Every January, the Consumer Electronics Show gives the world a preview of the flood of gadgets heading our way in the coming year and beyond. Some are incredibly silly, while others are complete game changers. All promise to make people's lives better somehow. We've crisscrossed the show floors to come up with six products -- each representing larger trends in consumer electronics as they relate to the world of media. They are:
Brookstone SoftSound pillow ($129, out in May) - Audio is being embedded into everything - even pillows. Brookstone's SoftSound pillow has two high fidelity, ultra-thin speakers inside that can wirelessly receive and transmit sound coming from a nearby television set. Why should anyone want such a thing? Many people like to drift to sleep with the TV on, but their bedmate may not be so thrilled about having the TV blaring. SoftSound is designed so that audio can be heard if the person's head is on the pillow, but muffled everywhere else. The pillow is heavy, but comfortable - using the company's existing memory foam-like material. And even better, you can set a timer to automatically turn off the set, so your slumber isn't disturbed by late night infomercials.
Panasonic Bone Conducting Headphones (Price unknown, releasing this fall) - One of the big themes at CES this year is how existing technologies get mashed up to become more useful. The Panasonic Bone Conducting Headphones is one great example. It pairs up Bluetooth wireless technology with bone conduction to deliver personalized audio for its TV sets. That means, for instance, two people watching the same show in the same room can get different levels of audio. According to a Johns Hopkins University study, more than 20% of Americans have hearing impairments. This allows them to watch TV with their families without having to crank the volume to 11 and deafening everyone else in the room.
iriver ON earbud and heart-monitor ($199, release in March) - Gadgets that help users monitor their health has been a major theme for the past year. In 2013, expect entertainment to play a larger role in this trend, helping to boost the fun-factor and make health and fitness less of a drudge. iriver, a South Korean electronics company that made one of the first digital music players in 2000 and had the largest market share for that category until Apple came around with its iPod, teamed up with Valencell Inc. to make ON, a combination earphone and heart monitor that also gauges distance, speed, cadence, aerobic fitness levels and calories burned, using sensors that uses light to monitor blood flow characteristics in the ear. The data is wirelessly transmitted to a smartphone while the earbuds pipe music during the workout.
Motorheadphones ($49-$129, out in April) - Celebrity-endorsed headphones are proliferating this year. The challenge for folks will be how to cut through the glamour to find a pair with as much high quality sound to match the level of hype. Our recommendation would be to listen to them for yourselves. Many premium headphones pump up the bass. But if you're a rock lover, an emphasis on the thumping, driving bass can come at the expense of mid-range sound - and can alter other qualities of the music. Motorheadphones, endorsed by the eponymous band, dial that bass down to focus on the mid-range, promising that rock fans can hear the music "the way it's meant to be heard," a marketing mantra that will no doubt hit many ears this year.
Sony Xperia Z with One Touch (price varies by carrier, out by March 31) - Sony, which has struggled to compete in the smartphone category against Apple, Samsung and others, is trying again with the Xperia Z. This time, Sony added One Touch, which lets users who are listening to music or watching video on the device transfer that over to other Sony devices by touching them together. Using near-field communication (NFC), the Xperia Z can "hand off" the video or the music to Sony TV's or stereos that also have One Touch so users can continue to listen or watch on a bigger screen or a better audio system. One Touch is an example of how devices are increasingly able to "talk" to each other, a trend that we saw in spades at CES this year. An oven that has reached a certain temperature can, for example, can flash that message to the TV. LG showed a washer-dryer set that sends messages to a smartphone telling owners when the laundry is done. Esoteric? Perhaps. But the market will soon teem with services that use inter-gadget connectivity and personal context to create more meaningful applications.
Ford Sync AppLink -- Connected in-car entertainment is blossoming this year. For the driver, there is a panoply of music and audio entertainment optionsbeing directly integrated into the dashboard of new cars rolling off the assembly line. For rear-seat passengers, video and games are added to the mix. This is not new. What will be different in 2013, however, is the amount of streaming content that can easily find their way into the car, thanks to efforts by car companies such as Ford and General Motors to turn vehicles into platforms that developers can distribute their applications. Both car companies announced at CES that they are opening up their in-car software platforms to outside developers. Ford, with its Sync platform, is ahead of the game, having worked with a select group of developers such as Pandora, Aha and Rhapsody to bring streaming content into its vehicles. Now Ford, along with GM, are opening up their software platforms to all developers. This is just like Android oriOS, but the car companies will be much more selective as to which applications will be allowed in the vehicle. For safety reasons, apps must adhere to a strict set of criteria, such as no distracting videos or lengthy texts, before they can be approved.