CES: Less relevant, but still dominant

As predictable as the swallows winging their way back to Capistrano each year, the Consumer Electronics Show kicks off today in Las Vegas. CES -- and the now-defunct COMDEX before it -- is considered the annual bellwether of impending technology and tech products. But as much as the media focuses on what goes on at the Las Vegas Convention Center (and spills over to a dozen other hotels and convention centers as well), the reality is that CES is no longer the innovation incubator it once was.

Unlike the 90s, when the industry was positively brimming with truly innovative products for the nascent Internet, today CES represents mostly an evolutionary phenomenon, showing off incremental improvements to last year's products. Consider the show's most visible product category, for example: Televisions. Last year, the show was virtually overrun with 4K televisions, also known as Ultra HD. These sets, which boast 4000 lines of resolution (as opposed to 1080 for HDTV) look stunning, admittedly. But each year, these sets are just bigger and offer more pixels than last year's models; there's nothing revolutionary here. On the plus side, prices are falling like a stone. CES 2013 couldn't do any better than $25,000 for an Ultra HD set. Some of the Ultra HD sets at this year's show will clock in well under $5,000.

CES 2013 was also known as the show of the smartwatch -- CES kicked off a year filled with advanced fitness trackers and wristwatches that displayed smartphone notifications on your wrist. Whether it was the Kickstarter-funded Pebble, Samsung's disappointing Galaxy Gear, or the ludicrously overpriced and badly named I'm Watch, few of these devices demonstrated much actual innovation. Moreover, few of them resonated with consumers in 2013. Does anyone really want to spend a few hundred dollars to get smartphone notifications on their watch? Which is another device they need to charge weekly (or even daily)? Maybe 2014 will be their year.

It's hard to find any significant product launches at CES that make you sit up and really take notice, and when they did happen, the results tended to be disappointing. Last year, I was enthusiastic about Bluetooth-based tracking devices -- there were a number of gadgets at the show that you could attach to your car keys or TV remote or your cat and home in on the missing subject with your smartphone. But even a year later, the shipping products in this category are all underwhelming, a combination of flaky (unreliably connecting to the phone) and inaccurate. Likewise, there were a million tablets at the show, leveraging the success of the iPad, but a year later, the only tablets anyone really purchases are iPads, Android Nexus, and Amazon Kindles. The rest are inconsequential also-rans. I could go on (and I do in a CES-themed Geek Vs Geek debate with former MoneyWatch contributor Rick Broida).

Instead, the real excitement these days is online, in crowdfunding like Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Many of the more successful Kickstarter campaigns actually end up appearing at CES, but without crowdfunding they would not exist at all. This week, for example, I'm looking forward to seeing the latest electric vehicle prototypes from Lit Motors. The C1 will -- if it reaches production -- be an all-electric, gyroscopically stabilized, 2-wheel vehicle with a 200-mile range. Essentially, an entirely new class of vehicle that's part motorcycle, part Segway, and part automobile.

So yes, I'll be at CES all week. But I'm not expecting to see much I haven't already seen before -- either in slightly different form last year, or in its more innovative debut online.