The Five Most Disruptive Technologies at CES 2013

The future is already here, William Gibson wrote.
It’s just not evenly distributed.
At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, I was
looking for the future in the form of disruptive
technologies—the ones not yet ready to change the
world, but maybe in a few years, or perhaps, as it
turns out, in six months. I was looking, in other
words, for technologies that exemplify what I
coined The Law of Disruption: social, political,
and economic systems change incrementally,
but technology changes exponentially .
As the gap between what technology can do and
what humans can absorb gets wider, the new stuff
seems increasingly weird. I was looking for the
I found plenty of disruptors at CES, but they weren’t
evenly distributed over the nearly two million
square feet of exhibit space that spills out from the
Las Vegas Convention Center and several nearby
hotels. To find them, I had to look, literally, around
the edges. I skipped over the giant, flashy exhibits
front and center in the giant exhibition halls, with
3D everything, pulsing music and impossibly
attractive women, and headed to the small booths
at the farthest edges, the ones manned by just two
clearly over-caffeinated guys: the innovator and the
VP of Everything Else.
Better yet, seekers of disruption could skip the
booths altogether and head for the hospitality suite
of a nearby (or not) hotel, one which doubles as the
crash pad of the entire development team, who
code, do demos, and sleep in uneven shifts. Or to
one of a dozen or more hackathons that sprung up
around town, where developers who may not even
have a place to crash stay up all night developing
an app on a fixed timetable whose only strategic
imperative is that it’s cooler than someone else’s.
Back to those guys in a moment. For now, I can
sum up the bulk of the show in one word: more.
More as in more pixels (Ultra HD TVs), more
connections (connected homes, connected cars,
connected people), more apps (all your apps,
everywhere, and all your devices), more inches
(displays), more sensors (self-organizing robots),
more me (customizable everything).
Or maybe instead of more I mean Moore, as in
Moore’s Law, the driving principle that explains and
unifies absolutely everything at CES. Every twelve
to eighteen months, unlike any other commodity in
history, computing power get faster, cheaper, and
smaller, driving disruptive change increasingly
faster than our incremental brains can handle it.
The more this year was largely focused on inputs
and outputs. Inputs as in new ways of interacting
with technology through voice, touch, sensors of all
kinds, and even eye movements. Outputs as in
new ways of feeding back information after it has
been sent up to the cloud, mixed, processed and
analyzed, and sent back down, whether to tablets,
smartphones, game devices or other smart things –
cars, refrigerators, headsets, eyeglasses, light bulbs
—even a fork that vibrates and blinks if you eat too
Like the fork, everything is “smart”—meaning it’s
connected wirelessly to everything else, and can
take in and send back information to and from the
cloud any way the apps wants. Some find that
level of increasingly predictive, adaptive, and
responsive human-device interaction reassuring.
Others find it creepy. Fortunately for the CES
crowd, the creepiness wears off fast. Just in time
for the next wave of disruptions, anyway.
The faster part of Moore’s Law explains the
emphasis on more. But the cheaper and smaller
are what really drive the disruptors. In televisions,
for example, the continuing drop in price and size
for OLED chips (LEDs based on organic compounds
that emit light when triggered by electrical
impulses) means it’s now cost-effective to stuff
enough of them into a display to make a picture
that is not only Ultra HD but which is also thin
enough to be bent. Samsung showed off the first
curved TV screens, and at a keynote, brought out
prototypes of fully flexible displays.
Cheaper and smaller also upend traditional rules of
start-up development. Two different 3D printers
that melt plastic wire to produce prototypes and
even usable products captured the imagination of
this year’s attendees. But the two companies,
3DSystems and MakerBot, came at the consumer
market from radically different starting points.
3DSystems developed its mass market product the
old-fashioned way, spending years building
expensive, industrial equipment that produces
prototypes for high-end product developers. As
they waited for the price and quality of 3D printing
to reach levels affordable for consumers, serving
niche vertical markets kept the company funded
and allowed it to develop deep expertise in 3D
printing technology.
MakerBot, on the other hand, never bothered with a
strategy, or even with a business, before going
directly to consumers. The company was founded,
an enthusiastic rep told me in their far-flung booth,
by a couple of guys from the hacker activist
community, who started by cobbling together off-
the-shelf component parts and offering them to the
enthusiastic do-it-yourself tinkerers at conventions
called Maker Faires.
3DSystems has expertise in the core technologies,
but MakerBot is much closer to the mass market
users. It’s not clear which if either will win in the
emerging market of self-assembling things, but in
the end, expertise in the core technology always
becomes a liability. It’s natural to think like your
customers, and that can blind you to the
possibilities of the disruptively cheaper if only
briefly inferior new technology.
In both cases, getting consumers just meant
waiting for Moore’s Law. Except in the case of
MakerBot, they didn’t wait so much as come up
with their idea at the moment it became just barely
There’s more—much more—of this kind of counter-
intuitive thinking going on at the edges of
innovation. For now, here are the five most
disruptive ideas I saw–this week, anyway:
1. Fighting the power – Computing of course has
gone completely wireless, but several vendors
offering variations on wireless power suggest that
energy may just be another form of bits. Powermat
has been around since 2006. Fulton Innovation,
another wireless power innovator, now offers a
product that can conductively charge a smartphone
even when the charger isn’t in physical contact
with–let alone connected to–the device. Nearby is
good enough
But the more disruptive innovation was
PowerTrekk, which provides you with your own
personal hydrogen fuel cell. Scoop up some water,
and a cartridge filled with basic chemicals extracts
the hydrogen to charge a small battery, leaving
sand as the residual product. The product, which
will go on sale this spring at REI for about $200, is
today just at the NPR Pledge Drive premium stage,
but could represent a breakthrough in energy
Hydrogen fuel cell development has been going on
for years, focused on high-end markets for charging
vehicles. Development costs are high, progress has
been slow, and environmental concerns are hard to
define or alleviate. PowerTrekk offers the same
basic technology, but on such a small scale that it
can use simpler chemistry and inert materials.

2. The Intelligent Home – There are now competing
standards to wirelessly connect devices in the
home, including appliances, lights, thermostats,
and even pet doors. That’s a sure sign of rapid
maturation in an industry that didn’t even exist a
few years ago. As a winning standard emerges,
expect innovation and consumer adoption to
The most impressive development here is Belkin’s
WeMo, which adds plug-in intelligence to devices
like light bulbs and appliances that are otherwise
immune to Moore’s Law. A simple visual
programming language lets you define conditions
and their impact: for example, alert me when a
motion sensor detects my dog on the couch, and
then turn on a speaker so I can correct his behavior
wherever I am. Everything is controlled from an
app on whatever device you want.
But what’s even more disruptive about WeMo is the
way the product is being developed. Belkin is
crowdsourcing the invention of new “recipes” for its
“If This Than That” rules, and encourages users to
share the results. Based on popular choices, the
company updates the basic toolset, adding, for
example, a standard trigger based on lookups of
when sunrise or sunset occurs on any given day.
3. The Interface of You – Several disruptive
products focused on new uses for your eyes, either
as an input device or as a replacement for more
limited peripherals like a computer mouse. Vuzix,
which has long developed high-end head-mounted
displays for vertical markets including the military,
demonstrated a low cost, lightweight, hands free
smartphone display that clips onto the ear of your
dominant eye.
More remarkable was Tobii, which has been
working for over a decade in the development of
eye tracking technology. At CES, they
demonstrated a USB device that allows the
movement of your eyes to substitute for pushing a
mouse around a pad. After a quick one-time
calibration, the Tobii Gaze lets you select items and
scroll just by looking at them. (I played a hands-
free version of Asteroids, for example, where just
looking at a moving rock blasted it to
smithereens.) As you get used to controlling
interactions with Gaze, the mouse seems
increasingly artificial—a bad metaphor for
something that didn’t need to be a metaphor after
Perhaps the most emblematic story of the new
interfaces, however, was Occulus Rift. The
company is making a next generation virtual reality
headset for video games, which can already be
used with existing software but whose real
potential lies in games that are designed to take
full advantage of its immersive potential. (The
demo, I confess, made me dizzy after a few
minutes. But I am not the target demographic.)
While Tobii and Vuzix soldiered on through
increasingly smaller, cheaper, and faster
technology until they finally reached a combination
that moved them from industry verticals to the
consumer market, Occulus Rift followed a very
different approach. Its founder, Palmer Luckey, was
until last year a community college student who
obsessively bought outdated, industry-specific
virtual reality gear off eBay, hoping to find
something suitable for gaming.
But what had been expensive features of the
specialized gears translated into constraints for
gaming. So eventually, he hacked together his own
solution using off-the-shelf component parts,
including two cell phone screens and a pair of ski
With enthusiastic encouragement from game
industry veterans, the start-up launched a
Kickstarter campaign on August 1. A month later it
had raised nearly $2.5 million from 10,000 backers.
It’s now producing a zero generation product for
game developers at a price of $300. (Many of the
obsolete products Luckey bought on eBay originally
sold for thousands.)
4. You’re the Doctor – Basic biometric sensing and
monitoring devices keep getting smaller, cheaper,
and more robust, with bracelets and clip-ons that
measure your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing,
walking and sleep patterns, syncing everything to
the cloud and then bringing it down via apps to
whatever devices you want. The monitors are also
beginning to test more of the external, as well as
internal environment, measuring air quality by
particulate count, for example.
To some, relentless checking of vital statistics
might seem obsessive or creepy. No matter. The
health and fitness tech industry is avoiding these
philosophical and psychological issues by focusing
on population segments with very specific needs
for monitoring—athletes, children, and the elderly.
Philips Lifeline has added cellular capability to its
fobs, for example, so elderly users can call for help
even when they’re not in radio transmission range
of their home system. The iBaby monitor, likewise,
alerts an iPhone app when motion or sound is
detected, and its camera can be remotely
controlled so you can get a closer look at your child
wherever you are. The Withings Baby Monitor even
transmits your voice back to its device, letting you
can soothe the baby remotely if necessary.
For athletes, I especially liked the PerformTek
Sensor, which builds the sensing technology into
your music earphones, with the double benefit of
more accurate data (the skin around your ears is
especially thin) and the elimination of an additional
device to attach to yourself. From your ears, the
sensor gets heart rate, aerobic fitness, speed, pace,
cadence, distance and calories burned, and sends it
off to a smartphone app.
It’s early days, but the trend here is nothing less
than the demystification of arcane medical
knowledge. Up until now, the only way to measure
or interpret information about your health was to
visit shamanistic professionals (i.e., doctors,
nurses, hospitals). Now, for better or worse, you
can start to build a database of contextual, holistic
information about yourself without any invasive
procedures, uncomfortable devices or mystical
human intermediaries.
The future is one in which the data is used to
diagnose and treat. Someday, for example,
monitors and sensors might tell me when I need to
stop writing and take a fifteen minute walk to
increase my productivity. Analysis of everyone’s
data may help develop better interventions and
treatments for common problems in health and
climate-controlled environments.
5. Technology that Knows You Better than You
Know Yourself – In Eureka Park, a special CES area
for start-ups, I saw two different technologies that
each made use of sensory data to predict human
responses and behavioral preferences in
provocative ways.
The first came from Audible Magic, which has
patented technology for content “fingerprinting”
that lets media companies and websites like
YouTube automate the process of locating and
removing unlicensed user uploads of copyrighted
The company is now leveraging that expertise to
provide supplemental content on tablets and
computers, the so-called “second screen” in
entertainment. A smartphone app listens to what
you’re watching on TV, identifies it, and offers
related content. In the demo, the app synched an
episode of Million Dollar Money Drop to a home
play-along game that followed the episode
precisely, letting you go beyond simply yelling at
the television.
The second is Affectiva, a spin-out from the MIT
Media Lab, which uses facial “coding” to measure
emotional response. In the demo, the laptop’s
camera is used to monitor facial expressions during
two competing television commercials (AT&T and
Verizon). The data is analyzed in the cloud, and the
app then reports in detail how the user responded
emotionally to each ad, including which one was
preferred. (I responded without much enthusiasm
to both ads at exactly the same level, which I was
told hadn’t happened once all week.)
Affectiva has been using its technology in market
research for advertisers and ad agencies, but the
app-based version offers the potential to expand
the applications dramatically, including user
interface design and testing. Or imagine if every
display had a built in camera looking back, and with
the user’s permission coded responses to
everything. Focus groups, who may not actually
say what they feel, would be unnecessary. Instead
of small samples, advertisers could gauge actual
responses from everyone, and in real-time.
Why would consumers participate? Facial coding
offers the potential to customize ads to eliminate
the ones you don’t like, which, for obvious reasons,
advertisers don’t want to show you in the first
place. Based on your response, discounts,
promotions or coupons could be offered. It’s win-
It sounds creepy, but facial coding needn’t identify
the consumer to be useful. In fact, widespread use
would reduce the need for for advertisers to
connect individuals with identifying information,
which after all are just proxies used to predict what
ads will be effective with whom. Here we actually
know. Still, expect a privacy panic to break out if
the technology moves into mainstream use.
Many of the most interesting products I saw, of
course, will never make it to commercial success,
and few look today like anything that could undo
the rules of an established industry. But all of them
signal big changes and unintended consequences.
And as Moore’s Law keeps doubling ever-bigger
numbers, the timeframe for disruption gets shorter.
So for most of these, we’ll at least know sooner
rather than later who will come up with the winning
combination of product and business model.


7 thoughts on “The Five Most Disruptive Technologies at CES 2013

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