published Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Tech 4 you: Wearable technology, ultra-HD TVs among four things that may go mainstream in 2014

Manufacturers will release affordable "4K" sets this year in an attempt to usher in an era of ultra-high-resolution entertainment.
Manufacturers will release affordable "4K" sets this year in an attempt to usher in an era of ultra-high-resolution entertainment.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Technology analysts predict a boom this year in wearable devices that pair with smartphones to provide ready access to social networking, email and other notifications.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Next Big Thing.

How often is that phrase trotted out like a prized thoroughbred, only to turn into a weak-kneed nag? Home products, fad diets, even actors and actresses are annually anointed.

The technology industry is especially prone to such predictions, with companies touting their devices as future home runs on the order of the iPhone or Xbox 360. But some predictions inevitably fall flat.

Last year, tech analysts made plenty of claims about what would send consumers into a buying frenzy. But whether it was sticker shock or a piece of hardware's inability to live up to expectations, consumers didn't latch onto some of the devices that were predicted to become 2013's must-own products.

Thanks to falling prices and second-generation models that are more refined and capable, analysts say 2014 may be the year the public finally buys into the hype.

The competition for consumers' wrists, in particular, is expected to grow tremendously in 2014. In a September report, analysts at Next Market Insights predicted that 15 million smart watches will ship this year. By 2020, the reports predicts, the market could swell to 373 million units.

Printing in 3-D is expected to go mainstream as well after years of being a tool used primarily by garage tinkerers and manufacturers. Popularity of the devices is expected to be spurred by far lower prices, with some printers available for as little as $500.

According to an annual 3-D printing industry analysis by Wohlers Associates, the market for these printers and their application in fields ranging from medicine to automotive design could double in value to $4 billion by 2015.

Lower prices will likely spark more sales of ultra-high-resolution TV sets.

Last year, companies rolled out early TVs with resolutions four times higher than current models, but their high cost kept adoption rates relatively low. Throughout the year, however, prices dropped dramatically. Analysts predict that these discounts -- along with the promise of more high-resolution content -- could swell the ultra-HD market by 600 percent in 2014.

After a banner year in 2013, the market for self-tracking health and fitness devices is expected to grow significantly in 2014 as older consumers and fitness fanatics increasingly turn to technology to evaluate their quality of life and efforts at self-improvement.

These devices allow users to monitor everything from blood pressure and posture to weight loss and quality of sleep.

According to technology researcher Gartner, global revenue from self-tracking devices and apps in 2013 was estimated to be $1.6 billion. By 2016, its value could be as much as $5 billion.

Some of the latest devices in these and other categories will be shown off this week at International CES, an annual consumer electronics showcase that begins Tuesday in Las Vegas.

Here's a closer look at what analysts expect to be 2014's biggest technology news makers.

3D PRINTING FOR THE MASSES

The ability to create a physical object, on demand, using a computer has long been the stuff of science fiction, but plastic-extruding 3-D printers have closed the gap significantly with "Star Trek" in recent years.

Analysts predict that the arrival within months of cheaper, desktop-ready devices will make 2014 the point at which 3-D printing becomes mainstream with applications in a variety of industries.

"Every interior designer will have a 3-D printer," predicts Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, the organizing body of CES.

The anticipated advances to 3-D printing this year aren't limited to the actual printers. One of CES's featured exhibitors, 3D Systems, will showcase the Sense 3D, a hand-held device that can be used to quickly scan objects, generating a computer file that a 3D printer can re-create.

Many early adopters of 3D printing say the software powering the devices can be notoriously finicky. Companies such as Solidoodle, which recently announced the Solidoodle 4 3-D printer (MSRP $1,000), say creating a more streamlined interface is as much a focus of their development as reducing the cost of entry.

"Our mission is to get more people creating," Solidoodle founder and CEO Sam Cervantes said in a Nov. 22 news release. "Developing 3-D printers that are affordable and easy to use is key to our growth and success."

THE YEAR OF WEARABLE DEVICES

Last year saw technology expand its dominion from pockets to other parts of the body.

The vanguard of the wearable device horde arrived in 2013 with products such as the tester-only Explorer edition of the Google Glass head-mounted computer and a handful of smart watches such as the Pebble and Samsung Galaxy Gear.

This year, technology analysts predict a boom of wearable devices that pair with smartphones to provide ready access to social networking, email and other notifications.

The next wave of smart watches from Samsung, Sony and LG is expected to be unveiled at CES. Although no official announcement has been made, reports have been circulating among tech writers and bloggers that Apple also will announce some kind of wrist-mounted device later this year.

In CES's inaugural WristRevolution TechZone, 10 exhibitors this week will display new products on a floor dedicated to the newest wrist-mounted devices.

"Smart watches are creating new possibilities in the wearable technology market and increasing the ways consumers can connect with these pocket-sized devices," said Karen Chupka, senior vice president of events and conferences for the Consumer Electronics Association, in a press release. "This exciting trend propelled us to create the WristRevolution TechZone."

Wrists may be getting the lion's share of the attention, but tech firms also are targeting other parts of the body. If it sticks to its projected release date, a consumer model of Google Glass should be released some time this year. Other highly anticipated head-mounted devices, such as the Oculus Rift and Avegant Glyph virtual reality displays and Recon Jet sport-minded smart goggles, also are set for a 2014 release.

PREPARE TO SHELL OUT — AGAIN — FOR A BETTER IMAGE

For the last several years, 1080p has been the sharpest, most high-definition image viewable on mainstream TVs and video game consoles, but this year, manufacturers will release affordable "4K" sets to usher in an era of ultra-high-resolution entertainment.

LG, Sony and Samsung were among the first to offer new ultra-HD TVs at last year's CES expo, but prices above $20,000 kept this first wave of sets out of reach for most consumers. Dramatic cost reductions in 2013 lowered the barrier of entry by 50 percent or more, and many 4K sets now sell for less than $3,000.

Luxury models, such as a recently announced $152,000, 110-inch model from Samsung, will continue to occupy higher price points, but those willing to buy from a lesser-known manufacturer can snag a 50-inch set by Seiki and TCL for less than $1,000.

Some manufacturers are going all-in on ultra-HD. At the 2013 National Association of Broadcasters trade show last April in Las Vegas, the president of Panasonic's imaging division, Kunihiko Miyagi, announced that the company planned to convert its entire product line to higher-resolution sets in 2014.

"We are developing a 4K system -- a whole set of products -- to allow for affordable 4K production," Miyagi told the Hollywood Reporter. "Everything we make in HD will be 4K."

According to research group NPD's latest DisplaySearch report, rapidly falling prices, especially in China, are expected to increase ultra-HD sales in 2014 from 1.9 million to 12.7 million units. By 2017, NPD predicts ultra-HD sales could reach 23 million units.

Critics of early ultra-HD adoption point to the lack of films and TV programs available at the higher resolution. Most TV broadcasts currently top out at 720p -- a step below full 1080p -- and over-the-air 4K is a long way off, but content services are starting to hop on the 4K bandwagon.

YouTube now supports ultra-HD uploads; Netflix announced on Dec. 18 that the second season of its in-house drama "House of Cards" and other titles will be streamable in ultra-HD on certain TVs; and many movies and TV shows that weren't shot in 4K can be rescanned and remastered at the higher resolution.

TVs aren't the only class of devices to get the 4K treatment. In September, Acer unveiled the Liquid S2, a 6-inch smartphone packing a rear camera capable of shooting content in ultra-HD. And early adopters of the newest generation of video game consoles, the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, also will be capable of viewing 4K videos if connected to an ultra-HD TV.

QUANTIFY YOURSELF

There is a growing trend in the tech sector to produce devices that let consumers track and analyze data about their lives. In the late 2000s, former Wired magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly dubbed this the "Quantified Self" movement.

According to a 2013 study by the Consumer Electronics Association, 33 percent of mobile device owners have used their devices to track some aspect of their health in the past 12 months. Many fitness devices not only log performance but "gamify" it by scoring a user's activity to encourage competition with oneself or other users.

A wealth of fitness trackers is already on store shelves, including the goal-oriented Basis Band and all-in-one monitors such as the Jawbone UP and Nike+ Fuelband. Products expected to hit store shelves in 2014 include LG's Lifeband Touch, the ARCHOS Activity Tracker and a dedicated health tracker from Samsung reported to be called the Galaxy Band.

"Consumer interest in the 'quantified self,' whereby every aspect of a person's life is captured and analyzed, is propelling the adoption of wearable health trackers," Rachel Horn wrote in the 2014 edition of CEA's annual report: "5 Technology Trends to Watch."

In a Dec. 19 news release, Angela McIntyre, the research director at Gartner, predicted that digital health and fitness exhibitors will be "one of the hottest segments" at CES. Square footage of the conference's FitnessTech exhibition zone was increased by 40 percent this year, and more than 35 manufacturers are slated to display products there.

"Tech provides a shot of adrenaline to the fitness industry," said Julie Sylvester, producer of CES's FitnessTech Summit, in a conference news release. "The fact that [fitness tech] has outperformed the industry's projected growth shows that we've tapped into an increasingly important part of the [consumer electronics] industry."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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