The Consumer Electronics Show will turn Las Vegas into a technology wonderland next week, as 3,260 companies from around the world vie for attention from the media, the public, and potential business partners.
For consumers, the show provides a window onto what's in store in the months ahead. Sometimes it's a preview of big hits, and sometimes of misses. Last year, Intel showcased a "reference design" for a light, long-lived Windows laptop billed as an alternative to tablets and to Apple's popular MacBook Air. So far, sales of Intel-based "Ultrabooks" have underwhelmed, though the technology is promising.
But hope, especially in places like Las Vegas, springs eternal - and, thankfully for the exhibitors and their investors, not everyone seeks to go head-to-head with Apple. To illustrate how the show matters to smaller companies, I caught up with one of the principals of Zonoff Inc., a Malvern start-up planning to show its wares at the Consumer Electronics Show for the second time since its 2011 founding.
Connections - of the electronic, home-controller variety - are the key to Zonoff's technology. But as chief marketing officer Bob Cooper explained, it's another kind of connection, the human kind, that makes CES valuable to a company like Zonoff, which will be demonstrating its technology to dozens of potential partners in a hotel suite.
Cooper says that he can't name names, but that Zonoff's goal is to stoke interest among "a small universe of potential partners" that could use its software. "Those businesses will be there, and they can see our technology live," he says.
What will be on display? The suite will be outfitted with electronically controlled locks, thermostats, blinds, motion detectors, cameras, and electrical outlets - all operable from a central control box or from a smartphone or tablet app.
Zonoff's niche is making control software that can communicate with those kinds of devices, plus many more off-the-shelf products available in a burgeoning connected-home market that has piqued the interest of nearly a fourth of this year's CES exhibitors. Once a niche for mansion owners who could afford spending $25,000 or $50,000 for fancy automation and security systems, connected-home devices are now available at chains such as Lowe's and Home Depot.
But a key problem is that the devices often speak different languages. Some connect via WiFi. Others use technologies called Z-Wave or ZigBee. Still others rely on proprietary software.
Cooper says Zonoff's edge is that it has solved the Tower-of-Babel problem: Its control software can talk to WiFi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, and a growing list of proprietary systems.
"Our special sauce is that we allow all these different standards to communicate seamlessly with one another," he says. Zonoff's controller, already available under Somfy System's TaHomA brand, "is a traffic cop that controls all the various devices."
Cooper says such communication is especially important for home devices because they are typically tied together in what's known as a mesh network - a special kind of network where devices speak to each other rather than to a central controller.
The advantage is that it doesn't matter if the main controller is three floors away from a device. Instead, signals travel from the main controller to a nearby device, and from there to others, via a daisy-chain-like architecture - or, as the name suggests, a meshlike network.
Cooper's own home is fitted with an electronic door lock and camera - the kind of simple system that would enable a parent to confirm a latchkey child's arrival home from school.
He has bigger hopes for his vacation place in the Poconos. With readily available devices, he'll be able to turn on lights, turn up the thermostat, and set the hot tub to 100 degrees, all from a highway rest stop. When work needs to be done, he'll be able to give a plumber a temporary access code, rather than relying on a neighbor's help.
"We're really talking about the mainstream market, where the consumer can get started for as little $200," Cooper says.
That's what the Consumer Electronics Show is about: showing off inventions that can change people's lives in ways large and small. And, true to its Vegas venue, showing off some high-tech hopes and dreams.
Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or firstname.lastname@example.org.