Some people like to sneer at gadgets as the trivial amusements of a decadent society. But many technologies that later came to be considered essential parts of modern life began their life as unnecessary technical baubles. For example, in 1970, the first consumer VCR prototype was unveiled at CES, a technology previously only needed by television studios. The home VCR then started the home-viewing and -recording revolution, leading to a critical U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding copyright, and laying the groundwork for YouTube and Netflix. Even when a technology goes nowhere—3D TV glasses anyone?—looking at widgets, gizmos, and novelties can still provide a unique window into larger technological and cultural trends.
So I defend the gadget as a worthy object of inquiry, and consequently have spent the last week at CES scouring the halls looking for interesting examples, particularly from smaller companies and startups. CES is so big that no such survey could hope to be comprehensive. Even so, here are my personal nominations for this year’s weird and wonderful, in no particular order.