Every time the Consumer Electronics Show rolls around, I wonder about gadget saturation. The 140,000 people who crowded the convention center in Las Vegas last week were deluged with smartphones, tablets and TVs. A window into the future? Not really, because the focus is on more of the same, except in a corner of the show called Eureka Park, where 94 startups had the chance to show ideas at the edge of practicality.
It's fitting that the National Science Foundation is one of the partners in this attempt to highlight how science is pushing technology into new areas, and fascinating to see ideas develop that could change the industry.
For if you want to make smart business decisions about technology, keep your eye not on the huge consumer companies but the unheralded guys pushing the limits in garages, tech incubators and universities. They're working on everything from energy production to robotics, and they're thinking ahead about breakthroughs like the low-resistance "nanowires" built out of individual atoms of silicon described recently in Science Magazine. The problem with tiny wires is that when they get small enough, their electrical resistance increases, making their use in microchips problematic. The new techniques produce nanowires that act like copper - a result that has the potential for keeping Moore's Law alive, meaning chips get smaller and smaller still. This work, coming out of Purdue University and two Australian universities, is a long way from practicality, but forward-thinking business people should be keeping an eye on it to see whether it evolves in usable directions.
Somebody at a company called Innovega was likewise looking ahead at advances in embedded optics and filters - far enough ahead to think about ways to blend electronic images with the real-world background in the form of contact lenses. No need for bulky headgear with this kind of digital enhancement; you get complete freedom of movement with a full-color micro-optic display that does not impede your normal vision. Demonstrated at CES, Innovega's ability to merge close-in digital streaming with normal sensory impressions allows so-called "augmented reality" applications that could offer entertainment options, aid researchers doing field work, or let anyone tap digital information on demand.
So while the press buzzes about whose tablet is thinnest and which smartphone trumps the iPhone, think instead about where the real innovation is. The industry may be trying to figure out whether Barnes & Noble will successfully spin off its Nook e-reader, but I'm looking at an outfit called Gamma Dynamics that has developed a low-power display that may trump e-ink by being not only highly readable but capable of showing full-color video. The company's "electrofluidic" display needs no backlighting, can be flexible, and uses a fluid within each pixel that is controllable by an electrical charge. The bigger picture: How displays develop will decide whether e-readers continue their separate development or merge with tablet technologies.
Clearly this Consumer Electronics Show contains a reminder that high-tech needs startups to continue the flow of innovation larger firms can overlook.
I'm fascinated by companies like Mezmeriz, which uses tiny projectors built into mobile devices to project moving video or photos on any flat surface. VocalZoom is another example. This small firm is pushing voice recognition by developing a microphone that filters out all input except from the primary speaker.
The work of startup visionaries is the fodder for new growth and genuine investment opportunity.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.