On Display at CES, Tech Ideas in Their Awkward Adolescence

On Display at CES, Tech Ideas in Their Awkward Adolescence

It’s a cliché for journalists to whine about International CES, the annual consumer electronics show that brings gadget-hounds and billionaires like a nerdy plague upon Las Vegas this week. As many have complained — yours truly included — CES long ago devolved into a noisy parade of puffed-up announcements that usually amount to nothing.

But if news from CES feels especially desultory this year, it might not be the show that’s at fault. Instead, blame the tech cycle. We’re at a weird moment in the industry: The best new stuff is not all that cool, and the coolest stuff isn’t quite ready.

It’s not that today’s tech is terrible — lots of potentially groundbreaking ideas are just around the corner. In product labs across the world, engineers and designers are working to turn a collection of annoying buzzwords — artificial intelligence, virtual reality, wearables, the “Internet of things,” autonomous cars and drones — into products that we find irresistible. They are all pushing the limits of what machines can currently accomplish, and working to come up with business models that customers will stomach. In time, after years of experimentation and incremental advances, many of these technologies might become mainstays.

But that future will take a few years to pan out. In the meantime, you can expect to be bombarded with early versions of tomorrow’s tech that are bound to feel janky and incomplete. Welcome to Prototype World, a brief intermission in your regularly scheduled program of disruption, during which everything new will more or less stink.

“It’s like the junior high years in technology,” said Ben Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies. “We’re in those awkward teenage years where everything looks and feels funky.”

Over the next couple of CESes, there’s a good chance we will see a lot of devices that will feel not quite ready. Virtual reality will underwhelm, artificial intelligence will feel annoyingly unintelligent, and cars and drones that navigate themselves will seem safer when parked. There will be wearables you won’t want to wear and home devices that will make you want to buy a new place.

“It will eventually cross that hump and become mature, but it’s not there right now,” Mr. Bajarin said.

It’s unsurprising that early versions of new tech will be a bit flawed. But what’s unusual about the current moment is how many new, interdependent technologies are coming about at the same time. We’re in the middle of a grand cycle in technology — the revolution pushed by smartphones, social networks and ubiquitous online servers (that is, the cloud everyone talks about). Over the last decade, these three technologies have altered wide swaths of the business world, destroying and creating hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth in sectors as varied as media and transportation.

Venture capitalists are eager to see these trends continue. Fred Wilson, a co-founder of Union Square Ventures, told me he was paying close attention to opportunities for mobile devices and social networks to alter health care, finance and education.

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