The reason that people like me keep coming back to CES isn't to see slightly bigger televisions, incrementally upgraded laptops, or ridiculous niche gadgets that only a handful of bleeding-edge techies in the known universe might ever actually use. Fundamentally, CES is about the tantalizing promise of the next big thing.
The major electronics companies want you to believe that it's 4K (now that they've essentially given up on 3D) but that's just because they want to sell you a new TV. Lots of smaller companies are sure that it's wearables, but I find it hard to get super-excited about those. Car companies are pushing autonomy, but that's more like the next big thing after the next big thing.
What I'm looking for at CES are technologies that will change how I experience or interact with the world in a unique way. Flawless consumer virtual reality, for example. Or interactive eye tracking. Or anything else that generates that magical "wow, I live in the future" feeling. This year, it's wireless power, and let me tell you why.
Wireless power is about more than just getting rid of wires. It's about helping all kinds of associated technologies transition from impractical to realistic. It's about not having to put your devices in a specific place for a specific amount of time, or having to worry about whether your devices are charged. To put it simply, it's about cords and adapters and batteries just not being an issue anymore, and right now, they're an enormous issue which is negatively defining the present of consumer electronics, and especially the emerging markets of wearables and IoT.
Imagine what designers could do with wearables if they didn't have to worry about ports or plugs and how your experience with them would improve if they could charge themselves without taking them off. Your smartwatch might actually function like a watch, where you can keep it on all the time without having to worry about the battery for a year or two. And your cell phone would always be charging itself, no matter where you put it. Even in your pocket.
It's certainly tempting to focus on the convenience factor that wireless power will bring to our larger devices, but it's the small devices that are going to see the most significant benefit, and it's going to be absolutely enormous. Think about how many of your small household electronics are constrained by having to put them near outlets, or having to run extension cords or wires: lights, surround sound speakers, and security cameras are just a few examples. Wireless power would let you put these kinds of things wherever you wanted, and move them around freely. And by removing battery and infrastructure constraints, devices could be made both tiny and dirt cheap.
What's so exciting about wireless power this year at CES is that for the first time, we're able to look at this future and see how it's really almost here. The technology exists, in several different forms, and we've personally experienced operational charging without wires from a small handful of dedicated, enthusiastic companies including Energous, Ossia, and WiTricity. More importantly, these demos aren't just a "hey, look what we can do:" these companies have all developed hardware that's ready for easy and inexpensive integration into consumer devices by major manufacturers. We're going to start seeing the first generation of the next generation of wireless charging this year.
There are still plenty of challenges for wireless power. For starters, there's efficiency and FCC certification. And there's the challenge of convincing both manufacturers and consumers to give wireless charging a try, again, after close-range and position-dependent wireless mostly failed to catch on. So far, we're coming away from CES confident that none of these things are going to stop the future from finally showing up.
We'll be watching this space closely in 2016, and we'll have more on wireless power from CES this year, as well. By CES 2017, we're expecting to see this technology in products that you can buy and experience for yourself, and trust us: that's something worth getting excited about.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.