the unique ones help bring the show up in many people's minds. Still we're left to wonder where the show's direction is going as more and more mobile companies continue to pull their big announcements from Vegas and ship them off to Barcelona at the end of February. Will this one become more of a niche show as Mobile World Congress continues to grow, or will the slow shift away from the excitement of smartphones help CES turn into something more than just a place where big mobile announcements occur? It's certainly going to be exciting to see!