If you look at the list of CES best 2011 innovations, there are a few unusual items, like a 3D visual surround gaming systems from Digital Storm and high-fidelity ear plugs that cut noise and pass clear sound (for those who don't want to listen to a cranked-up 3D gaming system). But for the most part, you can expect companies to largely play it safe with product categories they already see as hits with the public:
- Tablets, Tablets Everywhere -- Apple (AAPL) has proven the viability of the tablet category with the iPad. Samsung sold a million of its Galaxy Tabs. If you've wondered where everyone else has been, they'll show up, whether a traditional computer vendor like Lenovo or a television manufacturer like Vizio that wants to hop the gravy train. Expect some low prices as companies attempt to pull consumer eyes away from iPads.
- 4G Smartphones -- The smartphone category will probably become the largest handset category in the U.S. this year, so expect even more Android units as well as some running Windows Phone 7. Although Verizon (VZ) is expected to start selling the iPhone this year, don't expect to hear about it. Rumor has it that the announcement will come on Valentine's Day, and Apple isn't attending CES. The big smartphone push will be the emphasis on LTE cellular technology, which promises higher speed mobile broadband. Now all the carriers need to do is be sure that you can completely a telephone call, as well.
- Gee, 3D -- Figure that last year the television industry wanted to start growing public acceptance of 3D sets, even if there wasn't much to see. While waiting for entertainment producers to catch up, expect more of these devices, with some twists. Vizio is working with Google (GOOG) on 3D apps for Google TV, which had less of a warm welcome than the search giant had hoped. Also look for 3D in devices other than televisions. Toshiba has a notebook with a 3D display that doesn't require glasses.
The drive for large safe ground is understandable. Vendor attempts to create the future often fall flat. Look at the 2010 CES, in which one company after another ironically touted 3D televisions. There was little to no available 3D TV programming, and it turned out no one wants to wear honking big glasses to enjoy entertainment in their living rooms. That's the danger with significant innovation.
However, this isn't to say that there won't be some items on the show floor that are departures from technology-as-usual. For example, InterXon says that it will show a brainwave-controlled iPad game and 3D video art. So if you're near Las Vegas, drop by. The gadgets know you want to.